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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Justice review of 2010: Sentencing reform shakes Tory traditionalists

Justice review of 2010: Sentencing reform shakes Tory traditionalists

Kenneth Clarke will be the first to admit he was as surprised as anyone when he was handed the job of Justice Secretary in David Cameron's Coalition Government.

Kenneth Clarke determination to send fewer people to prison has put him on a collision course with more traditional Tory MPs Photo: GETTY

By Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor 1:39PM GMT 16 Dec 2010

And there will have been times in recent weeks when the Prime Minister may have wondered if he made the right choice.

Reform of sentencing has dominated the justice agenda this year and paved the way for the biggest shake-up of the system for almost a decade.

But it also put Mr Clarke on a collision course with backbench MPs and landed him in hot water with No10 after unveiling a package that cut at the very heart of the traditional Tory stance on law and order.

Suspicions of a dramatic shift in policy began within weeks of the election when Mr Clarke delivered his first keynote speech and signalled, as far as he was concerned, prison did not work for some offenders, especially those on short term sentences.

He echoed the Conservative's manifesto pledge of a "rehabilitation revolution" but this, in contrast with many of his predecessors, was to entail sending thousands of fewer people to prison and more community punishments.

It sparked a long debate on where the rehabilitation of offenders should be heading including some thought-provoking comments from Andrew Bridges, the chief inspector of probation.

But others were unimpressed, including the former Tory home secretary Lord Howard, who famously insisted "prison works".

When the Green Paper was finally published in early December it effectively proposed a watering down down of punishments at almost every level.

Critics immediately leapt on it as nothing more than a bid to save money while party whips have warned Downing Street that concerns over the proposals could turn the issue into a "Conservative tuition fees", in reference to the damaging eduction row that is threatening to tear apart the Liberal Democrats.

No10 was already understood to be nervous about what signal the reforms would send out and that concern became very public when Mr Clarke announced a review of the statutory minimum terms that guide judges on how to sentence on murder.

He suggested freeing judges to have total discretion when setting tariffs for killers, sparking an instant backlash amid fears it would lead to murderers spending less time behind bars.

Downing Street issued a humiliating rebuke to Mr Clarke within 24 hours and insisted there were no plans to bin the laws.

An interesting year ahead.

Comment: As Ken Clarke is legally responsible to Parliament for carrying out his duty, why is Downing Street, which is not legally responsible to Parliament for Ken Clarke carrying out his duties, dictating to him what he can and cannot do in a so-called liberal democracy? Perhaps, the UK will now wake up to what the prisoners votes case has shown that we live in a totalitarian state?

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