Artillery Row

A shot across the bows

The government nearly lost a Commons division this week – what were they thinking of?

Tuesday’s house of Commons general debate on the government’s latest phase of its Covid-19 strategy ended with a division. This was not only the first vote since the Easter recess but also the first in which MPs could vote remotely. The magic of technology changed little: the government’s majority was 115.

Yet, Tuesday might easily have recorded the government’s first defeat by remote voting. Given the majority won by the Conservatives in December’s general election, losing a Commons vote should require either hubristically poor judgement or remote voting’s vulnerability to the hacking of a malevolent foreign power. Yet, last weekend, the whips pulled a division rather than risk embarrassment.

The official reason given for not bringing forward a motion on the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (Early Release on Licence) Order 2020 was the decision to extend Monday’s general debate into Tuesday to better accommodate the large number of MPs seeking to contribute. But there is no sign that the motion will be returning in the near future.

What raised the prospect of mass rebellion was the government’s – little heralded – attempt to encourage earlier release of prisoners. Last week, Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, alerted like-minded colleagues via the backbench Tory MPs and “ blue collar conservatism” WhatsApp groups about the move, which was scheduled for Tuesday. Efforts by the Ministry of Justice to phone the concerned backbenchers to talk them round during VE Day fell-upon stony ground as the extent of the nascent rebellion became clear. Rather than risk defeat, the motion was withdrawn.

But why was a Conservative government trying to push through so contentious a measure in the first place?

At present the law allows for prisoners serving sentences of between twelve weeks and four years to be released from jail four-and-a-half months ahead of the half-way point in their sentence. The secretary of state for justice, Robert Buckland, and prisons minister, Lucy Frazer, wanted to have even speedier early release, so that eligible criminals could be out of jail six months before the half way point in their sentence. This would mean that a criminal sentenced to two years in jail would be out in six months. Offences falling within this scope include serious and repeated burglary including use or threat of violence.

They would be out of jail but under home detention curfew (HDC). This generally involves wearing a tracking tag that confirms that they are residing at their registered home address at night-time (usually between 7 pm and 7 am). But during the day, tagged individuals are commonly under limited restrictions (far less than we are all experiencing under lockdown at the moment).

a criminal sentenced to two years in jail would be out in six months.

There are some exceptions. For instance, those serving an extended sentence for violent or sexual crime, terrorism or child cruelty are ineligible. But for eligible prisoners (and this typically includes fraudsters, thieves and burglars), tagging has become a reasonable expectation: already 36 percent are released under HDC at, or before, the half-way point in their custodial sentence.

Having already come this far, why the fuss about reducing the time in the clink by a further six weeks? An alternative view – and one that animated the indignation of Tory backbenchers when they got wind of the plan – is to ask what is the imperative for making it even slacker?

MPs representing traditional blue collar constituencies were especially indignant that a Tory government was seeking to be even more liberal than the Blair government that introduced home detention at the half-way point of a sentence in 1998. How many voters choose the Conservatives in order to ensure criminals only serve a fraction of the sentence that the court has handed down to them? MPs representing previously ‘Red Wall’ constituencies who helped give Boris Johnson such a large majority last December were especially surprised by the speed in which their constituents’ concerns looked like being disregarded.

What was Robert Buckland thinking of? After its split from the Home Office in 2007, the Ministry of Justice has seen itself as the more enlightened free-spirited sibling of its elder sister. This outlook has percolated through every secretary of state who has been at the justice ministry’s helm (Chris Grayling excepted). Critics caricature the ministry as the Whitehall arm of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

But the liberal case for facilitating criminals’ reintroduction into society rather than leaving them banged-up with bad influences did not even seem imperative in this context. The relaxation would have allowed eligible short-sentence prisoners to be released after only six weeks in jail.  On that time-span, there is little urgency in reintegrating into society those that have scarcely left it.

Alternative practical considerations were also hard to identify. Earlier-early release was unrelated to Covid-19. There was no indication that it was a temporary measure to deal with a time-limited crisis. Nor was it a way to save money. Remarkably, the measure would have cost more than it saved (the impact assessment indicated a saving of £1.1 million against a cost of £2 million). Rather, the government wanted to free-up more prison space to prioritise those with longer sentences serving more of that time inside.

With the Brexit-induced departures of some of the parliamentary Conservative party’s most defiantly liberal-progressives, there are very few sitting Tory MPs who retain a principled objection to serious criminals serving out more of the sentence that the court handed them. But making the case for why sentences issued to other criminals should bear so little relation to the amount of time they actually spend behind bars would have required a far more convincing case to be advanced than the Ministry of Justice and the whips’ office had allocated time to provide. Hence, the government cut its loses and ditched the measure.

it is not politically savvy to reposition Boris Johnson’s Conservatives as the party softer on crime than an Opposition led by the former DPP, Sir Keir Starmer.

This was achieved with a minimum of fuss, public awareness, or (seemingly) ill-feeling. By dropping the division there was no public spat and with coronavirus the all-pervading issue, media attention is elsewhere.

But is this the start of a re-emerging divide between the party’s progs and rockers? The main pressure group campaigning for tougher and more transparent sentencing policy (which provided briefing papers against the relaxation) is Restore Justice. It was founded last year by Mimi Macejkova, a former special adviser at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Compared to the think tanks and pressure groups lobbying for a more permissive justice system, it is a platoon facing-down well-supplied regiments.

The parliamentary Conservative party does not have anything approaching a coherent group representing the “tough on crime” wing of the party. In terms of organisation or dedication to a cause, there is nothing to compare to what the ERG corralled on Brexit. There are nearing a hundred MPs associated with the blue-collar conservatism group. Founded last year by Esther McVey and currently chaired by Ben Bradley, to “champion working people and develop a conservative agenda to benefit the voters and communities most neglected by Labour,” it is a loose affiliation of like-minded MPs representing traditionally-minded constituencies. It is not a coherent faction with clear objectives. In this respect it is unlike the ERG. Where the ERG quickly became highly critical of Theresa May, the blue-collar conservatives are overwhelmingly Boris supporters.

Indeed, the assumption among several of them appears to be that distracted by coronavirus, the prime minister had little inkling of what his secretary of state for justice was proposing. “I am extremely grateful,” concluded an emollient Philip Davies, “that we have a chief whip and a prime minister who listens to, and responds to, the concern of MPs. They understood that this measure wasn’t a sensible thing to do.”

Tory progs have had a shot fired across their bows, reminding them that the party’s rockers are not to be taken for granted. But it is a request to cool off, not a pugnacious demand to take it outside. There is no desire to make more of this episode beyond stating what should be obvious – it is not politically savvy to reposition Boris Johnson’s Conservatives as the party softer on crime than an Opposition led by the former DPP, Sir Keir Starmer.

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