ConHome Diary: Michael Gove Wanted to Reform Prisons But Liz Truss Seems More Interested in Headlines

17 Feb 2017 at 16:50

So unemployment is down a further 7,000. Productivity is up 0.3%. Wages up by 2.6%. All this economic good news continues to be reported with hashtag #despitebrexit. In addition, earlier this week the European Commission made a complete fool of itself by being the only organisation to cut Britain’s economic growth forecast by 0.5% to 1.5% this year. And surprise, surprise, they reckon that in 2019, he year we actually leave the EU, growth in the Eurozone economies will overtake that of Britain. Well they couldn’t really say anything else, could they?
I found Liz Truss’s speech on prison reform this week disappointing in the extreme. It was as if we had gone back twenty years and were listening to Michael Howard telling us that prison works. The only way prison works at the moment is that people are locked up and not able to commit further crimes. Beyond that, they don’t work at all. Just look at this country’s rate of repeat offending. Liz Truss doesn’t seem at all concerned that our prison population is at an all time high. Indeed, it’s double what it was in 1993, and yet we’re told that crime rates are at an all time low. Something doesn’t compute there, does it? I am very happy to lock up serious offenders, people who are a danger to society. Indeed, I’d lock most of them up for far longer. However, there are thousands of people in prison who don’t need to be there, if only we were able to dream up alternative forms of punishment. What is the point of putting people in prison if they are no danger to society, if their crimes are not serious. What is the point of imprisoning someone for not paying a TV licence fine, or council tax. And of course once people get to prison, they end up on the highway to hell. They’re locked up in their cells for most of the day due to a chronic lack of prison officers to look after them. Educational resources are at a minimum. Sixty per cent of released prisoners can’t read or write. Is it any wonder then, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to recently released prisons to find a job. And then there are the drugs. Stories are legion of people who go into prison never having taken a drug in their lives but come out addicted to a hard drug. There are constant calls for prison regimes to be tougher and less like a holiday camp. This is short-sighted thinking. If you treat people like animals while they are incarcerated, don’t be surprised if their behaviour doesn’t change when they are released. I’m not saying prisoners should live in the lap of luxury, but surely losing their freedom is punishment enough for the crime they have committed. Imposing Victoria conditions merely means that a violent rebellion is at some point inevitable. I believe Michael Gove understood all this, and was on the point of radically changing our prisons system for the better. Liz Truss seems to be putting all this into reverse gear, purely for the sake of some red meat headlines. Shame.

As usual nowadays when a Cabinet Minister makes a big speech, Liz Truss wasn’t available for interview on Monday, so I interviewed her Labour opponent instead, Richard Burgon. It rapidly became clear that he had little alternative policy to present, but he did commit a Labour government to recruiting 6-8,000 new prison officers on top of the 2,500 already being hired by the current government. I reckon, at a conservative estimate that’s a new spending commitment of more than £200 million.
Next week’s by-elections could well shape a lot of our domestic politics over the next two or three years. If Labour loses both is it really tenable for Jeremy Corbyn to continue? I cannot see how he or his supporters could explain them away. At the moment, most people seem to think they will hold on to Stoke but lose Copeland to the Conservatives. If this happens it would be the first time a governing party had gained a by-election from the opposition party for thirty five years. Even an Ostrich can now see that Labour can’t possibly win a general election with Jeremy Corbyn in charge. The trouble is, it doesn’t seem to matter to them. Many on the left are far happier going on protest marches against the ‘wicked Tories’ than having the responsibility of power. And long may it remain so.