Friday, 29 June 2018

Contradictory Signals?

Earlier this week, Prisons and Probation minister Rory Stewart was giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee and made some surprising statements, including an aspiration to end prison sentences of less than 12 months. This in the Guardian:- 

Prison minister calls for more money to build jails in England and Wales

The minister for prisons has said that he would like the prison population to go down but is instead calling for more money to spend on increasing numbers because he does not believe his view enjoys sufficient support. In a candid appearance before the justice select committee, Rory Stewart said it was time to stop hoping the prison population would fall, adding that he would plead with the Treasury in next year’s spending review for more money to build and sustain prisons in England and Wales.

Stewart said there was not enough will among the public and parliament to do what was necessary to reduce the prison population, despite suggesting he thought that that was the right course of action to take. He added that the number of those in jail was likely to hit 93,000 by 2022, from its current level of about 83,000, as he confirmed two new prisons – including a privately financed one – had been given the go-ahead.

The minister also revealed that collapsed outsourcing giant Carillion underbid for its contract to provide maintenance work to prisons by £15m a year. The revelation will heap more pressure on the under-fire cabinet minister, Chris Grayling, who signed off the contract during his time as justice secretary. He told the committee: “I don’t feel, I’m afraid, even though ideally I’d like the prison population to go down, that’s very likely to happen because I’m not sure there’s the will among the public and the will amongst parliament to take the measures to reduce that population, in which case we need to increase our baseline and we need more money. And that’s the argument I’ll be making in spending review.”

Stewart’s comments came a day before the Ministry of Justice revealed it had scrapped plans to build five new community prisons for women as part of its new female offender strategy. The department is to trial “residential women’s centres”, which would provide supported accommodation to women as they completed community sentences, in a bid to reduce the number of women in custody. As of 15 June, the women’s prison population was 3,867, accounting for 4.7% of the prison population. Female prisoners are more than twice as likely as male prisoners to report needing help for mental health problems. The reoffending rate for women released from a custodial sentence of fewer than 12 months in April-June 2016 was 71%.

Stewart said that when Kenneth Clarke was justice secretary he entered negotiations with the Treasury for support in reducing the prison population to 65,000. But Clarke was “let down” and did not get the political support, Stewart said. “We just have to be practical,” he said. “My fear is for the last 20, 30 years, governments have been funding for lower numbers and never got the legislation through. I’m afraid - let’s stop thinking like that. We’ve got to just be realistic. The likelihood at the moment, unless something astonishing changes, is our prison population is going up to 92,000 or 93,000 and we need to have the money to pay for that.”

Stewart announced to the committee that a publicly funded prison in Wellingborough and a privately financed jail at Glen Parva in Leicestershire were to go ahead, with work starting in Wellingborough at the end of the year. The two prisons together will provide a further 4,000 places and should be part of a programme of six new prisons designed to provide space for a further 10,000 people.

The announcement of a new private prison was met with criticism from the Labour party. Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary, said: “From the crisis in prisons maintenance to the failings of our probation services, the Tories’ obsession with privatisation and outsourcing has caused widespread damage to our justice system – and it’s the public who’ve had to foot the bill. “With a Labour government, there will be no new private prisons and no public-sector prisons will be privatised. Labour will bring all the outsourced prison maintenance contracts back in house at the earliest possible opportunity. The Tories must abandon this failed experiment of prison privatisation.”

On the collapsed outsourcing giant, Stewart said: “Carillion was proposing to try to save the taxpayer £15m a year by underbidding and trying to take on work, which cost Carillion £15m more a year to deliver than they were receiving from the taxpayer. The taxpayer is now paying a more realistic cost. “What effectively happened there is that we had a contractor come in to us – and this is a vulnerability with all private sector contractors – who effectively offered at their own risk to do our maintenance for considerably less money than it would cost us to do. £15m less.

“We signed up to that. In retrospect, more weight should have been given to the factors saying, ‘wait a second, what on earth is Carillion proposing here? They’re basically proposing to do this and lose £15m a year, is that really sustainable or are we going to end up in a situation where we are paying for it?’ “It turned out what Carillion was proposing to us was completely unsustainable to their finances.”

Last week Grayling faced a vote of no confidence in his capability to carry out his current role as transport secretary. In the same week he faced a damning report from the justice committee on the impact of his broadly criticised reforms to the probation sector.


By coincidence the minister was speaking on the same day as the Bill McWilliams Lecture and Rob Allen was in the audience:-  

Reducing Short Sentences for Women and Petty Offenders: Willing the Means as Well as the End.

At his excellent Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture in Cambridge yesterday, Professor Rob Canton invited us to consider the case of Rita, a defendant with a long record of theft offences - described indeed by the prosecutor as a professional thief. Rita is a victim too, seemingly trapped in a series of violent relationships with men, with a strong suggestion that she is relieved of her ill-gotten gains by her current partner. Why Punish? was the lecture’s title and by the end, in respect of Rita and many people like her there seemed no convincing answer. Yes, her behaviour should have consequences but imprisonment, or even an alternative such as a curfew with electronic monitoring look wholly inappropriate in the context of her life.

Almost all of yesterday’s audience will I imagine have been pleased to hear today’s announcement that the government want to see fewer women in prison for short sentences. There will be a welcome too for the Justice Secretary’s view that “Offenders are part of our society and we must take steps to understand and address the underlying causes of offending, if we are to improve the lives of victims and support offenders to turn their own lives around”. There may even be cautious optimism that the policy of reducing short sentences should apply to male offenders too. Prison Minister Rory Stewart said as much to the Justice Committee yesterday.

Where there may be more scepticism is about the means to the end. The £5 million earmarked for “intensive residential support options” which will act as alternatives for women is clearly not enough. Much more of the funds originally set aside for the thankfully abandoned community prisons should be reinvested to provide more comprehensive coverage.

But there will also need to be measures to ensure courts make proper use of community based alternatives. The Female Offender Strategy is very weak on sentencing, promising only that the “MoJ will work with judges to develop our understanding of what more might be done to ensure that the particular risks and needs of female offenders are addressed effectively in the court, and to ensure that courts receive all necessary information to inform the sentencing process”.

Extraordinarily there’s no mention of the Sentencing Council which makes Guidelines for courts. Lord Phillips, who chaired its predecessor body wishes he had prepared a comprehensive set of gender specific guidelines. The current Council should rectify his oversight. As well, they will surely need to look again at their forthcoming guideline on sentencing for breach offences which could lead to more rather than fewer short sentences. More fundamentally I’d like to see the law changed so that previous convictions do not automatically make offences more serious. That’s the only way of keeping petty persistent offenders the right side of the custody threshold.

Will this be done? I have my doubts after Rory Stewart's puzzling remarks in Parliament yesterday. He told MP's he'd like the prison population to go down but it was time to be realistic and accept that was not going to happen because of lack of public support. Instead he's planning for a prison population of 93,000 by 2022. This is far in excess of the 88,000 currently projected - an estimate that doesn't take account of recent falls.

Why did he say that? Maybe he know something we don't and some ugly sentencing reforms are in the pipeline for serious offences. Maybe he wants to persuade the Treasury to let him keep the prison building money to give some headroom in the system to eliminate overcrowding. This is a plan the Conservatives had before the 2010 election before the Crash intervened. Or perhaps Stewart wanted a get-tough headline in advance of the women’s strategy today. The Daily Mail’s “Green Light for Criminals" headline, based on his comments about short term prisoners, hasn’t obliged.

Either way Stewart shouldn't give up on reducing prison numbers. There are lots more things he could do than perhaps he realises.

As for the Mail, as far back as the 1990s, its editor Paul Dacre said that on crime his paper's role was "to articulate the concern of its readers and thereby harden the response from the Tory administration". Dacre is going soon and his approach to criminal policy should follow him out of the door.


Here's Frances Crook giving her take on things and writing in the London Evening Standard:- 

New strategy on women in prison would work for men

It is refreshing to see the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, take the lead this week. He told MPs he would like to see fewer short prison sentences, and he’s right. People working in the criminal justice system have long waited to hear a minister say it. Some papers howled, predictably, but behind the outrage there is near-universal support from those who are closest to the system and know it best. The minister must ignore the opprobrium and hold firm.

As should his boss, David Gauke, who deserves praise for unveiling a new strategy for women. The Secretary of State for Justice has scrapped plans for new prisons and decided instead to create more women’s centres.

They can achieve what prisons cannot, working with other organisations to turn lives around and reduce crime. When properly funded, they offer services ranging from help with mental health, addictions and abusive relationships to support with housing, child care, tackling debt and finding a job.

All this looks good on paper, but it is hard to imagine the difference it can make until you actually speak to someone who has had their life turned around. Someone like Emma (not her name), who I met at a women’s centre.

Emma was a woman in her 40s, a rough sleeper for more than a decade, a heavy drug user and an alcoholic. She had been a victim of violence and abuse. She was very expensive in terms of police time — not dangerous but repeatedly arrested.

There are about 3,800 women in prison today — representing less than five per cent of the total number of people behind bars — but this mark hardly begins to measure the impact of women’s imprisonment on families.

Seven in 10 women who go to prison are sent there to serve sentences of six months or less. Last year, one in four was sentenced to 30 days or less. Almost 300 women were given sentences of two weeks or less — a short period of time but potentially so disruptive that a woman can lose her job, her home and contact with her children. More than 8,300 incidents of self-injury were recorded in women’s prisons last year.

None of this ought to surprise readers of the Evening Standard, which has reported on the rising levels of violence and self-injury in London prisons, which are under immense strain. Wandsworth, designed to accommodate 841 men, was struggling to hold 1,384 at the end of April. Thameside and Pentonville, each intended to hold about 900 men, were looking after 1,200.

But more prisons aren’t the answer, and the Government’s decision to build two more for men is bitterly disappointing. It will lead to more prisoners, more drugs, more violence and more crime.

The evidence is clear. Ministers have seen it and are acting on it with a new approach for women. Doing the same for men would make us safer. Who wouldn’t want that?

Frances Crook is chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform


  1. I believe that prison policy and CJS policy should always be informed by a much broader social context and understanding.
    I find the French decision to bring back National Service for all 16 year olds very interesting.
    Perhaps a similar move by the UK could have a significant impact on prison population and the need to build new ones?



  2. Since the arrival of managerialism on the 19:81 from Westminster (CJA et al) there's been nought but mixed messages in Probation. The vocation-turned-profession was kidnapped then systematically gagged, bound & ridiculed by its opponents-in-authority. Disrupt, disorientate, dehumanize.

    Such experiences have taken their toll on Probation staff; some cracked & pledged allegiance to a new flag & some battled on until their professional (in some cases, sadly I suspect, actual) demise. Most tried a pragmatic survivalist approach & tried to reconcile receiving a salary in the climate of "do as I say not as I do" or "JFDI" with the natural urge to implement a social work ethos. And therein lies madness - the madness of the NPS New Choreography, NOMS, Trusts, TR, MoJ, etc. The result? A morally & professionally compromised collection of staff who have been 'gaslighted' (gaslit?) & left so bemused & confused by the non sequitur of 'constant change' that they vote for the status quo, regardless of how negative that situation might be.

    As for Young Rory, his history of high personal integrity & holding a humanitarian line has been eclipsed by his sudden desire to be a career politician, a minister. He now has to say & do today what he condemned & rubbished yesterday. He has to defend the indefensible unless or until he's given the green light to do otherwise.

    "The first casualty of war? If I have my way its any other fucker but me!!"

  3. 08:07, your second paragraph succinctly captures recent years and gaslighting is so apt. The only point I add, is that they rarely even bother to vote: it's a disengaged workforce, mostly in survivalist mode who have no collectivist sense whatsoever.