Over the weekend there was a disturbance in Lewes Prison which led to visits by families and friends being cancelled and the involvement of additional officers brought into the prison to bring order back to the wing on which the disturbance took place. The reason for the disturbance is not clear, but what is clear is that it may have been a reflection of staffing levels or the way in which the prison was being run. The reason may equally have been due to other factors. However if the levels of staff was one of the factors, this is a matter that should concern all those with a democratic responsibility for prisons and for Lewes itself. Hence the appearance on radio programmes of the MP for Lewes Maria Caulfield. What was missing in terms of local engagement was someone who had the ability to work alongside the MP and demand answers to questions of the Ministry of Justice and of Andrew Selous, who is the prisons Minister.
The need to reform the Criminal Justice system and enable it to work as the phrase suggests, in a coherent fashion lay at the heart of the role of Police and Crime Commissioner, championed and promoted for several years by the MP for Arundel and South Downs, Nick Herbert. I recall him speaking in a London venue about how in due course he believed that PCCs would be able to take up greater responsibility in the work of the CJS. Sadly for Nick and for the role of PCC and possibly for us as local people, he was moved from his place in the Government a mere 2 months before the PCC elections in 2012. Since then others have taken over the reigns as Policing Minister and now at the head of the Home Office as Theresa May has now by default become our Prime Minister. Every new face brings with them ideas and priorities as well as inevitable prejudices that lead to changes of direction. So much for democracy! However the fact remains that the role of PCC in name at least is commissioner at a local level of all things to do with the CJS. It is for this reason the Sussex PCC sits on the Sussex Criminal Justice Board (SCJB) a body which she chairs.
The decisions to withhold funding for policing has not been taken by PCCs, although it is their role to argue for greater resources in this area and then to determine how such funding is spent in broad terms. Their remit with Probation, the Courts Service, and Prisons is less clear and does not currently include a responsibility for funding decisions. One of the more recent variations on the original idea of PCC is to ask postholders to oversee other blue light services, this is a deeply flawed idea as Crime Commissioners risk becoming an entirely different animal if they move away from dealing with the victims of crime, to the victims of fire and treating fire and crime prevention in the same role turning their back on a system which desperately needs leadership and in terms of both the Courts and the Prisons, lack any form of democratic accountability. There was arguably some accountability for probation before Chris Grayling introduced Transforming Rehabilitation which was his attempt to reform the service and threw out the baby onto its head and down the stairs with its bathwater.
When Maria Caulfield was being interviewed on Radio over the weekend regarding the Lewes disturbances I suggested to one radio station that they ask our PCC about the same matter. They did so over twitter and her response was a classic example of how to ignore a matter that should be of great concern to her and to the rest of us.
“Pleased that Ministry of Justice have responded. I’m aware of recent challenges.”
Accepting the limitation on twitter of the number of characters, this passes for a pathetic response. It came a few seconds after her tweet
“Beautiful morning at Haywards Heath station, train on time too”
The fact is that when there have been raves on the downs in Sussex, Katy has been very active on twitter calling for speedy action from the police force which she oversees. She has been very active in trying to persuade people to support her takeover of the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service from the County Council. Sadly when it comes to the safety of prisoners and indeed of prison officers, the wider reassurance of the public and the need for families to visit their loved ones in prison she seems deeply detached. This is not good enough!