Prisons were the main topic of questions faced at justice questions today by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, who attempted to balance his own liberal leanings towards a focus on rehabilitation, and the public and political desire for tough custodial sentencing.
The recent riots featured heavily in the questions and the answers, with many MPs seeming keen to make reference to rehabilitation of prisoners rather than tough sentencing, and the need to address the social issues which may have played a part in causing the riots.
Some MPs made comments which seemed to support the sentiment of Ken’s comments on the rioters as a ‘feral underclass’, with Conservative MP Jessica Lee attacking the ‘culture of idleness’ which has permeated prisons and society. Many MPs called for prisons to make more use of work in prisons as a means of rehabilitation, and to prevent reoffending by giving prisoners the means to leave prison with the skills to gain employment.
In contrast to the staunch support from the government for tough custodial sentencing for those involved in the riots, Clarke was also more focused on the rehabilitation of prisoners, and preventing reoffending in the future. Clarke spoke of the need to ‘make use of all forms of punishment available’, stating that community sentences could be used more widely if they were made ‘more effective’, as a way of reducing the prison population.
Labour MP Tom Brake agreed with this, stating that ‘properly managed community sentences are much more effective’.
However, since the riots the political and public mood has been one of tough justice, with the emphasis on custodial sentences, and this was also evident in the questions and answers.
There were several questions on bail, with many MPs expressing the sentiment that bail should be granted less often and less leniently. Again, this issue may have been accentuated in the wake of the riots, with the calls for tough justice extending to this area as well.
Ian Paisley made reference to riots in Belfast when he called for uniformity across the entire country in terms of punishment for rioters, a sentiment which Clarke supported, stating that rioters should face the same ‘swift, firm justice’ no matter where they were in the country.
This seemed to be in marked contrast to his earlier assertions that rehabilitation should be a priority for prison services and politicians, but was indicative of the overall mood at justice questions, which was one of the need to strike a balance between rehabilitating prisoners and ensuring that justice is served.
This is a balance which will need to be struck within the cabinet and government as well, if Clarke has anything to do with it.