The new Justice Secretary, David Lidington, has lost no time in setting out his approach on prisons (perhaps sensing that his time in office, like his Prime Minster's, may be rather brief. As well he might, as the 5th Justice Secretary in 7 years). In what is called an 'open letter' – but curiously, not actually to anyone, so it's more like a blog, really – published last week, he says all the usual stuff, that every new Justice Secretary invariably says, about making prisons safer and working better in rehabilitating prisoners and reducing re-offending. I am sure he means it.
But what will he actually do, to pull prisons out of the worst crisis since the late 1980s/early 1990s (when he was adviser to Douglas Hurd and then PPS to Michael Howard, thereby exposing him to the full range of Tory justice policy, from old world liberal to ultra-hard right)?
The blunt answer is, not very much. It's clear - even from this brief 'letter' - that he won't be a Justice Secretary that tackles what most people regard as the two root problems of the service.
First is overcrowding, which relates to our addiction to high rates of incarceration, way beyond the European average, that began with (as it happens) Michael Howard and 'prison works'. To say it once more: we doubled the prison population, even though crime halved: it has cost a fortune: it has achieved little good; and now we find we can't afford to run a system this size properly.
Lidington says nothing about how prison is used, or why we use so much of it, which is par for the course (though we ought to be grateful not to hear from him Truss's breathless enthusiasm for locking up more and more people).
Like Truss, he is unclear whether the 10, 000 new places that will be built at a cost of £1.3bn will increase total capacity, or merely allow old prisons to be closed: but from my reading of his blog, it's more the latter. That means, no relief from overcrowding. (£1,3bn, by the way, would build not much short of 10, 000 affordable flats. Just saying.)
Second is resources. Lidington celebrates Truss's commitment to restore about a quarter of the staffing cuts made so irresponsibly by Chris Grayling. So three quarters of those staffing cuts remain in place. I leave it to professionals to say what difference the reversal of one quarter of the cuts mean. But in current circumstances, my guess is, not enough to turn things round.
As for 'current circumstances', the other great problem that is making prisons so unsafe are the new psychoactive substances. Here, Lidington announces welcome progress: improved detection of drugs themselves and of the mobiles used to order them, and continuing efforts to deal with drones.
Lidington appears to be committed to Truss's much vaunted 'reform prisons', whose efficacy many including myself are sceptical about (and the surprise news of Wandsworth, one of the original pilots, losing its 'reform' status, seemed to justify that scepticism). Likewise, he appears to be committed to Truss's bizarre re-organisation, which took much of the control of the prison service away from the highly respected professional head of the service, Michael Spurr, and handed it to a Whitehall civil servant who has never worked in a prison, and indeed, has no management experience whatsoever. But with all the accountability remaining with Spurr. One of those tedious Whitehall power plays.
Lidington, when I was at the Home Office, seemed a decent chap, though not exactly passionate about justice issues. He seems to have spent the intervening quarter century keeping pretty quiet, perhaps what May likes about him. But we dont need a quiet man now. We need a Justice Secretary with guts and vision, prepared to ask awkward questions about why we lock up so many more than other countries do, and whether we must continue building massive new prisons when the NHS is dying for want of funds, and millions can't ever aspire to own a home.
Looks like we are still waiting.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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