Rob Butler is MP for Aylesbury and is a member of the Justice Select Committee. He is writing in a personal capacity.

The Prison Strategy White Paper published today confirms the Government’s commitment to build 18,000 new permanent prison places, and reveals the addition of a further 2,000 temporary places.

This massive building programme partly reflects tougher new sentencing rules that we have been voting for in Parliament since the last general election, and also looks ahead to the inevitable impact on custodial sentences that will result from fulfilling our manifesto promise of increasing police numbers by 20,000 over the course of this parliament.

Bricks and mortar are, of course, important, not least when so many of our existing jails pre-date the Victorian era. Although slopping-out has ended, conditions are frequently still poor, with a maintenance backlog across the estate to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds.

New prisons should bring design fit for the Twnety-First Century rather than the Nineteenth, not least in enabling better accessibility for the higher proportion of the prison population that is over 60 years of age.

But far more important than the high perimeter fences and the hi-tech security systems is what goes on inside the walls to help prisoners turn their lives around and face a genuine chance of a meaningful, law-abiding life once released.

This is not about being soft. It is about giving inmates the tools they need to avoid the temptation of being sucked back into villainy, and consequently to reduce the number of victims of crime. After all, currently 80 per cent of offenders have at least one previous conviction.

Make a big dent in that number, and we are well on the way to a far safer society. And it is here that the White Paper offers important and long-overdue reforms.

Currently, more than half of the prison population only has the reading and maths skills of a primary school pupil. So the prospect of an improved Prisoner Education Service, equipping prisoners with the essentials in numeracy and literacy, is very welcome. But it should only be the start. That’s why plans for a new digital and data platform to develop personal learning plans enabling in-cell studying online could be ground-breaking.

Of course, it will be necessary to ensure that inappropriate content can’t be accessed, but the experience of Covid has shown that digital technology can be used effectively in prisons with all the necessary security safeguards.

Going one step further, the White Paper recognises the need for prisoners to get relevant work experience before they are released. Some of that can be done on-site but equally, at the right stage of their sentence and subject to vetting, offenders need to be able to adapt to the workplace outside.

The new presumption in favour of allowing that is a bold move, but a necessary one if we really want to see a greater degree of success in the transition from custody to employment.

This is where businesses need to step up, too. Ex-offenders often make excellent employees – just ask Timpson or Halford’s. But we need more firms to see the potential, work with prison governors, and develop sector specific skills training that will maximise the chances of those who are newly-released finding employment.

At the centre of providing effective rehabilitation are prison governors and staff. I have often said in the House of Commons that they are the hidden heroes of our public services, and I really mean it. In the fifteen years I have been visiting jails, I have never ceased to be impressed by the commitment of those who choose to work behind bars.

During the pandemic they have shown amazing resilience and dedication to keeping prisoners safe, with remarkable success. But this has largely achieved by locking prisoners in their cells, and now the time has come to rebuild prison regimes.

I am extremely pleased that the White Paper will give governors the opportunity to shape these according to the different needs of the prisoners in their care, rather than being set in stone by HQ. Governor autonomy has never quite succeeded in previous incarnations at the MoJ, and it will be important this time to put much more focus on getting it right.

Part of that will come from looking at best practice from one prison to the next, and embracing the opportunity to learn from one another. I have consistently been frustrated that prisons seem to exist in concrete silos, often facing the same challenges as one another but guarding their individual solutions to them as if they were the crown jewels. While I welcome the plans for clear and transparent prison performance statistics, we need to ensure that league tables don’t become an excuse for prison managers to hold the key to their successes even closer to their chests than they do already.

Punishment and protection of the public are the fundamental requirements of incarceration. But too often our focus is on the length of the sentence, rather than what’s then done in prison to change offenders’ lives.

Zero tolerance of drugs and swift sanctions for bad behaviour are absolutely the right steps to take, but so too is it time to think more radically about ways to break the stubborn patterns of reoffending that have blighted our country for far too long – this White Paper starts to do so.