I notice that advice is already coming in for the new Justice Secretary. Here's part of a fascinating Spectator article written by the former speech writer to both Michael Gove and Liz Truss. It's worth reading in full.
There’s a Ministry of Justice playbook that’s probably being followed at the moment. You take the new Justice Secretary to the high security Belmarsh prison, have them photographed with the Prison Governor during a whistle-stop visit, introduce them to some staff, and publish the picture on the MoJ website. Certainly you don’t want it to emerge that a Justice Secretary has never set foot inside a prison.
But if Lidington really wants to get an idea of the state of the prison system, the ‘Category A’ high security estate is not the best place to start: it’s pretty well resourced – because the inmates are very dangerous – and well run. Instead he should visit a prison that has received a terrible inspection report. Like, for instance, Wormwood Scrubs, which was said to be ‘infested with rats and overcrowded’ last year. Or Wandsworth prison, one of the largest in Europe, where in 2016 BBC cameras filmed inmates openly smoking cannabis.
It’s this part of the prison system that will take up most of the Justice Secretary’s time.
Politically, it’s worth noting that Cabinet ministers at the moment are virtually unsackable. ‘Hang ’em and flog ’em’ commentators in the right-wing press will stay on side because the one thing they fear most is Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. So Lidington should use this freedom to speak frankly about the prisons crisis.
First, he should admit that the prison population has grown too large. There are around 85,000 inmates now (about double the 1990 population – see graph above), who spend most of their days not being rehabilitated or educated – but locked inside their cells, often taking drugs such as spice and ‘black mamba’. As the chief prisons inspector put it in 2015: ‘It is hard to imagine anything less likely to rehabilitate prisoners than days spent mostly lying on their bunks in squalid cells watching daytime TV.’
Yes, prisons exists to keep the public safe, and part of their purpose is to punish crime. But what is the point of regimes like the above, where 59% of those who receive prison sentences of less than 12 months go out and reoffend again? It would help if the staff-to-prisoner ratio was improved for a start, so that prisoners can be taught basic skills like how to read, write and add up. One question: why are there still so many prisoners held indefinitely under ‘Indeterminate Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection’, even though some, according to the Parole Board Chairman, present a very low level of risk to the public? Given that the cost of keeping someone locked up is more than the fees at Eton – and there remain serious cash pressures at the Ministry of Justice – these inmates might be a good place to start.
A source flags up a more urgent problem coming down the tracks – a smoking ban that has to be implemented in all long-term and high security prisons by the end of August. ‘You couldn’t have come up with a more stupid date,’ I’m told. Officials are always wary of riots in the hot summer, when prison officer numbers are depleted due to holidays, yet somehow this is the date that has been agreed. Is Lidington going to go ahead with it? Is the timing clever?
He will have plenty of other red lights flashing on the department’s warning systems. Murders, suicides and assaults – both prison-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff – remain off the scale. Two people who know the system well have separately mentioned the words ‘corporate manslaughter’ to me, which illustrates the depth of the problem facing the government. The fact that so many older, more experienced prison staff are leaving, outstripping the rate of recruitment, also urgently needs addressing. Can Lidington persuade recently departed staff with experience to return? And if the Prison Officers’ Association are still up in arms about assaults on staff, understandably, why not introduce a new offence that immediately increases time in custody for attacks on prison officers? This would serve as a deterrent for attacks like ‘potting’, which, in the words of Urban dictionary, involves ‘dumping a steaming bucket of urine and excrement over the head of a much-loved prison service employee’.
Another question that needs asking: if NOMS (the National Offender Management Service) was such a disaster that it had to be closed down and rebranded, why is Michael Spurr, its former head, in charge of the shiny new HMPPS (Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service)? A review of the capability of the top team, I’m told by someone with experience of them, is overdue.
Perhaps the top priority, however, should be rehabilitation. It badly needs improvement, given the appallingly high level of reoffending among offenders mentioned above. Lidington should review which reforms in this area are working and which are not. Has Chris Grayling’s ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ white paper had the desired effects, four years on? Worryingly, I’m told of a ‘collapse in morale and effectiveness in probation, particularly in the Community Rehabilitation Companies’ that were set up during his time in the department. If these aren’t working, then rehabilitation will be non-existent.
Judging by recent atrocities, yet another challenge that David Lidington will face is the treatment of Islamist extremists in custody. Some, as I pointed in my article for this week’s Spectator, are considered so dangerous that they are locked up alongside the most dangerous murderers in Britain today. But unlike the killers, some are on course to be released. Anjem Choudary, for instance, was only locked up for five and a half years last year. Why not longer? And how much will be done not just to safeguard the public from the most subversive Islamist proselytisers, but to persuade them that they are wrong? Separation units for extremists, introduced by Liz Truss, are a very sensible measure; but they must actively reduce risk, not just isolate it.
It’s a strange thing, given its size and its importance in keeping the public safe, that the Ministry of Justice doesn’t have a particularly high status in Whitehall. The Home Office, and certainly the Foreign Office, are considered more prestigious to work for. But, as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, David Lidington is about to discover what sort of hospital pass he has just caught. He is said to be brilliant by those who know him: I just hope he’s given longer in the job than his predecessors.
Will Heaven was speechwriter to Michael Gove and Liz Truss at the ministry of justice
Footnote:- not being the slightest bit knowledgeable about football, I had to resort to wikipedia for the following:-
"David Lidington is about to discover what sort of hospital pass he has just caught.""Hospital pass" is a term originally used in football codes to describe a pass that subjects the recipient to heavy contact, usually unavoidable, from an opposing player — the expression implying that the recipient of the pass could end up in hospital.