01 November 2011 12:43 PM

Clarke: Squatters as bad as car thieves

Ken Clarke is seen by some Tory MPs as "soft" on crime but he clearly has little time for squatters.

They are no better than car thieves, the Justice Secretary told MPs debating the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which will make squatting a criminal offence.

More than 150 demonstrators sought to stage sit-down protests outside Parliament last night to protest against the criminalisation of squatting.

Around a dozen were arrested during clashes with the police in front of the Commons.

Inside, Justice Secretary Mr Clarke shot down claims that squatters have a right to take over empty properties.

“I have always found it difficult to see the difference between taking somebody’s car and taking somebody’s home,” he said.

“There is a need for a criminal offence.”

Nicholas Cecil


28 July 2011 12:04 PM

PM will give evidence under oath

It was not clear from Lord Justice Leveson's statement, but ESP can reveal that David Cameron and every other witness will give evidence under oath.

Sources close to the inquiry stress that the PM is not being singled out but that all witnesses are being treated the same.

Downing Street says Mr Cameron has nothing to hide and will give evidence in whatever form the judge asks.

It is possible that ministers from the Labour government, and perhaps Gordon Brown, will also be called to give evidence. They too would be under oath.



Joe Murphy




01 July 2011 1:12 PM

Olympics terror alert

We already knew that a terror suspect known as CD - banned from London and believed to have been plotting a Mumbai-style atrocity in Britain - could return to the capital due to the Government watering down its anti-terror laws.

Now, The Standard has revealed that there could be several more suspected terrorists, including some understood to be from East London, who could be allowed back before the Olympics next year  - if the Government does not amend its plans to replace control orders with terrorism prevention and investigation measures.

Currently, these reforms would remove the power to relocate terror suspects. This condition has been used in nine out of 12 current cases.

The Home Office is refusing to say how many could return to London.

But the Met's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Osborne has suggested it could be several, possibly at least five. Other sources also believe it could be five or six.

Mr Osborne, who is also the Association of Chief Police Officers' senior national coordinator for terrorism investigations, has told MPs: "The Olympics will be in a very challenging area in east London.

"A lot of people on control orders have come from the area initially, so moving them back will create additional challenges for us.

"It is difficult to say if they provide a greater threat than cells or groups yet to come to our notice or on which we have yet to receive intelligence."

Extra risk from the reforms - which include ditching relocation and relaxing curfews - could be "mitigated" by more surveillance and measures including bans on entering specific areas, he added.

But he would not say that MI5 and police forces can definitely eliminate any extra dangers.

Former Tory Home Secretary Lord Howard picked up on this point highlighting that the police were saying that extra surveillance and other security measures could mitigate but not eliminate any additional risk.

He also stressed that Home Secretary Theresa May is a member of a coalition - with the Liberal Democrats - and that the controversial policy had been developed following discussions in Government.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper is opposing ditching the relocation powers which have been backed by MI5, the High Court and even Ms May earlier this year.

So far Ms May is sticking with her new plans with the Home Office saying: "National security is the primary duty of government and we will not put the public at risk."

But inevitably the Government risks opening itself up to claims of putting the interest of the coalition ahead of national security.

Nicholas Cecil

29 June 2011 11:46 AM

Another justice U-turn?

Ken Clarke faces a difficult time in the Commons later when he opens debate on the Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

This is the reformed set of proposals put forward after the Justice Secretary did a massive U-turn responded to concerns about his original plans.

Labour and a few campaign groups have come out strongly over several elements, including cuts to legal aid and a looming £140 million black hole.

But it is hints that plans for a so-called Tony Martin law - to give homeowners a right to defend their property - might be watered down that are likely to provoke anger and accusations of a further U-turn.

Yesterday Mr Clarke told MPs the Government was "clarifying the law" which would still be based on the "undoubted right to use reasonable force". It came after shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan picked him up on the issue and said there was no detail in the bill.

Today the Justice Secretary deployed typically colourful language to set out what he meant. The full words bear repeating:

“We’ll make it quite clear you can hit the burglar with the poker if he’s in the house and you have a perfect defence when you do so," he told BBC News.

"Given the doubts have been expressed we’re going to clarify that. It’s quite obvious that people are entitled to use whatever force is necessary to protect themselves and their homes.

"What they’re not entitled to do is go running down the road and chasing them or shooting them in the back when they’re running away, or get their friends together and go and beat them up.”

Asked whether people could use whatever force is necessary to protect their homes, he said: “Yes, if an old lady finds that she’s got an 18-year-old burglar in her house and she picks up a kitchen knife, and sticks it in him, she has not committed a criminal offence and we will make that clear.”

He added: "We all know what we mean when we say a person has an absolute right to defend themselves and their home and reasonable force, nobody should prosecute and nobody should ever convict anybody who takes those steps. It’ll be much clearer as we’ve set it out in this act of Parliament."

It doesn't look like a new law. Let's see whether this is enough to persuade critics who think Ken is too soft on crime. 

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Lib Dem slams "nasty" housing benefit cuts

No one doubts Iain Duncan Smith's personal mission to help the poorest in society.

But the Work and Pensions Secretary is facing a new Liberal Democrat revolt over his proposed crackdown on housing benefit.

Many Lib-Dems are not opposing the principle of his reforms based on the fact that people on benefit should not be getting a huge cheque from the taxpayer, sometimes more than £100,000-a-year, to live in homes out of the reach of many hard-working families.

They are concerned, though, about the practical impact of some of the current proposals, particularly on London.

"It's really, really pernicious, nasty stuff from this government and they're clearly Conservative-led policy changes," says Stephen Knight, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on Richmond-upon-Thames council.

"But in my view Liberal Democrat MPs and ministers have not done nearly enough to prevent these from coming through either."

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes is to meet Mr Duncan Smith today to push for the reforms to be tweaked so as London Mayor Boris Johnson says, they are introduced "humanely". Remember, he warned against "Kosovo-style social cleansing" in the capital by the welfare reforms.

Mr Hughes is particularly concerned about the overall £26,000-a-year benefit cap for families which can be reached for large households in the capital very quickly given high housing benefit bills.

Housing charity Shelter fuelled the rebellion today with a poll showing that two thirds of Conservative councillors and four out of five Lib Dems object to plans to limit rises in local housing allowance rates to CPI inflation from 2013 - rather than setting them in relation to local rent costs.

It also found nearly half of Lib Dems are concerned that housing benefit cuts may increase local homelessness.

Mr Duncan Smith has attacked "scare stories" that thousands of families will be forced from their homes by the benefit changes. He says such reports are causing unnecessary distress.

Blaming the current housing benefit situation on Labour, he adds: "A small number of people may have to move and we are providing local authorities an additional £190 million over the next four years to smooth the transition.

"Instead of complaining, responsible councils should be working to effectively implement these policies, and recognise that we are trying to get people off benefits and into work, and drive the cost of the benefits bill to taxpayers down."

MPs in London will hope that Mr Duncan Smith is right. His criticism of some of the reports of tens of thousands of people being forced to move because of the welfare shake-up may be valid.

Harder to dismiss, though, is an internal report by Tory-led Westminster council which showed that up to 43 per cent of primary school children in Maida Vale may have to move. Even if this is a worst case scenario, it is still alarming. 

Nicholas Cecil



28 June 2011 3:57 PM

Lawyers fight to keep "rotten suing culture"

Lawyers have been banging on to justice minister Jonathan Djanogly how the current no-win no-fee system promotes their bank accounts access to justice.

But the quietly spoken justice minister, who has attacked Britain's "rotten suing culture", is giving this argument short shrift.

"My answer has been that what it promotes is access to justice for claimants. But justice is for defendants as well," he says.

He is now delighted that a storm has erupted over our civil litigation system including referral payments to insurance firms to pass on details of crash victims to claim management companies accused of plaguing people with text messages and phone calls as they seek business.

As David Cameron says, "sunlight is the best disinfectant," so shining the spotlight on what appears to be a legal money-go-round - primed by rising premiums paid by millions of law-abiding motorists - may well lead to the brakes being slammed on some of what may be regarded as the more unscrupulous practices.

Mr Djanogly will also be pushing legal changes to stop the compensation culture which has bred in Britain on the back of no-win no-fee.

Nicholas Cecil

22 June 2011 2:38 PM

Match of Today - PMQ edition

David Cameron v Ed Miliband
Ground: Prime Minister’s Questions
Kickoff: 12 noon

Miliband was crafty. He called Cameron “crass and high handed” for telling military leaders “I’ll do the talking”. Then he wrongfooted the PM on whether the DNA of suspected “rapists” should be kept or destroyed. Cameron racked his brain for details and was jeered for taking whispered lessons from  Theresa May. “At least we talk to each other,” quipped Cam, who counter-attacked over a shadow cabinet split on Ed Balls’s £51 billion VAT cut. Alas, it failed when Speaker Bercow brusquely silenced the out-of-order PM. Tories glowered at Bercow.

Score: Cameron, 1. Miliband 3.

09 June 2011 6:09 PM

Akers of the Yard's terms of reference

Tom Watson has made another advance in his campaign for a wider and deeper investigation into phone hacking.

This is from the letter that fired his intervention at yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions.  It is from a letter to him from Sue Akers, the deputy assistant commissioner at the Met who is in charge of the current probe.

"The information regarding Mr Rees may be outside the Terms of Reference of my investigation but the MPS are assessing your allegation along with others we have received to consider a way forward. I have passed your letter on to the officer completing this assessment and I will write back to you when I know more."

At PMQTs Watson asked why Scotland Yard should deem Rees to be outside their terms and got the Prime Minster to restate that the police must "follow the evidence" wherever it leads. The Labour MP is now saying the Met must follow the PM's advice . . .

Joe Murphy


01 June 2011 1:52 PM

Clarke acts fast to avoid another Euro row

Ken Clarke must have choked on his cornflakes when he saw today's Daily Mail splash (assuming he reads the papers).

It said the Justice Secretary had approved a prisoner's demand for a test-tube baby with his partner - and worse, that it was all down to the Human Rights Act.

Not so, said Ken - quickly ordering an inquiry into how the application had been approved.

Just in the nick of time, too. Tory backbenchers hate the Human Rights Act and were champing at the bit to use this latest outrage as a stick to beat it with.

Elizabeth Truss, who sits on the justice committee, said MPs should repeat the trick they pulled over prisoner votes by debating the issue in the Commons.

"Parliament needs to send a signal to the European Court of Human Rights on this issue as we did on prisoner is blatantly unjust," she told me.

Dominic Raab joined in, saying: "This case highlights the perverse impact of, and the need to replace, the Human Rights Act."

And Mark Pritchard, secretary of the backbench 1922 committee, came up with a neat way of attacking the HRA while praising Ken - who has had a rough couple of weeks following his controversial rape comments.

“If there was ever a case for proving the Human Rights Act needed fundamental reform it is this case," he said.

“Ken Clarke is one of the smartest and wisest politicians in Whitehall. I am sure he will want to make the right decision over cases that are repugnant to victims and hard pressed taxpayers alike.”

Ordering the investigation, and insisting human rights had nothing to do with it, has taken the sting out of the issue. Exactly the kind of handling you'd expect from one of the "smartest and wisest politicians in Whitehall".

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

23 May 2011 2:01 PM

Tories pile pressure on Ken

Labour have made great use of their "opposition day" debates in the Commons today, picking Ken Clarke's controversial sentencing reforms as the first topic and policing and crime as the second.

It means Tory backbenchers worried their party is looking soft on law and order will have an opportunity to register their dissent in the voting lobbies.

Shipley MP Philip Davies has told the Sun he will do just that, and vote with Labour against Ken's plans.

Others are ruling out a large-scale rebellion, but will "sit on their hands" and abstain in protest - in effect refusing to back plans to slash prison sentences for criminals who make early guilty pleas.

Brigg and Goole MP Andrew Percy will be among them, saying Labour are being mischievous but telling me: "Ministers have got it wrong - they are out of step with the public on sentencing."

Another backbencher privately went further, claiming there was a growing sense that Ken would be better off elsewhere.

“A lot of people on the Tory backbenches would like to see Ken moved to a different post,” the MP said.

It's difficult to see what "different post" Ken would fit into if David Cameron decides he can't get away without a reshuffle.

Coming after his rape comments controversy last week, it is all extra pressure.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

18 May 2011 3:32 PM

A blind spot on rape?

The Government should have seen today's outcry around plans to cut rape sentences in half coming from a mile away.

After all, its first big row was about plans to give anonymity to men accused of rape.

The pledge to extend pre-charge anonymity to suspects, contained in the Coalition Agreement, provoked fury from female MPs and pressure groups last year.

After a vocal campaign (led in Parliament by Caroline Flint), ministers performed a U-turn and vowed to find a "non-statutory solution" - asking the media for self restraint - instead.

All of which raises the question: why has today's genie been let out of the bottle?

Ken Clarke is already suffering from perceptions that he is soft on crime, and the Tories are in danger of conceding traditional political territory to Labour. Ignoring the controversy over his claims that rape is not rape, proposals on plea bargaining - giving shorter sentences to criminals who admit guilt early  - hardly look tough on crime despite any benefits they could bring to conviction rates and the ordeal for victims.

Critics will also question how it fits in with David Cameron's assertion - in this 2007 speech to the Conservative's Women's Organisation - that falling sentence lengths to an average of 80 months are contributing to a situation where "rapists think they can get away with it".

To be fair, he also cited the six per cent conviction rate - which he also held up as a reason for today's reform proposals - as a motive for a review of sentencing by now Home Office minister Nick Herbert.

Here's the full extract:

According to the British Crime Survey, one in twenty adult women in the UK have been the victim of a rape, and a recent Government report estimated that at least 75 percent of these are never reported to the police. Of those that are reported, just 5.7 percent result in a conviction – down from 33 percent in 1977. Of course, comparative statistics must be treated with care and more work needs to be done to understand discrepancies, but in Italy, it’s almost 50 percent, and as new analysis commissioned by the Conservative Party shows, England and Wales have the lowest rape conviction rate of any leading European country. Taken together, this means just fifteen in every thousand women who get raped in England and Wales see justice done.

How can any civilised country, that sees the sanctity of consent to sex as a vital right for every woman, accept these facts? And what about when the perpetrator is convicted? The average custodial sentence handed to rapists in England and Wales has fallen over the last three years for which there is published data to around 80 months.

Given all this, we have a situation where.. rapists think they can get away with it, while victims fear not being believed and wonder what’s the point of pursuing the criminal process. This represents a real challenge to the British criminal justices system. Of course, this means doing all we can to help the police catch criminals. That’s why we’ve laid out extensive plans for reform of our police. It means doing all we can to help victims, by understanding the harrowing circumstances so they don’t feel intimidated when presenting their evidence. And it means making sure the length of sentence is proportionate to the crime.

All of which makes today's blind spot even stranger.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse