Friday, 29 May 2009

Let’s get some perspective.. Esther Rantzen is no John Lilburn

The Mps expenses saga continues to drag on endlessly. New scandals appear and the re-runs of moats and duck houses seem to know no limits.
The public are rightly outraged by the abuses but at best the response has been inarticulate and ill thought out. First, there is the sight of “celebrities” like Esther Rantzen preparing to get kitted out in Martin Bell style white and virtuous garb to crusade for the public good.
The erstwhile peoples champion though may withdraw now that her initial target Labour MP for Luton Margaret Moran has announced she will stand down. For all those who favour self-styled media celebrities taking up seats at Westminster it would be wise to think back to what exactly Martin Bell did do when he was in Parliament. His main contribution seemed to be his white suit and getting attached to the odd strange cause such as the campaign to free two soldiers who shot the young boy Peter McBride in Belfast. What needs to be remembered with most of the celebrity class is scratch the surface and there is usually a quite right wing reactionary dwelling below. The Martin Bells and Esther Rantzens are not the Tom Paine and John Lilburn’s of the modern era.
Then there are those like the Conservative Party pushing for a general election. This is pure political opportunism and has nothing to do with reforming the system. The Conservatives believe they will win the next election and so the sooner it happens the better. Tory leader David Cameron has with the support of the right wing media managed to come out as a decisive leader, slapping down and sacking his own Mps for their abuses. He has also put a highly publicised reform package forward, little of which will probably ever happen once he comes to power.
The contribution of the Daily Telegraph, which has been breaking the revelations, to the Tory Party cause should never be underestimated. Is it me or does there seem to be a far greater focus on the Labour MPs. The Conservatives seemed to be exposed in one big serve over a couple of days, set up to give Mr Cameron the chance to smash it down and come out Disraeli like portraying himself as the great reformer.
The Labour Party meanwhile seems to be flapping around not quite sure what to do. Prime Minister Gordon Brown does seem to have been struggling to get reform for some time but to little effect. Whatever he does though seems to get the thumped down because so much of the media seems set now on propelling Mr Cameron into Downing Street.
It should also be born in mind that in the clamour to deselect MPs the public could be playing to the very forces that they purport to abhor, namely the party machines. One secretary of a constituency Labour Party told me that there is a danger that this will give the leadership the chance to deselect people all over the place and bring in their own hand picked choices.
A key requirement of any reform of the present system is that new MPs have some experience of other parts of life. They are not career politicians, coming straight out of university to join the party machine and be rewarded with a safe seat. Power needs to be taken away from the party hierarchies and given back to the constituencies if real reform is to be sustainable.
Real power needs to return to Parliament so that it can become a check rather than a rubber stamp on the executive. Select committees need independent power and resourcing. The House of Lords must become a fully elected chamber.
It would be good come the next election if there were independents elected to the Parliament and for power to be taken from the main parties. All Mps certainly need to be held properly to account.
The Mps though also need to get on with the job of governing the country. The economic recession and the bankers who caused it seem to have been quietly forgotten in the clamour about Mps expenses. A real sign of the dominance of the Westminster goldfish bowl syndrome. In comparison, the cost of cleaning a moat or clearing the dry rot from a house is infinitesimal compared to the billions poured into propping up reckless banks. It is these people who need to be punished and regulated. Indeed, it is the failure of Mps and Government to properly regulate and control the banks and the markets generally that is a far greater crime than cheating on the expenses. So let’s get a bit of perspective on this, yes press for proper reforms but don’t forget the bigger picture and what a mess the country is in not just at Westminster but also beyond.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Labour really does believe prison works

The announcement by Justice secretary Jack Straw that the government are going to build five new prisons holding 1500 each was greeted as something of a climb down.
Previously, the government had been proposing three ‘titan’ style prisons holding 2,500 per facility. The change of heart appeared prefaced on economic restraint.
The commitment to increase the capacity of the prison system by 7,500 places remained the same but by breaking it into smaller units and only committing to build the first two facilities the time for completion of the deal was left open ended.
The most telling element in the announcement was what appears to be the government’s now complete belief in the last Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard’s mantra that prison works.
The degree to which the government seems to have turned from addressing not just crime but also its causes was evidenced in Mr Straw’s comments. Building prisons is now apparently a good idea for many reasons.
“Once a prison is established in an area, almost without exception the local community becomes very supportive of it. A prison is a source of secure, well paid employment and a focus for much volunteering,” said Mr Straw, who was also keen to emphasis the exemplary nature of the new structures. “These new prisons will neither be Victorian replicas nor large warehouses. They will be modern, purpose-built institutions for adult male prisoners only.”
The Justice Secretary’s comments reminded me of a story told some years ago by Bishop Terry Brain of Salford. He recalled how the head of a private company that was going to run a prison in the north west, opened his remarks with the claim that the prison would bring long term employment to the area. No intention then of reducing the prison population, rehabilitation and education.
The Labour Government has disappointed in the area of crime and punishment. It started with some progressive ideas about reducing incarceration with a greater emphasis on community sentences and rehabilitation. Restorative justice schemes were talked about approvingly. It seemed that a genuine new way of thinking had arrived after the Tories old lock em up and throw away the key approach. Sadly, as with much else, the early signs were misleading. A government stuffed full of lawyers has legislated hundreds more offences onto the statute book and sought to reduce the discretion available to judges in imposing sentences. The result has seen the total prison population rise to 82,773. The useable operational capacity of the prison estate for England and Wales is 84,741.
The high level of re-offending, particularly in the younger age groups, the inability of most in prison to read and write and the creation of universities of crime don’t seem to matter. Despite being in power for 12 years the approach to the prison system has been security driven and based on an out of sight out of mind approach.
There was more imaginative thinking on prisons and crime from Winston Churchill as a Liberal Party Home Secretary in the early part of the last century than has been seen from any recent holder of the office. There was a brief hiatus back in the 1980s when a number of Conservative Home Secretaries, most notably Douglas Hurd, seemed to believe that prison didn’t work and other forms of punishment and rehabilitaiton needed to be established but this all ended with the arrival of Mr Howard at the Home Office. Unfortuntely ever since, the thinking has been regressive, seeing incarceration of ever greater numbers as in some way virtuous.
The last decade has also seen the vast growth of the security industry. Increasing numbers of prisons are being built and run by the private sector. Security is now seen as a profitable business. So for those who would argue for a more progressive criminal justice system there is not simply the moral and practical arguments to be won but also that of defeating the vested economic interest. There is now a growing business group that makes its money out of locking up ever more people. There needs to be some fresh thinking on crime and punishment. More prisons are certainly not the answer but an indication of the failure of recent policy initiatives. How can spending £35,000 plus per head to make someone into a better criminal be considered effective? A genuine look at the causes of crime and how best to rehabilitate those responsible for it would be a move in the right direction and is certainly long overdue.