A Reformed Character? Jonathan Aitken Is Heading a Tory Prison Reform Group. Some Eyebrows Are Raised

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It has been seven years and nine months since Jonathan Aitken walked out of prison clutching a bin-bag containing sweater, toothbrush, dirty shirt, socks and pants from the previous day. All his other possessions, mostly books, had been sent home the day before. This week Aitken announced he was heading a prison reform group for Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice.

Duncan Smith called Aitken and asked him to come in for a chat and they swiftly pulled together quite a team of experts, including two criminologists. The report should take around ten months, during which there will be regular meetings and hearings. A CSJ worker, speaking fondly of her charge, says quietly: "It could be said that Iain himself has had a lot of self-evaluating and forgiving to do over the past few years."

A Cameron aide doesn't distance the party, but says: "This is a report commissioned by Iain Duncan Smith and not a formal Conservative Party policy group. We are perfectly comfortable with it and have no doubt it will be helpful to talk to them. Jonathan's experience is invaluable." However, the Tories are keen to point out: "We were doing our own prison review earlier this year." True, the shadow secretary of state for justice Nick Herbert is already leading a prison reform and sentencing review announced by David Cameron in July. Another strategist says: "We did underestimate the amount of publicity Iain's launch would received. There were, however, no panic meetings, with monkey cries of, 'Oh my God, Aitken's back, lock up your daughters, blow up the Ritz'."

This month, Jonathan Aitken and the talented jazz and blues singer Helen Hicks are embarking on a tour--the slightly unusual combination of Aitken talking about his new biography of John Newton, an 18th-century slave trader who wrote "Amazing Grace", and a heavily pregnant Hicks singing with her guitar. This venture/experiment is in aid of Chaste, the anti-sex-slave-trafficking charity that provides safe houses for women in the UK, one of five charities Aitken actively supports. Their dry run evening in Soho was an absolute hit.

Hicks says of Aitken: "I don't know how he finds the time. I've known him for years and he is a delight. A charming, genuinely nice person." She adds: "I have been saddened to read the term 'disgraced MP' in the press. There is no doubt he slipped up, but you are unlikely to meet a more humble man."

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Recent comments about Aitken have disappointed him too, but he shrugs off those who have chastised him: "Unreconstructed partisans like [Peter] Preston and [Denis] MacShane should move on and consider what is best for prisoners." On Monday evening, after the CSJ prison reform launch, he was returning from an engagement speaking at the Oxford Union, where he had been talking about prison reform. The reaction of the students had surprised him.

"It was packed," he says, modestly adding, "obviously nothing to do with me. …