In praise of Alan Duncan

January 24, 2010 at 11:13 am | Posted in Conservative Party, Crime | 7 Comments

I have no idea yet whether Alan Duncan is an asset or a liability to the cause of penal reform, but he certainly appears to be an ally, and is the author of two cracking soundbites:

Ms Crook wrote: ‘Alan Duncan said that the slogan “prison works” was repulsively simplistic. Anyone in politics should work to improve society and there was no more useful target than offenders.’


Ms Crook added: ‘He said, “Lock ’em up is Key Stage 1 politics.”’ Key Stage 1 is the first part of the primary-school curriculum studied by children as young as five.

To which the Mail has helpfully editorialised:

Suggesting that an old-style tough Tory approach to crime is worthy of a five-year-old will infuriate the party’s grassroots activists.

Well, if they’re going to act like five-year-olds…

Regardless of the bruised feelings the ‘lock ’em up’ brigade will have today, Duncan is entirely correct. What’s more, it is reassuring to see that there are figures inside the Tory hierarchy who are prepared to defend their policy on prisons from the punative populism apparently favoured by David Cameron’s inner circle.

The spat within the front bench over the ‘prison ships’ proposal gives further evidence of something I’ve mentioned before. For quite some time now, it’s been apparent that there exists a real tension & contradiction in Tory justice policy, and one which will need to be resolved if the party takes power.

On the one hand there is the thoughtless, tabloid-fawning opportunism practiced by the likes of Chris Grayling. Under this ‘Key Stage 1 politics’, there is no sentence too punative, no cure but incarceration, and the only area where the conservatives would envisage more state spending is in the building of more prisons.

These are contradicted by a policy for prison reform which is, by and large, excellent. Their ‘Prisons with a Purpose’ paper, influenced heavily by outside experts and the fine work done by the Centre for Social Justice, is a thoughtful, well-informed engagement with the problem which rightly concludes that the purpose of the prison system should be reformation rather than revenge.

These conflicting instincts in Tory policy cannot coexist with each other in government because being progressive on prison reform will require restraint on sentencing which the would-be Home Secretary seems incapable of practicing. Even if he did, he would have to restrain not just his own instincts, but the reflexive vengefulness of the Tory tabloids and grassroots.

Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope that this conflict will be settled on the side of reform, but I may always be proved wrong. Until I am, Alan Duncan deserves praise for standing on the right side of an unpopular and perpetually losing battle.



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  1. If we really are moving towards a more reasoned global drugs policy ( then there might be hope.

    So many of the problems associated with prisons are tied to the ‘War on Drugs’ that improved access to rehab services, less people going to prison for small-scale dealing and offences relating to use would inevitably give us an improved chance of sorting out the rest.

    Do I see a Tory Government presiding over this though? Not so much.

    • You’re absolutely right, and there’s zero chance of the Tories doing anything about ending the war on drugs. But what I try argue when I write about prison reform is that, irrespective of whether a government either pursues or ends prohibition, there’s still a case for a massive rethink of our prison policy. When Labour came to power, there was a prison population of around 60,000. Now we’re looking at well over 80,000, and it’s predicted to reach over 95,000 by 2015.

      On top of that, the govt’s own research found that a 22% increase in the prison population had contributed to only a 5% reduction in crime – during a period where crime overall fell by 30%. There’s no convincing evidence that increasing custody further would have much of an impact on making people safer.

      I really think the Tories’ prison approach is one that a Labour government should’ve been practicing, but instead they stuck with the ‘prison works’ nonesense they inherited from Howard, blithely built more prisons and packed them in so tightly that at one point a third of all prisons were overcrowded.

      Sorry, I have a habit of ranting about this topic! To cut a long story short, with my politics, I find it disconcerting when I find a Tory policy which is more progressive than what Labour’s offering up.

  2. Alan Duncan is interesting because he is by all accounts a radical libertarian. He hates Labour but isn’t necessarily comfortable as a Tory. He even supports legalising drugs, as much as he has had to back away from expressing this in public. (A little bird tells me Camoron’s own views are liberal in this regard, as much as it won’t make any difference to what he does).

    So I’m not surprised, as someone who keeps a fairly close watch on him, that he has said this. It will be a bit depressing to watch him being vilified & having to retract. I suppose we’ll never know how many Tories are in fact quite liberal- as with Blunkett, who admitted in later years that his own “policies” were a load of bollocks that he knew didn’t work but had to follow for fear of upsetting the tabloids.

    • The problem with Blunkett was that he was so terribly, ruthlessly effective at his job. It was a happy day when he left the Home Office!

      I never knew that about Duncan; I’d always regarded him as very much a bog standard Tory in many respects. I’m generally quite unimpressed with libertarian thinking on prisons. Sure, they support ending the war on drugs, which (especially in the United States) would solve a lot of the problems, but they tend to shy away from the rhetoric about rehabilitation because to have good rehabilitation programmes you’re going to need some form of state funding or provision for it. So it’s good that Duncan recognises that by putting functioning rehab schemes in place, you should be able to reduce the amount of prisoners the state has to pay for in the first place.

      Anyway, what’s been going off in Stoke? From what I hear on the blogs, it all went a bit potty in the potteries.

      • Yes, I actually wasn’t there but I can imagine. You’re best off asking Phil BC or about that. It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if there was a lot of passive support for the EDL fuckwits.

        As for Duncan, I also remember him calling “jokingly” for Carrie Prejean to be executed. Some really absolutely depressing shite does get talked in these culture wars- with, of course, Sarah Palin being the ultimate incarnation.

  3. I agree, I just think the ‘war on drugs’ adds an increased load to a system that’s already over-stretched. Repeat offenders feeding habits, those committing crimes to get on rehab programmes (which I’ve heard mentioned in cases I’ve worked on a couple of times), the number of ‘mules’ incarcerated in this country away from support networks and often not speaking the language, it all adds up.

    If you took that out of the equation it would be so much easier to reform the rest of the system, which, as you say, is definitely due an overhaul.

  4. […] Tory policy which existed before there was even a prospect of a coalition. It was the Tories’ ‘Prisons with a Purpose’ paper which suggested they were finally ready to ditch the ‘prison works’ dogma of […]

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