Ken Clarke’s brave attempt to bring common sense into the sentencing system in England and Wales is being sabotaged by sleazy prime minister David Cameron who is afraid of appearing to be ‘soft on crime’. It was revealed in a House of Lords debate last week that Cameron, ever fearful of criticism from the tabloids, women’s groups and charities, ordered that the title of the new Bill be changed to include the word ‘punishment’ rather than the phrase ‘prevention of reoffending’.
The cynical attempt to derail Clarke’s reforms, all of which are hated by right wing Tories including the ambitious Home Secretary, Theresa May, was revealed by the former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord David Ramsbotham who openly – and rightly – criticised the government for pandering to populist newspapers and Conservative backbenchers who are desperate to follow the failed justice policies of the US in the belief that the public supports longer sentences. Research shows however that the public is actually not all that fond of long sentences, especially when people discover how much they are going to cost the tax payer.
Agreeing with TheOpinionSite.org, several peers took the opportunity to castigate the government for ignoring the plight of thousands of current IPP prisoners and their families who have been told that they will not benefit from the scrapping of IPP sentences sometime next year. Instead, those currently serving the disastrous sentence will have to spend years more in jail until the overstretched Parole Board can find time to hear their cases.
Out of touch Cameron, who models himself on Blair and Thatcher, sees any attempt to reduce the prison population or sentences as anti-Conservative and is only supporting the limited changes because of the coalition agreement. If it were not for pressure from the Liberal Democrats, together with the government’s current lack of money, Cameron would be advocating putting more people in prison for longer.
When Clarke first announced his much praised ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’, he clearly stated that IPPs would be replaced by ‘long determinate sentences’. Bowing down to Theresa May, Cameron changed the policy to instead replace IPP sentences with mandatory life sentences, a move that has been criticised by almost every sector of the criminal justice system, except the police and probation who only ever want to keep offenders locked up for as long as possible in order that they do not have to be managed in the community.
Clarke and his team are desperately trying to salvage what they can of the original policy but the Bill is being watered down at every turn by hard line Conservatives, many of whom – especially Theresa May – hate Ken Clarke with a passion. They see his ‘common sense’ approach as politically damaging and anyway have no care whatsoever for those whose lives are affected by bad legislation put in place for purely political reasons.
With increasing (though not necessarily effective) opposition from police, probation, prison warders and public protection groups, it is remarkable that the reforms are still alive at all but it is also far from certain how many of the proposed changes will survive over the coming months. The truth is that politicians are only ever interested in staying in power and do not care how many individuals, families or communities are damaged in the process.
TheOpinionSite.org warned some time ago that prisoners and their families were wrong to think that changes would come quickly and pointed out that some desired changes might not come at all. Regrettably, that seems to be the reality now and whilst the arguments continue, more IPPs are being handed out every week, prison numbers are still at a record high and the resources essential to any prisoner’s release, particularly the offending behaviour courses perceived by the authorities to be so important, are being cut back.
Clarke intended that his changes to policy would solve other problems as well; unjustified recalls to custody ordered by the probation service, unnecessary monitoring of those who are unlikely to reoffend, the secretive (and some would say unlawful) police and probation MAPPA system that makes decisions based on evidence that no one can see or test, the lack of hostel provision for those serious offenders being released and so on.
A complete rethink aimed at getting rid of what Clarke correctly described as ‘the populist nonsense’ so loved by the last Labour government is what the reforms should be and were intended to be about. Instead, weak conservatives have caved in to pressure from the Daily Mail, NSPCC and others and in the process have emasculated the Bill, robbing us of some of the most progressive and sensible reforms to the criminal justice system seen in the last 100 years.
And that is the problem. Law and Order has been – and still is – a political football to be kicked about whenever governments are in difficulty and need to divert the attention of the public away from what really matters – usually war or the economy – in an attempt to stave off political criticism. Weak prime ministers are no different to those that are strong in this respect; they all need to hide the truth and feed the public a constant diet of lies and misinformation in order to survive.
It is uncertain therefore as to how much of Kenneth Clarke’s reform agenda will have survived by the time the Bill becomes Law. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, as it is now known, is a huge piece of legislation designed to right some of the wrongs put in place by Tony Blair, David Blunkett and others. It is designed to bring ‘common sense’ back into sentencing and rid the justice system of the constant ‘mood swings’ that result from knee-jerk decision making that always ends with bad legislation.
Unfortunately, the House of Lords is only a reforming chamber and although the many clever ex-judges and others who populate the place will do their best to keep the good bits of the Bill and get rid of the bad, it is the largely moronic House of Commons that will make the final decisions. This does not bode well as very many MPs simply don’t have the brains to understand the complexities of the legislation and in any case are not particularly interested in the plight of prisoners or those who support them.
TheOpinionSite.org believes that there are still battles to come between the right and the left wings of the Conservative party and to a large extent, it is the result of those battles that will determine the future of the Bill. If the right wingers triumph, we can expect bad legislation that gives more power to all the wrong people whilst ignoring the hideous circumstances faced by those to whom the state has given no means by which they can prove that they are ready for release.
If Clarke and the Liberals win, the criminal justice system, prisoners, their families and society as a whole will benefit. The problem is that for that to happen, the likes of Cameron and May will have to demonstrate that they too can think in a manner that is independent of their own political ambitions, something that neither of them are likely to do any time soon, if indeed they are capable of doing so at all.