What does the snap election mean for prison reform?

Posted On: 
21st April 2017

Dr Anna Kotova, from the University of Exeter, believes that prison reform may be pushed from the agenda as Brexit, immigration and the NHS dominate the election.

This election gives Theresa May the chance to remedy the controversial appointment of Elizabeth Truss, says Dr Anna Kotova.
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It was only two months ago that the government announced the so-called 'biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation'. The Prisons and Courts Bill 2007 was meant to herald this overhaul and bring about a rehabilitative turn. Yet what might happen to this grand plan now that Theresa May has announced that a snap election will take place on June 8th 2017?

On the one hand, this might be a good thing for the prison system. The election will likely result in a new Cabinet, and a new Lord Chancellor to replace Elizabeth Truss. Ms Truss has been widely criticised, most notably by the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, and former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge. Also, numerous MPs have critiqued her for her lack of political experience and her failure to protect the judiciary. Such is Ms Truss' notoriety that numerous satirical Twitter accounts now post criminal justice news with the aim of mocking her. More worryingly, however, in her time in office, the problems in our prisons have spiralled out of control. We have seen record levels of deaths and violence in prisons, and many prisons are drastically under-staffed. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, a European body that has carried out prison inspections in this country, stated on April 19th 2017 that prisons in England and Wales are 'out of control' and unsafe for both prisoners and staff. The election, thus, offers a chance to replace Ms Truss with a new Lord Chancellor – hopefully one with more experience when it comes to the criminal justice system.

Yet whoever he or she might be, they will need time to adjust to and make sense of their new post. The consequence of this is likely to be that no significant changes will occur in the prison system in the near future, which is a serious issue as change is clearly needed. We cannot afford a 'wait and see' attitude, not when 2016 has seen a record number of deaths (including suicides) since records began in 1978. During Ms Truss' time in office, there have been more prison riots than at any time since the 1990s. Clearly, something needs to be done, and it needs to be done now – we need a Lord Chancellor who has the experience and the leadership skills to overhaul a failing, troubled system. We also need to stop talking about rehabilitative revolutions and actually enact real, meaningful change. Ms Truss' legacy, on the other hand, is likely to be one of indecision and inexperience. The election offers a chance for the government, therefore, to quietly remedy this very controversial appointment.

It also seems likely that the Prisons and Courts Bill will either be put on the shelf, or hurried through Parliament in the next few weeks. The Bill, which seeks to make prisons places of rehabilitation, has been criticised for proposing too little too late, and hurrying it through Parliament is unlikely to result in any improvements. Many of the reforms proposed, such as increased responsibilities of prison governors without any careful thought given to the funding offered to them, may make prisons worse rather than better off. Yet, with Labour not raising any significant opposition to the Bill, the government may be tempted to rush the Bill through before the election. It may be better for it to be dropped altogether, and this is the likely outcome, as the Bill is not far enough in the process compared to other pieces of legislation that need to be considered in the next few weeks.

Overall, the rather depressing reality is that prison reform is not likely to be high on the parties' agenda. Although it is still early days, Brexit, immigration and the NHS seems to dominate the political discourse. Labour's 10 pledges for the upcoming election do not mention the criminal justice system, and it remains to be seen whether any such mentions will appear in the Conservative manifesto. All signs point to Brexit being the key battleground, and this could mean prison reform is pushed firmly aside, at least for the time being. Even if a Conservation government is re-elected, it may take a while for prison reform to be brought back onto the legislative agenda. With people's lives at stake, this is worrying indeed.

Dr Anna Kotova is a Associate Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Exeter.