Ed Miliband: Why I was right to demand that Clarke should go

Friday 20 May 2011 00:00 BST

The slide from grace of Ken Clarke has caused some glum faces amongst those who believe in a better penal system. People who share my belief in prison reform as part of a policy to cut crime are worried as they see him being edged towards the cabinet room exit door.

They are wrong.

The necessary reforms to our justice system will never be carried out successfully by a government, and by those like Ken Clarke and David Cameron, who are so woefully out of touch with the real world.

On Wednesday I heard Mr Clarke repeatedly fail to show that he understood his brief or demonstrate his ability to stand up for victims.

In interviews he talked of "serious rape" involving "violence and an unwilling woman".

He differentiated between "serious attacks" and "date rape". He talked of "classic rape". In this he wasn't just insensitive. He was wrong.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council makes it clear that no one form of rape is inherently a more serious violation to the victim than another.

But worse than his inaccuracy is that these remarks will undermine confidence in the criminal justice system in the same way that some of his policies will undermine justice too.

Halving sentences for violent criminals including rapists who plead guilty will do nothing to increase safety on our streets and it gives prison reform a bad name.

Nor would his departure be the blow to criminal justice reform that his supporters claim.

For Mr Cameron and Mr Clarke and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, this wasn't just a bad week's headlines or a one-off row. It's a much deeper problem caused by their complete detachment from real concerns about crime and a flawed policy.

Labour has a good record on crime, which fell by 43 per cent under the last government, but that has never stopped me from saying our jails and our courts continue to demand reform.

In February I told an audience: "Tougher prison sentences aren't always the answer. I think there are times when people get locked up and come out as harder criminals.

"Some non-violent offenders can be better punished with a tough community sentence, working off their debt to communities over months rather than getting off with a few days in jail.

"I'll support the Government if they bring forward sensible proposals to deal with drugs in prisons and drug addiction and mental illness among offenders."

That audience was not a Howard League meeting. It was readers of The Sun newspaper. It was the right message to give. But this isn't the kind of change the Tory-led Government is delivering.

Their prison policy is based not on the need for reform or increased rehabilitation for offenders. It is based on the need to cut costs. Their police policy isn't based on what will make the streets safer but how to quickly find a 20 per cent cut in the police budget.

Only a Justice Secretary who has allowed cutting his departmental budget to be put ahead of real reform could accept an arbitrary cut in prison places.

At the dispatch box on Wednesday, David Cameron tried to claim my support for his justice policy. I'm afraid he doesn't have it. And nor should he have the support of any-one else who is serious about better justice and safer streets.

By reducing the number of police on our streets, by halving sentences for violent offenders, the Government are risking creating more victims. They are failing a very simple test. They are not making our communities safer now or for the future.

Prison reformers should not support them.

Ed Miliband MP is Leader of the Labour Party

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