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The Daily Mail, on Monday, was first to notice the change in policy. In the 1990s Michael Howard instituted his 'prison works' policy and crime began to fall because repeat law-breakers could not commit offences so long as they were incarcerated. Incarceration, rather than the deterrent or rehabilitation effects, were most important in turning the tide against crime. Dr David Green of the Civitas think tank has long been a champion of this view.
Ken Clarke – under huge budgetary pressures and in alliance with the anti-prison Liberal Democrats – is ready to operate a more targeted prisons policy. Ken Clarke, thundered the Mail, needed to be "a little less Liberal and a little more Conservative".
The extent of the retreat from Michael Howard's 'prison works' policy was evident during Justice questions on Tuesday. Pasted below are some key exchanges between MPs and prisons minister, Crispin Blunt.
Mrs Helen Grant MP: In the context of capacity and overcrowding, what are the Minister's views on short sentences, especially for women?
Mr Blunt: The evidence is that short custodial sentences are not working. They produce terrible reoffending rates. We do not have the capacity in the probation service to address people on licence, which is one reason why they do not have any supervision when they leave prison, and we are on the most dreadful merry-go-round. It is one of the glaring gaps in the way that we deal with offenders and reoffending behaviour, and the current Administration will do their level best to address the issue.
Mr Jack Straw MP (Lab): "Does the Under-Secretary acknowledge that there has been a sustained fall in crime from 1995 to date, and that the increase in prison places and the fact that more serious and violent offenders are now incarcerated has contributed to that fall?
Mr Blunt: "Evidence on the effects of incarceration is mixed at best. We must take the political temperature out of the debate. Outbidding each other on how robust we will be in dealing with offenders probably does potential future victims no good. We must have policies that address future offending behaviour and consider the life cycle of potential and actual offenders so that we can support them effectively."
Mr Straw: "The whole House would agree that the fundamental test of an anti-crime policy is whether crime has fallen. With that in mind, will the Minister now acknowledge that crime fell consistently from 1995 and throughout the 1997 to 2010 Administration?"
Mr Blunt: "No, because the change in trend on crime was achieved by Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, who delivered a robust policy that effected changes. He was the author of the change in policy, but there is a limit to continuing that process, as there must be to the rate of growth of incarceration. In the end, we cannot lock up everybody who might be a threat to someone, because in that way, the entire population would end up in prison. There is a logical end to that process, and we will do our level best to deliver more effective policies to ensure that there are fewer victims in future."
Dr William McCrea (DUP): "The Justice Secretary is reported as saying that millions of pounds could be saved by jailing fewer offenders and slashing sentences. Does the Minister accept that our first duty is the protection of the public and that we must provide prison capacity accordingly?"
Mr Blunt: "Yes, but I do not entirely recognise the hon. Gentleman's presentation of my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary's comments over the weekend. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the first objective is public protection, and if we are to protect the public of tomorrow, so that there are fewer victims, we have to ensure that we have a justice service that will deliver a reduction in reoffending rates and can divert people from offending in the first place."