UK Politics

Ministers rethinking prison term discount plan

The government is rethinking its controversial proposal to offer 50% sentence cuts for early guilty pleas in England and Wales.

The PM and justice secretary met on Tuesday to discuss the plan - part of wider reforms of sentencing policy.

Officials insist no final decision has been made but sources say it is unlikely the policy will survive.

And David Cameron has decided there will definitely be no 50% sentence discount for rapists.

Discussions about whether people who plead guilty to less serious crimes at an early stage should still be eligible for a sentence reduction of up to 50% are thought to be ongoing.

The plans are part of a wider package of proposals put out to public consultation aimed at reforming sentencing and reducing the prison population. The sentence discount proposal was expected to save £130m from the Ministry of Justice budget.

It is understood the prime minister and Mr Clarke met on Tuesday to discuss what would be going into the government's sentencing bill, which is due to be published within the next few weeks.

'Widespread concern'

Asked to confirm that the policy had been dropped, Mr Cameron told MPs at prime minister's questions on Wednesday: "What we want is tough sentences for serious offenders. We produced a consultation paper that had widespread support for many of the proposals that it made and in the coming weeks we will be publishing our legislation."

Mr Miliband said there was "widespread public concern" about the proposal and asked Mr Cameron if he had "torn it up, yes or no?".

The prime minister said Mr Miliband's own shadow justice secretary had described the package of reforms as "a perfectly sensible vision for a sentencing policy" in-keeping with Labour's record in government - and suggested it was Mr Miliband who had undergone "a sudden U-turn".

The Labour leader said: "He is in a total mess on his sentencing policy, just like on all of his other crime policy."

But the prime minister said: "It was actually the last government that introduced a 33% discount on sentences, so there is more than a whiff of jumping on a bandwagon."

The Ministry of Justice has been told to find £2bn savings from its £8.7bn budget and Mr Clarke also wants to reduce the 85,000 prison population in England and Wales by 3,000.

'Violent crime'

Treasury sources say they will not "re-open negotiations" on the Ministry of Justice's budget.

Mr Clarke has faced much opposition to his proposals from some of his fellow Conservative MPs - last month backbencher Philip Davies urged him to quit so the Tories could "restore our reputation as a party of law and order" . Mr Clarke argued that by increasing the number of guilty pleas, the proposal would spare victims and witnesses the "unpleasantness" of the court experience.

But Downing Street has played down suggestions that the justice secretary's position may be vulnerable. A source said the prime minister had "huge amounts of respect" for Mr Clarke and there had been "a proper two-way discussion" between the two over the rethink.

Mr Cameron also praised his justice secretary in response to a separate Commons question on whether Mr Clarke was too old, at 71, for his job, saying: "He's doing a superb job and there's plenty more fuel in his tank."

The sentence discount proposal had been criticised by top judges and Victims Commissioner Louise Casey.

And Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said she had concerns that people with learning disabilities and mental health needs might plead guilty just to "get out of that particular situation".

However, she praised the overall package as "a coherent and sensible blueprint for reform" that had been drawn up after a "very thorough" public consultation.

Last month Mr Clarke denied claims that the proposal could see some rapists serving just 15 months in prison.

But he got into trouble during the BBC Radio 5 live interview when he talked about "serious rape with violence and an unwilling woman". Labour leader Ed Miliband said he should resign for effectively suggesting there were "other categories of rape".

The justice secretary later clarified his comments by saying that "all rape is a serious crime".

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