Penal policy takes a regressive turn

Politics 1, Coherent policy 0

So the tabloids have been thrown their red meat. Using crime to shore-up one's political capital is -- after a brief lull -- back in fashion. Penal policy is poised once again to take a regressive turn.

Those in this country who believe in a more rational and humane penal policy have, for several years now, quietly put their faith in the Conservatives. In opposition, a succession of shadow justice ministers carefully crafted a sensible alternative to the policies pursued for over a decade by New Labour -- policies that had sent the prison population rocketing to record levels, while doing little to build public trust in the justice system. The recession meant that the money for expanding the penal estate had run out. The Conservatives, it was pointed out, have a proud record of penal reform, as well as being best placed politically tackle spiralling prison numbers. Think Nixon in China.-

This cautious optimism was reinforced following the election. A new rational approach to penal policy appeared one of the issues that bound Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers together. Ken Clarke took up the helm at the Ministry of Justice and seemed just what was needed -- an experienced street-fighter, who wasn't climbing the pole to higher office, who believed in penal reform and was prepared to defend it. He duly launched his 'rehabilitation revolution' -- a coherent plan to stabilise the prison population (hardly the most radical of policy goals) and cut re-offending rates. The new Labour leader Ed Miliband indicated that he would stop using penal policy as a political football.

This week, Clarke's ambitions have suffered a major blow -- as has the hope of a more rational penal policy. Cameron will try hard to present this as the act of a 'listening' government. His advisors will tick this off as a political triumph. But let us be in no doubt -- in policy terms this is bad news. It is true that Clarke got himself into an embarrassing mess in his handling of remission for rapists who enter early guilty pleas -- and a shame that Miliband could not resist grabbing a short-term political prize. It is not even obvious that greater remission for guilty pleas was ever a defensible or principled way to tackle the crisis in our prisons. There is also no doubt that many of the issues here -- notably what to do about the 6000 plus serious offenders currently serving indeterminate prison sentences -- are difficult, perhaps even intractable -- in policy and political terms. But the government's U-turn had little to do with these policy dilemmas. It was politics, stupid.

The government is now left with a far less credible and coherent plan for cutting prison numbers and reducing re-offending. Nor is it easy to see how it can fill the £130 million hole now created in the Ministry of Justice's budget. We are told that the Ministry of Justice will look for (still more) 'efficiency savings', and that probation budgets may now be under further threat. Is this any way to advance a 'rehabilitation revolution'? David Cameron's decision to wrap the welcome review of indeterminate sentences in a crowd-pleasing promise to get 'tougher' with serious offenders will drive the prison population up. This too will divert more resources from non-custodial measures to reduce crime.

There remain aspects of the government's plans that may make a small dent in what remain appallingly high rates of post-prison re-offending. But they are being launched in what is once again an inhospitable climate, in the face of wider political choices that make it harder still for them to succeed. One wishes the beleaguered Mr. Clarke well. He needs to keep reminding his colleagues that bloated prisons vacuum up scarce resources that can be put to much better elsewhere. Until that point is grasped, measures such as justice reinvestment --- which tackle crime by diverting resources from short-term prison sentences to prevention and rehabilitation programmes in local communities -- will remain stuck at the margins of the penal policy agenda. A report published today by IPPR shows this this to be a more principled and workable way of dealing with the prison logjam.

But the government is not alone in now having serious questions to ask. It is surely a sign of Clegg's current political weakness that he agreed to sign off all this. Liberal Democrat supporters will recall that Clegg entered the last election promising to end the penological folly of short sentences and will rightly be asking what Clegg is up to. What of the Liberal Democrats claim to be moderating the worst excesses of Conservative government? As for Ed Miliband, one wonders how he is feeling today. If he is pleased, he certainly shouldn't be, as his own rapid u-turn was instrumental in bringing Clarke's proposals down and re-heating the penal climate. Having helped create this mess, perhaps Miliband and his justice team can now begin the difficult task of building something better from the ruins.

Ian Loader is Professor of Criminology at the University of Oxford. He is co-author of Re-Designing Justice. Reducing crime through justice reinvestment (IPPR, 2011).

 

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.