Follow up Questions. What the Justice Committee should ask the Justice Secretary.
Having been greeted on arrival in office by the John Worboys row, new Justice Secretary David Gauke has since kept a low profile. He set out his thoughts on prisons at the RSA this morning, and whether by chance or design will be questioned tomorrow by the Justice Committee. While MPs will focus on his wider departmental responsibilities - the Parole review, court closures, miscarriages of justice and probation failings are likely to come up - Bob Neill and his colleagues have a chance to press Gauke on some of the prison proposals he announced today.
First they will want to know more about his plans to crack down on modern day Harry Grouts - the organised crime bosses who he thinks drive the drug trade inside and its catastrophic consequences. Gauke wants to rethink the categorisation of prisoners so that ring leaders can be “isolated” from their followers. Whether this means a fundamental review of the four tier security classification system or simply tweaks to the criteria for allocation to Category A high security prisons is not clear. Gauke wants categorisation decisions to give greater weight to behaviour in prison - but this would mark a substantial change in policy and practice which needs careful planning.
Second, Gauke wants to change the incentives and earned privileges scheme which Governors tell him isn’t working. This could involve unwinding Chris Grayling’s reforms to the scheme and strengthening carrots rather than lengthening sticks. In the best part of his speech Gauke talked of giving opportunities for prisoners to earn, through good behaviour, greater contact with families and release on temporary licence. Why not permanent release, MPs might ask. This was one of Michael Gove’s ideas which disappeared with him. Gauke indicated that it may be up to Governors rather than Whitehall to reshape the privileges and sanctions scheme. While this might serve to kick start the stalled governor autonomy project, it could bring risks of inconsistency and perceived unfairness on the part of prisoners.
Third, Gauke was clear that he wanted to see prisoner numbers fall but….only as an aspiration if re-offending falls. He talked about the importance of rehabilitation but as befits the views of a police officer’s son, this has to start by playing by the rules. Generally this is not something prisoners are very good at. Gauke offered no guarantee that his department’s spending cuts wont further impact on prison budgets.
Gauke claimed to have persuaded his Cabinet colleagues to join a new inter departmental committee addressing re-offending. While the Justice Committee will wish to probe its terms of reference, it might suggest that its first agenda item should be on finding ways of keeping people out of jail. Gauke's description of the prison system today certainly made a strong case for that.