Prison reform has been one of the casualties of Brexit and the decision by Theresa May to call another general election. The Prisons and Courts Bill was quietly shelved after the election was announced and there is no guarantee that it will be resurrected.
The election is likely to lead to a raft of new faces in the Justice Department and will engender a new Justice Select Committee. While the ministerial and committee merry-go-round is spinning around, government and civil service business will grind to a snail’s pace. Prison reform which was described as an urgent priority a few weeks ago, will disappear into the political long grass for the time being.
The current Justice Select Committee (JSC) announced a wide-ranging inquiry into prison reform in July 2016 to scrutinise and influence the government’s reform programme as it was being developed and implemented. A report issued by the JSC last week described the progress made by that inquiry and set out all the unfinished business of both the inquiry and the prison reform programme.
This was the core principle of the reform programme. Freed of the shackles of centralised control, governors would be able to innovate and have far more freedom to manage their prisons in the interests of more effective rehabilitation. The JSC, having questioned witnesses concluded:
“We supported the principle of governor empowerment in principle, but concluded that the Government had not provided enough information about the practical implications of the reforms, and we tried to identify potential risks that would need to be mitigated.”
Modernising the Prison Estate
The White Paper which preceded the introduction of the Prisons and Courts Bill included plans to close old prisons and build new ones. The Secretary of State, Liz Truss, announced on 22nd March that planning applications had been made for four new prisons.
The JSC’s sub-inquiry into this issue was abandoned after the election announcement. The JSC had aimed to publish a report before the summer recess of 2017. They noted:
“If the next Government continues with plans to modernise the prison estate, the next Justice Committee may wish to take up this line of work in order to subject this programme and the associated costs, which are likely to be significant, to an appropriate degree of scrutiny.”
Prisons and Courts Bill
The JSC produced a Report giving its views on Part 1 of the Prisons and Courts Bill before the legislation had passed into law. This is a departure from usual practice and could form a useful precedent:
“Our original intention was to produce a Report to inform the House in time for the Bill’s report stage in the Commons. With proceedings on the Bill terminating at dissolution, that purpose can no longer be served, but if similar legislation is introduced in the new Parliament we hope our observations will prove of use.”
The JSC published a Prison Safety report in May 2016 which concluded then that there was a relationship between staff reductions and the current crisis in prisons, characterised by increasing levels of violence and self-harm. The JSC recommended that the Government should produce an action plan to address prison safety and share timely and detailed information on a range of safety indicators with the JSC. In light of a succession of appalling inspection reports and regular incidents of serious violence in prisons, this issue should have been an urgent priority. The JSC noted:
“Our efforts did result in better quality data being available, but it has remained difficult for us to properly scrutinise the effect of the Government’s efforts to improve the situation because we have not received all the information we repeatedly requested. We would urge the next Justice Committee to continue close scrutiny of the Government on prison safety, as this is likely to remain one of the key issues facing the Ministry of Justice.”
The JSC had been informed that a government review was underway into the Transforming Rehabilitation (Probation) system and the outcome (including proposed changes) was to be announced after April 2017. They undertook some preliminary work as a precursor to a more extensive inquiry to follow the outcome of the government’s review. This included two preparatory evidence sessions in March 2017 in which seven panels of witnesses were questioned about the challenges facing the implementation of the reforms and potential solutions. The JSC’s comments following this session should constitute a stark warning:
“Concerns about the operation of the probation system following the Transforming Rehabilitation restructuring are widespread and serious, and we consider that a close examination of the system should be a high priority for our successor Committee.”
Learning from others – Reducing the Prison Population
The surge towards Brexit may result in less notice being taken in the experience of our European neighbours. One of the plans of the JSC which has also been shelved was a visit to the Netherlands to hear about the reasons behind the significant reduction in the Dutch prison population in recent years, and to see how Dutch prisons promote rehabilitation. The prospects for a fact-finding mission of this nature being resurrected seem fairly remote in the current climate.
The JSC’s report flagged plans that had been made for a number of one-off evidence sessions, all of which had been stopped short in the face of the dissolution of Parliament. One of these was a one-off oral evidence session on the work of the Parole Board, making use of the National Audit Office’s recent report, “Investigation into the Parole Board“. It was intended that this session would incorporate consideration of the number of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPP prisoners) who are over their tariff.
The JSC included no comment on this issue in the absence of their planned evidence session. It is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility that no meaningful action has been taken by the Justice Secretary in relation to IPP prisoners. A number of her predecessors have lamented their own failures to act. Liz Truss may or may not join this chorus. There is a great deal to be said about this. The next Justice Select Committee should use its influence to bring this issue to the top of the in-box of the next Justice Secretary. It is the most unfinished of all the unfinished business.
Andrew Sperling – Specialist Prison Law Solicitor
Written by Andrew Sperling. Andrew specialises in public law, parole board advocacy and human rights law.