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The extraordinary Tory u-turn on prisons is a welcome shocker

Amol Rajan

1016122641 235x300 The extraordinary Tory u turn on prisons is a welcome shockerI hate the phrase “I hate to say I told you so”, because I rarely hate to say “I told you so”. Often I quite enjoy it.

Vindication has its virtues for the vindicated.  Modesty is not always the best policy.

Ken Clarke, Norman Tebbit, David Davis, Thatcherites everywhere: I told you so.

I told you building more prisons was “not so much provid[ing] the wrong answers as the right answers to the wrong question”.

I told you “The present number of prison places is sufficient.  The trouble is many of them are taken by non-violent offenders who should be doing sentences in their local community”.

In my very first post for Eagle Eye – More prison places are not the answer – I debunked the stupid idea, a mainstay of Tory manifestos from time immemorial, that locking up ever more people was the thing to solve our prisons crisis. This was not only my argument; it was that of Paul Tidball and Lord Ramsbotham, as that post explains.

My esteemed colleague Ben Chu added data to the argument in another post immediately after, in which he argued against Independent columnist Dominic Lawson. He asked: If prison works, why hasn’t it yielded better results?

So I have very mixed feelings about the Tories latest u-turn.

Ken Clarke is currently giving a speech arguing on the lines of my above post. He was on media outlets this morning bemoaning the “tough rhetoric” of previous times – a rhetoric, it must be said, in which New Labour shamefully colluded.  He is announcing a drastic overhaul of Britain’s prison system, changing the approach to sentencing and re-emphasising rehabilitation as well as punishment. Good.

Four points can be made immediately.

First, it is very welcome that Clarke has seen sense.  He has long been the most impressive Tory in Britain, a reasoned antidote to the loony wing of his party.  He is right on this matter.

Second, this indicates the weight he carries in the coalition, which is substantial. David Cameron and George Osborne will know this sits ill with many of their colleagues, and all of the Cornerstone bunch.

Third, this policy is far more in line with the Lib Dem position on prisons before the election than the Tory position. Nick Clegg said repeatedly (including in the first debate) that prisons were “colleges of crime” in need of urgent reform. To that extent, it is a small victory for the Lib Dems, though that it is likely to go largely unreported.

Fourth, Clarke is selling this to his Tory comrades as a change of heart born of economic necessity. That is clever micro-politics. But it is slightly deceitful. The urgency of prison reform long pre-dated the recession, though it’s true that our financial position has accelerated the need for remedial action.

Those table-thumping Tories and Labourites – whether politicians, party supporters, or in the media – who have demanded tougher sentences for several decades should have the decency either to re-state their position (anti-Clarke) or justify their change of mind, which has left them suddenly pro-Clarke.

If they do not do so, we have reason to think them cowardly.

And if they do, and if they claim they support Clarke only because of the financial mess Labour has left us in, we’ll have sufficient licence not to take them seriously ever again.

(Photo: Getty Images)

  • frankspence

    I tire of repeating myself, but will nevertheless do so yet again. I write this NOT as a theorist but from over 20 years as a Prison Officer.
    When I joined the Service in 1967 it was just after a new Mental Health Act, the effect of this Act was to close down many Psychiatric Units resulting in many patients being ejected into society. They were institutionalised and unable to function and consequently many committed minor offences and discovered that Prison was not so different from the institutional life in a Psychiatric Unit and became recidivists, all minor stuff but recidivists all the same. There are still huge numbers of mentally ill inmates in Prison. Hospitals have an out, all the Doctor needs to say is that the condition is not treatable and they can turn them away, Prisons have no such escape (pardon the pun) clause, if a Prisoner arrives at the gate with a warrant they must be admitted whatever their mental or physical state. These people could and should be removed from the Prison system.

    The next huge section of the Prison population are those serving 6 months or less, probably the majority of those in Prison. Their offences range from non-payment of fines, Debtors and non-payment of maintenance of one sort or another as well as petty theft. The cost of processing these inmates in and out of the system is huge and counterproductive. When I worked at Pentonville we took in Drunk and Disorderly who were sentenced to as little as 5 to 7 days, if these sentences technically ended on a Sunday they were reduced by 2 days. So an inmate sentenced to 5 days actually served 3 days, if you take day 1 as the day they arrive (which it is) they have a reception board the following day, if the reception board is on Thursday they will be discharged the next day, Friday, this means that they have to have a discharge board on, yes that is right, Thursday because it has to be the day before discharge. Does that make any sense to anyone, it never did to me.
    Debtors and non-payment of maintenance inmates, known as civil prisoners make up another huge section. These inmates, many of whom are in employment when sent to Prison lose their jobs as a result of incarceration, this has two effects. First on discharge they become a burden for the benefits system instead of net contributors, and second though the debt for maintenance continues to mount they have no way of paying it, they therefore remain in default and frequently are re-sentenced. What is the point?

    Non payment of fines when sentenced the fine or debt is expunged so they come out with a clean slate. Then those given suspended sentences if they offend during the course of the original sentence gets the original sentence implemented plus the sentence for the breach, this is usually less than 6 months and the two sentences are often made to run at the same time so are in effect one sentence.

    Does this make any sense to you because it never did to me, do away with these situations and the Prison budget could be slashed. Many of these were introduced by Labour Governments, but this isn’t partisan because no Tory Government repealed any of them so blame is on both sides of the Political divide.

  • JohnBEllis

    Makes you wonder to what extent politicians of all varieties do actually tap into the experience of people who work in the prison service. I’ve no idea – maybe not at all? I’m no great enthusiast for the POA, from what I’ve gleaned from the public utterances of their spokesmen over the years, but then maybe they just get bolshie and perverse because they’re on the front line of all this, yet no one in authority listens to them? Certainly listening to prison officers is likely to be more constructive than listening to the likes of Kelvin McKenzie and Richard Littlejohn, which has been the politicians’ preference over many years.

  • davedavenotdave

    We hear quite a bit about the economy, and government spending, the recession, and so-on. It’s pretty widely acknowledged that cutting government spending risks prolonging the recession, but that failure to do so long term will be even more harmful.

    On the other hand, we know that it will cost a lot of money now to reform our prison system so as to save far more later. To actually rehabilitate the anti-social, treat the mentally ill, and so-on will be far more expensive in the short-term than just banging them up – that is, after all, why we do it. In the long-term, though, the savings to our society of all the costs of re-offending – not just to the prison system – will vastly, vastly outweigh them.

  • JohnBEllis

    Well, that does indeed make a refreshing change. Like many of us, I remember Michael Howard haranguing … Howard haranguing? Nah! Heseltine, Thatcher and even Hague harangued: Howard merely wittered! … so, Michael Howard wittering at the Tory conference back in the 90s asserting that “prison works”.

    Of course it didn’t bloody work – then, just as now, anyone with an iota of brain activity could see it didn’t work, or we wouldn’t have such a huge amount of recidivism and we wouldn’t need to keep building more prisons.

    And nothing’s happened since Howard’s day as Home Sec. to change that. About time the whole thing was looked at afresh. Giving Clarke, with his customary breezy common sense and willingness to go out on a limb, the Justice brief is an excellent idea and might lead to some effective new thinking on our penal system, the first for donkeys’ years, and not before time.

    There’s two other incidental morals to this, both of which Amol Rajan has touched on. The first is that Ken Clarke is, and always has been, a breath of relative sanity in the Tory party. If they’d had the sense to elect him as leader on one of the various occasions that he stood, I’d have given at least some thought to voting for them. I think they might even have got in with him at the helm, and he’d certainly have been the parliamentary equal of any of the NuLab lot, Blair included. But his party was too dim, Thatcherite and Europe-fixated to do it, and so, deservedly, they remained in the doldrums.

    The second is that we almost certainly wouldn’t have seen this without the Lib Dems in government. Not because Mr Clarke wouldn’t have wanted to do it, but because he would have been argued out and shouted down by the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” tendency in his party. Now the Lib Dems, who’ve long campaigned against the ineffectiveness and counterproductivity of UK penal policy, give him both allies and cover. It may be that some other Tories at the top secetly feel the same, but haven’t dared to put their heads above the parapet for fear of the gibbering tendency in the party and the tabloids. Now they can. Which is another positive, to lay alongside the doubtful and uncertain bits, in the rather strange and unfamiliar first stages of this (on the face of it) improbable coalition.

  • markfour

    The Tory message is quite shocking ,less police ,less nhs ,less civil service, less prison time,less all round cover. It is now time for everyone to look after their own families and for private enterprise, which includes the criminal classes , to go out there and make a killing. IT IS OPEN SEASON FOR THOSE WHO LIKE DISORDER AND LAWLESSNESS.

  • WodjahBildaberg

    It’s difficult to strive out in the common world, finding the dolla for bills, for food and for dependents – tings are not likely to get any easier in the coming years:
    – sometimes folk become immune to the hardships faced in cells and it’s a simpler life than worrying about the next thing that threatens prosecution coming thru yer letterbox
    - i can understand why people prefer Bird to being tortured by the Bankas’ tyranny

  • WodjahBildaberg

    It's difficult to strive out in the common world, finding the dolla for bills, for food and for dependents – tings are not likely to get any easier in the coming years:
    – sometimes folk become immune to the hardships faced in cells and it's a simpler life than worrying about the next thing that threatens prosecution coming thru yer letterbox
    - i can understand why people prefer Bird to being tortured by the Bankas' tyranny


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