Tom Copley is not happy being on Ken Clark’s side

Agreeing wholeheartedly with a politician from an opposing party on a matter of serious policy can leave one feeling rather uncomfortable.  This is particularly the case when one’s own party has been spectacularly wrong on said policy over many years.  It was this unpleasant feeling that hit me when I heard that Ken Clarke, the Tory justice secretary, had launched an assault on the “bang ‘em up” prison culture of the last twenty years.

As we move on from the new Labour years it is important to celebrate our achievements, but also to recognise the things we got wrong in power.  Labour’s attitude towards prisons is undoubtedly one of the greatest failings of our thirteen years in government.  Ken Clarke, who was home secretary from 1992-93, points out that the prison population has almost doubled since then – from 45,000 to 85,000.  That a Labour Government did this is disgraceful.

Prisons policy is undoubtedly an area where Labour was totally in hock to the tabloid press.  Keen to appear strong on crime and anti-social behaviour, successive Labour home secretaries took a macho attitude towards sentencing.  The “prison works” attitude of the previous Tory government continued, despite all the evidence that it doesn’t.

I’m not saying that we don’t need to take tough measures to protect law abiding citizens from criminal behaviour.  Measures introduced by Labour such as ASBOs, more CCTV cameras, dispersal orders and laws that make it easier to close down crack houses have all made a real difference in reducing the kind of crime and anti-social behaviour that blights communities.  And it’s always the poorest communities that suffer most.  Many deprived areas have been transformed thanks to these Labour policies.

But locking more and more people up for longer and longer periods does not help.  An increasing prison population is a sign of policy failure, not policy success.  We only have to look at international comparisons to see that despite record numbers of people in prison, this country has worse crime rates and higher reoffending rates than most other European nations.  148 out of every 100,000 people in Britain are in prison.  That’s more than any other European nation.  Yet we have the second highest rate of recorded crime out of 37 European countries.  The reoffending rate in the UK is 76%, compared with just 45% in Denmark.  How did Labour ministers look at those figures and argue that prison works?

Then there is the sheer cost of locking up increasing numbers of people.  This comes in two forms:  the social cost and the financial cost; and, of course, the two are intertwined.  In 1991 one of Ken Clarke’s predecessors as home secretary, Douglas Hurd, published a white paper stating that prison was “an expensive way of making bad people worse”.

It costs on average £38,000 to keep someone in prison for a year.  With a reoffending rate of 76% and the second highest crime rate in Europe, we are evidently not getting value for money.  Prison is clearly acting neither as a deterrent, nor as a rehabilitating and reforming force upon its inmates.  Under pressure from the tabloids, successive Tory and Labour governments have seen prison only as a form of punishment and retribution.  This attitude must change.

Look at the Finnish system.  Finland once had one of the highest prison populations in Europe, yet now it has the lowest.  The number of people being sent to prison has been dramatically cut over the years while crime rates have plummeted to well below European averages.  Why?  Because in Finland the criminal justice system is seen as part of social policy along with education and employment.  If we are going seriously to tackle criminal behaviour in this country, we too need to see prisons and sentencing as part of social policy.

To be outflanked from the left by a Tory is a position Labour ought never to be in.  Yet our attitude towards the criminal justice system over our thirteen years in government has placed us in this most awkward of situations.  And, sadly, I don’t think this issue has yet been touched on by the Labour leadership candidates.

One cut I would be delighted for the Tories to make is the four billion pounds earmarked for new prisons. Four billion pounds is an awful lot of money to throw at the tabloids. Prison doesn’t work, and we certainly don’t need new ones.  I just wish it was Labour making the sensible case on prisons, not the Conservatives.

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3 Responses to “Tom Copley is not happy being on Ken Clark’s side”

  1. Tom Bage says:

    You’re right Tom; ultimately our justice system should be about protecting everyone, and especially the poorest who suffer most from crime. It’s about time we invested serious money in prevention rather than cure.

  2. DavidAbstract says:

    Nick Cohen’s book “Pretty Straight Guys” has a chapter on early 1990s crime policy and the shift to outflank the Tories from right on Crime and Justice that was part of Blair’s time as Shadow Home Sec and then Labour leader.

  3. You’re right, but in the short term we do need new prisons. Right now we have horrible overcrowding, and you just can’t do proper rehabilitation with overcrowded spaces or when petty criminals have to be let go long before you can actually do any rehabilitative work to get them off drugs or get them to acquire sufficient skills to become employable.

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