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.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496