Please, Mr Chancellor, why don't you . . .: 'Independent' contributors make their pleas and suggestions to Kenneth Clarke for tomorrow's Budget - Nurseries: We can free the funds

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PUBLIC expenditure on the agencies of social control has virtually doubled in the past five years. At the same time there has been a squeeze in spending on the health service, child care and education, youth employment and crime prevention. The Chancellor should reverse this trend by taking money from punishment and investing in social order, particularly through nursery provision.

Total expenditure on the criminal justice system has risen from pounds 4,624m in 1986/87 to pounds 8,770m in 1991/92. The biggest waste of public money has been building 21 new prisons at a capital cost of pounds 1,100m. Each new prison cell costs about pounds 85,000, more than building a three-bedroom home.

The Chancellor himself has played a key role in this nonsense. During his brief spell as Home Secretary, he encouraged the use of prison for large numbers of children, minor offenders and those on remand. Since last Christmas the prison population has risen by 17 per cent to 47,600.

Children are often victims of this policy: 523 children aged 15 were sentenced to prison in 1992, but only 33 had been involved in violence against the person. In the same year, 70 per cent of 376 boys aged 15 remanded were not sentenced to prison because they were either not guilty or their offence did not warrant it.

There could be a simple but effective trade-off. We know that prisons do not work, and nurseries do. The Chancellor should abandon the prison building programme and encourage a nationwide network of excellent nurseries. More resources for pre-school and early schooling would prevent truancy and the slide into offending later.

Locking young people is desperately expensive in both human and financial terms. Four out of five youngsters are reconvicted after release, so prisons are feeding the crime problem, not solving it.

It costs more than pounds 22,000 a year to keep someone in prison. It costs about pounds 4,000 to keep a child in a good nursery. Experience from the US and Britain shows that investing in high quality, loving education for young children helps them become active citizens. The Chancellor must tell the Home Secretary that nurseries prevent crime and prisons foster it.

The Chancellor should insist that the Home Secretary rescind his promise to the Tory party conference for six new adult prisons and abandon his lunatic proposal for secure training centres for 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds: pounds 300m could be saved by cancelling the new adult prisons and pounds 75m by dropping the children's prisons, and taxpayers' money could provide many bright, new, well-equipped nurseries.

Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.