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

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Ed Miliband on low pay; Alan Johnson on Betjeman; Tom Freeman on editing

John Rentoul
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments