Truss before the Justice Committee: three lessons

8 Sep 2016

Nina Champion, Head of Policy, PET

1. A pause, not a U-turn, on prison reform 

Media reports following Liz Truss' first Justice Committee appearance suggested she was on the verge of abandoning the Prison Reform Bill promised in the last Queen’s speech. Committee chair Bob Neill himself raised concerns that Truss was “rowing back” on the reform agenda set in motion by her predecessor Michael Gove. But her words were more opaque than reports suggested. "What I'm not committing to is any specific pieces of legislation at this stage but I will be outlining my plans in due course," she said. The Ministry of Justice was quick to confirm that there would be prison reform and legislation in the future, indicating that it is a ‘pause’ rather than a 'U-turn’ on Truss’s part.

Although the delay to the prisons bill is frustrating to the many organisations who celebrated its announcement, it is understandable that the new Justice Secretary wants to take her time. Many argued that Chris Grayling’s probation reform ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ was executed too quickly and as a result suffered from numerous ‘teething problems’. A major shake up of prisons, although desperately needed, needs to be done correctly. Truss said that while Gove was specifically focused on reform prisons, which she called an "excellent idea”, she also plans to look at the “overall system”. Taking time to reflect on how to join up the numerous ongoing reforms is sensible. In the meantime, the reform prison pilot is underway and is being evaluated, so lessons can be learned before a wider roll out.

Truss says she currently lacks “a delivery plan” for prison reform, and will now take time to develop one. We hope that this plan is not thought up in a vacuum, but that she uses this opportunity to consult with as many stakeholders and experts as she can. Indeed, we were heartened to hear yesterday that she was “open to looking outside” for expertise, including to the voluntary sector.

Next week, current challenges and opportunities in prison education will be under discussion at the annual Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) conference. Over 150 teachers, education managers, officers, careers advisers, librarians, voluntary sector practitioners and former prisoner learners will be consulted with, and we look forward to meeting with new Secretary of State at her earliest convenience to share their views and ideas.

2. News on the Taylor Review 

Liz Truss confirmed that Charlie Taylor’s review into the Youth Justice System would be ‘responded to’ in the autumn. Taylor had been due to publish his final report in the summer, but it had not appeared in time before the EU referendum purdah period.

In February, Taylor’s interim report was widely welcomed by the sector as heralding a radically different approach to young people in the criminal justice system. Taylor set a vison of locally-based ‘secure schools’ based on therapeutic support and aspirational education. 

Next week PET will launch a report on education for young people and young adults in custody, which calls on the government to move forward with Charlie Taylor’s reform ideas, and suggests that education in the young people’s estate should be more focused on effective engagement and individual progression. Truss said yesterday that she wanted prisons to be places of “purpose and progress”. We hope this extends to the youth estate too.

3. Coates gets the go ahead

Many in the prison reform sector breathed a sigh of relief when the Dame Sally Coates’ final report was not only published but accepted in full by the government on the same day. A change of Justice Secretary has caused some uncertainty about the future of the reforms, so Truss’s commitment to making Coates a key part of her prison reform agenda is cause for celebration.

Truss yesterday applauded the English and Maths lessons she had observed at HMP Norwich, and made other reference to the importance of prisoners being taught basic skills. But while basic skills are essential, Coates also emphasised the importance of access to higher level learning. “Education,” Dame Sally said in her report “should be aspirational. It must offer a learning journey that is truly transformational and enables progression to higher levels.” At Prisoners’ Education Trust we fund over 2000 prisoners a year to study at higher levels through distance learning courses. Further and Higher Education can increase career prospects and earning potential on release. We hope therefore that Truss’s “progress” includes educational progression beyond functional skills.

Moving forward

Judging by headlines alone, prison reform was in jeopardy after Truss’ Justice Committee appearance yesterday. But although Truss was resistant to laying down concrete plans, she was adamant that reform was essential, positioning it as her top priority as Justice Secretary and that is to be warmly welcomed. Although the delay to legislation may be frustrating, we may be encouraged that she is taking time to understand her mandate and think through this major reform carefully. While she does this, PET hopes she will make use of the passion and expertise of the criminal justice sector, to support her in making prisons the places of purpose and progress they ought to be.

The challenges and opportunities of the Coates and Taylor reviews will be under discussion at the PLA conference next week. Over 150 teachers, managers, officers, careers advisers, librarians, voluntary sector practitioners and former prisoner learners will be consulted with. You can follow the day’s events on Twitter #PLAConf16.

PET’s report ‘Great Expectations: Towards better learning outcomes for young people and young adults in custody’, will be launched at a UK-Policy Forum event on Young People and the Justice System on Tuesday 13th September. You can follow the launch on Twitter #GreatExpectationsYP