From the Prime Minister's spokesperson on: Energy prices, prison sentences and Afghanistan.
Asked about the rise in energy prices, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman (PMS) told the assembled press that the rise in energy bills was very disappointing for customers. This was a commercial decision fro the company involved and reflected high global energy prices at the present time.
The PMS said that the Government and Ofgem would continue to monitor the situation closely and would make sure there was strong competition in the market. Asked if the Government would be putting pressure on gas suppliers to be more transparent when disclosing wholesale gas prices, the PMS replied that that was a matter for the regulator.
Asked what had prompted the ‘u-turn’ on shorter sentences, the PMS replied that we had published a Green Paper setting out some proposals and we had been consulting on those proposals. The consultation had now formally closed and resulted in around 1200 responses to the Ministry of Justice. We would be looking at those responses and would be setting out proposals in due course.
Put that the Justice Secretary had said in the House two weeks ago that the policy had been agreed by the Prime Minister, the PMS said that the position was that we had been consulting on proposals in the Green Paper. The PMS said we were listening to what people had to say and we would be announcing the outcome of the consultation shortly.
Put that Ken Clarke had said in the House that the policy of reducing jail sentences by 50% had been agreed with the Prime Minister and had that now changed, the PMS said that the policy had not changed. We had had a Green Paper followed by a consultation. It was after the consultation that firm proposals would be set out.
Asked whether the Prime Minister had seen new evidence that had made him change his mind, the PMS replied that the consultation had received 1200 responses and it was right that we considered those responses.
Put that the Government was ‘re-opening’ the consultation, the PMS said that consultations worked by setting out proposals. These were then consulted on by the Government speaking to people and listening to what they had to say. The PMS said that it was quite normal for there to be a period of time between the formal closing of the consultation and the setting out of policy.
Asked if there had been discussions with the Ministry of Justice on re-opening their budget, the PMS said that all departments had fixed budgets for four years and they had to live within those. The PMS said that the Treasury had regular discussions with departments about their budgets as people would expect but the point remained that departments had fixed budgets for four years and they had to live within them.
Put that the Ministry of Defence was given more money, the PMS said that there was an annual planning round which took place. There was a huge black hole in their budget. We had made no secret about the fact it would take some time to fix that.
Asked if the same could happen with MOJ, the PMS said that we had fixed spending plans for departments and there was good reason for that; we were tackling a record deficit.
When asked if the Prime Minister was happy with the Justice Secretary’s performance, the PMS said that he thought he was doing a very good job.
Asked for a response to suggestions that Ministers were rushed into making cuts during the spending round and those cuts could not now be delivered, the PMS said that it had been a very thorough process, but necessarily it was something we had to do reasonably quickly. It was important to demonstrate, not least to the markets, that the Government was serious about dealing with the deficit. We had seen the benefits from that action, with lower interest rates in markets.
Put that the PMS had defended the policy of discounts in jail terms a couple of weeks ago and that this was unrelated to financial pressures, the PMS said that on sentencing and plea bargains, it was a feature of the current system. Within the current system it was possible to have a plea bargain followed by a reduction in the tariff of 33%. The PMS said that he had also been making the point that this was a feature of a number of criminal justice systems around the world, which were considered to be very tough, including the US system.
The PMS added that on the budgetry issues, we had made no secret of the fact that we needed to find savings in the MOJ budget. Part of that meant getting away for a situation where we saw the prison population rising year in, year out. In the past we had seen a system where half of the people coming out of prison re-offended within the first year and 13% of prisoners were foreign nationals. So there were a number of ways that we could seek to address that problem and that’s what we were doing.
Asked if addressing these issues would be enough to reduce the prison population, the PMS replied that we were tackling the issue in a number of ways. We needed to make sure the prison population did not just rise year on year. We were also looking very hard at other parts of the MOJ budget, such as legal aid and seeing what savings could be made there.
Put that people were expecting a White paper next week and was that still the case, the PMS replied that a date had not been fixed.
Asked what Ken Clarke meant by the decision being ‘collectively agreed’, the PMS said that he was making the point that we had a Cabinet Government.
Put that the Home Affairs Committee, chaired by Nick Clegg had agreed to this and that was why Ken Clarke had said it had been ‘collectively agreed’, the PMS said that he did not get into detailed discussions about Cabinet Committees and their agendas. The position was that we would set out proposals shortly.
Asked if the three reasons given by the PMS were enough to sufficiently reduce the prison population, the PMS replied that we were tackling this issue in a number of ways. We needed to make sure the prison population did not just rise year on year. We were also looking very hard at legal aid and seeing what savings could be made there.
Asked if the PMS accepted that Ken Clarke was ‘summoned’ to No10 and forced to accept the changes, the PMS said that the Prime Minister spoke to Cabinet colleagues about policies all the time, but he did not get into commenting on those discussions.
Asked if the Prime Minister thought that all Ministers were doing a good job, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister thought that all Ministers were doing a good job and that was why they were Ministers.
Asked if there would be a troop withdrawal this year, the PMS replied that there was nothing further to say on troop withdrawals at the present time. We were expecting an announcement from the US and it was subject of discussion when President Obama was here recently.