Alan Duncan’s new jobSeptember 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Prison Reform | 4 Comments
As demotions go, it could’ve been worse. Whilst Alan Duncan won’t be a member of the cabinet if a Prime Minister Cameron names him Minister for Prisons, the role is still massively important if the Tories are serious about mending their ‘broken society’. With a population of over 80,000, prisons groaning under the weight of over-crowding, and a pathetic rehabilitation rate which means we waste much of the $4bn spent annually, Duncan would oversee an aspect of the criminal justice system in which Labour has been a determined, belligerent, costly failure.
Of course, quite whether he’s up up to the task is a topic for debate; reading some of the assessments from fellow Tories gives the sense that he’s an ineffective, gaffe-prone hack who shouldn’t be trusted to run any department. Granted, as a minister, Mr Duncan would have some supervision (likely Dominic Grieve), but his rather rapid fall from Shadow Secretary of State for Business to a lowly shadow minister doesn’t inspire confidence, and when we have a prison estate which – by the Tories’ own admission – is in a state of crisis, you really want someone competent at the helm.
In the past few years, the Tories have come to resemble Jekyl & Hyde on issues of crime & punishment. It seems all
Mr Hyde Chris Grayling has learnt from Labour’s successive Home Secretaries is how well the odd grubby, attention-grabbing gimmick (the ’21st century clip ’round the ear’; getting the state to steal teenagers’ mobile phones) plays in the papers, and I would hope that a presumptive Secretary of State would use his time more productively than coming up with clunky analogies to hip American TV shows.
But what’s gone under-reported is that the Tories’ plans for prison reform aren’t too bad at all; they’re sane, rational and seem focused on achieving long-term goals rather than short-term opportunism. Clearly influenced by the work done by Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, many of the proposals laid out in this document [PDF], if implemented well, could take the prison service in a better direction than the one it’s currently heading in.
The Tories claim that reducing the rate of recidivism will be one of the top priorities, and will create financial incentives for prisons which reduce reoffending, make more money available for rehabilitation programmes and make prison governors accountable for the actions of prisoners once they’ve been released. They accept that whilst new prisons will be necessary to end overcrowding, the warehousing of prisoners in ‘titan’ jails isn’t the way to go. Instead, they propose to build smaller, local prisons and sell off some of the crumbling old dead wood. On top of this, more freedom will be given to prison governors, more opportunities will be offered for third sector agencies to work with inmates, and for charities to help with education & drug rehabilitation. The Tories claim that their proposals would rejuvinate prisons as places of “education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration.”
Obviously, you can’t just take their word for it; even Tony Blair sounded strong on ‘the causes of crime’ when he was in opposition, and when Labour got into power the prison population soared. Much will depend on budgetary constraints caused by the deficit, whether they can resist the impulse to allow expansion of private sector prisons, and avoid the urge to respond to rising crime with more draconian sentencing. I also don’t think the goals for reducing the prison population are ambitious enough; under the Tories’ plans, the population would still rise to 94,000 by 2020, and whilst that may be an improvement on the projected 100,000 if things stay as they are, it still means locking up around 10,000 more people than we are right now. For me, more needs to be done to find tough alternatives to short (and mostly fruitless) custodial sentences.
That said, this is still much better than anything Labour’s offered recently. If they do what they promise – and if Mr Duncan can’t find new & innovative ways of screwing up – there’s always a chance that it might lead to better outcomes for some prisoners, and slightly safer communities for the rest of us.
Image: Strangeways Prison in Manchester, by Flickr user phil.d (Creative Commons)