Steve Richards: Charles Clarke's removal would be the easy option for Blair, but it would achieve nothing

It would be another symbolic act as an alternative to some sensitive policy-making
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The Independent Online

There is panic in the air. A foreign rapist lurks around the corner. A foreign murderer lives near by. There is only one solution. Sack Charles Clarke and as a bonus get rid of Prescott too. We would all be safer then.

I do not want to add to the sense of fearful anger, but here goes: Former prisoners, including rapists and murderers, always lurk somewhere once they have been released. There is also a high chance that they will re-offend. This is what happens. Prisoners serve their sentences and then many of them commit further crimes. Clarke could be sacked tomorrow. Prescott could follow the next day. Foreign prisoners could be deported in an act of xenophobic triumph. We would still be at risk. As I shall go on to explain later we would be more at risk if Clarke was to lose his job.

First here is the truly shocking news. Former British prisoners re-offend too. It is not just those beastly foreigners that commit crimes once they have served their sentences. This is the hidden scandal. I recommend a book written by the former Inspector of Prisons, David Ramsbotham. With a justified echo it is entitled Prisongate - The shocking state of Britain's prisons and the need for visionary change. Everyone in the Home Office should read it, from the Home Secretary downwards, as a matter of urgency. If there is to be a new Home Secretary he or she should read it too.

The book highlights the chaotically complacent attempts to deal with prisoners - all prisoners, not just those from abroad - once they have served their sentences. In one chapter the author opens with some alarming statistics: "58 per cent of all adults, 78 per cent of all young offenders aged 18 to 21 and 88 per cent of all young offenders aged 15 to 17 re-offend within two years of release."

Think about it. More than half of British prisoners re-offend and the proportion is much higher for younger convicts.

An objective of penal policy is to protect the public. The policy is failing on a massive scale. Prison does not work. What is more we know it does not work. One of the more illuminating reactions in recent days was the safe and accurate assumption made immediately the story broke. Without knowing any more details politicians across the spectrum knew that some of them would have re-offended. We have come to accept the danger with a casual complacency in the same way we assume that Britain cannot have an efficient and affordable transport system. When prisoners are released a significant proportion will still be a threat.

In his book Ramsbotham highlights some of the reasons for this. On a more epic scale the factors are similar to those that produced the crisis of recent days. With a depressing predictability bureaucratic incompetence and a lack of political will are to blame.

The prison service appoints a Director of Resettlement, but the post turns out to be merely a change of title. Previously the job was known as Director of Regimes. A civil servant, who has never worked with prisoners, holds the post. The director has no operational or financial responsibility. It is little more than a grand title.

More specifically Ramsbotham argues that a home, stable relationships and a job are the key factors in preventing former prisoners from re-offending. The prison service fails to address all three. The prison inspectorate recommends the introduction of housing advice centres. The prison service does not follow this advice. In many cases relationships are destroyed because prisoners are placed in jails hundreds of miles away from those they were living with. Several schemes aimed at preparing prisoners for work in the community are scrapped by previous home secretaries in order to get a headline that shows how tough they are.

The current Government is acutely aware about the centrality of rehabilitation and the bureaucratic incompetence that stifles attempts to improve the situation. Indeed its own Social Exclusion Unit noted in one report that: "No one is ultimately responsible for the rehabilitation process at any level - from national policy to the level of individual prisoner." Little was done to address the problem.

Rehabilitation does not capture the headlines or, even worse, it tends to attract negative publicity. The current Government follows Tory predecessors in its timid willingness to dance to populist tunes, fearful of appearing "soft". Instead of focusing on rehabilitation ministers build additional prisons and lock up more people. In a predicable twist the Government suffers now from the consequences of its own defensive desire to please. In recent months Clarke has spent his energies seeking support in Parliament to back the proposals to lock up suspects without charge for 90 days. The hugely expensive plans for the introduction of identity cards also sapped ministerial energies. Opinion polls suggested both policies were popular, a guiding principle in the development of policy at the Home Office.

The fate of a few foreigners is a relatively tiny issue. We are at risk because prisoners as a whole are not prepared for life outside jail. Yet we splutter and fume about Clarke. When we have finished doing that we move on to Prescott. Clarke's removal would achieve nothing. It would be worse than that. His departure would provide the media and the Government with a moment of catharsis. Interest would subside, as if the issue had been fully addressed. Nothing more would be done about the fundamental problems and a new tame Home Secretary would feel obliged to prove to masters in Downing Street that he or she was tough too. Government haters should be warned that the removal of Clarke is the easy option for Tony Blair. It would be another symbolic act as an alternative to some much tougher and sensitive policy-making.

The Prescott affair is more irrelevant still. Prescott is not even any longer a significant mediator between Blair and Brown as he was during the stormy second term. Matters have got beyond the stage of mediation. The Blair/Brown relationship will be determined by events well out of the control of Prescott. Towards the end of last year there were some doomed attempts to agree on an orderly transition. Prescott was not involved.

Yet there is a connection between Prescott's sex life and the threat posed by former prisoners. Thanks to a few lurid photographs and some newspapers' willingness to pay a fortune for exaggerated accounts of what happened we know about Prescott's liaisons. What happens in prisons cannot be seen. Although former home secretaries warn gravely about the way we deal with prisoners they are rarely heard.

Prescott's sex drive hits the front pages and we cannot control ourselves. A prisoner will be released today and will re-offend tomorrow. If he or she is British no one will notice.