Courts 'show sexual and racial bias'

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The Independent Online
THE HOME Office has joined with the Lord Chief Justice in stamping on allegedly 'politically correct' initiatives to reduce discrimination against women and blacks in the criminal justice system.

Confidential documents, seen by the Independent on Sunday, show that a 15-point programme, designed to help probation services deal with domestic violence, the children of women offenders, and petty women criminals in prison, has been blocked by Home Office ministers.

Proposed government research into race issues - blacks are about seven times more likely to be imprisoned than whites - has been rejected.

Even a proposal by the unions in the Home Office's vast headquarters at Queen Anne's Gate, near the House of Commons, for sexual-harassment officers to be appointed to listen in confidence to complaints from women civil servants, has been shelved.

''David Maclean (the right- wing Home Office minister) is red-lining everything that can be labelled as politically correct,' said one senior civil service source.

The first public sign of the new line came in a debate on the Criminal Justice Bill on 27 January when Labour asked that the police should monitor how many blacks and Asians were given bail after being arrested. Even though the police did not object, Labour claims that monitoring could prevent discrimination were greeted with strong protests. Lady Olga Maitland, the Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, said the idea showed Labour's 'astounding obsession with racism verging on political correctness'. Mr Maclean refused to accept the idea, saying it would 'sour' relations with the police.

The purge of programmes, which their supporters claim are mild attempts to bring fairness into the system, followed a confrontation between Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, and women probation officers at the official opening of a probation centre in Stafford in September last year.

Lord Taylor, a guest at the ceremony, was angered by a display in the centre's 'women's room' about how the criminal justice system should cater better for women by designing community-service and hostel programmes which met their needs. It said that women with children were more likely than men to face serious disruptions to their lives if they were jailed.

'Lord Taylor was angry at the suggestion that the courts discriminated against women,' said one probation officer present. 'He blew his top. He left saying pointedly that he was going to an all-male lunch.'

There followed an exchange of letters and Lord Taylor made known to the Home Office his concern about claims that women and blacks were discriminated against.

The major result so far of the hard line against alleged political correctness has been the abandonment of the first national programme for helping women offenders. A strategic policy for all the 55 probation services in England and Wales was drawn up after a meeting of the Home Office's C6 (probation) division and representatives of probation chiefs, inspectors and committees in Wolverhampton last year.

A document outlining the new policy was produced in August. It called for probation officers to be aware of the danger of the courts labelling women as irrational and mentally ill, to consider if families could afford the fines courts imposed, and to take the claims of the victims of domestic violence seriously.

But after sitting on the policy document for months, Mr Maclean has decided to abandon it. It was 'too politically correct in tone', C6 civil servants told probation officers.

Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), called for the policy guidelines to be published. 'The Lord Chief Justice and the Home Office need to realise that concern about women is not some politically correct fad,' he said.

'Holloway women's prison (in north London) was full last week and other women's jails are finding it increasingly hard to deal with the number of prisoners they are receiving.'

Claims that there is discrimination against women are hotly disputed. The Home Office points out that women make up just 3 per cent of the prison population, and are far more likely than men to be cautioned by the police and then let go. But research by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders shows that women in jail are more likely than men to be small-time offenders with no previous criminal record.

The allegation that the courts allow petty criminals who are men to walk free while imprisoning women for similar offences received support last week from an unpublished Napo study of a cross-section of women in Holloway.

It found that among the women the courts sent to the jail last month were:

A 16-year-old girl with no previous convictions who received two years for wounding a man who was attacking her younger sister. Her probation officer said: 'If it had been a 16-year- old boy he would probably have been sent on an anger management course.'

A London heroin addict who pleaded guilty to a charge of taking pounds 2.50-worth of goods from the Body Shop and pounds 96.95-worth of goods from other shops. The probation service said she needed methadone treatment to get her off heroin, counselling to help her cope with a dying father and help in claiming social security which she had not received since October. The court sentenced her to 84 days in prison.

A 25-year-old woman from Lewes, East Sussex, with no previous convictions, who forged entries in her Post Office savings book and used stolen cheques after her gas was cut off and she was threatened with eviction from her flat. She received 18 months.