Ken Clarke should pay attention to demands to keep women out of prison

Labour Party

I was very disappointed to read today that Ken Clarke has decided to ignore the evidence and arguments submitted by reform groups who argue that fewer women should be in prison. As a former General Secretary of the Chief Probation Officers’ Association I have some expertise and considerable interest in this subject. 

I understand that the Justice Secretary feels himself to be in a difficult situation at the moment, after the rape sentences fiasco he got himself into….but he seems to have got entirely the wrong end of the stick.

The reason why many people (women especially) were outraged at the time wasn’t because the UK just likes to keep lots of people in prison, it’s because the particular reforms that he wanted to introduce would have reduced sentences for violent sex attackers. Ultimately the problem was that rape sentences as a whole are too low and the Justice Secretary was found just as guilty as the rest of the establishment of not taking rape seriously.

This debacle, however, should not prevent him from looking critically at sentence reform, especially when it comes to female offenders.

I’m not writing this because I believe women are less bad than men or deserve different treatment by virtue of being women but merely because, in general terms, female offences vary greatly from male offences, in ways that make prison a less suitable option.

Prison has three functions, punishment, rehabilitation and public protection. I would argue that for many female prisoners these functions are either redundant or failing.

In regard to the punishment element, while punishment is obviously necessary for all offences, the spiralling costs of incarceration mean that it is no longer just prisoners who are being punished but society as a whole, those schoolchildren or people in care who could really use the £54,000 a year it costs to keep someone in prison. Given that so many other areas of public spending are suffering, we need to start looking for alternative means of punishing people.

In terms of rehabilitation, I think it is safe to say that the prison system is completely failing, especially when compared to community based  methods.  For instance Anawim Community centre in Birmingham reported last year that 3 per cent of women using the unit had reoffended, compared to 54 per cent of those in jail.

The community penalty reoffending rate is so much lower mainly because being locked up with other criminals and treated inhumanely does not  generally help those who have offended to deal with their offending behaviour. This is then exacerbated as people leave prison often with no means of supporting themselves other than crime.

If we want to give people a chance to actually become productive members of society it would be better not to damn them with a prison history if at all possible.

There are also reasons why prison is especially bad for women. Female prisoners who are pregnant or single parents may lose their children. Even in the case of there being another partner or grandparents those children are still without the care of the mother for substantial amount of time, breaking family bonds and setting the course for a continuation of family dysfunctionality (and possibly crime) into the next generation.

So now we come on to the protection element, which I believe is the only one of its three functions prison actually serves effectively. Yet this is where the situation for women is most different because female crime is overwhelmingly less violence-based than male crime. As detailed in the Guardian, just under 45 per cent of women sent to jail in 2009 were convicted of theft, fraud and forgery offences, compared with 21 per cent of men. Just 14 per cent of women jailed were convicted of violence against the person, compared with 21 per cent of men.

Ultimately far fewer female convicts are actually dangerous and therefore worthy of protecting society from. Given this, the escalating costs of incarceration and the fact that for female offenders especially community based mechanisms are far better for rehabilitation and offender’s families surely it is about time Ken Clarke took notice of those arguing for female sentence reform.


Conservative, europe, Labour Party

Denis MacShane has just written this article for the new look, vastly improved “Tribune” .  Denis asks WILL KEN DO A GEOFFREY HOWE?

Just when you thought the Conservative Party could not get any more hardline against Europe, William Hague has announced that Kenneth Clarke will be expected to vote “No” in any future referendum on a European Union treaty. Overlooked in the Damian McBride furore, the Shadow Foreign Secretary used an Easter weekend interview in the Daily Telegraph to warn the Shadow Business Secretary that he must toe the Hague line on Europe and vote against ratifying new EU treaties. Hague also says the Tories will call for a retrospective referendum to reject Europe if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified later this year.

Kenneth Clarke

Kenneth Clarke says "No" to Europe

It seems that Hague is now back wearing his mugger’s baseball cap and taking aim by roughing up his much older Shadow Cabinet colleague in the columns of the press. Will Clarke accept this humiliation? Or, like Geoffrey Howe finally rebelling against Margaret Thatcher’s anti-EU posturing, will he stay true to his pro-European beliefs?

Current Tory hostility to Europe is without precedent in post-war British politics. Even in the worst days of Labour’s Euroscepticism in the 1980s, politicians such as John Smith and Tony Blair were allowed to stand up for Europe. Hague is telling Clarke to renege on a lifetime’spro-Europeanism and instructing all other Tories who want to work with Europe to keep quiet.

In tactical terms, Hague’s appeal may be aimed at trying to get hardline anti-EU voters to return to the Tory fold ahead of June’s European parliamentary elections. But these voters are ready to vote for the UK Independence Party and the British National Party, as those two extreme parties share the same objective of immediate British withdrawal from Europe.

Hague dare not go that far, although the Yorkshire-based “Better Off Out” group of Tory MPs look to him as their man who will so wreck Britain’s relations with Europe that withdrawal becomes possible. However, Hague could not have laid down the challenge to Clarke without Conservative leader David Cameron’s decision to break links with mainstream conservative parties in Europe – the most isolationist move in decades of British politics.

Nominally, the Tories are now looking for partners among European parties who share Hague’s anti-EU fixation. This has already led to an embarrassing meeting with Latvian right-wing politicians who venerate the Waffen SS.

Hague’s hunt for anti-EU right-wing parties with which to align is going to be tricky. One favourite of Conservative Eurosceptics is Philippe de Villiers, the French right-wing MP whose “Movement for France” uses anti-Lisbon Treaty language similar to the Tories. Unfortunately, de Villiers has blamed the current recession on “cosmopolitan financiers” – and “cosmopolitan” in French, as in English, is a codeword for Jewish. So it’s no go there as the Conservatives hunt for anti-EU bedmates.

Phillippe de Villiers campaigning for a 'Non' vote

Phillippe de Villiers campaigning for a 'Non' vote

The other friend of the Tories in Europe, the Czech right-wing Civic Democratic party has just been ousted from power after its leader attacked Barack Obama for taking the American economy on the “road to hell”.

But it is doubtful if Hague is serious about forging links with a ragbag of oddball rightist parties in Europe. His objective is to create conditions in which Britain moves to the exit door of the EU. The implications for global policy and this country’s relationship with the United States, China, Russia and the Commonwealth are enormous, as the Foreign Office faces up to having an openly isolationist Foreign Secretary if the Tories win power.

It should not be forgotten that Cameron won the leadership of his party in 2005 by outflanking David Davis on hostility to Europe. After the first round, there were some 40 Tory MPs who had voted for Liam Fox, who never hides his venomous contempt for the EU which has been a long-standing feature of his right-wing politics.

Fox’s supporters offered their votes to whichever of the two remaining candidates in the race would appease their virulent anti-Europeanism. The price these anti-Europeans wanted for their votes was a pledge to break all links with the European People’s Party – the loose association of centre-right parties in Europe. Pulling out of the EPP was the first step on the road to pulling out of the EU.

To his credit, Davis knew that such a move was unsustainable. He refused to make the promise. Cameron was more cynical and more of an opportunist. He promised to give the anti-Europeans what they wanted. And he then appointed Hague as his chief foreign affairs spokesperson. Hague makes cheap jokes about the French and Germans and has always been an anorak when it comes anti-Europeanism.

In the past, Tory leaders in opposition could play the race card, as Margaret Thatcher did with her notorious “swamped by people of an alien culture” speech. She used this as a “dog-whistle” with which to win back Tory voters who switched to the National Front in the 1970s.

In 1976, Andrew Brons, an extreme right-winger obsessed with the ideology of the Nazi party stood for the NF in a Birmingham by-election and won 22 per cent of the vote. The Tories were worried that the NF would win support from racist admirers of Enoch Powell.

Thatcher’s speech, with its unmistakable xenophobic pledge to stop Britain from being “swamped” (she never said by precisely by whom, but everyone understood who she meant), killed the NF vote and encouraged the Powellite working class to back the Tories in 1979.

David Cameron dithering and dodging European issues

Cameron cannot play the race card. He is a liberal cosmopolitan without a gram of racism in his make-up. To his credit, he has promoted ethnic minority candidates, MPs and peers. He needs votes from Hindi, Muslim and other faith communities in order to win a majority.

Instead, to counter the racist appeal of the BNP, he is playing the anti-European card and using Hague, who does not bother to hide his contempt for Europe, as his dog-whistler.

With most newspapers pumping out anti-EU propaganda and with Labour failing to make the case for Europe with conviction and energy, the Tory strategy may work. But the price of an isolationist Britain will be high. And will Ken Clarke pay it?

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham