Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 28th August 2018

PRISONS minister Rory Stewart is that rarity in modern politics, someone who not only makes a clear declaration of policy, but stands by it to the extent that he will resign if he is not successful in its implementation.

Mr Stewart has given himself a year to tackle the scourge of drugs and violence in our worst prisons. His willingness to be judged by results is a change from the usual political culture which sees ministers actually rewarded for their failed policies by promotion.

It is a gamble because Mr Stewart, who is not in the cabinet but probably should be, faces an epidemic of rampant drugs use and violence. Conditions in prisons were “the most disturbing ever seen” according to a recent report.

Now prisoners in the 10 worst jails face a crackdown following the pledge of £10 million for improved security. If the project is a success it will be rolled-out to all prisons as a “model of excellence.”

It’s evident from rates of reoffending that prisons don’t work. Too many offenders enter prison and find themselves part of what can only be described as an academy of crime.

Jails are often described as holiday camps. But in reality they are unpleasant, overcrowded places where drugs, violence, self-harm and suicide are rife. Many are squalid and it is reported that one in seven inmates becomes hooked on drugs while behind bars.

Mr Stewart said there are more than 20,000 prison officers, 84,000 prisoners and more than 100 prisons and it is vital that challenging standards are set so they can become places where offenders have the chance to turn their lives around.

It is to be hoped that prisoners seize that opportunity and do not simply see it as a challenge for them to misbehave and topple a minister whose honesty and intelligence makes him stand out in a government that lacks principle and is riven by self-interested squabbling for power.

The Penrith and Border MP and ex-diplomat has taken on a singularly difficult task in tackling problem prisons because most law-abiding members of the public have a confused view of law and order, justice, sentencing and what prison should be about.

Many of us feel let down by soft sentencing. When a serious offender gets 10 years, we all know that in reality they will serve half of that term or less.

Justice often seems loaded against the victim and against protection of the public, yet prison is depressingly ineffective as a deterrent or as a means of persuading inmates to change their lives for the better once they get out. It is also costly.

For someone who walked thousands of miles across Asia, some in Taliban territory, and was sent to sort out the aftermath of the USA and UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, you would assume sorting out our failed prisons would be small beer for Rory Stewart.

A sea change, too, from his constituency where the main day-to-day issues likely to occupy his talents are agriculture, rural transport and broadband cover.

He refers to a “new direction and new ethos” and it is to be hoped, in this volatile political world we currently inhabit, he gets a fair chance to pull off his important and ambitious plan.

WHERE OLD MEETS NEW

AS a trainee reporter, being sent out to cover the agricultural shows was a mixed blessing. A day away from the office, a free lunch and a chance to see proud and talented exhibitors in the stock and industrial sections enjoying their annual day out.

That was the plus side. But, oh, those results. Those never-ending results. Every first, second and third prize had to be recorded and quite often judges’ books would mysteriously disappear, along with the judges.

“Try the beer tent” was the usual advice. But sometimes judges had simply returned home to do the milking and absent-mindedly carried off the little book of results in their jacket pocket. Worse still, books came back to the secretary’s tent in a state of unreadable disrepair. They were the ones that had been dropped in the beer tent or, and I hope you aren’t having breakfast while reading this, in the gents’ ablutions.

It was a peculiar job recording the results. We had to tear up two catalogues, match the pages and tie them together with string. It was a two-reporter job. One called out the results, the other filled them in on the page. Back at the office these catalogues would go straight downstairs to the printers.

As a labour-intensive task it destroyed much of the earlier pleasure gained strolling round the field, interviewing winners about their prized sheep and cattle.

But now, just over half a century later, technology in all its modern glory has come to the show. In the advert for Dufton show in Saturday’s Herald, the organisers were able to promise not only free face painting and circus workshops but a Facebook site to follow for up to date information — and free WiFi on the field.

We always called Dufton the Fellside Royal, and I see the soubriquet sticks to this day. But back in the 60s which of us young reporters would ever have guessed that one day, instead of ripped catalogues, you’d be able to send out results from your laptop as they happen.

The show — it’s on today — still offers all the old traditions, but now it’s a classic example of old meeting new and getting along just fine.

UP FOR THE CUP

TEA and coffee out of a plastic cup just doesn’t taste right, compared to a cup and saucer.

All this talk of plastic destroying the planet. Yet cafes still sell hot drinks in containers that are chucked away after a single use. What’s wrong with reverting back to the days when, if you ordered a cuppa in a caff, you got it served nicely in a proper cup.

Are we really too busy to sit down and drink our morning brew out of teacup? Do we really have business so urgent we have to sip hot drinks on the move? If there’s one thing worse than being bumped into in the street by a nuisance clutching a mobile phone, it’s someone holding a coffee in the other hand.

I don’t think Brief Encounter would have been the same romantic success at the pictures if Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson had been standing on the platform drinking their tea from plastic cups.

And we’re told by a new study that diners say food tastes better served at tables with proper tablecloths. Not that folk have time for refinement these days — it’s a burger on the run if you’re lucky. And that’s another package to dispose of. If there’s to be as tax on plastic, goodness know how we’ll all get our brekkie, elevenses and lunch.

ANTI-VAPING

I HAVE decided, after some thought, I preferred honest, down to earth, coughing, sickly smokers to vapers.

If you’re old enough you will remember when TV adverts told us that fags were good for us both socially and for our health. Ads even said doctors recommended smoking.

Well, we all know they killed folk in their thousands. But even with the constant health warnings, people went on smoking — until the advent of vaping which has got rid of the harmful carcinogenic elements of cigarettes but replaced them with who knows what. Medical evidence on the benefits and possible harm of vaping is mixed and, because it’s relatively new, necessarily sketchy.

But this is not just about the health of vapers. It’s about me. I don’t want to share the fumes breathed out by vapers in public places. I stood near one at a football match recently and was enveloped in a sweet-smelling noxious cloud every few minutes.

Vaping, I conclude, is every bit as anti-social as cigarette smoking. And I’m not convinced by the figures that claim it helps smokers give up the weed. It’s merely replacing one drug with the same drug in a different form. As an intolerant, smug ex-smoker — I gave up 50 years ago — I say to smokers and vapers, just go cold turkey and quit. It’s the only way. I don’t want to be unwittingly included in your struggle.

TOO MUCH

TWO million, just so Princess Eugenie and her intended can ride through the streets of Windsor in a carriage after their nuptials. Sorry, I’m not anti-royal, but it’s an indulgence too far.

They say royal weddings bring millions into the economy. To Windsor and London, yes. But not Cumbria. Yet we, as taxpayers, have to fork out for the security too, so a lesser royal can have her day.