Cameron shoots down Clarke's prison reforms

Ministers are said to be considering a 33 per cent sentence discount for serious crimes like rape, down from the 50 per cent Clarke wanted
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Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke faced embarrassment yesterday after David Cameron vetoed his proposal to cut by up to half the prison terms for rapists and other violent offenders who make early guilty pleas.

Mr Clarke is now fighting to retain the 50 per cent reduction for some non-violent criminals as he attempts to salvage his troubled sentencing plans. It was the Prime Minister's second major policy U-turn in less than 24 hours following his concessions on NHS reform. Mr Clarke's plans to cut up to 50 per cent from sentences of offenders who plead guilty early (an increase from 33 per cent) faced savage criticism from Tory right-wingers.

He also provoked a public backlash when he sought to defend the proposals in the context of cutting sentences for rapists.

In a move strongly supported by the Liberal Democrats, he had proposed increasing the current maximum discount as a way of trimming £130m from his courts budget and reducing pressure on prison numbers.

The Independent understands that ministers are considering a two-tier scheme, under which a maximum 33 per cent discount will be retained for the most severe crimes such as rape, assault and armed robbery but 50 per cent could be introduced for less serious offences. The latter option is being backed by Mr Clarke and Liberal Democrat ministers, while many Tories are pressing for the 50 per cent proposal to be scrapped outright.

The Justice Secretary is understood to have warned Mr Cameron over the impact of the policy reverse on his plans to find savings of £2bn from the £8.7bn Ministry of Justice budget. He could be forced to make further cuts elsewhere, such as from the legal aid budget or accelerate savings expected in two or three years' time.

Mr Clarke, by far the most experienced member of the Cabinet, is not expected to lose his job or quit but to stay and fight his corner.

Mr Cameron heaped praise on him yesterday in the Commons, telling MPs that the Justice Secretary has "plenty more fuel left in his tank".

In fiery Commons exchanges, Labour leader Ed Miliband lambasted Mr Cameron for overseeing a "total mess" on sentencing and health. But the Prime Minister retorted that Mr Miliband was merely "jumping on bandwagons", pointing to Labour's apparent previous support for the sentencing scheme.

One senior Liberal Democrat MP accused Mr Cameron of a "failure of political nerve" in bowing to pressure from right-wingers and tabloids.

The sentencing proposals are part of a wider package of criminal justice reforms put out to consultation last year. Mr Clarke made clear that fellow ministers backed the 50 per cent discount scheme.