'Tough on crime'? An asinine soundbite if there ever was one

Oliver Harvey 7.45am

Ken Clarke’s vital reforms to Britain’s justice system are in danger of being permanently sidelined.

Earlier this year, the Justice Secretary was forced to drop his plea bargaining reforms after describing some rape cases as ‘less serious’ than others during a BBC radio interview. Then August’s appalling series of riots seemed to have firmly ruled out any possibility of sentencing reform, prison population reduction or the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ seeing the light of day.

Earlier this month, the repeal of greater sentencing powers for magistrates - introduced towards the end of the last Labour government - dropped out of the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill (Lapso) after it was opposed by the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve.

None of this, however, has altered the arguments for justice reform. Unless we are to continue living with public disorder and criminality at least part of the solution must be a proactive approach to rehabilitation and a focus on non-custodial sentences.

Britain has one of the highest prison populations in the world, currently edging towards the 100,000 mark and almost doubling over the last fifteen years. This has been credited by successive Home Secretaries from Conservative and Labour governments as the main cause of falling crime rates.

In fact, this suspicious cross-party consensus tells us that the views of Home Secretaries move in lockstep with the police. Different metrics measure different crime rates in different ways. A cleaner statistic is this: over half of Britain’s current offenders have already served custodial sentences.

We are operating, at a colossal cost to taxpayers, a revolving door for criminals to return to communities and to reoffend, with all the social and economic costs that entails.

One response with considerable public appeal is simply to lock offenders up for longer. An arch proponent of this idea is Peter Hitchens, with whom to converse on the subject is to tread the pages of a Charles Dicken’s novel.

While superficially attractive, it is simpleton’s logic. There is a fair case to be made for longer sentences for heinous crimes (murder, rape, firearms offences), but jailing burglars for decades both bears the hallmarks of an authoritarian regime and is a spectacular waste of money when alternatives are considered.

First, expand and improve the use of non-custodial sentences and put more emphasis on rehabilitation. As Ken Clarke has argued, non-custodial sentences must be made more ‘demanding,’ with tougher terms, more visible punishments and higher touch probation.

Punishing first time offenders and those convicted of relatively minor offences within the community is sensible as it prevents the ‘career criminalisation’ process which contact with hardened criminals in jail provides, and it gives an opportunity to offenders to get their life back on track.

Uncomfortable as it may be for some to admit it, an alarming proportion (90 per cent) of offenders have mental health problems or suffered childhood abuse. Often a lifetime of crime can be preventable by appropriate early intervention.

Second, the ‘rehabilitation revolution’ must be made to work. Literacy programmes, a ‘working week’ for prisoners and lowering the barriers for ex-cons to find work are part of the solution. Enlightened prison regimes can have spectacular results, but too often the success of rehabilitation is left to the inclination and resources of individual prison governors.

As Paddy Scriven, general secretary of the Prison Governors Association, has pointed out, rehabilitation is most successful with prisoners on longer jail terms. Short custodial sentences can have the effect of exposing minor offenders to hardened criminals, cutting them off from their communities while offering their victims only the briefest of respites. Short sentences are also expensive. In the vast majority of cases they should be scrapped, while resources should be concentrated on prisoners serving terms greater than one year.

Last year’s Green Paper - Breaking the Cycle - addressed many of these points. There is a broad consensus among prison governors and probation officers, a surprising fact considering Ken Clarke’s aim to cut substantially the prison budget.

Yet in the rush for politicians to be seen as ‘tough on crime,’ an asinine soundbite if there ever was one, the opportunity to get our justice system working again is slipping away.

Vince Cable should not be posturing on pay, he should be gunning for growth

Craig Barrett 11.59am

As the conference season close, a short mental review of politically offensive soundbites leaves one that jars with me above all others. Not, as Nik and I wrote, Ed Miliband’s schizophrenic tax regime; not the fact that the Lib Dems felt the need to paint the Tories as the villains of the piece (contrast that with our praise for their commitment), not the awkwardness surrounding the Human Rights Act.

It is Vince Cable’s statement that the biggest regret of his time in charge of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is that he has failed to curb bankers’ bonuses.

Cable can only be playing to the crowd. To an extent, that is what a party conference is about but when you have the ministerial profile that Cable does, words should be chosen more carefully. We are all aware that he is a loose cannon, e.g. his statements about “war” with News International, but I remain of the view that his reputation as some kind of economic visionary is ill-deserved. The joke about him having predicted 50 of the last 35 recessions is a fair one.

John Denham, one of the more effective members of the shadow cabinet, summarised the offensive nature of Cable’s regret rather well:

"Vince Cable says his biggest regret from the last year is not tackling bank bonuses but it should be his complete failure to support business, create jobs, help small and medium enterprises to access finance and to build on the growth he inherited from Labour."

We can dispute the final part of the sentence but the rest is true. Cable should not be posturing on the subject of pay, he should be gunning for growth.

The clue is in the real title that Cable holds, the one that existed before it was changed by New Labour: he is the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade. It is within his remit to regulate industry or rather, to de-regulate it.

Unfortunately, as Camilla Cavendish notes in The Times (£) this morning, companies appear to have an ever-increasing regulatory burden, arising I assume from Cable’s misguided belief that he needs to act to prevent rather than to create.

Whilst bonuses may be offensive to many in society, what is more offensive is a total absence of growth and a deeper recession. Nothing rewards success like excess and our economy needs to remain competitive. That must incorporate the ability to reward people appropriately - this is symptomatic of the need, as far as is possible within the realms of sanity, to let industry get on with being industrious. Compliance costs money and when cash is tight, an ever-increasing amount of red-tape makes a precarious economy start to teeter on the edge of the proverbial precipice.

In my legal field, we recognise the fundamentally asphyxiating nature of a narrow interpretation of the egregious new Bribery Act - a piece of legislation currently preventing effective marketing. To take another example, the thoroughly un-British Working Time Directive has created less experienced junior doctors in our hospitals. These, amongst many others, are burdens that urgently need to be examined to see if they genuinely add anything or are simply exercises in collating forms.

There is a solution. Vince Cable is the least effective member of the Cabinet; whether because he temperamentally unsuited to government or whether he is more interested in his own reputation is entirely a matter for him.

At the same time, there is a man who it could be argued is in the wrong job, as events of this week have shown. Step forward the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke.

The old cliché about him being the man who got us out of recession last time still holds true. He really understands what it takes to get things moving, having presided over a strong economic recovery as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1990s, but also having been a minister at the Department of Trade and Industry. He shadowed the business brief in Opposition and his “one in, one out” approach to regulation would make a dramatic difference to businesses who must despair at each latest edict from BIS.

Famous for his relaxed attitude to life and politics, a Ken-driven relaxation of red-tape would get our nation trading again.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk

Grieve digs claws into May in catty row over Human Rights Act

Nik Darlington 7.24pm

The TRG, by its own admission, did not expect their fringe debate on the Human Rights Act to be a big draw.

Much fun was had at the Home Secretary’s expense and cat jokes came thick and fast. Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who is in favour of a British Bill of Rights, said, “We need to have a rational debate. We must be more productive than just going for the ‘meow’ factor.” Grieve indeed has a cat and a happy family life, we discovered.

Grieve went on: “The judicial interpretation and case workload of the European Court ought to be a concern for the UK and other European countries.” “If Britain wants a Bill of Rights we can have one, but we have to accept that the Coalition circumscribes what we can do.”

Eleanor Laing, the MP for Epping Forest chairing the debate, said “in contrast to all the cat talk, I’m delighted that we can discuss this in a constructive way.”

Egremont and the TRG at party conference in Manchester

Nik Darlington 9.15am

Party conference season is coming to a close. As hacks and lobbyists blearily KBO after the Lib Dem and Labour gatherings (see my Spectator Coffee House report from Birmingham, which seems an age ago), the Tory faithful are gearing up for a few days of fun and discussion in Manchester.

Building on last year’s hugely successful agenda, the TRG has an exciting range of events to look forward to.

On Sunday, the TRG hosts its Parliamentary Mainstream Reception (17.30-19.00) in the Fairclough Suite in the Midland Hotel (secure zone). The guest of honour is Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister and Paymaster General and the wine & canapes event is sponsored by construction group Willmott DixonParliamentary Mainstream is the parliamentary arm of the TRG, although membership is open to any Member of Parliament. The group has been revived since the formation of the coalition under the leadership of Jonathan Evans, MP for Cardiff North, supported by four vice-chairmen: Robert Buckland (Swindon South), Laura Sandys (South Thanet), Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood, and chairman of the Health Select Committee), and Andrew Tyrie (Chichester, and chairman of the Treasury Select Committee).

Monday evening sees the TRG’s Flagship Panel Debate on the state of the coalition taking place in Exchange 1 of Manchester Central (secure zone), at 17.30. Confirmed speakers include the Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell, the Rt Hon Sir George Young (Leader of the House of Commons) and Neil Carmichael, MP for Stroud and member of the Education Select Committee.

On Tuesday morning at 10.30 in the Midland Hotel’s Stanley Suite (secure zone) there is the Foreign Affairs Brunch, at which Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt and Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s Ambassador to the United States 1997-2003, will be discussing the Arab Spring over a full English breakfast.

Later on Tuesday, 17.30-19.00 in Manchester Central’s Exchange 4 & 5, the TRG is hosting a joint event with the Society of Conservative Lawyers and Justice, titled “The Human Rights Act: too hot, too cold, or just right?” Confirmed speakers include the current Attorney-General, the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC, former lawyer Robert Buckland MP and the director of Justice, Roger Smith OBE. It will be chaired by another former lawyer, Eleanor Laing, MP for Epping Forest, and promises to be a hugely interesting occasion.

And of course, no Tory conference would be complete without the TRG President’s Midnight Reception on Tuesday evening, 23.00 until the early hours of Wednesday morning at ‘The French’ in the Midland Hotel (secure zone). Ken Clarke might be approaching half a century in politics but the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary’s energy and conviviality is indefatigable. An event not to be missed (for TRG Members only, however you may turn up and join on the night).

We will continue to blog regularly during conference, with our usual morning postings and live blogging throughout the days.

Renovation Zones call for penal reform to cut the re-offending that is ruining communities

Paul Marsden 8.11am

On Tuesday, Ken Clarke said that the riots make the case stronger for penal reform, with three-quarters of those aged over 18 taking part in the riots being re-offenders. In his final extract from a revolutionary set of policies, former MP Paul Marsden writes why penal reform must be part of Renovation Zones.

The transformation required in the Renovation Zones must be reflected in our prisons. Criminals serving sentences must appreciate that they are being punished for crimes that they have committed. Ahead of that, however, must be a culture of transforming lives.

Instead of languishing in a cell for up to 23 hours a day, prisoners should be learning and exercising for up to 18 hours a day. All activities should be focused on acquiring new skills and identifying future careers.

The fact is that many criminals in prison will, when released, be returning to the types of areas that are candidates for becoming Renovation Zones. These ex-convicts should become positive role models for these areas rather than sources of aggravation, competition and tension.

Re-offending rates range from 26 per cent to 74 per cent for some prisons and when surveyed, 68 per cent of prisoners said that the single most important factor on returning to a community is having a job.

In order to bring down those re-offending rates rapidly, into single figures if possible, we must strive to have work available for prisoners on their release. Rather than wait six months before becoming eligible for work placements, in a Renovation Zone ex-prisoners would be required to join work programmes on the day of their release.

Simple and dynamic change is needed in the communities worst affected by high crime, high unemployment and extreme deprivation. Renovation Zones would cover the priority areas in need of renewal.

It will call for tough ‘Street Leaders’ who are given the full support of communities and local authorities. Their focus will be  on new skills and work, work, work.

Young people need opportunities geared towards real world skills. They must be given the chance to articulate their views in their own way.

Ex-prisoners must be dovetailed into the RZ work programme to reduce rates of re-offending.

A culture of fresh ideas must dominate and failure or only partial success accepted as part of the process of renewal.

A revived local pride must be engendered and linked to a stronger national pride. Improving the environment should be inherent to RZs so that people appreciate the world in which we live.

It will be difficult, the road will be long but the days of dead-end neighbourhoods punctuated with police sirens and shattered dreams must end. Through radical renovation, we can build buzzing, vibrant, respectful and happy communities.

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"Words, words, mere words", but Ken Clarke is correct about reforming Britain’s prisons

Nik Darlington 8.10am

The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has an important article in the Guardian today, in which he blames the riots that swept English cities this summer on this country’s “social deficit” between mainstream society and a “feral underclass”.

Some people are dismayed by the language used. Be that as it may, dismay all you wish but I would wager that more people are horrified by the criminal acts in Tottenham, Croydon and elsewhere than some choice words of a popular old hand known for plain speaking. Actions speak louder than words.

For what it is worth, “feral” derives from the Latin ferus meaning “wild”. In turn, “wild” means “uncontrolled or unrestrained, especially in pursuit of pleasure” - an apt description of what occurred in English cities in August.

And Mr Clarke is not playing to any ‘nasty party’ gallery because he is writing in the Guardian, whose readers have not voted Tory since the 1950s; if it had passed you by, the Tory press and the Justice Secretary do not see eye to eye in many things beyond a penchant for beer and cricket.

More importantly, Ken Clarke writes that the underlying nature of the riots and the rioters must be a prompt for “radical reform”. Our prisons are places for punishment, of course, but there must be a heightened emphasis on rehabilitation.

Punishment alone is not enough… Locking people up without reducing the risk of them committing new crimes against new victims the minute they get out does not make for intelligent sentencing.

It’s not yet been widely recognised, but the hardcore of the rioters were, in fact, known criminals. Close to three-quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction. That is the legacy of a broken penal system - one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful. In my view, the riots can be seen in part as an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes - individuals and families familiar with the justice system who haven’t been changed by their past punishments.

I am introducing radical changes to focus our penal system relentlessly on proper, robust punishment and the reduction of reoffending. This means making our jails places of productive hard work, addressing the scandal of drugs being readily available in many of our prisons and toughening community sentences so that they command public respect. And underpinning it all, the most radical step of all: paying those who rehabilitate offenders, including the private and voluntary sectors, by the results they achieve, not (as too often in the past) for processes and box-ticking.

I have noticed some people lazily describing the Justice Secretary’s words as lacking depth and an understanding of underlying problems. Evidently, they read the sexy headline (probably chosen by the Guardian) about a “feral underclass” and bypassed the article itself, which if they had bothered to read might have found their answer.

However, reform can’t stop at our penal system alone. The general recipe for a productive member of society is not secret. It has not changed since I was inner cities minister 25 years ago. It’s about having a job, a strong family, a decent education and, beneath it all, an attitude that shares in the values of mainstream society.

Just in case the casual reader thought this was mere rhetoric, replete with the ethos of long-held experience, are coalition government policies such as deficit reduction, welfare reform, work programmes and liberalising our schools.

Rehabilitation must be the watchword of this Government’s penal reforms. After this summer’s riots, in which three-quarters of the tried perpetrators are reoffenders, that fact is staring us in the face more than ever.

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Ken Clarke and Shami Chakrabarti line up against the authoritarians

Giles Marshall 2.02pm

How cruel a hand fate appeared to have dealt the man. After a torrid time on Wednesday, when his casual wording in a radio interview caused a media flurry and prompted Ed Miliband to demand his sacking or resignation (my, how he overplayed his hand there), the Lord Chancellor had to appear on the Question Time panel. In Wormwood Scrubs, of all places. A day of touring studio after studio would have tired out lesser men. Now this.

Yet there can be no doubt that Ken Clarke used the opportunity to stunningly good effect.

First off, to a harshly worded question - “Was he clumsy, wrong or misconstrued?” - Ken replied that it was “probably a bit of each” and showed heartfelt contrition, heard in silence by the audience of prisoners, prison officers and general public, who then applauded warmly. He was helped by an articulate and supportive Shami Chakrabarti and even Jack Straw was reluctant to endorse his party leader’s rash histrionics.

Ken Clarke won his audience round not because they necessarily agreed with him on prisons and sentencing - many did not - but because he argued his case effectively, not patronisingly and, perhaps surprisingly for Ken, a degree of humility.

With the rape question dealt with - and, I must add, with a measured intelligence that puts most Question Time audiences to shame - Clarke and Chakrabarti forged an unusual alliance of the humane and liberal minded against the authoritarians Jack Straw and Melanie Phillips. At no point in the programme was Clarke more effective than when responding to Mrs Phillips’ crude call to shut down the Department for International Development. His defence of overseas aid - also argued today in a brilliant Times (£) column by Philip Collins - gave eloquent voice to ‘One World’ Conservatism.

There are no other members of David Cameron’s Cabinet, save perhaps the Prime Minister himself, with such wide public appeal as Ken Clarke. Any suggestions that he has ‘lost it’ should have been firmly laid to rest by last night’s performance.

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This meaningless spin obscures the real rape debate

Victoria Roberts 6.30pm

Admittedly, I have not listened in full to Ken’s interview this morning but I’ve read extracts of what he said and a fair bit of the commentary.  Discussing something as serious and sensitive as rape is never going to be easy and Ken could have chosen his words more carefully.  There is a very serious debate to be had about attitudes towards rape, improving conviction rates and – possibly – making sentences longer.  However, let us not confuse that debate with Ken’s comments today.  Much of the furore surrounding his comments is nothing more than spin and an opportunity for Ed Miliband to score points at PMQs.

There have been suggestions that “date rape” should be a separate or lesser offence – quite rightly it isn’t, though public perception is often that “date rape” is qualitatively different to “stranger rape”.  However, Ken was not talking about this.  His comments were about the type of activity and the sentence handed out. 

Rape, as defined in s.1 of the Sexual Offences Act, is rape, whatever the circumstances.  But, as with all offences, there will be aggravating and mitigating circumstances about the offence (and the individual offender) which influence the sentencing.  With rape, in particular, the sentencing guidelines list specific types of activity and the sentencing ranges for them.   Repeated rape of same victim over a course of time or rape involving multiple victims has a higher sentencing range than rape where the offender was aware he was suffering from an STI or it was a sustained attack, which in turn has a higher sentencing range than a single offence of rape by a single offender. 

None of these “types of activity” are not serious.  But, in legal terms, a judgement is made about the length of the sentence to be awarded.  In my opinion, this is what Ken was referring to. 

A system for reducing tariffs for early guilty pleas is already in place.  Where a defendant pleads guilty at the earliest opportunity – usually their first appearance in court – the sentence is typically reduced by up to 30 per cent.  The proposal to extend the application of this to 50 per cent for the earliest pleas is a sensible move.  Adding incentives for early guilty pleas will improve the administration of justice and go some way to avoid situations where defendants please guilty on the first day of trial – when thousands have been spent preparing the case for trial, witnesses, including victims, have had to psych themselves up to appear in court. 

Consider Ken’s long record in politics.  Is he a misogynist who wants to deny victims justice?  No.  He approached the question from a legal perspective – understandable given his experience as a barrister and current position but possibly not the best way to express himself during a radio phone-in.  His comments have been misinterpreted and, in the case of some of his opponents, wilfully misinterpreted in a vain attempt to undermine one of the Coalition’s most effective performers.  This simply undermines the very real debate we need to have about how to improve the conviction rate for rape, how we can improve the procedures in court to lessen the ordeal for victims giving evidence and how we educate the public and address out-dated views about women, consent and rape.

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