Leading Article: Prison of the Tories' making

Share
Related Topics
ON CRIME, imprisonment and policing, British political parties seem to reverse their normal philosophical positions. On these subjects, the left suddenly becomes suspicious of the state - or, at least, that section of it represented by the police and the prison service. Nurses, teachers and social workers command instinctive sympathy from the left; for the most part, they are accepted unquestioningly as professionals who, though they sometimes fall short, struggle to do difficult jobs with the best of intentions. Police and prison officers, by contrast, are assumed to be up to no good at all. They are, in the left's view, inclined to corruption, falsehood and thuggery - hence Labour's reputation, which its leaders are striving so hard to shake off, for being on the criminal's, not the victim's side. "Young man wrongfully arrested by police" is a good Guardian story; "old lady wrongfully mugged" is one for the Daily Mail.

Likewise, the right, normally so anxious to restrain public spending, has no difficulty with the idea of fleecing the taxpayer for the fight against crime. Tories instinctively like the idea of building more prisons, just as they like the idea of buying guns, tanks and bombers. Even on his own estimates, Michael Howard's proposals for new sentencing policies, presented in a White Paper last week, will eventually cost as much as pounds 435m a year - or nearly 5 per cent extra on the cost of the whole criminal justice system, including policing. And that is on top of the pounds 1.2bn it will cost to build 12 more prisons. Most serious criminologists think these figures are absurd underestimates, largely because Mr Howard has assumed that his policies will lead to a sharp fall in crime and convictions. But such arguments are unlikely to impress the Home Secretary. "We simply cannot afford not to take this action," he said last week. Imagine a Tory minister using similar words about the need for smaller classes in schools, for better pay for nurses or for measures to alleviate poverty.

Nobody should be in any doubt that a hard line on crime is expensive. California, in the vanguard of the tough American policies that are so admired by the Tories, already spends 11 per cent of its state budget on prisons - nearly four times what it was spending in 1982, and significantly more than it now spends on higher education. On present projections, prisons will eat up 18 per cent of the Californian budget by the turn of the century. There are other considerations. The criminal justice system will almost certainly become more costly (and probably slower, too) because, if they are facing long prison sentences, fewer of those charged will plead guilty. The prisons will become more difficult to run if parole, conditional on good behaviour, is abolished.

This is where Labour, without running the risk of reviving its reputation as the criminal's friend, ought to be challenging the Tories. How does Mr Howard propose to find the money? By cutting the courts or the Crown Prosecution Service or the police or the probation service? By raising more money from fines? (Unlikely, since the declining use of the fine since 1990 has already led to a serious loss of revenue.) By cutting other public services, such as schools and health? By increasing taxes? And why does Mr Howard's party keep changing its mind on crime? After all, the present system, and particularly the parole provision, is based largely on a law passed only five years ago when the prevailing consensus, apparently accepted by the Tories, was that prison didn't work. There has been no time to evaluate whether the system is working or not; indeed, penal policies have been changed so often in the past decade or so that it is doubtful in the extreme that any criminal has sufficient understanding of them to weigh accurately any deterrent effect.

The truth is that Mr Howard has no answers to these questions for the simple reason that his White Paper is not a serious proposal at all. There is no prospect of the proposed Bill reaching the statute book before a general election is called. The Bill's real purpose is to set a trap for Labour so that Mr Howard can appear as Clint Eastwood in a pin-striped suit during the campaign. Labour is rightly anxious to avoid the trap. But it risks walking into a bigger one: that it will be saddled with a huge and unworkable public spending commitment when it gets into government.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions