Bruce Anderson: Our prison system must change. Prisoners should be offered hope as well as hard work

My friend Jonathan Aitken says that the 'work' he encountered in prisons was a joke
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Not all that long ago, Tony Blair had a favourite phrase: "joined-up government". He used it to contrast himself with John Major. The Major government had been at the mercy of events: his would control them. He would determine the strategy, which ministers would implement.

Imagine what would happen if Mr Blair now claimed to be running a joined-up government. Never would laughter be more incredulous, ridicule, more torrential - or more deserved. Previous governments have lost their authority; previous prime ministers have been broken by criticism. But there is no precedent for the scale of the current dégringolade over law and order.

Ministers contradict each other; junior ministers contradict their bosses. The Attorney General and the Lord Chancellor try to make the Home Secretary moderate his criticisms of the judiciary. The Home Secretary takes no notice. The Law Officers also try to restrain the Prime Minister. It is hard to tell whether he is taking any notice. These days, he is just a loose sail flapping in the wind; a mere flotsam, tossed from tide to tide by the tabloids.

The Government is no longer even pretending to control the agenda. If The Sun or the Daily Mail run a law and order story demanding action, some minister will be promising it before the later editions leave the presses. Confronted by a government in the grip of opportunism, panic, moral collapse and anarchy, the judges are beginning to retaliate. It is an extraordinary spectacle. It is also a demeaning one, and the only man who could restore order is powerless. This could not have happened if Blair had still been Prime Minister.

These issues go well beyond law and order. In one respect, that is unfortunate, for our criminal justice system really does need joined-up government. Imprisonment has always been an intellectual mess. We spend a great deal on a very high prison population. That might be necessary, but at present we are also paying for an appalling high recidivism rate. Seventy per cent of prisoners re-offend within two years of release - and those are only the ones who are caught. It is time that we worked out the rationale for imprisonment.

George Bernard Shaw said that there were two types of people in prison; those who should never have been put there and those who should never be let out. There is wisdom in that statement. A small minority of offenders such as murderers, rapists and paedophiles are such a threat to the rest of us that they need to be confined for long years; perhaps for life. (This does not apply to the murderer who snaps after decades of intolerable domesticity, the drunken husband who disregards a late "No", or the schoolmistress who seduces a 14-year-old boy.)

Another small minority of criminals try to make a lot of money out of armed robbery, fraud or drug dealing. They too deserve long sentences. But the vast majority of criminals are inadequates. This does not prevent them from being a thorough nuisance, but in their case, imprisonment should prepare them for a return to freedom.

A radically different prison regime is needed: a much more challenging one, in which prisoners are trained, educated and made to work hard. In the average prison today, the inmates shuffle around like anthropoid apes. My friend Jonathan Aitken says that the "work" he encountered in prisons was a joke. It was difficult to make a so-called day's duties last for more than a couple of hours.

That must change. The prisoner's regime ought to be a strenuous one, with the inmates running between activities like schoolboys afraid of being late for class. Like schoolboys, late or lazy prisoners should face sanctions, such as no television or association; chronically unco-operative ones, an additional sentence for the new offence of being an idle prisoner. In future, prisoners should earn their privileges by the sweat of their brow. If this violates the rights which they enjoy under the Human Rights Act, that is a further reason for repealing it.

Prisoners should be offered hope as well as hard work. Each prisoner should have a tutor to help him prepare for freedom and find a job. After a certain stage in their sentence, prisoners should be encouraged to work outside the jail - in bona fide jobs, of course, not helping cousin Alf, who tried to provide an alibi, in his car-respray business.

It would assist matters if the non-dangerous prisoners were on flexible sentences; say six to 15 months for a first-offence housebreaker. Prisoners would earn an early release not by obeying the rules - they would do that anyway or be charged with being an idle prisoner - but by learning to read and write, getting off drugs and co-operating enthusiastically with the attempts to find them a job.

This would be expensive, but it need not cost as much as one might think. There is one prison officer for around two and a half prisoners, and the Prison Officers' Association is one of the last pre-Thatcherite trade unions. There is a suspicion that in many nicks, the "officers'' spend a lot of time drinking tea in their messes while working out their overtime payments. No more lazy prisoners; no more lazy prison officers.

It was a bright idea of David Cameron's to divert wasteful expenditure on ID cards to higher spending on prisons. Prisons always find it hard to obtain their due share of public expenditure. In every public spending round, the Chancellor always says the same thing to the Home Secretary. "Your colleague at health wants more money for cancer patients. The Ministry of Education wants to build more nursery schools. The Social Security Secretary wants to spend more on the elderly poor. And you would like me to spend the money on prisoners.'' The ID cards savings may prove a cunning way to circumvent the Treasury's obduracy.

But stone walls do not an adequate prison make. It is vital to have a transformed regime. At present, a lot of prisoners who cannot cope with the outside world become socialised into prison. In future, that must be made impossible.

None of this can be achieved without a change of government. As recent events demonstrated, Mr Blair's administration has simply imploded. It is no longer capable of discharging its most basic duties. Downing Street's authority has disintegrated to such a state that ministers - even junior ministers - feel free to say what they like and to make up government policy as they go along. This is no way to run a serious country.

Mr Blair ought to be careful. His government has just made it possible for local councils to seize houses which have remained unoccupied for more than six months after the death of the previous owner. Any day now, Gordon Brown will be demanding the key to Number 10. He will point out that, as nothing has been going on in the building, the previous occupant has obviously been deceased for some time.