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15 November 2007

A reformed character?

Jonathan Aitken is heading a Tory prison reform group. Some eyebrows are raised.

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

It has been seven years and nine months since Jonathan Aitken walked out of prison clutching a bin-bag containing sweater, toothbrush, dirty shirt, socks and pants from the previous day. All his other possessions, mostly books, had been sent home the day before. This week Aitken announced he was heading a prison reform group for Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice.

Duncan Smith called Aitken and asked him to come in for a chat and they swiftly pulled together quite a team of experts, including two criminologists. The report should take around ten months, during which there will be regular meetings and hearings. A CSJ worker, speaking fondly of her charge, says quietly: “It could be said that Iain himself has had a lot of self-evaluating and forgiving to do over the past few years.”

A Cameron aide doesn’t distance the party, but says: “This is a report commissioned by Iain Duncan Smith and not a formal Conservative Party policy group. We are perfectly comfortable with it and have no doubt it will be helpful to talk to them. Jonathan’s experience is invaluable.” However, the Tories are keen to point out: “We were doing our own prison review earlier this year.” True, the shadow secretary of state for justice Nick Herbert is already leading a prison reform and sentencing review announced by David Cameron in July. Another strategist says: “We did underestimate the amount of publicity Iain’s launch would received. There were, however, no panic meetings, with monkey cries of, ‘Oh my God, Aitken’s back, lock up your daughters, blow up the Ritz’.”

This month, Jonathan Aitken and the talented jazz and blues singer Helen Hicks are embarking on a tour – the slightly unusual combination of Aitken talking about his new biography of John Newton, an 18th-century slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace”, and a heavily pregnant Hicks singing with her guitar. This venture/experiment is in aid of Chaste, the anti-sex-slave-trafficking charity that provides safe houses for women in the UK, one of five charities Aitken actively supports. Their dry run evening in Soho was an absolute hit.

Hicks says of Aitken: “I don’t know how he finds the time. I’ve known him for years and he is a delight. A charming, genuinely nice person.” She adds: “I have been saddened to read the term ‘disgraced MP’ in the press. There is no doubt he slipped up, but you are unlikely to meet a more humble man.”

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Recent comments about Aitken have disappointed him too, but he shrugs off those who have chastised him: “Unreconstructed partisans like [Peter] Preston and [Denis] MacShane should move on and consider what is best for prisoners.” On Monday evening, after the CSJ prison reform launch, he was returning from an engagement speaking at the Oxford Union, where he had been talking about prison reform. The reaction of the students had surprised him.

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“It was packed,” he says, modestly adding, “obviously nothing to do with me. They really seemed to be interested in prison and rehabilitation. I’m seeing a real change tonight. When I was at university I had no interest in prisons. These young people will inevitably go on to wonderful careers, but at least they recognise there is a problem.”

Aitken is honest when he speaks of his past. “I blush when I think of my own Tory backbench speeches. I didn’t say, ‘Lock ’em up and throw away the key’, but I did say life should mean life. Of course, back then I didn’t understand.”

Of his Tory chums, he remembers the kindness of those who stuck by him after he was sentenced to 18 months for perjury. “When I was inside, six members of the cabinet did visit me: Howard, Portillo, Rifkind, several others. I was not totally abandoned. Unlike the popular perception, politicians do have a sense of community. Malcolm was able to put a smile on my face and Michael was utterly gracious, even though the prison officers were awful to him.” There were those who let him down: “I did of course lose one or two close friends . . . but I gained some inside.”

David Cameron is genuinely interested in prison reform: it does appear to be moving faster on the Tory agenda than on Labour’s. Cameron’s own special adviser, Danny Kruger, runs Only Connect, a charity that works in London prisons, staging theatre productions with inmates, and preparing them for release and life outside.

One of Aitken’s thoughts before leaving prison was: “I will never again make a public speech in my life.” This reflection was short- lived. In a Notting Hill back garden at a small charity fundraiser a couple of years ago, in aid of Only Connect, Aitken talked passionately about prisoner rehabilitation. Once you got over the fact that he was wearing a belted safari suit last seen on Roger Moore in Live and Let Die, he made compelling listening.

Asked about the present Conservative line-up, Aitken is reflective: “What strikes me is that it is all looking so strong, not just Cameron but the others: Davis, Hague, IDS. I admire [Liam] Fox and [Dominic] Grieve, they’re top ministerial material. Compared to the present cabinet, the Tories have some real heavyweights, the nation recognises them.”

One shadow secretary of state is particularly incensed by the comments of the Labour whip Tom Watson in reference to Aitken, who joked about bringing back Jeffrey Archer and Shirley Porter. He says: “Watson’s remarks were cheap and unnecessary. Jonathan has served his sentence, he’s visited prisons in 17 different countries, and for the past seven years has campaigned quietly for prisoners and rehabilitation. Can Watson momentarily cease thinking up soundbites and think of anyone more qualified to be part of a discussion on prison reform?”

Aitken’s contemporary, the former home secretary Douglas Hurd, once said: “Prison is a very expensive way of making bad people worse.” Perhaps this one was made better.