06/10/2011 12:01 BST | Updated 06/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Ken Clarke Needs to Wake up to the Looming Crisis in our Prison System

Ken Clarke continues to demonstrate how out of touch he is on so many levels. He is out of touch with the victims, he is out of touch on how to make our communities safer and he is simply out of touch with the reality faced in today's prison service.

For four successive weeks the prison population in England and Wales has reached a record high. Tomorrow, when new figures are released there is a genuine risk that the Ministry of Justice may need to enact the extremely expensive Operation Safeguard - where prisoners are held in court and police station cells because prisons are full. But, so out of touch is Ken Clarke, that this growing crisis in our prison system was entirely absent from his speech this week to Tory Party Conference.

There are approximately 87,501 offenders incarcerated on our secure estate - some 2,500 more than when the coalition government was formed in May 2010. Ken Clarke's early days as Justice Secretary were characterised by his desire to reduce the numbers in prison. Sometimes, this desire spilled over into an explicit target - to bring down the prison population to the levels seen in 2004, some 3,000 less than now. It's my view that being prescriptive on the specific size of our prison population is a mistake. An ever-increasing prison population should not be a badge of honour, but a lower prison population must come about as a result of falling crime, reduced re-offending and tough community sentence that garner public confidence. Not because of artificial measures designed to send fewer people into custody as a means of simply cutting costs.

However, When the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was published, the impact assessment illustrated just how Ken Clarke would deliver his reduction in prison numbers - the majority coming from the widely unpopular and completely unjust policy of reducing the length of custody by 50% for those pleading guilty early. In proposing this, he placed short-term spending cuts over what is in the long-term interests of our nation's justice policy. It is good that Ken Clarke has been forced to ditch this policy, but in doing so he has blown a £140m hole in his department's already diminishing budget and has yet to explain how he would fill it.

Labour's approach to law and order - running across both Home Affairs and Justice - continues to focus on being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, a phrase as relevant in 2011 as when Tony Blair first uttered it in 1993. By rooting out deep-seated deprivation, we sought to prevent the drift into a life of crime, through investment in health, education and housing. This is tough on the causes of crime. And by ensuring there are sufficient police to catch those who do commit crimes and a penal system to punish them appropriately, we can be tough on crime itself.

But in Ken Clarke's blinkered view of our justice system, there was no mention of the tough on causes of crime agenda. No discussion of the impact his government's cuts to EMA, education and Sure Start will have on future crime levels. Nor did he touch on the 16,000 fewer police officers on our streets, and how this will affect the safety of our communities.

A central tenet of Ken Clarke's justice policy is his fabled 'rehabilitation revolution', focusing on reducing rates of re-offending. Under Labour re-offending rates fell, but far too slowly I accept. So, I agree that one of our major priorities must be a reduction in the number of prisoners going on to re-offend upon their release from the justice system. But this is not going to be achieved by slashing a quarter from your department's budget as Ken Clarke is doing - resulting in thousands of dedicated, experienced prison and probation officers losing their jobs.

Nor will it be helped by cancelling Labour's prison building programme and slashing capital spend on prisons by 83% - resulting in an ever growing number of prisoners being housed in overcrowded and outdated facilities. A sure fire way of undermining the chances of reducing re-offending is to restrict prisoners to idling in their cells for 20 hours a day, with limited access to education, training and support for medical problems, all of which will worsen under this government.

Ken Clarke also talked of turning prisons into places of hard work. In this respect, he is right to see employment as a productive use of prisoners' time, a central component of the punishment and reform agenda and a way for offender to pay reparations to their victims. But, as with many of Ken's ideas, this policy is heavy on rhetoric but light on detail. There is no mention of how he proposes to resource this policy - requiring 1 in 4 prisoners to work 40 hours a week will need proper prison officer supervision. Nor has he mentioned where the jobs will come from, as this government is incapable of creating employment out of prison, let alone within them. People will also rightly be concerned that employment within prisons does not come at the expense of the law abiding majority.

Ken Clarke continues to demonstrate how out of touch he is on so many levels. He is out of touch with the victims, he is out of touch on how to make our communities safer and he is simply out of touch with the reality faced in today's prison service.