In the early 1990s, home secretary Douglas Hurd authorised and firmly supported it. Then along came a fraught byelection at Newbury, lost by the Tories. Enter a sorry group of successors, both Conservative and even more Labour, to scupper it.
But then step forward, Ken Clarke, who as justice secretary under David Cameron returned to the theme only to be sacked for his pains.
I speak, of course, of the missed opportunity to do something sensible about rehabilitation and our ruinously overcrowded prison estate.
Incarceration still plays a disproportionate and counterproductive role in our approach to criminal offending. In the early 1990s, the prison population hovered at around 46,000 and all thinking managers in the justice system agreed that this represented far too many of the wrong category. And the number now? Some 86,000 and rising at an average of 174 a week.
Under Hurd, in came the less-than-perfect though principled philosophy of ‘just deserts’. As a nation, we were on the cusp of doing something adult. But the moment came and went.
The mischief remains unaltered. Far too many of the low-hanging fruit – unlettered, inadequate, disturbed, drink- and drug-addicted – are chancers of mere nuisance value to society. The cost to the exchequer? At least £30,000 per prisoner per year.
More effective options for coping with and rehabilitating their like are cheaper and provide a prospect of bringing an end to the revolving door of prison. Of course serious and dangerous offenders must be locked up: what has that got to do with it?
Malcolm Fowler, Dennings, Tipton