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A 20-year sentence: policy behind Cameron’s prison speech

Monday 8 February 2016

Monday’s speech on prisons by David Cameron is a significant event in and of itself coming as it does two decades on from the last time a Prime Minister gave an address on this subject.

Ever since a young Tony Blair tore into Ken Clarke for being ‘soft’ on crime, the subject of ‘prison reform’ has rarely been thought to be a vote winner – so it says something about the Prime Minister’s political confidence that he is prepared to wade into this territory at all.

The backdrop is challenging, to put it mildly. The outgoing Chief Inspector, Nick Hardwick gave an interview last week, in which he painted a picture of a system that is in a state of permanent crisis. The statistics back him up. The prison system as a whole has been overcrowded in every year since 1994; there are fewer staff looking after more prisoners; in 2014 there were 243 deaths in custody, the highest number on record; in the last year serious assaults in prison have risen by over a third.

And things are going to get harder. The Spending Review announced last Autumn requires the Ministry of Justice to find an additional 15 per cent savings over the parliament, at a time when the prison population is forecast to rise to 90,000. How will the Prime Minister square the circle?

There are three things in particular to watch out for in his speech:

  • what it says about the government’s plans for devolution;

  • the continued search for politically and technologically viable alternatives to prison, and;

  • the role of transparency in underpinning public service reform.

More freedom for prison governors


On devolution, Cameron will attempt to put meat on the bones of Michael Gove’s agenda to provide greater autonomy for prison governors. Gove has spent time listening to the concerns of governors and concluded one of the biggest barriers to progress is the suffocating grip that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) holds over how prisons are run, which removes virtually any capacity or incentive for innovation locally. For example, under the existing system, governors have little say over the way prisoners are educated or treated for mental health issues.

By giving governors greater discretion over the way they run their jails and over how to spend money on prisoners, the Prime Minister is hoping to establish a powerful incentive for reform: governors would finally be given the tools for rehabilitating prisoners, whilst being held more accountable for their outcomes once they left the prison gate.

Apply the ‘Teach First’ model to the prison service


The parallels with school academies are obvious and it will be interesting to see just how far the Prime Minister pushes the analogy. Might we see prison governors given greater freedom in who to recruit and how to reward their staff? Crest Advisory has long been a supporter of extending the ‘Teach First’ model of recruitment/ development into the prison service – as it has in social services and policing.

More broadly, devolution is a process that requires some central steering. It is welcome that Police and Crime Commissioners and mayors are being encouraged to bid for additional powers and budgets to drive local innovation. But other recent policy choices, taken in isolation, have reinforced the opposite direction of travel. Most obviously, Chris Grayling’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms established a centralised commissioning structure for probation, with 21 super contract areas, that are not coterminous with PCCs and not bound into existing local partnership structures.

If prison governors are, under the direction of PCCs, going to be given greater freedom over the way services are commissioned for offenders, it would make sense to align probation and prison budgets, rather than continuing to reinforce institutional silos. Over the next year, Governup, a think tank dedicated to making government work more effectively, will be calling for a more strategic and coherent approach to CJS devolution, with reforms that encourage joined up working and innovation.

Electronic monitoring programmes


On prevention, the Prime Minister is aware of the need to find ways to manage demand on prison services more effectively.

He will use the speech to put his weight behind electronic monitoring programmes, including alcohol monitoring (despite some of the complex issues suggested here). Tagging serves as evidence that an offence is taken seriously despite the offender remaining in the community; to provide an early warning of recidivism; and to punish the offender whilst minimising the damage to their family relationships or to allow offenders to continue in employment. And the technology has also been used after incarceration in an attempt to gradually increase the responsibilities of those leaving prison.

The PM is right to push here: the potential of electronic monitoring to protect the public and reduce re-offending has been undermined by the Ministry of Justice’s shockingly poor procurement of the ‘new generation’ of tags. (At best it will have taken five years to deliver the GPS tags, and even when they are delivered the current model will stifle innovation.)

Improve accountability with data


On transparency, David Cameron will extol the virtues of publishing data as a way to both improve accountability to citizens and put pressure on CJS agencies to improve their performance. This might start with the publication of more detailed and timely data about the way prisoners spend their time and about the contribution of different services to reducing their re-offending.

Here at Crest, we know the role that publishing data can play in improving performance. Our work with the Local Criminal Justice Board in Dorset is already showing how analysis of performance data can help decision makers spot emerging trends, identify interdependencies and remove blockages that went previously undetected.

Over time, Crest Advisory would like to see all CJS agencies – the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, courts, prisons and probation services – required to publish data about crime, its outcomes, the performance of different services and what works in preventing crime. Only then, will we truly be able to see that we have a criminal justice system that is accountable to citizens, rather than officials in Whitehall.


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