Labour should support the government’s ministry of justice reforms

by Ian Moss

Whisper it quietly but there is a long overdue transformation going on in the ministry of justice and Labour should support some of it. Ignoring the tired idea that parliament is at its worst when it agrees, there are a number of proposals coming from Chris Grayling that, if successful, will help reform the shabby, out of date operations of the justice system and produce efficiencies and positive reforms at the same time.

In my short time in the ministry of justice I ran a few heretical ideas up the flagpole, and it is nice to see some of them fluttering away proudly. From my lofty position within criminal justice strategy I had the luxury of not having to actually deliver anything, but equally I had the benefit of being able to roam across the system and look at the hard numbers and the operational approach.

The departmental budget was a mess, and there was no sophisticated plan to deal with the problem, with senior officials putting all of their eggs in to the basket of “reducing prison numbers” and “cutting legal aid”. When Ken Clarke was appointed as secretary of state one director general in my near view literally leapt up and whooped, punching the air. Said official had palpable relief borne out of the belief that, with Ken, they could roll through their unsophisticated plans for cuts. They had to, as there were no other plans.

Unfortunately letting prisoners out was never going to be politically acceptable and slashing legal aid, as we have seen, is a crude and unjust way of getting the budget numbers in order. Ken Clarke may have been a big beast of old but slept through his time in MoJ without any obvious interest in tackling the questions of reform that were necessary. The reforming zeal on which he built his reputation in the 80s and 90s was not in evidence.

MoJ required a wholesale transformation of its operations to release value and improve the system. I think Grayling has got to this conclusion very quickly.  Policy Exchange has also proposed some sensible measures in its Future Prisons report. Labour should take these proposals seriously and lend its political support to a long overdue overhaul and reform of the ministry’s operations.

Firstly, and importantly, large amounts of value in the department are tied up in assets that are in prime locations. Stand on Southwark bridge and look longingly down the beautiful view of the Thames. On the right bank, within plain sight will be the crude, ugly brick building of Southwark crown court. Look upstream and you will see the unedifying sight of city of lLndon’s coroners court.

The beautiful view these buildings command is rather irrelevant, as courts tend to not have many windows, but the sites they are on are of enormous value. The economist in me would place a proper charge on the court estate for the opportunity cost of the land, but the public policy response is obvious – HM courts and tribunals service should be undertaking a thorough survey of the value of its estate and working out how it can sell buildings such as these and move into new, purpose built buildings in cheaper parts of town.

The problem is not just of place, it is also of size. Magistrates and Judges still enjoy sitting in big air filled rooms to reflect the grandeur of their role and to project the right amount of power to create fear in the accused. In reality, most of the space is dead space. Increasingly hearings will not need vast rooms as they will be done via virtual courts. Magistrates should be sitting in their own houses with a video link and quickly processing the long list of initial hearings that suspects arrested at the weekend currently hang around until Monday waiting for. It will be better for the accused with quicker access to justice and reduced number of people spending time behind bars, for pressure on police cells and for the taxpayer, as it will all be cheaper.

On the prisons side of the estate buildings that sit comfortably taking up vast amounts of prime real estate. Not only that, but they are woefully inadequate for the purposes that they are put to. The prison service has to cram people into buildings that are centuries old, without adequate space for work, education and exercise. Many of the buildings are incredibly difficult for prison officers to work in safely and effectively, with prisons such as Holloway requiring a large number of staff to monitor winding corridors and dangerous blind corners.

Modern prisons are more efficient, bigger, and cheaper to run and manage and offer much more humane conditions for prisoners. They are also better for fulfilling the objectives of ensuring prisoners work and undertake education as part of their sentence and rehabilitation. A prison such as Bronzefield has incredible, modern facilities for the management of offenders and costs roughly half as much per prisoner as Holloway.

Wandsworth prison is a prime example of the problem of historical positioning, sitting on some of the most expensive land in the UK. My proposal in MoJ was simple: sell Wandsworth to developers, but hand over the estate only in return for a modern, purpose built facility housing more prisoners built within the M25 area. When the new facility is built, the developers will get control of the land. Add to that Pentonville, Holloway, Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs and you have a plan for the London prison estate that releases value and improves efficiency.

The final idea I pushed was about rehabilitation of offenders and the importance of post-release. The prison estate, for the reasons outlined above, was a hotchpotch of buildings across the country and prisoners were shipped around the country and put in available space wherever it could be found in a system fit to burst. There are many problems in this, but particularly with resettlement and release. Prisoners released hundreds of miles away from where they are going to live cannot easily be helped pre-release with finding accommodation and work or post-release, where they are no longer linked to the people and services that they had interacted with in prison.

My view in MoJ was that in the long term the prison estate should be re-configured so that wherever a prisoner served the majority of their sentence, every prisoner should spend the last 6 months in the prison nearest to where they intended to settle post-release. This would allow continuity pre and post-release and less likelihood that the individual is lost to support as they start to try and rebuild their lives. My guess was this would take about 10 years given how the prison estate was run.  Last week Chris Grayling came up with an improvement on this idea – that there would be a network of 70 resettlement prisons to do exactly this. Labour should welcome it heartily.

Chris Grayling is effectively getting to grips with the operations of the ministry of justice. When he was appointed he asked the right questions about the costs in the system, about the courts and prisons estate and how savings could be made. However, these are savings which, I believe, will also be of long term benefit in improving the justice system and of managing down re-offending rates. These are exactly the kind of savings Labour should be supporting.

Ian Moss has worked across government and is now in public affairs

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6 Responses to “Labour should support the government’s ministry of justice reforms”

  1. Felix says:

    Ian Moss is also a personal friend of Chris Grayling, but we won’t put that bit in the bio

  2. McCurry says:

    I understand the first point, that Southwark is on prime real estate, but the resettlement idea seems faulty. Are you suggesting that prisoners should not have a relationship with family members for the other 5 years or so of their sentence? That in the last 6 months only, relationships matter?
    This government cancelled Labour prison building program now they are trying to bring it back under the guise of “Labour did nothing” which is complete rubbish.

    This is an idea plucked out of the air with no consultation by a government who have suddenly realised they have no agenda post cuts.

    Tell us what your plan is for convicts to see their children growing up, Mr Moss. Or is family something that only exists in the last 6 months of the sentence?

  3. McCurry says:

    By the way, how much would you get for The Old Bailey?

  4. LesAbbey says:

    You can only sell the property once. It’s a short term benefit and surely the Thatcher years have taught us to be just a little cautious. Anyway good to see Uncut showing its true colours. Seems to be a week for everyone to do it.

  5. John P Reid says:

    i agree with mcmurry

  6. Rob Allen says:

    “A prison such as Bronzefield has incredible, modern facilities for the management of offenders and costs roughly half as much per prisoner as Holloway.”
    According to MOJ , cost per place at Bronzefield is £53,000 and Holloway £33,000.
    Looks like a lot of profit…

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