We'll miss Ken Clarke as justice secretary - he's saved money and lives

Ken Clarke was making good on the promise of a "rehabilitation revolution".

There are two fewer people in prison than a year ago. That might not sound particularly significant, but just a few years ago even maintaining a lid on the prison population would have been unthinkable. Year on year the figures would jump ever higher, so that the number of men, women and children in prison in England and Wales doubled since the mid-1990s. Now the trend of expansion is being slowed and may yet be halted, even reversed. Particular strides have been made in cutting the number of children in prison, very few of whom should be there at all.

Not all of this can be put down to Ken Clarke. He comes in a long tradition of Conservatives who believe in a compassionate, small-government and evidence-based approach to cutting crime. It was the marriage of these attitudes with the progressive criminal justice policies of the Liberal Democrats that made the justice section of the Coalition Agreement so clear. They promised a "rehabilitation revolution" involving "overhauling the system of rehabilitation to reduce reoffending and provide greater support and protection for the victims of crime."

But it was Ken Clarke who began making good on these promises. By encouraging greater use of rehabilitative community sentences and introducing a plan to get prisoners to do an honest day’s work rather than lie in bed all day, he has saved money and saved lives.

Some progressives are concerned around the appointment of Chris Grayling, who certainly represents a change in ideological background. However, any employment minister should know that you can’t tackle worklessness without a profound understanding of its underlying causes. The same goes for crime. Indeed, in 2009, the new Justice Secretary said “We are much too inclined to put prisoners into a cell for eighteen hours or more a day, and to do much too little to deal with root problems in their lives – like addiction, lack of education, or mental health problems – or a destructive combination of all three.”

I hope he remains true to this ambition. He must, above all, resist the calls of those who back a return to policy based more around a Daily Mail online survey than academic evidence and compassion. In a society where more people are imprisoned than anywhere else in Western Europe, every prison place costs in excess of £40,000 each year and the vast majority of released prisoners reoffend in their first year, it’s clear that our prisons are wasting lives and taxpayers’ money.

At the Howard League for Penal Reform, we will work with Mr Grayling wherever possible to build a society with less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Find her Twitter as @FrancesCrook, and the Howard League for Penal Reform as @thehowardleague

Ken Clarke, moved from the Ministry of Justice, now becomes minister without portfolio. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.