David Gauke is the new Secretary of State for Justice, the latest in a string of appointments in the last 7 years, and hopefully one who will stay in the job long enough to see through a planned programme of action. He gave his first public speech on prisons yesterday (6th March).
The speech was strong on its analysis of the toxic mix of organised crime, drug dealing and addiction that is making our prisons such difficult places to manage at the moment. This is not a new analysis, but his understanding of the baleful influence of intimidation and bullying, the direct impact on the mental health of prisoners, and the recognition that creative use of incentives (carrots) and sanctions (sticks) is key to changing these realities, show a good understanding of the challenge.
While understanding that the focus of the speech (and the press coverage) is on tightening security – an unfettered drug market undermines all efforts at positive regimes – the speech was disappointingly light on the necessity of reducing demand for drugs, and achieving a step change in reducing re-offending. I have repeatedly said that much better outcomes are possible with the right vision and attention from the top.
On drug and alcohol recovery, the Secretary of State acknowledges the need for services to support prisoners to move away from drug using and criminal lifestyles. But his only offer is that his department continues to work with NHS England to improve the availability of services. We need something more specific – the two departments have been working together on this issue for 7 years – and the result has been reduced investment, less focus on reducing reoffending, and the majority of the successful recovery programmes that were in place 5 years ago now closed down. With the Secretary of State’s help, we can get thousands more prisoners through life-changing addiction recovery programmes.
On employment for released prisoners, the Secretary of State rightly identifies the potential for reducing reoffending through helping offenders into real jobs. Projects that achieve this – such as our own Blue Sky Agency – already exist. But they can only operate on a small scale because the vast majority of government (DWP and MOJ) resources spent in pursuit of this objective are focused on administration and case management, instead of outcomes. Neither the Work and Health Programme, nor Transforming Rehabilitation, nor the forthcoming prison education and training procurement, has explicit outcome objectives around employment of ex-offenders. With the Secretary of State’s help, we can get thousands of offenders directly into jobs.
The intentions in this speech are excellent, and the analysis sophisticated – but if they are to result in a step change in recovery and rehabilitation of offenders, it is essential that Ministers pay much closer attention to how the hundreds of millions of pounds per year to achieve these shared objectives is spent. The announcement of a cross-Ministerial group to look at these challenges is therefore welcome, but its members need to come out to the field to find out how to get the job done.