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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Clarke in secret deal to beat Treasury axe

Clarke in secret deal to beat Treasury axe

The back-up plan comes amid mounting concern among Tory MPs that the ministry of justice is going soft on crime and prison inmates

Isabel Oakeshott The Sunday Times (£)

Ken Clarke has struck a secret deal with the Treasury to tear up his new budget if controversial plans to reduce reoffending rates do not work.

The justice secretary has secured a private agreement from George Osborne, the chancellor, that he will not have to proceed with downsizing prisons and closing courts if his new sentencing policies fail to reduce crime rates.

The deal comes amid mounting concern among Tory MPs that the ministry of justice is going soft on crime.

Conservative backbenchers are particularly uneasy about the handling of the forthcoming sentencing review, which is being led by Crispin Blunt, a minister who called for Christmas parties and better menu choices for inmates.

During a meeting with Tory backbenchers behind closed doors, former home secretary Michael Howard furiously confronted Clarke over his plans, challenging him to admit that “locking prisoners up” works. He was robustly rebuffed by Clarke, who insisted his new policies will work.

However, the justice secretary’s secret deal with the Treasury suggests that privately, at least, he wants a safety net in case the reforms do not reduce the demand for prison places.

A Whitehall source said: “Clarke got a commitment from the Treasury that his department’s cuts are conditional on reoffending policies working.

“If they don’t work, the treasury will have to underwrite that. Ken won’t be forced to close prisons in those circumstances.”

Clarke’s department was one of the heaviest hit by last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), with an overall settlement of 23% cuts in real terms by 2014-15.

The ministry of justice insists that it will still find the total amount of savings promised by its department, even if the sentencing reforms do not work and the efficiencies have to be found elsewhere.

However, the existence of the private agreement to rejig the way the savings are made will prompt questions over whether other departments have struck similar secret deals with the Treasury to water down or abandon their own spending cuts if certain conditions are not met.

One senior Tory figure claimed the CSR was “not as it seemed” — with question marks over other key announcements that were publicly presented as certain to happen.

“Across Whitehall, many of the flagship savings are contingent on various green papers and policies that are in the pipeline actually happening. There is no guarantee they will,” the source said.

Ministry of Justice officials say they have made contingency plans for “parts of the programme to fail” but say they are confident they will still be able to achieve the overall savings sought by the Treasury.

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