Given the importance of the job, it’s unfortunate to say the least that the Ministry of Justice has suffered from so much instability of late. In just over three years, it has been led by five different Secretaries of State. Such chopping and changing does not offer continuity to the Ministry, nor an opportunity for any given Justice Secretary to properly grip the role and its responsibilities. Even when Michael Gove was running the MoJ, the brief did not receive the full benefit of his usually boundless energy, given that his tenure coincided with the EU referendum campaign.
That’s a great shame, because there is crucial work to be done. Prison rehabilitation, in particular, is a field ripe for a truly radical, conservative revolution – smashing the old, false choice between punishment or rehabilitation, and making the pro-taxpayer and pro-victim case for reducing reoffending. Several successive Justice Secretaries have known that, but due to circumstance and limited opportunities they were unable to get on with actually doing it, which is a missed opportunity.
It’s interesting therefore to see David Gauke sallying forth on the topic. He’s right to make a direct link between the difficulty for former inmates to find work and their likelihood of slipping off the straight and narrow, and it seems a good idea to campaign to persuade more employers to follow the positive example of Timpson’s in hiring people who have done their time.
Done the right way, he will find support in places that might be surprising. The Sun, which would once have simply railed against wishy-washiness and urged more hard labour, supports the Justice Secretary on the principle of his ideas.
There’s still more work to do in making the case and getting the public on board, but I suspect more problems will come for the practicalities involved. For example, The Sun is right to warn that any extension of day-release to allow convicts to become accustomed to work must rest on very tight vetting and supervision to avoid abuse of the opportunity.
There’s a bit of spin around Gauke’s speech that seeks to tie the prospect of employing more ex-offenders to possible reductions in numbers of migrant workers after Brexit. This feels more like an attempt to link the speech into the ever-topical Brexit debate than anything else (particularly as the Government hasn’t actually decided what the immigration rules will be after we eventually leave).
More relevant is the fact that large parts of Britain are now effectively at full employment, a condition which as well as increasing wages ought to push employers to overcome their reluctance to employ people whom they might opt not to hire if they had more choice available to them: those with criminal records.
The Justice Secretary is making a start on a front which could save all of us a lot of money, save many people from becoming victims of crime in future, and turn around the lives of those who are otherwise at great risk of getting caught at rock bottom. He should be given the time and space to properly do the job.