Back on the chain gang

The last Labour administration invented joined-up government. They never managed to apply said concept, of course. Indeed, what Tony and Gordon had, vis-à-vis the connecting door between 10 and 11 Downing Street, was boarded-up government. But I have persuaded my coalition colleagues of the benefits of the joined-up approach.

You may not see a connection between the announcements that a) prisoners will get the vote; b) Ken Clarke intends to close a dozen prisons; and c) the long-term unemployed are to be forced to do unpaid labour (to the great horror of the Archbishop of Canterbury). Let me enlighten you.
Today, prisoners, peers and lunatics are not allowed to vote. The Archbishop is thus disbarred on two counts. In future, only criminals serving more than two years will be disenfranchised.

As for prison closures, many jails occupy extremely desirable development sites. In London we have Wandsworth, Pentonville, Holloway and Wormwood Scrubs, all in areas where a decent flat in a gated community costs the thick end of a million.

I estimate the net gain to the Treasury to be in the region of £5bn, less my commission for suggesting the idea to Ken, during a night out at Ronnie Scott's.

As a result of prison closures, thousands of convicts will serve sentences in the community. You may think this a compassionate approach, alien to Tory thinking. But let me refer you to the successful alternative to incarceration used in Alabama, Mississippi and Alaska. That's right, the chain gang - coming soon to roadworks near you.

There will be competition for this unpaid employment from the hordes of long-term unemployed compelled to toil for 30 hours a wageless week. But there is a difference between these two groups. Criminals will serve finite sentences - 2,000 hours for shoplifting, for example - whereas the punishment for being jobless will be endless.

I accept it is grossly unfair that the innocent unemployed should be treated so. I wouldn't be surprised if many of these poor creatures refuse to take part. Sadly, they will lose their benefits and be reduced to begging, or crime, and end up in our remaining prisons. As we will ensure their offence attracts a minimum three-year sentence, they will not be allowed to vote. I estimate that by the next election we will have reduced the number of natural Labour supporters by half a million.

I accept this is a short-term solution. Even I wouldn't ram half a million people into prisons designed for 50,000. Granted, a good number can be sent to the salt mines of Cheshire - after all, there's never enough of the stuff come winter, is there? But as for the rest - well, have you looked at a map of Australia lately? The place is virtually empty!

As told to Marks and Gran