Monday, June 19, 2006

We need honesty in politics as well as honesty in sentencing

Published in the Newcastle Journal, Lincolnshire Echo and Derby Evening Telegraph, 17 June, 2006.


Every time the World Cup comes round, I am sorely tempted to dispense with the politics and devote this space to pontificating about football. It is, after all, what most of the rest of the nation is doing.

The fate of Prime Minister Tony Blair has, temporarily at least, been put on the back burner, as the country frets about the fate of Sven Goran Eriksson and his men.

For what it’s worth, my overall assessment of the first full week of World Cup action is that none of the real contenders for the trophy – including England – have yet shown us their true colours.

Sure, we aren’t currently playing like World Cup winners, but neither are many of the teams tipped to do well, not least hosts Germany and five-time winners Brazil.

We have, at least, qualified for the second phase, and that is doubtless as good a piece of news for Mr Blair as it is for the rest of us.

After all, the longer England remain in the competition, the more chance Downing Street will have of keeping the next Home Office-related debacle off the front pages. But if this week is anything to go by, they have will have a hard job.

It has always been said that the England football manager’s job is the worst in Britain, although I myself have argued that Leader of the Opposition is the worst.

Well, at the moment both those assumptions are wrong. The worst job in Britain, by far, is Home Secretary John Reid’s.

Four weeks ago, after Dr Reid was appointed, I wrote that while the job represented his toughest political challenge thus far, by the same token, it also presented him with his greatest opportunity.

Well, I wasn’t wrong. His appointment came in the midst of the debacle over the deportation of foreign prisoners and although heads have now rolled over that, it will only take another serious crime to come to light to revive the issue.

Hard of the heels of that, we had the disarmingly frank admission by the head of immigration removals that he “did not have the faintest idea” how many illegal immigrants were in the country.

Now Dr Reid is embroiled in a fresh crisis over what to do about the early release of offenders convicted of crimes so serious that the public expects them to stay behind bars for a very long time.

Of course, responsibility for the short sentence handed out to repeat paedophile Craig Sweeney last week lies not with the Home Office but the courts.

But it is the Home Office which devises the system under which the courts have to operate, so in that sense, Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer was correct to say that it is not the fault of the judges.

The Home Office appears to have a bad case of legislative diarrhoea over recent years when it comes to sentencing issues.

Successive Criminal Justice Acts, most recently in 2003, have in fact tied the judges’ hands to such an extent that even if the judge in the Sweeney case had wanted to impose a longer tariff, he would have been unable to do so.

But at a deeper level, this is not really about a dysfunctional department that its own political head accepts is “not fit for purpose.”

Neither is it, in essence, about a Labour Government that has, repeatedly sought to restrict the discretion of judges in an attempt to demonstrate that it can out-tough the Tories on crime.

No, the roots of the problem lie in a widening gulf between what the public expects of the criminal justice system and what the political establishment is prepared to deliver.

In other words, the problem is that sentencing policy does not do what it says on the tin.

Partly, this is an issue of simple terminology, in that a “life sentence” as imposed by the courts and reported in the media does not mean life except in a very small number of high profile cases.

But partly it’s because politicians are not being straight with the public about the limitations within which the criminal justice system operates.

The roots of the problem go back many years, possibly to the furore which attended the death of James Bolger in the early 1990s

Ever since, political debate over crime has been characterized by a “get tough” attitude, beginning with Michael Howard’s “prison works” speech to the 1993 Tory Conference and continuing under New Labour.

At the last count, there were 77,642 prisoners in England and Wales, half as many again as was the case 13 years ago.

But because this increase has not been matched by an increase in prison building, the only way if managing it has been through a variety of early-release schemes.

Usually, these are relatively uncontroversial, but when paedophiles, rapists and murderers are having their “life” sentences reduced to just a few years, the public consensus starts to break down.

It may mean we need to build more prisons. But in the shorter-term, we need to have a proper national debate about whether that is a price the public would be prepared to pay.

Likewise, if you get rid of automatic discounts for guilty pleas, as Lord Falconer was suggesting this week, you would have to hugely increase the number of courtrooms in the country.

If offenders have no incentive to plead guilty, they may as well get the satisfaction of clogging up the court system for a week or two while their cases are dealt with.

So if Dr Reid really wants to earn some Brownie points, he should stop pretending the Government is “getting tough” on crime and start addressing some these underlying constraints.

In the end, it’s not about being tough or soft on crime. It’s about being honest with the public.

No comments:

Template Designed by Douglas Bowman - Updated to New Blogger by: Blogger Team
Modified for 3-Column Layout by Hoctro