Disarray in the justice system is less visible than in other areas – which is why it is so important we do not let the Tories sweep the problems under the carpet, argues Chris Evans MP
Every day there seems to be another crisis in our prisons. Stretched to breaking point, staff numbers have plummeted. A low staff to prisoner ratio means that inmates’ needs cannot be fully addressed, resulting in an increase of problematic behaviour within prisons, as well as high reoffending rates. Our criminal justice system is crying out for reform.
Despite being in desperate need of a period of stability, the Conservative government’s response has been woeful. In light of the latest cabinet reshuffle, it is clear that the Tories still wish to kick justice around like a political football.
Between 2010 and the most recent cabinet reshuffle, we have seen six different people appointed as secretary of state for justice, making the ministry of justice the department with most ministerial changes under the Tories. And with David Gauke the fourth person to be appointed to the role in under 18 months, this lack of consistency begs the question: do the Conservatives really care about our justice system?
Departmental budgets are being cut year on year, and we can see the evidence of our failing justice system in our prisons. As of September 2017, there were 19,210 prison officers in post – a drop of 5,620 since 2010. These cuts to staff numbers are having a deeply adverse effect on our prison system, with an increase in the rates of drug use, violence, self-harm, suicide and reoffending. The staff in these roles are excellent at what they do, yet the government continue to take them for granted and barely equip them for the job at hand.
At the same time, the Tories have shown little regard for prisoners’ mental health. A 2017 National Audit Office report found that over 31,000 prisoners reported experiencing mental health or well-being issues. I am a member of the public accounts committee, and last year we held an inquiry into the state of mental health provisions in prisons. It concluded that a deteriorating prison estate has created an environment which exacerbates mental health issues for prisoners. Reduced staff numbers means that the workforce is spread thinly across the prison, and officers are less able to monitor inmates who may be vulnerable.
Prison staff and inmates require more support from the government, and need a justice minister who can commit to the role for more than a year. The longest serving justice secretaries since 2010 have been Kenneth Clarke and Chris Grayling, who both served over two years in the role. Since Michael Gove’s tenure came to an end when Theresa May took office, the ministry of justice has seen a string of ministers – both senior and junior – enter the revolving door in and out of the department. Such an inconsistent and unstable approach is having a visibly detrimental effect on our criminal justice system, with an increase in the prison population, and a decrease in prisoner rehabilitation.
Our prisons are in a state of crisis as a direct result of a careless, disorganised government. As the justice system is not as visible as some others, the Tory party has been able to sweep it under the carpet. The ministry of justice needs reform, and stable, consistent leadership – something which will not happen as long as the Conservatives are in power.
Chris Evans is the member of parliament for Islwyn. He tweets @ChrisEvansMP