Peter Hoskin

Now the Tories have an issue to get stuck into...

Now the Tories have an issue to get stuck into...
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While Nick Clegg battles on the tuition fee front, another internal conflict breaks out for the coalition today: prisons. And rather than yellow-on-yellow, this one is strictly blue-on-blue. On one side, you've got Ken Clarke, who is controversially proposing a raft of measures for reducing the prison population. On the other, Tory figures like Michael Howard who insist that prison works – and that there should be more of it. Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley, even told Radio 4 this morning that millions of Conservative voters would be disappointed by the coalition's plans.

Clarke's argument is, as we already know, twofold: i) that we cannot afford to keep detaining more and more prisoners, and ii) that the current justice system is broken, particularly when it comes to rehabilitation, and needs mending from the ground up. He concentrated on the second of these – the custodial "revolving door" – on the Today programme earlier, and was persuasive in parts. No-one sifting through the reoffending statistics would argue that the British justice system is working as well as it should. The government has some encouraging ideas, particularly in the area of payment-by-results schemes, for fixing this.

For many people, though, fixing the prisons system need not mean shrinking it. Couldn't population figures be kept up at the same time? After all, the evidence of the last decade is that prison does a great deal to cut crime rates; not to mention appeal to the sense that misdeeds must not go unpunished. Here, the government will point to the public finances, and shrug that needs must. They will also point to plans to make community sentences tougher and more punitive. But the argument will only really be won if crime falls, prison costs go down and rehabilitation improves. Until that hopeful day, this remains a live issue.