Labour is in chains to Tory rhetoric

Andrew Rutherford says Jack Straw must cut prison numbers, on land and at sea

Share
Related Topics
In the House of Commons this afternoon the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will confirm that within days, prisoners will be transferred to HM Prison Weare, the New York prison vessel now moored in the Weymouth naval dockyard.

The ex-container ship is a hulk, Michael Howard's legacy and symbol of Tory penal policy. Labour's question is whether to keep it. Does it remain hostage to the populist agenda it inherits from the Tories (which it helped to create) or, after calm reflection, change tack? Early indications are ambiguous.

Take Mr Straw's "zero tolerance" slogan. It is already in danger of becoming the Labour counterpart to "prison works". Draconian police powers and a heavy reliance upon imprisonment are no substitutes for carefully addressing anti-social and offending behaviour over the long term.

Yet a promising aspect of the new Government's policy is involving local authorities by imposing a statutory duty on them to develop crime prevention strategies, which necessarily will take time to come on stream. Some things can, however, be done at once; for example, building up leisure facilities for young people. That sort of move would receive wide public support and the clamour for curfews and similar restrictions might subside.

Setting the tone on crime is every bit as important as legislation. Jack Straw is going to have to do something in the face of the record number - more than 60,850 - currently held in the prison system. The prison population has gone up by a third in the last five years. Furthermore, recent Home Office projections may have underestimated the level of underlying growth.

It is a grave situation, but whatever the Home Secretary says, his body language is read attentively by judges and magistrates. He must attempt to change the sentencing "mood" by encouraging courts to think of other, more constructive penalties. Some of his predecessors (most notably Roy Jenkins, William Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd) eschewed a passive stance on prison numbers. Mr Straw will need to sort out his own position and the rhetoric he deploys before agreeing to yet further expansion of jails on land or at sea.

Closely connected is the question of whether he should bring into force the main provisions of the Conservatives' Crime (Sentences) Act, which would have the effect of pushing up prison numbers. Mr Straw has said he hopes to meet the original implementation target dates, but that he is also aware of the projected increases in prison population. He is going to have to revisit sentencing, putting an end to mandatory prison terms, and with them, the worst of the American experience.

The explosion in the use of penal custody is just one area where Labour must be wary of repeating the failure of President Clinton's "tough but smart" stance on crime. While vast sums are being appropriated to construct additional prisons and jails, crime prevention programmes have suffered.

Over the past five years, Labour has taken a mostly instrumental view of the criminal law. Criminal justice and penal policy are regarded simply as being part of the armoury for combating offenders, as if they did not reach to the core of how a society defines itself and to whom it affords the protections and opportunities of citizenship. Aspirations for an inclusive society will inevitably sour as the paraphernalia of incarceration increasingly litter both landscape and seashore.

The author is chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
More From
Andrew Rutherford
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A sculpture illustrating the WW1 Christmas Truce football match in Liverpool  

It's been 100 years since the Christmas Truce, but football is still changing the world

Jim Murphy and Dan Jarvis
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there