By Tim Montgomerie
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ConHome is not Ken Clarke's biggest fan and he doesn't love this "blasted website" much either… We disagree on Europe, human rights reforms, the desirability of an elected Upper House and many other things that have been well rehearsed and are subjects for another day. Today it's simply worth pointing out that he's not a bad minister. Not bad at all. Not reading the Maastricht Treaty aside, he tends to be master of the departments he leads, whether Health, the Treasury or now the Ministry of Justice.
It was the Institute for Government that provided me with a recent reminder of the Clarke supremacy. The IoG recently suggested the MoJ was one of the best-performing ministries in the Coalition.
First things first and Ken Clarke is on track to deliver the big savings that George Osborne has demanded. The MoJ is one of those Whitehall departments where cuts are falling very heavily because certain budgets – eg health, schools, pensions and aid – are protected. And the cuts are deep. Clarke has to cut over £2 billion from a £9 billion total by the end of this parliament. In percentage terms that's 23%. Those who complain that the cuts aren't going fast enough have to remember that because (a) certain budgets are ring-fenced, (b) because of interest repayments and (c) because of the cost of automatic stabilisers (eg unemployment-related benefits), cuts in some departments have to be eye-wateringly large for overall spending to even stand still.
Clarke is on track to meet his target. Last year he saved £700m. He's on course to cut £1bn or 33% from his administration budget. This is mainly from a reduction in the headcount. While bureaucratic waste and overmanning may be unaffordable in these times it doesn't mean these are easy cuts. Even a 'non-job' is the means by which some mum or dad puts food on their kids' table.
Some of Clarke's cuts are large salami slices but he's also reforming. On prisons (where numbers are heading towards a record 90,000), for example, he's extensively piloting the payment-by-results approach to prisoner rehabilitation that was drawn up by Nick Herbert (now one of his junior ministers) in opposition. He's also serious about restorative justice – which brings victim and offender together in potentially mutually healing ways. He plans to increase compensation from offenders to victims by £50m. Through a process of prison competitions and other reforms the cost of a prison place has dropped by 10% from £44,006 at the start of last year to £39,573 at year end. The greater involvement of the private sector in service delivery – with a view to saving money AND reducing the dire 75% reoffending rate - has always been a hallmark of Clarkery. The Thatcherites who baulk at his Europhilia should remember that.
Mr Clarke has also masterminded the first serious attempt to cut the cost of the Legal Aid system. I can't think of many more formidable and articulate opponents than the lawyers who have grown somewhat wealthy through the legal aid system but the old-timer QC at the top of the MoJ is not easily intimidated. He hasn't touched criminal legal aid but has cut £350m from the civil component of this £2bn budget. I refer you to this piece from Matt Hancock MP which made the overall case for what Clarke is doing in this area of his budget.
He's introduced fees for plaintiffs in tribunals to discourage trivial cases. 142 courts are being closed (129 are already shut). £60 million will be saved from reform of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme. There will be urgently-needed reforms to defamation law, built on work begun by Jack Straw. Action to curb the excesses of the ambulance-chasing claims management companies is being introduced. Mediation sessions before divorce cases are to become mandatory to ensure court is a last not a first resort in family disputes.
Clarke is not the only Conservative who often annoys the party grassroots but is an effective and fiscally-dry-as-dust minister. The uber-moderniser Francis Maude stands out to me. He has presided over £5 billion of savings last year – partly by renegotiating general contracts and property deals but also by opening procurement up to smaller (hungrier) firms.
There must be questions about the deals he's struck on public sector pensions but the choice was a tough Wisconsin-style line (which I don't think Lib Dems would have accepted) and lots of industrial action or what we've got. Time will tell if Maude's big reforms to major projects will succeed but we must hope they will. One-third of projects ran over budget and over time under Labour.
Longer-term reforms may come from two potentially far-reaching if not very sexy reforms. Maude is overseeing the opportunities for mutualisation of the public services. Mutuals offer an innovative middle way between public and private sector provision. The reforms may or may not save much money but should produce innovation. More transformational in my view will be the transparency agenda. Britain is now the world leader in transparent government. The new Open Data White Paper will help businesses exploit the fact that all government contracts worth £10,000 or more can now be scrutinised.
I'm thrilled to reported that my friend and ConHome columnist Stephan Shakespeare has this week been appointed as the head of the Data Strategy Board. Stephan will have the job of helping to ensure that government data is presented in the most business-friendly way. He'll be great for the task.
Clarke may go in the post-Olympics reshuffle and be replaced by a Justice Secretary more in touch with the public mood on law and order (Chris Grayling or Nick Herbert spring to mind) but let's not fail to acknowledge his achievements. Perhaps because, like Mr Maude, he's been round the block once or twice, he's made a big contribution to the fact that the deficit has been reduced by one quarter. But as someone once said, a lot done, a lot lot lot more to do.