Cameron backs reforms to penal system

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David Cameron said today Britain's criminal justice system was not working and was in need of urgent reform.

The Prime Minister was speaking as it was disclosed that Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke is "sympathetic" to proposals for a shake-up of murder laws that could see some murderers serve less time in prison.

Justice minister Lord McNally told peers at House of Lords question time yesterday that the Government was "mindful" of the recommendations of a 2006 Law Commission report which suggested a system of first and second degree murder.

"This is one of the issues that the Government will be looking at in its review of sentencing policy in general," Lord McNally said.

Mr Cameron told the Daily Mail that 10% of sentences could be affected by the review ordered by Mr Clarke.

He said sentences of one or two months were "pretty meaningless" and the black hole in public finances meant Britain could no longer afford to jail offenders for short periods only to see them reoffend.

"The truth is you have to have some short sentences because they are absolutely necessary, but it (is) also true that sending someone to prison for a period of one month or two months is pretty meaningless in terms of actually being able to reform them."

Instead the Prime Minister will consider proposals for local referendums to choose community punishments.

"All ideas of making people feel they have more power and control over government and their lives and the criminal justice system, those are all things we can look at."

He continued: "We have to face the fact that we have a criminal justice system that isn't working at the moment. We're banging people up at vast expense, half of them are on drugs, over 10% aren't meant to be here at all because they're foreigners, and the reoffending rate is dreadful.

"We also have to face the fact that the Government has been left an appalling legacy of no money. So we have to be reformers. Now that doesn't mean being soft, it means making sure that punishment and rehabilitation go together."

Lord McNally said the Law Commission report put forward a range of alternatives that would give "a degree of flexibility" to the judiciary.

Under the proposals the courts could set sentences for those guilty of second degree murder which would mean all murderers would not automatically face mandatory life sentences.

"I do know that in looking at the matter the Lord Chancellor is sympathetic to the line taken by the Law Commission," Lord McNally said.

He added that the previous government brought forward some "part proposals" from the report and the new administration was "now looking at this with some urgency".

Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a crossbench peer and former law lord, had told him that reform of the law of murder was "now long overdue".

"It is the mandatory life sentence which distorts this branch of the law and stands in the way of much-needed reform," he said.

He asked Lord McNally: "Are you aware of any other country, whether in Europe or the Commonwealth, which has a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment in all cases of murder, including, for example, cases of mercy killing?"

Lord McNally said he suspected that Lord Lloyd was right that there were "few" other examples.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "The Secretary of State has yet to consider the findings of the Law Commission's report. Any speculation on what the Government will do with this issue is premature."