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Robert Buckland interview: the impossible prisons dilemma

10 min read

Justice secretary Robert Buckland defends his handling of the Covid pandemic in prisons, explains Nightingale courts are here to stay and has an open mind when it comes to bringing youth custody provision back under state control. Kate Proctor reports.

It was an impossible choice: to lock inmates up for up to 23 hours a day with all the resulting consequences for their mental health, capacity to take part in education and rehabilitation and enjoy contact with friends and family.

Or to risk Covid-19 ripping through the prison system, resulting in, according to one government model, as many as 2,700 deaths.

This was the stark calculation facing Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, at the start of the pandemic. In the event, he made the call to all but confine prisoners to solitary confinement for long stretches. The result, he admits, has been devastating, for women inmates in particular.

But with the Covid death toll standing at 118 in jails over the 12 months between March 2020 and February 2021 in England and Wales, it is a decision he stands by.

“It was absolutely right to do what we did,” he says. “The rest of society was having to shut down. Naturally the prison environment was going to have to reflect that. The measures we took… saved lives. Many, many lives.”

Speaking from his vast corner office at the Ministry of Justice, Buckland is frank about the outcome for women prisoners in the last year, however. “Effects on mental health can vary. Certainly on the women’s estate there was a real impact on mental health,” he said.

“Self-harm rates were dramatically different. They went down in the male estate but up in the female estate. Women prisoners, when it comes to association and being part of a network, it’s a positive thing for most of them; they support each other, give a lot of advice and encouragement.

“You lost that in lockdown and that certainly had an effect.”

As of 7 May, there were 3,158 female prisoners in England and Wales compared to 74,615 men.

The most up-to-date statistics take into account the fall in the prison average population in 2020, which may in part be due to the Covid early release scheme, and show that the rate of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners decreased 13 per cent in male establishments, but increased by the exact same proportion in female institutions.

The number of incidents per individual who self-harmed in female jails and custodial facilities was more than twice that in male establishments, and the proportion of incidents that required hospitalisation for women increased by 16 per cent.

And this is before the data from the period of the third lockdown, which began in January 2021, is included.

Buckland said men had coped differently, with a more mixed picture on the male estate. “Some prisoners actually adjusted to working and living in their cells and doing things from their cells much better than others.

“We’re still learning. I’m looking at the evidence and information gleaned throughout the year as to what that means in the long-term.”

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Charlie Taylor said in February the impact from the restrictions on prisoner mental health and well-being had been profound, with inmates left chronically bored and exhausted.

Yet Buckland said it would be wrong to suggest that being locked in a cell for 23 hours meant there was nothing to do. Asked if he believed this unusual period of time for prisoners would ultimately lead to an increase in re-offending in the future, he sidestepped the question by instead listing activities which were available through lockdown.

“There was plenty of in-cell activity given to prisoners,” he said. "Communication was good. Every step of the way they were told what was happening and why, which is why you didn’t see disorder. We also used technology… to allow prisoners to keep in touch with their families. We now have video facilities in all our prisons.

“I wouldn’t want you to think somehow it was a return to shoving food under the door – it wasn’t like that at all.”

Despite the clear negative impact of keeping people in their cells for hours more than normal had on mental well-being, Buckland is clear he would not have changed course.

He admits, however, he has no idea how many prisoners have long Covid and may be suffering ill health, saying it’s too early to have that information.

On proven re-offending rates, the two year structure of reporting means we won’t get detail for the cohort that lived through the lockdown – and spent vastly increased time in their cells with less family visits – until at least 2022.

Current re-offending rates for prisoners is 28.1 per cent for the period October to December 2018 – the most up to date statistic the government has – a 12-year low.

The measures we took …saved lives. Many, many lives.

It feels as though Buckland is at the pinnacle of his career. For two decades, the Llanelli-born MP was a criminal barrister and part-time judge in the Crown Court working primarily in South Wales – and taking on legal aid cases. His political career has taken him from the Justice Select Committee, to joint secretary of the Conservative 1922 Committee to Solicitor General, prisons minister and now secretary of state for justice.

He’s a political survivor, as a One Nation Tory and Remainer serving in Boris Johnson’s cabinet. At a year and nine months into the job, he’s the longest serving justice secretary since Chris Grayling in 2015.

His office feels like a cosy 19th century living room, with rugs, an antique-looking side table, a chess board and a large image of former Lord High Chancellor, Lord Erskine, who he describes as a “legend of the law,” propped up behind his red box. He’s also a big Lego fan (he made a Saturn 5 space rocket at Christmas with his son) and is a keen singer, runner and walker. For someone so immersed in the law and the more weighty end of politics, he’s surprisingly jovial.

The father-of-two says it’s a privilege now to use his on-the-ground experience in the court room to create better policy and he’s passionate about reform, describing what he hopes will be a “revolution” in the court system.

On legal aid cuts – which have dominated discussions for almost a decade within the legal profession since David Cameron’s government introduced plans to remove £350m from the service, to a barrage of criticism – he said he has solutions.

Seven months ago, his colleague, Tory MP Gareth Bacon, told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid in an evidence session that: “We have got to a point where there’s a danger of miscarriages of justice.” Conservative MP for Bury North, James Daly, a former criminal defence solicitor, told the inquiry he’d had to give up legal aid work because the financial pressures were too great.

Buckland says: “I was a criminal legal aid practitioner for 20 years, so I lived through this. I’ve just presided over the largest increase in criminal legal aid in 25 years – £51m.”

This includes the first fee increase for lawyers in 25 years.

It’s complex, Buckland adds, and with family cases in particular, if there are ways of stopping disputes becoming litigation in the first place, that’s a good service for the public. He says it’s about fundamental access to justice, but there are different ways of going about it.

Simply increasing the pot of money could be one solution. “That’s not the answer. It’s not good enough. To just say we need to pay the professions more misses the point,” he responds.

“For me, particularly in the field of civil law, so many people end up in a position where litigation becomes the only option because there haven’t been the interventions and support there earlier to prevent that in the first place.”

To just say we need to pay the professions more misses the point.

Digitalisation of the court system and specific forms will also unlock access to justice, with more cases online, he says.

In a rare flicker of anger Buckland says the criticism he gets from Labour about legal aid cuts infuriates him.

“The attacks I get from [shadow justice secretary] David [Lammy]... I’m sorry, David was a minister in the last Labour government, so he will have to take responsibility for the actions of his party.” Labour cut the legal aid budget and restricted eligibility under the former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, who has since admitted this paved the way for more Tory cuts.

Fresh decisions to be made on the 30 existing Nightingale courts – the temporary court rooms set up to try to clear the backlog of cases delayed because of social distancing requirements – are fast approaching. The expectation is the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will announce they want to open even more. A theatre, a hotel and the historic Knight’s Chamber within the grounds of Peterborough Cathedral have all been converted into court rooms.

Buckland confirmed he wants to maintain their capacity, despite reports that some will have to close in June because their contracts are due to run out. Buckland is optimistic that by the end of the year the magistrates’ backlog will have largely been cleared.

Huge promises have also been made on upgrading England and Wales’ crumbling Victorian prison estate since 2016, with Boris Johnson announcing 10,000 new prison places and more funding. The improvements are desperately needed, with the National Audit Office reporting that 41 per cent of the prison estate needs major repair or replacement in the next three years.

Part of the solution to new places is the £235m jail at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, with the spade Buckland used in the initial breaking-of-ground event now glinting in the corner of his office.

“Now that…” he says excitedly, “is a spade from when I started the build. I’m going back … for the topping out. It’s been built, despite Covid, on time and on budget.”

He is also under pressure over Rainsbrook secure training centre for teenage inmates, based in Warwickshire. Its poor inspection found children were being kept in their rooms for 23 hours a day for 14 days in a row during the pandemic. Buckland said it was an “unacceptable failure” and is monitoring the case personally, with a ban on any new placements of children there. The Justice Select Committee has said that if no improvements are made by June, it should be taken off private provider MTC’s hands and the MoJ should consider taking it back in-house.

“I have a very open mind [on] public-private,” Buckland said. “There are examples of private prisons which regularly have very good inspections. There are some examples of the public estate which probably haven’t been up to the mark.

“There’s no point being ideological about this; I will not let ideology get in the way of making changes if I think a private institution isn’t doing the job.”

“I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure that institution is well run, which would of course include potentially taking it back into the public sector if I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Just 24 hours after our interview finishes, Buckland is on the nation’s TV screens for the Queen’s Speech. In his capacity as Lord Chancellor, he gets to don his finery and wig, and this time round, a mask, and play a central role in the ceremony.

This year he didn’t get to hand the Queen’s speech directly to her; instead it was placed on a table draped in red velvet. But he did do the customary bow, and for a few seconds took centre stage in what was, historically, the highest court in the land. Quite the journey from the court rooms of South Wales.

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