U-turn on sentence reform leaves hole in Ministry of Justice budget

Moves to cut the jail population were in jeopardy last night following an overhaul of sentencing policy – potentially leaving a financial black hole at the heart of the prison system.

David Cameron overruled Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke's controversial plans to offer sentence discounts of up to 50 per cent to offenders who plead guilty early, and set out a series of initiatives designed to rebuild the Conservative Party's credentials on law and order.

They included new offences for knife crime and squatting, as well as longer sentences for the most serious criminals.

Mr Clarke's original ambition was to trim numbers in prison in England and Wales by 3,000 as part of a drive to cut spending by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) by £2bn.

But critics warned that the package of measures set out by the Prime Minister could only increase the upwards pressure on prison numbers.

Mr Cameron took personal charge of the sentencing policy in response to an outcry from Conservative MPs and Tory-supporting tabloids over plans to raise the maximum sentence discount from 33 per cent to 50 per cent.

In a major policy U-turn, the Prime Minister confirmed he had vetoed the proposal because it would have sent out the "wrong message" to the public.

He said the £130m lost as a result of the retreat would have to be recouped from the MoJ's budget.

Mr Cameron also set out plans for:

* An offence of "aggravated knife carrying" with an automatic jail term for anyone who uses a blade to intimidate or threaten.

* New laws against squatting.

* More mandatory life sentences for the most serious criminals and cutting the entitlement to probation for sexual and violent offenders.

* An end to the system of indeterminate prison sentences, with the intention of producing longer sentences.

Mr Cameron said: "The public need to know that dangerous criminals will be locked up for a very long time. I am determined they will be."

He shrugged off criticism of the rethink on sentencing discounts, insisting it was a sign of "strength and confidence" that the Coalition was prepared to listen and change its mind.

The Prime Minister pledged a shake-up of measures to tackle reoffending, including making prisoners work up to 40 hours a week, getting more offenders off drugs and designing "tougher, properly enforced community punishments".

The prison population could be reduced by deporting foreign national prisoners, keeping mentally ill offenders out of jail and reducing numbers of people remanded in custody.

But penal reformers warned that the impact of those measures could be outweighed by the fresh moves on sentencing. They also raised concerns over whether there were adequate resources to pay for the Government's promises on rehabilitation.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "What constitutes using a knife to threaten will have to be very tightly defined to avoid prison numbers spiralling out of control."

She added that the sentence discount U-turn left the MoJ with a "severe headache in trying to balance its books". She said: "If further cuts are made to the probation service then prison numbers will inevitably rise."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said she was alarmed by the Government's "tough-sounding political rhetoric" and warned against expecting an "already beleaguered prison service" to do even more with even less.

Mr Clarke also confirmed plans for heavy cuts in the legal aid bill. He told MPs it would no longer be available for "most private family law cases, clinical negligence, employment, immigration, some debt and housing issues, some education cases and welfare benefits".

The civil rights group Liberty said the moves will put publicly funded legal advice and representation "beyond the reach of vast swathes of the British population".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral