Crispin Blunt said that he was delighted to have the role at a time when “we have moved away from the question of who can ‘out tough’ who on crime” to have a debate driven by evidence. The government's shift of direction on crime and prison policy has been seen as one of the most significant policies of the new Coalition government. The new Labour leader Ed Miliband's willingness to offer bipartisan support in principle of reform has strengthened hopes for a significant shift in both policy and the centre of political gravity.
The prisons minister was speaking at a Birmingham Conservative conference fringe co-hosted by the Prison Reform Trust, Policy Exchange, Fabian Society, CentreForum and the Criminal Justice Alliance, to conclude a high-profile fringe series of events held by a wide coalition of organisations across each of the three major party conferences at this crucial moment in the prison reform debate. (Read Next Left's account of the LibDem prison reform fringe and the Guardian's report of the Labour debate).
Yet the Conservative fringe event also demonstrated that there is little agreement yet about how to judge the success of a prison reform agenda during this Parliament.
"Are there too many people in prison? I hardly think 85000 people in prison is a great statement about the United Kingdom", Blunt told the meeting.
Policy Exchange Director Neil O’Brien, chairing the event, challenged the Mimister as to whether that entailed the idea that prison numbers ought to have fallen considerably in five years time, or otherwise that would be a policy failure and indictment of this government. Yet Blunt argued that standing still on prison numbers would count as a ‘remarkable success’:
“Yes - it would be if we were not inheriting a rising trend. So if all of our policies manage to keep it at the level it is now, that would be quite a remarkable success. We are talking about managing trends”, he said.
Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust felt that this lacked ambition. She noted that former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf had talked of an unavoidable minimum prison population of around 42,000 - 43,000 which had been the level in 1990, and suggested that moving decisively in that direction was necessary for a "more balanced" approach.
Blunt's remarks clearly reflected a concern that - though there has been a significant shift in the government’s language and underlying strategy - that this might have been misunderstood or overstated in political and media debate. He stressed that the government was being evidence-based and pragmatic rather than taking any ideological view, choosing to cast what has been characterised as a liberal shift in policy as a “traditional, pragmatic Conservative approach”, perhaps naturally while talking to a fringe debate at his own party conference.
“There is a ludicrous idea that, because Ken Clarke makes a remark that the prison population is doubled, there is an idea that ergo he is going to let half of the prisoners out.
No. There is a basic duty of government to protect the public by imprisoning those sentenced for incarceration by the courts. We don’t control who is sentenced or, in the end, the crime rate. There will be all sorts of factors outside the control of government. Many of them will be international.
Blunt did argue that short-term prison sentences made little sense.
"The evidence is that short periods in prison do not work very well. There is not enough time to do any proper rehabilitation work. If somebody goes into prison with a family, a job and a home, they are quite likely to lose those things in short prison sentence. If they did not have a drug habit when they went in, they might have one when they get out ... Far too many people who are addicted to drugs and have mental health problems are in our prisons. We have to decide whether prison is the right place for them to receive treatment.
The forthcoming Green Paper would seek to offer magistrates alternative sentences which the minister felt they would find attractive and usable, he said.
Telegraph home affairs editor Phillip Johnston said that there were a number of prevalent myths in the prison debate. He was sceptical of the idea that magistrates used short prison sentences for trivial offences: “a lot of people who come before the courts and go to prison have been before the court many times”.
While it was true to say that the UK had the highest prison population - per head of population - of any western European country except Spain, Johnston said this reflected higher crime rather than a greater use of prison. There were fewer people imprisoned per offence in Britain than in other west European countries. He cited the example of 880,000 break-ins in a year, leading to 26,000 convictions yet 13,000 people being jailed. There had been a much higher incarceration rate (with lower crime) in the 1950s he said: there would now be 290,000 prisoners if prison was being used as often for those convicted as in the 1950s, said Johnston.
Juliet Lyon stressed the importance of prison reformers wanting "to get it right for victims" and offenders, to get the reoffending rate down, suggesting that alternatives such as restorative justice could help to overturn a caricature of the reformers' argument.
We need to ask "what’s effective and what’s appropriate: who are the serious offenders who need to be behind bars, and what needs to happen when they are there. How do we ensure that those who go into prison have to take some responsibility for their own lives?", she asked, noting that this was impossible given current levels of overcrowding. "What are the alternatives and how can we make sure that they work?"
For Blunt, the long-term solution was investment in early intervention. The challenge was to find creative ways to pursue several necessary strategies simultaneously, under severe fiscal pressure. There was no 'magic pot' to fund necessary provision.
"We have to break this cycle. We have to create this investment now. We have to carry on with our responsibilities the current system, and put in place effective alternatives. And we have to do it when the government has run out of money", he said.
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the prison officers association, speaking from the fringe floor said that prisons couldn't do what they were meant to while accomodating the current prison population, but also warned that a cuts-driven reform agenda could make things worse.
“We have been talking about the same things for twenty years. There are a few issues – drug abuse, alcohol abuse, mental illness and social exclusion – which, unless we deal with them, we will go around in circles and we will never have a reoffending revolution. If it is solely to reduce costs, it is right to say that crime will rise. We need a decently funded prison service as well, to do the job the public expect us to do, which is to rehabilitate. We can’t do that at present with the level of cuts that are coming, and we can’t do that at present with the number of prisoners in the system.
Johnston noted that Ken Clarke had been Home Secretary at a time when crime was at a record high, and prison was relatively low. That correlation did not prove the causation between falling crime and rising prison numbers, but warned that a deficit-driven approach to cutting numbers would fail to secure public confidence if alternative approaches were not resourced:
"There was a political context to Michael Howard's 27 point plan on crime. Crime was at all-time record levels. The challenge for Ministers is if they are going to take decisions now which might see crime rising over the next two or three years. But of there are ways to cut the prison population and reduce crime, then everybody is going to say that is brilliant", he said.
"If the government is going to cut the number of people in prison purely for cost reasons, and does not put in place the alternatives which are expensive, then one thing seems certain: crime will go up", warned Johnston.
Blunt, responding, said that the government could meet this challenge of public confidence. John Major's "understand a little less and condemn a little more" statement may have been necessary and "acceptable leadership" at the time, but that two decades of increasingly tough politics of crime had now run their natural course.
Pursuing a different course meant being evidence-based and winning arguments for public confidence in alternative measures. "If we focus on the needs of victims in justice, and the idea of restoration, then we won't go far wrong", he said.