Wednesday, May 18, 2016 

The cupboard is bare on purpose.

We are but a year into a whole 5 of Tory majority rule, and yet to judge by the thinness of the Queen's speech, it would seem the government is already running out of things to do.  This is admittedly somewhat down to how the Tories have succeeding in piloting some of the worst of their policies through the Commons already, with the Psychoactive Substances Act shortly to come into effect for just one.  Conversely, the list of bills is also slighter as a result of opposition from the backbenches: suitably watered down is the schools bill, from forcing all schools to become academies to merely pushing them in the general direction.

The real reasons for why the cupboard is bare are obvious.  First though, this wouldn't be a Queen's speech post on this blog if I didn't have a moan about the increasingly deranged nature of the spectacle itself.  The Queen is now 90 years old, and regardless of your views on the monarchy, the requirement that she carry on getting dolled up to read out the inane bumpf of her latest government surely can't be allowed to go on much longer.  Should the Tories ever get round to sorting out their bill of rights, making the head of state read out nonsense about improving the life chances of all will have to be designated cruel and unusual punishment.  Dennis Skinner's yearly jokes have already regressed to the point where they are statements rather than attempts at humour; why not square the circle and get the Beast of Bolsover to read the damn thing out?

No, the real reason the speech has so relatively little to raise ire is that parliamentary politics is effectively suspended until June the 24th, by which point it'll almost be time for the summer recess in any case.  Anything that might further incense either the Tory backbenchers or for that matter the opposition, never mind the public, has been postponed until after the referendum.  Sure, a few on the right will hardly be pleased by the proposed prison reforms, especially the idea of some only being locked up at weekends, but they're overwhelmingly likely to be for Leave anyway.

Far more instructive than the contents of the speech itself is the way its been spun.  The BBC News at 10 has led each night this week on prisons, part of an obvious softening up process for what was coming today.  Peter Clarke, former head of anti-terrorism at the Met, author of the main report into the hoax Trojan Horse takeover of schools in Birmingham, apparent friend of the Tories and new independent inspector of prisons was given the kind of platform never previously afforded to Nick Hardwick, in the main to comment on "legal highs" finding their way inside.  High profile reporting into the chaos prisons have been descending into is of course welcome, but is hardly telling the full story unless it makes clear the problems have been exacerbated massively by overcrowding and cuts in funding.  The bill outlined today, aimed at putting into law the proposals previously announced by Michael Gove and David Cameron won't make things worse, but nor will they begin to solve them when Cameron continues to argue against the "idea that reform always needs extra spending".

Whereas just plain laughable is the idea today's attempts at improving "life chances" could ever add up to a legacy for David Cameron.  Quite simply, there's nothing there: no one could disagree with the changes to adoption or the "help to save" plans, they're just overwhelmed by the Tories' on-going contradictions.  The party can hardly be the great friend of diversity David Cameron claims he wants it to be, forcing universities to be open about their admissions while at the same time encouraging landlords and hospitals to be suspicious of anyone with the wrong skin colour or a foreign sounding name.  The party that depicts Sadiq Khan as an extremist, refusing to say London can be safe in his hands cannot be taken seriously on either discrimination or "life chances".

But then Cameron has no intention of his legacy being such things.  The other reason why the Queen's speech has so little for the Tories to shout about is he still doesn't know if he's going to be around beyond June 24th.  If he isn't, he will go down in history for austerity and being the prime minister who through the most abject weakness took Britain out of Europe.  If he is, then he most probably has another year in which to further shape how he will be remembered.  Chancing leaving Osborne, or worse yet, Boris with his legacy legislation was never an option.  Still, should the Leave campaign manage to turn around a seemingly unassailable lead for Remain, then Boris will forever be known as the man who made all porn sites verify their users are 18.

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Monday, February 08, 2016 

The fundamental lack of imagination remains.

If there's one thing worse than telling the son of a deceased political figure how ashamed or upset they would be with the decisions they've made, as clearly the likes of Alex Salmond know better than Hillary Benn how his father would have reacted, then it's squabbling over which side a passed on political behemoth would have chosen.  

Yep, in case you missed it, the big debate in the Tory press over the past couple of days has been whether Margaret Thatcher would have been on the side of staying in or leaving the EU.  Charles Powell is convinced she would have been for in, with much the same reservations as David Cameron; Norman Tebbit and assorted others regard that as heresy.  That Thatcher had gone as crazy as a coot by the end of her time in Downing Street seems to have passed them all by, as does the fact they got rid of her for precisely that reason.  You could argue the Tory worship of Thatcher is more healthy politically than Labour's attitude towards Tony Blair, and it probably is.  It doesn't alter how unutterably creepy it is, not to mention unanswerable: failing Boris Gypsy Rose Johnson managing to channel the spirit of Thatch from the other side, we're never going to be any the wiser.  Which in a way, is the point.

Quite how miserable the next few months are going to be is summed up by the big politics story of the day, the claim from Downing Street that should the referendum result in our leaving, the migrants camped out in Calais and Dunkirk will instead be setting up tent cities in Dover.  The idea is so absurd many have claimed it's another "dead cat", designed to move the debate on, and judging by the coverage of the ensuing argument compared to that of the speech Cameron gave today, it seems to have worked.  Apart from anything else, the obvious point is that if those camped in Calais and Dunkirk make it to Britain they wouldn't then be sitting around waiting to do anything; they'd be claiming asylum or moving on to find work.  The French might be less cooperative than they are now, it's true, but why would you trouble yourselves overly with people who don't want to stay in your country anyway?

We can then only ready ourselves for weeks of claims and counter-claims, all on a subject that few are truly interested in and even fewer know anything about.  If, on the other hand, there is something approaching truth in the rumours today's speech by Cameron on prison reform is part of the move to guarantee justice secretary Michael Gove's support for the remain campaign, there might be the very slightest of silver linings.

That's a silver lining dependent on first, some of Cameron's proposed measures being implemented, and two, their working.  When you then consider that Cameron himself claimed today's speech was the first in 20 years by a prime minister focusing exclusively on prison reform, when it soon turned out Dave had forgotten he gave a speech promising a rehabilitation revolution back in 2012, the omens are far from good.  It's true, as various commentators have noted, that simply hearing a prime minister saying things like prisons are "often miserable, painful environments", "full of damaged individuals" and that "being tough on criminals is not always the same thing as being tough on crime" is novel, and welcome.  Referring to prisoners as potential diamonds in the rough, and turning remorse and regret into lives with new meaning is language of the sort politicians rarely use, often for good reason as it sounds hollow and fatuous.  That it didn't coming from Cameron today is itself something to cheer.

This said, the problems of the prison estate are obvious, and there's little to suggest that Cameron or the Tories are willing to recognise them.  The first is plain and simple, funding: the cuts to the Ministry of Justice have been some of the most swingeing, and prisons are expensive.  Part of the reason there is so little chance of rehabilitation in prison and so much idleness is lack of staff, and the amount being spent on overtime for those remaining is astronomical.  Second is overcrowding.  While it is true as Cameron says that very few, only 7% he quotes, are imprisoned for a first offence, and over 70% of prisoners have 7 or more convictions to their name, most of those will be minor, or non-violent.  As he goes on to say, almost half will have an identifiable mental health problem, while others will have an addiction of one variety or another.  Reducing the prison population by say 20% would be perfectly achievable and help massively if there were alternatives available, either in the form of expanded secure accommodation for those with mental health problems or monitoring in the community for those guilty of non-violent offences, women in particular.  This might have been possible prior to austerity: now it seems laughable, despite Cameron asking Gove and Jeremy Hunt to look for alternative provision for the most severely mentally ill.

As Frances Crook writes, it doesn't matter how much independence or autonomy you give a prison governor if they don't have the staff, the resources, or the space for their ideas to take root.  More promising is the idea of "secure academies" as an alternative to young offender institutions, although the obstacles frankly look overwhelming; it's all well and good saying you want to make it "aspirational" to work in a prison and attract the best, but again why would you when there is very little here to suggest this is anything other than rhetoric?  Similar schemes in schools themselves have fell by the wayside.  Indeed, at worst, Cameron's plans smack of introducing further privatisation where the true aim undoubtedly will be on achieving savings, at the expense of the very rehabilitation and reforms he claims to want.

Great as it is to hear a prime minister saying he wants prisons to be places of care, not just punishment, the one metric we have to judge Cameron and the Tories by so far is as he apparently accepts, the reports of the chief inspector of prisons.  By that measure prisons have got worse in the last 5 years, not better, with the reasons why staring the government in the face.  Closing the worst of the Victorian jails and building replacements will do no good if they are to be just as overcrowded and short-staffed.

Last weekend Nick Hardwick criticised the "lack of imagination and failure of empathy" of policymakers.  Today's speech by Cameron showed that when pushed, politicians can be compassionate and point towards innovations that could help.  Fundamentally however, that lack of imagination or refusal to question the failed shibboleths of old remains: prisons cannot work when they are the equivalent of warehouses for the sick, the damaged and the dangerous.  For all his fine, often empathetic words, David Cameron still refuses to recognise this.

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Monday, February 01, 2016 

A fundamental lack of imagination.

At the weekend, out-going chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick gave a blistering interview to the Graun.  All but told his services were no longer wanted after he proved to be one of the most critical of inspectors in what has often been a post filled by those of an independent bent, he made clear he was in fact glad to be leaving, fearing that he was at the point of becoming desensitised to the problems of the prison estate.  Levels of self-harm and suicide are at record levels in a system that Hardwick declares has deteriorated further in the 5 years since the coalition government promised a "rehabilitation revolution".  

The only bright spot is Chris Grayling, who Hardwick relates attempted to interfere with his annual report, has since been moved on from his role as justice secretary, replaced by Michael Gove.  Amazingly considering his record as education secretary, Gove is now without doubt the best minister of a very bad lot, if only because he has spent almost the entirety of his time cleaning up the mess left by Grayling.  In little more than six months Gove has lifted the ban on sending parcels to prisoners, scrapped the criminal courts charge, reversed further planned cuts to legal aid, and persuaded David Cameron to put an end to the proposed link up with the Saudi Arabian prison system.

As Hardwick outlines in his interview, there are manifold things wrong with the prison system, but one of the most obvious is that there are still far too many people in jail who either shouldn't be or who would be far better cared for elsewhere.  Policymakers, he says, have two major failings: "lack of imagination and failure of empathy".  This could be expanded from just policymakers to be a criticism of the justice system as a whole, afflicting not just politicians and those who put pressure on them, but also the police, prosecutors and judges.  It affects not just those being processed through the system, but victims too: witness how 20 years after her death the family of Cheryl James have only now managed to obtain a second inquest, thanks to the Human Rights Act the government wants to repeal.

The absurdity of the system as it stands is perhaps best illustrated by the lack of consistency in decisions made by prosecutors.  Approaching a year after they left, the four school girls from Bethnal Green academy who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State will still apparently be treated as victims should they return to the UK, despite it would seem having no intention whatsoever of doing so.  As I've pointed out on a number of occasions, it seems doubly perverse to prosecute the sad sacks who do return home after quickly discovering they are not cut out for life in a war zone, the Mashudr Choudarys, the Nawazses, and now most notably of all, Tareena Shakil, the 26-year-old who travelled to the capital of Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, only to make her escape less than 3 months later.

Shakil it's safe to say is also the most perplexing character of all the jihadis so far charged on their return.  She apparently loved shows like The Only Way is Essex, seems to not always worn the hijab, let alone the full veil that she would have been required to in Raqqa, and it's not disputed that her brief flirtation with the jihadi cause came after the breakdown of her marriage.  Whether she genuinely was radicalised online by contact with individuals who told her she would go to hell if she didn't live under Sharia law, as well as by other notorious online figures Aqsa Mahmood and Sally Anne Jones we can't know, but it seems more realistic a claim than in many similar instances where families have insisted their loved ones were preyed upon.

Also not in dispute is that whatever the reality of how she managed to make it out of Raqqa, bribing a tax driver and then slipping past Islamic State fighters on the border as she told the court after first telling police she had been kidnapped, she did so because she had become disillusioned with life in Syria.  The claim made by the police that she posed a threat to this country has not been substantiated in the slightest by the evidence heard in court, nor by her conviction for being a member of IS and sending messages inciting terrorism.  She genuinely was escaping, not attempting to return without being noticed with the aim of either proselytising for IS once back in the country, or worse, launching an attack.  Some of the case presented against her was downright laughable: a "senior security analyst" insisted that women in Raqqa were only allowed access to weapons if they were members of an IS police unit, as clearly Shakil couldn't of borrowed a gun for the pictures she posed for from one of the other 30 women she was living with.

This is not to overlook how utterly irresponsible it was of Shakil to take her young son with her, nor how shocking and perverse it was to allow him to be photographed by the side of an AK-47, or wearing a hat with IS insignia.  We can't know for certain how much of a choice she had in much of what she did once in Raqqa, especially when like most radical organisations IS is paranoid in the extreme about spies, where refusing to do what is asked of you can soon result in suspicion and potential execution.  Nonetheless, after admitting the truth of her decision to travel to Raqqa, she has also said she doesn't want sympathy.  Nor does she deserve any for that decision.

What she does deserve sympathy for is realising the terrible mistake she made.  While it doesn't seem to have been reported what has happened since to her child, one would presume he is either now with his father or in care.  Precisely what benefit the public receives from imprisoning her for six years, of which she will likely serve three, is not immediately obvious.  Is it meant to send a message of deterrence to others in a similar position, thinking of travelling to Syria, when we know full well that such thoughts are often furthest from their minds?  Is it meant to make clear you can't "join" a terrorist organisation and then come back as though nothing has happened, regardless of regrets?  

Would it not make far more sense to let individuals like Shakil tell their story, once it has been confirmed they pose no threat, when the only people those at risk of radicalisation are likely to listen to are those whom for whatever reason felt the same way they did?  Wouldn't it be a far better use of police time and court resources to ensure that those who do pose a threat, like Siddhartha Dhar, aka Abu Rumaysah, the man thought to be in the IS video directly addressing the UK are not able to skip bail?  Shouldn't we have learned at least a few lessons by now about the way Islamic State operates, and that while we must be suspicious about anyone attempting to return, the IS view in general is that to leave is to disassociate yourself, to go back to the land of unbelievers?

Indeed, the other message the sentence sends to others who've travelled to Syria is that there is no escape.  You can leave, try and repudiate what you've done, but you'll still likely go to prison for years.  Life after prison is hard enough for most offenders, let alone those branded for life as a terrorist, needing to report to the police for years afterwards as Shakil will.  Knowing that awaits, it's hardly surprising that few whether still believing in the cause or not have made the journey home.  As Hardwick identified, fundamentally it comes down to a lack of imagination.  Shakil could have been an asset in the fight against IS.  Now she'll rot in a cell.  Terrorism aside, her fate is the same as many others who could have been helped previously, who could still be helped, but won't be until our criminal justice policy is completely re-evaluated.

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Monday, March 31, 2014 

50 shades of Grayling.

(I am really, really sorry for the title.)

Isn't Chris Grayling brilliant?  Most other politicians would have realised within a week they were fighting a losing battle over something so petty and self-defeating as preventing prisoners from having books and clothing sent into them by their relatives, and backed down, setting say a limit of one parcel allowed every six weeks.  Grayling instead has decided to resort to every excuse possible as to why such a scheme couldn't be established, even if his choice reason is one he didn't even mention in his first missive on why prisoners have to earn the right to everything under his new tough rehabilitation/privileges regime.

Yes, the real reason why prisoners can't be sent books from outside is, of course, drugs, with a side order of not allowing in extremist or pornographic material.  Grayling didn't mention a thing about illegal substances in his first response for, only that allowing in unlimited parcels would never be secure.  No one had suggested such a thing, but let's put that to one side.  Next, in a piece for Conservative Home, Grayling did open his case by asking whether it should be made easier to smuggle drugs into prison, yet he then spends much of the rest of his article complaining about how a "left-wing pressure group" (not the most accurate description of the Howard League) and other opponents are liberal lunatics for daring to disagree with him in general.  Lastly, in an open letter to the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who took part in a protest outside Pentonville prison last Friday against the ban, he strikes a far more emollient tone, while sticking to the whole drugs argument.

The obvious problem with Grayling's it's the drugs, stupid rhetoric, apart from how he's only grasped for it once everyone realised even some of the most ruthless governments on the planet still allow those they incarcerate to read as much or as little as they want, is that it's so easily solved.  Until recently Send Books to Prisoners acted as an intermediary through which relatives could send packages, making the chances of anyone trying to get banned materials through far more remote.  Rolling out such a system across the prison estate would be fairly simple.  In any case, the idea that the main way drugs get into prisons is in parcels is a nonsense: they're either brought in by the prison officers themselves or chucked over a wall, although visitors have also long chanced their arm.  In any case, more recently the most smuggled items by visitors have been mobile phones rather than drugs.

Still, you can't be too careful even if it is just books and not drugs, hence why Grayling also brings up the spectre of paedophiles "accessing illegal written pornographic material" if books aren't properly checked as to their content.  This seems to ignore how people will masturbate to almost anything if they can't get their hands on their favoured stuff, or indeed how the more ingenious will write their own such stories to be shared if they have no intention of addressing their behaviour.  Nor should the prison librarians themselves have to put up with slurs on their work, again despite no one suggesting they were at fault.  It's just that as library provision outside prison has been cut back, with local authorities also being in charge of their equivalents behind closed walls, it's hardly going to be surprising if the offering isn't as comprehensive as it could be.

Throughout his responses, the one question Grayling has failed to answer is why the privileges scheme can't be altered to allow such vital, humanising items as books, underwear and homemade cards from relatives to be sent in, while still leaving the rest of his changes unaffected.  Is it because cuts to the Ministry of Justice/Home Office have left prisons with too few staff to possibly process anything other than letters?  Is it down to how he really does believe denying prisoners the most basic things that make life worth living, unless they are earned, builds character and helps rehabilitation?  Or is it this has all been bluff, and that once the furore has died down, Grayling will allow a compromise whereby books and other items can be sent through an intermediary every so many weeks?

You have to hope it's the third and Grayling can be embarrassed into doing the right thing.  It does however speak volumes that not so much as a peep has been heard from backbench Liberal Democrat MPs on the matter, while Simon Hughes has supported Grayling.  If the intention has been to prevent any other former jailbirds from getting a Graun column on release though, perhaps we shouldn't be quite so hasty.

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Monday, March 24, 2014 

If hospitals cure...

There's been much comment, understandably, following the blog post from Frances Crook setting out how the new privileges regime in prisons means that the sending in of books, or indeed, almost anything other than a letter or a bought as opposed to homemade card has been banned.

This also covers magazines, and in my view, most outrageously, clothes.  At the discretion of the governor, as the prison service instructions on incentives and earned privileges set out (DOC), prisoners may be allowed to receive a "one-off clothing parcel" after conviction.  Otherwise, that's that.  Unless they're one of the few lucky enough to get a job in the prison and earn money to buy themselves some extra apparel, they'll be stuck wearing prison issue clothes, most likely worn by dozens of inmates before them.  Just how draconian these new restrictions are is made clear by the exception for unconvicted prisoners, who must be allowed to have "sufficient clean clothing sent into them from outside" (page 45).  In other words, those convicted may be stuck wearing the same, dirty clothes for much of their time inside.  As one of the conditions for getting on to even the standard level of privileges is to have "due regard for personal hygiene and health (including appearance, neatness and suitability of clothing)", this seems to have been designed specifically to make life as miserable as possible.

Suitably excised by all the liberal do-gooders demanding that prisoners have the right to read books when most have no intention of doing so, Chris Grayling has duly responded.  Why, the idea prisoners cannot have books is a nonsense!  They are allowed to have up to 12 in their cell at one time, so long that is as they brought them in to start with, as trips to the prison library are infrequent and there's no guarantee they'll have something the inmate will want to read.  Besides, they can also buy books with the money they earn from their job while detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure.  Those with a job are guaranteed the princely sum of at least £4.00 per week, meaning that if they don't buy anything else they can afford a paperback every two weeks.  That is if the paperback is £5.99, as those with a television set in their cell have to pay £1.00 a week rent for that privilege.  Those who don't have a job are guaranteed at least £2.50 a week, which with the £1 taken off for TV rent leaves them with £1.50 to spend as they please.  They're also not allowed to watch the TV when they could be working, even if there aren't any jobs or programmes for them to attend.  Grayling also says prisoners were never allowed unlimited parcels, which they certainly weren't.  To completely deny them anything other than letters and cards sent by friends or relatives however is a new and drastic change.

The reasoning behind all this is supposedly to decrease reoffending.  For years we heard of how "cushy" prisons had become, with even certain Sky channels allowed in private sector prisons.  Stop allowing inmates to lounge around watching daytime TV, get them either working or learning, and soon the astronomical recidivism rate will come down.  Except the reality is that even before the cuts made to the prison system there weren't enough jobs to go round, nor can every minute be spent either on specific programmes or in education (spot checks found an average of 25% of a prison's population locked up during the day).  Those not doing either are banged up, and deprived of TV or reading material the obvious result is boredom.  Boredom leading to depression, or alternatively, aggression.  How this is meant to reduce reoffending is not explained, nor does it seem there is any actual evidence suggesting a stricter privileges regime could help.  The PSI certainly doesn't suggest this is an attempt to reduce reoffending; the desired outcome section only sets out that "prisoners will engage with their rehabilitation".  Engaging is meaningless if their circumstances are much the same on release, which for most they will be.

Why then do it, when the risk surely is that even if not directly, the new restrictions might lead to the opposite of what is intended, even to riots?  The answer that it appeals to both the tabloids and to those who believe, more than reasonably, that prison is meant to be harsh and unpleasant doesn't really cover it.  That hardly anyone apart from those affected and their relatives knew is testament to the tiny impact it would have on the overall impression of the government, Grayling, or the prison system.

Instead, it's hard to shake the impression that Grayling gave the OK to such changes precisely because he could.  As with Iain Duncan Smith and his unshakeable belief that he is right and all of his critics are wrong or far worse, Grayling gives the impression of a man who always knows best.  We don't need any trials of probation privatisation, it just needs to be done.  Prisoners have wronged society, therefore allowing them new, clean underwear apart from that bought with their own money is a luxury they have forfeited.  Depriving someone who enjoyed reading outside with the means to keep up their habit is a punishment.  That some will have read to improve their literacy skills is irrelevant.  Posing as tough rarely costs votes, as long as that stance doesn't lead to prisoners on roofs.  And let's hope for Grayling's sake that doesn't happen.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014 

The hope or possibility of release returns.

Say what you like about judges, and many, especially the tabloid press often do (as an aside, it's worth noting a certain Brian Leveson, in his role as President of the Queen's Bench division, was one of the presiding judges in this case), there are times when they are remarkably ingenious. Almost everyone thought the appeal court would accept the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights' Grand Chamber, and duly find that those given whole life sentences must have some sort of body to which they could apply to have their sentence reviewed after a defined period of time. The Conservatives certainly did, floating the option of allowing judges to impose American style hundreds of years sentences, which could then be reviewed without release being any real possibility.  It seemed a great, typically Tory ploy: adhering to the ruling, if not the spirit of it, in much the same way as parliament has attempted to defy the court over giving the vote to some prisoners.

One indication that perhaps the government knew some sort of compromise was forthcoming, or had some faith in the case it was due to make to the appeal court, was that it suddenly seem to drop the above proposal, almost as quickly as it had raised it. The appeal court's rejection of the ECHR's ruling is based on what it says is a misinterpretation of the current laws: the grand chamber failed to take properly into account what section 30 of the 1997 Crime (Sentences) Act allows. Although previously it has only been used to release prisoners who are terminally ill, it can allow release in other circumstances on compassionate grounds also. The judges can't say what these circumstances might be, except that they will have to be exceptional given the fact a whole life term was considered necessary in the first place, but it still amounts to the "hope or the possibility of release" required, and to compatibility with Article 3.

Whether this is evidence of the perceived new attitude among some judges to the ECHR, no longer taking direction from Strasbourg as unquestionable, is more difficult to tell.  What it has done is both gotten ministers out of a problem, and given them a new one.  Had the appeal court agreed with the ECHR the easiest and best solution would have been to reintroduce the old system where whole life terms were reviewed after 25 years, only giving the power to the parole board or a judge rather than to a politician as was previously the case.  Instead the onus has been put back on the justice secretary, who now faces not just the likes of Ronnie Biggs applying for compassionate release on the grounds of ill-health, but the most notorious murderers and serial killers asking for the same, if that is they can point towards exceptional circumstances that have arisen since they were sentenced.  Nor will it be possible to simply dismiss such requests out of hand when the ECHR will be watching, even if it might well be a while before any such attempts to test out section 30 are made.

This itself depends on whether or not the ECHR accepts the appeal court's reasoning, should another appeal to Strasbourg be made.  It could for instance suggest that still more clarity is needed around section 30, precisely why it reached its decision in the first place, saying the appeal court hasn't in its view disproved its own analysis.  The other thing the ruling has done though, as Joshua Rozenberg notes, is to somewhat take the wind out of Chris Grayling's sails over the upcoming Tory manifesto plan for the reforming/dumping the convention.  No longer able to point to the court saying we can't lock up the worst of the worst for life, although it never said anything of the sort in the first place as both the appeal court and the QC for the government accepted, it leaves just the Abu Qatada palaver and votes for prisoners as the main grievances. A strong enough case for the Pavlovian anti-Europe Tories and tabloids certainly, but not for anyone who bothers to take an interest.  Judicial lawmaking or not, the appeal court's ruling could yet have far wider political consequences.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013 

The usual posturing on the ECHR.

If nothing else, the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights' grand chamber that those sentenced to whole life terms must have at the least a slight hope of one day being freed, has thrown up an somewhat heartening statistical comparison.  We might lock up far more people than most of the rest of Europe, with 83,902 in prison or immigration centres last week (a figure that doesn't include those in either maximum, medium, or low secure mental health wards) but only 49 of those will definitively never be released.  Obviously, some of those given life terms with a minimum period they must serve before being able to apply for parole will also never be released, while others will die in prison, but it can't be said that judges lightly pass sentences that deny the convicted any chance of reform and rehabilitation.

It's understandable then that some have been angered by the ECHR ruling, unusual in that the grand chamber disagreed with the judgement handed down by the court itself, which found against Douglas Vinter, Jeremy Bamber and Peter Moore.  Politicians and commentators alike have made the point that in abolishing capital punishment, the compromise was that life sentences that meant life for the most serious offences would be the replacement.  In actuality though, it was only back in 2003 that all discretion was removed with the passing of that year's Criminal Justice Act, when the power to increase the minimum term of life sentences was rightly taken out of the hands of politicians.  With it also went the appeal after 25 years that those sentenced to whole life terms could make.  Oddly however, those who are considered terminally ill or incapacitated still make their appeal for release on compassionate grounds to the justice secretary, hence the controversy over the release of both Ronnie Biggs (still alive, although definitely incapacitated) and al-Megrahi (dead).  The system is also different across the UK: Scotland doesn't have whole life tariffs, while Northern Ireland still has the 25-year system.

The very existence of the whole life sentence poses problems which have never been fundamentally answered.  When there is no hope of release, there is little reason for the prisoner to cooperate with the system except to make what life they have slightly easier for themselves, and in turn, the prison officers.  We saw this just last month with Ian Brady's appeal to the mental health tribunal: whether he genuinely wants to return to prison in order to starve himself to death only he really knows.  What he definitely likes doing is challenging the system, which is what his "hunger strike" protest has long been about.  It's also possible it can have even grimmer side-effects: we can't know whether Dale Cregan's motivation for killing two police officers having already murdered two members of a local crime family was, as he said when he gave himself up, for the hassle the police had caused his family, or that he knew full well the net was closing in and he was likely to spend the rest of his life in prison anyway.

As Joshua Rozenberg points out, it wouldn't take much for the government to meet the court's ruling, whether it amended the 1997 act that provides for compassionate release, or established a system through which whole life terms could be reviewed either by the parole board or a judge after 25 years. It seems extremely unlikely that any of those currently on a whole life tariff would be deemed suitable for release, precisely because they have been used so sparingly. The real issues are two-fold: that a whole life term doesn't seem like one if there is the possibility of release, however remote, the same problem there is with the life sentence which really means life on licence rather than actual life in prison; and that this is in the view of some, another example of the ECHR interfering in laws that should be left to the discretion of member states.

However much it does go against decent liberal sensibilities, that there is always the possibility of redemption and reform, there are some cases where life has to mean life.  That doesn't mean there shouldn't be a system where even the hardest cases should be reviewed, but getting the message across that this won't mean the most depraved criminals could still walk free after 25 years is going to be incredibly difficult if not impossible.  This said, the idea this is going to be legislated on swiftly is laughable: it's now 8 years since the ECHR first ruled that some prisoners should get the vote, and as yet there still hasn't been an act facilitating it.

Instead we will get plenty of posturing.  Chris Grayling we're told wants further reform of the ECHR rather than the exit, while Theresa May apparently wants us out.  It doesn't matter that however often scrapping the human rights act is discussed or leaving the ECHR is proposed, we never hear specifically what it is about the convention that makes it beyond the pale.  We hear complaints about the right to a family life preventing the deportation of criminals as well as the whole Abu Qatada fandango, when the reality is that the objection is to the way judges, both British and at the ECHR interpret the law.  Getting rid of the HRA and replacing it with a "British" bill of rights which will almost certainly contain the exact same protections is not going to change things without the legislation being so specific as to be discriminatory itself.  Unless the Tories win a majority in 2015, and they're certainly not on course for one at the moment, we might eventually get round to putting back in place a system that until very recently wasn't regarded as beyond the pale.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013 

Let's be beastly to crims (and dole bludgers).

It's the week of the local elections, which means it's the absolute opportune time to announce a new round of unpleasantness to those considered to be unpleasant.  Moving away from the usual targets, benefit claimants (on whom more in a moment), Chris Grayling has pounced upon the only people less popular with politicians, those convicted of crime rather than just deemed guilty of a moral one.

Out then go the old soft regimes where it was somewhat left up to prison governors how they operated the privileges system in their respective nicks, and in comes a new tougher scheme which seems focused on making the first two weeks in prison even more uncomfortable and depersonalising than it was already.  No longer will prisoners be allowed to wear their own clothes to begin with, have a TV in their cell (Ben Gunn says those on the basic level don't as it stands now; they also have to pay for them, contrary to popular belief), an increased number of visits or access to private cash; all must instead be earned.  Plenty of people will look at that and think that all sounds perfectly reasonable, and on one level it is.  The problem though is that it's the first few days in prison when those who are new to the experience are at their most vulnerable, both from other prisoners and themselves.  If the purpose of prison is to both punish and rehabilitate, then it helps no one if further avoidable harm is done to the individual at the very outset of their sentence.

As with so much of our policy on prisons, a little honesty and humility would go a long way.  Again, few are going to protest at prisoners being made to work a longer day, but they might if they knew there aren't enough jobs to go round in the first place, or what prisoners get in return for their labour.  There are a few schemes where they can earn in the region of £30 a week, although far more usual is pay of £4 to £10.  This is often work of the most menial kind, as a recent Howard League for Penal Reform report set out, and which hardly gives the kind of experience likely to impress employers on the outside.  For those who can't be found a job, they're likely to spend most of their time banged-up. While it's not explained exactly how prisoners can be stopped from watching TV in the daytime if they're on the higher privilege level and have one, what else are they expected to do? Read, if they haven't already finished those books they've got? Continue with any education programmes they're on, regardless of the lack of access to a tutor? Just kick their heels? Imposing boredom might be considered a punishment, but it brings with it its own set of obvious problems.

Nor do these changes take into consideration those who continue to maintain their innocence.  As admitting guilt is the first thing you have to do in order to take part in the rehabilitation programmes designed to prove your readiness to be released, those who refuse to do so will forever be stuck on the basic level, something that seems bound to lead to a legal challenge.  Then there are just the silly inconsistencies: prisoners won't be allowed 18 rated DVDs (they've long been prohibited items in medium or low security hospital wards), but will presumably be able to watch such films if they're shown on television.

The ultimate test of such changes ought to be whether they improve behaviour while in prison or decrease recidivism upon release.  One expects that studies will be established once the changes start in November to measure if this turns out to be the case.  Otherwise you could be forgiven for thinking the entire episode was designed as a purely populist measure to win a few votes during the traditional period of purdah.

Definitely not designed to win votes is the latest imposition on those without a job, a questionnaire apparently put together by the government's behavioural science unit, which must be completed on pain of the loss of benefits.  Those looking for work are presented with 48 statements, some of which are patently ridiculous ("I have not created anything of beauty in the last year"), and then asked whether they agree or disagree.  Any possibility this might help those lacking self-esteem or self-confidence is only slightly undermined by how the results at the end are largely identical regardless of whether you fill in the boxes or not.  For those worried about the creepiness of a test that bears more than a resemblance to the Oxford Capability Analysis carried out by Scientologists, it doesn't seem as though the results are recorded, which nonetheless isn't much of a reassurance.  Nor is it apparent what the point of it is, although that seems a perfectly adequate summary of the work of the "nudge" unit thus far.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013 

Every day is like Sunday. (Or, how tabloid journalism continues to work.)

Friday 8th March:
Former prison officer Richard Trunkfield pleads guilty to misconduct in public office, admitting that he sold information on a "high-profile" inmate to the Sun for £3,350.

Wednesday 13th March:
The Sun publishes front page article claiming a prison officer announced over the tannoy that the "right honourable member for Wandsworth North" was to come and get his breakfast.  It also claims that Chris Huhne asked to be moved to the vulnerable prisoners wing after he was "badgered by cons for cash".  The paper's sources for both claims are "prison visitors".

Addendum: Carina Trimingham denies Huhne was either ridiculed on his first day in Wandsworth or that he has asked to be moved to the isolation wing.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013 

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

Is it possible to not really know where to settle on the sentences handed down to Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce? As others have said, it would ordinarily be absurd to send two first time offenders to prison for a crime in which no one else was harmed, nothing was stolen and where the only real victims have been the perpetrators themselves, who might not have lost everything but most certainly have done substantial if not fatal damage to their careers. It's also the case that giving high profile figures "deterrent" sentences isn't just manifestly unfair, it doesn't achieve its aim. If anything, the coverage of the case is likely to increase the numbers aware of how to swap driving penalty points and make the practice even more widespread.

This said, there's always something eminently distasteful about the way politicians and public figures tend to regard the offences their own commit, and the way they respond to crime committed by everyone else. There have been plenty of tributes to the pair, especially to Huhne, most ignoring that he kept up a lie for 10 years, only admitting guilt after his attempts to get the case against him thrown out had failed.  Perverting the course of justice is an extremely serious offence, regardless of the circumstances, or as Simon Jenkins claims, how the entire judicial system is built around lying. While the likes of the Mail have delighted in Huhne's downfall, it's been nothing compared to the way plenty responded to the bringing low of Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer. That politicians on the whole remain wedded to the idea that prison works all but demands that their misdemeanours should be treated just as harshly as those committed by those at the bottom of society.

You don't though have to feel any sympathy for Huhne or Pryce whatsoever to regard the entire case as a circus.  Justice Sweeney, as the Heresiarch argues, seemed to swallow the media narrative wholesale and did his very best to add to it. His judgement on Pryce was extraordinarily harsh, who while devious and complicit in the offence has been comprehensively screwed over by all those she thought she could trust, first Huhne, and then the Sunday Times and their remarkable disregard for her as a source.  However much we might recoil from the phone calls she made to Huhne in an attempt to get him to admit to forcing her to take the penalty points, it's worth recalling how Huhne told her their marriage was over: during a World Cup game, with his parting remark being that Pryce shouldn't talk to the newspapers. And with that, he went off to the gym.

One contrast to draw is the settlement reached today between George Monbiot and Lord McAlpine, where he has pledged to perform three years of charitable work rather than pay damages. Quite apart from how I fail to see how either Monbiot or Sally Bercow libelled McAlpine with their tweets, it seems a remarkably more productive if over the top way to pay penance.  The most obvious example of a politician attempting to make up for their failings is John Profumo (again, whether he had much to make up for at all is dubious), who spent 40 years doing various good works in the East End after his resignation as an MP.  On these terms, a lengthy period of community work would normally have been a perfectly fitting sentence rather than a prison term.

I say normally as this isn't a normal case, however much it ought to be.  The normal punishment for the offence of swapping penalty points does seem to be a short prison term, whether it seems the right one or not.  In line with this, it would have been perverse for Huhne and Pryce not to go to prison.  All the same, it just doesn't seem right, and to go against Simon Jenkins again, I don't think there has been any great public glee at their downfall.  Rather, it's been the media that's revelled in it, as though they're either making up for something, or preparing for what might be coming to some of their own shortly.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012 

David Cameron is duly invited to the vomitorium.

All things considered, there are relatively few things I find so anathema that they make me feel physically ill.  Coming from someone who was so often throwing up at one point that I was ironically nicknamed "sick", factor in I barely feel comfortable in my own skin at most times, and this is quite the statement.  Compare me to David Cameron for instance, who finds the mere prospect of prisoners gaining the right to vote so terrible that he gets the urge to purge, and it's apparent my constitution is positively cast iron.

Cameron is by no means the only politician moved to blow chunks at having to give the franchise to those currently detained at her majesty's pleasure.  Truth be told, I'd wager the vast majority couldn't care less or quite probably even privately support giving some behind bars the opportunity if they so wish to vote.  It's that this is something being forced on them by the European Court of Human Rights.  If there's one thing politicians can't stand it's being told that they have to do something, unless of course it's the Daily Mail or the Sun doing the ordering, in which case they immediately hop to it.  Combine this with how it's the European court saying we have to change the law, even if the ECHR doesn't have anything to do with the European Union, as well as how this is about the supposed human rights of those who some on the right feel should count themselves lucky they aren't given just bread and water and left with only a bucket to piss and shit in, and it's a no brainer.  If they can't pontificate about this at pompous length, just what can they hiss and moan about?

Sadly, like it or not, the government has to look as though it's at least starting the process of changing the law or the Council of Europe might start imposing a few tiny fines over our intransigence.  In reality it's not so much the Council the government's worried about as it is prisoners starting legal action demanding compensation for being denied their rights, something that will almost certainly cost far more than any fines from Europe.

In line with the deadline set by the ECHR expiring tomorrow, the coalition has then duly set out the earliest possible draft of its prospective legislation (PDF).  In clear defiance of the court is that one of the options available to MPs will be to vote against any prisoners gaining the franchise, with the other choices to extend it to those serving sentences of less than 6 months and 4 years respectively.  Since the last skirmish over these proposals, the legal situation has changed slightly, as the draft bill sets out.  The grand chamber of the ECHR found in the case of Scoppola v. Italy (No.3) that it wasn't necessary for the judge at the time of sentencing to specifically remove the right to vote from the guilty party.  It did however reaffirm the principle that a blanket ban was discriminatory, so the inclusion of the do nothing option in the draft bill is the equivalent of sticking two fingers up to the court.

As Joshua Rozenberg (always worth remembering Rozenberg is married to Melanie Phillips, so he must have had a really enjoyable past week) sets out though, the government does still have significant leeway.  The ECHR doesn't demand that the law be changed immediately; merely that they set in motion the process of altering it.  This it has duly done, albeit at the last possible moment.  Whether the eventual published bill will make its way to the statute book before the next election is therefore highly doubtful.

Nonetheless, by including the status quo option at all the government seems to be setting itself up for a fall.  If it had really wanted to make things difficult for the ECHR while still complying with successive rulings, it could have gone for an even shorter limit than 6 months; why not 3 months, or 4 weeks?  It may well be that the joint committee will subsequently reject the option of offering no change in the bill, but that seems unlikely considering the strength of feeling among MPs.  The thinking appears to be that as long as the issue is defined in law, regardless of how, the court will have to bow to the will of parliament.

Not only is this foolish considering the legal advice, it's at odds with the coalition's somewhat enlightened views on attempting to reduce the level of reoffending.  Only this week Chris Grayling announced that all those sentenced to a year or less would be given a mentor on release who would try to guide them away from a return to crime, a sound idea, albeit one that needs resources and ingenuity the government and its favoured private sector contractors tend not to have.  Recognising that cutting those serving short sentences off from society until the day they're dumped back on the street is damaging rather than beneficial ought to be the first step towards designing a rehabilitation programme that truly works.  By allowing those serving under a year to vote if they so wish would be a further sign that regardless of what they've done, they will shortly be a member of their local community again, with all the rights and responsibilities (ugh) that entails.  Plus, if it means David Cameron and Tory backbenchers heaving as they go through the division lobbies, that's an incalculable bonus.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011 

Clarke should resign and truly break the cycle.

The usual tendency in politics is to offer much before you win power, then to do very little, if not the direct opposite to that you promised once you're in it. Ken Clarke and the Conservatives seemed for a time to have got it backwards. Despite their manifesto making the usual noises on law and order, with mandatory jail sentences for those committing a crime using a knife and a pledge to "redevelop" the prison estate to ensure early release wasn't necessary again, Clarke was swiftly given the authority to almost completely ignore the hardback blue tome. Helped along by the cuts being made to his budget, Clarke quickly proposed measures that would have resulted in a drop in the prison population of around 6,500, while there were to be further sentence discounts for early guilty pleas.

As quickly as this surprise was sprung on us, it's been taken away. Clarke, it has to be said, didn't make things easy for himself. With the tabloids always likely to oppose even the slightest changes to a system they have had a major part in imposing upon us, he had to watch his every step and take a softly softly approach. His unfortunate performance during a 5 Live interview presented them with a massive open goal, which they took advantage of gleefully. Since then we've had the riots, and with so much else the government is doing becoming increasingly unpopular, Ken has been fighting a losing battle. First went his sentence discount plans and call for more community sentences, and now his opposition to mandatory terms with the exception of those convicted of murder has also been overruled.

Whether this has any connection to the battle between Clarke and Theresa May over that darn cat, or if indeed the apparent animosity had surfaced before then is difficult to tell. May has never really come across as a populist, so maybe it's simple cynicism: doing what the tabloids want in an attempt to get them to back off elsewhere. Certainly, Cameron could hardly have been comforted by the continual attacks from the Sun over his dropped promise on knife crime. To them, anyone carrying a knife is a savage, regardless of whether they're doing it out of fear or youthful stupidity, and so deserves to spend at least four months in prison. Rather than allowing a judge or magistrate to make their own decision based on the circumstances of each individual case, the government must intervene and take the matter out of their hands.

Clarke did at least fight his corner. Even on Tuesday he was arguing in front of the home affairs select committee that it would be a "bit of a leap for the British justice system" for the government to demand a court send a 13-year old first time offender to a secure home. Yesterday he was left to stand up in the Commons and announce that while he had managed to prevent that from happening, 16 and 17-year-olds would face a mandatory term should they use a knife or other offensive weapon to "threaten or endanger", which essentially means waving it around even if they have no intention of actually doing anything with it. The option of using restorative justice in such a case, or community service, something that might bring home to a young person both more effectively and cheaply the gravity of their foolishness is to be withheld. This is the exact kind of pseudo tough policy making that has failed us for the past 17 years.

Much the same is true, although less objectionably, of the proposed mandatory life term for those committing a second "most serious sexual or violent offence". Clarke himself said this would most likely only apply to those who commit two "probably near-murderous attacks" and only affect around 20 people a year, but this is much the same that was said about Labour's indeterminate public protection regime, with subsequently over 6,000 receiving them, many languishing in prison past their minimum term unable to access the courses necessary to prove they're no longer a risk. One thing to welcome is the abolition of IPPs, although this is also tempered by the proposed replacement, the extended determinate sentence. This looks to be the equivalent of a life sentence in all but name, with the difference being that parole can be applied for once two-thirds of the term has been served. Once released they will then remain on licence for up to 8 years, or 10 for the most serious offenders. One suspects this will shortly become the standard sentence for almost all "serious" offenders, putting extra pressure on the prison estate and then in turn probation (receiving heavy cuts) for possibly little overall benefit.

Apart from how these massive changes to current practice have been left to be inserted into the legal aid, sentencing and punishment bill as amendments at the very last minute, with no time for consultation, the most troubling thing for Clarke must be the effect they'll have on his actual prison reform programme. To be able to have any chance of reducing re-offending, prisoners must have access to the work, training and therapy programmes he's been proposing. This is next to impossible to provide when some prisons are forced through overcrowding to lock up prisoners for 23 hours a day. Without bringing the population down to a sustainable level, the whole cause looks lost.

When the Sun then asks where Clarke goes from here, with their suggestion being that his time is up, it's difficult to disagree even if it's for an entirely different reason to the one they set out. Why continue as justice secretary when he's clearly lost the support he initially had for thinking somewhat radically? He should resign now and let those truly responsible take the blame when the attempt to "break the cycle" miserably fails.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011 

In which I admit to talking crap redux.

One of the not so great spectacles of the last few months has been seeing those who should know better and those who have no shame variously passing judgement on Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It's one of those cases where you can safely say that individuals on all sides share guilt: those in France, whether they be the philosopher buffoon Bernard-Henri Levy who sprang to DSK's offence in the way only a puffed up windbag can, or the others who assumed guilt based on DSK's only now reported serial womanising. Unfortunately, we can't even feel desperately sorry for Nafissatou Diallo: besides her lack of reliability as a witness based on dishonesty over her past, she was advised abysmally, as exemplified by the exclusive interviews she gave which only undermined her case yet further. In an ideal world, she would have had her day in court and a jury would have decided whose version of events to believe based on all the evidence. This is not an ideal world.

Deciding who's guilty and who isn't based on media reporting, or worse, on someone's past record, is daft. In the spirit of DSK then and in the second sort of mea culpa of the week, the acquittal of Learco Chindamo is welcome and refreshing news. Chindamo had not only been charged with the robbery of a man at a cashpoint, only four months after being released on parole, having served 14 years for the murder of the headteacher Philip Lawrence, it was also alleged he had intimidated the man by referring to the murder, something which suggested all those who had testified as to his changed, remorseful nature had been misled. OK, I didn't pass judgement based on his arrest, having believed such accounts, but all the same I felt the need to draw further attention to it before justice was done.

In a way, it does in fact show just how the justice system works when someone sentenced to life and released is then accused of a further crime: Chindamo has spent the entire time since he was arrested back in prison, and three previous trials collapsed for various reasons before he was finally acquitted yesterday, when it's unlikely the Crown Prosecution Service would have felt it was in the public interest for such expense and time to be spent trying a relatively minor crime had it involved those without such serious prior convictions. He will now have to go in front of the parole board again before he can be released, something unlikely to be a formality. As Frances Lawrence said, it can only be hoped that he has a happier, calmer and more productive future ahead of him.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011 

And yet again, the tabloids win.

Who could possibly have wanted to be Ken Clarke over the past few weeks? At least when John Reid, David Blunkett or Jacqui Smith found themselves in the temporary eye of a tabloid storm over crime it was primarily a result of their failing to live up to the very image they had courted of themselves as common sense, salt of the earth hard liners, in tune with what the editors of the Daily Mail and Sun said was the prevailing public attitude towards criminals. He was certainly foolish to not quickly clarify his comments on rape, even if he was mainly responding to the utterly inaccurate claim that rapists could end up only serving 15 months of a sentence in prison if they pleaded guilty at the earliest possible opportunity under his proposals. Almost completely unreported went the meeting he had with Gabrielle Browne, the woman he spoke to on the initial 5 Live interview, who accepted his argument once he set out how the policy was part meant to prevent victims in the future from going through the additional trauma she suffered in court.

As it turns out, Clarke's real adversary hasn't been the tabloids but David Cameron. Having allowed Clarke to set out his reforms to the criminal justice system in last December's green paper, optimistically titled Breaking the Cycle, he's abandoned him at the last minute. This is becoming a habit of Cameron's: he's done it in quick succession to Caroline Spelman, Andrew Lansley and now his justice secretary. On each occasion the policy has passed through the cabinet, been given the apparent go ahead, and then the individual minister has been left to take either the entirety of the blame or almost all of it. On selling off the forests and reforming the NHS the "u-turns" have delivered slightly better, if still highly flawed policies; the exact opposite is the case this time round.

Indeed, there's few individuals or interested parties who believe that we can carry on locking people up at the rate we have ever since Michael Howard made his infamous declaration to the Conservative party conference. Those few include Michael Howard (natch), the Tory right, certain sections of the Labour party who still believe fervently in triangulation, and the right-wing press. Not only does it cost an astonishing amount of money, with £45,000 being the often stated cost of a year's imprisonment (the Prison Reform Trust's Bromley report agrees (PDF)), it only works in the sense that it contains the relatively few who need to be locked away either permanently or for long periods to protect the public and gives a temporary respite to communities from those other few who commit a majority of the "low-level" crime. It punishes, but it doesn't rehabilitate. It fails miserably in getting addicts on the path to recovery, and does little to help those with mental health problems get the individual care and therapy they need.

Clarke had firmly grasped this, and partially using the necessity to make cuts in the budget of the Ministry of Justice, had proposed some baby steps towards reducing the overall prison population, encouraging more use of community sentences, giving sentence discounts to those who admitted their guilt at the first possible opportunity, saving the cost of a prosecution, and making prison regimes more rigorous through work schemes which together with improved education opportunities could help begin to bring re-offending rates down. The majority of this has now cast aside almost entirely by Cameron, with Clarke left to make a brave, affable face in the Commons on what's left of his original plans.

Out then has gone any aim to cut the prison population, even if only by around a mooted 6,500, which now stands close to 85,000. At best the number will stabilise, although more likely is that it will increase thanks to the other changes introduced without warning by Cameron. Completely dropped has been any further discount for early guilty pleas, even for less serious offences. Community sentences will not be suggested as an alternative to short prison terms, with Clarke hiding behind the reasoning that "more than 10%" currently only involve a supervision requirement, generally a fortnightly meeting with a probation officer, even while the proposed bill makes the other nearly 90% more onerous, with a longer working day and week for those on "community payback" schemes. Where the Tories were thinking so radically to begin with that they suggested prisoners could earn something approaching a reasonable wage while behind bars, now the plan is to take more away from the tiny amount those working can earn to give to victim support groups. If the notion is sound, questionable on its own, then it becomes less so when the average weekly wage in prison is £9.60. Even those few working for private firms - Policy Exchange recently highlighted a highly lucrative scheme where DHL pays prisoners £30 a week for 30 hours work - are paid so little that any taken away only further disincentives those who choose to work.

The original proposals which do remain, such as drug recovery wings, are undermined when the bill pledges to "increase security measures to reduce the supply", plans which will doubtless further target visitors rather than the main source of such substances, corrupt prison officers. Anyone who has had to go through the deeply unpleasant experience of visiting a high security prison in the last couple of years will be delighted by any further tightening in the process of getting in to see a relative. To be welcomed is the softly stated promise to "ensure offenders with mental health problems receive treatment in the most appropriate and the most secure setting necessary", which should hopefully direct the sick and vulnerable away from prison, as is the emphasis given to restorative justice, the proposals for which may just eventually build a further alternative or supplement to short sentences or fines.

Most destructive of all though are the Cameron imposed "get tough" headline policies, exactly those that have failed in the past on all counts and which it was hoped had disappeared with New Labour. Having given a manifesto pledge to jail anyone caught with a knife, Cameron's given in to pressure from the Sun and insisted upon a mandatory sentence of at least six months for anyone who threatens someone else with a blade, removing a judge's discretion and ignoring the individual circumstances of each case. Clarke's planned reforms to the scandal of indeterminate sentences, where thousands of prisoners cannot even access the scheme necessary to prove that they are no longer a risk to public will instead be replaced by "even tougher" determinate sentences, helping no one. As for making squatting illegal and putting down in legislation the already unwritten rule that property owners who use "reasonable force" to defend themselves will not be prosecuted, gestures are already being resorted to.

With the savings then having to come from somewhere other than reducing the number of prisoners, everything else will take an additional walloping. Probation, the very thing that protects the public once offenders are released will face additional cuts, as will legal aid, already being slashed. What's more, it signals an end to any illusion that this government on criminal justice if nothing else would live up to its billing as being of a liberal conservative bent. Having called for the abolition of short sentences completely, Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats did nothing whatsoever to support Clarke when the crunch came. Finally, it shows Cameron will be just as beholden to the tabloids as New Labour was, creating new offences and indulging in legislating for effect the second they kick up a stink, the very things he said he would put an end to. Clarke could resign in protest, but it wouldn't achieve anything, and someone worse would simply be put in his place. Having had his reforms crippled, the only thing he and we can hope is that the good remaining parts work. There might then just be something to build on if Labour finally decides to stop playing the desperately destructive "who can be toughest" game.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011 

The travails of Ken Clarke.

The age-old political conundrum of whether to focus on a long-term, policy led strategy or instead adopt a scattergun, short-term approach which grabs attention immediately but doesn't necessarily command it beyond the 24-hour news cycle has hardly been answered by the travails of Ken Clarke. Ed Miliband's decision to immediately demand his resignation following his catastrophic interview with Victoria Derbyshire on 5 Live might have felt like the right thing to do, putting David Cameron temporarily at least on the back foot at prime minister's questions, but the day after with Clarke still determinedly in position as justice secretary it instead smacks of the old, short-sighted politics Miliband has suggested he wanted to move away from.

Clarke's comments, if it wasn't already abundantly clear, were shockingly ill-thought through. His argument with Derbyshire was though, as Full Fact points out, based around the false premise that the average sentence for rape is 5 years. This was itself inspired by the Daily Mail's front page on Wednesday, which claimed that rapists who pleaded guilty at the earliest possible opportunity could end up serving only 15 months as result of Clarke's proposals that 50% rather than 33% be deducted from their sentence for such an quick admittance of responsibility. 5 years is in fact meant to be the starting point for judges in cases of rape, and the average sentence turns out to be between 7 and 8 years. Even so, it ought to have been apparent to Clarke that as soon as he responded to Derbyshire's comment that "rape is rape, with respect" with "no, it's not", that he had seriously erred. He then compounded it with his comments on the "less serious" nature of date rape, as well as how wrong he managed to get it on unlawful sexual intercourse, as a 17-year-old having consensual sex with a 15-year-old is not considered rape as he repeatedly suggested.

His failure to immediately apologise sincerely for "misspeaking", as no one is seriously claiming that he regards certain types of rape as less serious to the victim than others, having only really done so convincingly tonight on Question Time, has admittedly compounded the offence. This though seems to be more down to Clarke's old-fashioned stubbornness combined with his refusal to go into interviews thoroughly briefed than out of any genuine malice. More than anything, he was attempting to explain how someone convicted of rape might end up with only a 5 year sentence, even if his way of doing so was hopelessly out-dated and an example of his attempting to wing his way through encounters with journalists rather than read up on the subject.

If Clarke is going to be indicted on something, it ought to be on that score rather than on one of either belittling victims of rape, or actively endangering, even betraying women as the Sun claimed. As Sunny writes, Clarke's comments have resulted in some truly bizarre and very temporary alliances being forged. The Sun, which has been campaigning for some time for Clarke to be brought into line over his crime policies, so wedded as it is to the increasingly unaffordable and scandalously ineffective "prison works" orthodoxy, finds itself not only quoting old ally Jill Saward but also the head of the Fawcett Society, exactly the kind of lefty wimmin's organisation it usually mocks and pours scorn over.

Just how much thought went into Miliband's decision to call for Clarke's sacking is impossible to tell. If the idea was that the coalition as a whole might be weakened through his removal, with a less popular Tory put in his place, then this seems to overlook how it's mainly down to Clarke that the ridiculous, destructive battle over who could be tougher on criminal justice has been essentially brought to an end. Even if it was New Labour's change in position on crime which helped win over the support of the likes of the Sun in the first place, the leadership surely hasn't got such short memories that they've forgotten how they were tore into by that very same paper ad nauseum despite doing almost all they could to put their solutions into practice. Miliband seemed to have recognised that ending the war was in the best interests of all concerned, commenting that he wasn't going to say Clarke was soft on crime just because he was proposing reducing short sentences. He even continued this theme in... the Sun, as George Eaton notes.

Whether or not Jack Straw's pitiful "my view" in that same paper today was sanctioned by the leadership, which seems doubtful considering he refused to demand that Clarke be sacked tonight on Question Time, it gives the impression that Labour would rather return to a conflict they can't possibly win instead of just condemning the justice secretary's loose talk while offering tacit support for his bid to further credit earlier guilty pleas. It would be foolish to suggest that Miliband can do without the occasional piece of praise from the Sun, yet to win it over a chalice as poisoned as this one will do him no favours over the long term. Possible as it is that the party could win back support by adopting the kind of tougher stance proposed by Lord Ashcroft for the Tories, it leads to the problem Clarke has faced down: that locking more and more people up is simply unsustainable, in terms of cost both in money and to society at large. Labour desperately needs to win voters back without resorting to the dead end of triangulation. Resisting the temptation to indulge in cheap populism is vital to just such a strategy.

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