Tough justice?

  • 25 September 2012
  • From the section UK Politics
  • comments

Is the toughness promised by the new Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, about to take legislative form?

The House of Lords was due to spend a couple of days in October discussing the way community sentences operate as part of its detailed committee stage scrutiny of the Crime and Courts Bill - but no more. A holding clause, clause 23 on "community and other non-custodial sentencing of adults", was due to be fleshed out in good time for the debates in October, following consultation on what were billed as "radical reforms to the way in which sentences served in the community operate".

The plan was to give peers a general second reading-style debate on the new provisions, on 9 October, followed by detailed committee stage discussion on 22 October. All this is now cancelled, and the government is seeking to bring forward the Defamation Bill instead.

There are two possible reasons for the delay. Firstly, that drafting the new clauses has simply taken longer than expected. But the consultation closed in June, so there has been a fair amount of time to prepare them. Most Westminster-watchers are opting for another interpretation; that proposals which were acceptable to Ken Clarke are not tough enough for his successor, and that a furious process of redrafting is now under way.

The consultation focused on extending and reforming community sentences, including the use of curfews and tagging - but Mr Grayling is not keen on reducing the number of prison places, so maybe he's less keen on increasing the number of crimes for which community punishment is the default option. He has certainly made clear that he wants to rebuild public confidence in the courts, by showing that real punishments will be meted out. And he may also want to act on the recent report by the think tank, Policy Exchange, which found that tagging was being conducted expensively and inefficiently, and that the police should be given the opportunity to run tagging systems directly, rather than being required to contract it out to the private sector.

Incidentally, one of Mr Grayling's first acts in his new post was to commission a report on current knife crime laws - perhaps the fruits of that report may appear when the bill moves over to the Commons. MPs will hold their first debate on it in December - new clauses may be promised then and appear at committee stage, early in the new year.

Leaving aside the question of what Parliament will do for the next few months, given the gaping hole in the legislative programme left by the demise of Lords reform, I wonder how many other new ministers will be seeking to re-write live legislation.

One to watch is the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill from Vince Cable's BIS department - where intra-coalition tensions could appear clause by clause. This is the bill to create the UK Green Investment Bank, reshape employment law and replace the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading with a new Competition and Markets Authority. Plenty there for Mr Cable and his new retinue of Tory junior ministers to tussle over.

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