Prisons inspector calls decision to drop reform programme from Queen’s Speech ‘missed opportunity’

A view of D wing at HMP Wandsworth Prison. Pic: Andy Aitchison

The Chief Inspector of Prisons has called Theresa May’s decision to jettison its prison reform programme from a trimmed down Queen’s Speech ‘a missed opportunity’. In a strongly worded response, Peter Clarke pointed out that the Prisons and Courts Reform bill ‘enjoyed broad parliamentary support and had made real progress through parliament’ before it was dropped as a result of the June 8 snap election.

It was widely expected that the Bill would be picked up by the new government. ‘This is a missed opportunity to forge ahead with prison reform,’ Clarke said. ‘The law would have required the government to respond to our findings. We will continue to report the harsh reality of what we find in our prisons – all too many of which are dangerous for prisoners and staff alike and are failing in their duty to rehabilitate and reform prisoners.’

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, called the decision to drop the Bill ‘immensely disappointing’. ‘There was cross-party support for this long overdue legislation. The decision puts even more pressure on the new justice secretary to find ways to stop our chronic overuse of prison so that this hardest pressed of public services can start to repair the damage his predecessors have inflicted upon it.’

Dawson continued: ‘He should start by spending the money earmarked for new prisons on measures that would make them unnecessary. That means supporting people in their communities and helping the people who really do need to be in prison to get out on time and stay out for good.’

Hours before the Queen’s Speech, the chief inspectors of prisons and probation published a damning joint report on the part-privatisation of the probation service. The report drew on visits to nine prisons where Through the Gate resettlement services were delivered by eight privately-run ‘community rehabilitation companies’ (CRCs) through seven different companies in the cases of 98 prisoners, before and after release. In 2014 a large part of the probation service was handed to 21 CRCs, now responsible for preparing prisoners for release.

‘None of the early hopes for Through the Gate have been realised,’ wrote Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, and Peter Clarke. ‘The gap between aspiration and reality is so great, that we wonder whether there is any prospect that these services will deliver the desired impact on rates of reoffending.’

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, called it ‘a devastating report on a growing scandal’. ‘The break-up of the public probation service, with a large part of it handed to private companies, was supposed to turn lives around, reduce reoffending and make us all safer,’ she said. ‘Instead, successive inspection reports have shown that the risk to the public has increased, and now we learn that Through the Gate services are so useless that they could stop tomorrow and we would not notice the difference.’

There were 27 bills announced yesterday including eight that dealt with Brexit. A Courts Bill will seek to end cross-examination of domestic violence victims by their alleged perpetrators in the family courts and allow more victims to participate in trials without having to meet their alleged assailants. It would also enable those charged with less serious criminal offences to plead guilty, accept a conviction and pay a statutory fixed penalty online.

The Bar Council has warned that the plans risked ‘trivialising’ potentially serious consequences for defendants. ‘Defendants must be offered a genuine choice about how they enter their plea,’ commented chair of the Bar Andrew Langdon QC. ‘They must also be made aware of their right to consult a lawyer. Inviting defendants to use an online procedure to indicate a plea risks trivialising potentially serious consequences for those accused of committing offences.’

There will also be a Civil Liability Bill to tackle the perceived ‘compensation culture’ around motoring insurance claims; a Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, establishing a Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner for victims and survivors; a Tenant’s Fees Bill banning landlords from charging letting fees; and a Data Protection Bill to bolster individuals’ rights and introduce a ‘right to be forgotten’.

Author: Jon Robins

Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon’s books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council’s journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year’s Criminal Justice Alliance’s journalism award

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