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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Does Michael Gove want his job back?

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Former Justice Secretary Michael Gove recommends the release of all IPP prisoners in this year's Longford lecture. But why wait till he was a backbencher?

Longford Lecture

Michael Gove, the previous Justice Secretary — until his brief attempt to become Prime Minister in July — set out the government’s ambition to reform the prison system. Although he only presided over the Ministry of Justice for 14 months, Mr Gove still clearly maintains a keen interest in justice issues; he is currently chairing a programme to end the criminalisation of children in residential care for the Howard League and on Wednesday (16 November 2016) he gave the annual Longford lecture entitled “What is Really Criminal about our Justice System?”

Expected themes

He made many of the key points which gave many prison reformers hope (if not full confidence) that things were about to change for the better as some of the quotes below demonstrate:

He emphasises the moral and ethical purpose of reform:

So many of those in prison are damaged individuals, victims themselves; we should be careful about the moral judgements we make about them.

He espoused devolution of prison autonomy akin to his reform of the education system:

We should want prisons to have principals running local colleges, business people hiring apprentices, employers recruiting new colleagues, social work leaders involved in the supervision of those in care and volunteers who want to make a difference all involved in setting goals and providing opportunities.

He championed problem-solving courts:

Many of those who find themselves in the criminal justice system have, as I have already noted, troubled upbringings, mental health problems and serial addictions. The answer to their offending behaviour is far more likely to come from the voluntary embrace of therapy and treatment than the enforced imposition of incarceration. That is why the idea of problem-solving courts – where the presiding judge takes a personal interest in the fate and future of the offender and is prepared to spare an individual from custody if they accept a course of treatment, submit to certain conditions or commit to particular conduct – is so promising.

Going further

However, some of his points were new and somewhat bolder than anything he announced while in office.

Reducing the need for prison

If we give local areas a specific police, crime and justice budget and allow them to divide it as appropriate between community policing, youth services, social work, youth offending teams, probation, community sentencing, courts and custody then we could see communities make mature decisions about spending more on effective crime prevention measures that would reduce the need for expensive provision of more and more prison places.

Reducing the prison population immediately

While in office, Mr Gove was very careful never to give the slightest hint that (as most believe) the only way to reform prisons is to substantially cut the number of prisoners (which has risen steadily over the last 25 years, despite crime rates heading steadily down). In the Longford lecture, he both admitted dodging this issue when Minister:

And it is an inconvenient truth – which I swerved to an extent while in office – that we send too many people to prison. And of those who deserve to be in custody, many, but certainly not all, are sent there for too long.

and made a concrete proposal to reduce the population with immediate effect by tackling the scandal of prisoners marooned in prison on Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPP):

I would recommend using the power of executive clemency for those 500 or so IPP prisoners who have been in jail for far longer than the tariff for their offence and have now – after multiple parole reviews – served even longer than the maximum determinate sentence for that index offence

While many, including me, see this as an excellent opportunity to kill two birds with one stone; it remains doubtful whether releasing IPP prisoners in this way is politically doable – particularly now that Mr Gove has been the first to suggest it publicly.

Does Michael Gove want his job back?

No-one could accuse Michael Gove of not understanding how politics works (his miscalculations this summer notwithstanding) and he clearly knew that this statement would put his successor Liz Truss on the spot. This was certainly the way the press interpreted it; here’s the Guardian headline as an example:

gove-longford

This has led to much speculation that Michael Gove would love to be back at 102 Petty France driving through “his” prison reforms and sitting around the cabinet table again. The speculators think that the criticism heaped on Liz Truss as being not up to the job (which started within hours of her appointment) make this surprising ambition not unachievable.

This “conspiracy theory” gains possible credence from Mr Gove’s behaviour on Twitter (he only took up tweeting just before his abandoned campaign to be PM) following Liz Truss’ delayed defence of the independence of the judiciary following the Article 50 Brexit judgement. Here are his tweets:

Conclusion

I’m certainly in no position to judge whether this is Mr Gove’s intention but two things seem apparent to me.

Firstly, Liz Truss is facing a huge challenge in restoring some level of order and safety to our prisons (having inherited a crisis that has been brewing since the first cuts to prison officers early in the previous parliament) and that Mr Gove is not making her life any easier.

Secondly, it seems that penal policy is getting more like drug policy; everyone knows what should be done but politicians are only prepared to talk about cutting the prison population in the same way that they are only prepared to talk about ending the war on drugs — when they are not in office.

 

You can see Michael Gove’s full Longford Lecture below:

 

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2 Responses

  1. Wouldn’t be the first time Gove stabbed a colleague from behind. I don’t have much faith in the current incumbent, but Gove gambled on seizing the moment post Brexit, and he lost the throw. Now that he is sizing up his chances of making it back to the front bench, one can only ponder on what his priorities in office would be.

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