Politics: Straw and Irvine in skirmish over Crime Bill

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The Independent Online
Tensions are growing between the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor over the Crime and Disorder Bill. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says that, despite a new government, some things never change.

The Crime and Disorder Bill is Tony Blair's flagship measure on law and order and is being used by Jack Straw to deliver the promise to be "tough on crime and the causes of crime". But Lord Irvine has told the Home Secretary that the scope of the Bill should be narrowed.

Ministerial sources say he is also concerned about guidelines being issued to judges about sentencing. One Whitehall source said: "There are tensions, but there is no great rift. Lord Irvine doesn't want the courts to get overloaded."

The difference of opinion is being seen as a case of "turf wars" between the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office, echoing past battles between Lord Mackay, the former Tory Lord Chancellor, and Michael Howard, the Tory home secretary.

The Lord Chancellor is believed to be concerned that courts will be pressed too hard over one of the key provisions in the Bill requiring magistrates' courts to halve the time from arrest to sentence.

The Bill is a blockbuster law and order measure to reform the youth justice system and to take measures against anti-social behaviour. Mr Straw added to its scope last week by announcing further measures to combat racial harassment. It will also introduce curfews for teenagers, and make parents more responsible for their crimes.

The Independent understands that Lord Irvine has no objections to the proposals, but he is concerned over whether the courts can cope with the workload, when they are being asked to speed up the justice system. He has already written to magistrates asking them to prevent avoidable delays and adjournments, where possible, because slow justice undermines the system.

Lord Irvine is also seen as a powerful politician, with the personal backing of Mr Blair, and is used to having his view prevail. Mr Straw, however, is also determined to resist the pressure from the Lord Chancellor's office, and has made it clear he will not reduce the scope of the Bill.

The Lord Chancellor's office denied Lord Irvine was acting as the shop steward for the judges and was not attempting to tell the Home Secretary what policy to adopt on sentencing. "Sentencing matters are for the Home Office. The point is the judges are independent and there is no union of judges. One can never look at the judges and say there is a union view. You have 1,200 views on this subject."

The Lord Chancellor will have to advise the Government on the likely flashpoints over the legislation with the Law Lords, when it reaches the House of Lords and Mr Straw's Crime and Disorder Bill is certain to face a rough committee stage in the Upper House.

Many judges opposed the Crime Sentences Act, which require the courts to impose an automatic life sentence for a second serious violent or sexual offence unless there are exception circumstances. The Act was passed under the last government, after a battle in the Lords, and it was brought into effect on 1 October as the first major change in the law under Mr Straw.