Prison and Courts Reform Bill – a matter of Truss
Political consultant Sabine Tyldesley reviews Liz Truss’s first few months as Justice Secretary shortly before she launches a White Paper on her ‘vision for prison reform to 2020 and beyond’.
Anticipation for a white paper on prisons has surely never been so high.
The former Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove hinted at reforms as early as June 2015 and shortly thereafter announced there would be a significant reform package that would go beyond improving prisoner education, a pet project influenced by his previous brief.
These announcements seem like a lifetime ago, and since then, the sector has been waiting for clarity, trusting the hype around prison reform had raised too many expectations to simply drop off the grid.
The new Secretary of State, Liz Truss has had a bumpy start, some commenting on her lack of legal experience, followed by a collective holding of breath, when she apparently flip-flopped during her first select committee session, refusing to confirm prison reform plans would go ahead.
Since then, with unwavering support from Sam Gyimah, her junior minister for prison and probation, it is as if Truss has decided to run with the Prison and Courts Reform Bill, but not without first putting her own stamp on it.
The Bill as announced in the Queen’s Speech held little new for attentive onlookers who had tracked Gove’s position - that prisons would become places of rehabilitation, where people would be turned from “liabilities into assets”. Improving literacy levels, employability prospects, and allowing more purposeful activity with the support of family ties – enabled by giving prison governors greater freedoms, but also greater responsibility.
Courts reform always felt like a bit of an ‘add-on’ to the reform plans, but had been necessitated as the modernisation of the courts would reduce cost.
Not so under Truss, who has stressed that courts reform was an important part of the reforms – promptly opening a consultation to “transform” the justice system; and stressing her version of the Bill would include plans for a more inclusive judiciary, particularly for women and ethnic minorities.
On prisons, Truss further addressed something Gove never wanted to acknowledge: overcrowding and understaffing. Early on, she indicated her take on prison reform would centre around safety, announcing plans to recruit hundreds of prison officers to combat escalating violence in the ten “most challenging” prisons. Some £14m would be spent on 400 extra frontline staff with ambitions to fix the failed recruitment drive former minister Andrew Selous had already been scolded for.
With regard to vulnerable groups, there seem some further distinctions, as Gove - a care leaver himself - had always prioritised early intervention. However, Truss has cited the importance of tackling the injustices highlighted by Theresa May on the steps of Downing Street: that “if you're black, you're treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you're white".
Liz Truss also used her conference platform – and Justice Questions on Tuesday - to highlight the challenges for people incarcerated with mental health issues and the nearly two thirds of women offenders who were victims of abuse. She has already rolled out pre-trial evidence sessions for vulnerable witnesses and victims.
A range of other prison measures have also been announced including measures to tackle extremism, increasing safety and measures to tackle psychoactive substances.
But does Parliament still have faith that this revitalised approach will work?
An MP poll conducted by Dods Research earlier in the year revealed, that when asked whether they thought greater autonomy for prison governors would reduce reoffending, the majority said yes, 92 per cent of those who agreed, perhaps unsurprisingly, being Conservatives.
But with regard to reducing the prison population, the majority of MPs from both major parties did not think it would have an impact.
There are clear party splits however, with regard to working in partnership with local employers and addressing local skills shortages:
Sixty-seven per cent of Labour MPs agreed it would address skills shortages, with 74 per cent of Conservatives disagreeing. On the prospect of raising UK productivity by bringing ex-offenders into employment, an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs disagreed, while the Conservatives were evenly split fifty-fifty.
On 3 November Truss is to deliver a major policy speech at an event hosted by Reform – it is strongly assumed she will launch her White Paper at this speech. Prisons, probation officers, penal reform and criminal justice charities now only have to wait a short while to see how much of Gove’s legacy will remain in her blueprint.
Finally, they need to trust that her 'vision for prison reform to 2020 and beyond' will provide some respite and support to a system that Steve Gillian, General Secretary of the Prison Officer’s Association, dubbed a “perpetual political football”.