Queen’s Speech: Bishop of Rochester welcomes prison reform plans

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As for language, the Secretary of State is fond of quoting a Mr Osborne—perhaps not that Mr Osborne, because they seem to be on opposite sides of various debates, but the words of a Mr Osborne who, in 1914, was the warden of Sing Sing prison in New York. He is quoted as expressing his aspiration to turn it from a scrapheap to a repair shop. That quotation carries quite a lot, but in rather different language, the Roman Catholic Church in this country said something similar in a document in 2004 when it spoke of prisons having the potential to be places of redemption. Speaking from these Benches, I find it interesting that the Secretary of State uses quite freely what we would recognise as theological language of redemption and restoration when expressing his aspirations for what will happen in prisons. If he is serious about that, and about redemption and restoration being at the heart of the prison system, my interest is certainly piqued and my support is lurking there waiting to be given.

Indeed, along with this proposed Bill and the conversation around that, there is the review of Dame Sally Coates, which has already been referred to by a number of noble Lords, the recent work of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for the Prison Reform Trust charting that all-too-frequent pathway from being brought up in care into criminality, and the forthcoming Taylor review, which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to and which will be another important contribution. The coming together of all these things just leads me to dare for a moment to hope that something innovative could happen. Clearly we know about all the issues which might prevent that—not least overcrowding, staffing ratios and suchlike. We would not want those to frustrate the ambition which clearly exists and which we just might be able to see, as it were, as a wave that we could ride together. I certainly look forward to being part of the continuing debate.

I will comment on just a couple of the specifics

. The six reform prisons sound very interesting, and it is good that included within the batch of six are not only some of what might be regarded as low-hanging fruit but Wandsworth, which is a challenging local prison. To have credibility, the programme needs to be able to bring about change in such places. Alongside that, there are the proposals for greater autonomy, and with it accountability, for prison governors. There is much to welcome here. Reference has already been made to HMP Parc and the innovative families work there, where a prison director has been able and free to take initiatives. HMP Onley might be another example from within the public sector estate, in relation to its work with employers to provide innovative schemes for employment and skills and the guarantee for some prisoners of a job when they come out of that prison having gained their qualifications. If those are the kinds of things that more independent governors will be able to initiate, there is lots to look forward to.

However, there are some questions, for example about the supply of suitable high-quality governors to cover the whole estate. There is also a question around consistency between prisons and even within them when governors change. There is of course a fair turnover of governors at the moment; they do not stay very long. Perhaps there needs to be some incentive or means to enable governors to stay for a longer period of time in order to embed the initiatives which they may be free to undertake.

Other noble Lords have touched on safety and on the challenges posed by prison numbers to prison safety. Safety in prison is vital if we are to have good education and rehabilitation within prisons, but it also works the other way round: good education and rehabilitation contribute to safety. If prisoners are engaged in meaningful activity, if they have an investment in their future through the training and suchlike that they are receiving, that contributes to a calming of the atmosphere in prisons.

I could mention attention to mental health, which is welcomed. I urge the Government to look at faith education, because it is such an important issue in prisons, and echo other noble Lords in hoping that the Bill may bring to an end the current situation with IPP sentences, which is an unfortunate hangover from a change that was not fully taken through. If all those things, together with intermediate custody proposals and release on temporary licence, can be encouraged, we may just have one of those moments we can be proud of.