Howard's way on crime: Police, Camera, Action

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Last month, some judge or other excited the chattering classes by attacking the Home Secretary in the House of Lords.

This chap (Taylor? Naylor? Something like that) used his retirement speech to suggest that Michael Howard's new proposals for sentencing (three strikes and you're out, life for burglars, the cat for car-thieves) hadn't been properly thought through. Anyway, the usual big fuss ensued and the Government decided to clear the air - you, know, take the criticisms head on - with a debate.

But three or four weeks elapsed and he has had a lot on his mind, so it is hard to blame the Home Secretary for not actually referring to the Lord Chief Justice's critique at all in his excellent speech yesterday. Someone who has the awesome responsibility of framing laws to protect the law-abiding, while ensuring the rule of justice, cannot be expected to deal with every complaint or pedantic legalism raised by the judiciary.

And while the accusations that the Government is acting on the flimsiest of evidence, that it is only five years since the last major review of sentencing policy, and that injustices will be inevitable, are not unimportant, other matters were simply more deserving of Mr Howard's time.

Like the long and hilarious personal attack on Jack Straw which succeeded Mr Howard's necessarily detailed account of the record fall in crime during his tenure of the Home Office. Regrettably, I can only offer a flavour of this pungent passage, which described the shadow Home Secretary ("a bottom-of- the-market plagiarist") in his three stages of manic depression; first casting around for tough-looking ideas; next, grabbing at the first ones he came across, and finally, living to regret them.

Behind him delighted backbenchers contrasted this with their own champion who, famously, never regrets anything.

"The Home Secretary should remember that he is not addressing a Conservative Party Conference", Labour MP Donald Anderson complained to the Speaker. "I am sure that the Home Secretary knows exactly where he is", said Betty, offering a rare compliment to a minster she clearly admires.

But the ever-smiling Mr Howard did not have it all his own way. His assault on Mr Straw's advocacy of curfews for 10-year-olds foundered slightly when it was revealed that the president of the Police Chief Inspector's Association, Brian Mackenzie, had declared himself "delighted" with the proposal.

This was a blow. In the modern debate about crime and punishment, the motto of both sides is "Police, Camera, Action" - find out what the police want, make sure the cameras are there, and announce some action. If Brian Mackenzie is for it, Mr Howard must have been thinking, how can I be against?

As the Home Secretary came towards the end of his speech Plaid Cymru MP, Elfyn Llwyd, made a last attempt to remind him of Lord Taylor's objections. He was pushed aside by a democratic politician who believes in government responding to popular feeling.

The strength of this belief was indicated in his rebuttal of the Taylorian views of the Liberal Democrat Alex Carlile. "I warn the honourable gentleman", said Mr Howard, "that his parliamentary candidates will regret his remarks even if he doesn't." So there you are - Police, Camera, Action ... Election.