There was optimism among LibDem members and prison reformers that a once in a generation opportunity to reform the criminal justice system could be seized – though the challenge of winning a public argument for reducing the use of prison was acknowledged to be a potentially daunting obstacle.
Home Office Minister Lord McNally described himself as “the luckiest of the 23 LibDem ministers in government” because he had gone into the Ministry of Justice at the time when there is “the perfect combination of a genuinely small l liberal Justice Secretary [Ken Clarke] and when there is, as Liam Byrne set out, no money left”.
“That has meant that that part of the Coalition that would have seen part of the solution as building more prisons have had to face up to that reality of budgetary constraint”, said McNally, who also spoke about his happiness at speaking at a Fabian event, having began his long political odyssey as Assistant General Secretary for the Fabians in the 1960s.
McNally joked that he told Ken Clarke that the prisons agenda was rated by The Guardian as the area of most LibDem influence in the government to date - and that some partisan LibDem attacks on the Justice Secretary might help with handling reaction on the right, but none were forthcoming at a fringe which was very positive about the government's early moves towards rethinking criminal justice and the use of prisons.
This opening fringe of the LibDem 2010 conference was the first of a series of prison reform fringe events at all three party conferences, examining the potential for building a broad consensus on prison reform. The events are co-hosted by the Prison Reform Trust, the Fabian Society, CentreForum, Policy Exchange and the Criminal Justice Alliance, to examine the challenges on the left, right and centre of politics, and in winning a broader public argument for change.
McNally, who spoke of beginning his long political odyssey as Assistant General Secretary of the Fabian Society, warned the fringe meeting that it was necessary to win public argument: “But there is also the sober reminder that we have to win public opinion on this … We have to convince the public that the revolving door of prison is, by any stretch of the imagination, silly: it is costly and it doesn’t work”, said McNally.
McNally was responding to Ben Page of IPSOS-MORI who had begun the fringe meeting by setting out some formidable challenges for reformers arising from public attitudes.
“The public persistently argue that prison sentences are too lenient. Comparatively, the British public are keener on prison than in most other countries.
Most people don’t believe that prison works: prison comes very low on the list of things that the public believe will reduce crime, with better parenting always coming top. More things for young people to do was always very popular.
”The public want to see punishment – and those in favour of other forms of punishment have failed to convince them that it is the same as being locked up”, he said.
But there were some tensions in public attitudes. Both the public and offenders say helping people get jobs is the most important way to reduce reoffending. But when asked what should be cut because of budgetary constraints, prisoner education comes top.
Jon Collins of the Criminal Justice Alliance said that there was perhaps the greatest opportunity for twenty years for a significant shift on criminal justice system which he described as “overcrowded, bloated and ineffective”, but only if the response to fiscal pressures was combined
“Unlike a lot of other areas in public services, cuts in the criminal justice system could be a positive thing, leading to a smaller criminal justice system and fewer people in prison”.
We can’t get away with cutting a few things out of the current prison system as it is. Cutting a few million pound We need to look fundamentally at what the prison system is for, and what it can and can’t do.
“We need to stop using prison as a social dustbin for people who are not being picked up by health and social services – and who end up in prison, which is the worst place to deal with them”, said Collins.
Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust said that public spending cuts would often be regressive, but were an opportunity in prison reform.
“We can rely on the economics to say if it costs £170,000 to build and maintain an extra prison case, then we can’t afford it, and I’m very glad that we can’t afford the over-use of prison”, said Lyon, stressing its long-term impact on the life chances of ex-prisoners.
Lyon said fewer people in prison would be a good thing in itself – getting rid of the over-use of remand, and excessive and inappropriate use of indefinite sentences and short sentences. But she emphasised too the importance of “justice reinvestment” in ensuring that alternative approaches were in place, noting the success of restorative justice in Northern Ireland, where using this to deal with youth justice had both reduced youth crime and achieved a 90% victim satisfaction rate.
Dr Mary Harris of National Gride spoke of the successful experience of the company in rehabilitation with ex-offenders.
Contributions from the fringe floor stressed the importance of ensuring funding cuts did not remove the capacity to provide the support needed – in probation, education and employment – and particularly the importance of greater local participation and ownership of alternative approaches if populist public and media pressure to reform was to be successfully overcome.