Ken Clarke ordered to rethink sentencing plans

In the government's latest climbdown, proposals to offer discounted sentences for early guilty pleas

Kenneth Clarke's controversial plans to reform sentencing in England and Wales may be shelved after he was summoned to a one-on-one meeting with David Cameron yesterday.

The Prime Minister was compelled to act after concern in the Tory backbenches that the Conservatives could lose their reputation as the party of law and order.

The main bone of contention is the proposal to offer a 50 per cent reduction in sentencing for an early guilty plea -- up from the current 33 per cent -- aimed at reducing the 85,000 jail population and the £4bn prison and probation budget. There is also a question mark over his plans to curb the power of judges to give indefinite sentences.

Clarke -- a famously stubborn politician who has previously refused to back down on this matter -- has effectively been ordered back to the drawing board. While Theresa May insisted this morning that this latest move was just part of the normal consultation process, it is difficult to see it as anything but an embarrassing climb down for the government.

This will be particularly galling as the plans, published in a Green Paper last year, initially enjoyed cabinet approval. It was Clarke's clumsily worded attempt to defend differing sentences for rapists -- when he suggested that "serious rape" was distinct from other forms -- that crystallised opinion against the plans.

Now, Downing Street wants to drop the idea of discounted sentences, even for less serious criminals. This is an unfortunate knee jerk, to say the least. While there were certainly areas that needed clarification -- such as ensuring there was proper sentencing for serious offences -- Clarke was right to challenge the orthodoxy that "prison works".

Doling out prison sentences is a strategy which lacks foresight -- of the 60,000 prisoners given short sentences in the UK, 60 per cent reoffend. Half of those released from prison reoffend within a year. Non-custodial penalties have a far better record in preventing reoffending. Indeed, research published today shows that many repeat offenders feel a short prison sentence is easier to complete than a community sentence, which some consider more of a punishment.

A second problem with this U-turn is that Clarke will now have to find more than £100m savings from elsewhere in the Ministry of Justice budget. He was hoping to save 3,400 prison places and £130m by 2014-15 by reducing sentences. He has already effectively ended legal aid as we know it with savage cuts of 25 per cent. It is difficult to see where these extra cuts will come from.

With Labour attacking Clarke's proposals from the right, and the Tory backbenchers up in arms, it is perhaps inevitable that the coalition got cold feet -- being seen as "soft on crime" is considered electoral suicide. But having held their nerve for this long, it will be a shame if these essentially sensible proposals are shelved altogether.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.