Rory Stewart: Conservative government was 'wrong' to cut 21,000 police - and Pentonville should be demolished
PUBLISHED: 16:17 23 January 2020 | UPDATED: 14:23 27 January 2020
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Rory Stewart says the Tory governments he served in made the "wrong decision" to cut 21,000 police officers - and that Pentonville Prison should be demolished.
The former prisons minister, who's now running as an independent London mayoral candidate, made the admissions after announcing a raft of crime policies he'd implement if elected in May.
Among these is a claim he'd triple the number of neighbourhood police in Islington - and every London borough - by the end of his first year in office.
He's promised to resign if he doesn't reduce violent crime in London within two years.
The recruitment plans would be aided by his former cabinet colleague Boris Johnson's promise to hire - or reinstate - 20,000 police officers within three years.
Asked about the Tory cop cuts, Mr Stewart told the Gazette: "I think, clearly, it was the wrong decision to cut so many police officers and also so many prison officers. What I did was bring prison officers back into the system because the cuts had gone too far."
Mr Stewart said he's got a track recording of taking action to "reverse" wrong decisions made by former Tory colleagues, but claimed it "isn't only about central government" and that London mayor Sadiq Khan could have hired more police "at any time in the past four years".
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) backed out of talks to lease 29 three- and four-bed flats in Wellington Mews, which have been mostly empty for 28 years, to Islington Council in February.
Islington Council wanted to use the flats to house homeless families, but the MOJ allegedly backtracked on a commitment to hand them over at a late stage in talks.
Ms Stewart was prisons minister at the time.
He said: "Most of these conversations are very complicated, about the way of using public assets. So a good example is what we did at Holloway. I would like to do the same if we can move out of Wormwood Scrubs."
Sadiq Khan loaned Peabody housing association £42million to help it buy the former Holloway Prison site off the MOJ. Up to 1,000 homes will be built on the site, including 400 for social rent.
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Pressed on the Roman Way flats, Mr Stewart said the MOJ concluded "that particular proposal didn't work as a development project".
Asked if he agreed with campaigners - such as Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry - that Pentonville should be bulldozed, Mr Stewart added: "Absolutely, but in order to do that you need to build new prison space elsewhere.
"Pentonville's a very worrying prison, it's difficult to manage, it's crowded, it's not built to house that number of prisoners, and not what we should be doing in the 21st century."
The candidate said Margaret Thatcher's flagship Right to Buy Scheme - where people can purchase their council and housing association properties - has "gone too far". He added: "We need to build and make sure these assets aren't taken off government."
In Parliament, Mr Stewart voted repeatedly for cuts to welfare benefits and against paying more to people unable to work due to disability or illness.
Critics, such as Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, link benefit cuts to soaring levels of child poverty.
Reacting to these statistics, Mr Stewart said: "I think some of the figures are really terrifying. Firstly, I want to pay tribute to some of the work done in very difficult circumstances by councils in those areas. We need to invest much more in communities." He said leaders haven't done enough to utilise the "incredible energy" of people, such as retired police officers, who might want to volunteer.
In Islington, about 75 per cent of residents voted to remain in the 2016 referendum - and there are some 20,000 EU nationals living in the borough.
But, while he was an MP, Mr Stewart voted against a guaranteed right to remain for EU national already living in the UK.
We asked why these EU nationals would vote for him to be mayor.
He said: "The answer is that I was the biggest champion of our relationship with Europe and EU nationals in parliament, I put my job on the line for that. "It was one vote amongst a flurry of votes on a single day when I was trying to hold together rebels to get a customs union amendment through.
"My whole [Conservative] leadership campaign was about having the closest possible relationship with the European Union and I have left the Conservatives because I was someone who voted remain."