Nick Herbert MP, the shadow justice minister, was our guest at a Power Lunch in Westminster yesterday. A former director and co-founder of the campaigning think-tank Reform, he was, as you would expect, keen to see robust reform of the UK's prison service. One of his main concerns is that, having gone through the criminal justice system and through prison, so many people – particularly young people – nevertheless re-offend. Re-offenders cost the taxpayer something like £11bn a year. Can't we spend that money better, and do something to prevent people coming back to jail again?
The Conservative answer is yes, and they propose to do it by realigning incentives. Someone needs to take responsibility on re-conviction rates; someone needs to 'own the problem'. That's one reason why the Conservatives plan to set up prison trusts – rather like NHS trusts – and devolve power down to them. The trusts would be charged with reducing re-offending rates, and prison governors would be paid by results on this score. But exactly how they do it would be more a matter for them than for London-based civil servants and politicians.
I am sure that part of the solution is to have a meaningful drugs policy in prisons. Stories abound of people who have been turned into drug users in prisons, since drugs are all around. Hardly an environment in which to prepare people to return to the outside world as useful members of society. I am also sure that the private sector could help to drive reform on this and many other levels – if they were left to get on with it. While there are private security providers around already, the reality is that they have to follow the public-sector agenda. But it's time for some fresh thinking. Let private-enterprise ideas bloom, Nick.