Political News Updates

19.02.2016

Parliamentary Briefing - David Cameronís Prison Reforms

The Prime Ministers announcement on 8th February 2016 on Prison Reform was, in the opinion of the POA, full of welcome intentions and bereft of detail as to how they were to be delivered.

Considering this was the first speech solely about prisons by a Prime Minister in 20 years, it was trailed in the national press all morning and had the hype and potential to set out a real path that the Government wished to take, it was disappointing that it delivered so little.

New for Old Prisons

When the Chancellor first announced that it was the Governments intention to close prisons he called "relics from Victorian times" and that stand on "prime real estate”, he caused a great deal of unrest and heightened the job security concerns of prison staff across the country.

In his speech Mr. Cameron re-announced his Governments commitment to knock down prisons he described as “ageing, ineffective prisons that are creaking, leaking and coming apart at the seams”. He did not, of course, give any indication as to which prisons he was talking about.

Mr. Cameron, like the Chancellor before him, fails to recognise the damage and uncertainty that wide ranging but vague announcements like these have on the morale of hardworking staff who see their jobs as being under threat.

The POA welcomes the commitment to spend £1.3 billion to build nine new prisons. But many commentators see as almost laughable the repeated claim to deliver five of these during this Parliament. As yet the POA are unaware of any sites where the Ministry of Justice has planning permission to build a 2,000 place prison and the Ministry have given no indication of when they will be able to make an announcement on where the first five are to be built or indeed who will be contracted to build them.

This new for old policy has more questions that need to be asked than answers that have been given.

Reform Prisons

The central plank of these reforms revolve around the creation of new “Reform Prisons”. These new prisons must, in the words of Mr. Cameron, “offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope, that in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.”

When we look at how Mr. Cameron expects this to be achieved, we find that it will be done by giving “prison governors unprecedented operational and financial autonomy,”

He did indicate that the governors of these prisons would be able to opt-out of national contracts, decide what they want to focus resources on and they would be able to tailor their own regimes

Indeed, he announced that they will “create six such reform prisons this year, run by some of the most innovative governors from across the prison estate.” But he did not announce the name of the six prisons or the names of the “innovative governors” who will be tasked with running them.

This was as far as the details on the Reform Prisons went.

New Technology

Mr. Cameron singled out two areas where his Government were to consider how best to use new technology to help with the prison reform plans: satellite tracking and mobile phone blocking.

The potential to use satellite tracking for offenders was first piloted by the Ministry of Justice between September 2004 and June 2006 in three areas of England and Wales. Though these pilots were considered as successful, 10 years later the Ministry of Justice has failed to progress the use of this technology. There was nothing in Mr. Cameron’s speech to suggest when the Ministry of Justice plan to implement the use of this technology.

The POA were very supportive of the campaign for legislative changes that brought about the introduction the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act in 2012. Since that time the Ministry of Justice appear to have done little or nothing to introduce this vitally important technological resources into our prisons.

The increasing use of mobile phones in prisons is already well documented through the questions Members of Parliament have raised on the matter. What Government have failed to explain is why they have not introduced this proven technology that would in one simple act remove the usefulness of these devices from offenders?

Reviews and Reports

Mr. Cameron made statements regarding four separate reviews that are either already taking place or that he has asked for:

• Charlie Taylors review of the youth justice system
• Dame Sally Coates review of prison education.
• Review of extremism
• Review of mental health and drug treatment

The interim report highlighting the emerging findings from Charlie Taylors Review of the Youth Justice System was published the day after Mr. Cameron’s speech and contain some very innovative ideas of how young offenders should be helped in the future.
Many of the ideas put forward in this review appear to come with an implicit need for investment in both capital and resource budgets to enable them to be delivered. The POA look forward to reading his final report which is expected in July and the response from the Government to his final recommendations.

In September 2015 The Secretary of State for Justice commissioned a review of prison education in England and Wales. This was to examine how it supports effective rehabilitation of different segments of prison learners, and is being led by Dame Sally Coates. It is expected to publish its findings and recommendations by the end of March 2016.

It is clear that the Government will support the findings of this independent review as Mr. Cameron has already told us that “It will recommend giving control of education budgets to prison governors, letting them bring in new providers – whether further education colleges, academy chains, free schools or other specialists.”

The POA look forward to reading this independent review once it is published, along with the Government response.

The POA do welcome the commitment given by Mr. Cameron protect the prison education budget in cash terms, with £130 million a year.

All those with even a minimal understanding of our criminal justice system know, that the issues of mental health and drug problems are a prime contributory factor in the majority of crime in the UK.

The POA hope that the alternative provision that Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt have been asked to look at as a “matter of urgency” will bring forward sensible, resourced proposals that are both credible and deliverable.

To simply say that “There’s been a failure of approach, and a failure of public policy” serves only to highlight the disconnect between Government and what is happening in the real world. It totally dismisses the damage that their failed policies and under resourcing have done to society.

It was not so long ago that healthcare services within prisons were transferred from prison governors to the NHS against POA recommendations. The POA therefore welcome Mr. Cameron’s partial reversal of this policy with his indication of a move towards full co-commissioning for governors and NHS England. If this is implemented in the right way it could deliver significant improvements in this area.

 

Performance Data

The POA welcome the Government’s intention to develop better data that will allow for meaningful comparisons to be made between different prisons. Previously it has been a standard Government response to questions about reoffending rates by prison, that offenders often spend time in a number of establishments and that they have no way of discerning which actions at which prison had the greatest effect on an offenders rehabilitation or reoffending.

The POA look forward to seeing details of how the Ministry of Justice plan to introduce new “meaningful metrics” about prison performance. We remain opposed to the introduction of new Prison League Tables, these have proved to be a crude method of comparison when comparing schools and the POA do not see how they would provide for a realistic comparison to be made of prison performance.

Extremism

The press and the POA have already been critical of the idea of a single prison to house what are considered to be extremist prisoners. The POA have already called for a multi-disciplinary approach to tackling radicalisation that included experts from all fields both inside and outside the prison environment.

What is vital to the security and safety of all is that any new initiatives and programmes to tackle extremism, in prisons or in the community, are properly funded so that they can be delivered in the way they are intended and not in a way that fits the budget that is made available.

Conclusion

Mr. Cameron did make references to other proposals including;

• foreign national offenders to hand over their passports and make them declare their nationality in court.
• a new Prisons Bill.
• extending direct entry and fast-track schemes.
• an intention to look at alternative ways of dealing with women offenders with babies.
• increased help for prisoners to find work on release.

The press spin on the morning before Mr. Cameron’s big speech on Prison Reform appeared to offer so much. This makes it even more disappointing that when the contents are considered in the cool light of day, there is so little offered.

The potential is there, the end aims are aspirational and his commitment to get there, when taken on face value, appears to be genuine. What is glaringly missing from his speech are the details of how and when any of his reform will begin to be delivered.

The POA remain fearful that the commitments made in this speech have got more to do with appeasing and supporting the plans Michael Gove has for prisons, in order to gain his colleagues support in the forthcoming referendum on the UK membership of the European Union, than of any heartfelt commitment to real reform of our prison system.

Since 2010, the POA have seen Mr Cameron put in place three Justice Secretary’s. Each has had a different plan and a different agenda of how to improve the efficiency of the Prison Service. One element has remained constant, cuts to the cost of frontline delivery.

We equally look forward to the reviews in which Mr. Cameron has so much faith. It is unfortunate that the Government have failed to take on board the recommendations of so many previous reports that have been made on prison issues as recently as the Lord Harris Review. For over 30 years reports from the Woolf Review through to the Zahid Mubarek Inquiry and many others, all of which have made important recommendations for improvements to the prison system have been cynically ignored by successive Governments.

The POA ask that Members of Parliament look at each element of Mr. Cameron’s speech, each policy announcement he made, each initiative he plans to introduce and ask the question on all of them how, when and where.

The POA genuinely look forward to working with NOMS and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the high ideals that Mr. Cameron says that he wants to deliver and that will help with the rehabilitation of offenders in our prisons and in the community, are delivered in safe, decent and secure environments for our members and those offenders the court send to their care.