Speech by Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan MP to the Howard League for Penal Reform ‘Community Sentences Cut Crime’ Conference
Wednesday 17 July 2013
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It is a pleasure to be here today with the Howard League. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Howard League for the work you do on penal reform. You don’t shy away from getting stuck into some really thorny issues. And while we might not always agree on everything your voice is a crucial one in what is often a very polarised debate
Today’s conference theme – or is it more of a statement? – “community sentences cut crime” – is fundamental to how we approach the punishment and reform of offenders. Because community sentences are an important tool with which our courts deal with those guilty of certain offences.
If I become Justice Secretary, raising our game when it comes to rehabilitating offenders will be a core priority, and making sure community sentences play their role in this will be crucial.
I have already committed the next Labour government to prioritise a reduction in re-offending. Already, I have announced that we’d look to extend the excellent work of the Youth Justice Board to those up to the age of 21. Introduce a Women’s Justice Board to emulate the YJB’s track record of reducing first time re-offending and manage the secure estate better. Charge a minister with specific responsibility for mental health within the criminal justice system. And place restorative justice at the heart of our work with victims and offenders.
All of which will be underpinned by evidence of what works to punish and reform offenders. Evidence-based policy making – married to Labour’s values – will be at the heart of what we do.
But I want to start today by being very clear about where I stand on prisons. There is a place for sending criminals to prison. For those found guilty of serious and violent offences, it is the only option.
Why is this so important? Because the public rightly want confidence that criminals are being properly punished and reformed. And keeping our communities safe is a priority, so locking up offenders is sometimes the only way of protecting them.
But that’s not to say it is right for all offenders. For those committing more minor offences, alternatives to prison are sometimes more appropriate, particularly for first time offences. Offering a short, sharp shock significant enough to scare offenders from committing any further or more serious crimes.
And done intensely, they can offer a serious punishment in their own right. Proving to be cost-effective – cheaper than prison, and better at reducing re-offending rates. That is being smart on crime.
But maintaining the public’s confidence in community sentencing is crucial. We can’t afford for the public to think they are a soft option and that criminals are getting off lightly. So it is incumbent on us to make sure they are an intense sentencing option. Full of purposeful activity and instilling a routine. With support to help address the factors that may have led to criminality in the first place. And effective sanctions in place for those who breach the conditions.
Recently, I witnessed this first hand. On a visit to Redcar in the North East I saw a scheme run by the Durham And Tees Valley Probation Trust in which community sentences were being used to clean war memorials, in conjunction with the Royal British Legion. But I’m unconvinced that this kind of work is happening as much it should be.
That’s why, under Labour, I want a new presumption that unpaid work will be carried out five days a week in full view of the community. Local communities and local authorities should be made aware of the benefits of the work carried out as part of community orders. And it should be publicised in the local media and through public notices displayed at sites where work has been undertaken. I believe that with this transparency the public will have even more confidence in community sentences, seeing firsthand what offenders are doing as part of those sentences.
But in prioritising reductions in reoffending we should also not be afraid to try out new ideas. If an approach is tried, is seen to work, and has been independently evaluated, we can spread the best practice, and be confident that it won’t put public safety at risk. It was the last Labour government that launched the pilot at Peterborough. And they also entrusted our probation trusts to try out new ways of dealing with young offenders, but in the community not in prison.
These intensive alternatives to custody, in which local trusts were allowed to tailor schemes to their local area, have thrown up some very interesting results. I saw first-hand the work done in Manchester – a bespoke premises, public private and voluntary agencies all working together. Free from interference by Whitehall, the Probation Trust could be innovative and bold.
And you know what? It reduced re-offending. And it saved taxpayers money.
But what’s happened to intensive alternatives to custody? They’ve been left to wither. Little political interest from ministers. Money was left to run out. Some trusts have managed to keep them going. But no concerted effort has been made to collate the findings and scale them up for others to learn from. This is a genuine shame.
And shows the utter disregard this Government has for evidence based policy making. After all, with Chris Grayling, the only evidence he needs on his policies is how many column inches they generate. So, if Labour form the next Government, I will commit to exploring the potential for rolling out nationally the findings of what works from the intensive alternatives to custody pilots.
Piloting and evaluating innovative ways of rehabilitating offenders is the right thing to do. It’s a pity Chris Grayling is seemingly so allergic to piloting. Look at his dismissal of the need to pilot his half-baked privatisation plans for probation. Putting the public’s safety at risk with his headlong rush to dangerously fragment our probation service and hand over supervision of serious and violent offenders to the likes of G4S, Serco and Sodexo. All untried and untested.
The Great Grayling Gamble with public safety. Aided and abetted by the usual suspects who, as we saw last week, are making it a bit of a regular habit in letting down the taxpayer.
I know that delegates today come from across the criminal justice landscape, including probation. Many of you are worried at this Government’s untried and untested gamble with our probation service, and how the fragmentation of the important joined-up work you do could put the public’s safety at risk.
I agree with your concerns and I hope you have seen the work we’ve done with the Offender Rehabilitation Bill to try to check the march to privatisation.
But I also know that the status quo is not an option. Re-offending rates are too high. And I want to see improvements in the way probation works, and in reductions in these re-offending rates.
But instead of carving up what you do, and handing over large chunks to the private sector, there is an alternative model.
I want to see strong, locally-run probation trusts that act as the ring master for all the work done to rehabilitate offenders.
Trusts should be given the freedom to innovate and should decide how to operate best, who to work with. But the trusts must crack the whip to make sure everyone delivers.
Trusts know their local area better than Whitehall bureaucrats. Experts at the coalface, working hand in hand with local police, courts, voluntary groups and local authorities. Trusts with the freedom to contract who they see fit to deliver specific tailored projects or services. Be they public, private or voluntary run.
After all, I don’t think it is for me, as a future Justice Secretary, to micromanage the work done in local trusts.
And in this vision for probation, there is no place for a madcap splitting of responsibility for offenders based on their level of risk. Day to day case management of all offenders will be done by probation trust staff. With trusts able to contract in support for skills, training, alcohol and drug dependencies as they see fit.
But there is a quid pro quo for greater freedom.
I want greater stretching targets for trusts. Too many trusts have been coasting, and this isn’t acceptable. A ratings system in which every single trust is either good or exceptional isn’t good enough. A ratings system that does not encourage constant improvement is not a good one.
But the best performing probation trusts will get more freedoms over their budgets, and how they procure services, rewarded for their achievements. But as Justice Secretary, I will not tolerate underperforming probation trusts. Tough sanctions will be needed and I don’t rule out imposing new management on those who fail.
I believe this vision for probation – a publicly run probation service – can instil a laser-like focus on reducing re-offending. It would be free of the distractions of the rush to privatise. Instead, it will be focused on improved outcomes – reduced crime from re-offending.
In the time left available, I want to talk to you briefly about one further topic – about how we build a better workforce across our criminal justice system – including probation and prisons. One which rewards expertise and dedication, and will help us win the war on re-offending.
Working in probation and prison is a tough profession, and the overwhelming majority are dedicated professionals. That’s why I want to work with the profession to help them create a chartered institute. I want to accredit those with particular expertise working with offenders and to provide some sense of achievement and reward.
This might mean having specialist status attached to some prisoner officers who have an expertise in, say, for example mental health problems of behavioural issues, or probation staff who work with those with anger management problems.
But I want to invigorate the workforce by rewarding their progress and achievement. And to empower the profession to reprimand those who fall below the high standards we all rightly expect of a role that works with vulnerable and complex individuals. I know the overwhelming majority of staff in our prisons and probation are law abiding and work hard. And it’s only right to give some recognition in return.
But we also have to face up to the facts that too many of our prisons are in the stranglehold of drugs and contraband. And that means demanding the highest standards from all those who work in our prisons if we are to root out criminality.
That’s why Labour is calling on the Government to crack down on corruption in our prisons if any progress is to be made in ridding them of drugs. And I am committed to us doing so if this Government fails to clamp down between now and 2015. Last year alone, 17 individuals working in our prisons were sent to prison themselves. This statistic is deeply worrying.
That’s why I’m calling for a renewed ‘zero tolerance policy’ on corruption by prison staff, those employed by companies contracted by the prisons service and prisoners themselves. And that the Ministry should be open about the number and nature of complaints to the Corruption Prevention Unit, and what happened to follow them up.
I was alarmed that ministers refused to answer my recent parliamentary questions to obtain this data. Instead they claimed “It would be inappropriate for operational reasons, including implications for the integrity of security systems and to ongoing investigations and operations in to staff misconduct, to provide the information requested”.
This is unacceptable. It looks like a cover up, eroding confidence that the system is properly dealing with allegations of corruption and criminality. Why shouldn’t the Prisons Service publish details of whistle blowing made over the previous twelve months in an annual report?
After all, many global companies do this – such as BG Group (formerly known as British Gas) – in their Annual Corporate Social Responsibility Report. They list the number of cases received, the nature of the cases, how many were subjected to further investigation and the number that resulted in disciplinary actions. But they also list how many saw changes to the company’s training or other changes to the organisation’s procedures or management structures. We should demand similar levels of transparency.
Also I want the whistle blowing hotline to be independent of the Ministry of Justice and NOMS – so that anyone working in the prisons system can report alleged wrongdoing by others working in the system. There will be an expectation that every allegation is treated with the utmost importance, and will be followed up. Currently, there are concerns that accusations of wrongdoing aren’t followed up, or are simply ignored.
So, don’t be under any illusions – I will be tough on getting drugs out of our prisons.
Rooting out corruption in our prisons will rid them of the criminality and the drugs that do so much damage to our efforts to properly punish and reform. That’s why I am determined to prioritise our efforts in this area. After all, stopping those leaving prison from going on to commit more crime is crucial.
Less crime equals fewer victims of crime, and lower costs to society. This is why I believe community sentences are also crucial. Intense alternatives to custody, with a strong focus on punishment and reform, have a role to play in our criminal justice system. Practitioners at the coalface are crucial in this, and I look forward to working with you to deliver.