UK Politics

Ken Clarke's justice bill passed despite 'attacks'

Ken Clarke
Image caption Mr Clarke said the government had produced a "balanced bill"

The government's controversial changes to sentencing policy and legal aid have cleared the Commons, despite opposition from MPs of all parties.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said his bill had been "attacked from the left and right", but would "start to address some of the problems" left behind by the previous government.

The plans are meant to save £350m and cut the prison population by 2,650.

But Labour say they are "bad for the most vulnerable in society".

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill contains a number of controversial measures, including the scrapping of indeterminate sentences for dangerous offenders and the restriction of legal aid to a much smaller number of recipients.

It was voted through by 306 votes to 228, a government majority of 78.

'No real interest'

Mr Clarke said he believed it was a "balanced bill" which would go some way to tackling a situation in which the statute book had been "filled up with quite useless legislation under Tony Blair".

"I think we have actually started to address some of the problems the previous government left behind," he told the Commons, shortly before the bill was given its third reading.

"It's the inheritance of Tony Blair, a man who I admire in very many ways.

"He was very good in my modest opinion on health and education by the time he had finished, but on law and order and criminal justice he had no real interest."

The bill will now go to the Lords, with at least two changes already planned at that stage - to ensure that crimes against disabled people are treated as seriously as racially-motivated attacks, and to allow lawyers to appeal against bail decisions made in the crown court.

But Labour say the legislation will make it harder for ordinary people to seek justice because of a decision to scrap no-win, no-fee cases.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "This bill is bad for the most vulnerable in society, it is bad for the victims of crime, it is bad reforming offenders, it is bad for the safety of our communities.

"And the policy on sentencing is an utter mess. Despite their claims, it does not bring clarity to the system, it is not based on common sense and it will not increase public confidence by totally abolishing indeterminate sentences."

Labour, the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru all expressed concerns about cuts to legal aid during the bill's three-day debate.

They argued that thousands of domestic violence victims would be left to "suffer in silence" because they would only be able to receive funding after reporting their abuse to the police.

They also said disabled people would lose out and be unable to challenge unfair benefit decisions made against them.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, right-wing Conservatives accused Mr Clarke of being too lenient by scrapping indeterminate sentences.

50% discount

The government says the changes to the legal aid system are needed because the current £2bn bill is unaffordable and help must be targeted at only the most serious and deserving cases.

On sentencing, Mr Clarke said the system of indeterminate terms had "failed" and it was "a gross injustice" for people in prison to have no idea when they might be released.

The justice bill had originally included plans to offer criminals who admitted their guilt early a 50% discount on sentencing - up from a maximum of a third at present.

But in the face of widespread opposition, Mr Clarke was forced to abandon the idea.

Once enacted, the bill will also see mandatory life sentences for those convicted of two serious violent or sexual crimes.

And anyone aged 16 or over who is caught using a knife in a threatening way will receive an automatic jail term.

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