We may all be kept waiting for some time as the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke seeks a way to announce his decisions on future sentencing and prison policy. He has to balance the need for serious reform against the risk of committing political suicide.
There are already rumors circulating around Westminster that Mr Clarke may be replaced in any forthcoming cabinet reshuffle.
The ferocious hostility to reforms to criminal policy is not surprising given that politicians of all flavours rely on locking up people for longer and longer as a means of generating cheap votes.
The Tory right wing in particular is currently pretty fed up and disappointed with the prospect of what they see as ‘soft’ policies on crime. Their attitude betrays the fact that they are either thick and incapable of understanding the contents of Clarke’s earlier Green Paper or as is more likely, they are simply too lazy to read the proposals in detail.
The Green Paper makes it absolutely clear that any reforms will not introduce ‘soft’ measures at all and that in reality the opposite is true.
Enter the Home Secretary, Theresa May who dislikes Mr Clarke with a passion. May has been brought up on a diet of ever more severe sentencing policies and sees proposals like Clarke’s as damaging to potential re-election.
In fact, given that May’s discredited predecessor, Jacqui Smith spent most of her time cashing in on tabloid led paranoia about sex offenders and that May is now doing the same, TheOpinionSite.org is bound to ask what Home Secretaries would do if all sex offenders were truly rehabilitated.
Add terrorism to the mix and you have a ‘perfect storm’ under the control of the most influential politician in the country who forgot about justice as soon as she was appointed, preferring instead to concentrate on her own political prospects.
Currently there are three main issues likely to cause Mr Clarke a major headache:
- What to do about the IPP sentence so beloved by the child protection lobby and women’s groups
- How to deal with the Supreme Court ruling allowing sex offenders to apply to have their names removed from the Sex Offender Register
- How to resolve the politically sensitive issue of prisoner voting rights which has still not been resolved
Theresa May is crumbling to the tabloids and child protection groups on the sex offender issue, as Home Secretaries always do. Clarke is hoping that the issue regarding regarding prisoners having the vote will be forgotten for a few years and the Home Secretary is trying as hard as possible to offload the IPP problem onto Clarke alone.
If there was a mess before, there is a bigger mess now as these two senior politicians from two extremes of the Conservative party ignore the plight of prisoners who have served well over their tariff and the misery caused to their families.
To make sense of any of this is a difficult task unless one acknowledges the three essential elements of political existence that drive the everyday thinking of our politicians:
- MPs don’t care one iota about those that they allegedly represent
- Politicians care even less about those who have been convicted of any criminal offence, unless they can be used to get a few cheap votes
- The essential goal of any politician is to get re-elected, at any price
Tony Blair introduced over 3,000 criminal offences during his time in office; that’s one for each day of his tenure and in the process became the most hated prime minister since Margaret Thatcher. David Blunkett courted the popularity of the Sun and other tabloid newspapers only to have them turn on him when he cheated on a passport application for personal reasons. Charles Clarke, John Reid and eventually Jacqui Smith all got kicked out of their jobs as Home Secretary.
The point is, that for all their attempts to creep to the public with ever tougher measures on crime, they all ended up losing out as a result.
However, the lasting damage that they caused in the meantime has to be seen to be believed.
In sexual and violent offences for example, sentences today are as much as 500% longer than they were just 20 years ago. To effectively defend certain cases has been made almost impossible and even the Prime Minister now admits that at least 10% of those in prison and serving very long or even life sentences are probably innocent. Yet he does nothing for fear of upsetting his own backbenchers, the tabloids and the ever increasing number of publicity craving zealots.
Which brings us back to the almost impossible nature of that which Kenneth Clarke is attempting to achieve.
You see, what both Clarke and May would both like to do is to leave all of the three contentious and politically dangerous matters until after the next general election and indeed, given the numerous delaying tactics that can be employed by both experienced politicians, this may very well be what happens.
It is certainly what has occured in the past, for example when Michael Howard was forced to back down over the sentencing of those convicted of the murder of James Bulger and the row over prisoner’s votes is already 6 years old and still remains unresolved.
May received all party support as she systematically laid out her plans to ignore the spirit, if not the actual wording of the British Supreme Court’s ruling on the Sex Offender Register, demonstrating in the process that no politician dare say anything sensible or realistic regarding sex offenders for fear of being exposed in the tabloids as ‘weak’.
This plays well with a public who have for 20 years been misinformed, lied to and manipulated when it comes to the truth of the offending characteristics of Britain’s most hated monsters’, though evidence shows that in fact they have the lowest reconviction rate of any group of offenders apart from murderers.
Nobody condones the behaviour of sex offenders but there are two priciple rules of the law which apply in this country, those of being innocent until proven guilty and also that once your sentence has been served in full, you should be free to rejoin society and live a normal life.
For over 20 years now, politicians have brought in measure after measure to gain public popularity for themselves and in the process have destroyed these two principal elements of the law for those convicted of sexual offences. Britain is close to making the same mistakes as America on this and will pay the same social price if it is not careful.
The cynical approach by the Home Secretary who proclaimed that the government “will do the absolute minimum to fulfill the Court’s ruling” is a betrayal of everything that Parliament should stand for and does nothing to encourage the rest of us to obey the law while the government is so intent on trying to do the opposite.
Furthermore, populist prime ministers and ministers have forced convicted persons of one type or another on to databases and registers that fly in the face of reason.
If you are guilty – or sometimes even only suspected – of a sexual, violent, domestic or public order offence, you will be on a database. The Violent and Sexual Offences Register (completely separate to the Sex Offenders Register by the way), the Domestic Abuse database, the CRB/ISA database, the Samson social services database or you may be under consideration by MAPPA who don’t even need to tell you about it.
Ken Clarke on the other hand is keen to bring some common sense to these contentious issues and is being forced to either compromise or run the risk of being pushed out of office. However, to get rid of Clarke is to invite him to severely damage David Cameron who is currently relying on the conflict in Lybia to give himself some much needed credibility. He has little when it comes to anything else.
The inevitable question though is whether any reforms would make any real difference anyway.
It is one thing to instruct policemen, probation officers and prison warders to behave differently but it is quite another to get those parties to put those instructions into effect. Policemen get a kick out of arresting people, probation officers love to make there job easier by recalling those on licence and many prison staff like to do as little work as possible whilst making life as difficult as they can for those in their charge, none of which goes along with Clarke’s policy of more effective rehabilitation.
Many a young policeman or prison warder starts their career by wanting to “make a difference” only to find that those in more senior positions will not allow them to do so. Empires have been built and nests feathered during the years of plenty under Blair and these people will protect their empires and comfort zones to the death if necessary.
Arrogance and ignorance make for a bad mixture when visited upon those least able to defend themselves from behind a prison wall.
We must either have a system based on justice or one based on revenge. Politicians must decide.
At the moment, revenge is winning and Clarke is trying to reset the balance. Meanwhile, Theresa may is trying to prevent him from doing so and seeks to undermine his cause at every opportunity.
May sees herself as a future Conservative leader and is quite prepared to practice her back-stabbing techniques on Clarke in readiness for a well-timed and possibly fatal attack on Cameron should the opportunity present itself.
TheOpinionSite.org believes that whatever reforms are brought in by Clarke, they will be either watered down or pushed into some very long grass as a result of political pressure.
Sadly, in reality little will change in the day to day operation of the authorities and thorny issues such as IPP sentences that are so destructive, unjust and unfair will be at the very bottom of the list of reforms. Whilst the ‘delay and deny’ tactics of those in power continues, the silent but deadly conflict between Clarke and May will also continue.
At the same time, all those inside together with their families remain helpless to change the situation or to prepare for a ‘normal’ life which, thanks to both the ‘revenge culture’ and ambitious politicians will in fact be as far from normal as is possible.