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Government drops pledge of mandatory jail for carrying knife

A key Conservative election pledge that anyone caught carrying a knife could expect a jail term has been dropped by the Justice Secretary.

Kenneth Clarke said he would put sentencing policy in the hands of judges, not newspaper pundits.

But he said those guilty of using a knife would face a "serious" jail term.

His comments came ahead of a Green Paper aimed at reducing jail numbers in England and Wales through changes to sentencing policy and rehabilitation.

Asked by BBC political editor Nick Robinson whether people caught carrying knives could expect a lesser punishment, Mr Clarke said ministers would not insist on "absolute tariffs".

It means that, as at present, someone caught carrying a knife may not face a custodial sentence, and may be cautioned instead. In the Conservative election manifesto, the party said four out of five people convicted of a knife crime did not go to prison and they would send a "serious, unambiguous message that carrying a knife is totally unacceptable".

The document said: "We will make it clear that anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence."

But Mr Clarke was asked whether people convicted of carrying a knife could get a caution or community service.

He told the BBC: "We're not setting out absolute tariffs for particular things. What happens is that pundits or newspapers suggest levels for particular forms of crimes ... Parliament in its wisdom enacts them – it doesn't work. I'm not in favour of absolute rules. I'm in favour of actually allowing judges to see how nasty the offender is"

The Green Paper will include a 30 per cent to 50 per cent reduction in sentences for those that plead guilty early.

It will include measures enabling the voluntary and private sectors to run pilot community payback schemes .

The paper will also include a plan for unpaid community work that will incorporate payments for results for the companies running them.

It will provide an extension of schemes in which offenders are expected to apologise to victims and agree to reparations before sentencing.

As well as making prisons places of hard work, it will extend the Peterborough pilot scheme which financed prison rehabilitation work, funded by charitable trusts.