Leading article: Porridge that pays

Related Topics

It is a fortunate minister indeed, but also a shrewd one, who announces a set of reforms in an unpopular area of policy to almost universal applause. We are talking here not about Iain Duncan Smith, who presented his plan for the most substantial reform to welfare "for a generation" with a disappointing lack of detail, but about the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, who gave the Conservative Party conference an outline of his plans for far-reaching change in prisons. From party stalwarts to officials and prison reform lobby groups, Mr Clarke's plans were warmly received – and rightly so.

Prisons have long been a lamentably neglected area of policy – neglected, that is, except in the one requirement that they accommodate ever more people. With upwards of 85,000 currently incarcerated, Britain has proportionately the highest prison population in the EU. Soon after taking office, Mr Clarke announced that he wanted fewer people sent to jail. Such an intention was almost unheard of from a Conservative minister, but he got away with it, largely by dint of being Ken Clarke, with a little help from the fact of being in coalition.

Yesterday Mr Clarke went further. Not only does he want fewer people locked up, he wants those who are imprisoned to be usefully, and even gainfully, employed. And instead of the derisory sums – an average of £8 a week, cash in hand – that prisoners are permitted to earn at present, he promised 40 hours of real work a week in return for the minimum wage.

It is hard to know what not to like about these proposals. As Mr Clarke said yesterday, prisons are places of "sluggishness and boredom", where prisoners are often left to vegetate in their cells. The availability of drugs in prison, while a national disgrace, is a separate issue. For most people on the outside, it beggars belief that so many prisons have made so little effort to root out the pervasive drug culture that has developed there. In one way, though, it is related: the lack of any even vaguely stimulating activity produces the boredom that fosters the drug-taking, which is then tolerated by prison managers for the sake of a quiet life.

One of the Labour government's great failings was to fill the prisons in the name of being tough on crime, while doing little or nothing to tackle either the drug problem or the paucity of opportunities for training and rehabilitation. If Mr Clarke manages to carry out what he is proposing, almost everyone should benefit. Many more prisoners will have something useful to do, and a reason – a wage packet – beyond mere activity, to do it. A record of working and perhaps a skill should be an asset when it comes to their reintegration into society when they are released.

Mr Clarke's proposals are also imaginative in that it is not only prisoners who stand to benefit. Some of their pay would be used to compensate their victims; some of it could contribute to their living costs while in prison. Another part could be saved for their release. It is suggested that these savings might be held in a special fund and made accessible a year or so later, on condition that the prisoner has not re-offended within that time.

The difficulties, as so often, will be in the implementation. Cost is bound to be an issue – but it already costs a huge sum to keep somone in prison. If, as must be hoped, the effect is to reduce re-offending, the outlay will be repaid. Any concern that prisoners will be employed at the expense of other job-seekers should be scotched by the minimum wage stipulation, while a requirement to work should answer complaints that prisoners have an easy life. The only substantial objection raised yesterday concerned sick and disabled prisoners. But a work test might mean that they would, finally, receive the medical treatment they need.

Still, Mr Clarke has his work cut out. Prison culture has proved frustratingly resistant to change; he will need all the political will and all the public support he can muster.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own