Blair told to 'shut up' about prison sentencing

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is overloading the penal system with a blizzard of "incoherent" legislation, a former chief inspector of prisons has said.

As the Prime Minister prepares to set out new plans to tighten parole rules and give extra summary powers to the police, Lord Ramsbotham said he should "shut up" for the sake of stability in the criminal system.

The Home Office has introduced 60 pieces of legislation since Labour came to power in 1997, the vast majority containing criminal justice elements. Mr Blair's advisers have played a central role in drawing up many of them, as well as floating other proposals that failed to make it to the statute book.

Critics say the succession of legislation - which compares with an average of just one Criminal Justice Bill per decade for most of the 20th century - has contributed to rising prisoner numbers.

The prison population in England and Wales currently stands at 77,642, just 181 below the highest on record. Figures out today are expected to show a further slight increase.

This week, Downing Street announced new moves to limit the early release of serious criminals, and Mr Blair is expected to return to the issue in a major speech next week.

Asked on BBC2's Daily Politics show about the prospect of another reform, Lord Ramsbotham said: "I just wish he'd shut up, frankly. One of the problems that there has been recently is announcement after announcement from the Prime Minister that he's going to do this and that and the other, and more people are going to come in for longer.

"But unfortunately, all that's doing is crowding the system even more than it is. That doesn't just apply to the prison service. It also applies to the probation service, because [it] is trying to supervise over a quarter of a million people, and they just simply haven't got the numbers or the resources or anything."

He accused the Home Office of having "mutually conflicting" priorities, including sentencing offenders more severely and reducing overcrowding in jails. "The fact is that there is an incoherence about the criminal justice system, which I find very worrying," he said.

The Tories said yesterday that as many as 54 of the Home Office Bills in the past nine years related to the criminal justice system and claimed that John Reid, the Home Secretary, had attacked judges for soft sentences in an effort to divert attentions from the Government's failings.

Theresa May, the shadow Leader of the Commons, said: "This week, we have seen yet another example of the Home Secretary trying to blame everyone else but the Government for the problems in our criminal justice system. If it is not the civil servants, he is blaming the judges.Let's just look at the numbers: nine years in government, three large majorities, 54 criminal justice Bills, but only one person to blame - and that's the Prime Minister."

But Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, retorted: "What is striking ... is more often than not when we bring forward proposals to strengthen sentencing and to toughen up the judicial system, MPs opposite vote against them.

"Conservatives voted against abolishing the double jeopardy rule to allow rapists, suspected rapists and murderers to be re-tried when important new evidence came to light."

Tensions within the Government over sentencing were laid bare yesterday after Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, said judges should not be turned into "whipping boys" for problems in the system. Although he denied there was any disagreement among ministers, his comments were seen as a side-swipe at Mr Reid.

Lord Falconer acknowledged that a fundamental review of sentencing was needed to reassure the public that dangerous criminals would get the right punishments. He said no options would be ruled out in the shake-up, as he sought to calm a political storm caused by a jail term given to a paedophile. Mr Reid inflamed the controversy when he spoke out against the "unduly lenient" sentence handed to Craig Sweeney, who abducted and sexually abused a three-year-old girl.

It was further fuelled by the revelation that 53 criminals jailed for life had been released since 2000.

The 60 criminal justice bills in nine years

1997-98 (eight Bills)

Crime and Disorder

Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy)

Data Protection

European Parliamentary Elections

Firearms No 2 (Amendment)

Human Rights

Registration of Political Parties

Special Immigration Appeals Commission

The Government moved to tackle fears over youth crime by replacing the existing system of cautioning with the new "final warning" and setting up Youth Offending Teams.

1998-99 (four Bills)

European Parliamentary Elections

Immigration & Asylum

Sexual Offences (Amendment)

Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence

Measures to protect witnesses, including a ban on cross-examination of rape victims by the defendant, as well as the first asylum legislation.

1999-2000 (12 Bills)

Criminal Justice and Court Services

Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial)

Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No 2)

Disqualifications

Football (Disorder)

Freedom of Information

Political Parties, Elections and Referendums

Race Relations (Amendment)

Regulation of Investigatory Powers

Representation of the People

Sexual Offences (Amendment)

Terrorism

Reform began of the Crown Prosecution Service. The Terrorism Bill gave police power to hold terror suspects for up to seven days without charge.

2000-01 (Seven Bills)

Criminal Justice and Police

Election Publications

Elections

House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification)

Hunting

Private Security Industry

Vehicles (Crime)

Police gained powers to keep fingerprints and DNA samples of innocent ex-suspects. Child curfew orders introduced and fixed-penalty notices widened.

2001-02 (Seven Bills)

Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security

Civil Defence (Grant)

Football (Disorder) (Amendment)

Mobile Telephones (Re-programming)

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum

Police Reform

Proceeds of Crime

Began the overhaul of the police service in an effort to enable police officers to spend more time on the beat. Fresh anti-terror legislation rushed through in the wake of 11 September

2002-03 (Five Bills)

Antisocial Behaviour

Crime (International Co-operation)

Criminal Justice

Extradition

Sexual Offences

The first measures directly targeted antisocial behaviour.

2003-04 (Three Bills)

Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants)

Civil Partnerships

Domestic Violence Crime and Victims

With asylum figures at a record high, the issue became a top Home Office priority.

2004-05 (Six Bills)

Charities

Drugs

Identity Cards

Management of Offenders and Sentencing

Prevention of Terrorism

Serious Organised Crime and Police

Plans were set out for identity cards, creating the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the so-called "British FBI" and overhauling the prison service.

2005-06 (Eight Bills)

Charities

Fraud

Identity Cards

Immigration, Asylum and Nationality

Police and Justice

Racial and Religious Hatred

Terrorism

Violent Crime Reduction

ID cards Bill was reintroduced and fresh action taken to combat knife crime and incitement of religious hatred. Attention switched to new anti-terror laws after the July 7 bombings.

Total number of Bills: 60

Source: House of Commons library