Why has the government junked the prison bit of the Prison and Courts Bill? There seem to be three main possibilities.
The first is that with big issues like the purpose of prisons and the role of the Secretary of State in running them due to be determined, ministers didn’t fancy depending on mavericks like Philip Davies MP let alone the DUP to get their way. The Tory party has always had its Michael Howards as well as Douglas Hurds and the risk of being held to ransom by hardliners – and having to rely on Labour votes to get their way- simply wasn’t worth the candle. Besides, the key to sorting out prisons-so this theory goes- doesn’t lie in a new legal frameworks but putting staff boots back on the ground as the new Justice Secretary told us in his open letter today.
Theory two is that when Theresa May and her people asked what was in the bill, they were told that inspectors would get greater powers and ministers would have to respond to their criticisms. To which came the reply why on earth are we making another rod for our own backs? More transparency and accountability are the last thing we need just now.
Option three is that Mrs May is simply no prison reformer or at least not in the grandiose Cameron/Gove mould which gave shape to the thinking behind the Bill. She may be an instinctive hardliner herself but her record on social issues defies that simple characterisation. More likely in her weakened state she has realised that as far as the public is concerned, there are no, or few votes in prisons. With crime rising once again and what maybe a growing threat and reality of terrorist violence, reform and rehabilitation of prisoners is unlikely to help her government’s popularity in the country.
Whatever the reason- and it may be a bit of all three- within 18 months prison reform has been marched to the top of the hill and back down again. Mr Lidington’s letter promises that the work of making prisons places of safety and rehabilitation goes on. Maybe that is better done away from parliamentary and public gaze. But it feels, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons has said, a missed opportunity.