Ken Clarke is right to challenge “prison works”

As Justice Secretary bravely intervenes, all Labour can do is parrot Michael Howard and cry: “Prison

Kenneth Clarke's plan to reduce the number of criminals sent to prison has led to the alarming but increasingly familiar spectacle of Labour attacking the Conservatives from the right.

In an article for today's Daily Mail, Jack Straw in effect endorses Michael Howard's declaration that "prison works". He writes:

Michael Howard took over from Kenneth Clarke as home secretary in mid-1993 and set about a different and significantly tougher policy. It wasn't all to my liking, but he deserves credit for turning the tide.

And there's more. In a remarkable act of self-punishment, he writes:

Mr Cameron's broad approach was right before the election. Indeed, so was his consistent criticism in his years in opposition that Labour was not being tough enough.

Straw, far from Labour's most authoritarian home secretary, fails to explain why his views have changed so noticeably since 2008, when he argued:

There are effective alternatives in terms of non-custodial penalties which actually have a better record in terms of preventing reoffending than short prison sentences. The probation service has become more effective.

Could it be that the opportunity to attack the "soft" Lib Dems for allegedly dragging the Tories to the left was too good to turn down? It could be.

The truth, as Straw once knew, is that for far too many detainees, prison does not work. It is the excessive use of short sentences that has led to Britain's appalling recidivism rate. At the moment, of the 60,000 prisoners given short sentences, 60 per cent reoffend.

Nor should this come as a surprise. As Clarke will say in his speech today: "Many a man has gone into prison without a drug problem and come out drug-dependent. And petty prisoners can meet up with some new hardened criminal friends."

Clarke, a brave and honest politician, can now expect to face the combined forces of the Tory right, the Daily Mail and the Labour Party. They will cry with one voice that prison works: an offender can't commit a crime if he is behind bars. But this quick-fix, short-term approach stores up more problems than it solves.

If Clarke has the patience and the political will to reform our prison system, we will all have at least one thing to thank the coalition for.

UPDATE: For an alternative take, Peter Hoskin's post on Coffee House is worth a read.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.