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Ken Clarke toughens community sentences as Tories reassert law and order credentials

By Tim Montgomerie
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In a major announcement today the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke will attempt to give teeth to community sentences. Trailed in this morning's Daily Mail Mr Clarke will announce that community sentences will involve a minimum of 28 hours of manual labour per week. Some sentences have involved only six hours of activity every seven days. The Justice Ministry will vow to end "sitting idle at home watching daytime TV".

Paul Goodman has warned that prisons policy remains an achilles heel for David Cameron but, despite the riots, the Coalition is determined to press on with cuts to the overall prison population and also to police budgets. Mr Clarke understands that the public will only tolerate reduced prison numbers if non-custodial sentences are seen to be demanding.

Prisons minister Crispin Blunt (who today describes the riots as a "one-off" event) tells the Mail that "if we are to reduce the scandalous reoffending rates, it is essential that we help turn offenders into ex-offenders." "The introduction," he continues, "of regular, meaningful hard work is proven to help break the cycle of crime and encourage a law-abiding life."

Even before the riots we have seen increasing signs that the Conservatives are reasserting their traditional credentials on law and order. Given the wake up call provided by Lord Ashcroft that was necessary:
  1. First came the historic vote against vote for prisoners - signalling to the Tory leadership that backbenchers would not tolerate a Lib Dem or European-led policy on this issue;
  2. Then came Cameron's partial u-turn on sentencing - a u-turn that Philip Davies MP didn't think went far enough but nonetheless an improvement;
  3. A willingness to use tear gas, plastic bullets, water cannon and even the army at the height of the riots crisis - all measures supported by the public;
  4. Strong post-riots rhetoric from Cameron on the inexcusability of the looting - Tory MPs' support for tough sentencing was again in tune with a very hardline public;
  5. Iain Duncan Smith been given a new role to coordinate action against gangs and gang crime;
  6. Willingness to evict looters from council housing and potentially dock benefits;
  7. Finally, and in my view most problematically, we have seen David Cameron return to the issue of curtailing offenders' human rights. I say problematrically because there is danger in him raising expectations when the likes of Ming Campbell are so adamant that reform of human lights legislation is unacceptable to him and other Liberal Democrats.

Boris Johnson has, of course, gone further than Cameron - vowing to protect police numbers and ackowledging that he was wrong to be so civil libertarian about CCTV given its role in helping track down looters. On police numbers he was perhaps remembering Margaret Thatcher's words: "never, ever, have you heard me say we will economise on law and order." Opinion polls provide some evidence that Boris has bounced back more quickly from the initial riots response than Cameron. It might be because of his position on police numbers. It might also be because Boris has been more prominent on broadcast media since the crisis. I remain puzzled as to why Cameron does so little face-to-face TV interviews anymore (a subject I'll return to in the next few days).

MAY-THERESA Theresa May has had a lot of criticism for her role in recent events. I'm still holding my shares in the Home Secretary. While I'd like to see Ken Clarke replaced by a David Davis or Chris Grayling I have faith in Mrs May as a marathon runner. She's a minister who puts in the long hours until she's mastered a brief and accomplished her goals. This can mean she sometimes frustrates those who want immediate changes but I think she'll prevail in the long-run when other flashier and headline-hungry ministers have fallen by the wayside.

A final comment on the law and order agenda. If the Conservatives (and Coalition more generally) are getting tougher on crime it's wrong to say that Cameron has abandoned his interest in tackling the causes of crime. To understand does not mean to excuse but we know that a good family, early intervention and hope of a job are important ways of preventing crime. That's why - as our series on the conveyor belt to crime has explored - we must remain tough on the causes of crime as well as be tough on crime itself.

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