The chief prisons inspector in England and Wales has heavily criticised the government for not putting prison reform into the legislative programme announced in the Queen's speech on Wednesday.
In a speech dominated by Brexit, domestic issues were sidelined in favour of nine bills to replace EU legislation with UK law. Despite bills to promote space travel and driverless cars, prisons were not mentioned.
Peter Clarke, Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, said in a statement that it was a missed opportunity not to tackle the ongoing prisons crisis. In the last year British prisons have been beset by organisational chaos, violence, and an explosion in the use of psychoactive substances.
“I am very disappointed that prison reform has not found a place in the Queen’s Speech," Clarke said. "The prisons and courts reform bill, introduced last year, enjoyed broad parliamentary support and had made real progress through parliament until it was lost when the general election was called.
“This is a missed opportunity to forge ahead with prison reform. The law would have required the government to respond to our findings. We will continue to report the harsh reality of what we find in our prisons – all too many of which are dangerous for prisoners and staff alike and are failing in their duty to rehabilitate and reform prisoners."
In an apparent swipe at the Ministry of Justice, which has been criticised by penal reformers for not tackling overcrowding and underfunding of prisons, Clarke finished by saying: "We will continue to press for strong leadership and a real commitment to reform."
The prisons and courts reform bill was halted on its journey through parliament by the calling of the 8 June general election.
The Conservative manifesto promised to invest £1 billion to "modernise" the prison estate and create 10,000 new prison places, as well as dedicated provisions for female prisoners. But under new justice secretary David Lidington, the future of reform programmes is now uncertain.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "It is immensely disappointing that the government has dropped its commitment to a prison reform bill.
"There was cross-party support for this long-overdue legislation. The decision puts even more pressure on the new justice secretary to find ways to stop our chronic overuse of prison so that this hardest pressed of public services can start to repair the damage his predecessors have inflicted upon it.
"[The justice secretary] should start by spending the money earmarked for new prisons on measures that would make them unnecessary. That means supporting people in their communities and helping the people who really do need to be in prison to get out on time and stay out for good."
Richard Burgon MP, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said: "The silence on prisons and probation in this Queen’s Speech is deafening. Clearly, the Tories have no intention of fixing the mess they’ve created.
"Labour is committed to the reform needed to ensure the public are protected and offenders have a chance to turn their lives around."
Earlier on Wednesday, the prisons and probation inspectorates released a joint report that strongly criticised privately run community rehabilitation companies for not doing enough to resettle and support prisoners once their sentences end.
However, in an article published on the government's website, Lidington said that work to make prisons "true places of reform and rehabilitation" would continue.
"Prisons have been going through a particularly turbulent time and we need to create calm and ordered environments for that effective rehabilitation. That means giving offenders the help they need to get off drugs, and the education, training, and support to help them find employment when they leave prison," he wrote.
"We know where the problems lie in our prisons, and we know what is needed to fix them. We are continuing with, and building on, these reforms to ensure prisons are safe and secure and are able to transform the lives of those sent to custody by our courts."
Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Patrick Smith at email@example.com.
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