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Boris Johnson’s empty promises won’t solve our prison crisis

Boris Johnson’s empty promises won’t solve our prison crisis
4 min read

Our prisons already have too few staff to safely manage the existing prison population, never mind any planned expansion, writes Richard Burgon MP

Boris Johnson desperately tried to wrestle back control of the criminal justice debate over the summer after years of Tory austerity had undermined not just public confidence but public safety. With an election in mind, there were headline-grabbing prison announcements. But far from offering a solution, they perfectly demonstrated how Boris Johnson is spin over substance.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has faced eye-watering cuts over the past decade, almost the deepest of any department. Boris Johnson’s announcements and Spending Review commitments fall well short of what is needed to address the Tory-created prison emergency.

To great fanfare, Johnson announced funding for 10,000 new prison places. We need a serious debate in this country on whether we are going to keep increasing the prison population – which is expensive and, for many, ineffective – or use alternatives to custody that actually work in making our communities safer.

But setting that debate aside for a moment, it’s quite a stretch to call this a new announcement. In fact, it is one of the most recycled Conservative party promises of the last five years and one they have repeatedly failed to live up to.

Former justice secretary David Gauke promised last summer that the Tories would build “up to 10,000 modern, decent prison places”, repeating the pledge made by his predecessor David Lidington in 2017, who was so attached to the policy he wrote an open letter pledging to “create up to 10,000 new places”. Theresa May’s 2017 Conservative manifesto had promised likewise.

In 2016, Liz Truss committed to 10,000 modern prison places in her prison reform white paper, and earlier that year David Cameron gave a keynote speech expressing his pride in funding “nine new [prisons], including five during this Parliament” to meet the 10,000 targets.

The policy can even be traced back to the 2015 Spending Review, when the then justice minister Michael Gove announced it with George Osborne.

The Justice Committee offered an accurate assessment of this oft-repeated pledge, pointing out “the Government has committed to building 10,000 new prison places, but the ministry was awarded £1.3bn to invest in the prison estate in the 2015 Spending Review and that has not been spent”.

The Conservatives’ second big summer prisons announcement was for funding to tackle prison insecurity. The Tories have slashed the prison budget by hundreds of millions of pounds per year and the new measures are simply tinkering at the edges.

No one seriously believes our prisons can be made safe without addressing understaffing. Our prisons already have too few staff to safely manage the existing prison population, never mind any planned expansion. Yet the Tories announced no new measures to boost the numbers of prison officers. Nor to tackle the exodus of experienced officers, despite figures I uncovered this year showing that 80,000 years of prison officer experience have been lost under the Tories.

Embarrassingly for the Johnson government, at the end of a week of prison announcements, reality hit home with new official data showing thousands fewer prison officers than when the Tories came to power. Even worse, the latest figures show prison officer numbers are again falling, despite Government spin that they are now getting a grip of this crisis.

A Labour government will ensure safe staffing levels and see that vital prison resources go on those who really need to be there by investing in alternatives to custody that are proven to keep our community safe.

The MoJ’s own evidence shows tens of thousands of crimes each year could be prevented by scrapping the use of ineffective short sentences which would also cut the £18bn annual reoffending costs. Replacing the use of ineffective super-short prison sentences for those who committed non-violent and non-sexual offences with effective community sentences, and investment in women’s centres and problem-solving courts is a better way forward.

More empty promises from Boris Johnson and more repeating of the failed policies of the past may earn short-term headlines but it will not resolve the prison crisis.

Richard Burgon is Labour MP for Leeds East and shadow justice secretary

Read the most recent article written by Richard Burgon MP - Greed will deepen vaccine inequity and prolong the Covid-19 pandemic


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