By Paul Goodman
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The Times (£) has a gleam in its eye about the future of the Ministry of Justice. Earlier this week, Rachel Sylvester reported concern in Number 10 about the culture of the Department –
"At one meeting, called to discuss improving non-custodial sentences, Downing Street strategists were horrified to see the civil servants from the Ministry of Justice wincing whenever the words “punishment” or “retribution” were used. Every time one of the department’s officials talked about “managing offenders”, someone from No 10 mentioned “punishing criminals” just to make a point"
– and suggested that there have been discussions in Downing Street about breaking it up. Today, it reports that the Prime Minister has stepped in to its policy-making:
"David Cameron is planning tough new community punishments under which criminals face draconian restrictions on their movements. Offenders would be sentenced to “virtual prison”, curfewed for 16 hours a day with the threat of being taken back to court if they break the terms of their house arrest. Judges and magistrates would also be given powers to confiscate criminals’ passports and driving licences as part of the sentence."
A suggestive choice of words then follows. "No 10 officials set out the plans during negotiations with Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, over toughening up non-custodial sentences."
Discussusing policy with departments is an integral part of Downing Street's work. But under this Prime Minister it has been less hands-on in this way certainly than under Tony Blair and probably than under Gordon Brown. The Times is indicating that Number 10 is gearing itself up to get a tougher law and order policy.
It writes separately about the tensions between Theresa "I lock 'em up" May and Ken "He let's 'em out" Clarke. (The paper also says that the Justice Secretary could reply: "She lets 'em in: it is reported today that net migration into Britain rose to 250,000 last year.)
I doubt if Justice will be scrapped outright, but suspect that Sylvester is on to something. It's worth remembering that she broke the story about unhappiness in Number 10 about the health bill. I have myself heard a Home Office source muse aloud about the department taking policing and prisons back from Justice.
There are few less futile Whitehall activities than merging and unmerging Departments. David Cameron has avoided structural tinkering to date. But I wonder if when the reshuffle comes he will make an exception in this case.