Britain - Beyond the politicking of Labour's "law and order" agenda

May/Jun 2001

The Tories are always keen to parade themselves as the party of "law and order". So too in the current election campaign with, for instance, their billboard showing a middle-age woman carrying a shopping bag and, in huge letters, the question: "you paid the tax, so where is the police?" They have a long record of whipping up fears caused by the social degradation of the past decades. And their "solution" is the same old demagogic litany: more repression, more police, tougher sentences, etc.. Never mind the fact that this so-called "solution" proved a complete and utter failure throughout their 18-year rule.

But is Labour's policy all that different?

Of course, in the days when they were in opposition, Labour MPs were allowed by their party whips to expose the then Tory Home minister, Michael Howard, for his US-inspired "three strikes and you're out" policy, his preposterous denial of any link between the poverty caused by unemployment and petty crime in inner cities, as well as his xenophobic attacks against asylum seekers.

No more, though. Since Labour returned to office and Jack Straw replaced Michael Howard, Blair's government has embarked on an attempt to overbid the Tories on the issue of "law and order". Not only has Straw adopted much of Howard's language and many of his policies, but like with most past Tory policies, this Labour government has gone even further in implementing them.

Of course, the two main parties have the same vested interest in turning the spotlight away from the main issues facing the majority of the population. Scapegoating people at the bottom of the social scale allows them to protect the interests of high-flying, "respectable" criminals at the top. While each party boasts that it is tougher against "crime" than the other (and in their language this includes illegal immigration), they can avoid talking about the much more devastating consequences for society as a whole, of the crimes committed in capitalist boardrooms - which put the health and lives of the public at risk, as in the privatised railways and utilities, or dispose of the jobs of tens of thousands of workers at the stroke of a pen, as in the car, steel and electronics industries. Both parties have a "100% tolerance" towards such crimes: they are willing to go all the way in supporting the capitalists' right to profit, regardless of the cost to working people and society as a whole.

But in addition, Labour's electoral strategy, which takes working class votes more or less for granted, is primarily designed to block the Tories from regaining the electoral support they lost in the 1997 election among a section of their traditional electorate - which is also particularly receptive "law and order" demagogy.

So this overbidding between Labour and the Tories has been going on for four years now. And it has led to a series of changes in law, some already implemented and some in the pipeline, which represent a significant tightening of the screw - not so much against "crime" than against the poorest layers in society.

Britain's "besieged fortress"

As soon as it came into office, Labour adopted the Tories' long-standing policy of the "besieged fortress". Straw's decision to retain border controls with the European Union is based on the same idiotic argument used before by the Tories: Britain has to be protected from "drug smugglers and terrorists". As if drug smugglers were likely to be caught red-handed at Waterloo station, with their consignments of cocaine ready for Customs officers or known "terrorists" would walk casually past Immigration with a handbag full of Semtex! But Labour did not want to be accused of being softer on "the foreign threat" than the Tories.

Initially at least, this xenophobic demagogy did not go down too well with Labour's own MPs. But when, grabbing the pretext of the 29 people murdered in the Omagh bombing, Blair rushed his "Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill" through the Commons, in September 1998, few Labour MPs dared to oppose it.

Not that this bill was necessary for London in order to "handle" the situation in Northern Ireland. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (also passed as emergency legislation by a Labour government in 1974) already gave security forces more than enough powers. But Blair wanted to make a show of his "toughness" and, in addition, pre-empt accusations by the Tories that his "Good Friday agreement" in Northern Ireland amounted to "selling out to terrorists".

At the time civil liberties groups warned that this bill could become a Trojan horse for turning the screw of repression on a much larger scale. Two years later they were proved right, with the passing of the Terrorism Act 2000 - which came into force on 19th February this year.

The new Act is a wide-ranging extension of the 1998 bill's emergency powers for Northern Ireland. It is an all-purpose framework to combat "terrorists" - defined as anyone serving a "political, religious, or ideological cause", using or even threatening to use violence against any person or property and seeking "to influence the government or to intimidate the public". With such a vague definition just about anyone active in politics or even taking part in a strike can be branded a "terrorist"! The Act provides for a list of proscribed organisations drawn up by the Home Minister. Anyone convicted of membership may face a criminal sentence. So far this list includes 21 foreign organisations, including the Kurdish PKK, the Tamil Tigers and a number of Sikh and Muslim organisations, together with 13 Irish organisations.

The Act also reverses the burden of proof - it is up to the accused to prove their innocence - and deprives suspects of the right to silence. It even goes as so far as to make it a criminal offence to speak at the same meeting as a member of a proscribed organisation - no matter how small or informal. It also introduces a criminal offence of "incitement" which can apply to anyone calling for the overthrow of regimes - here or abroad. And to enforce the Act, police are given blanket "stop and search" rights.

In short, this Act is a direct infringement on the political rights of whoever the government may choose to target.

Of course, this is not its official justification. Blair insists that the Act's only purpose is to protect the country against a so-called "international threat". No-one has forgotten the scare stories circulated by the media about Iraqi agents allegedly about to infiltrate Britain with suitcases full of anthrax spores! Blair wants to be seen standing up bravely in defence of the realm, against the terrorist threat of the "new barbarians", to use Thatcher's old language. This may be total and utter nonsense, but who cares? What matters to Labour ministers is that they are not outdone by the Tories in their defence of the "besieged fortress".

Never mind the danger that by portraying "foreigners" as potential "terrorists", this demagogy may fuel xenophobic prejudices in Britain - specially at a time when the catastrophic impoverishment of large parts of the Third Word is driving more and more immigrants towards the rich Western countries. This is none of Blair's concern.

Blair's disregard for the consequences of his demagogy is even more blatantly exposed by his policies against immigrants. In order not to be outflanked by the Tories' anti-immigrant demagogy, he made a point of introducing new legislation specifically targeting immigrants and asylum seekers - thereby singling them out as a "threat" for the population.

The Immigration and Asylum Bill, which came into force in April last year, substantiated the idiotic claim circulated by the tabloid press that immigrants only came to Britain in order to "live on fat benefits". Thus, as an alleged "deterrent", this Bill cut the benefits granted to the most destitute immigrants and introduced the infamous voucher system run by the French multinational company Sodexho. The government did not bother to explain how come, despite these punitive cuts, Chinese immigrants were still prepared to risk the entire savings of their villages and their lives to come to Britain illegally! The Act also restricted asylum seekers' right to legal assistance in court, while it terminated the automatic leave to remain in Britain granted so far after seven years residence - which resulted in over 47,000 repatriations of long-standing foreign-born residents. At the same time immigrants were criminalised, with the setting up of a whole number of new detention centres across the country.

So, Labour's demagogic version of the "besieged fortress" policy is now in place. But at whose expense? The poorest immigrants, of course, but also ordinary people - British or not - who happen to carry their Third World origin on their faces. Indeed Labour's xenophobic course has reinforced the deep-rooted racism of the police - as is shown by the number of cases of black people who died in police custody over the past few years. Besides, by exposing as a "threat" the few tens of thousands of impoverished immigrants who make it to Britain each year, even though they could be easily accommodated by such an affluent economy, Labour is creating tensions which can only poison the atmosphere within the ranks of the working population and the jobless as a whole.

Locking up the problems without resolving them

The second plank of Labour's "law and order" offensive has been to demonstrate its determination to strengthen repression as a means to fight the rise in petty crime.

This is of course nothing new since every government has taken the same line since the early 1980s, arguing for more repression on the basis of rising crime figures. Whether these figures were accurate is another matter, as the bureaucratic machine of the police has a vested interest in inflating them, in order to justify its constant demands for more funds. But if these figures are taken at face value, they only prove one thing - that every government has failed to reduce them. In other words, stepping up repression has been a failure.

Of course, no-one can question the fact that petty crime has indeed increased since the early 1980s, even if this increase is probably not nearly on the scale which is sometimes claimed (one should remember, for instance, the gang wars of the 1960s). The fact is that the growth in unemployment, the reduction in the standard of living of the working class and the resulting rise in poverty have all produced a significant degree of social degradation, which comes at a cost: the marginalisation (or "social exclusion" in the government's parlance) of the poorest layers of the population and the rise in petty crime are both part of this cost.

What has Straw's answer to this situation been? Much the same as that of his predecessor, Michael Howard: the government has passed laws against what it refers to as "anti-social behaviour", pushing thousands of youths into the prison system - the ultimate social exclusion.

This has been accompanied by plenty of rhetoric on "parental responsibility", threats to impose fines, or cut benefits, to families who did not discipline their children or send them to school, curfews for children, police hunts after truant kids, as well as "zero tolerance" stunt initiatives against the homeless, which were allegedly aimed at getting them into work, but in reality were primarily designed to scare them out of sight. None of these measures made much difference, except that they allowed the police to adopt a higher and even more arrogant profile in the poorest districts.

In the end Labour's new, tougher, legislation only continued the trend which had already been manifest since the beginning of the 1990s: the number of offenders appearing in court remained more or less the same, but more prison sentences were given, particularly for young offenders, and longer ones at that.

As a result, this government can boast that it has incarcerated an unprecedented number of offenders since it came to office. Indeed, in 1998, Blair broke all previous records when the average prison population hit 65,300 - greater than it had been in any previous year. In 1999 there was a temporary, minute, drop, by 1%, in the prison population. But rather than a reduction in the actual number of inmates, it reflected the fact that some prisoners were allowed out of jail 60 days before the end of their sentence, with electronic tags to monitor them, so that the average headcount went down. Since then, however, the figure has gone up again to over 65,200 last year.

So today, Britain has the second highest prison population among western European countries - 125 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants. Only Portugal had more people in jail relative to population - 131 per 100,000 - compared to an EU average of 87. Of course these figures remain small compared to the USA's huge 729 prisoners per 100,000 head of population.

Straw's Victorian prisons

Predictably, prisons have also reached an unprecedented level of overcrowding. The resulting appalling conditions in British jails was exposed in a series of reports, letters and interviews by the government's own chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, who, having spent the last five years visiting prison after prison, has become a very painful thorn in the side of Jack Straw. It is small wonder that Ramsbotham has not been invited to serve a second term in his position.

In an interview on BBC radio recently, he complained that despite an increase in the prison population by 50% over the past ten years, the prison budget had been slashed during the same period. And now the Treasury had enforced £18m "efficiency savings" annually on the "most overcrowded prisons in western Europe".

According to official figures, 36 jails (out of a total of 136 public jails) now have more than 100 inmates "doubled up" in single cells, the worst being Birmingham Prison where 750 of 1,083 inmates are crammed, two to a cell, in a Victorian prison built to hold 732 prisoners. Leeds has 600 prisoners doubling up, Preston and Durham 500 and Liverpool 400. Altogether, says the prison service, over 12,000 prisoners are held two to a cell designed for one.

Yet, says Ramsbotham, the prison population could be cut down to 45,000 immediately. Indeed, according to him, there are currently 20,000 prisoners who should not be in jail in the first place: children, the elderly, the mentally ill, asylum seekers, those inside for shoplifting or minor drug offences.

The case of the mentally ill is particularly shocking. Since the introduction of the Tories' "care in the community" programme, which effectively threw thousands of patients out of psychiatric hospitals without providing the necessary infrastructure and staff to take care of them at home or in specialised centres, the proportion of the mentally-ill in prison has risen seven-fold. But nothing has been done by Blair's government to increase the funding available to local authorities for the care of the mentally-ill. On the contrary, the policy of cutting local social expenditure has been stepped up, resulting in more mental patients being left without care on the streets, making it therefore more likely that they end up in jail.

Ramsbotham is not the only prominent prison expert to point out that the policy of filling prisons at all costs is becoming a serious danger. Among them is also Lord Woolf, the author of the report on the 1990 Strangeways riots (which spread from the Strangeways prison in Manchester to more than 20 other prisons), which singled out overcrowding as the most important factor in sparking off the riots.

Ramsbotham's main attacks, however, have focussed on Young Offenders' Institutions (YOIs) which he describes as "barbaric warehouses". The number of children and young offenders between 16 and 18 years in prison custody was up 11% this year to around 3,000. In fact Britain locks up more young people than almost any other Western country. From the point of view of British criminal law, a child becomes responsible for a crime at the age of 10 years - as was illustrated by the high profile given by the media to the gruesome public trial of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, convicted for murder at the age of 10. This compares with 12 years of age in Turkey and 18 years in Belgium and Luxembourg.

Last year, there were about 10,000 prisoners classified as young offenders in British prisons - of which over 2,000 were under 18 - most of them locked up for petty theft. The appalling conditions in which they are detained are best illustrated by just one figure: in 1999, there were 900 incidents of self-harm by young people in prison including slashed wrists and eating glass. As one penal reformer commented with bitterness, "If there were 1,000 furry animals being held in these conditions, there would be demonstrations every day."

At Stoke Heath YOI in Shropshire, there were more than 1,000 assaults on inmates by staff in a year. Ramsbotham went so far as to say that it was unsafe to send young offenders there.

At Feltham youth remand centre, the number of 15 and 16 year olds being held on remand nearly doubled between March 2000 and November 2000. 800 young prisoners had to be put on so- called "suicide watch" over the year and the chief prison officer declared that his staff should be commended because there had "only" been one suicide during the period! This notorious youth remand centre keeps prisoners locked up in their cells up to 23 hours a day. One third of its inmates are assaulted at least once a year. In overcrowded conditions, nothing is done to protect inmates from potential violence, as was shown by the recent case of Zahid Malik, who was locked up in Feltham for having stolen a pack of razors worth £6. Zahid was put in a cell with a known psychopath who was later heard making racist threats against his life. Shortly afterwards, Zahid was battered to death by his cellmate with a table leg. He was 19 years old.

Brinford YOI, outside Wolverhampton, has the reputation for being the most violent prison in the country. The risk of assault in this prison is 67%. Ramsbotham said of this prison: "We are not dealing with a cross-section of society here. This is a distillation of young men in crisis who have been failed by family, schools and the community. It is very strong stuff." In fact the Chief Inspector called for the closure of remand wings in all YOIs, "because of the disgracefully impoverished treatment and conditions that they provided for the children that were in them."

As far as he was concerned, it was not surprising that 90% of young people leaving prison re-offended within 2 years.

The privatisation of hell

So what can one conclude from this catalogue of brutality which harks back to Victorian Britain? That prison works? Of course it does not. Jack Straw knows that. His much more amenable Director of Prisons, Martin Narey, has also condemned his own service for "a litany of failure and moral neglect", describing some of the prisons under his command as "Hellholes" where inmates were denied human dignity and treated as a subspecies.

But despite these statements, Narey is the kind of manager that Straw likes, because he also says he is not prepared to blame everything on lack of cash and excessive overcrowding. Indeed he has a reputation for blaming prison governors, and presiding over a regime of bullying within his own department. Narey points out that there is no excuse for filthy prisons or refusing to treat prisoners with respect as neither cost money. Precisely. And such talk suits the Labour government down to the ground, because what it has in mind is the same kind of solution it has applied in education. Straw said he entirely agreed with Mr Narey: "what is needed is to make these institutions more accountable: substantial external pressure to raise standards; tough inspection and a good director general."

Yes, and league tables as well? In fact what Straw envisages is the same kind of bureaucratic solution already enforced on schools which are starved of funds and when this fails, privatisation. Then the government cannot be blamed for the next prison riot. Neither Narey nor Straw wish to take on board Ramsbotham's and Woolf's call for a reduction of the prison population.

Instead Jack Straw has other plans - to put more and more prisons out to tender for private contractors to run them and to replace some of the oldest prisons with new ones built through the Private Finance Initiative.

In this respect too Labour made a U-turn when coming into office. At that point there were six prisons run by private companies in the country and Labour had vocally opposed this move made by the Tories under Major. But within days of occupying his new position, Jack Straw sanctioned two new private finance prison deals. Since then he has sanctioned another seven.

In the meantime, the management of three prisons previously tendered out has been returned to the Prison Service following a catalogue of disasters and scandals. Blakenhurst in Worcestershire, for instance, will remain the property of Sodexho. But the Prison Service is taking over its running due to the abnormally high suicide rate under the management of UK Detention Services.

This does not mean that the prisons which are still privately-run are any better though. Doncaster prison, for instance, enjoys the suggestive nickname of "Doncatraz". It is run by Premier Prison Services, the largest private prison operator in Britain and a joint venture between the US security firm Wackenhut and the British industrial services company Serco. In the three years up to 1999, it was consistently number one among all 136 British prisons in terms of its rate of prisoner self- harm. Despite this, Jack Straw has just renewed its £66m contract!

The disasters that can be expected from privatisation are of course entirely predictable, even when in the new prisons built under PFI which should, at least, provide better facilities for prisoners than the old, decrepit and filthy state-run prisons. However, profits need to made out of their operation. This can only mean fewer and less qualified staff and, as a result, worse treatment for prisoners.

One way or another, whether through so-called "efficiency savings" in state-run prisons, tendering out to private operators or new prisons built through PFI deals, conditions will not improve for prisoners. And according to all penal experts, this is a sure recipe for increasing the rate of re-offending.

Blair's "ten-year crime plan"

Given this situation, Blair's latest initiative against crime - a so-called "ten-year crime plan" - appears as an exercise in hypocrisy and politicking. This plan, which was announced in the pre-election Queen's Speech last Autumn, is supposedly designed to "rehabilitate" the "persistent offenders" who, according to the government, are responsible for half the country's crimes, through the penal system.

Blair has obviously chosen to make a big thing of his plan. So, for its launch, Blair.. went to jail - albeit for a brief one-off visit to London's Pentonville prison. Unbelievably, it was the first time a British prime minister had ever bothered to see the inside of a prison and, by the same token in the case of Blair, what the word "overcrowding" means.

Of course, this visit was solely for the benefit of the more liberal fraction of the electorate which would be receptive to Blair's concern for prison conditions. But the real content of this plan had already been summed up by Straw, just after the Queen's Speech, by presenting it as the biggest attack on "crime and disorder" in 20 years: it was just another device in Labour's overbidding the Tories on "law and order" - even if this device is allegedly aimed at reducing prison overcrowding and improving conditions.

Of course, there have been some attempts by the government to reduce prison overcrowding. For instance, last May, Detention and Training Orders, or DTOs, were introduced with this objective. Under these new orders, petty offenders automatically spend half their 12-month sentences in prison and half in the "community", doing community work. However, according to penal reformers, this has not prevented prison violence from increasing even more: since the dire conditions in the lock-up remained largely unchanged, there was no reason for prisoners to feel less deprived of their dignity and less frustrated as a result.

Part of Blair's new plan is to reduce even further the period which petty offenders spend locked-up, to 3-4 months, but enforce tight supervision after release into the community. The idea is that if someone then re-offends, they will not get another short sentence as used to be the case. To all intents and purposes this is, under the pretext of improving prison conditions, an even more repressive implementation of Michael Howard's "three strikes and you are out" policy. Indeed, under this plan, any previous convictions would have to be taken into account and used "in evidence" in court - something which goes against a long-standing principle in the British legal system and that the Tories had never dared to introduce. So Labour in fact intends to take this one step further and change the Criminal Justice Act 1991 to remove this obstacle.

This naturally explains why, of the £700m which are meant to pay for this 10-year plan, only one third of it will go towards rehabilitation, while much of the rest will go towards 2,500 more prison places.

So there is in fact no question of any slowdown in Labour's policy of locking up offenders, no matter how petty their crimes may be. Never mind the fact that it can only lead to a situation where more and more youth from the poorest layers of society are pushed deeper into crime and criminalised in the same way as they are today in the USA!

A question of social choice

Labour's pandering to the Tories' reactionary agenda against petty crime is more than an electoral ploy. It is also a social choice and the consequence of Blair's policy of favouring the capitalists' profit drive regardless of the consequences for the working population.

What has this government done to reverse the social degradation which is the primary cause behind the rise in petty crime? All the talk about "fighting social exclusion", "pulling people out of poverty", etc.. has turned out to be little more than hot air. Worse, it has been used as yet another weapon to force worse conditions on the poor. The various programmes which were allegedly aimed at "helping the unemployed into work" - from the New Deal to Working Families Tax Credit - have turned out to be devices designed to force workers into very low-paid, casual employment. Instead of being pulled out of poverty they have been coerced into accepting that they should work in order to remain poor. This is the future that Labour is offering the youth in the poorest areas of the country.

So when Blair pretends to preach "Christian values" (including to those who have no truck for religion or have a different one) to youth for whom he has only that kind of future in store, what is this if not hypocritical bigotry?

Fighting "social exclusion" would indeed require the offer of a future for the youth and a decent life today for their parents. It would require jobs they can make a living out of and education that gives them skills that they can use.

The murder of Damilola Taylor on an estate in Peckham highlighted the lack of facilities for youth and the obliteration of the youth services. A fight against "social exclusion" would have to start by putting in the resources to create a real social environment for the youth on estates which have become so poor and derelict that even shops have disappeared. Instead, this government imposes cuts on local youth services.

Derelict housing can only feed social degradation. Fighting "social exclusion" would require the refurbishment of those estates which can be repaired and the rebuilding of those which cannot, so as to stop the deterioration of conditions in these estates - but also the building of additional estates in order to respond to the increasing housing shortage facing the poorest families.

By the same token, if the state undertook this task directly, without resorting to profit sharks through PFI or similar deals, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of decent jobs could be created immediately for those who need one.

Instead, not only has this government carried on reducing its housing budget, but it is encouraging local councils to sell off their housing stocks to private management companies which may sometimes carry out some repairs, but always increase rents so that they become unaffordable for the poorest. And it is not Blair's preposterous plan to "wire up" poor estates to the internet that is likely to change anything when it comes to the exclusion of their residents!

The present social degradation is bound to go on as long as the capitalist class is allowed to boost its profits at the expense of the overwhelming majority of the population, whether by increasing its exploitation of the working class or by plundering the resources of the state. Because of its subservience to the interests of the capitalist class, this Labour government bears a heavy responsibility for this degradation. And this makes its demagogic overbidding over "law and order" even more repulsive.

5 May 2001