Indeed, during his maiden speech in yesterday’s debate on the Finance Bill he recalled that one biographer of John Neilson Gladstone – a Liberal Conservative predecessor as MP for Ipswich an done of the William Gladstone’s brothers – wrote of him that “he took no strong independent line such as would anger his father but accepted his minor role in the scheme of things.”
Gummer assured the Commons:
“On the former point it should have no fear whatsoever, and on the latter point, I believe that all of us will succeed only if we show the independence and courage of our convictions—something that the coalition must show in abundance.”
During his speech, he spoke about his interest in the topical political issue that is prisons policy:
“We have heard much over many previous years of the tough decisions that face us, but now is the time to take them, and no issue is more important, pressing or necessary than penal reform. The Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Ken Clarke) outlined brilliantly and bravely last week a vision for sentencing and for the prison system that I, and many on both sides of the House, would wish to endorse.
“Yet to achieve that, we need to find common cause on two things: the first is on the budget for the Ministry of Justice and prisons. It goes without saying that it is clearly a gross and offensive waste of public money to be warehousing prisoners in buildings of little utility save for the security they afford the public in incarcerating criminals, which in the end produce men and women who come out with a staggeringly low possibility of finding a job, succeeding in a relationship, building a family or contributing to society, and a staggeringly high probability—the highest in Europe—of going on to reoffend and contribute once again to the crime rate.
“Opponents of reform must consider carefully whether it is right to continue with a system in which half of prisoners cannot read at the level expected of an 11-year-old, 65% cannot count at that level, and 82% cannot write at that level. I do not understand how they can possibly contribute to their communities, build relationships and sustain their families with that level of underachievement. Future generations will look upon our treatment of prisoners in much the same way as we now look upon how the Victorians established workhouses—as a near barbaric mechanism to deal quietly with one of society’s problems without facing up to the real issues that it presents.
“We can, I hope, overcome that problem in two ways. The first is to protect in the Ministry of Justice’s budget the excellent plans, which we on the Conservative Benches have had for some years, for the complete restructuring of the prison estate. Hon. Members might wish to know that 16 prisons in the prison estate predate the reign of Queen Victoria, and there are many others that were built in her reign. Those prisons are not only completely unsuitable for rehabilitation, but consume massive amounts of manpower, which reinforces my earlier point about the unnecessary waste of money that goes on revenue spending, rather than on capital expenditure, which actually produces results.
“The second thing that I would ask of hon. Members—and of the media—is to accept that it would be a good thing if we were to enjoy the kind of consensus that I have praised in the coalition, on the matter of penal reform across the House. Too often the sentiments expressed by the Secretary of State for Justice last week have been uttered by Members in all parts of the House, but they have fallen prey—because they are perennially vulnerable—to cheap political point scoring of a short-termist nature, which has done us enormous damage. I hope that those who wish to oppose the reforms that are necessary understand that to do so would be to condemn families, victims, perpetrators and communities to the repeated misery that we now have a golden opportunity to prise ourselves away from.”