Blair sets out plan to rebuild justice system

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair promised swifter justice for repeat offenders, expansion of prisons and early targeting of potentially delinquent youngsters in a drive to rebuild public confidence in law and order.

The Prime Minister signalled that the criminal justice system, which was fighting "21st-century problems with 19th-century solutions", would be rebuilt from first principles.

He said tougher laws to deal with criminals would come in, court procedures streamlined, the root causes of offending tackled and victims given extra rights.

He described his proposals as a move to rebalance the criminal justice system "in favour of the decent law-abiding majority". But critics said the plans amounted to an admission of failure by the Government after nine years in power and protested that the last thing police and courts needed was a fresh period of upheaval.

Speaking in Bristol, Mr Blair accused the political and legal establishment of being "still in denial" over the gap between public expectations of the system and what it delivered. He said that a "complete change of mindset" was needed to take account of "the reality of the street".

He said an audit of laws would see what gaps needed to be filled. He foreshadowed laws to force before the courts offenders who failed to seek help for drug addiction, new powers to deal with anti-social behaviour and tough punishment for breaking bail or breaching community sentences.

Victims should be given the "right to be heard in relation to offending - at least for the most violent crimes".

Mr Blair said offenders should be monitored more closely, given "not just a sentence, but an appropriate process for sorting their lives out - and if they don't, be followed up, brought back to court".

More details will be set out next month by John Reid, the Home Secretary, and Lord Falconer of Tho-roton, the Lord Chancellor.

The Prime Minister acknowledged: "The blunt reality is that, at least in the short and medium term, the measures proposed will mean an increase in prison places." He warned it was often too late to deal with young criminals when they first offended. "We need far earlier intervention with some of these families, who are often socially excluded and socially dysfunctional. That may mean before they offend ... In truth we can identify such families virtually as they are born.

He said: "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 was delivering the first of a series of lectures on domestic policy under the slogan "Our Nation's Future". Critics have detected a valedictory tone to Mr Blair's speeches.

Mr Blair faced embarrassment as Rod Morgan, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, attacked the frequency of legislation under the Government. Professor Morgan, who was sitting alongside the Prime Minister, said: "I think much of the uncertainty and confusion in the minds of the public is because there's been such a welter of change, there's been so much flux."

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Tony Blair claims that everyone is in denial - but he fails to recognise that it is he and his own Government that has failed."

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "This is clearly an admission of failure by the Prime Minister. After nearly 10 years in power, the gap between his rhetoric and reality is wider than ever. It is a continuing failure of government policy that is letting people down, not some nebulous 'liberal establishment' or an ill-defined need to 'rebalance' the system."