Leading article: Tired soundbites and failed policies

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The Independent Online

David Cameron might have modernised his party in many respects, but yesterday the conference hall in Manchester resounded to some depressing old Conservative tunes on crime and punishment.

The backdrop to the speaker's podium might have been high-tech, but the message that "prison works" was scarcely any different from the philosophy outlined by Michael Howard 15 years ago. The Shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve, rose to pledge that a future Tory government would create more prison places. The shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, was next proposing that those who caught carrying a knife should face an automatic jail sentence. This followed on from their leader's pledge last week to double magistrates' sentencing powers. The Tories still seem to believe, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary, that the only sensible way to deal with crime and antisocial behaviour is to throw as many people as possible into jail.

To give credit where it is due, the Conservative leadership has been impressive in recent years in resisting the Government's attempts to erode our civil liberties in the name of making us safer. They have steadfastly opposed attempts to increase detention without trial, the ballooning police DNA database and the folly of ID cards, despite the sympathy of many within the party for such methods. But their hostility to the Human Rights Act does Mr Cameron and his team no credit. Mr Grieve was deeply disingenuous yesterday when he implied that the Act, rather than the laziness of certain police forces, is preventing the display of wanted posters of criminals.

The Conservatives say they want radical reform in every part of the criminal justice system, from the police, to the courts, to the probation services. In principle, that is an admirable ambition. The problem is that we heard very little from the Tory home affairs team yesterday on this.

The pressing need for drug rehabilitation and the scarcity of education resources in prisons were scarcely mentioned. There was nothing said about the overwhelming need to get the mentally ill out of our jails. What we heard on the whole were familiar soundbites and policies that have been tried many times and consistently found wanting.