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With a general election looming, rumour abounds about reshuffles, the future of prison reform and even the end of the Ministry of Justice. What is it about the department that feeds this speculation and what could the future hold?

Since the RSA first embarked on its prisons work in 2007, six people have inhabited the role of Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Under Labour, Lord Falconer was the first minister to combine the two roles following the scrapping of the Constitutional Unit and the creation of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in 2007. Since then, Jack Straw, Kenneth Clarke and Chris Grayling have all had the privilege and challenge. None of them came out well in terms of the changes made – or not made – to our prison and probation systems. 

Whatever the public think of the last two incumbents, Liz Truss and Michael Gove, both made long-term prison reform a priority for the MoJ. While there has been a change of emphasis since Truss took the helm just under a year ago, she was the architect of the Prisons and Courts Bill, which will now not be pushed through before Parliament is dissolved in preparation for June’s General Election. 

Most of the Bill dealt with courts, including controversial changes to personal injury law and the introduction of virtual courts. In relation to prisons it included short-term measures to tackle the illegal and damaging supply of psychoactive substances and mobile phones in prison (although, as the Bill’s select committee heard, tackling demand requires deeper cultural changes to how prisons work, including much higher levels of purposeful activity). The Bill included recommendations made by RSA and others in relation to strengthening the role of both Her Majesty’s Inspectorates of Prisons and Probation and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and, for the first time, defining prisons’ role as including support for rehabilitation and preparation for release. 

Inevitably, given the state of many of our prisons and the harms this is bringing to those who live and work in them, there are those who see much of this as irrelevant; unless we reduce population numbers, overcrowding and improve staff to prisoner ratios, redefining prisons’ purpose is at best pointless and at worst, a distraction. There are others who see the lack of control in some of our prisons and conclude that the only solution is tougher regimes, more punishment and the recruitment of a ‘more authoritative’ workforce. Some conclude nothing can be done. 

Aside from the defeatism of the last of these positions, the other arguments all have some merit and their own internal logic. The prison population is too high. Too many of our prisons are overcrowded and there are people inside that should not be. In securing additional investment in frontline staff and some movement on pay, Truss showed a welcome recognition of the impact that rising population and cuts in funding have had since 2010. But this has not removed the huge challenge of recruitment and retention. Solving this requires greater stability, training and developing staff to do the job at hand, empowering, equipping and trusting governors to make wise judgments and implement their ideas within a clear framework. 

And while those who call for harsher regimes could do well to visit some of our prisons and spend time with the staff and prisoners there, we do need staff that have authority. But we need to look at the evidence of what works best in gaining this. And as any good governor will tell you, alongside security, prisons need to be run by consent and that is being sorely tested in some establishments with tragic consequences. Authority comes through building strong relationships, through mutual respect, high-levels of trust and by giving people – staff and prisoners – a higher sense of purpose and hope. The Prisons and Courts Bill redefinition of prisons’ purpose – barely four lines – can be dismissed as purely symbolic but what it signaled was a need for institutional reform; not just for prisons but for the government department charged with overseeing them and the services on which they depend. 

So what now? The news that the Bill would not go through has been swiftly followed by talk of the Ministry of Justice being scrapped. However inaccurate, rumours can be telling; while we all love to knock our political leaders, what of the machinery that lies behind? John Reid, the former Home Secretary’s conclusion that his department was not fit for purpose heralded the creation of MoJ. Does the government now need to ask whether the MoJ has fared much better? Both Gove and Truss in their different ways attempted to address this question, if not so bluntly put; not an easy task given the daily challenges prisons are facing and the dependence on officials’ operational expertise to respond to this. 

Gove’s emphasis was on radical decentralisation; the creation of pioneering reform prisons that would test new ways of working that gave governors greater freedoms and commissioning power, matched by fewer, clearer instructions from the centre and new accountability frameworks that would drive local innovation and performance. While Truss talked more about empowerment and less about autonomy, she retained some of this with plans to extend ‘reform status’ across the prison estate and has overseen a clearer division between the department’s operational function in relation to prison and probation with the creation of the Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and policy (within MoJ). 

If the department does survive, only time will tell whether this split will help to tackle some of the challenges that it faces. These include the overly centralised and bureaucratic culture, its failure to communicate effectively with itself and governors and belief that if the centre knows what works that this is being translated and deployed at the local level. And while the change of name on its own may seem profligate, it won't be if it signals recognition and action to rebalance the expertise and priority across prisons, probation and wider justice services. Effective reform can never just be about prisons but depends on forging integrated relationships across the range of statutory agencies – police, probation, the judiciary and so on – and with civil society, including employers, communities and the myriad of third sector organisations working in this area. 

The RSA’s Future Prison project’s last report argued that potential impact that prisons could have on reducing reoffending and community safety has been undermined by a lack of consistent political leadership and clear purpose and that policy and practice needed to drive deeper and wider integration of justice and resettlement services.

And so a dilemma. On the one hand, another change of direction – particularly any radical move of MoJ functions back to the Home Office – would be disruptive and swallow valuable Whitehall resource. What Gove and Truss started – however falteringly and imperfectly – could be the very beginnings of a long journey that begins to see prisons as places for potential progression and recognises that investing in governors’ leadership and the workforce are critical. With the support of the Secretary of State and Prisons Minister, the RSA has been working on developing the New Futures Network (NFN), with the aim of creating a new body that would champion and drive reform, starting with seeing prisons as public services that serve and need to be embedded in their local communities and economies. 

On the other hand, greater integration needs to happen locally and it remains far from clear whether the centralisers within HMPPS are able to let go where they need to. The RSA’s report, A Matter of Conviction, made the case for government setting out a national rehabilitative strategy that included a phased process of devolution, giving a much greater role to Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in terms of coordinated oversight of justice services in one area. This is not a new or unique argument but an urgent one given the mounting evidence that community rehabilitation companies – resulting from the government’s last major justice reform – Transforming Rehabilitation – are largely failing to deliver the integrated service, through custody and beyond, promised.  

Despite the shift in thinking from the centre on devolution since Theresa May became Prime Minister, there has been continued moves at local level in some areas to look at the role of PCCs in relation to joining up justice services across their area with some seeing this as a way to become, over time co-commissioners and co-designers of local justice services, incentivising services locally to reap the rewards of upstream intervention. And given this, which department is responsible for championing the role of Police and Crime Commissioners? The Home Office…

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