The Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Justice, delivered a keynote address at an event jointly hosted by the Prison Reform Trust and Centre for Social Justice on Monday 26 January. A copy of the speech is below.

The Prison Reform Trust in partnership with leading thinktanks has provided platforms to the three main political parties for them to outline their justice proposals ahead of the 2015 general election. PRT believes there is scope for political consensus on prison reform. Parties wish to see decent, fair and purposeful prisons, a reduction in women's imprisonment, liaison and diversion services for people with mental health needs or learning disabilities and increased use of restorative justice.

Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan MP set out Labour prisons policy last year at an event hosted by PRT and IPPR. You can read his speech by clicking here. Liberal Democrat justice minister, Simon Hughes MP, also delivered a speech at an event hosted with CentreForum which you can read by clicking here.

Keynote speech by Chris Grayling, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Ladies and gentlemen,

We’re coming to the end of this Parliament. It has been one which has seen large and difficult projects of social reform being undertaken … in our welfare system, our education system, and indeed in our justice system.  

We were faced with such a dire economic situation in 2010, that the idea of not going ahead with reform in many areas simply wasn’t an option.  True certainly in the Ministry of Justice …

During the last five years between then and the end of the 2015-16 financial year, the Department’s budget will have fallen by around a third. And yet we still faced real challenges that needed to be solved, like the persistent levels of reoffending.

No one in government would ever have claimed that these reforms were the easy option.  And in many areas, including my own, we have faced criticism for our choices. 

I want to take the opportunity this morning to explain to you why we set out on the path we did with regards to prison policy … I want to address how we will deal with some of the pressures that the system will face in the next 18 months… and I want to outline where I think our future lies in delivering more effective rehabilitation for offenders. 

I believe that sending people to prison is necessary … the right thing to do.  I believe in locking up people who commit crimes.   I don’t agree with those who say we send too many people to prison.  Almost everyone who ends up inside has committed multiple offences … if anything we sometimes wait too long to send them to prison.  By the time they end up there, they have become embedded in a life of crime.

Some people will make the argument that we should be looking across the water to the States, and the current direction of travel in their thinking on what makes and effective criminal justice system .

The fact of the matter is though, that in the US a much higher proportion of offenders are sent to prison for crimes that in this country would receive only a community sentence.  So although the States might indeed be working very hard at present to bring down their prison population – and are in some places leaning towards a greater diversion away from incarceration- the fact of the matter is they are starting from a much higher base, and their policy choices don’t necessarily have a straight and direct read across to what we’re doing in this country.

I appreciate that this is a message some of you might not want to hear … and yes, I do believe in prison.  It protects society from those who would harm it, and by taking persistent offenders off the streets, it gives respite to the communities that they blight.  It should always be there as a punishment, and deterrent.

So, you’ve heard the side of the story that left wing critics like to seize upon to claim that I’m nothing but an unreconstructed hang ‘em and flog ‘em sort of Conservative.

But that’s just one side of the story.  And the other side is one that those same critics conveniently seem to forget sometimes – or choose to ignore the real purpose of what we are doing.

When I became Justice Secretary nearly two and half years ago, it was blinding obvious to me from the start that just doing ‘more of the same’ wasn’t go to work. 

There’s some good news around. Crime is down and there are fewer first time entrants to the criminal justice system. 

But neither of them can make up for the fact we have a persistent hardcore of offenders going round and round the system, leaving a trail of victims in their wake. 

So this is the other side of coin.  Yes, prison works.  But the system does not work well enough and we have to make it work better.

We have to be ruthlessly realistic about what locking people up achieves.  Leaving them to languish inside, and then just letting them out again without any thought about what happens to them after they leave the prison gate isn’t going to get us very far at all. The situation where we release short term offenders onto our streets with no support at all has been completely indefensible.

But those who argue that the solution is no short sentences are, in my view, completely wrong. Most of those who end up in prison have already done community sentences. If those sentences prevented reoffending, they would be doing so already and those people wouldn’t still be arriving in prison. Community sentences have an important role to play, but they are not the solution to the challenge of short term prison sentences.

Work needs to start with offenders in prison.  We need to equip them with the skills they need to find gainful employment upon release … for the same reason our education programmes inside are absolutely key.  For many, formal education will have been patchy at best, and we need to help plug those gaps – gaps even in levels of basic literacy and numeracy which all of us here in this room take for granted.

I am a huge believer – as my predecessor Ken Clarke was – in doing as much as we can to get that rehabilitation of offenders starts inside the prison gates.  He made a great start in increasing the amount of work and education in prisons. That work has continued under my leadership.

We both made inroads in the right direction.  The number of prisoners participating in learning continues to increase year on year, and last year, over 14 million hours of work in prison were fulfilled. 

Thanks to the commitment of governors and staff, and the support of business both national and local, at prisons all over the country there are excellent examples of programmes of offenders being gaining both professional skills, and vitally important personal skills such as teamwork and commitment.

Of course there is more to do. And of course the staff shortages of recent months, about which more in a moment, have slowed progress in some prisons. But there is no change in the strategy. That’s why we are in the process of doubling the amount of weekly education in the youth estate.

And that’s also why we are seeking to create a new kind of institution – the Secure College. I want fewer institutions for teenagers that are prisons with big iron bars. I want an environment that is closer to an educational institution, with a greater focus on skill building.

And yet many people are virulently opposed to this approach. They want small local institutions instead. I tell them this. It is unrealistic and unaffordable. Small units are not proven to work. The nearest we have to them are the Secure Childrens’ homes, and their reoffending rate is as bad as any institution. Their cost is more than £200,000 per year per place. We could not possibly afford to extend them across the youth estate.

So my message to those opposed to the Secure College is this. We can either keep the status quo, with YOI’s and iron bars. Or we can create an educational environment with a broad curriculum to try to do things better. I know which option I prefer.

However, we still have a huge hole in support provided to people post prison ... those with the highest reoffending rates are for those who have served the shortest sentences.  Little wonder when they are left to go from the prison gate with 46 pounds in their pocket, nowhere to go and little or no support at all post release.  All compounded by the lack of continuity in any support you might have been receiving inside for issues such as drug or alcohol dependency.

As all of you in this room hopefully know, all of that is due to imminently change, so that there will be, from in a few days’ time,  a system of through the gate support and mentoring, with private providers, mutual and the voluntary sector all involved in help offenders stay turned away from a life of crime. 

The change is not simply about the way probation works. We are also reshaping our prison system too, with the creation of resettlement prisons. In future most prisoners will spend the latter part of their sentence in a prison in the area where they will be living when they are released – working with the same people who will be there with them after they have left.

Up to now that has simply not been possible. In London we’d been releasing people from more than100 different prisons … how on earth was that ever conducive to any sort of continuity of support?  The network of resettlement prisons will iron out this anomaly.

All of this reform has been going on against a background of tough constraints, with an ageing, Victorian era prison estate and of course that over-arching dire financial situation that I touched upon at the start.

Back in 2012, despite the plan that I had inherited from Ken to privatise 9 prisons, I made an early decision not to go down this route. 

Instead, I judged that the financial challenge, and the ability of prison providers to get on with the reforms that we needed, meant it was much more prudent to do what Prison Governors and Unions had recommended - benchmarking.

Let's be clear what benching marking involves ... it means looking at the whole prison estate, indentifying where things work most efficiently and spreading that knowledge and practice across all prisons.

It means the streamlining of management layers, changes to ways of working, and yes some operational staff reductions.  This has been done working to a template designed by own staff teams, and which they still tell me is perfectly workable.

It’s been a difficult period of change, but it’s a change that has been essential given the reality of our budgets.

And let me put on the record here my thanks to all the staff in our prisons who I think have been doing a really good job in difficult times.  They play a vital often unsung role, but they make a real difference.  I am extremely grateful to all of them.

When I meet and talk to them I am always impressed by their dedication and professionalism.

But the pressures of the last 18 months haven’t simply come from reshaping our system.

Probably the biggest challenge has been an unexpected turnaround in the trends in our courts.  Particularly with regard to sex offences.  The aftermath of the Saville revelations and the dreadful events in places like Rotheram and Oxford have led to a substantial increase in the number of sex offenders in our courts.  Talk to any judge and they will say our courts are full of them.  More have been arriving in our prisons and they have been staying there for longer than typical offender. 

So from a point when we were seeing a steady decline in population, we are now seeing a fairly rapid increase. 

In addition, there have been significant staff shortages particularly in the south east where we have seen a buoyant labour market and staff tempted away to bettter paid private sector jobs. It's frustrating but a sign our economic policies are working. 

Of course that leaves pressure on individual prisons … so yes we've had some prisons operating on restricted regimes and some prisoners locked up for longer than we would wish.  But we're also in the process of recruiting 1700 more prison officers and those pressures are already easing. 

So I’ve said clearly that yes, we do need some more staff in our estate.  But I also want to address head on another issue which has over the last few months gained traction amongst critics. 

Let me be very clear - prison overcrowding today is close to a ten year low with far few prisoners sharing a cell than has been the case in the past. 

I want to just turn now to two other major pressures - the increase in rate of self- inflicted deaths and increased levels of violence.  We've looked carefully at why we've seen that increase in suicides.  It was particularly acute in latter months of 2013 and early 2014.  Staff across NOMS are working incredibly hard to keep the number of deaths as low as possible.  The figures have fluctuated quite sharply and I am keeping a very close eye on this issue.

Any death is one too many.  But I reject the idea propagated particularly by left-wing pressure groups that it is budget cuts that are to blame.

We have looked at the incidence of suicide across the prison estate, and found no correlation between suicide and either staff cutbacks or poor inspection reports. We have seen serious self-harm in prisons where there have been no staff reductions, and where there have been excellent inspection reports – as well as in others where there have been much poorer reports.

In the cases I have looked at, the most common thread was around mental health.  I’ve spoken on this subject before, and I remain convinced it is the next big challenge that we have to address in our criminal justice system.  We have made some good progress with the system of liaison and diversion at our police stations and courts to get people out of the criminal justice system and into treatment where they need it. 

And we have some incredibly dedicated staff in prison working with some of the most difficult individuals in our prisons who are suffering from acute mental health problems and often who need round the clock supervision in isolation units.  But the scale of the challenge is very significant – and my department and the Department for Health are looking at closely at what we can next do to tackle this issue.

In particular, I believe we may need to create more specialist centres in the prison estate to deal with mental health problems. We have already done this with sex offenders, to concentrate the expertise we have in dealing with them.

I think there is a strong case to do the same with inmates who obviously have significant mental health problems. This is something that will be the next big reform focus for my Department in the prisons arena if we are returned to power in May.  

Let me now move on the other key pressure we are facing - increasing levels of violence in prison. 

Part of the issue is around the fact we have people convicted of more serious and violent crimes going to prison than perhaps was the case ten or twenty years ago.  And in London, gang related violence often just moves its disagreements and confrontations from the street to inside our prisons and YOIs …  But amongst all of that, there is a growing consensus that we also have a big problem with the new generation of so called ‘legal highs’. 

Drugs have always been a problem in our prison.  But hard work over years has brought down the level of positive tests from 25 per cent to around 7.   But go onto any prison wing, and staff will tell you that whilst we’ve made good headway on traditional drugs like heroin and cannabis, the new challenge is with synthetic highs … or to give them their proper name, New Psychoactive Substances. 

Unlike the effects of say cannabis, the anecdotal evidence certainly seems to be that these new drugs are incredibly disruptive, causing prisoners to lash out and are contributing, at least in part, to the incidents of violence we have seen.

Stamping their use out is a majority priority for us, and over the weekend, I outlined the new steps we are taking to make it absolutely clear both to prisoners and their suppliers – with they are inside or outside the prison gate – that we have an absolutely zero tolerance approach towards contraband.  If you are caught abusing drugs or smuggling them in, the penalties can be severe.

I am absolutely convinced that the arrival of NPS is a central part of the challenges we face in our prisons. They are causing major problems out in the community, with police reporting that they cause drug users to lash out in a way traditional drugs simply did not, and those in social services saying that they are causing self harm.

Some of these drugs are getting into our prisons, and I believe they are causing the same effects among inmates. That is why tackling the problem robustly is so important.

I have tried to set our here a realistic appraisal of where we are in are in our prisons policy and where we think we should be heading. 

I am complacent about none of the challenges that lie ahead.  Indeed, if anything, they are only going to become more acute as we continue to deal with the long term fallout of the global economic crisis, and the changing nature of the profile of offenders that we have in our care.

I and my team are realistic about the bumpy road ahead.  But I would like to assure you, that whatever obstacles may there may, I remain absolutely committed to the transforming rehabilitation reforms that start in 10 days’ time.  They are the only way we will ever have a chance to really make a dent in reoffending, and all that it entails, in this country.