The government was up to its usual deception yesterday when it announced that the Prisoners Earnings Act, first passed in 1996, was now in force. The act allows the government to make deductions from earnings of prisoners who receive over £20 a week; the money deducted will, according to the government, be paid to victim support organisations.
The contentious piece of legislation is summarised thus:
“When a prisoner carries out any task or duty within the prison, such as catering or cleaning, and receives payment for this, the Government may subject the earnings to deductions for: income tax, national insurance, court order payments, and child maintenance. The monies raised from the deductions and levies are to be used for: payments to voluntary organsiations concerned with crime support and prevention; payments to the Consolidated Fund to help pay for the cost of prisons; payments to any of the prisoner’s dependants; or payments to an investment account on behalf of the prisoner for their benefit on release. The Act only applies in Great Britain and has no application in Northern Ireland”
Many would see this as a good idea but in reality – as with everything else to do with the Conservative led coalition – things are not what they seem to be.
What the government are not telling people is that the vast majority of prisoners earn between £8 and £10 a week and so will be completely unaffected. The deductions, so loudly articulated by the government will actually only be taken from around 500 prisoners who are actually employed in the community. Given that there are over 87,000 prisoners currently behind bars, most of whom will not be affected by the new regulations, it is clear that this is about politics and not about raising money for victims charities.
The new Act of Parliament is necessary in order to circumvent competition problems originating from the fact that prisoners who are not employed outside the confines of the establishment are not regarded as “employees”. Rather, any money paid to inmates housed in closed establishments, which is most of them, receive a small amount of money as an incentive undertake what is known as “purposeful activity”, not work.
If prisoners were regarded as being employed, the government would have to make provision for paid holidays etc, as well as paying prisoners the minimum wage. This would be political suicide and so the last Conservative government brought in the new act in 1996 but then went on to lose the general election to Tony Blair in 1997.
It is estimated that the amount raised from these deductions amounts to no more than £1 million. Despite no doubt being welcomed by victims charities and other organisations anxious to see prisoners making recompense for their sins, it is a pitiful amount when compared to the £4 billion or so spent every year keeping people behind bars.
The move represents Conservative Party dogma of the worst possible kind and whilst no doubt receiving praise from the Daily Mail and the Sun, is likely to do very little to ease the situation in Britain’s prisons which, according to those prison officers brave enough to speak about it, is becoming almost unmanageable.
The obsession with punishment exhibited by David Cameron and his Conservative colleagues, rather than concentrating on rehabilitation and reduction of re-offending, tells us all we need to know when asked whether or not the Conservative party has changed. The answer is a resounding “No”.
Instead of allowing prisoners to carry out real work and earn a real wage as real employees, successive governments have insisted on paying them what amounts to pocket money instead of allowing them to build up sufficient funds to pay for accommodation and the other necessities of life when they are released. The end result is that the taxpayer bears the burden rather than the offender.
Those who say that prisons are place of punishment must not forget that they are also places of reform and rehabilitation. To concentrate only on the aspect of punishment is shortsighted and foolish in the extreme.
With the Conservative Party conference beginning next week, we can expect to hear right wing speeches from disaffected Tories who still believe that prisoners should be flogged every day and given no chance to reform. The only voice of sanity and reason is likely to be that of the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke who, if one excludes those in is own ministerial department, seems to be in a minority of one .
Meanwhile, pressure on our prisons continues to grow, opportunities for those ex-offenders who wish to make a new start are disappearing every day, prisoners serving indeterminate sentences (IPP) and lengthy determinate sentences stand less and less chance of ever working again; yet the Tory response is once more to ask the more prisoners be locked up for longer.
Instead of deducting money from those very few prisoners given the opportunity to work outside, TheOpinionSite.org believes that the government would be better to concentrate on providing real work with real earnings for those behind bars. Like it or not, it is only by providing real opportunities for prisoners that reoffending rates will come down.
The Conservative led government should be concentrating on reality rather than dogma and the Daily Mail headlines. Cameron and his cohorts must look to providing a real chance for ex-offenders who rejoin society and take a full part in community. Only by doing will we see reoffending rates coming down and less people going to jail.
That will produce a great deal more money for victims charities, less victims in the first place and a better and fairer society where people do not find it necessary to break the law in order to live.
That surely must be a better way forward than killing the work incentive of those prisoners working outside in the community whilst trying to portray it as some kind of political triumph which is in reality a cosmetic measure put in place to stave off criticism and to satisfy the tabloids.