The UK General Election campaign could start as soon as next week, and it is already clear that one of the battlegrounds will be the relationship between the citizen and society. Both parties are keen to demonstrate that they don’t agree with Margaret Thatcher’s adage that “There is no such thing as society”.  Yesterday, the Conservative Party set out their “Big Society” ideas, including a new “neighbourhood army” of 5,000 professional community organisers.

As  Labour puts the finishing touches to its election manifesto, sources familiar with the process say that a new big idea is taking shape. The proposal is to extend the concept of  “earned autonomy” in public services  down to individuals.  Labour plans to put every citizen who has completed full-time education into prison.   Citizens will then be able to earn their way out, by getting a job and using their spare time for voluntary service to the community. When they demonstrate that they are not terrorists, and when they can prove that they do not have any kind of mental illness that predisposes them towards a crime, they will move first to an open prison from which they can get a job, and eventually to their own homes.   People close to Ministers say that they have been impressed with how well this approach has worked with asylum seekers, who start off imprisoned until they can demonstrate their value to society, and think that this approach would be popular in seats where Labour is alarmed by the rising popularity of the British National Party.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a minister familiar with the details of the manifesto said:

Hard working families will welcome these steps.  Honest, law abiding citizens have nothing to fear. Where individuals demonstrate the capacity and capability to do more we want to work with them to test how greater individual control can deliver more effectively and more efficiently.  We want a new relationship between the citizen and government, one based on a partnership approach to delivery. It is not sufficient to say that citizens should have more control and freedom; this is a partnership and citizens need to be clear as to what they are asking us for, and how changes will benefit everyone.   We are ready to cede control where individuals can demonstrate that they will use those freedoms effectively, but greater control must be balanced with responsibility and accountability.

Owen Barder
1 April, 2010

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4 Responses to Earned autonomy and the individual

  • Here at last is a striking and imaginative initiative which shows that even after 13 years in office Labour hasn’t run out of ideas. One additional advantage of keeping the whole adult population in prison once they have all got their university degrees is that thousands of new jobs will be created to build and fit out the hundreds of new prisons that will be needed — even more than Jack Straw and the Tories are already planning to build just for convicted criminals (and of course immigrants). Prison labour will have to be used to build the new prisons and if every prisoner employed as a builder is paid at the (perhaps over-generous) prison rate of £1 a day, this will pump massive additional demand into the economy and thus aid its recovery. The substance abuse, mobile phone and file-in-a-cake industries should get a particular boost. We’ll see a newly re-energised government totally committed by law to driving up targets and delivering, er, envelopes to push out in the most efficient and effective way.
    It should also, by the way, drive crime rates down sharply. We have already made a good start by locking people up before, rather than after, they have committed a crime — e.g those with Indeterminate (“Life”) Sentences and immigrants: now it’s time to push out the envelope to its logical conclusion and lock everyone up before they have a chance to break the law. Salus populi suprema lex, innit?
    Follow that, George’n’Dave!

  • An ingenious policy proposal. Thanks for sharing it, Owen.

    In the interests of joined up government, however, I’d like to suggest some additions. Whilst in prison people should be “strongly nudged” to exercise for an hour a day, on exercise bikes hooked up to the national grid. (If they didn’t, healthcare could be denied – or people could be asked to pay a top-up fee, thereby helping to balance the NHS budget.) This simple policy amendment would help the government meet both its public health goals and its energy and climate change targets, as well as all the original aims cited above.

    How gloriously efficient! What an excellent return on investment!

    Looking longer term, however – yes, I know it’s not fashionable in politics, but hear me out – I foresee some challenges. What if nobody earns their way out of prison? You’d have to bring work and public services (including schools for the future generation of prisoners) in. It would be dull, but very reliable, organized, and above all, safe. Perhaps the initiative should be called “Gated Communities”?

  • Great post.

    You also forgot to mention that if citizens do not immediately register with the prison system ‘upon arriving’ at this opportunity, they will automatically forfeit the right to earn their back their autonomy.

  • This sounds like a development of the political system described in the great 1990s sociolical treatise ‘Starship Troopers’ in which to become a citizen with the right to vote and to hold public office, young people had to join the inter galactic defence force, and go away to fight large violent space insects. If they survived – usually by avoiding being covered in green gloop emanating from attacking or exploding space bugs – they could vote. Can the Minister consider adding this component to ‘earned autonomy’? It could be good for boosting ailing military numbers – but given Britain’s pathetic electoral turnout is the right to vote a big enough prize? Perhaps use earned access to Sky TV instead?

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