The main responsibilities of the Ministry of Justice are the criminal justice system, including prisons and probation, and constitutional reform. Crime has not been seen as a political strength for us in the past, but I believe that it could be, because we have very distinctive things to say. Constitutional reform is one of our traditional strengths, but the task there is to make it relevant to current politics.
There is a crisis in the criminal justice system of staggering proportions. The prison population is at a record high, and is eating up £ billions in public expenditure. 70% of prisoners suffer from two or more recognised mental illnesses. Vast numbers are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Prisoners are shunted around the country at an alarming rate in a desperate attempt to find places. Constructive activities for prisoners are becoming increasingly difficult to complete. Thousands of prisoners are threatened with the Catch 22 that they have been sentenced to an indeterminate sentence so that they can only obtain release if they complete certain courses, but no such courses exist at the prisons where they find themselves. Meanwhile, community sentences are underfunded and non-custodial sentences we know are effective in reducing re-offending, such as restorative justice, are left on the shelf.
We need to stick to what works to reduce reoffending, and, within what works, we need to concentrate effort on offenders who are likely to commit the most new crimes and the most serious new crimes. The government and the Tories are obsessed with placating the Daily Mail with talk of punishment and deterrence, but that approach, because it fails to concentrate on what really works to reduce reoffending, effectively causes more crime. If existing resources were moved from programmes that do not work – such as short-term prison sentences that have vast failure rates – to programmes that do, such as restorative justice and drug and alcohol treatment, the crime rate would be lower. By refusing to follow such an approach, and instead indulging their more atavistic tendencies, both Labour and the Tories are permitting more crime than should be happening. That is why they are the pro-crime parties.
On constitutional reform, the most urgent task is to point out that the convergence of a financial crisis, an economic crisis and a crisis of confidence in democratic politics is capable of creating an extraordinarily dangerous political situation. Far too many people feel excluded from politics and are turning to other methods of making their voices heard – not only environmental protest but also the protests at the Lindsey oil refinery. If we are not careful, we could end up endangering democratic politics itself.
That is why everything we say about political reform should flow from the single idea that people who are now excluded should have their voice heard. The first-past-the-post electoral system is the biggest culprit of all, because it means that the entire election concentrates on the votes of a tiny number of swing voters in a tiny number of swing seats. Targeting by all parties, which is a tactic which first-past-the post produces, excludes most of the electorate from politics. We need an electoral system that will force parties to listen to more voters.
House of Lords reform is another example, because the main scandal of an unelected House of Lords is that it is a House of networking and patronage. It is a standing affront to ordinary people who will never have the connections necessary to get there.
Attacking the power of lobbyists and getting rid of the power of money in politics is another aspect of the same theme. Many people believe that politics is only for the rich, and that money buys access. We have to stand against that, and campaign for a politics where values matter more than money.
All this does not mean downplaying the importance of individual freedom. Increasing numbers of people now agree with us that the state has become too powerful and too intrusive, and that our fundamental political freedoms are at risk. But we need to argue for individual freedom as a part of political engagement and not as substitute for it.
* David Howarth is Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, and the party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Justice.