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Conservative contradictions on crime and punishment

What to make of Ken Clarke’s plans for prisons? His speech later today will apparently denounce the great and growing size of prison populations, call for a focus on cutting re-offending and will imply that it’s Labour’s outdated approach which is at fault; “[J]ust banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England.”

In actual fact, the Tories have long had what one might call a ‘progressive’ (ugh, hate that word) streak on crime and punishment. In the late 1980s, prison populations under the Tories began to fall as Douglas Hurd and others tried to establish consensus around non-custodial ideas, which would see people avoid prison. But to leave the matter there is to ignore staggering contradictions on the part of the Tories.

Firstly, there’s no proposal to get rid of what has essentially become a people-herding industry of private companies, to whom a lot of services have been outsourced. Clarke’s proposition of pay by performance on the basis of re-offending avoided will not fly – as in other outsourced industries, without cast-iron government guarantees of profit, private companies will avoid sectors that don’t look profitable.

Tory rhetoric here doesn’t escape the New Labourite paradigms.

Secondly, for all this talk about prisons being places of education – a solid and welcome return of a very old liberal idea – this won’t help a great deal if there aren’t any jobs to go to when people get out of prison. With millions unemployed, and Tory plans to slash the State sector to ribbons proceeding apace – and private sector investment not yet prepared to pick up the slack – education won’t stop a slide to crime.

Thirdly, if the answer to the second problem is the social welfare net, then this adds a further contradiction to ‘progressive’ Conservative plans for rehabilitating offenders. Said social welfare net is to face cuts. This, I suspect was one of the key problems with Douglas Hurd’s attempt to reduce prison populations; on his watch, he wanted fewer people in prison – but as inequality rose and communities fragmented under the Tories, crime rose.

Thus the voices on the Tory Right sounded a great deal more authoritative.

Fourthly, Clarke’s proposal is aimed in part at cutting costs – he has said so himself. Apparently the new soundbyte is that sending a man to prison (£38,000) is now more expensive than sending a boy to Eton. Several academics – such as Prof. Malcom Davies – have come forward to suggest that actually leaving potential re-offenders at large (and even with continuing educational measures, reoffending jumped by 8% from 2006-8) costs more than prison.

Since a large number of these people will surely be released to unemployment, this type of false economy can be compared to the Tory false economy of slashing Labour’s job creation schemes and calling it a saving. The upshot is a lot more people claiming various types of benefits, whereas the strategic use of Labour’s funds would have allowed private industry to reduce the cost of employing someone whilst still footing some of the bill.

If the Tories are allowed their own way on the economy, coalition or no coalition, the deeply reactionary hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade on the right of the Tory Party will not be long in re-establishing themselves – something that happened to Ken Clarke when he was last Home Secretary. As privatisation and the attempt to extract ever more labour for less pay from prison staff continues unabated, I worry to think how our prisons will end up.

This is, after all, the same Conservative Party which resoundingly endorsed Labour’s massive expansion plans – worth some £4bn – of the prison system.

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  1. Phil
    June 30, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Started a comment here but it turned into a post.

  1. June 30, 2010 at 10:41 pm

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