Clarke denies rift with his colleagues over jails policy

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has denied there is a Cabinet rift over his sentencing proposals which could see thousands fewer offenders jailed.

Mr Clarke said yesterday he was "used to tough times" and has "never had a popular policy to implement in my life".

But he insisted there were no conflicts between him and Prime Minister David Cameron or Home Secretary Theresa May over the plans, which focus on rehabilitation, saying he had "totally cross-Cabinet support".

However, Mrs May echoed the mantra of her predecessor Lord Howard, who has described the proposals as "fatally flawed", on Tuesday as she told MPs: "Prison works but it must be made to work better."

But Mr Clarke said: "I looked at what she said and she said exactly the same things.

"Prison is the right punishment for serious criminals. Prison does give some relief from crime whilst they're inside. Prison at the moment is not succeeding in getting reoffending rates down from where they are, which is why we have rehabilitation.

"There isn't actually any disagreement."

Giving evidence to the Commons justice select committee, Mr Clarke added: "The Government is run on particularly collective lines. All the policy, including the documents I'm consulting on, including the announcements I've made on the court system, on legal aid and on sentencing, have been cleared by all my colleagues.

"Discussed in Cabinet meetings, discussed with the Prime Minister, all of them. I have not been producing this from isolation in the Ministry of Justice."

He added that the "mainstream of the policy" was not attracting "any great resistance" and he was not aware of "any great criticism".

"Of course there's criticism of some parts," he said, but added it "tends to be rather theoretical".

Mr Clarke's defence comes after Lord Howard said the focus on reoffending was "like solving only one side of a Rubik's Cube".

The former Tory Home Secretary said the Green Paper makes only "a couple of cursory nods" to the idea that a prison sentence "protects the public and provides peace of mind".

But he said: "It is a pity that so many worthy proposals in the Green Paper should be marred by what can only be described as a flawed ideology that has led to the wrong prescription for the future of our criminal justice system."

Under the proposals, judges would be given more discretion over sentences, foreign nationals could escape jail as long as they leave the UK forever, young offenders could have their slates wiped clean when they reach 18 and those who plead guilty early could have sentences halved.

The Government's plans immediately came under fire from Tory backbenchers.

Mr Cameron's spokesman insisted last night there was "no rift" between Mr Clarke and Mrs May. "There is a policy and it is the whole Government's policy," he added.