Revolution at the MoJ: But how long until the tabloids take fright?

Gove is saying the right things for penal reformers - but can he survive a tabloid backlash?
Gove is saying the right things for penal reformers - but can he survive a tabloid backlash?
Ian Dunt By

Michael's Gove's first speech on prison policy this morning confirmed much of the optimism of campaigners. It was thoughtful, liberal, evidence-based and showed he recognised the moral catastrophe of previous failed attempts at rehabilitation. But there are hints already of the strength of opposition he will face if he follows through on what he intends to do.

Penal reformers have a spring in their step. They were all there this morning, looking upbeat and relieved after Chris Grayling was replaced, like someone who had escaped from an abusive relationship. Gove also seemed pleased to be among them and to be telling them things they wanted to hear. He spoke admiringly of his predecessor, but this was an implicitly extremely critical speech of what had come before.

Gove spoke of a prison system that was falling apart, of institutions with uncleaned blood on the walls, of "dark corners" where violence and bullying thrived, of prisoners spending all day watching daytime TV instead of studying, of a centralised department which did nothing to recognise the experience and understanding of governors. Without using the words, he showed he understood that there was a prisons crisis. It’s a low bar, although one Grayling was unable to clear.


Many prisoners spend all day watching daytime TV

But it wasn't just small mercies, there were some rather substantial mercies in there as well. Gove had four key points in his speech:

Evidence-based policy

One of his first comments was to state that he had spent two months looking into prisons and intended to look into them more before he came up with firm answers. Speaking to campaigners afterwards, it appears he is having lunch with many of the right people. This is in marked contrast to Grayling, who based policy on dogma and in fact went out of his way to exclude experts from the decision-making process. We finally have a justice secretary basing policy on evidence.

Devolution

Gove understands that many of the failings of the past few years have stemmed from excessive Whitehall control. Whitehall has no idea what is going on in a prison. It makes far more sense for governors to make decisions about the institution they run. The justice secretary seems particularly attracted to the idea of setting up new metrics for governors, for instance by evaluating performance on the basis of prisoner activity during the day. He certainly intends to give them more flexibility. That will start with allowing them to choose which education provider they bring in.

This was always the greatest problem with the incentives and earned privileges scheme which Grayling brought in, of which the book ban was a part. It was an act of monolithic centralisation, handing down minute internal rules and requirements from Grayling's office, according to his passing whim. Gove's commitment to devolution is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Chris Grayling excluded penal experts from policy-making

Social justice

Gove recognises that crime is a matter of social justice. That goes two ways: firstly it is the product of poverty, broken communities, educational failure, mental health problems, domestic abuse and absent fathers. But also that the chief victims of crime are the poor themselves, those who, as he put it, can afford neither high hedges nor security systems. It is a crushing cycle of social injustice. 

Investment

The justice secretary also understands that the solution to reoffending is not in getting tough, or banning Playstations, or whatever Daily Mail-inspired nonsense a minister fancies peddling this week. It is in investment: investment in work, in family and in community.

That realisation leads you to some very liberal places. It means you use inmates' time in prison to educate them in basic literacy and numeracy and, ideally, a trade. It means you scrap large warehouse prisons, sell them off and build smaller local prisons which are as open to the community as possible to maximise family contact. It means you avoid the de-humanisation of cramming prisoners into cell together, forcing them to shit in front of each other, wearing filthy underwear, with their families unable to send them in essentials. Quite the opposite, they should be encourage to dress smartly in the morning and go do something with the day.

You make greater use of open prisons and community sentencing. The idea raised today that prisoners could learn their way to reduced sentences, while serving the rest of it at home under curfew with electronic monitoring, would be a good start.

Tabloids attack perceived soft-on-crime ministers harshly

You can imagine what the prison reformers were like listening to this stuff. They practically purred. But there are, of course, great storms on the horizon. Gove mentioned the tabloids in his opening paragraph. He knows the danger there. With his reputation and media connections, particularly to the Murdochs, he is better placed than any other Tory one can think of to see this sort of liberal initiative through. But some form of backlash will eventually come.

Frances Crook of the Howard League, one of the organisations Grayling froze out completely during his tenure, asked the first question today. She made the basic arithmetical observation that none of this was deliverable while we were stuffing prisons full of more and more people and cutting staff numbers. No matter how good your intentions, you just can’t guarantee the sort of care Gove envisions under those conditions. And even on a practical level, there's no point having a great prison library if there are no prison officers there to escort inmates to it.

But Gove couldn't go with her. He appeared to recognise the truth of what she said and he held the door open to that debate in future, but for the time being sentencing and the size of the prison population were not being debated. And yet Crook is right: addressing the inmate/officer ratio is a precondition of a liberal, evidence-based penal policy. We're not in a position to spend money on more officers, so the only give is in prison numbers.

But once you go down that road the tabloid headlines about criminals escaping justice start coming out on a daily basis. Tory backbenchers are particularly susceptible to this message. Cameron, who does not sack ministers lightly, got rid of Ken Clarke pretty quickly once similar headlines started circulating. Gove is better loved by those newspapers, but that protection may erode fairly quickly. One senses that he is reluctant to have that fight, as well he might be.

The justice secretary appears to understand what needs to be done to fix Britain's prison system and the crime it fails to prevent. But there are powerful forces defending the status quo which he will ultimately have to take on if he wants to see this thing through.

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