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The coming Conservative clash about prisons policy

by Paul Goodman

HERBERT NICK MP Tim described the Coalition's prisons policy recently as one of David Cameron's seven vulnerabilities (the first, in fact).  I wrote earlier this year about it as Ken Clarke's challenge to Michael Howard's legacy.  The Comprehensive Spending Review has confirmed Justice as one of the "losing" rather than "winning" Departments: its future spending will be scaled back by some 25 per cent.  The Daily Telegraph cited a claim earlier today that pruned budgets and Clarke's prejudices will mean that "each year some 26,000 offenders currently sentenced to three months would be spared incarceration".

The paper wrote -

"The argument against short sentences is that they provide little scope for rehabilitation. But the argument in favour is that while a criminal is in prison he cannot burgle someone's house or steal their car. Many of these persistent offenders have already been through the courts many times. It is naïve to think they will not carry on offending if they are dealt with leniently...It is no coincidence that the last time the number of prisoners fell, Mr Clarke was responsible for penal policy – and crime was higher than it has ever been before or since. His policy may be well-meaning, but it borders on the reckless."

In short, the Government is heading towards a big tangle over prisons policy with its own backbenchers, party members, and the Telegraph and Mail - plus the Sun.  This gives Nick Herbert's speech yesterday to the Howard League for Penal Reform a special interest.  Herbert is very much a man of the radical right, having headed up Reform before entering Parliament; pushed internally for a more flinty view of the Human Rights Act (a piece he wrote for ConservativeHome on the matter is still well worth the read), and most pertinently held the Justice brief in Opposition, working up policies in this area.

At the heart of the speech is the unspoken contention that the whole policy approach holds together.  "The Ministry of Justice has to play its part in reducing the deficit", but "we are not going to approach sentencing matters ... on the basis of cutting costs".  Dealing with the deficit forces politicians to "ask the tough and searching questions", but Herbert was putting them anyway in Opposition.  As he said then, there must be a "rehabilitation revolution", with private and voluntary sector organisations paid by results to reduce reoffending.

As a result of this reform, the prison population will fall - aided by "action-centred" Local Partnerships focused on those at risk of offending and re-offending; "punitive" community sentences outside prisons and "productive and meaningful employment" within them (including financial reparations to victims), plus "better treatment for mental health and drugs problems" and integrated rehabilitation programmes that continue "through the [prison] gate".  Herbert ends by saying that "Piling offenders into a prison system which isn't working, and which presides over high rates of re-offending, does not make us safer."

I like the parts of the policy.  Prison should try to rehabiliate offenders, and Local Partnerships to ensure that ex-offenders and potential ones don't go there in the first place.  However, I'm sceptical about whether the Local Partnerships will work in practice - particularly at a time when the Local Government spending scalebacks will result in a lot of short-term dislocation - and whether the community sentences will turn out to be "punitive", and "robust and rigorous", as Herbert also describes them.  He and Clarke will have plenty of chances to prove me wrong.

However, the key issue with the speech, for me, is whether its proposals hold together as inviolably as Herbert implies, and the whole equals the sum of the parts.  I'm not convinced that it does.  A smaller prison population brought about by more effective rehabilitation is one thing; one brought about by fewer criminals who are likely to reoffend not going there is quite another.  There's a legitimate question about whether the spending scaleback's driving the policy, or whether it would be happening anyway, but to me this is secondary.  The main one is: what's prison for in the first place?

Rehabilitation, certainly.  Punishment, sure - and deterrence, too.  But it's also there to ensure public safety: a man or woman can't commit further crimes against the public from behind bars.  And the key problem for Herbert's argument is that there's no evidence that not sending criminals to prisoners makes re-offending less likely - as the Telegraph's Phil Johnston pointed out in a magisterial piece earlier this year.  There must be a strong presumption that a correlation exists between the rise in the prison population since Clarke was Home Secretary and the overall fall in crime.

Herbert argues that the Government's planning a reduction in prison numbers of only 3 per cent.  Like many percentage figures, it's less stark than the number concerned - in this case, a reduction of some 3000 people over the next four years.  In Opposition, the Party looked to pick up and publicise the failures of Labour's Early Release Scheme.  Ed Balls will now seek to return the favour, and hunt for horrible crimes involving re-offenders who - he'll argue - would have been behind bars but for the Coalition.  (It'll be interesting to see if Sadiq Khan, Clarke's opposite number, takes the same line.)

Closer to home, so will much of the press - who'll also be looking for victims to tell their tales.  Which will lead to a tangle with the backbenches (who'll probably blame the Liberal Democrats, and certainly the Secretary of State).  Which will be, as the policy will if it fails altogether, bad for the Government and the country.  Which is where this piece started.  And ends.


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