Friday, 6 November 2015

Gove 'off the cuff'

I gather from Russell Webster that Michael Gove was speaking 'off the cuff' the other day when he addressed the Howard League's AGM, so there will be no transcript. The next best thing would seem to be this fulsome report from a lawyer who was present and I hope the author doesn't mind me reproducing it here:-

Since his appointment as Justice Secretary & Lord Chancellor in May this year, the Rt Hon Michael Gove has maintained a fairly low profile. Aside from his Making Prisons Work speech in July, Mr Gove’s plans for the future of the Criminal Justice System have not been very clearly outlined. Although since his swearing in, to the delight of many, Gove has managed to overturn the previous Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling’s ban on books for prisoners; scrapped plans to create a super youth prison; and halted massively controversial plans for the UK to undertake Saudi Arabian prison training contracts.

At the Howard League for Penal Reform AGM on 4 November 2015, the Lord Chancellor commendably answered a number of challenging questions and concerns raised by those passionate about criminal justice reform.

What was most apparent from Mr Gove’s words in the 30 minutes he was speaking – bearing in mind a large portion of the audience actively campaign against the actions of his predecessor (who never once faced challenges in a public forum during his time in the role) – was that he wanted to let people know that he understands their worries, and that their concerns will be addressed during his time as Lord Chancellor.

A wide range of topics were covered in just 30 minutes, centred around a “new era of talking about crime and punishment”, which promotes the “need to move away from the sterile debate of ‘lock people up or let them out’”. The 8 most striking points made are set out below.

1. Mr Gove wants to reduce prison numbers in England & Wales, and believes it will “fall over time”.

2. Effective rehabilitation should be the most important function of incarceration, next to acting as a deterrent, and as a means of incapacitation. And it is the “duty of the state” to rehabilitate those who enter the system.

3. He believes that our sentencing framework needs a complete overhaul:
In response to an audience member’s question, Gove recognised that evidence shows short sentences are more likely than not to lead to recidivism, and that the system needs a more appropriate sentencing framework. This will be based on extensive research into the effectiveness of current sentencing practices.
4. He poignantly recognises that the root cause of criminality must be tackled. Mr Gove spoke of the necessity to curb offending behaviour before it escalates to a prison sentence:
Many children who end up in prison have been in care. Those who are in care are there because they have been rescued from even worse circumstances, however once there, many don’t receive the affection they’ve been deprived of thus far.
Despite knowing the difference between right and wrong, a large proportion of offenders experience “moral absence” growing up, lack basic education, self discipline and self-mastery; this results in truancy and (self-)detachment from society, which can lead to them finding a sense of belonging in offending behaviour/gang culture – and poor decision making will follow resulting in conflict with authority.
5. He states the word “crisis” is over-used; however there is no denying the current prison estate is dire. Therefore the following improvements are currently undergoing review:
Plans are being developed to sell old, crumbling Victorian prisons and create new fit-for-purpose institutions using the money gained from sites sold.
Sanitation within institutions is not adequate and will be addressed.
More autonomy and independence will be created for prison governors as he believes greater freedom will fuel more creativity in dealing with prisoners in a way that will really address their issues.
6. All decisions for future action will be made based on solid evidence gained from thoroughly reviewing the issues, rather than “leaping to conclusions”.

7. Gove is in favour of increasing public understanding of the entire system and individuals’ experiences.
The Justice Secretary was asked if a journalist could be invited to visit a prison to report on conditions and experiences. He immediately agreed, and the audience responded with tumultuous applause.
8. There should be greater adaptation of technology in prisons, for two reasons:
Security. For example, body cameras worn by prison staff would increase the safety of both staff and inmates, meaning “that any individual prison officer is more likely to behave appropriately and decently”, although this is not as big a problem now as it was 20 years ago.
Education. A disproportionally large percentage of the prison population suffer from mental health issues and learning difficulties. Implementation of more sophisticated technology within prisons will have a hugely positive impact on the level of tailored education prisoners would receive – an area which Gove admits in its current state is “deeply concerning”.
There were further points of potential debate which will need to be addressed on a future occasion, including:

“Imprisonment improves relationships”
It was stated that imprisonment strengthens relationships between the offender and their family, as their time incapacitated gives the offender a chance to think about how their actions have affected said relationships. The same goes for their relationships with the victims. (So as to not take this out of context as Mr Gove did mention the importance of agency workers, chaplains, etc. roles in prisoner rehabilitation). It was not clear on which evidence this claim lay.

Legal Aid Cuts
Mr Gove confirmed that legal aid budget-cutting has been paused for the foreseeable future. However he maintained that, following consultations with some lawyers/law firms involved, the top firms should continue to shoulder the burden of funding the current legal aid situation.

The Harris Review
Penal reform activists are still awaiting a government response to The Harris Review on deaths and suicides of 83 young people in custody (aged 18-24), which was published by the Ministry of Justice on July 1, 2015. Mr Gove explicitly stated that the government is not going to jump to quick action on the report, that it was being taken seriously and is undergoing a thorough review.

Concluding notes
The conference ended on a heart-warming note with the Lord Chancellor expressing his sincere respect and admiration for social workers – words Sue Wade, long-standing Chair of Trustees at The Howard League for Penal Reform and former deputy chief probation officer, said she had never heard a Justice Minister utter in her days as a criminal justice professional. Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League was equally “blown away” by this never-before-heard language of a Justice Secretary.

The Autumn Statement is due for unveiling later this month (25 November), after which we should have a more concrete idea of what Mr Gove will pull out of his sleeve. If his current record as Justice Secretary and speech at this conference is anything to go by, it sounds like it could be a promising U-turn towards policies centred round morality, and a more humanitarian approach to dealing with offenders and the prison system. Watch this space.

by Ciara O’Neill



    1. Hundreds of probation officers are losing their jobs. The time they spend with offenders is being cut. There are fears that dangerous people are not being properly supervised in the community.

      The turmoil in the probation system is yet another headache for Michael Gove, who has made it his mission to reform criminal justice and improve the dismal reoffending rates in England and Wales.

      But it is hard to see how Mr Gove, who on 5 November said he hoped the prison population would fall over time and confirmed that major reforms to sentencing were in the pipeline, can reconcile that aim with the turbulence in probation.

      It is another problem he has inherited from Chris Grayling, who also bequeathed him the controversial criminal courts charge, which one Whitehall official describes as the “poll tax in a wig”.

      The previous Justice Secretary broke up the 35 public sector probation trusts and replaced them with 21 privately-run “community rehabilitation companies” supervising 150,000 low and medium-risk offenders each year. Responsibility for the most dangerous ex-offenders, including those convicted of violence and sex crimes, remained with the National Probation Service (NPS). The split was rushed into law with limited piloting by Mr Grayling, who had hoped that a mixture of private and non-profit organisations would take charge of the 21 contracts, which include rewards for reducing reoffending.

      In fact they have been awarded to eight companies, with voluntary groups complaining they were “bid candy” as they did not have the financial muscle to submit the lowest tenders. Two outsourcing firms, Sodexo and Interserve, clinched more than half the contracts and are now in charge of probation from Hampshire to Northumbria.

      The first effects of the part-privatisation are being felt with Sodexo preparing to cut hundreds of officers’ jobs and floating plans for electronic kiosks at which offenders can clock in without seeing a probation officer.

      Around 1,800 staff have left the service over the last year and unions have warned that officers are spending less time with offenders because of workload. The NPS has been forced to hire expensive agency staff as it copes with higher-than-expected numbers of potentially dangerous offenders.

      The allocation of former prisoners between the private and public sectors depending on perceived risk has led to extra bureaucracy when the Ministry of Justice is meant to be saving money. Some officers say they are dealing with four times more paperwork than before the Grayling reform. Critics also worry public safety could be jeopardised by the split as some offenders will be too high-risk to be supervised by private sector staff and that the financial squeeze means court reports on some sex offenders are not sufficiently detailed.

      Michael Gove is a liberal hero who everyone can get behind
      Gove under pressure to end 'tax on justice' that short-changes victims Michael Gove took inspiration from Texas for prison reform plans.

      Can Michael Gove deliver on penal reform? The National Association of Probation Officers has effectively conceded defeat in its opposition to the overhaul, reluctantly agreeing to try and make the reforms work. Labour describes the plans as “fundamentally flawed”, but recognises the new structure is here to stay.

      The Justice Minister, Andrew Selous, argues that the new system means an extra 45,000 low-level offenders – a group prone to recidivism – are being supervised.

      But he makes few extravagant claims for its success to date, simply saying that current evidence suggests “performance is broadly consistent with pre-transition levels” as the reforms are “still bedding in”.

      There is no prospect of Mr Gove pulling the plug on the probation restructuring. Not that he could if he wanted to – his predecessor agreed to lengthy contracts with the private firms which would cost huge sums to tear up. One legacy of Mr Grayling’s reign will remain.

  2. I commented yesterday that if Gove genuinely wants to reform sentencing he needs to move quickly before the "soft on crime" accusations started flying.

    Well...Ian Dunt of (who's written knowledgeably about criminal justice in general, and probation in particular, in the last year or so) has tweeted today about an article in the Sun quoting "livid Tories" who have "branded" Michael Gove as soft.

    A couple of the tweets this afternoon (@IanDunt) were as follows:

    "People shouldn't shrug off Phillip Davies' attack on Gove. Didn't take many backbench complaints against Ken Clarke for Cameron to sack him."

    "Cameron commendably resilient against resignation demands but he's sensitive to soft-on-crime criticism from backbenchers and tabloids."

    Remembering that Gove was very publicly demoted in the last parliament after he lost an argument with Theresa May, I'm personally going to hold off on getting too excited about this apparent change of direction.

  3. It all sounds sweet, but basically, I dont trust him. Cuts cuts cuts, is all