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Clarke 'astonished' by lack of controversy over sentencing plans

13 December 2010

Justice secretary Ken Clarke has said he was “astonished” by the lack of controversy in parliament over his plans to transform criminal justice.

Right-wing newspapers reacted furiously to his sentencing green paper, which aims to cut prison numbers by, among other things, limiting the use of indeterminate sentences for public protection and increasing the use of fines and community sentences.

In a further twist, Downing Street denied last week that the prime minister had “slapped down” Clarke over plans to give judges more flexibility when sentencing in murder cases.

Interviewed by Mr Justice Cranston at the LSE last week as part of the law department’s legal biography project, Clarke said most of the departments he had served in his long career as a minister had involved him in controversial decisions.

“I was astonished by how uncontroversial this was in the Commons,” Clarke said. “I expected all hell to break loose, but it didn’t.”

Clarke said commentators had “dramatised” the strength of the views of those MPs who did object.

Earlier Lord Justice Hooper asked: “You must be the first minister who has decided not to feed the voracious and insatiable appetite of The Sun newspaper. How does it feel?”

Clarke replied diplomatically that some sections of the press agreed with him more than others.

He described one of his strongest critics, former home secretary Michael Howard, as a friend and “much more left-wing than me when he was at Cambridge”.

Clarke went on: “Where Michael and I have a disagreement is over what exactly is the effect of the huge growth of the prison population.

“Michael thinks it was causative of the reduction in crime. I beg to differ.”

Clarke said that spending more and more money on prisons had simply increased the number of criminals.

To make better use of the courts, the sentencing green paper proposes that suspects who plead guilty to crimes at police stations could receive discounts of up to 50 per cent on their sentences.

Foreign nationals, who currently make up 11 per cent of the prison population, would be offered the option of a caution for less serious offences, on the condition that they left the country.

The green paper also outlines plans to pay voluntary organisations by results when rehabilitating former offenders (see Solicitors Journal 154/26, 6 July 2010).

Nicholas Green QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said the government’s plans were a step in the right direction towards a “sensible and rational approach”.

He said Clarke was pursuing a “bold and creative reform programme”, but warned him to be “mindful of the consequences” of cutting sentences by a greater amount in return for guilty pleas at the police station.

In this case, Green said suspects needed “high-quality and substantial legal advice”.

Linda Lee, president of the Law Society, said the 6,000 prisoners jailed under IPP sentences often found it difficult to get access to the courses they needed to demonstrate that they were not a danger to the public.

“We also support accelerated consideration for release for the 3,000 prisoners jailed indefinitely for public protection who had already passed their tariff date,” she said.

Lee added that she was pleased that prisoners with mental health, alcohol or drug problems would be diverted into treatment.

Sally Ireland, director of criminal justice policy at JUSTICE, welcomed the government’s recognition that the ‘warehousing’ of prisoners must stop, but said it would have to “put its money where its mouth is” on rehabilitation and support.

Mark Day, head of policy at the Prison Reform Trust, said the green paper “could be a watershed marking the end of sterile debate on toughness or softness on crime.

“Rather than settling for policy making on the hoof or enduring a crisis-driven justice system, Ken Clarke seems prepared to undertake a proper consultation on sentencing and rehabilitation based on evidence of what works.”

Earlier in the interview, Clarke told Mr Justice Cranston that his legal career began as an office boy in a solicitor’s firm in Nottingham. Sitting in court behind counsel convinced him to be a barrister.

He described the old-fashioned law degree he took at Cambridge as “completely useless for any practical purpose” though he did learn, by studying Roman law, how to free slaves.

During his pupillage, there was so much work at his chambers in Birmingham that his first appearance before the Court of Criminal Appeal was as a pupil. As a barrister, he combined criminal work with acting for victims of industrial accidents.

Clarke said he took silk in 1981, despite being a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s first government, “in case I had to go back to practice”.

He said he did not have “the first idea” that David Cameron would offer him the role of justice secretary, and presumed he was being sounded out for governor of Bermuda.

He drew more laughs when speaking about the role of Lord Chancellor.

“I like the traditions, though I would prefer it if someone else dressed up in the robes. It breaks up the working day.”

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