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Tuesday, December 07, 2010 

Failing to break out of the cycle.

Ken with his long-legged, grey-haired Russian research assistant.

For those under the impression that the Liberal Democrats are in a class of their own when it comes to broken promises over policies featured in election manifestos, a quick reread of the section on crime in the Conservatives' already seminal "Invitation to join the government of Britain" tome should also amuse. While the contents have not been quite as turned on their head as the Lib Dem policy on tuition fees has become, two fairly unambiguous pledges have been shelved (from pages 56 and 57):

Today, almost four out of every five found guilty of a knife crime escape jail. We have to send a serious, unambiguous that carrying a knife is totally unacceptable, so we will make it clear that anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence.


In the last three years, 80,000 criminals have been released early from prison because the government failed to build enough places. We are determined that early release will not be introduced again, so we will redevelop the prison estate and increase capacity as necessary to stop it.

In actual fact, the Conservative manifesto was fairly tame when it came to criminal justice policy. This was surprising at the time for the reason that the Tories had up to then competed actively with Labour over who could issue the most reactionary rhetoric, repeatedly arguing that violent offences were out of control on the basis of a one-sided reading of the statistics, while damning the early release scheme in uncompromising language (including in a personal election attack billboard ad on Gordon Brown) even though it only released prisoners two weeks earlier than they otherwise would have been.

Whether this is a sign that had the Tories won an outright majority they would now be implementing much the same policies as outlined in today's green paper on sentencing and rehabilitation is impossible to know for certain. What is clear is that the Liberal Democrats, as in so much else, seem to have had absolutely no role whatsoever in the framing of the change in policy. Instead, it seems to have simply been their presence in government which helped effect the change; with Vince Cable becoming business secretary, the evergreen Ken Clarke, having shadowed the position for the Tories instead became justice secretary, helped along by Chris Grayling, the party's shadow home secretary commenting unhelpfully just prior to the election on bed and breakfasts' right to refuse gay couples from sharing a bed. With Grayling demoted to Iain Duncan Smith's underling at work and pensions, the far more liberal pairing of Theresa May and Clarke has apparently been given relative freedom to craft their own policies, although for the most part they are in tune with those outlined in the Tory manifesto.

In almost an instant the consensus that has dominated British politics ever since the murder of James Bulger, that prison works and that an ever increasing prison population is an unquestionably good thing has been broken. A trend started by the Conservatives was unquestionably followed by Labour, so terrified for so long of being seen to be "soft" on crime that it in effect handed over the helming of law and order policy to the right-wing tabloids, especially the Sun. This triangulation failed not only because such policies were self-defeating, but also because each time Labour gave in and adopted a panic measure in response to the day's passing frenzy, it simply encouraged the likes of the Sun to keep on demanding more. When successive home secretaries failed to live up to the image they had first presented, they were torn apart, John Reid memorably appearing on the front page of the nation's biggest selling newspaper minus his brain.

Whether or not the Conservatives were watching this and while playing the same game in public were planning to put an end to it should they be elected is difficult to know for sure. Certainly, the Sun's influence was still being firmly felt within spitting distance of the election: Dominic Grieve, hastily made shadow home secretary after David Davis's resignation over 42 days was apparently moved from the position after he had the temerity while dining with former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade) to critique the paper's coverage of crime, something she complained bitterly about to Cameron, saying they couldn't support the Tories while he remained on the front bench. With Brooks now moved upstairs at News International, perhaps the way was clear for the change in position to be made.

Whatever the case, no one is denying that Ken Clarke has had a major role in the change of policy. Where in the party's manifesto they committed to continuing the insanity of Labour's prison building programme, where additional spaces added to the state were filled almost as soon as they were opened for use, Clarke now actively wants to reduce the prison population, if only by a relatively tiny 3,000. The obvious problem with trying to do so is that he faces the twin difficulties of record rates of re-offending and that for the last 17 years, whether the public or the tabloids believe it or not, ever higher numbers of offenders have been going to prison for ever longer periods of time.

Both are almost certain to conspire against him. Clarke protests in his introduction to the green paper that he will not be disallowing magistrates from using short sentences, merely trying to make the alternatives to time in prison more effective for the offender and more attractive to those passing judgement. While no government was ever going to abolish short sentences in their entirety, even if the Liberal Democrats all but pledged to do so, it's still difficult to see magistrates being dissuaded from using them sufficiently to bring the population down significantly. Clarke's plans will then almost entirely rely on his mooted "rehabilitation revolution", to be achieved within the prison system itself through the development of more "working prisons", where the inmates will be expected to be either in work or education for up to 40 hours a week. Quite how this will work in practice is anyone's guess: the current working prisons mainly cater for inmates either on short sentences or reaching the end of a longer stretch, often as preparation for release. Prisons can't undercut other businesses through lower costs or reduce the number of jobs available as a consequence to law-abiding citizens, which limits even further the work which can be done. There is also no further punishment mentioned for those who refuse to work, which raises the question of how exactly the aim of engaging prisoners in challenging and meaningful work can be achieved.

Much of the burden of reducing re-offending will then fall on the new providers to be brought into the system. Again, quite how this will work is by no means certain: the first pilot, operated by St Giles Trust in Peterborough was only launched in September, and a further four projects will be established by August of next year. As yet there is not even an accepted model as to how the payments will be made, nor is it clear whether they will be any actual savings made for the taxpayer, which is surely just as key as reducing recidivism, once those providing the services have been paid. As Left Foot Forward points out, it's obvious as to why these partners will need to be brought in regardless of Clarke's aims at fostering a "rehabilitation revolution": 9,940 staff currently working for the National Offender Management Scheme are about to lose their jobs. It's also difficult to disagree with Harry Fletcher of Napo that rather than just being about reducing the prison population this is just as much about the privatisation of the current probation system, regardless of the possible effects that could well have on the re-offending rate with the introduction of completely untested new private sector providers.

Clarke then seems to be setting himself up to fail just as much as his Labour predecessors did. Unlike them, he's also had the benefit of outlining his reforms while the media for the most part, especially the tabloid sector which so did for Labour, is either supportive or making few trenchant criticisms. The worst he received today was over his party's broken promise on jailing knife carriers, with the Sun calling it a gamble with people's lives. Whether we like or not, especially when it comes to the dubious involvement of the private and third sectors in rehabilitation, those of us on the left who have repeatedly called for prison reform and an end to the authoritarian approach to crime will find our own alternatives judged on the basis of Clarke's success, a grim irony as we will so many other of the coalition's policies to fail.

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