Jack Straw faced staunch criticism over his record as Home Secretary at a Fabian Fringe meeting on prisons today. Straw began by arguing that his critics were fundamentally wrong:
“The error some people make is in seeing getting prison numbers down as the objective. No - the objective is to keep crime down and to keep voters with us ... We have to say to offenders that if you carry on offending then we’re sorry but you are going to face prison for quite a long time until you’ve sorted yourself out.”
But Juliet Lyons of the Prison Reform Trust challenged him over this attitude – which she referred to as ‘the Straw-Howard axis’ – and over his and the last Government’s record:
“In 1997 we felt we could look forward to a time of real prison reform and that people would be prepared to take the public health lens to look at crime differently. The numbers were already rising when Labour came to power and it didn’t seem unreasonable that Labour would put a stop to that. Instead what happened was that prison numbers rose from 66000 to a shocking 87000 today and people from other European countries look at us as if we’re mad.
The other thing we could reasonably have expected from Labour was joined-up government across health and education and prisons. Instead we seem to have accepted that prison is just a receptacle for those who have been failed by other public services.”
Straw bridled at this criticism, challenging Juliet Lyons to outline her solutions: “What about the fact that for the first time since the war we’ve got crime down. What’s the answer?”
Pollster Peter Kellner, also on the panel, challenged Straw by arguing that there was more scope among the public for progressive change than politicians seemed to think:
“When we ask straightforward out-of-the-blue questions about crime people’s responses are always very hard line and blunt. But what people say off the top of their head is not necessarily what people say if you explore it more deeply.
What people want are results and if you have the confidence to pursue a policy that delivers results – and then it does – then people will support you. People are much less interested in the policies that get you there. Politicians should do what they think is right and will work and public opinion will not be a barrier to that."
Straw put up a firm defence:
“Let me talk about Labour’s record, Juliet, in response to your emotional disappointment. What we set out in the 1997 manifesto was to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime and we were both. Prisons are completely different now from how they were. My approach was to transform humanity in prisons and to transform education and also drugs policy. BUT we had to take the public with us. The fact is that Ken Clarke was regarded as a failure by any measure you care to use.
I’m not trying to suggest I’m some sort of hard bastard but you have to bring the public with you and we were the first government since the war to get crime down.”
Peter Kellner also opened up the debate on drugs policy:
“I’d even go so far as to say that were you to tell the public that if you decriminalised heroin and cocaine and that therefore there would be less crime, they would, at first, say they didn’t like it – but if it worked there’d be support.”
There was a notable lack of clear disagreement on this from Straw:
“On drugs, up until 1970 heroin was available on the NHS and we had a tiny number of addicts compared to other countries. We just have to think our way through whether it would be safe to decriminalise hard drugs – I’m not on either side of the argument, it’s just about what’s practical.”
However, Fabian General Secretary Sunder Katwala felt it was too complex a political issue to enter into too eagerly: “If you start the drugs debate I think you might crowd out the rest of the debate about prisons.”
Juliet Lyons reflected on why she felt “so cross” with Jack Straw, citing the disappointment of many campaigners about Labour’s record. Closing the debate she said ”People do some very bad things, I don’t think that means there are some very bad people.”