Inside Story: Heading for trouble: Michael Howard's strategy on crime faces opposition from police, judges and the prison service. Nick Cohen reports

FOR ONCE, Michael Howard did not want publicity. The politicians, civil servants and journalists who meet in the Oxfordshire stately home of Ditchley Park each year to discuss the big issues of the day are always sworn to secrecy.

The Home Secretary felt no need to break his vow, but other guests at last weekend's conference - the subject was crime - were less tight-lipped. They were so surprised by the Home Secretary's 'dogmatic and inaccurate views', as one put it, that they decided to talk.

They described how Mr Howard gave a 20-minute talk in Ditchley's old library, where the judges, law officers and academics retired after their lunches and walks in the famous gardens. All the themes he had unveiled in his 27-point law-and-order package at the Conservative Party Conference last October were revisited.

There was nothing wrong in expanding the prison population, he said. Prison worked. A burglar in jail could not commit other offences. Racism in the justice system was not a problem, he added, even though blacks are 7.5 times more likely to go to jail than whites.

'Every slightly critical question was twisted,' said one guest. 'He would distort what you asked and then answer his distortion. People asked about racism in the system and pointed out the number of blacks in prison is proportionally even higher than the number of blacks in jail in America. It's a serious and complicated issue. But he threw it back saying that everyone should be equal before the law . . . implying that the questioner wanted the courts to discriminate in favour of black people.'

American academics and judges, some of whom had regarded Britain as a model of cautious good sense on crime, were surprised. In the US virtually every politician promises to be tough on crime, but the specialists know the results are not impressive. A doubling in the prison population since 1973, the reintroduction of the death penalty in some states and endless hardline speeches on law and order have done nothing to reduce the crime rate. America is still the most violent country in the Western world.

After hearing Mr Howard, Americans at the conference warned that Britain looked like repeating their mistakes. One whispered of the Home Secretary: 'That man sounds like an American politician running for office.' He did not mean it as a compliment.

The critical objection to Mr Howard's arguments is this: a minor criminal is less likely to reoffend if he is punished outside prison. This is a well-researched view, scarcely challenged in academic circles. It was brushed aside with an anecdote.

Mr Howard recounted the story of a visit he made to the Grove Road young offenders' day centre in his Folkestone and Hythe constituency three weeks ago. There, a 15-year-old boy told him how he had never been to court even though he had received four cautions from the police, including two for arson. The meeting made a powerful impression on Mr Howard, who has since repeated the story on several occasions.

Almost as soon as he had finished talking to the teenager, he told a reporter from the Folkestone Herald: 'I am opposed to the process which has grown up of giving those who offend caution after caution, so they begin to get the idea they can get away with anything.'

An understandable reaction, you may think, to those who allow a double arsonist to be let off with the soft option of 'anger management', 'working with families' or other courses at the local day centre.

But Mr Howard was speaking without knowing the full facts of the case. Sheryl Anderson, the team leader at the centre, said it was true that the boy had received four cautions, but just one was for arson, not two. The other three were for shoplifting - in 1991 when he was 12.

The arson caution sounds less ominous when you hear the details. The boy and a friend were playing with matches in a field outside Folkestone at harvest time. They set fire to some straw and the police and fire brigade were called. The police accepted that the boy had been fooling around and decided to caution rather than charge him. Local social workers suggest that, although it was a matter to be taken seriously, what the offender did was the sort of prank many boys get up to, even the ones who grow up to become cabinet ministers. 'The boy is a bit slow, he needs special help at school,' said Ms Anderson. 'He told Mr Howard he had two convictions for arson but he was overawed and a little frightened. Mr Howard did not check how accurate his facts were. We feel it was a shame really.'

SHERYL Anderson's language is mild. These days few people involved in dealing with crime are so polite about the Home Secretary. From conservative chief constables to politically correct probation officers, from former Conservative Home Secretaries to the civil servants they once commanded, nearly all the professional groups are now up in arms against him.

An official of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), demonised by the left as a repressive arm of government during the 1984 miners' strike, last week described government plans to put five Home Office appointees on locally elected police authorities thus: 'We're on the slippery slope to a state police and a ministry of the interior. Michael Howard wants to make himself Chief Constable of England.'

A senior civil servant, again no wild-eyed radical, added that he had seen Home Secretaries come and go but he had never met one like Michael Howard. He said Sir Clive Whitmore, head of the Home Office Civil Service, and virtually all other officials, are no longer consulted on policy. Real influence lay with Mr Howard's two political advisers from Conservative Central Office - Patrick Rock, an old Tory party hand who may yet be the Conservative candidate in the Eastleigh by-election, and David Cameron, who is in his twenties.

'No one can reach him,' the civil servant said. 'He cannot appraise any measure and see the other sides of the argument. Douglas Hurd, David Waddington, Kenneth Baker, even Kenneth Clarke would listen to the evidence before making a decision. Howard just talks to young public school gentlemen from the party headquarters. The best you can say about him is he reads a lot.'

In public people are only slightly less critical. Last week John Hoddinott, Chief Constable of Hampshire and vice-president of ACPO, said the dispute about the plan to put Home Office appointees on police authorities was the biggest crisis in relations between Whitehall and the police in 30 years. Rosemary Thomson, chairwoman of the Magistrates' Association, said she was concerned about the number of 'declamatory policies coming out of the Home Office which had little practical importance but which may influence magistrates when they pass sentence'. Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the probation officers' union, said there was a real division between those who 'wanted policies which won standing ovations at the Conservative Party Conference and those who wanted policies which worked'. Mr Fletcher continued: 'The two are not compatible. If prison worked, we'd be demolishing jails, not building new ones.'

Since becoming Home Secretary in May 1993, Michael Howard has pursued with vigour the hardline policies inaugurated by Kenneth Clarke. Mr Clarke had ordered the repeal of measures which had the effect of diverting minor offenders from prison. These had ensured that courts fined small- time criminals according to their ability to pay and ignored their previous convictions.

Mr Howard decided to go further. His famous 27-point programme contained some uncontroversial measures and some which were widely welcomed, such as the announcement that an independent body would investigate miscarriages of justice. But the key proposals, now in the new Criminal Justice Bill before Parliament, were very tough. The right of silence would be compromised, there would be tougher restrictions on granting bail custody, new jails were to be built to imprison persistent 12- to 14-year- old offenders.

This is a U-turn for the government. It was, as chance would have it, at a meeting at Ditchley Park in 1989 that Douglas Hurd, the then Home Secretary, agreed with civil servants, chief constables and the Lord Chief Justice that everything should be done to prevent petty criminals being imprisoned. All the evidence showed that 50 per cent of adult male prisoners went on to commit further crimes after being released. Jails were 'universities of crime' and should be reserved for serious offenders. For others, as a subsequent White Paper put it, prisons were merely 'an expensive way of making bad people worse'.

At last year's Conservative Party Conference, however, Mr Howard declared: 'Prison works . . . Let's take the handcuffs off the police and put them back on the criminals where they belong.'

MR HOWARD'S speech won him praise from many Conservatives, and even Labour MPs grudgingly admitted it was a coup; if Mr Howard had launched his campaign in the run-up to an election, they said, it would have been difficult to combat on the doorsteps.

But the next election may be two years away. In the interim, the Home Secretary's policies will be tested (see panel). Crime figures will show whether his policies have succeeded in cutting crime (he has always avoided promising that they would). And he will have to cope with the mounting discontent among the professions - a problem now so grave it is being compared with the difficulties faced by John Patten, the Education Secretary, in his dealings with teachers and academics.

He is likely to face strong challenges on at least two fronts. The police, for one, are extremely angry. The proposals to overturn the existing membership of police authorities have struck at the heart of the police service's belief about itself. At present the authorities are made up of two-thirds local councillors and one-third unelected magistrates, but Mr Howard wants to introduce 16- member authorities consisting of eight councillors, three unelected magistrates and five unelected Home Office appointees. ACPO talks of the Police Bill as a 'jigsaw' whose pieces come together to threaten a locally accountable service that serves the community.

ACPO points to one clause that gives the new authorities the power to draw up policing plans with national and local objectives without the agreement of the chief constable. In ACPO's view a chief constable, who will be employed on a short-term contract if the Bill becomes law, could be forced to give up his operational independence to meet the demands of an authority stuffed with Home Office appointees.

The Home Office already has great influence. Even the restrained Mr Hoddinott is worried about what will happen if the balance is tipped further towards Whitehall. 'I am answerable to locally elected representatives whether I like it or not,' he said. 'It is that which makes what I do legitimate. Whatever else people may say, they cannot accuse the British police of being under the political control of central government. I'm not saying that the present Home Secretary would want to do that, but a future one might.'

Mr Howard and the Home Office have protested that all they want is to bring in 'truly local and independent' people to make authorities more effective. But the proposed manner of selection of the Home Office appointees has caused concern.

The Home Secretary will personally pick the candidates from a shortlist drawn up by a panel consisting of a recruitment consultant and two lord lieutenants. Lord lieutenants are the Queen's representatives in the counties. Almost all are rich, most are landowners and 30 of the 48 male lord lieutenants went to Eton. Whatever else they may be, lord lieutenants are unlikely to be vigorous critics of the Conservative Party.

Last week the House of Lords, led by two former Home Secretaries, agreed with the police and local authorities and forced the Government to reconsider the Police Bill. Mr Howard said he would listen, but warned he was not prepared to compromise on the 'principles' behind the Bill.

The greatest pressure on Mr Howard over the next two years is likely to come not from the police or the House of Lords, but from the prisons. The crackdown on crime has pushed the jails back into a state of crisis. Last week the prison population in England and Wales stood at 48,110. At the end of 1992, when relatively liberal Conservatives still ran the Home Office, it was 40,600.

The signs of strain are everywhere. There are 214 inmates being held in police stations because there is nowhere else to go; 300 men are now sleeping three to a cell. While present policies continue, everyone expects these symptons of stress to worsen.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, predicted a real crisis by Easter. Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, said he had never seen the prison population increase so quickly. 'People who the courts did not mean to go to jail are in high-security prisons because they cannot afford to pay their fines. There has to be a risk of trouble. We've already had two small riots in the past month.'

Mr O'Friel was the governor of Strangeways jail, Manchester, when the biggest riot in modern history erupted in April 1990. Lord Justice Woolf's inquiry into the violence recommended sweeping reforms and was welcomed by Kenneth Baker, the then Conservative Home Secretary. These reforms have since fallen by the wayside. Last week, Prison Department sources confirmed that the last of the big recommendations of the Woolf Report the Government had not already dropped had been effectively abandoned.

The report proposed a code of minimum standards covering everything from access to work and education to a requirement that blankets should be washed once a month. Detailed proposals on these issues, drawn up after months of hard work by officials, have now been thrown back at the Prison Department.

One reason given was a fear that inmates might be able to sue prison governors if the code came into force. But the Prison Department sources did not deny that the main reason for the Home Office rejecting the standards was political: Patrick Rock, the political adviser, is alleged to have said that the 'time was not right' to be seen to be going soft on prisoners.

IN THE past week, the Home Secretary has maintained his policy onslaught, announcing plans to increase the maximum fine for the possession of cannabis from pounds 500 to pounds 2,500 (in response to a Labour initiative on drugs), and to ban computer pornography (anticipating a Commons select committee report). He is rarely out of the news.

Meanwhile, in England and Wales a breakdown of confidence is approaching, between those who work in the criminal justice system and the politicians in charge of it. From the prison governors to the probation officers and from the chief constables to the magistrates, the fear is shared that policies which are good for votes are being preferred to policies which are good for law and order.

HURDLES AHEAD FOR THE HOME SECRETARY

Changes to police authorities: Tory peers have already revolted twice on the issue. Howard has temporarily withdrawn the proposal but says he will not compromise. Third embarrassing debate expected next month.

New prisons for 12- to 14- year-olds: Baroness Faithfull, a Tory peer, says she will lead opposition to this 'knee-jerk' measure when it comes to the Lords. The only model is the Lisnevin child jail in Northern Ireland. Government researchers have said that 80 per cent of inmates reoffend.

Abolition of right to silence: Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, to lead opposition to 'theatrical proposal' that defendants who do not want to give evidence should be ordered into the witness box. Government defeat likely.

Tightening up on cautioning: Home Office predicts that 'tens of thousands' of people will end up before the courts, even though 80 per cent of juveniles who receive a caution are never in trouble again.

Binding over of parents: Magistrates' Association predicts that courts will simply ignore new rules which will allow them to fine parents pounds 1,000 if their children do not appear in court or accept their punishment.

Prison Population: Likely to top 50,000 by Easter. Tightening up on bail and cautioning will push it higher, as will the fining of parents (who may be unable to pay).

(Photograph omitted)

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