Labour dons law-and-order mantle with courts reform

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A radical overhaul of the criminal justice and court system is being planned by Labour in a renewed attempt to snatch the law-and-order mantle from the Conservatives.

Weekend and evening court sessions, with judges and magistrates given more powers to manage cases, are under consideration. Labour would also revamp the Crown Prosecution Service running alongside each of the 43 police forces in England and Wales to ensure prosecutors and police are more in tune with and accountable to their communities.

Draft proposals in a paper for "tougher action on crime", obtained by the Independent, include plans for heavier penalties for crimes of violence and those involving weapons, and new offences of racial harassment and racially motivated violence.

The preparations for the development of the law-and-order platform coincide with plans by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, for a switch of emphasis at October's annual conference away from the mod- ernisation of the party and towards promoting policies that "new" Labour would deliver.

Party managers judge that the time is right for a shift towards a more policy-driven conference than last year's - dominated by Mr Blair's announcement that he planned to rewrite Clause IV - because the concept of a new Labour party has been established.

Law and order is considered by some of Mr Blair's advisers as the second most important issue for the next election after the economy. The conference will also spotlight Labour's policies on industry, devolution, public services and information technology. But it was emphasised yesterday that the key issue of the tax bands that would be set by a Labour government would be revealed at the election "and not before".

In an interview with the Independent, Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, said: "The criminal justice system is in crisis. It is out of touch with the needs of the community, ineffectual and wastes huge amounts of money. We can no longer depend on an archaic criminal justice system."

The paper, Safer Communities, Safer Britain, which Mr Straw will present to the conference, also includes new penalties to deal with young offenders. Labour proposes a "reparation order" to compel a young criminal to make amends to his or her victim or to the community and an "action plan order" - a three-month intensive programme, concentrating on educational needs and family support. The aim would be to "help reduce the number of young people being sent into secure accommodation".

But Stephen Shaw, of the Prison Reform Trust, said yesterday: "Given that most young people who come to police attention once or twice never reappear in the criminal statistics, is it sensible to devote scarce resources to intensive programmes designed for these type of offenders?"

Labour's law, page 5