Imprisonment of truth

Politicians are killing public debate, says Polly Toynbee. Below: why journalists, by trivialising news, must share the blame
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Prison works - Michael Howard is quite right. It works for him every time. Tightening the screw on prison regimes can get you a mile- high Daily Mail headline any dull news day. "Howard Bans Jail Cell TV" splashed the Mail's front page yesterday morning. The Home Secretary orders "a crackdown on prison perks" and is "taking a determined stand to establish a more austere regime in jails".

Such cynicism takes the breath away - government by Daily Mail headline. It seems to be the only reassurance left to a party drowning in its last pitiful days in power. The people no longer count. The facts certainly don't matter. The only way the Government knows it is still alive is by reading the Mail to see how it is doing. Sometimes ministers get a kick in the teeth, sometimes they land a nice big fish, like yesterday. There is no other reality.

Senior civil servants in the Home Office have all but despaired of either rationality nor even a loin cloth of honesty from ministers. They no longer dare to advise ministers that proposed policies may be seriously wrong - they know it makes no difference. How it plays on the Mail front page is all that matters. This is the strongest indication that the Tories do not expect to win the next election, since they do not expect to pick up the pieces of their policies. They are not stupid and they know that their prison policies are unachievable, unworkable, unaffordable and very nearly mad.

But where are the debates about this? Where is the Opposition? Silently biding its time. What is the point of lying down in front of Mr Howard's steam-roller? Jack Straw asks. Only by his acts in power shall we know Mr Straw, and we can guess he will do better. Yet by failing to speak out, the public is denied meaningful discussion or real enlightenment on the crime and punishment issues people rightly feel so strongly about. There is no one to tell them what works - only empty and expensive policies designed to please and bamboozle them, not to solve the problem. Who is there to scrutinise value for taxpayers' money spent on soaring prison numbers? The deficit in serious discussion on most issues that matter leaves an electorate either dangerously ignorant or wearily disaffected with all politicians.

Most of the policies in the recent White Paper threatening far longer sentences are officially not due to be implemented until the end of 1999 - in other words, never. They are just front-page policies, not plans at all. They are worth about as much as a manifesto pledge by the Green Party. For if Mr Howard imagines that his main job is to help his party win the next election with as much law and order bombast as he can summon, he must reckon that he will be rewarded by not being returned to the Home Office to see his pigeons come home to roost. He counted them out, but let some other guy count them in again.

Taking battery-operated television sets away from 2,000 long-serving prisoners who have bought their own is a piffling gesture of "austerity". But this nasty little announcement has brought rich headline dividends, so who cares? There are no votes in prisons, or at least not in running good prisons that might actually work. There are only headlines to be had from tough prisons.

However, even the Mail had the grace to report that Mr Howard is ignoring high-level warnings and that Sir John Learmont's report on prison security said more in-cell televisions could aid security by providing "a calming influence and a powerful incentive to good conduct". If not his civil servants, then plentiful other knowledgeable voices are telling Mr Howard that his prison policy is a catastrophe, a tinder box of tension building up inside many jails. One prison governor said wryly, "The question is just a matter of timing - which blows first, another Strangeways or the general election? Howard has lit a fuse and it is not a very long one."

But where is the public debate on all this? Not in Westminster among those we elect and pay to thrash out policies. Penal policy and how to rehabilitate criminals has been swallowed up into that huge black hole of problems that mainstream politicians no longer talk about. It joins poverty and the plight of the dispossessed, drugs and the law, the future of the monarchy, or taxation of the rich as one of the great unmentionables. Look for no leadership here among our "leaders", only craven following of the imaginary flock, as represented by the Daily Mail.

The facts about prisons are these: Michael Howard has overseen an increase of the prison population by an astounding 25 per cent in three years, to the highest level ever - and it is still rising by 150 a week, each one costing pounds 2,000 a month.

The new head of the prison service, Richard Tilt, has said that 25 new jails will have to be built over the next 12 years at a cost of some pounds 6bn if the White Paper is implemented. Mandatory sentences for violent and sex offenders and third-time burglars, together with prisoners serving their full sentences, will lead to another 30,000 in jail.

But what no one has said is that this will never happen because it can never happen. No government will spend that much more money on prisons. This is mirage policy done with mirrors - it doesn't exist. What is actually happening is not spending but huge cuts in prison budgets.

When I asked Jack Straw last week if prison numbers would fall under him, he said cautiously that he couldn't say they would necessarily. Why couldn't he say they would? Because the Daily Mail next day would no doubt have hit him with a headline saying "Straw To Open Prison Gates - Murderers and Rapists to Go Free".

Other voices are raised: Judge Stephen Tumim, the recent much-respected Chief Inspector of Prisons, has written on these pages of what can be done with good education, rehabilitation, arts and drugs programmes. He believes it has never been tried effectively, but intensive education does work. Prisoners can be redeemed.

Where is the major politician to make that case? Labour, for the time being, has abdicated from the law and order debate. Lock them up and throw away the key is the only game in town until the general election. The Daily Mail rules, OK.