The man’s for turning: Cameron scraps justice reform

By Ian Dunt

A key plank of Ken Clarke’s justice reforms is being dropped, in the latest coalition U-turn.

Plans allowing for a 50% reduction in jail sentences in exchange for an early guilty plea look set to be abandoned following a media outcry in the wake of the row triggered by Mr Clarke’s comments on rape.

Government sources insisted that Mr Clarke retained the prime minister’s confidence and that the two men had a “proper two-way discussion” before deciding the drop the proposal.

Ministers tried to put a brave face on the decision this morning, saying it was a normal part of the consultation process, although comments from Mr Clarke before the rape row heavily suggested it was likely to go through.

In reality, modern governments rarely put plans out for consultation unless they are likely to implement them.

Denying that there had been a U-turn, home secretary Theresa May told the BBC: “This is a normal part of the process of deciding what should go into legislation.”

She added: “The results of [the] consultations are now in and the government is looking at those and talking across government about what we should bring forward in the new legislation Ken Clarke will be bringing forward, I expect, in a matter of weeks.”

Mr Clarke’s efforts to reduce the number of people in prison are partly motivated by spending reductions and partly as a useful cross-over with the progressive Lib Dem position on criminal justice.

The justice secretary must save £2 billion from his departmental budget, of which the reduced sentence plans were expected to constitute £130 million.

His recent comments on rape, in which he distinguished between “proper, serious” rape and other kinds, triggered a spectacular parliamentary backlash and led to calls for his resignation.

While Mr Clarke survived that particular storm, today’s development suggests it cost him the sentence reduction proposals.

There was still some uncertainty whether the proposal would be dropped, however, with Labour warning that it could still find its way into a bill.

“We have seen other examples of this government claiming they’ve done policy U-turns which don’t actually materialise,” shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan.

“The government needs to unequivocally confirm the 50% discount in sentence for an early guilty plea for all offences will now be ditched.”

Current law already allows for a 33% reduction in jail sentences for an early guilty plea, but criminal justice experts were divided on whether the rules should be taken further.