21 Jun 2011

Ken Clarke forced to scrap prison sentencing plans

The Justice Secretary is forced to scrap plans to halve sentences for offenders who plead guilty early, as David Cameron confirms there will be no change in the current position on early guilty pleas.

Ahead of publication of a bill on sentencing and legal aid, Prime Minister David Cameron has confirmed there will be no change in the current position on early guilty pleas.

He told a news conference that a reduction of up to 50 per cent in sentences for the most serious crimes “would simply not be right”.

The decision not to change the current arrangements had been taken after considering “the strong views of serious people working within the criminal justice system”, Mr Cameron said.

The move had been a key part of Mr Clarke‘s sentencing plans which would have saved his department £130m. It means further cuts are now likely elsewhere, with probation a likely target.

Being strong is about being prepared to admit you didn’t get everything right the first time. Prime Minister David Cameron

But the Prime Minister denied that today’s announcement was a climbdown. “It’s a sign of strength to say ‘I’m going to make this better (…) Being strong is about being prepared to admit you didn’t get everything right the first time.”

For many, the U-turn was hardly a surprise. The plans, which would have applied to the sentencing of rapists, sparked controversy after Mr Clarke’s comment in an interview that some rapes were more “serious” than others.

The measures also include a tougher stance on knife crime and the scaling-back of the controversial indeterminate jail sentences for public protection.

Not a U-turn

The Justice Secretary told the House of Commons experts had said increasing the maximum discount on offer might result in the sentence served being too short in some cases, and for this reason the Government had decided to retain the present system.

“If it had worked, it would have saved a very great deal of money and time for the Police Service, for the Crown Prosecution Service, as well as for the prisons,” Mr Clarke said.

Speaking earlier in the day outside his London home, Mr Clarke confirmed that parts of the bill on legal aid and on sentencing had been changed. But he said: “It’s not a U-turn. It’s a perfectly balanced package, a radical reform, which is very necessary.”

Increasing the discount for the earliest guilty pleas from one third to a half would encourage more offenders to admit their guilt, saving costs and sparing victims the ordeal of a trial, the Justice Secretary has said.

But Mr Cameron, who said on Monday that his Liberal Democrat partners in the coalition were preventing him from taking tougher actions, is reported to have decided that the moves would have undermined his broader commitment to bring sense to sentencing.

Abandoning Mr Clarke’s plans will please the Tory right, which has accused him of appearing “soft on crime”.

Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon on the Coalition's sentencing policy

"What does all this mean for David Cameron's hug a hoody image? Well, I think the hoody just got returned to the wardrobe in favour of some riot gear.

"The Tories have been alarmed by their polling on law and order and David Cameron doesn't want to get the wrong side of the voters."

Read more: Does Coalition sentencing policy add up?

‘Total mess’

The Prime Minister was criticised in the Commons earlier this month for overseeing a “total mess” on sentencing after another apparent climbdown on a key policy.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said the Prime Minister seemed to have “torn up” the controversial plans to halve jail time for serious criminals in the face of a major backlash.

At the time, the premier backed Mr Clarke, who personally championed the sentencing reforms, saying he was doing a “superb job”. But Mr Cameron is now believed to have forced Mr Clarke to drop the plans entirely.

The controversy was fuelled when Gabrielle Browne, a mother of two who was the victim of an attempted rape, described Mr Clarke’s proposals as a “disaster” after confronting him live on radio.

Mr Clarke also sparked an outcry when he suggested some rapes were more serious than others.

But after a meeting with the Justice Secretary, Ms Browne, 45, said she had been persuaded that his plans were “fair enough” in an attempt to reduce the victims’ trauma and cut costs.

Read more: FactCheck - who benefits from 50 per cent 'discounted' jail terms?
Read more: Ken Clarke defends comments on rape sentencing

Justice Bill

The Justice Bill will also bring in a mandatory minimum of six months in jail for offenders guilty of aggravated assault with a knife, reports said.

And it is also expected to contain proposals for tougher community sentences and the introduction of a payment-by-results system to reduce reoffending as part of Mr Clarke’s “rehabilitation revolution”.

Further proposals include plans for judges to be given more discretion over how long killers should spend behind bars.

In addition, he bill will bring in a new release test for offenders serving indeterminate sentences for public protection, and plans to let foreign nationals escape a jail term if they leave the UK.

Plans to wipe the slate clean for young offenders when they reach 18 so they are not hindered by a criminal record are also expected, along with moves to divert mentally ill prisoners into treatment in the community rather than prison.