As Channel 4 prepares to screen a new drama about Lord Longford Daniel Brennan praises the work of a campaigner who never gave up To be a good Christian is a daunting task. Frank Longford tackled it with a lifetime's endeavour. . Like many converts his commitmentto his beliefs was strongly matched by a commitment to action in implementing them. He was a man endowed with great gifts: a first-class mind, a charming and persuasive manner, clear values and the will to do good. After being an assistant to Beveridge in his great work for social justice there followed, prior to the reconstruction of occupied Gemiany, Cabinet posts in the Atlee and later Wilson governments and some 50 years in the House of Lords during many of which he was either Leader of the House or Leader of his Party in it. But among his many achievements there is one that eloquently illustrates Christian virtue — help to those in prison. In the words of the New Testament, "I was in prison and you came to me". He went to prisons. He cared for the prisoner. He enabled their rehabilitation on release. He never gave up.
Caring about prisoners involves identifying the reality of imprisonment. As a young barrister in Manchester many years ago I well remember the Victorian dungeon that was Strangeways Prison, the modem concrete soullessness of the Risley Remand Centre, and the almost surreal unit for serious women offenders inside a secure prison inside the ordinary prison at Durham. Then and now overcrowding, inadequate facilities, lack of education, reduced opportunities for work and training remain the same problems. These were the words about Pentonville in July 2006 by the Chief Inspector of Prisons: "Many internal areas remain dirty and vermin-infested, and too many prisoners lack basic requirements such as pillows, toothbrushes... more prisoners than in 2005 said
they felt unsafe on their first night... there was a general attitude of institutional disrespect towards prisoners... some officers appeared to at prisoners as a lower order ... we had an unusually high number of complaints about assault and bad treatment by staff."
Longford knew about these things and he cared. His work on the independent parole system bore fruit. Hisenthusiastic support for the Prison Inspectorate, and the work of the Prison Reform Trust contributed to their progress. But as he rightly argued, we all have to care. With a prison population reaching 80,000 this week the prisons are overflowing. As he pointed out one of the primary benchmarks for civilised society is its criminal justice system and the way it operates prisons. We cannot afford an everincreasing cycle of increased prison population, more recidivism, and less done to reduce the causes of crime.
He well appreciated this. He knew the critical importance of helping those on release from prison to start a new life, especially young offenders. He founded the New Bridge in 1955, the first organisation dedicated to the welfare of exprisoners. In 1970 he established New Horizon, the first drop-in centre for homeless teenagers, as an answer to the drift into a life of crime on the streets of London. It was he who inspired Jon Snow to be the Chairman of New Horizon. We must help prisoners who want to reform after release by giving them the opportunity to try to do so.
Lord Longford never gave up. In his eulogy to his father Kevin Pakenham spoke of his "unswerving obligation to act". So he withstood tabloid attacks because of his prison visits to moors murderer Myra Hindle)+, This ignored his innumerable visits to prisoners who were unknown which must also be remembered. Many years ago he was the only person visiting a young Dutch prisoner dying of Aids who had been cut off by his family. He was ready to help all in any way he could.
The goodness of the man was amply shown by the Charterhouse Chronicles which he wrote late in his life for The Catholic Herald. His grace and humour enlightened us through what he wrote.
Lord Longford and I shared a debating platform in the late 1960s about prisons and their reform. It greatly impressed me to see and hear a man of sound belief, unfaltering dedication to that belief, and humility in putting it into practice. There are good men and women in our society. Of the quality of Longford there are few. But we should honour their memory by recognising their past contributions and then building on it for the future. He, I am sure, would agree with the suggestion that there should now be a Royal Commission on Crime and Punishment to conduct a comprehensive review of crime and the responses to it.
In the words of Lord Bingham, Senior Law Lord: "If such a Royal Commission were able... to teach authoritative conclusions which commanded the respect of public and professional opinion, and if those conclusions were given legislative effect, this Parliament would earn an assured and honourable place in the history of this country."
If it were to be so, Lord Longford's life of Christian service will surely have contributed to such a further important step for our society.
Longford will be broadcast on Channel 4 later this month