When Simon Hughes visited Eastwood Park prison in Gloucestershire, he met a woman inmate who had been there at some point in each of the last 18 years for a string of relatively minor offences. At Bronzefield near Heathrow Airport, he met a 22-year-old woman in her eighth spell there, who was now in the same prison as her mother.
Such experiences in his 11 months as Justice Minister have convinced Mr Hughes that the Government must halt the “revolving door” which proves our prisons are not working. Some 46 per cent of adults are convicted within a year of release. For those serving less than 12 months, the reconviction rate is 58 per cent.
Mr Hughes, who insists he does not oppose long sentences for serious crimes, argues that the answer is to halve the 85,000 prison population by dramatically reducing the number of short sentences. Last year, 60 per cent of women sent to prison were sentenced to six months or less – up from a third since 1993.
The Liberal Democrats’ former deputy leader has responsibility for women’s prisons and is pushing a pilot scheme in the North West aimed at ensuring more community sentences through close liaison between the police and local authorities. He judged it a “huge success” and hoped it will eventually go nationwide.
He would like to extend the same approach to men. But he does not have overall responsibility for prisons and so faces a roadblock in the shape of Chris Grayling, his Conservative departmental boss as Justice Secretary.
Mr Hughes admits they are chalk and cheese. The MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark since 1983 is on the left flank of the Lib Dems, but strongly backed joining the Tories in coalition in 2010. Mr Grayling is on the Tory right and opposed a coalition.Yet the two men clearly enjoy a better personal relationship than Norman Baker did with his Tory boss Theresa May before walking out of his Home Office job this week. While Mr Grayling and Mr Hughes differ over whether prison works, the Lib Dem minister insisted that coalition works at the Ministry of Justice. The pair try to stick to a “no surprises” rule.
“I have no complaint about the way we discuss things around the ministerial table,” said Mr Hughes. “My voice is listened to. I make my arguments. I win some, I don’t win them all.” He enjoys some power to block – and scuppered David Cameron’s plan to double the maximum jail term magistrates can impose to one year.
Mr Hughes argued: “The Tory approach is a traditional Tory kneejerk one, which means you have to be tough on crime and have to sound tough on crime. We have always argued that you should look not for what sounds tough but what is effective.”
He cannot detect any difference between the Tories and Labour. “For Tory and Labour, it is a competition now,” he said. “It is about who can sound tougher, and say people will be banged up for longer, irrespective of the merits or the success of the punishment.”
The Lib Dem minister said the MoJ was not good enough at letting the courts know about the alternatives to prison available locally and intends to do so through an online database. After talks with judges and magistrates, he is convinced they would then send fewer people to jail, and would opt for more community work, deferred or suspended sentences to give offenders a last chance to avoid the “revolving door.”
He insisted the goal of halving the prison population no “pipe dream.” As well as fewer shorter sentences and fewer women going to jail, his four-point plan would include a drive to ensure the mentally ill do not end up prison.
“The answer is not to look after them better when they are inside,” he said, saying many of their crimes were driven by illness. Some 49 per cent of women and 23 per cent of men in prison suffer from anxiety or depression.
The key, he argued, is early assessment as soon as someone is picked up by the police. He will urge Mr Grayling to give the Youth Justice Board the power to recommend treatment for mental illness as well as custody.
His fourth proposal is the Lib Dem policy to end prison sentences for people who possess small amounts of drugs for personal use. The police and Crown Prosecution Service would decide in each case whether the amount people had was for their own use.
Cutting the prison population would enable the MoJ meet the “acute” pressure on it to find more savings after next May’s election because its budget is not ring-fenced. “This is the best way of bringing down the MoJ spend. Crucially, it is the best way of having fewer victims in Britain. The whole policy is led by reducing crime and therefore reducing the number of victims.”
Mr Hughes said it was “great” that crime levels have fallen but adamant this was not due to the threat of tough sentences. All roads lead to his “revolving door” theme. “It just requires us to turn the ship round. There are still far too many victims because far too many people reoffend. We have an unsuccessful penal policy,” he said.