Leading article: A reformer that Britain cannot afford to lose

Ken Clarke handled yesterday's obstacle course badly. But he should not be forced from his job
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Yesterday once again demonstrated the immense difficulty of conducting a rational debate about criminal justice policy in Britain. What began with a confected row over a plan by Ken Clarke to extend plea-bargaining had, by lunchtime, blown up into a firestorm over some unwise comments by the Justice Secretary on rape. Mr Clarke ended the day accused of being "soft" on crime, of harbouring chauvinist attitudes towards women, and of being unfit for public office.

There are several issues entangled here and it is important to unpick them. First, plea-bargaining. The thrust of Mr Clarke's criminal justice reform proposals is entirely right. The draconian prison policy pursued by both Labour and Conservative administrations since the early 1990s has been tested to destruction. Even if locking up ever greater numbers of people were desirable from a public safety perspective (which it is not), the money to continue this crude policy of "warehousing" criminals is no longer there.

This "prison works" approach needs to be substituted by an extension of community sentencing and drug treatment orders for petty offenders. This should free up resources inside jails for proper rehabilitation and education programmes for those guilty of more serious crimes. And extending plea-bargaining, as Mr Clarke also proposes, is another sensible way of taking pressure off the prison system. This is an organic reform, not a revolution. Those who admit guilt at the first opportunity can already reduce their sentences by a third. Mr Clarke merely proposes to extend this to a half.

Mr Clarke's blunder on rape needs to be treated separately. The Justice Secretary's words on the subject in a radio interview were indeed foolish. He managed to give the impression that there is some sort of sliding scale of seriousness when it comes to the crime. While true in a technical sense, in that judges have the discretion to impose varying sentences based on the severity of individual cases, Mr Clarke's words seemed to be an echo of all the malignant old prejudices about rape.

Yet though the language was offensive, it is by no means clear that those who accuse Mr Clarke of betraying rape victims through his proposed extension of plea-bargaining have justice on their side. If rapists have an incentive to plead guilty, rather than taking their chances in a full criminal trial in which proving guilt beyond reasonable doubt is notoriously difficult, that could be a way of increasing the abysmally low conviction rate for rape. Mr Clarke's critics need to ask themselves whether a conviction that comes about through plea-bargaining is worse than no conviction at all.

For such an experienced politician, Mr Clarke handled yesterday's obstacle course extraordinarily badly. But he does not deserve to lose his job for this lapse. There is a wider political context here that must not be ignored. The right wing of the Conservative Party has been sniping at Mr Clarke over his criminal justice reforms ever since the Coalition was formed. Though they are deficit hawks and public-sector reformers on almost everything, prison is one area in which the Tory right refuses to recognise the need for either economies or change. Many piled in to add to the Justice Secretary's torments yesterday, not because they really care about the low rape conviction rate but because they dislike the wider liberal thrust of Mr Clarke's criminal justice reforms.

The prospect of this reactionary clique prevailing and taking back control of prison policy is deeply troubling. Whatever the dogma says, the evidence shows that prison is not working. Criminal justice needs to be comprehensively reformed. And despite yesterday's presentational disaster, Ken Clarke is still the politician best placed to accomplish that.