Is Cameron sincere on prison reform?

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Sometimes the news is massaged like a big, wet lump of clay. So it is this morning with a series of government-issue reports of a speech David Cameron will give today about prisons.

The Daily Mail takes one aspect of the proposals in order to lay down a typically robust headline – “LOCK UP PRISONERS JUST FOR WEEKEND” – above a report suggesting that prisoners near to the end of their sentence would only be behind bars at the weekend.

The Independent goes for a more nuanced approach – “Treat prisoners as assets not liabilities – PM” and its report says Cameron now believes prison reform must be the “great progressive cause” of British politics.

The Guardian, meanwhile, goes with: “Cameron to give more power to governors in prisons shakeup”, and reports that the prime minister will introduce prison league tables and improve education in prisons.

Such league tables already exist for schools, but it seems unlikely that the effects will be quite the same, with parents of prisoners lobbying for them to be sent to one jail rather than another, but you never know.

On one level, what the prime minister plans to say today is encouraging – a lot more encouraging than his previous Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, who was by most accounts a disaster in the job, antagonising everyone inside and outside of prisons.

Michael Gove took a similarly combative approach to education, annoying the hell out of teachers, but since succeeding Grayling he has shown a more intelligent approach in his new brief. He has also spent much of his time clearing up the mess left by Grayling’s belligerent blundering.

David Cameron likes a big speech full of sweeping statements. Today he will say that the “failure of our system today is scandalous”, adding: “Forty-six per cent of all prisoners will reoffend within a year of release; 60% of short-sentenced prisoners will reoffend within the same period. And current levels of prison violence, drug taking and self-harm should shame us all.”

He will also say that in “a typical week, there will be almost 600 incidents of self-harm; at least one suicide; and 350 assaults, including 90 on staff. This failure really matters.”

He will argue that reoffending costs the country up to £13bn a year but could be cut through education and rehabilitation. For too long, Cameron will say, governments have adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to prisons.

In another pre-announced section of his speech, he will add: “When I say we will tackle our deepest social problems and extend life chances, I want there to be no no-go areas.”

All of this is good. It is better to hear a prime minister talk about prisons rather than ignore them; better to hear a Tory prime minister attempt some intelligent compassion, rather than spluttering the old “lock ’em up and throw away the key” line generally favoured by his tribe.

It is more usual in the Conservative Party to hear the likes of Lord (Michael) Howard insisting that “prison works” – a view he repeated in December 2010 when Kenneth Clarke as Justice Secretary attempted to reform sentencing. Howard said Clarke’s plan to send fewer offenders to prison was “fatally flawed” and accused him of having an “aversion to imprisonment”.

Now David Cameron seems to believe that prison doesn’t work. He may well be right about that, but it is easy to see why voters sometimes end up confused. Here is a prime minister whose previous Justice Secretary antagonised everyone; a prime minister whose party usually favours locking up as many people as possible. And now he is saying what appear to be sensible, liberal-minded things about prisons (while overlooking the cuts he has made to the system, as is his way).

The catch with Cameron – the Cameron Catch, if you like – is whether anything substantive will follow the fine words. A cynic passing by, or indeed sitting on a ledge, might pause to wonder this: when David Cameron makes a speech, it’s almost as he silently goes “Ah, job done”, forgetting that the real work hasn’t even begun.


  1. Another very thoughtful blog, Julian. Wonder if David Cameron will mention that the “weekend prison” was included in a law brought in under the last Labour govt, but shelved for practical (and financial reasons)? Also when the Conservatives say ” we are giving local individuals (headteachers/prison governors/councils) more control over spending” they often mean “we’re cutting the money and putting responsibility for cutting the services on someone else”.

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