Blair calls for 'new mindset' on justice system

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Prime Minister Tony Blair called today for the criminal justice system to be rebalanced "in favour of the decent law-abiding majority".

He accused the political and legal establishment of being "still in denial" over the extent of the gap between public expectations of the system and what it delivers.

Mr Blair said the current system was "built not for another decade but another age" with the result that "we end up fighting 21st century problems with 19th century solutions".

He acknowledged the Home Office was "under siege" but promised more legislation and a "complete change of mindset" to take account of "the reality of the street".

The Premier was speaking in Bristol in the first of a series of lectures on domestic policy under the umbrella slogan "Our Nation's Future".

He said it was true that crime had fallen under his Government "but the gap between what the public expects and what the public sees is still there".

He went on: "And the political and legal establishment is still in denial.

"I know what large numbers of such people believe. They believe we are on a populist bandwagon, the media whips everyone up into a frenzy, and if only everyone calmed down and behaved properly, the issue would go away.

"It may well be true that politicians can be overly populist, it may be true that, as I know more than most, the media can distort - but actually neither reason is the reason why the public are anxious.

"The public are anxious for a perfectly good reason: they think they play fair and play by the rules and they see too many people who don't, getting away with it."

Mr Blair added: "By the public, I don't mean the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade. I mean ordinary, decent law-abiding folk, who believe in rehabilitation as well as punishment, understand there are deep-rooted causes of crime and know that no Government can eliminate it.

"But they think the political and legal establishment are out of touch on the issue and they are right."

He continued: "So here we are today with the Home Office, understandably, under siege.

"And, of course, I don't say for a moment that mistakes haven't been made, that competence or lack of it has not been a serious complaint.

"But I do say that it is a complete delusion to think that simply by changing ministers, civil servants or practices, the gap I referred to earlier is going to be bridged.

"It isn't. I have learnt many things in nine years of Government and that is one of them."

Mr Blair said he had come to the conclusion "that part of the problem in this whole area has been the absence of a proper, considered intellectual and political debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world".

He went on: "In other words, crime, immigration, security - because of the emotions inevitably stirred, the headlines that naturally scream, the multiplicity of the problems raised - desperately, urgently need a rational debate, from first principles and preferably unrelated to the immediate convulsion of the moment.

"What's more, I believe we can get to a sensible, serious and effective answer to these issues and build a consensus in favour of them.

"But we can't do it unless the argument is won at a far more fundamental level than hitherto."

The Premier traced the history of criminal and social behaviour over the last century, with the decline of fixed employment and settled families.

He added: "In reality, what is happening is simply another facet of globalisation and a changing world.

"Fixed communities go. The nuclear family changes. Mass migration is on the march.

"Prosperity means most people have something worth stealing. Drugs means more people are prepared to steal.

"Organised crime which trafficks in drugs and people make money. Violence, often of a qualitatively as well as quantitatively different sort than anything before, accompanies it.

"Then there is the advent of this new phenomenon of global terrorism based on a perversion of Islam.

"As a result of the scale and nature of this seismic change, the challenges faced by the criminal justice and immigration systems have grown exponentially, not in a small way but in a way that, frankly, mocks a system built not for another decade but another age.

"So we end up fighting 21st century problems with 19th century solutions."

He said western society had traditionally set its face against summary justice because of its respect for civil liberties.

"But here's the rub. Without summary powers to attack anti-social behaviour - Asbos, fixed penalty notices, dispersal and closure orders on crack houses, seizing drug dealers' assets - it won't be beaten.

"That's reality. And the proof is that until we started to introduce this legislation, it wasn't beaten and even now it can be a struggle.

"The scale of what we face is such that whatever the theory, in practice, in real everyday street life, it can't be tackled without such powers...

"Here is the point. Each time someone is the victim of anti-social behaviour, of drug-related crime, each time an illegal immigrant enters the country or a perpetrator of organised fraud or crime walks free, someone else's liberties are contravened, often directly, sometimes as part of wider society.

"It's no use saying that in theory there should be no conflict between the traditional protections for the suspect and the rights of the law-abiding majority because, as a result of the changing nature of crime and society, there is, in practice, such a conflict.

"And every day we don't resolve it, by rebalancing the system, the consequence is not abstract, it is out there, very real on our streets...

"This is not an argument about whether we respect civil liberties or not, but whose take priority.

"It is not about choosing hard-line policies over an individual's human rights. It's about which human rights prevail. In making that decision, there is a balance to be struck.

"I am saying it is time to rebalance the decision in favour of the decent, law-abiding majority who play by the rules and think others should too.

"Of course, the danger is that we end up with rough justice, a danger even now when we use summary powers to close crack houses or seize the assets of suspects.

"It is exactly to guard against such danger that the rebalancing has to be done with the utmost care and scrutiny.

"But the brute reality is that just as with rights, rough justice works both ways too.

"There is not rough justice but rough injustice when neighbourhoods are terrorised by gangs and the system is not capable of protecting them."

He ruled out repealing the Human Rights Act and said a focus on sentencing was a distorted way of viewing the problem,although there were some valid concerns.

"I am afraid the issue is far more profound: it is the culture of political and legal decision-making that has to change, to take account of the way the world has changed.

"It is not this or that judicial decision, this or that law. It is a complete change of mindset, an avowed, articulated determination to make protection of the law-abiding public the priority and to measure that not by the theory of the textbook but by the reality of the street and community in which real people live real lives."

He said more legislation was needed to fill gaps in existing rules and said Home Secretary John Reid would bring forward detailed proposals at the end of next month on reform of the criminal justice system.

The Prime Minister insisted: "There is a myth that we have legislated 50 times, the problem still exists, ergo we don't need more laws. I disagree. These laws have made a difference."

He went on: "This is not the argument of the lynch mob or of people who are indifferent to convicting the innocent. It is simply a reasonable and rational response to a problem that is as much one of modernity as of liberty.

"But such a solution will not happen without a radical change in political and legal culture, and that is the case I make today."