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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tories attack Ken Clarke over ‘soft’ prison stance

Tories attack Ken Clarke over ‘soft’ prison stance

Jenny Booth
Last updated June 30 2010 1:27PM

Kenneth Clarke was today accused by Tory MPs and activists of being soft on crime and out of touch with his leader as he unveiled plans to send thousands fewer offenders to prison.

Conservative backbencher Philip Davies accused him of letting down Conservative MPs and voters, and reneging on election promises.

Mr Clarke also faced opposition from the Labour benches during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, forcing David Cameron to defend his Justice Secretary’s ideas.

In his first major speech since taking office, Mr Clarke signalled a break with his party’s policy of the past, saying that he thought that warehousing petty criminals on short sentences in large, overcrowded prisons without trying to stop them reoffending when they came out was a waste of money, and not in the best interests of the public.

He cited inmates he met on his visit to Leeds Prison yesterday — one jailed for failing to keep up child support payments, another who had driven while disqualified, and a third an asylum seeker — as examples of the kind of offender better dealt with in the community rather than in a £30,000-a-year prison berth.

He suggested that stopping reoffending was a better measure of justice policy than how many people were jailed. The prison population has risen by two thirds since 1995, as more offenders were jailed and for longer sentences.

He proposed employing charities and private sector organisations to supervise community punishments such as unpaid work, with tagging, curfews and supervision, as a better alternative. And the supervisors could receive bonus payments on results if the criminals did not reoffend for two years, he told an audience at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College in London.

The speech represents a change from the “prison works” policy espoused by Michael Howard, Mr Clarke’s successor as Home Secretary from 1993-97.

Mr Davies was the first Tory backbencher to express his anger, saying he was “totally opposed” to jailing fewer offenders.

“Lots of Conservative supporters, whether they be in Parliament or members or voters, will feel very disappointed by this announcement,” Mr Davies told the BBC.

“Disappointed because I think lots of them will feel that it’s the wrong thing to do but also disappointed because many of them voted for the Conservative Party at the last election on the basis that we would send more people to prison, not fewer.

“Why can people not be rehabilitated in prison? And, given that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to offend, it seems to me that prison, if people are there for long enough, can actually make a big difference.”

Mr Cameron today stood by his Justice Secretary, telling Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons that prison was poor value for money in many cases. Replying to Labour MP Gerald Howarth, he said: “I think prison can work, but it is just not working at the moment.

“When we have got these high reoffending rates, the appalling cost of a prison place and the problems of drugs in prison (then something has to change). Just defending the status quo, as Labour is doing, is a grave mistake. If ever there was a part of the public sector that needed to reform to make sure that prison does work, then this is it.”

Mr Clarke acknowledged that Britain’s budget deficit had forced him to cut the cost of justice, but tried to make a virtue of necessity. “Necessary financial stringency” could be turned into an “effective new policy direction”, he told BBC One’s Breakfast.

“Many a man has gone into prison without a drug problem and come out drug-dependent,” said Mr Clarke.

“Just banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is what you would expect of Victorian England.”

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he had been “quite astonished” by the doubling in prisoner numbers and the huge growth in size and budget of the Home Office since he was Home Secretary in 1992–93.

He blamed Labour for doubling the size of the prison population without questioning whether it was the right thing to do.

“David Blunkett and Jack Straw had a chequebook in one hand and a copy of the Daily Mail in the other,” he said.

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