Tony Blair - the unelected peace envoy to the Middle East. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As we mourn Benn, the rise of unelected power should shame us

In the Ukraine, the Middle East and the eurozone, authority increasingly lies with elites, rather than elected representatives.

"Having served for nearly half a century in the House of Commons, I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so."

While it’s 15 years since he said that, Tony Benn’s words today seem more apposite than ever, albeit in a way he didn’t intend. For democracy seems to be in a very poor state of repair just now, and power seems to lie increasingly not with our elected representatives, but with the elites and the establishment.

The world argues over the rights and wrongs of the Ukraine. The west howls because a referendum is going to be held asking the people of Crimea what they want, ostensibly objecting because it is "unconstitutional" (one suspects what they really mean is "we will lose"). Meanwhile, 20,000 Russian soldiers waltz into the region, largely because they know no one will stop them. And today two politicians, neither of whom come from the Ukraine, will meet in London to try and thrash out a solution to the problem that will set the future for its people. For what it’s worth, neither of those politicians are elected by the nations they hail from either.

The worst conflict in the world currently is the civil war in Syria. The democracies of the world watch helplessly as the two unelected sides battle it out, the innocent population bearing the brunt of, what I heard described last week as a de facto war between two completely different countries – Iran (currently 158th of the 167 countries listed on the EIUs Democracy Index) and Saudi Arabia (our ally, currently lying 163rd on that list, five places lower than Iran and a remarkable 21 places lower than, er, China).

And how quick we are to forego democracy ourselves when it suits the establishment to do so. I’ve railed before about the effective coups in Italy and Greece in the euro crisis, where the ballot box was quickly dumped in favour of doing what the political establishment decided amongst themselves was "the right thing". Only yesterday did we see our own Prime Minister discussing how best to solve the problems of the Middle East with the region’s – needless to say unelected – "Peace Envoy". How happy the people who live there must be that the great and the good from the UK, including the author of the doctrine of the international community, are amongst them to solve their problems. It’s like we’ve gone back to the 1950s.

It seems more than ever that the establishment are determined to decide what’s best for everyone, rather than letting the people decide for themselves. But then again, as another politician of whom Tony Benn approved once wrote, “if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it”.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.