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Leading article: Porridge that pays

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.