Ken Clarke is right to challenge “prison works”

As Justice Secretary bravely intervenes, all Labour can do is parrot Michael Howard and cry: “Prison

Kenneth Clarke's plan to reduce the number of criminals sent to prison has led to the alarming but increasingly familiar spectacle of Labour attacking the Conservatives from the right.

In an article for today's Daily Mail, Jack Straw in effect endorses Michael Howard's declaration that "prison works". He writes:

Michael Howard took over from Kenneth Clarke as home secretary in mid-1993 and set about a different and significantly tougher policy. It wasn't all to my liking, but he deserves credit for turning the tide.

And there's more. In a remarkable act of self-punishment, he writes:

Mr Cameron's broad approach was right before the election. Indeed, so was his consistent criticism in his years in opposition that Labour was not being tough enough.

Straw, far from Labour's most authoritarian home secretary, fails to explain why his views have changed so noticeably since 2008, when he argued:

There are effective alternatives in terms of non-custodial penalties which actually have a better record in terms of preventing reoffending than short prison sentences. The probation service has become more effective.

Could it be that the opportunity to attack the "soft" Lib Dems for allegedly dragging the Tories to the left was too good to turn down? It could be.

The truth, as Straw once knew, is that for far too many detainees, prison does not work. It is the excessive use of short sentences that has led to Britain's appalling recidivism rate. At the moment, of the 60,000 prisoners given short sentences, 60 per cent reoffend.

Nor should this come as a surprise. As Clarke will say in his speech today: "Many a man has gone into prison without a drug problem and come out drug-dependent. And petty prisoners can meet up with some new hardened criminal friends."

Clarke, a brave and honest politician, can now expect to face the combined forces of the Tory right, the Daily Mail and the Labour Party. They will cry with one voice that prison works: an offender can't commit a crime if he is behind bars. But this quick-fix, short-term approach stores up more problems than it solves.

If Clarke has the patience and the political will to reform our prison system, we will all have at least one thing to thank the coalition for.

UPDATE: For an alternative take, Peter Hoskin's post on Coffee House is worth a read.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.