Blair plans new law restricting the right to bail

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The Independent Online

A new law to refuse bail to persistent offenders will be unveiled by the Government as part of Tony Blair's drive to revolutionise Britain's criminal justice system.

A new law to refuse bail to persistent offenders will be unveiled by the Government as part of Tony Blair's drive to revolutionise Britain's criminal justice system.

The Prime Minister has given his personal backing to plans to overhaul the Bail Act to end the courts' existing presumption of granting bail for all defendants.

The controversial proposals, which will be included in a wider crime Bill in the Queen's Speech in November, are aimed at cutting the number of criminals who reoffend after being released by magistrates.

Under the plans being drawn up by the Home Office, those charged with serious offences such as armed robbery, as well as those with a history of less serious offences such as mugging, would be denied bail.

The move will cheer Labour MPs looking for tough action on crime and a means of fighting back against the Tories before the general election. But it will be opposed by civil liberties groups and lawyers who believe it would lead to a massive expansion of the prison population.

Mr Blair has decided to act in response to complaints from police chiefs who are increasingly frustrated at catching criminals only to see them released back onto the streets.

Ministers are also concerned that successes in tackling car crime and burglary are being undermined by rises in the street robbery rate which have helped push up the overall crime figures. Press stories about such "bail bandits" have infuriated ministers. One 15-year-old, dubbed "Boomerang Boy" by the tabloids, had committed 1,000 crimes by the time he was put behind bars.

Magistrates are frequently accused of being too lenient on such repeat offenders, but they have told Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, that their hands are tied by the current legislation. The 1976 Bail Act states that courts must grant bail pending trial unless the prosecution can show a good reason to keep the accused in custody.

In recognition of the fact that drug users are most likely to reoffend, the Government has already drawn up laws to allow courts to refuse bail in these cases in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

But Mr Blair and Mr Straw now want to extend the practice to cover other defendants and shift the presumption against bail to prevent repeat offending.

The idea is the main proposal of a sweeping review of the criminal justice system being conducted by the Home Office under the close eye of Downing Street. Mr Blair has told colleagues that it is "absurd" that those charged with armed robbery benefit from a presumption in favour of bail. He is also particularly keen to prevent muggers with a string of convictions from being allowed back on to the streets.

Home Office figures show that 24 per cent of those granted bail go on to commit one or more offences while they are waiting to be dealt with for their original charges. Police also say some 44,000 defendants a year who have been granted bail on an earlier occasion fail to turn up in court.

Mr Straw is also looking at ways of giving magistrates better feedback from the police on the outcome of their bail decisions, but has accepted a change in the law is needed.

The Metropolitan Police and other big urban forces, along with the Association of Chief Police Officers, has been urging the Home Secretary to rewrite bail rules for several months. The point was reiterated at Mr Blair's meeting with Kent Police this month, when officers said they spent weeks tracing and arresting criminals only to see them released.

Last night, a senior government source told The Independent: "Legislation later this year will show a significant toughening of the position on bail. There's a limit to which we can interfere with the courts' discretion, but Tony is determined to tackle this. There's nothing more frustrating, not just for the police, but also for the public, when bail is abused," he said.