New prisons are not the answer

NEWS that Home Secretary John Reid is considering sending more prisoners to open jails in an attempt to reduce overcrowding, will inevitably cause concern in east Suffolk where Hollesley Bay already seems to see a steady stream of inmates just walking away.

NEWS that Home Secretary John Reid is considering sending more prisoners to open jails in an attempt to reduce overcrowding, will inevitably cause concern in east Suffolk where Hollesley Bay already seems to see a steady stream of inmates just walking away.

I have never seen that as a huge concern. Anyone who absconds from an open prison is going to get as far away as possible as quickly as possible.

You aren't going to find any Hollesley inmate with even half a brain cell hanging about on the Butley marshes after legging it through the front door - they'll be off down the A12 or A14 faster than you can make a bowl of porridge!

However the fact that the government is even considering sending more prisoners to open jails is a clear indication that the numbers getting sent down is now reaching crisis point.

We've already got politicians from across the political spectrum echoing many of the popular tabloids and calling for more prisons to be built. Meanwhile the country's top judge has gone undercover for a day to find out what life is like for people doing a “soft” community punishment.

Lord Phillips decided this was not such a “soft option” and has recommended that more people should be given community punishments to keep them out of jail.

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That's a call that has already irritated some tough-talking politicians and national newspapers.

But on this I'd much rather trust Lord Phillips than a Home Secretary desperate to impress Rupert Murdoch enough to get his backing in the forthcoming Labour leadership contest.

The simple fact is that building new prisons is not the answer. Every prisoner costs £37,000 a year to maintain - is that really a good use of our taxes?

And before people say that locking people up is good for society, is British society really much more lawless than that anywhere else in western Europe?

As a nation we lock up a far greater proportion of our population than any other EU country - the only country even thinking about EU membership that could challenge us is Turkey.

Surely it is better to keep people convicted of non-violent offences out of prison if at all possible - surely it makes more sense to get the fraudsters, the perjurers, the benefit cheats to put something back into society rather than to lock them up and bring them into contact with more serious criminals.

That way there will be more space in our prisons for those who really should be there - the rapists, the murderers, those convicted of violent assaults and the career criminals who really do pose a risk to the public if they are allowed to walk the streets.

MY piece last week calling for more council houses to be built has prompted much reaction - almost all agreeing that local authorities should be able to build more homes.

However one or two people did infer from my piece that I felt it was wrong to allow people to buy their council houses in the 1980s.

Nothing could have been further from the truth - the right to buy legislation was long overdue and it gave people the chance to buy the home they had lived in for years.

That was any important piece of social legislation and was very worthwhile.

What was wrong about the legislation, however, was the fact that the government at the time - and subsequently - refused to allow local authorities to use the money they raised from selling off homes to build new houses to replace their lost stock.

They were never likely to be able to build the same amount that they sold off because most homes were sold at a significant discount. But if they had been allowed to build one new council house for every two they sold, the worst excesses of the current rental housing crisis would have been avoided.

I have never been able to understand the government's desperate attempts to prise housing provision away from local authorities.

From an ideological point of view, it was possible to understand why the Conservative government didn't want Labour-run councils to expand their housing stocks.

But why the Labour government from 1997 retained this hostility to council housing, totally escapes me - the Labour governments of 1945 and 1964 did more to expand council housing than any others.

Why they didn't maintain this commitment when they won back power is difficult to understand - it seems clear that they are now as committed as the Conservatives to seeing the end of council housing. And that's a great shame.

IT'S good to know that the government has now decided we're all a thoroughly unhealthy and obese lot - eating too much, smoking too much and drinking too much.

At least in Suffolk we seem to be healthier than most other parts of the country, but I really do wonder what is the point in ministers banging on about the subject so much.

And when Tony Blair appeared outside Downing Street waving around a BBC mug I really did start to feel a little bit nauseous! Why it was necessary to hold a healthy cup of tea or coffee, while telling the rest of us how to live our lives completely escapes me.