Thursday, 20 April 2017

Curtains for MoJ?

With the election starting gun fired, Rob Allen speculates what it might mean for the criminal justice system, including possible 'curtains' for the MoJ and the Home Office getting prison and probation back! (It will be recalled they got the Fire Service back recently).

What's on the criminal justice cards from a new May government?

More shocking revelations on prisons, this time from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture who visited a range of detention facilities last year - Pentonville and Doncaster prisons and Cookham Wood YOI (as well as police stations, immigration detention centres and closed psychiatric hospitals). The report catalogues the depressing if familiar reality of prison conditions, finding none of the three establishments safe for prisoners or staff. The CPT found that locking children alone in their cell for all but half an hour a day amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment. And they were concerned that incidents of violence was under recorded, particularly at SERCO run Doncaster.

It’s possible that the report will be the last of its kind. If Mrs May fulfils her wish to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, a new Conservative government will find itself with a BREXIT 2 to negotiate. The Council of Europe may be the smallest of beer compared to the EU but it’s the continent’s leading human rights organisation. We may find ourselves sharing observer status with Belarus. But at least we won’t have to worry about letting prisoners vote.

What else might we see from a new Conservative government on the justice and prison front? There’s quite a bit from the 2015 manifesto that hasn’t been achieved. The promise of new technology is as yet undelivered, whether to monitor offenders in the community, to bring persistent offenders to justice more quickly or allow women with small children to serve sentences in the community. Perhaps thankfully there is no sign of the new semi-custodial sentence for prolific criminals, allowing for a short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour; nor of extensions to the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Will we see these commitments reappear in this year’s manifesto or will they be quietly shelved? What will happen to plans for increasing penalties for driving offences which result in fatalities?

At least one commentator thinks that the 2015 manifesto is the enemy Mrs May wishes to slay. If he is right, there is no guarantee that the prison reform measures contained in the Prison and Courts Bill will necessarily reappear. For those with long memories, the post 1992 Major Government rapidly undid the liberal justice reforms it inherited. The counterpoint of recent headlines about prisons no longer being places for punishment and violent crime surges could easily prompt a harder approach on criminal justice in the new manifesto. Despite the flowing oratory of Michael Gove and process re-engineering of Liz Truss, the ghost of Michael Howard has never been far from the feast. While Mrs May is difficult to pigeonhole, I've always doubted whether her appetite for rehabilitation and redemption will have been sharpened by six years in the Home office - famously described by Peter Hennessy as the graveyard of liberal thinking since the days of Lord Sidmouth.

The CPT emphasised that unless determined action is taken to significantly reduce the current prison population, the regime improvements envisaged by the authorities’ reform agenda will remain unattainable. I wouldn’t put money on that. The best we can hope for is perhaps a steady state. Although if I were a betting man, I’d put a flutter on the dismantling of the Ministry of Justice. It’s quite conceivable that prisons and probation will return to the Home Office. The Tories have always thought of the MoJ as a European construct ill-suited to our traditions. Prepare to welcome back the Lord Chancellor’s Department.


  1. The report by CPT is truly shocking. It arrives to find high levels of violence in overcrowded and understaffed prisons and concludes that those levels are systematically and significantly underreported. It pointedly states that the prison it visited was unsafe for staff and the youths contained within. Unrelated to the report, the idea that the particular prison company's shareholders might still receive their dividend and directors their bonus surely begs some important questions. Reference to inhuman and degrading treatment made by the CPT about any aspect of our criminal justice system should be shocking to our idea of being a civilised society. Although report just published it reports from 2016 and I would like to think changes made?

  2. unduly lenient sentence scheme? wow that's harsh. Especially as prison has been proven not to work in it's current form no matter what Michael Howard might wish. The only real way prison will ever work is if it's modelled on the scandanavian or dutch models which have been proven to work

    1. Certainly agree with you on modelling our prisons on Scandinavian ones.
      So why do we continue with our current establishments and systems? A system that is not working for prisoners or the public.
      Is it because our Tory government are afraid of promoting true rehabilitation as this wouldn't fit with the right wing press and Tory paymasters?

  3. Probation is featuring in an Essex Inquest - the three reports I have read suggest workers endeavoured to get the man necessary support - but there are several more days to go yet.

    Two days from East Anglian Daily Times

  4. Latest CRC audit in Northamptonshire: 'Overall, the work of the CRC in Northamptonshire was not good enough. The CRC was not sufficiently focused on public protection. Too many cases were assigned to staff without the skills and support needed to investigate and respond to the risk of harm an individual posed. There was a lack of oversight and quality assurance. Work to reduce reoffending was poor. Responsible officers did too little to understand what led to offending behaviour and therefore couldn’t put plans in place to turn people’s lives around.'
    NPS in same area fares much better.

  5. Probation Officer20 April 2017 at 17:19

    If they gives us back our Home Office funded social work status then I'm all for it. Let's face it, any current proposed reforms were half-cocked and never going to happen. A return to the Thatcher-type era of justice is not necessarily worse than the current mess.

  6. If you make change it would be worth aiming for something significantly better