Sunday 6 March 2011

Labour should support a lower prison population, says Sadiq Khan

Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan will set out Labour's approach to criminal justice in a speech The Justice Tests to the Fabian Society and Prison Reform Trust on Monday night. We'll carry the full text after Khan gives the speech at 6pm.

Khan's first major public speech in the role is expected to offer an account of Labour's successes and failures in office, an assessment of Ken Clarke's agenda, including where the Labour Opposition will support the government's agenda and where and how it will challenge it, and to offer details of how the party will take forward these issues as part of Ed Miliband's policy review.

Monday's Guardian news report previews the speech, while a commentary piece from Sadiq Khan offers a flavour of the argument.

Alan Travis' report for the Guardian emphasises Khan's willingness to critique New Labour's record on reoffending and rehabilitation,

Labour made a mistake by "playing tough" on crime and allowing the prison population to soar to record levels during its time in government, instead of tackling sky-high reoffending rates, the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, is to acknowledge for the first time on Monday.

In a break with New Labour's hardline rhetoric, Khan is to argue that the party should declare a new policy aim of jailing fewer people.

Khan's speech to a Fabian Society/Prison Reform Trust event is the first attempt by a senior Labour figure to sketch out the party's new direction on prisons policy. He is also to announce a party working group on punishment and reform to detail the new focus on rehabilitation and cutting crime.

"We did send more people to prison and for longer. While we successfully reduced crime, we did not manage to reduce the prison population," he is to say.

Labour should have done much better in reducing reoffending rates of those coming out of prison, he believes: "I feel it was a mistake to not focus more on the issue of reducing offending. We became hesitant in talking about rehabilitation and the merits of bringing down reoffending rates.

"A focus on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending was seen as being soft on crime, when in fact it is effective in reducing crime."

That is a fair account of Khan's argument about rehabilitation and reoffending. However, the 'break' with New Labour will be somewhat more nuanced than this short report of its most newsworthy elements might suggest, as is reflected in the Khan commentary piece.

Few will be surprised to hear the Shadow Justice Secretary also express pride in the Labour government being the only post-war government to cut crime - by a striking 43%, with violent crime down 42%. He attributes this to the application of the "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" principle which was a formative part of New Labour - but combines this with a critique of the rising prison population, identifying that as an area where Labour could have done better in power. Part of the reason they did not was a fear that rehabilitation and reoffending would be seen as "soft on crime" approaches, which meant that Labour d did not do enough to champion approaches which could have been more effective in reducing crime.

That argument necessarily entails rejecting the idea of any simple equation between a rising prison population and lower crime, as Khan's Guardian piece, extracted from the speech, sets out.

We recognised that when a crime is committed, sometimes prison is the only appropriate punishment – and the only way to give communities a respite from criminal behaviour. Some claim crime fell because of the rise in the numbers imprisoned. But the relationship between crime rates and prison population is more complex than that. And it fails to take into account that most of those in prison today will be released 10 years from now. People want to be assured that on release there won't be a drift back into a life of crime.

A duty to the public must be to stop prisoners reoffending through successful rehabilitation. Although we reduced reoffending rates, they are still at almost 70%, so there's still a lot more to do.

There is a crucial caveat to Khan's argument that Labour should adopt a policy of supporting a lower prison population; that the primary goal has to be the reduction of crime and of reoffending, so that the goal of a lower prison population is reached for the right reason, rather than setting targets for reducing prison numbers as an end in itself to reduce costs. (This would therefore appear to accept part of the critique voiced by Jack Straw at a Fabian/PRT fringe debate last Autumn about a prison reform agenda if it put reducing prison numbers first, while going on to make a liberal reformist case).

Khan suggests that Labour's approach to the Coalition government will be to support the broad objectives of policy, but to warn that while successful rehabilitation will save public money in the long-run, it will require resources in the short-term, and that a cost-cutting driven approach to a rehabilitation revolution is likely to fail.

Focusing on these issues is not about being soft on crime – it is about being effective in reducing it. This will be the test we put to the government: are its policies cutting crime? We fear it will fail the test, because its focus is on cutting costs, not crime. The Ministry of Justice says it wants to usher in a new approach to rehabilitation, while simultaneously slashing a quarter of its budget. Frontline jobs in probation will be lost. Letting people out of prison without professional staff to oversee their rehabilitation is irresponsible. The justice secretary, Ken Clarke, is already warning of a rise in crime, but where are his solutions?


The Labour opposition's approach to these issues will be important, not least because the government's agenda is the object of suspicion and anxiety on the Conservative backbenchers in particular. This is perhaps the area of government policy with which rank-and-file Liberal Democrats are most comfortable, as we found during our series of fringes on this issue at all three party conferences.

The Sun newspaper and the editor of ConservativeHome have been among those to call for Ken Clarke to go; Downing Street has often seemed somewhat equivocal in its support for him, partly because the veteran Clarke, lacking further political ambition, is not a colleague that number 10 can easily control.

In response, the Justice Secretary has been seeking to burnish his Conservative credentials (and is increasingly keen on citing Newt Gingrich and the possibilty of cutting back on public spending as part of the rationale for his liberalising reforms), though he told Andrew Marr last month that his appointment "was never going to please the Mail on Sunday".

Today's Mail on Sunday leader column bears that out, continuing that newspaper's rather quixotic promotion of a rather unlikely 'third way' option, in which Ken Clarke and Michael Howard should job share in the role, despite their lifelong political rivalry and contrasting views on criminal justice. The paper editorialised in favour of this ingenious solution a fortnight ago, and runs a short follow-up editorial today in the hope of expediting its implementation.

Suggestions still circulate at Westminster that the less relaxed Michael Howard might be persuaded to share the Justice brief and put a little more backbone into law enforcement. Let us hope this happens before Mr Clarke’s foolish policy does serious damage.

Sadiq Khan's speech suggests prison policy could see a good deal of cross-party consensus, between the main three party frontbenches at least, as well as critical challenges when asssessing whether policy succeeds and fails.

But a Clarke-Howard alliance could just be the strangest Coalition we have yet seen!

1 comment:

Robert said...

What is a crime, which crimes do we think is serious enough to place people in jail.

The problem is of course to protect society, is stealing car worth all the cost of chasing arresting to see the culprits walk away with community punishment.

Of course if it's your car and you have to claim off insurance and then pay thousands to insure a car again.

Break the law spend time in jail it does not help much, but these people are out of the way.

But of course we all know New labour did not like people speaking up abaout it.