Clarke undermines Bill despite signs of progress: Reformers argue that 'panic' measures should be shelved. Heather Mills reports

THE FURORE following the killing of Jamie Bulger, pictures of juveniles mocking authority, and a seemingly relentless surge in crime have prompted the Home Secretary to condemn and review his predecessors' criminal justice policy.

But reformers argue Kenneth Clarke should be defending the new Criminal Justice Bill rather than decrying it. As figures published yesterday indicate, the crime wave appears to be subsiding - when the prison population, once condemned as the highest in Europe, is significantly lower. Numbers peaked at just over 50,000 in 1988, when discussion on the then proposed Bill started. The total is now 43,266, seven months after implementation.

'Shouldn't Mr Clarke be saying that the efforts of previous Home Office ministers are meeting their aims?' they ask.

The philosophy behind the latest Criminal Justice Bill was that prison was an expensive way of making bad people worse. The idea was to keep children and non-violent offenders out of jail and to lock away for more substantial periods, the murderers, rapists, and violent robbers. It was designed to end prison overcrowding, Britain's reputation for sending too many people to jail, and perhaps to stop recidivism.

Mr Clarke, no doubt motivated by pressure from Tory grass roots and given recent impetus by criticism of the Bill from the Lord Chief Justice, has made no secret of the fact that he thinks it was ill-founded - the work of wishy-washy liberal officials.

Since he became Home Secretary, Mr Clarke has questioned the Bill in a way that far more right-wing Home Secretaries, such as David Waddington, now Lord Waddington, did not.

He has undermined three central planks of previous government policy. He has halted the decision to find alternatives to custody for juveniles and decided to introduce a new kind of approved school. He is questioning greater use of bail for the unconvicted and, following outspoken criticism of the fettering of judges' discretion over sentencing, he has agreed to look again at Section 29 of the Bill. It attempted to stop persistent petty offenders serving longer sentences than, for example, a rapist.

Mr Clarke has also agreed to review unit fines - whereby people pay penalties in accordance with their disposable income - because of anomalies.

The Bill's advocates agree unit fines may need adjustment but argue that the rest of the Bill is not a 'criminals' charter'. They point out, for example, that the crackdown on young people has come when juvenile offending over the past 10 years has dropped by 37 per cent.

Stephen Shaw, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 'The backlash has been fuelled by politicians on both sides, playing the law and order card. Evidence that we are in the grip of a crime wave may be based on political and press hype rather than a reflective look at the crime figures'.

Andrew Rutherford, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, suggested the new figures 'were a cause for pause among the moral panickers'. And Harry Fletcher, representing probation officers, said while there were anomalies in the Bill, Mr Clarke should not tamper with its basic philosophy.