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.