Monday, October 03, 2005

Tony Blair's opinion of the criminal justice system

Tony Blair at the Labour conference:

"For 8 years I have battered the criminal justice system to get it to change. And it was only when we started to introduce special ASB laws, we really made a difference. And I now understand why. The system itself is the problem. We are trying to fight 21st century crime - ASB, drug-dealing, binge-drinking, organised crime - with 19th century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens.

"The whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Don't misunderstand me. That must be the duty of any criminal justice system. But surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety. It means a complete change of thinking. It doesn't mean abandoning human rights. It means deciding whose come first.

"I believe three things work. First, a radical extension of summary powers to police and local authorities to take on the wrong doers. We will publish plans to do this by the end of the year. They will tackle specifically binge-drinking, drug-dealing and organised crime; and develop existing laws on ASB. Second, we need a uniformed presence on the street in every community. Officers on the beat is what the public have wanted for years and they're right. I have seen teams of police and CSOs in action. It works. We want them across the whole of Britain over the next few years. Third, give our young people places to go so that they're off the street."


These are recurring themes in his speeches and those of his Home Secretaries. For example, here is Charles Clarke at the Conference:

"I believe that the desires of the British people are pretty clear and straightforward and can be expressed in three simple requirements. First and foremost people want to feel secure in their homes and everyday lives, free from abuse, disrespect and anti-social behaviour, and respected by others as they would expect themselves to respect others. Second, when a crime does occur, people want to feel that the offender will be caught, that justice will be done, will be carried out effectively, fairly, and hopefully swiftly, so that we live in a society based on the rule of law where other forms of revenge or retribution are outlawed and unnecessary. And third people expect Government and all of its agencies to do their very best bothto prevent people offending in the first place and to ensure that when offenders leave the criminal justice system they will go back to 'the straight and narrow' and become constructive contributors to the good of society as a whole."


Regarding binge-drinking specifically, drinking-related crime is going up. The police have warned the Government that this will increase even further with 24-hour drinking. At the same time as allowing pubs to serve booze throughout the day and night, the Government proposes to give the police summary powers to deal with wrongdoing drunks, and local authorities summary powers to punish 'irresponsible' landlords.

The proposed increase in uniformed police presence is one aspect of 'Reassurance Policing'. According to the Home Office, Reassurance Policing is the primary objective for policing in the National Policing Plan 2003-2006, and 'citizen-focussed' service is a key priority, although the Home Office also says that "there is a lack of consensus as to what reassurance actually relates to in a policing context" and that there is ongoing research in this field.

Blair's underlings have no doubt read the recently published report entitled, 'A review of the Fitness for Purpose of the current structure of policing in England and Wales', which says that the future policing environment is characterised by "widespread enterprising organised criminality, proliferating international terrorism and domestic extremism; a premium on intelligence, expertise and smart use of security; and an increasingly risk concerned public and intrusive media". I believe Blair panders to the risk-concerned public and intrusive media, although there may well be a well-founded worry about organised crime.


The trouble is, Blair and his colleagues have a problem with law and order: Labour is traditionally trusted less than the Conservatives on law and order issues; the public is generally dissatisfied with the Government's performance; and even though crime in general is decreasing, the public's perception of crime is that it's increasing, and that criminals aren't being punished. On all but one (immigration) of the other major issues (education, health, and the economy) Labour are ahead of the Conservatives.


The criminal justice system also has a problem: Home Office research shows that the majority of the public are confident that the system respects the rights of the accused but do not have much overall confidence in it. Only half think the police are doing a good job, and only a quarter think a good job is done by judges, magistrates, the CPS and the probation service. People are more likely to perceive an increase in levels of crime if they live in cities, deprived areas, are uneducated, are unskilled workers, or if they are readers of the Sun or Daily Mail newspapers.

But with regard to Blair's law and order speeches, the most pertinent results of the research are that "the strongest predictor of perceiving an increase in the national crime rate was believing the criminal justice system was not effective at reducing crime", and "The strongest predictor of perceiving an increase in the local crime rate was perceiving a high level of local disorder."


You can now see Blair and company's cogs turning as they solve the problem of the public's perception of crime: Labour will tinker with the criminal justice system to change the perception of national crime rates, rather than improve education, skills, and the quality of the newspapers people read; and, in order to change the perception of local crime rates, Labour will give summary powers to the police and local authorities so that they can deal with wrongdoers more swiftly and easily in the public eye.

The public does not appear to believe the statistics, so the Government must be seen to be doing something, and that means yet more legislation. As Blair said, "we are the changemakers".

The presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial are not believed to be inalienable rights but obstacles to public applause. Blair and co. aren't content to see how things proceed, to see how their policies are working out, and they are not content to let magistrates and judges get on with it. In terms of getting results, improving education and skills, and taking people too court, take far too long.

New Labour is about swift, easily publicised positive results, and if it is expedient to demolish the fundamental principles of our society in order to get positive results, Blair and co. don't mind doing it.


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