Street art on the theme of imprisonment by Dan Witz.

This essay, on the cruelty of “Imprisonment for Public Protection” and what it tells us about social policy, was my Observer column. It was published on 6 December 2020, under the headline “Our leaders can’t preach respect and treat the vulnerable with contempt”.

“My family were going, ‘Why are you not out? They can’t give you a 13-month sentence and keep you in there for ever!’”

Oh, but they can. And not just in China or Saudi Arabia, but in Britain, too. It’s called Imprisonment for Public Protection, or IPP, a form of sentence introduced by Labour’s David Blunkett in 2003. Under the system, certain people were given tariffs proportionate to the offence committed but remained in custody for as long they were deemed by the Parole Board to present a “risk to society”. A Prisons Inspectorate report in 2016 showed that almost half of IPP prisoners had spent more than five years extra in prison. Some had spent more than 10 years above their tariff, many for the Kafkaesque reason that courses that the parole board insisted they had to take before being released were not available to them.

A new report from the Prison Reform Trust shows that by the end of last year, 194 people serving IPPs had died in prison, including 63 suicides. People such as Charlotte Nokes. In 2008, she had been sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment for street robbery. Almost a decade later, she still had not been released. In July 2016, despairing of ever being free, she ended her life in HMP Peterborough.

So egregiously cruel was the IPP regime that the coalition government abolished it in 2012. But the law was not made retrospective. In 2012, there were around 6,000 IPP prisoners. Eight years later, there are still more than 3,000, including ones returned on licence.

The way that the IPP regime continues to eat away at people’s lives is scandalous but barely registers in public consciousness. That’s not surprising – those who have committed crimes rarely gain public support, still less sympathy, however pernicious their treatment. But the more we accept the unacceptable treatment of others, the more the authorities can gnaw away at our own rights and dignities.

The IPP regime was introduced as part of New Labour’s “respect” agenda, to help to restore, in Tony Blair’s words, “the loss of a value which is a necessary part of any strong community; proper behaviour; good conduct; the unselfish notion that the other person matters”. But, like the recent Windrush scandal, it was also the product of a deliberately engineered “hostile environment”, this one directed not against black Britons deemed not British enough, but against working-class people judged not to be sufficiently morally fit.

The policies of the respect agenda, such as the introduction in 1998 of Asbos, were popular because they spoke to the experience of many working-class communities of the daily struggle to assert one’s dignity. The trouble, though, is that it was not a decline in moral standards that had fostered antisocial behaviour. Rather, it was that antisocial policies, policies that exacerbated inequality, undermined social connections, singled out certain social groups, from “problem families” to benefit scroungers to asylum seekers, as moral problems, had helped reduce respect for other people and eroded the sense of mutual obligation.

Labour claimed that its policies drew on the work of sociologist Richard Sennett and his ideas of social solidarity. But as he observed in 2010: “Blair thought social behaviour could be ‘reformed’ top-down, and in this, exactly missed the point of my work.”

From Sure Start to the minimum wage, Labour’s policies certainly began to address aspects of poverty and inequality. But in tapping into the idea of social problems as a matter of the moral failure of certain individuals and groups, Labour sought also to foster respect by disrespecting the rights and needs of targeted groups. The consequence was that working-class communities were disproportionately affected not only by the breakdown of social bonds, but also by the policies aimed at addressing that breakdown, from harsher policing to stricter benefits regimes. The IPP laws were a classic case of how the moralising of social problems led politicians to leverage cruelty as a social good.

And how much more so is this true today. From Matt Hancock’s insistence that failures of Covid policies are really attributable to individuals’ poor behaviour, to Priti Patel’s whipping up of hostility against “foreign criminals”, to Gavin Williamson claiming that Britain being the first country to approve an internationally created vaccine showed that “we’re a much better country” than France, Belgium or America, it’s a government that seeks to win authority through the denigration of others. Sennett observed in 2005 that New Labour governments talked a lot about respect but had “not proved very good at earning respect”. Fifteen years on, that’s almost taken as the starting point for the making of policy.

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