Political Promise

The Right Hook: Ken Clarke’s Justice Reforms U-turn

In Zachary Barker on July 7, 2011 at 10:56 am

Being in charge of a party with a traditionally tough stance on justice, Cameron’s chosen figure for reforming in the justice system seems unusual. In the place of someone notably hard-line on crime, a known maverick within the party was chosen in their place: Kenneth Clarke. Zachary Barker asks why Clarke?

Besides being one of the longest serving MPs Kenneth Clarke has a reputation within his party and the House of Commons for not siding with mainstream opinion.  He is President of the Tory Reform Group, which is notable for its progressive and pro-European stance.  To add to this mix Clarke has been notable on many occasions against party decisions he does not approve off, often in a very public fashion.  Once instance of this happened in 2006 in which Kenneth Clarke labelled Cameron’s proposing of a Bill of Rights to be “xenophobic and legal nonsense”.

So why did Cameron choose Clarke?  It could be that Cameron, continuing his campaign theme of representing a new and reformed Conservative party different from the old.  To press this theme convincingly to his Coalition partners the Liberal Democrats as well as the public, it is likely that he thought it a prudent decision to appoint someone to the justice post with reformist credentials.

As Clarke started to reveal his ideas for justice reform, polls started to indicate that public opinion was at best uneasy about changes being proposed.  These included lessening the justice systems primacy on prison time, when possible potentially making more use of community service as a possible alternative.  Improvement of rehabilitation facilities was also proposed in the original proposals.  David Cameron at the time these proposals were unveiled, seemed to consent to them.

However the proposals revealed in a justice reform bill published on 21st June seems to have taken a noticeable step away from reform, and more of a step ideologically towards conservatism.  This is evident in some of the new proposals such as deporting foreign national prisoners.  Clarke’s proposal to offer sentencing discounts are also absent from the new bill.  The new bill has revealed a vague commitment to impose sentences on individuals who carry knives, who act in a threatening manner.  The bill also presents a proposal to impose new legal restrictions on squatting.

Opposition to Clarke’s reformist agenda reached fever pitch shortly after Clarke in an interview with BBC 5 Live made a comment about “serious rape”.  Despite the context of the point he was making, alluding to the different circumstances in which rape can happen, his quote ignited a media storm.  The red top tabloids in particular presented Clarke as soft on rape as well as by extension soft on rapists.

This was shortly followed by Cameron sidelining Clarke in favour of the new proposals, assuring the media that he felt the old ones sent “the wrong message”.   Perhaps the timing of the media storm and the vocal grumblings of the Conservative backbenchers were a coincidence in Cameron’s revelation in deciding that Clarke was sending the wrong message, perhaps not.  What is clear is that the problem of the UK’s ever growing prison population remains, as well as the problem of reoffending.  Clarke’s proposals may well be flawed, however they did seek new solutions to persistent old problems.  In return for this Clarke was overruled, discredited and effectively fined by his PM who has instructed him to cut an extra £130 million from his ministry’s budget.  He has been clearly been made an example of.

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