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22 June 2011

Prison sentencing u-turn: what the papers say

A round-up of reaction to the scrapping of Ken Clarke's plans to reduce prison sentences.

By Samira Shackle

Daily Telegraph

An editorial argues that Ken Clarke’s plan would have increased crime and it was right to abandon it, but has some reservations about the new measures, which could up the prison population.

The flaws in Mr Clarke’s policy were apparent from the outset. Yet as with Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms, the plans were allowed to proceed until Downing Street, alerted by an adverse reaction from focus groups and the media, pulled the plug, in order to avoid being outflanked by an opportunistic Labour Party…

The Government is acquiring a reputation for abrupt policy changes. Perhaps it should be commended for listening to public concerns rather than blundering forward with a bad law. And perhaps, after a frenetic year of reform, political reality has forced Mr Cameron to take a grip of the Government’s agenda. Never the less, in the months ahead, better judgment and greater consistency are needed.


However, a Guardian editorial laments the scrapping of the bill — a chance to shift the emphasis onto rehabilitiation. It criticises Cameron personally for backing the bill in private but publically bowing to the tabloids.

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The brief illusion of liberal government disappeared with the publication of the sentencing bill on Tuesday. The Rose Garden promise had been for a calm coalition animated by progressive values and guided by reason. That promise was fleetingly fulfilled by the justice secretary, Ken Clarke. Last year he stood ready to unlock 20 years of failed thinking, with a green paper which accepted that Britain’s drift towards mass incarceration was imposing an unacceptable human and financial cost. Now it has been decisively breached by a prime minister who once claimed to be a liberal Conservative.


This editorial agrees that scrapping the reforms was a bad move, and labels Cameron a “political coward”.

The Clarke reforms would have reduced our oversize prison population, created more scope for rehabilitation of the remaining prisoners, increased discretion for judges, made the administration of justice more cost-effective and created an incentive for prisoners to plead guilty earlier, reducing worry and distress for victims.

All that has been lost, as has even the incentive to plead guilty to less serious offences. It has been replaced by a lot of populist “tough on crime” rhetoric on knives, squatting and a pointless restatement of the existing law which allows property-owners to use reasonable force against burglars. All this will increase the prison population, and its cost, and leave more rapists wandering the streets. It will bring even deeper cuts to legal aid for the poorest and curtail the ability of the probation service to supervise ex-offenders in the community and keep them from returning to custody.


On Monday, the Conservative backbencher Paul Maynard urged Cameron to hold his nerve and stand by the reforms — perhaps unexpectedly.

The golden thread that has run through the re-evaluation of the Conservative Party under Mr Cameron’s leadership has been a new approach to criminal justice. It has brought together the differing intellectual strands within the party into a coherent whole and it has shown how the party has changed. We must not now retreat into a comfort zone that fails to solve the problems we have spent a decade analysing… The debate needs to move beyond its current narrow parameters of prison population and sentence length.

Daily Mail

Quentin Letts reports on Clarke’s announcement yesterday, saying that the Justice Secretary appeared unphased.

David Cameron’s command of the Commons and the wider political swim is far weaker. ‘U-turn’ is therefore an imperfect term, for it fails to acknowledge the reality of the parliamentary arithmetic. Heeding public opinion may not be a bad idea, anyway, when it comes to electoral prospects…

Having Ken Clarke in his Cabinet will help him maintain a Centrist facade. For that reason, those who call for Mr Clarke to be ditched are perhaps being unrealistic. He certainly did not look too greatly vexed by life yesterday.