Mark Oaten: 'Every cab driver I have met likes my national service plans'

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Mark Oaten has a date with the porn squad. He is preparing for a confidential briefing from Metropolitan Police undercover officers. The meeting is so sensitive that reporters are banned.

Mark Oaten has a date with the porn squad. He is preparing for a confidential briefing from Metropolitan Police undercover officers. The meeting is so sensitive that reporters are banned.

Mr Oaten's interest in tackling pornography stems from his role as home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. Many Liberal Democrat activists take an interest in the distribution of pornography. At last year's party conference they voted - after a lively intervention from a sex shop owner named Julia Gash - to legalise the selling of hard-core porn to 16-year-olds.

But at this week's party conference Mr Oaten is hoping to divert the party faithful away from pornography on to issues such as crime and immigration.

Since taking over as home affairs spokesman a year ago, he framed the ideology of "tough liberalism" and is adamant that the party must shed its image of being soft on crime.

"We had to toughen up the message because unfairly we were perceived as being weak on crime. That's what polling showed," he said. "But I also knew that I wanted to take a liberal approach to the portfolio. So in the back of my diary I wrote 'tough liberalism' and it worked for me as a phrase."

He points out that 70 per cent of young criminals revert to their villainous ways when they leave jail, while most 18-year-olds in prison are incapable of filling out a job application. He wants to have them in the prison classroom by 9am each morning and ensure that they can read and write when they leave jail.

Mr Oaten, 40, is full of enthusiasm as he describes his plans to stop reoffending and reform the prison regime. His vocabulary is peppered with catch phrases such as "pay back not lay back", which are accentuated by a very slight lisp which means that "crime" sometimes sounds a bit like "cwime".

The MP for Winchester has travelled the length and breadth of Europe looking for solutions to tackling tearaways. At the moment he is rather taken by the Finnish brand of restorative justice where offenders are forced to meet their victim and hear the consequences of their actions. The Dutch prison system, where criminals go out to work during the day and are back behind bars at 5pm, has also caught his imagination. On a recent prison visit in The Hague, Mr Oaten was bemused to find the cells were empty.

"I went in and said, this is very odd. Where are all the prisoners?" he recounts. "Nobody escaped and they just carry on working when their sentences are finished."

Mr Oaten argues that there is scope for exploring this system in the UK and to give non-violent criminals the choice between an electronic tag and a prison cell.

"You may have the ability to ask people, do they want to go through the community service regime or do they want to go to prison? They will both be quite harsh regimes," he said.

He is very keen on the idea of community service as an alternative to prison. But he believes parish councils and neighbourhood groups should have a say in which jobs the criminals - who would be electronically tagged - would do. "We would require the work they do in the community to be set by the community itself," he said.

It is not altogether surprising that Mr Oaten has an aversion to prison cells. His House of Commons office closely resembles one. For the past seven years, since he was elected in the Winchester by-election in November 1997 (his general election victory by two votes in May that year was declared invalid) he has occupied an office 4ft by 10ft, with a tiny window and grubby walls. What looks like a large sewage pipe doubles as a coat rack. And, like the old lags he wants to reform, he has tried to spruce up his cell with pictures of his family.

"This is such a horrible room I need to cheer it up. I loathe it. It's baking bloody hot and no air con," he complains. "Our party's office allocation is based on when you came into Parliament. I am the most junior MP of the '97 intake because I was thrown out and had to fight the by-election." He may have the worst room in the Commons but he is now one of his party's most senior MPs. A close ally of Charles Kennedy, he has become an outrider for the party and is frequently fielded on BBC Radio 4's Today programme and BBC1's Question Time to explain new ideas in his ebullient style.

But although he is now seen as mainstream, it was not always so. Four years ago, Mr Oaten was fighting virtually a single-handed battle to dissuade the party from simply slipping into the left-wing clothes Labour had abandoned.

"Three or four years ago I was uncomfortable about the image the party had of being tax and spend. Now I think we have got the message absolutely right and we are being very fair on tax," he said. "I really urge those colleagues who may still be uncomfortable to rally round. I think we have an absolutely cracking message for the next election."

Mr Oaten may be at the forefront of the "modernising" wing of the party, but other MPs are worried that the liberals are beginning to look a bit too authoritarian. In an essay in The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism, which with its "right-wing" emphasis has caused a terrible row among MPs, Mr Oaten even floated the idea of re-introducing national service. Yobs could live in residential "national service camps" for five months' community service with people from other backgrounds. "When I was in Finland and in Germany they had national service operating. The German system was fantastic. It is an opportunity for young people to go away from home, break that cycle of who they are mixing with and learn about the discipline of getting up in the morning."

Mr Oaten stresses that the idea is "not party policy", anticipating the row the proposal would cause. But the notion of bringing back national service, albeit in a voluntary form, has, he says, gone down well with London cab drivers. "Every cab driver I have met liked it so it must be controversial," he jokes.

Using cab drivers as a litmus test for future policy may be unorthodox, but it is part of Mr Oaten's insistence that it be realistic as well as idealistic.

He wants to reform the system of anti-social behaviour orders with new plans for the Asbo-plus, where the punishment would be matched by some kind of incentive for tearaways to change their ways.

Joy riders would be not only fined but sent on car maintenance courses and be given the chance to tear round a race track. "At the same time as you are issuing the joy rider with the £40 fine not only does he get the £40 fine but he also has the requirement to turn up to a course on being a car mechanic or a creative scheme where they take youngsters that are joy riding and sent on certain tracks and go out racing cars," he said.

This week he will publish a new asylum policy which would allow claimants to work while their claims are processed. He is also planning to strip the Home Office of its powers to admit asylum-seekers to Britain. This should be handed to an independent agency, possibly a UN body. But he also wants "speedy removals" of failed asylum-seekers "who abuse the system". He says it is "much more compassionate" to remove them from the country than to cut benefits.

"I would much prefer a knock on the door to take a family away on a forced removal than taking away the benefits of asylum-seekers," he said.

But although the message is tougher than before, he is adamant that the party "will not use asylum-seekers as a cheap way to boost poll ratings".

Indeed, at the next election he wants to make "the positive case" for immigration to Britain with a system of quotas for foreigners to fill permanent jobs in the UK. "We will be the first party to suggest quotas on immigration," he said.


Born: Watford, Hertfordshire, 1964

Education: Local state schools, degree from Hertfordshire Polytechnic

1986: Becomes first SDP councillor in Watford

1988: Consultant, Shandwick Public Affairs

1992: Stands for Parliament in Watford, polling 10,000 votes

1995: Selected to fight Winchester. Appointed director of Oasis radio

1996: Becomes managing director, Westminster Public Relations

1997: Two-vote majority at general election declared invalid. Wins November by-election by 21,556 votes

2001: Returned to Parliament with a 9,634 majority

2003: Replaces Simon Hughes as Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman