Liz Truss: “Prisons can be difficult places, but they can also be places of hope"
Liz Truss believes the prison system must do more to help offenders turn their lives around. The justice secretary talks to Alan Mak about rehabilitation, the British Bill of Rights and learning from Michael Gove
You have to look hard in Liz Truss’s office to find clues about her rapid ascent through government since being elected in 2010. Overlooking Buckingham Palace, the white-walled Ministry of Justice room she’s occupied since last July is uncluttered and evinces focus and efficiency.
A bespoke, novelty Weetabix box emblazoned with her name, a wooden abacus and a bust of the economist Adam Smith stand out on otherwise uncluttered shelves. They reflect her first ministerial role under Michael Gove in the Department of Education, where she famously clamped down on the use of calculators, her first cabinet position as environment secretary where she (even more famously) championed British produce and her background as an economist.
Perhaps most telling, though, is the pile of pamphlets she authored at think tank Reform, where she burnished her reputation as a reformer, advancing new ideas in everything from educational standards to fighting organised crime.
As lord chancellor Truss is poised to take her Prison and Courts Bill through parliament. I ask her what the motivation is behind the biggest shake-up of the prison system in a generation. She reflects on a recent encounter at HMP Bronzefield, a women’s prison in Surrey, where two prisoners in a maths class were learning about ratios and proportions for the first time.
“What I hate to see is wasted talent and wasted potential,” she says. “I think we have too much of it in this country. Quite often those people have made a mistake but they have been let down.
“Many women offenders have experienced abuse and this is our chance to turn their lives around and help them make something of themselves. Whilst prisons can be difficult places – people are being deprived of their liberty – they can also be places of hope, and that is what I find so inspiring.
“We can do better than 50% of prisoners reoffending within a year. That will not only make our society a better place but also fuel our economy. We waste potential as a country which we can ill afford to do.”
For Truss, much of her ministerial career has involved collaborating with Gove, and she is generous about the impact he’s had on her thinking: “Michael is a great character. He is somebody who goes into jobs and likes to shake them up and question the way we do things. I think it’s incredibly important in politics to say ‘what is actually going on here?’ and ‘do we have to rest on assumptions?’
“I think in both justice and education there can be a defeatism or counsels of despair that things can’t get better: ‘If somebody has ended up in prison or they are on a community sentence, the chances are they will carry on offending, or there is not much we can do about it’. Likewise, ‘if you come from a particular area, you go to school and you don’t do very well at school, that is inevitable’.
“I don’t believe that is inevitable and I think what he [Gove] has done is challenge that, and I think that is the job of ministers, to challenge the assumptions in the system that have led to failure over a number of years. That is one reason why he is good at what he has done.”
The prisons transformation Truss envisions focuses on rehabilitation, and she flatly dismisses moves towards arbitrary cuts in the inmate population suggested by her opponents. Indeed, she describes cuts through more lenient sentencing policy as an irresponsible “quick fix”, attributing current prisoner numbers to the rise in sexual offences being successfully prosecuted.
She is also quick to point out that it would be wrong to “turn back the clock” because offences such as rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse were not taken seriously enough in the past.
Instead, Truss sees rehabilitation and preventing reoffending as the best ways to bring the prison population down to a more manageable level.
Her bill will give prison governors more powers, ranking their ability to improve prisoners’ skills, cut violence and stop the flow of smuggled drugs, in a schools-style league table. It is all about making those who run prisons accountable and placing prisoners on “a pathway into a positive life, rather than going back to a life of crime when they leave prison”.
She adds: “[It is about] giving governors much more power over what happens in their prison, being able to lead from the front and do things differently, so they can get those people into employment, off drugs and improve their health.”
According to Truss, the key to smashing the vicious reoffending cycle is to recruit highly skilled prison officers, making sure there are enough in order for them to have a manageable workload.
“That is my absolute number one priority,” she says of the need for more officers. “It is incredibly important: without those prison officers we cannot achieve the reforms, we can’t improve the safety of our prisons.”
Some of those officers will be recruited from a new scheme called Unlocked, modelled on Teach First, the successful recruitment programme for top-tier graduate teachers. She believes that becoming a prison officer will be a CV boosting profession, admired by big companies looking for recruits that stand out from the crowd.
In addition, a new frontline agency – Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service – has been established. It will have more training and career development and focus on the job as a profession.
“It is very important that we change the perception of the service, and it is a perception. In reality when I meet prison officers they are fantastic people who really go into the job because they care about the people they are dealing with,” she continues. “They want to change those people’s ways. There is a lot of passion, but I don’t think it has been exposed in public.”
However, she accepts that levels of violence, fuelled by drug use, are too high – which makes the need for reform even more pressing. That includes the use of technology in several innovative ways – everything from automatically shutting doors to alleviate staff pressure to mobile phone signal blockers.
Through the use of new techniques and high quality staff, Truss hopes prisoner violence can be eliminated, moving towards the ultimate goal of reintegration with society.
Truss spent just two years on the backbenches, including a stint on the Justice Select Committee, before she found herself dealing with red boxes. When asked if she wished she’d had more time learning the ropes as an MP, she smiles and says no politician can turn down the prime minister’s call.
Now in one of the traditional high offices of state, she takes being the first female lord chancellor in her stride, and says being just the third without a legal background is no bar to success.
Yet it has been an eventful and intense first six months, with the Supreme Court ruling on Brexit dominating the headlines and Truss coming under pressure for not defending the judiciary quickly enough.
Speaking just days after the Article 50 bill comfortably passed through the House of Commons, Truss defended the highest court in the land by saying it had “come of age as an institution”.
“I think the judges of the Supreme Court are people of integrity and impartiality,” she said. “I meet with them regularly to discuss all kinds of issues and that is very important in my role as lord chancellor. I also believe we live in a free society and free democracy and we have a free press.
“It is very important that politicians don’t get into the business of policing headlines and saying what is acceptable or not acceptable to print. I think the independent judiciary and free press are bulwarks of our freedoms and we need to protect them jealously.”
Although she is now focused on delivering prison changes, one reform set out in the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto, scrapping the Human Rights Act in favour of a British Bill of Rights, is on hold.
“Given that we are leaving the European Union and we will have the Great Repeal Bill going through parliament, clearly that is going to signify a major constitutional change,” Truss says.
“So the British Bill of Rights, whilst it remains a commitment, is not something we can do at the same time as we are putting through that Great Repeal Bill. That is going to affect the constitution... it’s important we only do one constitutional reform at a time.”
Despite the long hours and a broad list of reforms on her agenda, I ask Truss if she gets much time at home relax with her two daughters. “I suppose it is the modern way,” she reflects, although her family seem still to have fun teasing her for the grand way she is announced when entering the room for events such as her swearing-in ceremony. ‘Make way for the lord chancellor’ is bellowed out, clearing a path for Truss, bedecked in wig and heavy gold and black brocade robes. ‘Make way for the embarrassing mummy,’ her daughters now shout as they enter the supermarket, or a constituency event in rural Norfolk.
But if her transformational plans for the prison and courts system prove to be as successful as she hopes, she will go down as a reforming lord chancellor, using an ancient office to modernise criminal justice, helping the government achieve a major domestic success alongside Brexit.
“I can’t think of a more exciting time to be in politics, while we are making this major change, as a country leaving the European Union,” she says. “What could be more exciting, interesting or fulfilling?”
Alan Mak is Conservative MP for Havant