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Labour is in chains to Tory rhetoric

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