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Howard League blog · 7 Feb 2018

Whitewash the dirty prison walls, but only system change will solve the problems in the long run

I am running out of fingers on which to count the secretaries of state as they come and go.

David Gauke has followed David Lidington, Elizabeth Truss, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Ken Clarke in the last seven years.

The prisons and probation ministers started with Crispin Blunt, then Jeremy Wright, Andrew Selous, Sam Gyimah, and now Rory Stewart (although with him the position has been promoted back to minister of state).

I met Rory Stewart last week. It was a very positive engagement, but he did start by pointing out that this was his fourth ministerial post in two years and, going on recent experience, it was possible he may not be in post for very long.

There are many factors that have led to the dire state of prisons, but the instability of ministerial responsibility is certainly a contribution.

It has often been unclear why people were placed in the department. Of the secretaries of state, only Ken Clarke had any experience of, and expertise in, the criminal justice system. The others had to spend months learning. Some indeed only had to time to make one or two speeches indicating their preferred direction of travel before they were off to new postings.

Chris Grayling, famously, did achieve change but without the learning that should have preceded it.

No one is providing the leadership to secure legislative time to solve the sentencing imbroglio, prisons shambles and probation disaster

Maybe I am naïve, even after all these years, but you would think that, when a prime minister is making senior appointments, he or she would have a conversation with the appointee to make sure they had some experience and good ideas about what they are going to do in the job.

Midway through this parade of ministers, legislation was promised in the Queen’s Speech to address both courts and prisons. Since then, ministers have allowed the prisons sections to disappear and we anticipate that a much truncated courts bill will be presented to Parliament some time in the spring, or not.

No one is providing the leadership to secure legislative time to solve the sentencing imbroglio, prisons shambles and probation disaster.

It was made very clear during my meeting with the new prisons minister that addressing the problem of sentence inflation, the over-use of prison and the challenge of the failing private community rehabilitation companies are issues that are simply not on the government’s agenda.

I welcome the fact that ministers are concentrating on the poor condition of prisons, and I agree that something must be done about the cockroaches, the filth and dilapidated state of the buildings, but – and it is a big but – the problems are so much more than this.

System change is the only way to deal with these problems in the long run. We can slap some whitewash on the prison walls, but the cracks will show in both prisons and probation. We need ministerial stability, expertise and accountability to face up to the big stuff.


  • Mr Black says:

    The democratic system in the UK is broken. When Ministers like Grayling are allowed to destroy their own Ministries then you know the system has lost control. MP’s in their seats for decades? That’s not democratic. Prisons left abandoned by their HQ? Just look at HMP Liverpool. “We took our eye off that one,” said Michael Spurr, about that prison. Prison staff are turning up to work, day after day, repeating the same level of unprofessionalism with impunity, with the result that prisoners (citizens) are left victimised. Once a prisoner has done his time. He is a free man and should not, of course, be discriminated against. Yet he his and too many of our political leaders do not speak out. For a politician, in government, especially, to stay silent is to condone the discrimination (abuse) of prisoners and convicts. Probation service? Where do I start? The calibre of staff is similar to the Prison Service. Recent job ad for a Prison Officer: “No qualifications necessary.” The power over a person’s life, a prison officer has, is staggering. They can keep them in prison for life with one negative comment, which the Parole Board will take as true. I rest my case. From an ex-convict.

  • Jez says:

    As usual you speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Pity our politicians don’t do the same.
    We do indeed need a new system, one that in my view protects the courts and prison service from political interference. Human rights need to be integrated properly to prevent acts of parliament interfering with these rights. Prisons need to be run with a therapeutic way if we want to see rehabilitation actually happening because that’s the only way to get crime levels down and lower reoffending rates.

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