It’s clear the government has had a bad week when the Prime Minister pops up on a Monday with a crowd-pleasing policy announcement. Recent re-launches have been shared by senior Lib Dems and Tories following the collapse of Lords reform, for example, to demonstrate that the Coalition is still working well. But today, the Lib Dems are nowhere to be seen: the Prime Minister’s big crime announcement is a response to a terrible week for the Conservative party, rather than the coalition as a whole.
Cameron is using law and order as a traditional Conservative area, arguing that ‘retribution is not a dirty word’ and that alongside a ‘tough’ approach to crime, all but the most high-risk prisoners will be offered rehabilitation by the end of 2015. He could have made this announcement at any point since Chris Grayling was made Justice Secretary in September’s reshuffle: Grayling’s was one of the smartest appointments the Prime Minister made because of his commitment to rehabilitation as well as his tougher approach than his predecessor Ken Clarke. But this is useful timing for the Prime Minister as he comes under pressure from his own party to show that he’s still got it (hopefully his No 10 team will back that up, too: the Telegraph has a great story on Oliver Dowden, the PM’s deputy chief of staff, admitting most of his time ‘is spent on day-to-day crisis management’)
Though it’s tempting to bill this as a departure from the Conservative leader’s 2006 ‘hug a hoodie’ speech, there are still parallels. This is what Cameron said in the original infamous lecture:
‘Of course people who commit crime should be held responsible. But I think people want their politicians to ask the question: “what is it that brought that young person to commit that crime at that time? What’s the background to it, what are the long-term causes of crime?’
Today he will say:
‘Just being tough isn’t a successful strategy in itself. Come with me to any prison in his country. There you’ll meet muggers, robbers, and burglars. But you’ll also meet young men who can’t read, teenagers on drugs, people who’ve never worked a day in their life. These people need help so they can become part of the solution and not remain part of the problem.’
The plan is to create a payment-by-results scheme for private firms to help offenders to go straight. When it comes to prisons themselves, Grayling received a tough warning last week from Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons. In his annual report, Hardwick wrote:
‘Resources are now stretched very thinly. There is a risk of undermining the progress made in recent years. If a rehabilitation revolution is to be delivered, there is a clear choice for politicians and policy makers – reduce prison populations of increase prison budgets.’
The most important thing today is that the announcement doesn’t end up mired in a row or a mistake over details. The Telegraph’s story on Dowden also quotes a Cabinet minister saying the Tories will be judged on ‘competence, not compassion’. The last thing Number 10 needs is to be demonstrating more of its crisis management procedures today.