How Labour should respond to Ken Clarke’s sentencing reforms

The Labour leadership is making a sad mistake in opposing the government’s decision to abolish IPPs (Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection), as I argued in a new blog post yesterday.  The other sentencing changes announced last night by the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, and adequately summarised on the Guardian’s website here, also deserve general support by all small-l liberals, despite justified misgivings over the expansion of offences that are to attract mandatory life sentences.  It would make a welcome change if the Labour front bench were to respond to the reform programme as a whole on the following lines, which I commend to the shadow Justice Secretary, the Rt Hon Sadiq Khan (also my MP):

“The most important of the new measures announced by the Justice Secretary is the welcome decision to replace Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) by tough fixed-term sentences for the most serious offences.  This should help significantly to reduce the excessively large prison population, of which more than 6,000 are currently serving IPPs, over 3,500 of them having already served their tariffs (the part of their sentences set for punishment).  I welcome Ken Clarke’s assurance that only some 20 of those 6,000 IPPs would have qualified for the new mandatory life sentences for very serious sexual and violent crimes.  Labour has serious reservations about introducing mandatory life sentences for crimes other than murder, as the government now proposes: we think judges, not politicians, should decide each sentence in the light of the circumstances of each case;  but Ken Clarke has promised that ‘Judges would retain the discretion not to impose a mandatory sentence if it would be unjust to do so’, which should preserve reasonable flexibility.  Mandatory life sentences will apply only to cases where an offender has twice been convicted of a serious offence attracting a sentence of at least 10 years on each occasion, so in practice the addition to the prison population resulting from this measure should be small.

“We especially welcome the proposal for a four-month mandatory prison sentence for aggravated knife possession for 16 and 17-year-olds, but not for younger children. Those convicted of ‘using a knife or offensive weapon to threaten and endanger’ are to be given a four-month detention and training order, two months in a young offenders institution and the rest undergoing training in the community.  Adults will receive an automatic six-month sentence for the same offence.  This should help to meet widespread concern about the menace of knife crime.

“Our concern until now that if IPPs are abolished, prisoners will be released while still a threat to our security, is adequately allayed by the promise of longer sentences for the most serious offences, allowing more time for reform and rehabilitation, and by the decision that serious offenders will not become eligible to apply for release on licence or parole until they have served two-thirds of their sentences, instead of the current half-way mark.

“It is a sorry indictment of the coalition government that these generally positive reforms have been so long delayed by widely reported opposition to them within the Cabinet and no doubt also from the unregenerate ranks of reactionary Tory back benchers.  If the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, with their claims to be the champions of liberal reform, have been supporting the Justice Secretary against his right-wing critics in the long drawn-out argument over these reforms, we have yet to hear of it.  It is not only over Europe that both the Conservative party and the government are split from top to bottom, with their Lib Dem allies standing helplessly on the touchline.”

Unfortunately, however, I have little confidence that Ed Miliband or Sadiq Khan will take anything like such a positive line in response to Ken Clarke’s reform programme.  Labour is apparently still trapped in the retrograde, pathologically risk-averse mind-set of successive New Labour home secretaries on the subject of prisons, crime and punishment.  It’s time to return to Labour’s liberal reformist roots.  How bizarre that it’s a Tory Secretary of State for Justice who is blazing the trail!

Update (pm 27 Oct 11):  The Justice Secretary was quoted on the Daily Politics programme today as having said he would be consulting about the idea of making it easier for Parole Boards to “let out” those serving the Indeterminate Sentences that he’s getting rid of.  You can hear the relevant words here, beginning at 18’50”.  This is the first reference I have seen or heard in the interviews and media coverage since Mr Clarke’s proposals were published last night to their implications for existing IPP prisoners.  It’s encouraging, as far as it goes.  But it will be controversial.


3 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    How bizarre, and how dreadfully sad. I’m afraid Labour may have moved further to the Right than any of us realised.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Phil. It is indeed very disappointing. Labour’s new leader started with such high hopes. Whether the problem arises from fear of being called soft on crime, or pressure from David Blunkett, Jack Straw and others not to disown their shabby legacies, or both, I suppose we’ll never know.

  2. Patricia O. says:

    Hello Brian:   So pleased about the IPP decision. Like you, a lifelong Labour supporter, I am disappointed with the rightwing stance of the party. Anyway, onwards and upwards now. Did you hear the interview with Jack Straw on PM yesterday?  He admitted that they hadn’t intended the IPPs for people given tariffs of less than 2 years, but due to a drafting error, they had been overlooked in the earlier amendment.  What an admission! We are just awaiting now the promised review, but as you keep warning us, there is a long way to go.  
    Thank you again, Brian, for all your hard work, canvassing and keeping us so well informed. You are brilliant!  
    Warmest wishes,

    Brian writes:  Thank you for this, Patricia. Yes, I heard Jack Straw trying (rather desperately) to defend IPPs.  As home secretary in the Labour government he inherited them from David Blunkett,  but instead of abolishing them as he could and should have done, he merely tinkered with them.  Now he has the brass neck to oppose Clarke’s principled decision to abolish them.  (His record over Iraq as Foreign Secretary doesn’t bear examination, either.)

  3. wendi says:

    Hi Brian
    Thank you for keeping us updated.I cant believe the comment from Jack Straw if he knew it was a mistake why the hell did he not act on it , my partner would not be still in prison if that had been the case, I wonder if anything legal can be done about this ? 

    Brian writes: Thank you, Wendi. Jack Straw did in fact act to rectify David Blunkett’s ‘mistake’: he banned any new IPPs with a tariff of less than two years, with the intention of stopping IPPs being awarded for really trivial offences. What he should have done, of course, is abolish IPPs altogether. As he failed to do that when he could have done it, he’s trying to justify that failure by opposing the Justice Secretary’s decision to abolish IPPs now.