The state of our prison system

I blogged earlier this week about why I think Jack Straw has it wrong when it comes to cutting crime. We don’t need more rhetoric about ‘I’ll be tougher than you’, we need effective action – and that includes better rehabilitation so that we cut reoffending rates, but instead the state of these services and our prisons system so often means that it’s just a case of out of jail and commit another crime.

Mary Riddell has an interesting piece in the Telegraph today about the failings of our prisons system, including:

The Ministry of Justice’s own study reportedly shows that 81 per cent of victims would rather an offender got an effective sentence than a harsh one: 80 per cent favoured community sentences if they work.

People worry, rightly, about the rise in some violent crime. Most would say the violent offenders whom I met at Wandsworth deserved their sentences; so would I. But surveys don’t reflect any clamour to lock away children, mothers and the mentally ill who could be more effectively punished or treated outside jail. People want safety, not vengeance. Mr Straw should grasp those points quickly, for time is running out.

Of the 66,000 offenders who get out of jail each year, three-quarters are unemployed. That primes them to re-offend, at a cost to the taxpayer of £13 billion a year. Things may soon get worse. As unemployment soars, few employers seem likely to favour the Wandsworth bricklayer above the 100 other applicants of unblemished character. (Read more here)

Meanwhile, we also have the news that the education system for prisoners hasn’t been working:

The Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS), rolled out two years ago to provide skills training and help tackle reoffending, has “failed in almost every respect” of its work, a report by MPs said on Tuesday…

n reality the system has not produced a core curriculum, meaning that prisoners who are moved can often not continue their chosen course, the report said. Learning was also being hampered by the failure of the prison service and education providers to pass on records when prisoners moved between prisons or into probation.

Ministers have emphasised the importance of education in reducing reoffending – 50 per cent of people in custody have no qualifications. But MPs said the courses on offer were of little use to prisoners serving less than 12 months and reconviction rates for that group had not changed as a result. (Read more here)

Prison policy: it's about future vs past

Jack Straw is in the news today for a speech he’s going to give calling for a tougher line to be taken against criminals and prisoners. Fancy that – a Labour minister calling for tough action!

I think he’s got the key issue wrong. Yes, we do need to make sure that victims are respected in the criminal system and their views have appropriate weight, but so often things are out of kilter when it comes to the past versus the future.

Punishing criminals is about taking action over what they’ve done. Proper rehabilitation is about stopping them committing more crimes in the future.

When a criminal is in jail, we can’t undo the hurt and harm they’ve caused in the past – but depending on whether or not we take rehabilitation seriously, we do have some control over how many future victims of crime they’ll cause because – except for the most serious offences – those prisoners will be out of jail again some day.

And yet – rehabilitation is so often the poor cousin of the system, with excellent projects not bringing their full benefit because the money and headline attention goes on the rhetoric of toughness. We need to talk more about effectiveness, not vindictiveness.

PS Chicken Yoghurt puts it very nicely!

A double dose of speaking in Parliament

Managed on Thursday to get called (after an hour of bobbing up and down) in Business Questions and asked the Leader of the House (Jack Straw) to give time for a debate – a proper debate – on gang culture, the problems of which have recently been highlighted in Haringey with 60 – 80 youths rampaging down Lordship Lane. Jack Straw agreed – but that doesn’t mean we will get the debate.

In the afternoon I led for the Liberal Democrats in a three hour debate on the sixth report from the International Development Select Committee which is on ‘Conflict and Development: Peacebuilding and Post-conflict Reconstruction‘. The Select Committee was and is chaired by my Liberal Democrat colleague Malcolm Bruce who presented the Committee’s report. It is a substantive piece of work on an area – conflict resolution – that is tough to address.

The key issues I raised were around the abuse and rape of the natural resources which conflict states are often so blessed and therefore cursed with – and trying to ensure that our UK companies are behaving properly. I also raised education in conflict states and the issue of the Department for International Development right hand not knowing what the Department for Trade and Industry left one is doing. Cross-departmental goals might be helpful and selling sophisticated and very expensive radar air control units to countries that don’t need them but to whom we are giving aid is just stupid and counter-productive.

Knife crime

Managed to get called during Business Questions – which is a quaint way of bringing constituency issues to the fore and asking the Leader of the House (Labour MP Jack Straw) for a debate. The debate I asked for was on the rate of grant from the government for statutory support for asylum seekers.

In Haringey we happily provide support for a very high level of asylum seekers. But if you take even just one element of Government funding support – the rates for looking after unaccompanied asylum seeker children – the grant doesn’t come anywhere near the actual cost. And even worse – not only does the Government funding not cover the costs, but the costs racked up by the Government’s failure to make asylum decisions quickly – because much of the cost in that maintenance is due during the period whilst the Home Office (that oh so fit for purpose establishment) takes years to process the legality or otherwise of the asylum seeker.

It is completely unfair and unsustainable on those areas where asylum seekers naturally congregate.Jack Straw’s answer – he would pass on my remarks to the Home Office and a slagging off for the LibDems in general. That really raised the tone!

In fact I have just written to Jack Straw over his outburst last week on knives. My Lib Dem colleague, Mark Hunter, raised the issue of lengthening sentences for carrying a knife in a public place and Jack just ranted about Lib Dems opposing longer sentences for knife crime. This is misleading Parliament in the first degree (i.e. untrue! and you can check in Hansard from report stage of Bill in Commons). Not only is this assertion factually incorrect but also completely unwarranted. In response to the recent surge in knife crime, a Liberal Democrat sponsored amendment was laid down in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill (on which I lead for my party) that would increase the sentence for carrying of a knife in a public place to seven years. This amendment was not voted on as a Conservative amendment, take before it ,which would have increased the sentence to five years was defeated by the Government. So the truth is – Labour voted against increasing the penalty for carrying a knife in a public place.

The Bill is coming back to the Commons for Lords Amendments next Monday and Labour will be tabling an amendment to make the sentence four years (which is better than the current tariff), and although it doesn’t extend it far enough in my view it is a step in the right direction. I will go into this further when I write up my blog after the debate next Monday.

David Cameron's debut

Off bright and early to Parliament for a ‘Green Ministers’ breakfast briefing on the proposed Marine Bill – still in its infancy. I am the ‘Green Minister’ for our Home Office team. Our manifesto commitment was to interweave green issues into the heart of all issues – so each Lib Dem team has its own Green Minister.

Today’s subject is really interesting – although not directly related to my constituency (being landlocked). It is helpful to be briefed by the experts in the field of marine life to understand the issues. What strikes me is the point they make about us having land planning laws and regs until they are coming out of our ears – but virtually nothing for our seas. Rare species and environments are disappearing, virtually nothing is protected and there seem to be no rules about priorities in terms of planning at sea. So someone can create a port – anywhere – with no regard to damage by placement and no requirement to even consider it. At least the Government is prepared to bring forward the legislation – but not all the departments seem fully engaged and you need the ODPM and the DTI fully on board!

Home Affairs team meeting is followed by Prime Ministers’ Questions. Of course, it’s David Cameron’s debut! He did really well on his first bite of the cherry, nicely telling off Hilary Armstrong for sitting there shouting childish comments at him. She does this all the time and it is unedifying and a public telling off saw her blush nicely. However, he didn’t make much impact on his environment question – I guess the Tories and environment caring, sharing are still not believable even with that nice David Cameron saying he agreed with Tony Blair on this and education.

Tony B pointed out to the Notting Hill Prince that if he agreed with it all – he had better vote for it and the budget to fund it. They were both well-behaved – which personally I found quite refreshing. However, I suspect that the Tories agreeing with Tony Blair and the Government line is a one trick pony. Tony Cameron can’t say that every time he speaks – it just won’t ring true or (I suspect) be deliverable. Still an adequate start. Style 8 – content 3!

Now Charles Kennedy, on the other hand, asked a stonkingly good question on Extraordinary Rendition (that’s the American policy of picking up suspects around the world, and flying them off on secret flights to secret locations with no trial, no legal representation and no accountability). Charles put Tony B on the back foot for not knowing what he was talking about and not telling Jack Straw – anything! And this is what question time should be about – serious stuff.

Dash back to my office to do an interview with the Westminster Hour to go out Sunday night on Cameron and what it means for the LibDems. Pontificate – but the truth is – who knows fopr sure … yet!

Last port of the day is attendance at St Andrews Church in Alexandra ward to see the local amateur dramatic society perform three plays. This is their last outing after 81 years – as the Church is renovating (lottery money) and is taking away their storage room and the stage which will make it impossible to go on. Such a shame. I don’t quite understand as when I visited the Church recently to look at the plans for the renovation I thought they had built in storage for the theatre company and I didn’t remember the Vicar saying that they would have to go. Must write and ask if any chance of them staying – somehow.

The production was very professional. I used to do a fair amount of am / dram myself from the age of about 9 until about 22! It took me back to those days. And as I have been told that ‘politics is showbiz for ugly people’ I obviously found an alternative outlet for my thespian aspirations.

Hornsey Town Hall and public transport links

I make an informal, private visit to Red Gables. Red Gables is the wonderful, wonderful, family centre in Crouch End – organically evolved over years to provide what users want. And between the Labour Government and the Labour Council they want to close it and devolve its services to elsewhere. This comes on the back of Government funding for 18 new childrens’ centres across the borough. Sounds great – except the new centres can only be in ‘deprived’ areas – but there are lots of pockets of deprivation in the Crouch End area and it serves the whole area. ‘Deprived’ children come to this centre of absolute excellence. The services it provides are too many to list – but all manner of challenges are met and met well.

Given there are to be 18 ‘new’ centres – which in reality are not new but bits of other services cobbled together – you would think the logical answer would be to make Red Gables one of them, solving at a stroke the whole business.

Anyway – I meet the staff (who are obviously desperate for the place to stay open). They clearly love their work, the place and its achievements. There is a ‘consultation’ going on by Haringey Council with the users as a result of the huge protest and campaign to save Red Gables. The consultation is with users, and when completed next week we are told that the officers will analyse the data and then advise the Council Executive (all Labour) what to do.

I spend a little time with the children and mums just arriving for the drop in playgroup and then off I go.

At 4pm CNN come to my house to do an interview on terrorism and the Government’s continual curbing of our civil liberties are being raided. Now you can’t even say that Jack Straw is talking nonsense without being forcibly removed and then the police using Section 44 of the terrorism Act to stop you re-entering a building. Free speech – certainly not under Blair!

In the evening, there’s a Buffet, tour and presentation by the Community Partnership Board for the proposals (thus far) for the Hornsey Town Hall. It’s certainly moving in the right direction and the people involved in the panel are completely committed to the project’s success – but as ever – the proof of the pudding will come when we learn where the funding will come from (i.e. how much from development and how much from public funds) and whether the Council is willing at the end of this process for the whole caboodle to be handed over to an independent community trust – which is the Lib Dem position (along with that of many other people).

Sadly and ironically, I get to talk to people for an hour and then have to leave after only seeing a short bit of the actual presentation (I have the written version to take home) as I have a meeting with Peter Hendy (Director of Surface Transport at Transport for London) at which the top item on my agenda is transport for the Hornsey Town Hall site.

I am asking him to agree in principle to three main things. As nothing is agreed for the site as yet specifics are out of the question. However, the nagging is for: agreement in principle to supply extra public transport to serve the site; agreement in principle to a process of engagement by Transport for London with the Community Partnership Board on the transport issues for the site; and agreement in principle to look at free transport for those going to an event on the site on production of ticket to that event.

As we are also having dinner I get the business out the way at the front end. I have written out my longer list which includes bus links for Crouch End to both Highgate Tube (especially now that it has a CPZ and so more people need public transport to get there) and to the top of Highgate Village. I nag about the crossing for Archway Road opposite the tube entrance where the steps are where a woman got killed recently, the extension of the 603 Muswell Hill to Hampstead and Swiss Cottage bus route and various other issues. Peter thinks the Town Hall stuff will be fine and will respond to me in writing point by point down my list. So business over – time to eat and gossip…

David Blunkett

It’s a bummer when you have to go to a black tie do straight from work.

Should I wear my ball gown to City Hall all day, go home and change or take it to work and change? Happily, I don’t have a ball gown and have got this down to a fine art. I wear a black (reasonably nice) suit to work with normal t-shirt – and then change the t-shirt for a frilly evening top and in a twinkling – I can go to the ball.

Actually, it’s not a ball, but the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust dinner at the Dorchester, and yes I have declared it (or asked my PA to) in the declarations of hospitality accepted. It was a fantastic evening and I hope it raised lots of money for the trust which is doing incredible work.

They had there the students who are in receipt of bursaries to study architecture and it was incredibly moving to see that out of the appalling murder of Stephen has come some real good.

It was quite a line-up of speakers and guests. Outside of the trustees, there was a bevy of cabinet ministers including Blunkett and even Cherie Blair put in an appearance. Of course, everyone was staring at Blunkett.

I can’t imagine what it is like to have to go to such a high profile do in the middle of all the furore going on about his love life and visa doings. To his credit, as he went up to speak, his first line was ‘I am seeking popularity…’ It raised a laugh – but his problems won’t go away.

Paul Boateng gave one of the weirdest speeches I have ever heard. I don’t know if that is his usual style of delivery but I have never heard such a bizarre delivery. Jack Straw was Jack Straw. The real star was Doreen Lawrence. She is just a fantastic woman.

The invite said ‘carriages at 2.00 am’. Well – I don’t have a carriage and 2 is way past my bedtime – so I left at midnight. Telling my children about the evening later when I got home – I mentioned that the Fame Academy star Lemar was there. Forget Blunkett and Cherie – I was in the doghouse for not getting his autograph.