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East meets Westminster: Tough on crime, intelligent on the causes of crime?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 October 2012

David Cameron walks through the Benchill area of Wythenshawe in 2007 while hoodie-wearing Ryan Florence makes a gun gesture

David Cameron walks through the Benchill area of Wythenshawe in 2007 while hoodie-wearing Ryan Florence makes a gun gesture

PA Archive/Press Association Images

DAVID Cameron never actually urged anyone to “hug a hoodie”, writes Richard Porritt.

But history will remember the phrase – actually attributed to him by Labour as a rebuttal to an attack on their gun crime policy – as one of the stand-out moments of his time in opposition.

As it turns out it did little to harm his credentials as a future prime minister but following this week’s announcement on how the Government plans to tackle criminals with a “tough but intelligent” approach to the rehabilitation of offenders.

When Mr Cameron mentioned hoodies in a speech in 2006 he suggested the garment was more likely to be worn in a defensive stance than a threatening one. But what was far more interesting at that time was the then new Tory leader’s words on justice.

He appeared to be addressing crime and punishment from a standpoint the right had never dared to before. He said that understanding the causing of crime was a complex issue and to discover more the right questions had to be asked – in other words simply banging wrong ‘uns in the clink was not the answer.

Times have, it appears, changed. Now the PM wants to get firmer with knife and gun criminals and make sure community sentences all have an element of punishment.

He also announced private firms would get cash incentives if they were successful in rehabilitating offenders.

But back in 2006 Mr Cameron was fighting for votes on a compassionate Conservative ticket. He was pleading with the middle-ground that the so-called “nasty party” of the 1980s was a thing of the past and a new touchy-feely Tory was emerging. Remember the huskies or the cuddling up to leftie Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee?

But radicalism in opposition is easier than when you are in power.

The latest announcement – a relaunch in some respects – pandered to the increasingly mouthy Tory right by declaring “retribution is not a dirty word” but also gave a nod to the more moderate in the party by promising all but the most serious offenders would get help to turn their lives around.

So less hug a hoodie and more shake them by the hand?

Prisons are not big vote winners. Britain enjoys justice and a majority – both Conservative and Labour voting - want parties to be tough on crime. For most voters this means locking up people who do things wrong – punishment. Most people think this should be lesson enough to shock thugs, yobbos and ASBOs into smartening up their act when they are dumped back in normal life at the end of their sentence.

But for many people - young and old - prison is a way out. They are fed, watered and become institutionalised. The cells become a way of life which for some poor souls is an easier option than work, tax and normal relationships. Those who have nothing, have nothing to lose.

A magic wand that made offenders disappear would no doubt be welcomed by the electorate and politicians alike. Problem is that would mean a very big, very blank cheque. And Britain’s pockets have been turned out and the back of the sofa searched many times already in recent years.

So Mr Cameron has no option but to try – as many before him have – the tricky political juggling act of tough yet caring. But will this new approach really discover that political elixir of a rehabilitation scheme that works?

It seems those on the frontline - the prison officers - are not behind it.

Last week this paper revealed a shocking catalogue of violence against prison officers and inmates across Suffolk’s jails. And Dean Acaster - East Anglian representative for the Prison Officers Association says private firms will only hinder the battle to get offenders back on the straight and narrow.

“When private firms are involved the worry is that the bottom line and keeping shareholders happy become the most important things” he said. “Already prison officers up and down the country work wonders with limited resources. If there was more cash available they could do even more.

“There are already private prisons in the UK and that appears to be the way the Government is looking to move forward. But it is cheating the public - why should a firm be making money out of crime?

“What kind of message does it send to someone who has been attacked or raped?

“And we have found that staffing levels at private prisons are much lower than elsewhere - that will have a very serious impact. Attacks on guards and prisoners - like those highlighted in this region - will go up. And the end result will be criminals continuing their life of crime inside.”

The public are rightly nervous about private firms being involved in the delivery of services which have previously fallen to the state. But prison were always going to be easier to turn over to corporate hands than the National Health Service.

Right now Mr Cameron is hitting the correct notes on prisons but his legacy might not be so friendly. Mr Acaster believes that if the Government’s plans are fully implemented chaos will rule in Britain’s prisons within a few years.

But the Tories will believe that deep in a mid-term wobble the steadying voice of their leader promising a crack down on crime is worth the risk.

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