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Fees protest taking heat off Tories; and good luck to Ken Clarke re mental health in prisons

Posted on 7 December 2010 | 9:12am

When was the last time you saw David Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove or David Willetts being put under real pressure to make the case for the trebling of tuition fees?

I ask because it is their policy every bit as much as it is that of the Lib Dems in the coalition. Indeed, more so. It is their policy full stop, with the Lib Dems useful ideological cover.

The protests against the policy have helped shoot very large holes through the ideological cover. But they have also helped the Tories escape their own role in having to make an argument. It is all about Clegg and Co. Even the rebellion of David Davis is being seen less as a difficulty for Cameron than it is for Clegg, because Davis’ argument cuts right across the Lib Dem leader’s (thus far failed) attempts to say the policy is progressive.

This focus on the perfidious pledge-breaking Lib Dems also plays into the Tories’ longer-term strategy. As an election nears, the Tories will want to be out on their own again, and seeing their coalition partners undermined bit by bit over the Parliament, their integrity, honesty and middle-of-the-road decency slashed to bits, will not harm Cameron one bit come a general election.

Of course the Lib Dems specifically pledged to vote against Tory tuition fee rises, which is why the protests have such potency and cause them such embarrassment.

But I cannot help thinking that on all sorts of levels, they are playing into the Tories’ hands, and getting heat sent in one direction only, when at least some of it should be warming Cameron, is a result for Number 10.

Meanhwile good luck to Ken Clarke as he tries to reform attitudes in his party towards prison, and in particular the issue of addiction and mental illness in prisons.

On the news last night, though we could have done without all the shots of the back of Nick Robinson’s ear – why do these people think they have to be in every shot? – here was a politician setting out a policy that most of his grassroots and many MPs will instincitvely oppose, and doing so because he had thought it through and he thought it was right.

Osborne will have gone along with it for financial reasons. For him, it is not so much that prison works, but prison costs. Clarke is doing it because he genuinely believes in a different approach. Where he will get into difficulty is when he finds that the mental health services he wants to use for the treatment he rightly says many prisoners need are also being cut.

He is promising to divert thousands of prisoners from custody onto treatment programmes. Sounds sensible. However, such treatment programmes are already under threat, and we need to make sure that the resources for this part of his new policy are not being provided at the expense of others who need mental health support, and have never committed a crime in their lives.

  • Why are the Tories not being put under more pressure? Because there is no effective opposition.

    Given that the Conservatives are implementing most of the recommendations from a review that Labour set-up – you could argue it is Labour policy too. However, it isn’t Labour policy because Labour don’t have a policy in this area (nor many other areas).

  • Excellent piece, but one thing to consider:

    Is the fact that the Conservatives haven’t been asked to justify their position a sign that the rebranding campaign away from the “nasty party” is failing? With the Lib Dems there is a (quite right, in my view) sense of betrayal, however it feels that this sort of policy is expected by the “nasty” Tories.

    I would propose that Labour could drive a wedge between the coalition and capitalise on this by pointing such info out “this would be expected from a party who’s leader previously admitted they are known for being nasty” etc. so that, were there a collapse of the coalition, the Tories would not (hopefully) benefit too much.

    Very interested on what you think of this idea, if you have time. 🙂

  • Laurapayneuk

    I cannot believe that Nick Clegg is already perfect in government double-no-speak this morning … apparently increased university fees to £12k means that it will open up social mobility? What does that mean – more wealthy kids will get to go????

  • Jacquie R

    On my last reckoning, the weekly cost of treating drug addicted offenders in residential rehabilitation, with a full range of services, was considerably cheaper than keeping them in prison. Unfortunately, because their occupancy levels made them uneconomic, several such units were forced to close down in the last few years.

    Residential treatment may take months and may not succeed the first time, or even the second time, but the prospects of recovery and change in lifestyle are infinitely greater. Hence the long term costs are considerably lower for the individual, society and the tax payer.

    It’s a no brainer, that Labour would have recognised if it hadn’t been so taunted by Daily Mail hysteria about locking people up. The size of our prison population, and the conditions which most are kept in, are a national disgrace. No wonder the re-offending rate is so high.

  • Anonymous

    As you say, the thing which gives real potency to this issue is that the LibDems gave their word they would vote against a fee rise. This wasn’t just a manifesto commitment which had to be traded so they could keep up manifesto commitments. It was a direct personal pledge signed by each of them as individuals.
    It’s striking that on the issues where Cameron got lured into making promises before the election, such as not attacking bus passes, he has at least ensured the coalition honoured his word.
    It’s all made much worse for Clegg and Co. by the fact that they, especially Vince Cable, tried to present themselves as a change from the sort of cynical politician voters feel rule parliament. Maybe that’s partly the fault of the media, but it is enormously powerful as a factor.
    So although I agree that it’s bad that the Tories are getting away with this, because they are the people Labour has to beat at the election, I’m not surprised the LibDems are on the receiving end. And they deserve it. Phil woolas got kicked out of parliament for lying about a Liberal. Why should Clegg get away with lying about himself?

  • Gilliebc

    I would also wish good luck to Ken Clarke, in trying to reform attitudes in his party towards prison. Maybe, it will not be quite as difficult as it once would have been, due to the current financial situation. I believe that if times were more “normal” he wouldn’t have a hope in hell of persuading these right-wing bigots to even consider addressing the fact that prison is not the answer for the large number of addicts and mentally ill people who are imprisoned. These people need help and treatment, in a secure unit if necessary, but in the long term it would be more cost effective, better for the people in need of treatment and ultimately better for society as a whole. IMO prison should be reserved for people who have committed grave offences and are a danger to the public.
    I believe that in years to come the fact that ill people were sent to prison, will be regarded with the same disdain and disgust as we now view the sending of children up chimneys and deporting petty criminals inc. children to Australia. There are several other examples of how things that were once accepted as normal, but now are seen in a completely different more enlightened way, that I could quote, but I expect you get the gist of it. i.e. prison for ill people is wrong and so last century.

  • Kate

    I just wanted to say that there is real fury at Clegg up here in frozen Clegg-country, but I don’t think it being directed primarily at him and his party, will ultimately benefit or protect the Tories. He is in mortal political decline…and as such is already almost meaningless. He will never get re-elected here. The policy is undeniably a Conservative one. Indeed that is at the very heart of the fury. Ultimately the political fall-out will be theirs…

    I feel as if the Lib-Dems have had their heads turned, by some passionate affair that has rid them of their senses. As if charmed by some beguiling suitor in a whirlwind romance that appeared to hold so much promise they simply could not resist. And as family and friends stand by in horrified confusion, unsure whether to offer their support to this unseemly union against their own better judgment and hope all will be well, or extract what remains of their loved one from this desperate, harmful alliance – the happy couple continue to present a unified and defiant front declaring their mutual commitment, even as the rose-coloured tint begins at last to fade and the realisation that they have made fools of themselves for a bored philandering middle-aged sweet-talker, rather than Prince Charming hits home…

    It cannot end well. We all know it.

  • Chris lancashire

    You are 100% correct in that far too many people are incarcerated in prisons when they should, rightly, be being treated properly for mental health problems. If Clarke manages reform in this area he is to be applauded.

  • Pingback: Cameron will find Ken Clarke a tougher cookie than Clegg if he tries instant U-turn on sentencing and prisons | Alastair Campbell()

  • Janelouisehigham

    I’m unsure if you have ever worked within a prison or other custodial setting, I have for over 14 years and I couldn’t agree with you more.
    I would love to be able to highlight the failure of the system to deal adequately or competently with the distressing range of both mental health and addiction problems that,in my experience, the majority, have.
    It is not a surprise that the vast majority of offenders come from a very particular part of society and their inadequacies; usually as a result of negligible social inclusion means they create victims and I include offenders in this category.
    They are often victims of a failure to support equally inadequate and struggling families. It often feels that, as a society we know the price of everything and the value of nothing