by Kevin Meagher
As campaign slogans go: “Soft on criminals, soft on the bedtime of criminals” is hardly a winner.
But it nevertheless appears to be Labour party policy after Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan today described the government’s bid to introduce a new 10.30pm “lights out” policy in young offender institutions as a “gimmick”.
Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, believes the move will help inmates (“most of whom have had chaotic and troubled lives”) by setting clearer boundaries and instilling some much-needed self-discipline.
According to today’s Independent, prison governors have been told to enforce the new policy from August. After 10.30, watching television – or reading under the covers – will be strictly banned and staff patrols will enforce the measure, including removing privileges from anyone breaking the new rules.
At the same time, however, Grayling also proposes to “more than double” the hours of education and training that under-18s in custody receive each week.
Khan’s – and Labour’s – response?
“Routine is crucial for those with chaotic lives, but to think that turning the lights off at the same time in every youth prison is all that’s needed to turn them all into law-abiding citizens is a joke,” he said.
“This looks like a gimmick to cover the cracks caused by Grayling’s cuts.”
“A joke?” Really? “A gimmick?” Was this response off-the-cuff? And who was Khan aiming it at?
Why did he not say something more balanced like: “Setting boundaries for young offenders is sensible and helps provide structure and encourage self-discipline; however Chris Grayling’s cuts to prison budgets means there are concerns about staffing these new arrangements.”
Of course, the politics of this intervention bears some scrutiny. Sadiq Khan hopes to become Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London and, not unreasonably, believes that party members in the capital are more liberal than the electorate at large. Perhaps this explains the tone of his reaction?
But he is also the party’s justice spokesman for the whole country. This intervention is disastrous – maddeningly so – in convincing middle ground opinion that Labour is fit to govern. What offer does the party now make to victims of crime when it appears to put the inalienable right of teenage criminals to watch Newsnight above victims’ concerns about justice?
Grayling’s move isn’t a return to the ‘short, sharp shock’ approach of the early 1980s. It’s about enforcing the kind of reasonable restrictions that most people probably think already apply in prison.
Still, Khan’s reaction was not as risible as the response of Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust. She actually said: “As most parents of teenagers know, common-sense discussion, constructive activity, setting reasonable boundaries and encouraging personal responsibility all work better than new hard-and-fast rules backed by petty restrictions and harsh punishments.”
Just deconstruct that for a minute. Prison officers are supposed to enter into “discussion” with inmates about when they go to bed? And a 10.30pm bedtime in prison is a “harsh punishment?” Has Ms Lyon actually seen Midnight Express?
Of course, if any of the lags had shown “personal responsibility” in the first place they probably wouldn’t have fetched up where they are.
But what’s so galling is that Khan, like many others on the liberal-left, don’t seem to understand that for young, non-graduate workers, a 10.30 bedtime after a hard day’s work would be entirely normal.
Grayling and the Tories must be laughing their heads off.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut