Steve Richards: Ignore all this cheap populism on prisons - there is a liberal argument that can be won

The argument that prison is, in some cases, a waste of money should permeate beyond Hampstead
Click to follow
The Independent Online

With a depressing symmetry, the Government's populist approach to prisons has produced its own crisis. The overcrowded jails are full and some prisoners will be sent elsewhere.

Indeed, Labour has been so determined to be tough, it might have to be a bit soft. Yesterday, the Home Secretary, John Reid, announced that some prisoners would be moved to open jails. Imagine the headlines if things go wrong: Prisoners enjoy the good life! Prisoners run amok under Labour!

At times of weakness, ministers have boasted that they are sending more to prison than their Conservative predecessors. In the Commons yesterday, Reid pointed out, as if this was a cause for celebration, the Government was building prisons at twice the rate of the Conservatives.

Yet still there is no getting away from it. People are being locked up at an even faster rate, and then reoffending when they are released.

Earlier this year, there was meltdown at the revelation that foreign prisoners were on the loose. Few bothered to point out that these former convicts had served their sentences, and therefore were in the same position as British prisoners who were out and about after being released. The chances of former prisoners reoffending were high whether they were foreign or not. The rate of reoffending generally is the real scandal, clearly suggesting that prison does not work in most cases.

Yet still more prisons are being built. Reid went out of his way in his Commons' statement to stress that another 8,000 places would be available before long. On the basis of current patterns, that means about 5,000 of those who fill those places will reoffend once they are released.

There are two ways of viewing the current crisis. The Conservatives argue that the Government has been incompetent in not building prisons more quickly. This places them in a more extreme populist position than the Home Secretary. The other argument being deployed subtly across the political spectrum is that far too many people are in prison.

In the simplistic "small state is best" culture that is fashionable in British politics, we should note that the causes of the soaring prison population relate to the decline in state activity. In the late 1980s, the Thatcher government launched its care in the community, in which large numbers of mentally ill patients were released from hospitals. Predictably, the "community" part of the policy was ill defined. Local government was moribund. Social workers were poorly equipped to deal with large numbers of mentally ill patients leaving fully supervised institutions. Since then, prisons have replaced the hospitals as institutions that house the mentally ill.

In addition, the Government estimates that about 1 million people are socially excluded in Britain, people the state cannot reach. Innovative schemes such as SureStart pass them by. The state has not worked out how to get to them. Both the main parties are looking to the voluntary sector, which is more flexible and at times more innovative than central or local government. But even the most ambitious charities worry that they have become too much of a political fashion, they are not up to the task alone.

The voluntary sector must be an addition to the state's resources and initiatives, not an alternative, or else we will have another care in the community situation, where the state withdraws and prison takes over as the means of dealing with the vast number of disconnected people. While spending on prisons soars, the amount invested on the less fashionable cause of rehabilitation is puny. Yet more than 60 per cent of prisoners reoffend. Most are released and are still a threat. Before long, they are back in prison at vast expense. More government focus is needed on the unfashionable cause of rehabilitation.

But here is an encouraging twist to the tale. Even in a country brainwashed by terrifying and misleading stories of soaring crime, this is a liberal argument that can be won. Those that advocate root-and-branch reform in relation to penal policy are not merely a bunch of woolly liberals gathered together on the unrealistic, vote-losing part of the political spectrum.

The former Conservative Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, has been arguing for reform for more than a decade with a forensically informed passion. The former Chief Inspector or Prisons, David Ramsbotham, has been a passionate advocate of sweeping change. He is a former army general, who served in Northern Ireland. He famously carried out an unannounced inspection of Holloway prison in the 1990s and was appalled by the conditions he found there. Not surprisingly, he soon discovered poor management was endemic in the system.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, not known as a romantic socialist, advocates unpaid work as an alternative to jail, and spent a day on a council estate to prove his point.

An alternative big tent is forming, and this coalition has a trump card that the prison builders cannot play. Their proposals are more cost effective. With a familiar sloppiness, the Conservatives call for more prisons to be built, along with their demands for better child care, more cash on defence and the rest. The Government spends a fortune on prisons already. The next public spending round will be tough, a time for a ruthless analysis of what provides good value. The argument that prison is, in some cases, a waste of money should permeate beyond the dining tables of Hampstead.

Possibly the big tent will include some Cabinet ministers soon. On Any Questions at the weekend, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, argued that it was important to ask why Britain locked up more people than the rest of Europe. He implied that in Northern Ireland he would contemplate a more enlightened approach.

Hain is a candidate for the deputy leadership. This bizarre interim period before Tony Blair's departure is giving room for some of the more progressive ministers to breathe for the first time since 1997. At The Independent's fringe meeting at the Labour conference, Hain announced proudly that he had abolished the 11-plus examination in Northern Ireland. Now he does not lapse into straightforward populism is relation to prisons. He is starting to make Northern Ireland sound like a progressive's paradise .

Prisons are hidden away. What happens inside them does not make the headlines. The reoffending rate does not cause much of a stir either. Only foreign prisoners, and wild claims that ministers are soft if they did not build more prisons, make the headlines. But a surprisingly big and respectable coalition is challenging the orthodoxy. What a shame the leadership of the two main parties remains outside, weakly reinforcing exisiting popular prejudices.