Queens Speech: Bishop of Gloucester speaks on criminal justice

On 12th May 2022, the House of Lords debated the Queen’s speech. The Bishop of Gloucester spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Gloucester: My Lords, it is wonderful to be speaking in this debate on Her Majesty’s gracious Speech. It is always a privilege to listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who is a very hard act to follow. I refer to my interest stated in the register as Anglican bishop of prisons.

As has been said, we know that people are increasingly experiencing hardship in our current climate. In the gracious Speech there was an emphasis on so-called levelling up and tackling disadvantage, whether rooted in education, health, a lack of appropriate housing or low income. Often those issues intersect.

In Old Testament scripture, in the book of the prophet Amos, we have the words “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. I want to begin with justice, because layers of disadvantage are reflected in every aspect of our criminal justice system. In speaking of the criminal justice system, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, who I greatly appreciated interacting with in his role as a Minister in your Lordships’ House.

I was perturbed that in relation to criminal justice the gracious Speech referred only to keeping the streets safe. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to pay good attention to preventive and rehabilitative measures rather than simply creating more prison places. We are failing both victims and perpetrators of crime, and indeed society itself. I wonder what happened to the plans for a desperately needed royal commission on criminal justice. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act is not “job done”.

The UK’s current prison population is already the largest in western Europe and it just does not square with the aspiration of making our communities safer. I wonder if we know the statistic for those in prison who do not pose a major threat to public safety on the streets. Undoubtedly, many people who will occupy new prison places are those who are caught downstream because we have not looked upstream. So, I am encouraged to hear of an ambition for children with regard to schools and education, yet we must not forget the critical role of early years in order to keep a focus on giving children the best start in life for emotional and social development. This is upstream from the criminal justice system, and it includes appropriate support for parents and carers.

In light of that, unsurprisingly, I will continue to say that sending to prison mothers whose non-violent offending is rooted in multiple disadvantages is failing communities and haemorrhaging money, with at least 500 new prison places for women, if they are planned to be additional. That now rather jaded female offender strategy could still do much good to prevent women entering the criminal justice system, yet it is stuck.

The recent Public Accounts Committee recent report has revealed the gaps in governance and funding. Where is intervention reflected in the Government’s plans? Upstream of men, women and children in custody, there is often a story of being impacted by the criminal justice system, of repeated family history and trauma. Perpetrators of crime are often victims of crime themselves who have experienced multiple disadvantages. Here we see the effects of the failure to level up.

I was encouraged to see in last year’s prisons White Paper a recognition that families and good relationships are important aspects of rehabilitation and contribute to reducing reoffending. Where is the join-up with the context of the gracious Speech? I am pleased to hear that the provision of better-quality, safer homes is to be a focus for the Government. We know that the lack of appropriate housing is a driver for reoffending, and that female prison leavers face particular challenges. The reports and solutions are there; they just need willingness and drive for their implementation.

All of this is not simply about money. It is about how policies and structures enable strong human relationships. Connected and resilient communities in which people can build trust and fulfil their potential begin with relationships. Incidentally, that is usually at the heart of civil society, including the active involvement of churches and faith communities. Civil society needs to be integral to decision-making, government partnership and delivery.

Speaking of relationship and community, there is much that can be done in policy and legislation to enable people to inhabit healthier and safer views of themselves and neighbours. At this point, I will briefly say that I am pleased to see the inclusion of a modern slavery Bill. Assisting people in inhabiting healthier and safer views of themselves and others is particularly pertinent to the online safety Bill. Upstream from many mental health issues and eating disorders experienced by adolescents and adults is undue pressure online and in social media. User control of algorithms, minimum age limits on editing apps and tackling altered images in advertising would go a long way towards addressing body-image anxiety, and I hope that will be considered in the online safety Bill as well as regulation of those horrific suicide forums.

A levelling-up process must look upstream from the issues that we wish to address and the measures that could be taken now to prevent the problems downstream and to enable the flourishing of individuals, families and communities. I look forward to listening to the rest of this debate.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Dholakia (LD): My Lords, the Government have pronounced that they will level up opportunities in all parts of the country. The need is most obvious in the criminal justice system yet the provisions for reforms are very scarce. Where is the provision for crime prevention and schemes for diverting as many young offenders and others from the prison system? It is not being soft, but we have to accept the low level of realistic contribution which the courts and prisons can make in reducing crime.

I draw attention once again to this country’s overuse of imprisonment, as was so ably done by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester. The prison population of England and Wales currently stands at nearly 80,000. It is projected to increase to over 98,000 in 2026. We have 132 people in prison for every 100,000 people in our general population, compared with 100 in France and 70 in Germany, two of our closest European neighbours. The British people are not twice as criminal as the German people, yet our sentencing is twice as punitive.

Lord Farmer (Con): Turning to justice and home affairs, I very much applaud the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, who talked about prevention upstream and downstream. Numbers of victims will continue to increase and streets will not be safer unless crime is prevented, including by improving rehabilitation. Considerable attention is paid to the plight of women in the criminal justice system. My review pointed to the abuse and violence many have suffered as potent criminogenic factors. A similar narrative would fit the reality of many men and boys in trouble with the law, but no one is articulating it. There are roughly 77,000 men and 3,800 women in prison—a stark difference. Yet, given our swollen male prisons, this is an area where significant changes are needed.

Lord Woolf (CB): My Lords, I am the latest in what I will call the pack of former senior judges who have addressed this debate. I do not propose to do more than to indicate that I agree with everything that they said. On those subjects, I have nothing to usefully add.

However, I feel that I should also mention just one or two of the other speakers who are not members of the pack, but who have also made contributions. I specifically endorse what was so ably said by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester about a subject very close to my heart: overindulgence in the use of prisons. On that subject, we also heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and I particularly thank him for what he had to say throughout his period as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons. Ever since, he has been magnificent in the way he has fought for a very important cause.

Baroness Thornton (Lab): Let us look at women in prison. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, who spoke about the imprisonment of women with children for non-violent offences, was absolutely correct to say that it is costly, counterproductive and cruel to them and their families. The Ministry of Justice’s 2018 Female Offender Strategy has been critiqued by the National Audit Office, and more recently the Public Accounts Committee, for its lack of value for money, lack of effectiveness and lack of durable change. Given the shortfalls of implementation to date, what steps will the MoJ take to respond to ensure that its strategy is successful in meeting its aims in the future?

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons yesterday published a report on HMP Bronzefield, Europe’s largest female prison, finding that 65% of inmates released from there did not have sustainable accommodation when they were released, thereby increasing the likelihood that they would end up back in prison.

Black, Asian and other ethnic minority young women face greater barriers in accessing safety and support, and overlapping forms of stigma and discrimination put them at greater risk of criminalisation. Can the Minister say when Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service will release its new young women’s strategy, and what resources will be dedicated to its implementation and delivery? What steps will the Government take to reduce the risk of increasing levels of racial inequality and disproportionality in future, as part of their current and future legislative programme?

Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State – Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport): The European Convention on Human Rights was mentioned by a great number of noble Lords in their contributions on the Bill of Rights. I echo the plaudits of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester and others for my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, who showed again with his contribution today his great sense, shrewdness and good humour— things which will be very much missed on the Government Front Bench, but we are very glad to have his continued participation today. He was absolutely right to point out that human rights did not begin in 1998, that the United Kingdom will remain a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights—which was signed and ratified by a Conservative Government—and that convention rights will remain enforceable in our courts.

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