Gove admits the UK sentencing framework needs to be more sensitive, & 7 more things we learned at the 2015 Howard League AGM

The Conservatives Hold Their Annual Party Conference(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Since his appointment as Justice Secretary & Lord Chancellor in May this year, the Rt Hon Michael Gove has maintained a fairly low profile. Aside from his Making Prisons Work speech in July, Mr Gove’s plans for the future of the Criminal Justice System have not been very clearly outlined. Although since his swearing in, to the delight of many, Gove has managed to overturn the previous Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling’s ban on books for prisoners; scrapped plans to create a super youth prison; and halted massively controversial plans for the UK to undertake Saudi Arabian prison training contracts.

At the Howard League for Penal Reform AGM on 4 November 2015, the Lord Chancellor commendably answered a number of challenging questions and concerns raised by those passionate about criminal justice reform.

What was most apparent from Mr Gove’s words in the 30 minutes he was speaking – bearing in mind a large portion of the audience actively campaign against the actions of his predecessor (who never once faced challenges in a public forum during his time in the role) – was that he wanted to let people know that he understands their worries, and that their concerns will be addressed during his time as Lord Chancellor.

A wide range of topics were covered in just 30 minutes, centred around a “new era of talking about crime and punishment”, which promotes the “need to move away from the sterile debate of ‘lock people up or let them out’”. The 8 most striking points made are set out below.

1. Mr Gove wants to reduce prison numbers in England & Wales, and believes it will “fall over time”.

2. Effective rehabilitation should be the most important function of incarceration, next to acting as a deterrent, and as a means of incapacitation. And it is the “duty of the state” to rehabilitate those who enter the system.

3. He believes that our sentencing framework needs a complete overhaul:

In response to an audience member’s question, Gove recognised that evidence shows short sentences are more likely than not to lead to recidivism, and that the system needs a more appropriate sentencing framework. This will be based on extensive research into the effectiveness of current sentencing practices.

4. He poignantly recognises that the root cause of criminality must be tackled. Mr Gove spoke of the necessity to curb offending behaviour before it escalates to a prison sentence:

Many children who end up in prison have been in care. Those who are in care are there because they have been rescued from even worse circumstances, however once there, many don’t receive the affection they’ve been deprived of thus far.

Despite knowing the difference between right and wrong, a large proportion of offenders experience “moral absence” growing up, lack basic education, self discipline and self-mastery; this results in truancy and (self-)detachment from society, which can lead to them finding a sense of belonging in offending behaviour/gang culture – and poor decision making will follow resulting in conflict with authority.

5. He states the word “crisis” is over-used; however there is no denying the current prison estate is dire. Therefore the following improvements are currently undergoing review:

Plans are being developed to sell old, crumbling Victorian prisons and create new fit-for-purpose institutions using the money gained from sites sold.

Sanitation within institutions is not adequate and will be addressed.

More autonomy and independence will be created for prison governors as he believes greater freedom will fuel more creativity in dealing with prisoners in a way that will really address their issues.

6. All decisions for future action will be made based on solid evidence gained from thoroughly reviewing the issues, rather than “leaping to conclusions”.

7. Gove is in favour of increasing public understanding of the entire system and individuals’ experiences.

The Justice Secretary was asked if a journalist could be invited to visit a prison to report on conditions and experiences. He immediately agreed, and the audience responded with tumultuous applause.

8. There should be greater adaptation of technology in prisons, for two reasons:

Security. For example, body cameras worn by prison staff would increase the safety of both staff and inmates, meaning “that any individual prison officer is more likely to behave appropriately and decently”, although this is not as big a problem now as it was 20 years ago.

Education. A disproportionally large percentage of the prison population suffer from mental health issues and learning difficulties. Implementation of more sophisticated technology within prisons will have a hugely positive impact on the level of tailored education prisoners would receive – an area which Gove admits in its current state is “deeply concerning”.

There were further points of potential debate which will need to be addressed on a future occasion, including:

“Imprisonment improves relationships”
It was stated that imprisonment strengthens relationships between the offender and their family, as their time incapacitated gives the offender a chance to think about how their actions have affected said relationships. The same goes for their relationships with the victims. (So as to not take this out of context as Mr Gove did mention the importance of agency workers, chaplains, etc. roles in prisoner rehabilitation). It was not clear on which evidence this claim lay.

Legal Aid Cuts
Mr Gove confirmed that legal aid budget-cutting has been paused for the foreseeable future. However he maintained that, following consultations with some lawyers/law firms involved, the top firms should continue to shoulder the burden of funding the current legal aid situation.

The Harris Review
Penal reform activists are still awaiting a government response to The Harris Review on deaths and suicides of 83 young people in custody (aged 18-24), which was published by the Ministry of Justice on July 1, 2015. Mr Gove explicitly stated that the government is not going to jump to quick action on the report, that it was being taken seriously and is undergoing a thorough review.

Concluding notes

The conference ended on a heart-warming note with the Lord Chancellor expressing his sincere respect and admiration for social workers – words Sue Wade, long-standing Chair of Trustees at The Howard League for Penal Reform and former deputy chief probation officer, said she had never heard a Justice Minister utter in her days as a criminal justice professional. Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League was equally “blown away” by this never-before-heard language of a Justice Secretary.

The Autumn Statement is due for unveiling later this month (25 November), after which we should have a more concrete idea of what Mr Gove will pull out of his sleeve. If his current record as Justice Secretary and speech at this conference is anything to go by, it sounds like it could be a promising U-turn towards policies centred round morality, and a more humanitarian approach to dealing with offenders and the prison system. Watch this space.

by Ciara O’Neill


  1. Anita bernstein says

    Quite extraordinary, there’s hope yet. I entirely support your campaign that court criminal charges are iniquitous and are apparently levied on people who cannot possibly pay and are known to be unable to pay

  2. says

    I really hope this is the start of a tide of change – and in relation to my research interests – which is women in prison -specifically mothers – then we can learn lot from Scotland , as I mention in my paper for the ‘Women in Prison’ section of this exchange – Scotland have made some sensible decisions in relation to sentencing – not least the presumption against sentences of less than three months. .
    However , although women are may passion and sentencing reform for women who are mothers is especially vital …. – this is not just a gender specific issue , over 75% of males and over 86% of females are in prison for non violent offences – as an ex probation officer and social work – i am all to aware that in many of not most of the prison population would have have been better served by by alternatives to custody.
    However what is also important not to lose sight of is the fact that addressing social inequality, social justice, education , poverty hopelessness are vital in the fight towards reducing crime and criminal behaviour .
    The roots of ‘early criminality’ do not lie only in individuals as Gove suggests – they lie in society .


  1. […] Ciara O’Neill wrote recently on the Halsbury’s Law Exchange about Michael Gove’s talk on 4 November at the AGM of the Howard League for Penal Reform: “He believes that our sentencing framework needs a complete overhaul…Gove recognised that evidence shows short sentences are more likely than not to lead to recidivism, and that the system needs a more appropriate sentencing framework. This will be based on extensive research into the effectiveness of current sentencing practices.” (“Gove admits the UK sentencing framework needs to be more sensitive, & 7 more things we learned a…“) […]

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