Penal Policy: Will Gove’s Conservative Heart Keep Beating?

Michael Gove has a rather busy in-tray. His brief to oversee the repeal of the Human Rights Act increasingly looks to be a poisoned chalice. His decision to implement a further cut to solicitors’ fees has led to widespread direct action by an increasingly united profession, and has reached new heights. And if that were not enough, he has also to address the ongoing prisons crisis, the existence of which was repeatedly denied by his predecessor in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The prison population continues to steadily grow. It currently stands at more than 86,000, with 768 more people in prison this week than at the same time last year. Self-inflicted deaths are at an alarmingly high level, with 83 such deaths last year alone. There have been at least 3 homicides in our prisons already this year. The Harris Review, published earlier this month, provides a devastating assessment of the state of our prisons.  Lord Harris noted that if the aim of prisons is to rehabilitate, then they are an “expensive failure”. He described the prison environment as “grim” and “impoverishing to the spirit”.

Chris Grayling might well have worn those descriptions as a badge of honour. He envisaged “reform” as a revised incentives and earned privileges (IEP) scheme that was far more stick than carrot. The IEP scheme, designed to encourage good behaviour, was created following a recommendation of Lord Woolf in his report into the 1990 Strangeways Riots. But Lord Woolf also recommended that decisions should be taken by prison governors, at a local level, rather than by Ministers. Grayling turned that on its head, bringing in an overly prescriptive national scheme which embraced the simplistic idea that overcrowded, underfunded prisons could reform prisoners simply by making them not want to come back.

Notoriously, Grayling’s IEP policy included a ban on prisoners having books sent in to them by family or friends, which came to be seen as symbolic of his devil-may-care approach to policy-making.  Following a successful judicial review claim, which cost the taxpayer £72,000 in legal fees, Grayling was forced to revise the policy. But he did so to the minimum extent, providing that books could only be sent in through four approved retailers, and that “volumetric controls” would remain, limiting the number of books allowed “in possession” to 12.

Another of Grayling’s flagship policies was a plan to create a super-size “secure college”, intended to hold 320 young offenders at a cost of £80 million. It was widely criticised, including by a number of respected charities, who called the plan “expensive and dangerous”, and suggested that it amounted to “warehousing” of children. Grayling had already spent almost £6 million on this vanity project, and passed enabling legislation in the dying days of the last parliament, hoping to make it happen. 

It is potentially significant, therefore, that in the past few days Michael Gove has decreed an end to the remaining book restrictions, and announced that the secure college project will be abandoned.

So what, if anything, can be read in to these announcements?

The decision to end the restrictions on books is both provocative and symbolic. Grayling had stubbornly refused to do anything more than the bare minimum require of him by law. By ripping the policy up altogether, Gove appears to be signalling a fresh approach to penal policy. Importantly, in announcing the move Gove cited US conservative social policy “guru” Arthur Brooks as a key influence,. Brooks has authored a number of books, including “the Conservative Heart”, which seeks to put forward a compassionate conservative solution to social problems. More notably, perhaps, he has also expressed some pretty liberal views on penal policy, including this interview in which he argued that the US locks too many people up, and locks them up for the wrong reasons, which is hardly the type of rhetoric that David Cameron has produced of late. This must provide some encouragement as to the road ahead, and serves as a counterbalance to concerns that arise from Gove’s previously expressed support for the death penalty.

The decision to abandon the Secure College project is also encouraging, but appears to be more of a pragmatic move. The youth custody population is falling, and the project was an expense that the MoJ could do without. The move does at least show a willingness to ditch some of Grayling’s pet projects when the need arises; but would the position have been the same if policy change meant injecting additional millions from the MoJ’s budget?

If Gove is to implement lasting change, such as that proposed by Lord Harris, it would be seem near impossible to do so whilst maintaining the sort of budget levels that the MoJ is currently operating under. And alarm bells begin to ring further when one considers that, despite fine words about an end to two-tier justice, Gove was quite content to put into effect the latest round of cuts to solicitors’ fees, which only serves to widen the gap between the first and second tiers. This certainly therefore seems a bad omen, and calls for caution over whether Gove’s conservative heart, now worn on his sleeve, can keep beating in the face of MoJ budget constraints. 

Nevertheless, and putting aside the legal aid question, on penal policy there is cause to be hopeful and, yes I may as well say it, at least he’s not Chris Grayling.

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