My article for the Herald and Post this week looks back on my time at the Ministry of Justice...
Well, they do say a week is a long time in politics. None more so for me than last week when the reshuffle on Monday meant an overnight move for me from the prisons and probation brief to the Department for Education.
I thoroughly enjoyed my role at the Ministry of Justice. Equally, I am delighted to be back at education as the schools minister. It’s a subject close to my heart and a great privilege to, once more, be able to work with inspiring teachers across the country as well as here in East Hants.
I thought this week’s column would be an opportune moment to reflect on some of my experiences of the prison system and wider criminal justice.
I think it’s fair to say that you rarely hear about the good work that goes on in prisons. And I do understand why.
But there really is excellent work happening all the time, and it helps bring down reoffending.
There have been, in recent years, big investments in areas like tackling homelessness at the point of leaving, and we have seen especially marked improvements in employment rates for ex-offenders. There is major investment too in the estate, adding places and entire new prisons.
For me, the best part of the job was always getting out and about. Reading about a prison on paper is an entirely different experience to physically standing in one – the sounds, the smells and that feeling you get as soon as the first door is banged shut behind you.
Over the summer I travelled up and down the country visiting 17 prisons and probation facilities. It was also an opportunity for me to thank staff for the vital job that they do in tough circumstances.
One of my visits was to HMP Holme House in County Durham. This adult male prison is one of the joint Ministry of Justice and Department of Health and Social Care pilot programmes to help those with drug addictions kick the habit. The reality is that addiction rates are still stubbornly high amongst the prison population so helping offenders to detox is essential to their rehabilitation.
Also at Holme House, military veterans grow fruit and vegetables for use in the prison kitchens. We know purposeful work inside prison is valuable for rehabilitation. A good example is the ‘Clink’ network of restaurants – run by prisoners for the paying public – still going strong.
A real highlight is seeing the activity going on in the workshops and education centres. Offering a chance to train in a new skill, such as becoming a barista or working in a Halfords workshop or a Timpsons' branch, or increasing education attainment levels, can be the key intervention that’s needed to give these offenders another chance at life.
There is also important innovation in criminal justice outside of prisons. Here in Hampshire, it was good to meet the Youth Offender Team and hear of the work they are doing to try to get youngsters onto a better path and steer them away from custody.
In Havant, I saw how Community Payback unpaid work orders can make a real contribution to society as well as their punitive aspect, and in many cases getting the individual into a habit of regular employment.
Hope Street in Southampton is a really impressive rehabilitation centre for female offenders, which I visited with Police & Crime Commissioner Donna Jones. It provides an alternative to a custodial sentence for certain women and enables them to stay close to home and their families whilst undergoing rehabilitation and/or making reparations to the local community.
As well as providing educational activities and onsite childcare, what’s unique about this facility is the continuity of care it provides to women when they are ready to leave. This avoids the effect of a sudden withdrawal of support or treatment, the so called ‘cliff edge’, which can sometimes lead to reoffending.
Most of all, the appropriately named Hope Street is a reminder that administering criminal justice and rehabilitation well is all about the people who do it. It is not, I suppose, the most obvious career choice for many - but its contribution to our society, and to our safety, is immense.