Sunday, July 24, 2016

What Have the Romans done for Us?

Just how in the hell did I find myself standing alongside the Minister of Justice, taking the ire of prison reformers and wrestling the cynicism of ex prisoners? My life is indeed stranger than I expected. I’m in the position of having to persuade people that Gove was undertaking serious reform. As the most cynical guy on the wings, these are unusual waters to paddle in.
Of course, any Minister who makes reforming noises is met with rolling eyes and a sigh. We’ve heard it all before, every variation of the theme. And those ministers who have actually acted have been the malevolent, petty ones who are more concerned with increasing the misery of prisoners than making an impact on crime rates.
In the face of this depressing history, which has rightly generated a wall of cynicism, then it is hardly surprising that people are already saying “Michael who…?” And yet despite the historical portents, people who really should know better have dismissed the idea that reform can be happening. This includes criminal justice professionals as well as my fellow ex cons and campaigners. To be frank, some of the criticism has been childish denial. “He’s a Tory…..Upper class….Supports Israel…” I have lost friends over this, people whose loathing of anything Tory is so blinding that it obscures reality. Equally, if reforms aren’t the ones highlighted by prisoners, then they aren’t reforms. I have been bemused and disappointed by fellow reformers.
You may ask, why would a Tory Minister push a prison reform agenda? Motives are very important. As we saw with Grayling, a malign motivation can be toxic. Was there political pressure for Gove to push for reform? Not particularly. There was no single “crisis” event demanding immediate and public change. Essentially, Gove could have sat in his office, collected his wages and allow everything to roll on as normal. Any particular prison problems could be squarely and fairly laid at the door of Grayling and the Treasury. Gove had no need to do anything, let alone create a plan for strategic reform. And yet he promptly got stuck in.
What, then, were Gove’s motives? I have blogged before about his involvement in my case, which came from nothing more than a broad sense of justice. Make no mistake, Gove’s motivations were solidly Conservative in their basis. Prison is very expensive, and quite ineffective in reducing crime. In essence, this view is more akin to Hurd’s “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse”, rather than a Howardian “Prison works!”. Whilst not a common strand in Tory thought for over 20 years, it isn’t alien. Efficiency and effectiveness are central Tory concerns. And they can be powerful drivers for change.
This is not prison reform as prisoners and their allies would wish. Gove was not directly addressing the concerns of prisoners. And this appears to be the rub. In not focusing on prisoners, prison campaigners deny any reforms take place. It can be argued that without addressing the core needs of prisoners, then no meaningful reforms are taking place. But it would be silly to claim no reforms can happen.
Gove didn’t look at prison from the perspective of a cell, but as a policy maker concerned with the prison system as an expensive and inefficient part of government activity. His reforms were very much top-down, not bottom up. Not the approach reformers would adopt, but nevertheless a legitimate approach.
Any Minister can, and often have, meddle with prison policy. This tends to end badly, as my two recent blogs on Unintended Consequences suggest. Gove resisted any urge for quick fixes (which aren’t), nor did he rise to any tabloid bait. Previous Ministers, Straw in particular, who were weak and lacked any strategic vision were particularly prone to meddle on a nearly daily basis, to no good end. The lack of public spasms from Gove suggest inactivity; the reality was that his focus was on the long term, strategic issues. In avoiding the usual crisis management style of leadership, a broader view of the prison system and its place in society can be taken.
The methodology that Gove adopted was unusual, if not unique. Rather than merely diving into his own limited knowledge and pronouncing – a la Grayling – Gove canvassed far and wide for views on the penal problems and, more importantly, for solutions to these problems. To some degree NOMS was sidelined as expertise was sought outside the Ministry, at times from quarters who would otherwise be persona non grata with the prison system. The brief everyone bore in mind was: Prison is expensive and doesn’t cut reoffending. It needs to be “an efficient and effective” prison system. And NOMS has presided over a shambles. 
The question I had to ponder was, could the actual policies that flow from this brief lead to positive changes for prisoners on the landing, even as a secondary effect? This was, at the beginning, the Great Unknown. I had to make a serious determination – was this a reform process that I wanted to become involved with? I was aware of some others involved, such as John Podmore and James Timpson; both very serious people with significant and positive ideas. I also knew that Gove was interested in Education and Work, both issues ripe for change. After sniffing around, I made my decision – Gove seemed to have the right motivation, he was consulting people I respect and his way forward seemed politically interesting. I closed my eyes and jumped in. I must be circumspect in what I share, Chatham House Rules.
The approach from Gove that I found interesting was his use of outsiders, specialists. A political cynic might suggest that Gove selected experts who then made recommendations he wanted, but it is more subtle. Gove appreciated the problems with, for example, education and then handed the issue to an expert. In this case, Dame Sally Coates. Having outside experts making recommendations adds weight to a Minister who may have to force changes on the wholly negative and obstructive prison service. Ministers may not be able to force their changes onto NOMS, historically ministers are strongest in relation to NOMS when a serious crisis occurs. In the absence of that imperative to act, a Minister leveraging outside expertise against NOMS is creative and astute. 
This is my overview of the Gove process. I really shouldn’t need to point out that I am one of the penal reform community’s most experienced contributors. And unlike most, I suffered badly for my campaigning. Equally, I have a historical perspective that few others can match. I can even express this in the harsher terms – my activities cost me 22 years. And it is from this foundation that I say to dismiss Gove’s proposals as empty and meaningless is myopic.

Next blog – examining the Gove proposals in detail and what they can deliver. 


  1. Sounds hopeful! I guess prisoners need to feel cared about & respectfully stewarded into productive & meaningful lives; inspired to be part of the solution instead of the problem.

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  3. You do know the technology exists to fabricate dreams and visions right.