Former Justice Secretary, Jack Straw last night made clear his opposition to any proposals to reduce the number of prisoners serving an Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP).
Straw made his comments during last night’s BBC Question Time programme which for the first time ever was broadcast from inside a prison; the programme was recorded in Wormwood Scrubs prison in London.
Also on the panel was the current beleaguered Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke who adequately and effectively redeemed himself after a turbulent few days in which he has been heavily criticised for suggesting that some offences of rape were less serious than others.
What is important however to TheOpinionSite.org and the many thousands of visitors who come to this site for information on IPP sentences, is the indication perhaps that the opposition Labour Party may attempt to stand in the way of any progress on IPP’s.
This would hardly be surprising, particularly in the case of Mr. Straw as he, together with the former Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis led calls for a debate on the prisoner’s voting rights issue earlier this year. The coalition government was spectacularly defeated during the debate.
Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of the human rights group Liberty was also on last night’s panel and actually summed up the Labour Party’s position rather well when she claimed that after Michael Howard’s famous speech in which he said “prison works”, Tony Blair decided to commence an arms race with the Conservatives to determine who could put most prisoners behind bars for the longest period of time. The result of that is the mess that we have today.
The Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips was also on the panel and took precisely the view that one would expect from someone who writes for the Daily Mail. In a disgraceful display of pandering to those with a tabloid mentality and also her own editor, she joined Straw in proclaiming that unlike America, Britain only jails a small proportion of its population and that more people should be imprisoned for longer.
Mr. Straw actually sounded disappointed that during his time in office he had not actually managed to lock up half the population for one reason or another and was adamant that the minimum tariff for IPP sentences should not be reduced.
The current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Milliband has previously claimed that he would not criticise Ken Clarke in his attempts to put less people in jail. Given that Mr. Milliband on Wednesday called for Mr. Clarke’s resignation, one must presume that he has returned to the tacky, populist Blairite policies of the past and now intends to prevent and to block any moves to try and bring some common sense into the Criminal Justice System.
That Mr. Milliband has changed his mind and gone back on what he said originally also comes as no surprise to TheOpinionSite.org. Ever since Blair, it is what we have come to expect from a party that seems incapable of telling the truth as soon as the newspapers start complaining. The difference is that Tony Blair was a much more convincing liar than Milliband will ever be.
The Labour Party will quite naturally try and cash in on public resistance to reforms of the penal system, knowing full well that most people do not understand how IPP sentences work. This opposition to change will not be for ideological reasons or because Labour believe their point of view to be of benefit to the country. Rather, it is because they have been and still are an opportunist party which refuses to face up to being responsible for the financial mess in which Britain now finds itself.
The fact is that if Labour – including Jack Straw – can’t be honest with themselves, they are even less likely to be honest with the rest of us.
The cold, hard financial truth is that whatever opposition there may be to reforming IPP sentences, there is no choice. It is simply too expensive to maintain the current policy and with the number of IPP sentences increasing almost daily and with cuts of 25% to the prison budget being enforced, the number of IPP prisoners has to be reduced.
This reality will not change no matter how much tabloid influence comes to bear on the coalition or how much the Labour Party, who introduced the much criticised sentence in the first place, complain about things.
The tragedy of it is that whereas the coalition was previously definite in its thinking about increasing the minimum tariff of an IPP to 10 years, this may now change. Furthermore, Clarke has been forced into a situation where he may be unable to release many of those in prison who are past their tariff date in the manner in which he had intended.
That is not to suggest for a moment that his intention was ever to suddenly release hundreds of prisoners; that was never an option. What may have been possible however was to gradually reduce the numbers of IPP prisoners by making it easier for the Parole Board to release them.
Strangely enough, it may be the Parole Board that comes to Kenneth Clarke’s rescue.
If Mr. Clarke introduces his new “formalised release test”, the Parole Board may feel sufficiently empowered to release more IPP prisoners. Because the Board is an independent body and is not under the control of ministers, not directly anyway, Mr. Clarke will be able to claim that any release of IPP prisoners is nothing whatsoever to do with him or the government and is instead the result of a careful and balanced judgement made by members of the Parole Board panel.
Much as Jack Straw would love to argue with this, it would be extremely difficult for him to do so as he used the same excuse when it came to the early release of prisoners during his time as Justice Secretary.
It is anticipated that Mr. Clarke will reveal at least some of his proposals for the reform of IPP sentences next week.
Once the proposals are known, the cries of pain and anguish from Tory right-wingers and the opposition benches will be heard. The tabloid newspapers will doubtless go into meltdown in a bid to cash in on the furore that follows and a mixture of victims groups, the child protection industry, policeman and the usual bunch of zealots will shout and scream that the coalition is soft on crime and that Mr. Clarke has got everything wrong.
TheOpinionSite.org however believes that actually Mr. Clarke has got most things right for it is clear that the current situation cannot be maintained or afforded and if change is to be introduced, it has to be radical change.
The cosmetic changes that typified the panic of new Labour when things started to go wrong will not be sufficient this time and whilst the disciples of Blair may hate what is happening, it is likely that in the end even they will have to accept that there is little or no choice left.
The simplistic and much quoted argument put forward by Michael Howard that “prison works” is total nonsense.
Although it is true that the prisoner cannot harm the public while he is in custody, it also only applies until the time that he is released. Therefore, the only way to make Michael Howard’s formula work properly is to never release any prisoners, something that he has always neglected to point out every time he pops up on a television screen.
Because nearly all prisoners are always released in the end and because we haven’t yet fallen into the bottomless pit that the Americans have already created for themselves, prison will never work in the way Howard intended.
There is only one political leader who has ever been successful in truly making prison work in that way and he committed suicide in 1945 when his “Thousand Year Reich” collapsed in a heap. Those people that want to lock up their fellow citizens for ever longer periods of time using IPP sentences, often handed down on the basis of little or no evidence and without judicial discretion may wish to reflect on that and learn a lesson from history…or have they already forgotten where that approach eventually leads?
(Get your copy of “How To Survive An IPP Sentence” by Raymond Peytors by clicking HERE)