Aitken denies political comeback

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Disgraced Tory former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken denied today he was making a political comeback as he was unveiled as the new head of a study for a prison reform think-tank.

The ex-prisoner suggested it was "time to move on", and said he was looking forward to offering his experience to issues such as overcrowding, repeat offending and prison illiteracy.

He told BBC Breakfast: "I have been at pains to say that this is not an ego trip for me. It's certainly not a political comeback.

"What it is is an assignment, a job which I've been asked to do, to head a team of very distinguished experts whose names will be announced later today, all of whom know a lot about prison policy. I hope I know a little bit."

He responded to Labour comments that the move, which will be confirmed by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith today, showed Tories were returning to their "disgraced, scandal-ridden past".

He said: "I think most people might think it's about time to move on. I can't change the past. I can perhaps contribute something to thinking on prisons for the future.

"If one or two journalists want to go back to those days 10 years ago and bang on about them, that's perfectly right to do so."

He added: "Of course, Iain Duncan Smith, who must have weighed this up with his colleagues, would have weighed on the one hand the advantages of having somebody who obviously cared about, knew about the prison system, with that fact that anybody who has been through the criminal justice system - three people on our panel have - they've all got some baggage, and I certainly have."

Mr Aitken will head a study on prison reform for think-tank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which advises David Cameron on social issues.

His return to public life will be regarded as a remarkable comeback for someone jailed for 18 months in 1999 for "calculated perjury" during a libel action.

The 65-year-old said: "What I am doing is doing a quiet job of heading up a study group which is under the auspices of the Centre for Social Justice, and we are going to look with a very distinguished team of experts at the whole field of potential prison reform policy ideas."

But Labour whip Tom Watson said: "This is a return to the disgraced, scandal-ridden Tory past. What can we expect next from the Tories?

"David Cameron should go all the way, bring in Jeffrey Archer to run a truth and reconciliation committee, draft Neil Hamilton in to advise him on parliamentary modernisation and scrutiny and bring in Shirley Porter to overhaul his housing policy."

Mr Aitken resigned as chief secretary to the Treasury in 1995 so he could sue The Guardian over allegations that a Saudi businessman paid for him to stay at the Paris Ritz in breach of ministerial rules.

Mr Duncan Smith, who runs the CSJ, told The Observer it is time to rehabilitate Mr Aitken, insisting: "Everybody deserves a second chance, that is the whole philosophy of the Centre for Social Justice."

A Conservative Party spokeswoman said: "The CSJ and the Conservative Party are two separate entities and they make their appointments independently."

Mr Aitken's bid to return as MP for his former seat of Thanet South in 2004 was blocked by then party leader Michael Howard.

He subsequently confirmed he would not seek to return to Parliament.

Mr Duncan Smith will also announce an inquiry into gang and youth crime in Britain, it was reported today.

He will say that youth crime, unemployment and educational failure is one of the most important challenges facing Britain, reports the Daily Telegraph.

"The murder of little Rhys Jones in Liverpool and the murders of 20 teenagers in London this year by the gun or the knife is a wake-up call for politicians of all parties," he told the newspaper.

"Family breakdown and school failure are important long-term factors in the growth of a violent and anti-social youth culture.

"We need to tackle these problems, even if it may take a generation before we can see the benefits."

The inquiry will look at how crime in New York has been tackled with a zero tolerance approach to law enforcement.