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Monday, February 08, 2016 

The fundamental lack of imagination remains.

If there's one thing worse than telling the son of a deceased political figure how ashamed or upset they would be with the decisions they've made, as clearly the likes of Alex Salmond know better than Hillary Benn how his father would have reacted, then it's squabbling over which side a passed on political behemoth would have chosen.  

Yep, in case you missed it, the big debate in the Tory press over the past couple of days has been whether Margaret Thatcher would have been on the side of staying in or leaving the EU.  Charles Powell is convinced she would have been for in, with much the same reservations as David Cameron; Norman Tebbit and assorted others regard that as heresy.  That Thatcher had gone as crazy as a coot by the end of her time in Downing Street seems to have passed them all by, as does the fact they got rid of her for precisely that reason.  You could argue the Tory worship of Thatcher is more healthy politically than Labour's attitude towards Tony Blair, and it probably is.  It doesn't alter how unutterably creepy it is, not to mention unanswerable: failing Boris Gypsy Rose Johnson managing to channel the spirit of Thatch from the other side, we're never going to be any the wiser.  Which in a way, is the point.

Quite how miserable the next few months are going to be is summed up by the big politics story of the day, the claim from Downing Street that should the referendum result in our leaving, the migrants camped out in Calais and Dunkirk will instead be setting up tent cities in Dover.  The idea is so absurd many have claimed it's another "dead cat", designed to move the debate on, and judging by the coverage of the ensuing argument compared to that of the speech Cameron gave today, it seems to have worked.  Apart from anything else, the obvious point is that if those camped in Calais and Dunkirk make it to Britain they wouldn't then be sitting around waiting to do anything; they'd be claiming asylum or moving on to find work.  The French might be less cooperative than they are now, it's true, but why would you trouble yourselves overly with people who don't want to stay in your country anyway?

We can then only ready ourselves for weeks of claims and counter-claims, all on a subject that few are truly interested in and even fewer know anything about.  If, on the other hand, there is something approaching truth in the rumours today's speech by Cameron on prison reform is part of the move to guarantee justice secretary Michael Gove's support for the remain campaign, there might be the very slightest of silver linings.

That's a silver lining dependent on first, some of Cameron's proposed measures being implemented, and two, their working.  When you then consider that Cameron himself claimed today's speech was the first in 20 years by a prime minister focusing exclusively on prison reform, when it soon turned out Dave had forgotten he gave a speech promising a rehabilitation revolution back in 2012, the omens are far from good.  It's true, as various commentators have noted, that simply hearing a prime minister saying things like prisons are "often miserable, painful environments", "full of damaged individuals" and that "being tough on criminals is not always the same thing as being tough on crime" is novel, and welcome.  Referring to prisoners as potential diamonds in the rough, and turning remorse and regret into lives with new meaning is language of the sort politicians rarely use, often for good reason as it sounds hollow and fatuous.  That it didn't coming from Cameron today is itself something to cheer.

This said, the problems of the prison estate are obvious, and there's little to suggest that Cameron or the Tories are willing to recognise them.  The first is plain and simple, funding: the cuts to the Ministry of Justice have been some of the most swingeing, and prisons are expensive.  Part of the reason there is so little chance of rehabilitation in prison and so much idleness is lack of staff, and the amount being spent on overtime for those remaining is astronomical.  Second is overcrowding.  While it is true as Cameron says that very few, only 7% he quotes, are imprisoned for a first offence, and over 70% of prisoners have 7 or more convictions to their name, most of those will be minor, or non-violent.  As he goes on to say, almost half will have an identifiable mental health problem, while others will have an addiction of one variety or another.  Reducing the prison population by say 20% would be perfectly achievable and help massively if there were alternatives available, either in the form of expanded secure accommodation for those with mental health problems or monitoring in the community for those guilty of non-violent offences, women in particular.  This might have been possible prior to austerity: now it seems laughable, despite Cameron asking Gove and Jeremy Hunt to look for alternative provision for the most severely mentally ill.

As Frances Crook writes, it doesn't matter how much independence or autonomy you give a prison governor if they don't have the staff, the resources, or the space for their ideas to take root.  More promising is the idea of "secure academies" as an alternative to young offender institutions, although the obstacles frankly look overwhelming; it's all well and good saying you want to make it "aspirational" to work in a prison and attract the best, but again why would you when there is very little here to suggest this is anything other than rhetoric?  Similar schemes in schools themselves have fell by the wayside.  Indeed, at worst, Cameron's plans smack of introducing further privatisation where the true aim undoubtedly will be on achieving savings, at the expense of the very rehabilitation and reforms he claims to want.

Great as it is to hear a prime minister saying he wants prisons to be places of care, not just punishment, the one metric we have to judge Cameron and the Tories by so far is as he apparently accepts, the reports of the chief inspector of prisons.  By that measure prisons have got worse in the last 5 years, not better, with the reasons why staring the government in the face.  Closing the worst of the Victorian jails and building replacements will do no good if they are to be just as overcrowded and short-staffed.

Last weekend Nick Hardwick criticised the "lack of imagination and failure of empathy" of policymakers.  Today's speech by Cameron showed that when pushed, politicians can be compassionate and point towards innovations that could help.  Fundamentally however, that lack of imagination or refusal to question the failed shibboleths of old remains: prisons cannot work when they are the equivalent of warehouses for the sick, the damaged and the dangerous.  For all his fine, often empathetic words, David Cameron still refuses to recognise this.

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