Commons Confidential: Help from Blair’s friends

PLUS: A trip to Durham for the 129th Miners' Gala.

Blue Ed’s bashing of the trade unions is opening coffin lids as Blairites rise to offer advice, to the Miliband they opposed, on how to fight a Labour civil war. The prospect of a factional dispute prompted Peter Mandelson to slip quietly into the back of a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Regulars couldn’t recall when he last tipped up, and likened his presence to a shark scenting blood in the water. Mandy scribbled furiously and said nothing. Miliband, I hear, avoided informing MPs he’d require unionists to opt in to, not out of, a levy to the Labour Party. On the eve of the huge announcement Blue Ed was deliberately vague, several of those present tell me, about the details in order to avoid a hostile reception. The calculated haziness recalled how Tony Blair failed to spell out his Clause Four plan at the 1994 conference, inserting a soft line at the end of his speech on the need to change the constitution, so that most delegates left the hall ignorant of his plan. All very Mandelsonian.

Where is Michael Foot’s walking stick? John Wrobel, the manager of the Gay Hussar eatery in Soho, favoured for decades by the one-time Labour leader, is trying to track it down. Wrobel intends to display the stick on the wall in memory of his old customer, who died in March 2010. The “donkey jacket” that Tory MPs and right-whinge papers claimed Foot wore to the Cenotaph on a Remembrance Sunday, supposedly insulting the war dead, is on display at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. The short overcoat was in fact bought from Harrods by Foot’s wife, Jill Craigie, who insisted the Queen Mother complimented her hubby on his choice of attire. Foot’s stick could double today as a support for MPs leaving the Gay Hussar, mostly unsteady after a long lunch.

To the city of Durham for the 129th Miners’ Gala, where Dave Hopper, chief hewer to the local pitmen, introduced yours truly as a journalist on the Daily Mail. I resisted the temptation to liken his slip to me calling this National Union of Mineworkers veteran of the heroic 1984-85 strike a member of the scabbing Union of Democratic Mineworkers, not least because Hopper’s a big lad. Ed Miliband spoke at last year’s Big Meeting, as Durham people call the local gathering of the coalfield clans, and indicated he’d be delighted to attend next year. The invitation will be issued. It will be interesting to see if the Labour leader accepts, after recent events.

The ex-Paisley Daily Express hack now Glasgow Labour MP Tom Harris is turning Dennis Skinner memorabilia into a nice little earner for his constituency party. Harris collects the Beast of Bolsover’s prayer cards – reservations carrying a name which are slotted into brass holders to bag a spot on the green benches. Skinner signs them for Harris to raffle. The last raised £25. Hardly a hedgefund million or a gift from the unions, but every little helps.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

One PLP meeting regular likened Peter Mandelson showing up to "a shark scenting blood in the water". Montage: Dan Murrell/New Statesman

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.