Ken Clarke says riots 'legacy of broken penal system'

Riots in Hackney, east London David Cameron has blamed "straightforward criminality" for the riots in England last month

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has blamed the "broken penal system" for the riots that erupted across England last month.

Writing in the Guardian, he said the "hardcore" of those involved were known criminals whose behaviour had not been changed by previous punishments.

Almost three quarters of those aged over 18 who were charged over the riots had a prior conviction, he added.

Mr Clarke argued that this made his efforts to reform the penal system and cut reoffending even more important.

The government is piloting payment-by-results schemes for private firms who successfully rehabilitate offenders.

Mr Clarke has argued that prisons should be used for the most serious offenders, suggesting that tough community punishments would be more effective at reducing reoffending for other criminals. But his proposals have been criticised by Labour shadow ministers who say they are driven by a desire to save money.

The justice secretary's articlecame as his department published figures showing that 77 per cent of adults arrested for taking part in the disturbances have a caution or conviction for a previous criminal offence. Speaking to MPs on Tuesday about lessons learnt from the riots, London's mayor Boris Johnson said he broadly supported Mr Clarke's analysis.

'Criminal classes'

In an article for the Guardian, the justice secretary said it had "not yet been widely recognised" that the majority of those charged with rioting or looting were known criminals.


Kenneth Clarke sees the riots as an "outburst of outrageous behaviour" by criminals who haven't been changed by their previous punishments.

So he underlines the need to pay those who have the task of rehabilitating offenders by results.

But he goes further, arguing that it is the coalition's mission not just to tackle the financial deficit but the "social deficit" which the riots have highlighted.

Using similar terms to the prime minister, he says "rocket boosters" need to be put under plans to reform the education and welfare systems.

But unlike the prime minister, he doesn't put human rights legislation in the dock, failing to echo Number 10's belief that such legislation has undermined personal responsibility.

"That is the legacy of a broken penal system - one whose record in preventing reoffending has been straightforwardly dreadful," he wrote.

"In my view, the riots can be seen in part as an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes - individuals and families familiar with the justice system who haven't been changed by their past punishments."

Mr Clarke praised the justice system for imposing swift, tough penalties on convicted rioters, but said punishment alone was "not enough".

He outlined his planned changes to the penal system - including making prisoners work harder while behind bars - but said there needed to be wider changes to address "the appalling social deficit that the riots have highlighted".

"It's about having a job, a strong family, a decent education and beneath it all, an attitude that shares in the values of mainstream society," he wrote.

"What is different now is that a growing minority of people in our nation lack all of those things and indeed, have substituted an inflated sense of expectations for a commitment to hard graft."


Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said Mr Clarke was "absolutely right" to highlight high reoffending rates, adding that the situation was "ludicrous".

Start Quote

It's self-evidence that there was a difficulty, a crisis, on the Sunday and Monday that caught everyone unawares”

End Quote Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, speaking to MPs

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "What we end up doing is arresting, re-arresting and re-re-arresting the same people for different crimes."

Mr Duncan Smith called for "strong punishment but sensible punishment", saying: "The idea the length of the sentence is going to solve the problem is simplistic nonsense."

An independent "communities and victims panel" has been set up to investigate the causes of the riots and to consider any lessons that can be learned.

Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted the events were the result of "straightforward criminality", and were not about poverty or protest.

He has pledged to put "rocket boosters" under plans to turn around the lives of the UK's 120,000 most troubled families by 2015 - a vow echoed by Mr Clarke in his Guardian article.

Recent figures released by the Ministry of Justice show more than 1,500 people have now appeared in court over the riots which erupted in several English cities last month.

There has been criticism from some penal charities who say the sentences given have been too harsh, but Mr Clarke said judges and magistrates should be trusted "to base decisions on individual circumstances".

He added: "Injustices can occur in any system: but that's precisely why we enjoy the services of the court of appeal."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    If most posters here think that we should give longer & tougher regimes in prison why is it that the many more liberal regimes in Europe have less offending & re-offending than us?

    The USA has an extreemly tough (& long) sentencing system, 2 Million and counting, and they are a lot worse than us!

    We need a long hard look at what is going on with our young, maybe if we just give them jobs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    Parrotting the word 'broken' at every opportunity is a sure sign that this government simply has no idea what to do

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    split up the gangs move the mr bigs, seperate the intimidators, allow monitored calls, no mobile phones or drugs unless on reduction courses. prison officers responsible for any drugs or phones found in their area. regular transfers of offficers to other gaols and other parts of a prison.tough sentences for visitors caught smuggling, immediate dismissal for staff involved,a reward insentive system

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    He has pledged to put "rocket boosters" under plans to turn around the lives of the UK's 120,000 most troubled families by 2015 - a vow echoed by Mr Clarke in his Guardian article.

    So, who's going to manufacture these rocket boosters - China, Russia.

    Its a load of drivel.


    or funds to pay

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    Such simplistic solutions from politicians signify their desperation at being so wrong for so long.
    It is they who have allowed crime to pay and to go unpunished or punished proportionately; hence more crime and more injustice together.
    Clarke is just the current incumbent, demonstrating his posturing and weakness. He needs to think again, only better.
    John C.

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    Kenneth Clarke should be sacked for misunderstanding the position.
    He claims that three-quarters of those convicted for rioting have already served time in prison for earlier criminal offences and that it did not "rehabilitate" them. Well, that clearly shows the earlier punishments were not severe enough! Make the sentences much longer and more painful. Saudi prisoners do not re-offend!

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    Just to clarify about your comment about sending less people to jail. By the time someone goes to jail they have already been in front of the judge. Jail is always a last resort. I cant comment on particulars but 3 of my staff were put in hospital from a violent prisoner recently. How can you rehabilitate that. Send less people to prison, how with that level of violence in society?

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    There is always a focus on fixing the rot and giving them rights in prison, early release for good behaviour,giving benefits to those who can't work or can't be arsed to work.How about rewarding those who actually go out every day work hard, pay their tax, raise and support their family, instead of rewarding them with tax upon tax, they could incentivise people to do the right thing with rewards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    #369: 'The figures nail the lie'. Ever heard there are lies, damn lies & statistics? Under Blair a lot of the 'lost manufacturing' was lame duck companies like Rover who's failure was nothing to do with the govt. Thatcher specifically targeted heavy industry in areas of the country that would never vote Tory (Tyneside/Clydeside shipbuilding, South Yorks mining) etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    How is it not clear that the justice system doesn't work as a deterrent? The best thing it does is remove dangerous people from society and give the victims a sense of justice.

    The government need to invest in getting the unemployed into work and out of debt. Unemployment and financial stress are a massive precursor to substance misuse and subsequently relationship breakdowns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    A fact ignored by Clarke is that the police have identified the 3/4 of rioters because they were already in the system. This made their job possible. The major problem with the riots is that the large numbers of rioters who have not got a criminal record are a lot harder to track down. Surley this means then policing system has worked but we need to look at ways to identify those not yet arrested.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    The hanging, flogging and lock 'em up brigade should take note that in the 18th century you could be hung or transported for life for stealing. This did not stop people stealing. We should be looking at ways to rehabilitate offenders so that they do not re-offend and start making a contribution to society. A guarantee of a job on release from prison might be a good start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    If the penal system is to blame, it is the fault of decades of politicians of all parties passing insane laws stopping parents ability to discipline children, teachers having any control taken away and handed to pupils, and the police having their hands tied and put behind desks to produce twisted statistics for government, not forgetting making sure the doughhead do getters always get their way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    The rioting and criminality a combination of two factors - inclination and opportunity. Crime prevention, large numbers of police, CCTV and long prison sentences ignore inclination and attack crime from the opportunity perspective. Liberal social intervention and short rehabilitation focussed sentences attack inclination. Where you stand depends on your experience of human nature.

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.


    "3 strikes and you're out. If you're behind bars then you can't mug, rape, murder, riot, re-offend- this sort of person is removed from society."

    Include all crimes and you'll gain some traction. Speeding, tax dodging, disturbing the peace, drunkeness - include them all

    How much more income tax would you be willing to pay to keep the underclass locked away from your world?

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    #340 CryFreedomMachine-"Personally,I'd castrate worst violent rapists."-And how would you reattach it if they were later found to be innocent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    3 strikes and you're out. If you're behind bars then you can't mug, rape, murder, riot, re-offend- this sort of person is removed from society. Period.
    California shows the problem with that: if you're looking at life without parole for a third crime (like a mugging) you might as well kill the person you're mugging and remove the chance of the witness ID-ing you. You'll get life anyway

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    New song By Tezlee on London Riots.. PLEASE LISTEN
    Click Link

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    Political Correctness gone mad: One drug dealer in a local court demanded that under European Human Rights legislation he should NOT be referred to as a drug dealer - specifying instead that he be called a "Neighbourhood Oblivion Retailer". (Clare in the Community BBC Radio 4)

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.

    Wasn't Ken Clarke the one who was suggesting flimsy sentences for rape? This is just a politician who is trying to make political gain because of the backlash he has faced from his own MPs. As for the penal system the riots have lots of reasons why it happened, Mass Immigration, poverty, poor housing, inequality, gangs, flimsy sentences and criminals who we cant rehabilitate.


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