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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Offenders will escape jail because of cuts, Clarke admits

Offenders will escape jail because of cuts, Clarke admits

By Richard Ford, The Times(£)

Thousands of offenders will be spared a custodial sentence because the Government can no longer afford an increasing prison population, Kenneth Clarke admitted yesterday.

The Justice Secretary said that sweeping sentencing reforms were needed because of the financial cost of holding a record number of criminals in jails.

Mr Clarke insisted that there was no Cabinet rift over his proposals to overhaul sentencing and cut the jail population by 3,000 over the next three years.

“The policy is not based on some general object or target of reducing the number of people in prison,” he told MPs on the Commons Justice Select Committee.

But he said that the “explosion in prison numbers” had to be “stopped and contained for financial reasons”.

Mr Clarke confirmed that as numbers fell he wanted to close a number of older and uneconomic jails. Prisons that governors believe are under threat include Shepton Mallet, Shrewsbury, North Sea Camp and Dartmoor. The prison population has almost doubled to 84,800 since Mr Clarke was Home Secretary in 1993 and it now costs almost £3 billion a year to run jails.

Mr Clarke’s admission that financial reasons are behind the drive to halt the rise in prison numbers is likely to cause further concern among Conservative backbenchers. They are already unhappy at plans under which many more offenders will be given community punishments, fewer offenders returned to jail, and judges given greater discretion over how many years murderers should serve before being eligible for parole.

David Green, of the think-tank Civitas, said that Mr Clarke’s policy would be a false economy. He said that with fewer offenders being sent to jail and fewer police on the streets it was likely that crime would increase.

Mr Green added: “If Kenneth Clarke releases criminals he will be adding to the Home Office bill [for the police] and his own department’s bill [for the courts].”

The Justice Secretary defended his policies and said he was used to tough times and had never “had a popular policy to implement in all my life”.

He insisted that there was no conflict between him and the Prime Minister or Theresa May, the Home Secretary, over the sentencing proposals.

Mr Clarke, who has come under attack from Lord Howard of Lympne, the former Tory leader, and Conservative backbenchers, said he had “total cross-Cabinet support” for his policies.

He said: “All the policy, including documents, I am consulting on, including announcements of court changes, changes to legal aid and on sentencing, have been cleared by all my colleagues. Discussed in Cabinet committee, discussed with the Prime Minister, all of them.”

He added: “There is no dissent. I have not been producing this from the isolation of the Ministry of Justice. This is a collective approach.”

Mr Clarke said that the main stream of the policy was not attracting “any great resistance” and he was not aware of “any great criticism” of his focus on cutting reoffending.

The Justice Secretary admitted that there was criticism of parts of the policy but that it tended to be rather “theoretical”.

However, Downing Street is concerned that the sentencing proposals and plans to close prisons are sending a message that the Government is soft on crime.

On Tuesday Mrs May echoed the mantra of Lord Howard when she told MPs: “Prison works but it must be made to work better.”

Mr Clarke said: “I looked at what she said, and she said exactly the same things. Prison is the right punishment for serious criminals. Prison does give some relief from crime while they’re inside.

“Prison at the moment is not succeeding in getting reoffending rates down from where they are, which is why we have rehabilitation. There isn’t actually any disagreement.”

1 comment:

Tim said...

Mr Clarke, who has come under attack from Lord Howard of Lympne, the former Tory leader, and Conservative backbenchers...

Mr Clarke can have no greater vindication than that. He should treat it as the formal approval to press ahead.