Will Michael Gove still be Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor by this time tomorrow?
Prison reform dominated the Queen’s Speech in May. Gove has spoken energetically and insightfully about the problems bedevilling the prison system.
He has quietly and resolutely unravelled some of the legacies of his predecessor Chris Grayling’s tenure.
The past few weeks have been dominated by the EU referendum, the fallout following the Leave vote and a succession of resignations, failed leadership bids and political drama.
Prison Officer Unofficial Walkouts
In the background, around 5000 prison officers staged unofficial walkouts last week. An additional £10 million has been distributed across the prison estate to tackle prison safety issues but this has not had time to have any discernible impact yet. Arguably it is a sticking plaster solution in the face of a prison system in crisis.
Earlier this week Gove explained in the House of Commons that action was under way to try to reduce the numbers of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences for public protection (currently over 4000), many of whom have served well beyond their “tariff” date (minimum term). Gove said he would be meeting the chairman of the parole board, Nick Hardwick, during this week to “expedite changes”.
There is still no public detail of what this means. Nick Hardwick is speaking at Great Expectations – Parole in 2016 and Beyond on Monday and should provide some details of what IPP prisoners can expect from his review.
The prison population remains resolutely high and this is at the core of problems faced by prisons across the country during this summer. Mr Gove has acknowledged that it is easier to pursue the kind of rehabilitative activity he supports with a lower population albeit he has stated that he does not want to bring down the population artificially.
He has spoken very positively about ‘problem-solving’ courts (a sensible idea becoming more popular in the US), in which judges commit to keeping people out of custody if they engage with specified agencies and in which the cases return to the same judge for periodic review. He has also explained his desire to think hard about alternatives to custody for sections of the female prison population, to take action to divert mentally ill people from prison and to reconfigure the youth custody estate to have a far stronger focus on education than punishment.
These are all constructive proposals which could have a significant impact on penal and justice policy in England and Wales.
Will Mr Gove still be around to see through what he has started?
Andrew Sperling – Specialist Prison Law Solicitor
Written by Andrew Sperling. Andrew is a specialist prison law solicitor and has extensive practical experience of the criminal justice and penal systems and significant experience of conducting difficult, high profile public law challenges, test cases and appeals. He is a founder member of the Association of Prison Lawyers (APL) and was Chairman of APL between 2011 and 2013.