This week, I found myself in the historical setting of Court Room No1 at the Old Bailey, where I was a guest of the Prison Reform Trust, to hear a speech from Sir John Major on the state of our prison system.

In my two decades in the sector, I have heard many speeches from politicians and elder statesmen and women. I have heard some good ones, but this is the first time I have agreed with every single word.

When Prime Minister John Major was as far from being progressive on criminal justice as one can imagine, he spoke about the need to understand less and condemn more. The prison population rose significantly during his time in office. 

It is clear that he now regrets this approach. He spoke of his shock at the state of the system, which all political parties have neglected. He called for an end to the harsh rhetoric of ever more punitive policies and challenged politicians and policymakers to consider where this has got us - an ever-expanding prison population, high rates of reoffending, and ever more victims.

It was an excellent speech, and there was nothing ‘soft’ about it. This is about simple-common sense reform that would benefit us all. The question is whether, in today's tribal politics, anyone will have the courage to listen to him.

I asked Sir John whether it was time for a new Royal Commission on prisons. It would be unfair of me to share his response, but here's my view.

Too many politicians simply talk tough on crime rather than following the evidence or listening to people who know the realities. Perhaps we need someone above party politics, with our nation's common good as their focus and a long view, to steer us in the right direction.

You can read the full speech at https://prisonreformtrust.org.uk/sir-john-major-we-over-use-prison-and-under-value-alternative-sentences/.

Andy Keen-Downs.