In Ken Clarke's shoes
With Nick Clegg safely out of the country (and out of the limelight) the Prime Minister swooped into action yesterday – ditching Ken Clarke’s sentencing reforms, announcing new tough measures on knife crime and squatting and renewing his pledge to support ‘have-a-go heroes’. All of which is very good news for the Conservative Party who, in a bizarre reversal of fortunes, were at risk of being outflanked and outgunned on law and order by the Labour Party.
The truth is that these changes in strategy are much more a reflection of the success of Yvette Cooper than they are of any failing on Ken Clarke’s part. Whilst her husband has spent the last month embroiled in allegations of plots both stale and fresh, Yvette has plowed mercilessly forward in her brief. She does not Shadow Clarke – that falls to former Liberty Director Sadiq Khan – but she has masterfully used her Home Office remit to expose failings in the coalition’s approach to crime, criminals and justice. In doing so she has scored a rare win for Labour, placing it on the side of concerned victims and potential victims whilst the Government gave the impression that it was far more interested in the needs of perpetrators.
This impression, whilst toxic and real, is of course terribly unfair. I bow to no-one in my belief that prison can work but that is not to say that it always does. And, here in Britain, the sad truth is that prison almost always fails on two of the three reasons for its existence – it does not successfully rehabilitate and it does not appear to deter (witness both the rise in reoffending and the rise in the prison population over the last decade). On punishment, the third in the trio of justifications for penal policy, perhaps British prisons succeed. But then again we hear often and shamefully of the drug use and corruption in the prison system that surely undermine the retributive purpose. Ken Clarke’s proposed sentencing ‘discounts’ would have spared victims the horror of trial, the indignity of being called a liar and the risk of not-guilty verdicts for people who had wronged them. They would have conveyed criminals more swiftly to punishment and would have saved money that could have been spent bolstering re-education and rehabilitation services for those criminals of whom society might make some future use.
It is sad that – in a flurry of ‘mis-speaking’ and insensitive language – they have been dropped. People who belong in prison should go there but prison should be made to work for victims and for society – it should be freeing us of criminality instead of merely postponing it. Now we look set to have the worst of both worlds – a prison population that grows and grows but a prison service too cash-strapped to do anything useful with its inmates. It is better that criminals will be incarcerated, of course, but worse for us all if they come out unrepentant and unreformed.
And what of Clarke? I am surprised that he remains in post – not because the Prime Minister has shown any inclination to fire ministers forced into U-turns but because an old bruiser of Clarke’s experience and passion might be expected to resign once their flagship policy has been euthanised. His continued presence in Cabinet demonstrates his trust in the Prime Minister’s judgment, his confidence that he will get his way on other matters and his belief that there is still much to be achieved inside the tent. However, with the dogged trio of the Mail, the Sun and Yvette Cooper smelling blood, I wouldn’t want to be in Ken Clarke’s shoes.