A Tory gets tough, again

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The Independent Online
BY FRIDAY, Bryan Gibson, the habitually cautious leader of the impeccably respectable Justices Clerks' Society, had had enough.

Whitehall leaks showing that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was considering punishing parents for their children's offences, electronically tagging criminals and abolishing defendants' rights to silence and trial by jury provoked a wave of fury that swept away his usual reticence.

'We have no confidence in ministers,' he said. 'Policy is being made on the hoof with no reference to people who know about criminal justice . . . even their own officials are ignored. Law and order is being turned into a high-profile issue merely to help politicians look good on television.'

Mr Gibson, chairman of the society's criminal law committee, whose members will have to advise magistrates on how to implement Mr Howard's new punishments, is not alone. Prison and probation officers warned last week of the danger of riots as the new hard line sent the jail population, already at its official maximum of 46,000, soaring.

Brendan O'Friel, the chairman of the Prison Governors Association, an organisation again not known for its militancy, said: 'We're getting really very anxious. Overcowding is already serious; problems with the prison officers union are growing and we're having to use force to send prisoners to free cells hundreds of miles from their homes.

'This is before Michael Howard starts pretending he's God and gives us thousands more inmates to cope with. We see no sign of a coherent strategy . . . no sign that anyone at the top has got a grip.'

Even the Home Office civil service is seething. One official said the sole aim of ministers was to find policies that Tony Blair - Labour's home affairs spokesman, who appears to have panicked the Conservative leadership with his attacks on its law and order record - had to oppose.

When Mr Howard speaks to the Conservative Party conference this week - and when he unveils the hardline Criminal Justice Bill later this year - he will seem anything but indecisive.

But critics say that the measures he is considering are PR stunts which his own officials could tell him - and probably have told him - will fail.

Tough line on juvenile offenders: In addition to new 'borstals' for 12- to 15-year- olds - announced earlier this year - Mr Howard is considering punishing the parents of juvenile offenders. He also wants to make it automatic for a young offender to go to court after he has received a set number of cautions from the police, and to allow police to issue cautions with strict conditions on the future behaviour of the offender. The police claim that government policy, which has seen the number of cautions rocket since 1990, has forced officers to let persistent young offenders walk free.

But Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said that only 3 per cent of young offenders received more than one caution.

Electronic Tagging of Offenders: Home Office sources said that David Maclean, the minister responsible for crime policy, wanted clauses included in the Criminal Justice Bill to allow tagging. Tags are fitted to offenders' ankles or wrists. If they move out of range of a sensor fitted to their phones, an alarm sounds and police are alerted.

But when tagging was tried in three pilot projects in 1989 it was a fiasco. One defendant found that whenever he moved under a 'blind spot on the duvet' alarms sounded at the police station. Another tore his off and fled from Tyneside to Brighton, only to give himself up because he 'couldn't stand life in the South'. A third was alleged to have murdered his girlfriend's cousin while he was meant to be under house arrest.

Bail: After a police campaign against 'bail bandits' - who commit fresh offences while awaiting trial - ministers are considering forcing a suspect to prove he would not be dangerous if allowed to wait at home instead of in jail. There will also be harsher penalties for crimes committed while a defendant is on bail

The package amounts to yet another U-turn in law and order policy. The Conservatives came to power in 1979 promising short, sharp shocks. When that failed there was a period of containment when the emphasis was on crime prevention. This passive policy disappeared after the 1990 prison riots when the Government committed itself to diverting offenders from custody and improving prisons. These liberal aims, enshrined in the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, have in turn been dropped.

Mr Fletcher said: 'Howard may seem tough but he is fooling the public. Crime has doubled since 1979. The only time it fell was in 1988 during the Lawson boom when people had some money and did not have to go out thieving.'