When is a U-turn not a U-turn? Ask Ken Clarke, who is out and about defending what looks like one of the most extraordinary pirouettes in the annals of criminal justice. Only two days ago, the Justice Secretary appeared more or less to rule out mandatory jail terms for juveniles caught wielding a knife. As Mr Clarke told the Home Affairs Select Committee, applying mandatory sentences to children would be "a bit of a leap." Such punishment, he added, was not "the British system."
Well, now apparently it is. The crime Bill that re-enters the Commons next week will include mandatory terms for 16 and 17-year-olds, though not for younger children.
What changed Mr Clarke's mind? Perhaps the Tory back-benchers with whom he has had frequent meetings. No doubt he heeded the prime Minister, who made the case for pragmatism. Even so, Mr Clarke, when shoved in a certain direction, is almost guaranteed to shove back. This time, the amendments tabled on children, on mandatory life sentences for offences other than murder and the enhanced protections for householders who bash burglars are so un-Kenlike as to make one wonder whether they were drafted by the Commons hanging and flogging sub-group while the Justice Secretary was locked in the cupboard under the stairs.
The one positive move is the abolition of the IPP – the indeterminate sentences that keep thousands locked up long after their tariffs have expired. There is, however, no immediate plan to release these prisoners.
Those who always disliked Mr Clarke are gloating. I suspect he did the best he could but that ultimately he had to live within the bounds of what was feasible to get his Bill on the statute book.There is only so much that any Secretary of State can do when pitted against back bench frenzy, a hardline Home Secretary, hostile media, a Labour Opposition that has jettisonned its one-time support and a fear of crime that is often, though not always, wildly exaggerated.
With the prison population expected to carry on rising, and cutbacks meaning even less rehabilitation, the danger – if not inevitability – is that reoffending becomes even more rife. If justice and public safety are imperilled by these measures, Ken Clarke won't be the only one in the dock.