Coalition stores up trouble on prisons

Today's "programme for government" says nothing about prisons policy. The Coalition Government has failed to resolve the fundamental differences between the two parties.

Our guest writer is Mark Davies, former special adviser at the Ministry of Justice

The Coalition Government’s “programme for government” says nothing about prisons policy other than a passing mention to “the Prisoners’ Earnings Act 1996”. Of all the many conundrums facing the coalition, its approach to prison is one it will need to resolve pretty soon.

The Tory manifesto effectively supported Labour’s prison building programme. This would increase the number of places to 96,000 by 2014. It is currently around 86,000. The then shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve was, however, on record wanting to reduce the number of places over time.

The Lib Dems would warmly welcome that. In contrast to the Tories, their manifesto pledged to “cancel the Government’s billion-pound prison building programme” and “introduce a presumption against short-term sentences of less than six months”. The two policies may be inconsistent since if judges hand out more 6+ month  sentences where previously they would have been more lenient, and the subsequent need for yet more prison places.

So far so woolly. One can see how, if Dominic Grieve and David Howarth (former Lib Dem spokesman on justice but now no longer an MP) were running prisons they may have found common cause – albeit prompting a prison crisis through a shortage of places and falling public confidence in the system. But the Tory manifesto pledged that, “anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence”. The new “programme for government” is again silent on the issue.

Do it and never mind that you are trampling on judicial discretion but you also need even more new prison places. It may be the sort of tough talking the Tory right relish, but it overlooks these practical considerations – and don’t forget that new prison places are very expensive at around £150,000 to build per place – but also whether the coalition really want to be locking up every single person convicted of possessing a knife – doesn’t it make more sense to give the judiciary the opportunity to judge each case individually? Sending a young man to jail because he was carrying a knife out of fear, for instance, seems illogical when a tough community sentence would probably be a more appropriate response.

Moreover earlier this year Andy Coulson’s team were quietly briefing the Daily Mail and others that a Tory government would get a prison ship or two and fence off open prisons. The ideas didn’t make the manifesto after howls of protest from Mr Grieve, who was expected to become Justice Secretary but found Ken Clarke ahead of him in the queue and Alan Duncan, the thoughtful shadow prisons minister, shuffled off to DfID.

It’s not yet clear who the new prisons minister will be. It might have been expected that Nick Herbert, former shadow justice secretary who produced the Tory green paper ‘Prisons with a Purpose‘ in 2008, might have got the job. The paper proposed 5,000 more places than Labour was proposing, though this has since been dropped. It also had some thoughtful and sensible ideas, many of which were in line with current practice in prisons. But Herbert is split between the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office and it’s hard to see how he could be both police minister and prisons minister.

Apparently Crispin Blunt, now a justice minister, may get the brief, one of the biggest and most difficult in government, with significant operational issues on a daily basis. The prison service website currently says, “A new Minister will be announced shortly“. It will be one of the most critical the new government makes.

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