Lord Blunkett interview: 'Don’t go down rabbit holes with the Tories'
David Blunkett at Labour Party conference in 2003 (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Alamy Stock Photo)
Lord Blunkett talks to Sienna Rodgers about his time as home secretary, his opposition to the government’s ‘stupid, impractical’ Rwanda plan, and his advice for the Labour leadership
When David Blunkett served as home secretary in the New Labour government, he was widely seen as a hardliner, both on immigration and civil liberties, once dismissing human rights concerns as “airy fairy”. He declared in 2003 that he was “fed up” with judges using the Human Rights Act to overturn government policy and branded them “out of touch”. Yet now Lord Blunkett is making common cause with retired judges, championing wronged prisoners, and defending asylum seekers. What has changed?
“I’m not home secretary,” Blunkett laughs. “We all have, in politics, different roles at different times.” One colleague in the Lords believes Blunkett has been on a journey bigger than this simple answer suggests: Baroness Chakrabarti, the Labour peer and former director of advocacy group Liberty. From 2003 to 2016, she led an organisation that was highly vocal about Blunkett’s time in the Home Office, particularly his post-9/11 policy of detaining suspect foreign nationals without trial.
The courses and therapies weren’t provided, and the judges decided to use IPP in a way that was never intended… The outcome was, from everyone’s point of view, a real disaster
“It is no understatement to say that David Blunkett has transitioned from sometime human rights sceptic to being an elder-statesman defender of justice for some of the most marginalised prisoners and refugees,” Chakrabarti tells The House. “It has been a privilege to watch his journey up close, not least his forensic questioning of the next generation of ministers at the Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the House of Lords.”
As member of the same Lords committee over the past three years, Blunkett and Chakrabarti have worked together closely and appear to agree on a surprising amount nowadays. “I used to say to Shami [Chakrabarti]: ‘My job is home secretary, your job is leading Liberty. We have different roles, and sometimes we’ll have different perspectives. But we’re aiming to try and find solutions.’ Now she’s not heading Liberty and I’m not home secretary, so we’re able to find a lot more common ground,” Blunkett says.
A key area of interest for Blunkett is the implementation of imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences. He brought in the policy that allowed judges to hand down indeterminate sentences whereby the offender would remain in custody until the Parole Board decided they no longer posed a risk to the public.
“We thought we were going to put in place sensible courses and therapies that would allow the parole board to make a judgement on changed behaviour, and therefore on safety to release. Of course, it went drastically wrong,” Blunkett concedes. “The courses and therapies weren’t provided, and the judges decided to use IPP in a way that was never intended. We were thinking several hundred over a fairly long period of time, and it turned out to be thousands… The outcome was, from everyone’s point of view, a real disaster.”
The results are absurd, as people imprisoned for stealing mobile phones have served sentences of over a decade. The outcomes are also tragic: one study found that IPP prisoners are twice as likely to seek psychiatric help in prison, and it has been reported that for every 1,000 prisoners serving an IPP sentence, there are 550 incidents of self-harm. Families of those who have killed themselves in prison say having no release date engenders feelings of hopelessness.
Although IPP sentences were abolished in 2012, this was not applied retroactively, and there are 3,000 IPP prisoners today who have either not been released or have been recalled to custody after release. When those who have served IPP sentences are released on license then commit a fairly minor breach, they find themselves back in prison on the original open-ended sentence, having to prove once again that they are fit to rejoin society. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has just announced that, instead of waiting 10 years for their licence to end, released offenders will be referred for review after three years and their licence will automatically end after five years – a move Blunkett welcomes.
Is he in touch with any of those affected by IPP? “I’ve got dozens of those who are in prison, and some who are on license, who are in correspondence with me on a regular basis.” This is difficult, he explains, because – unlike MPs – peers are not given staffing facilities, so he pays for his assistant out of his daily allowance to help him keep in touch with the IPP victims. “I’ve given it priority because obviously I carry some of the responsibility for this.”
The first thing is not to follow a Tory agenda, but to have a very clear line of your own. Don’t go down rabbit holes with them
Earlier this year the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee published a report on family migration, of which Blunkett is now a fervent supporter. Again, this may come as a surprise: in the early 2000s, he was better known for striving to significantly increase removals of asylum seekers from Britain.
“I was able to build a balanced approach 21 years ago, and I’d like to think that it is possible to do it again now,” the Labour peer says. He calls the government’s plan to give asylum seekers a “one-way ticket to Rwanda” – recently ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court – a “stupid, impractical measure that is all about demonstrating political determination rather than dealing with the problem”.
Labour has rejected the Rwanda scheme as expensive and impractical, but people around the party leadership are worried – they believe it could be their biggest vulnerability at the next election. Are they right to be nervous? “They’re right to reflect and take the wider issue of migration very seriously,” Blunkett says. “But I don’t think we should be caught up in a bidding war with [the Conservatives].”
For example, he argues that full-time higher education students should be taken out of the immigration figures because they bring in billions, help with research and development, and usually return home, which provides Britain with soft power. “So,” he concludes, “it’s an absolute nonsense to be talking about destroying our higher education system on the back of politically inept migration policy.”
One piece of the immigration puzzle is identity cards, Blunkett says, as these would make clear who is in the country. He is still pushing for their adoption, after the contentious scheme was much debated during the New Labour years and eventually scrapped under the Coalition. Does he believe the Labour leadership will take up the idea? “I’ve been encouraging, as much as I can, them to rethink it,” Blunkett says.
“It could be based on our passport system rather than having to start from scratch. Over 80 per cent of adults in the United Kingdom have a passport, which is the highest density in the world. It gives you a very clear basis on which to progress, requiring no more data than you have to provide for your passport or your driving license.”
It’s a no-brainer that if Labour took on an agenda of a complete, radical rethink on the House of Lords in the first term, we’d wipe out everything else we intend to do
Blunkett has said the current party could learn from New Labour more broadly – what it got wrong as well as what it got right. What are the main lessons he would like leader Keir Starmer and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper to learn from his experiences? “The first thing is not to follow a Tory agenda, but to have a very clear line of your own. Don’t go down rabbit holes with them,” he says.
“Secondly, you can reassure the public whilst retaining the values and commitments that spring from being a social democrat. If you’re always just testing out, ‘does this fit with our values?’, then you have a very clear narrative, which paints the picture for the public of what you stand for and why.”
He is “really keen” for Labour to paint such a narrative over the coming months in the run-up to the general election. “That will then encourage people, including wavering Tories, to say, ‘Yeah, we sign up to that – the wider picture of social democracy is something that we can believe in, because it’s tough where it needs to be, it’s humane when it’s appropriate, and it’s very practical in terms of realistic delivery.’”
Blunkett confirms he has met with Cooper, “which was very constructive”, and hopes to be helpful to the frontbench. “What I never do is to say to them: this is what you should do. I just try and paint a picture from the experience of what is now a lifetime in politics, and to reinforce that you can do the right thing and still be seen to be practical and tough – the two aren’t opposites to each other.”
The former minister’s final piece of advice to Labour is on House of Lords reform: be wary, he says. Starmer has committed to scrapping the upper chamber, but the party recently indicated it would no longer be a first-term priority. Blunkett points out that the Lords has been trying to reduce its number, render greater clarity of the balance between the two Houses, and enhance its scrutinising role.
“It’s a no-brainer that if Labour took on an agenda of a complete, radical rethink on the House of Lords in the first term, we’d wipe out everything else we intend to do. And I believe that the leadership have understood that clearly,” he says. This remarkably active peer certainly has much still to say and accomplish in the House of Lords as it is currently constituted.
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