Deborah Orr: The Home Office needs to think again about what purpose it should be fit for

The usefulness of our criminal justice system lies in its ability to tell us how the rest of society is working
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Today the Government publishes its Home Office Reform Plan, which no doubt will be widely viewed as an attempt by the Home Secretary John Reid to flesh out his provocative view that his shiny new department, in its shiny new building, is "not fit for purpose". The purpose of the Home Office, is, by the way, "to build a safe, just and tolerant society, to enhance opportunities for all, and to ensure the protection and security of the public is maintained". That's what it says on the website anyway.

This grand, implausible mission statement - with its casually insulting assumption that a reactive bureaucratic system is responsible for delivering the above to us, its grateful and passive recipients, rather than merely administrating it for us - is in itself a monument to the Government's naïve and wrong-headed folly.

If Reid is a brave man, he will explain today that his department is limited in its ability to fulfil such lofty ambitions. He will reassure us instead that his service will from now on concentrate on the perfectly respectable work of making sure that its running repairs, and its necessary interventions, are completed sensibly, thoroughly and with respect towards those who hone their expertise over an entire career, and not in the interstices of a cabinet reshuffle.

He will grasp that no new system, however clever, no ideological process, however weighted, is better at delivering results than those who are running it, or at deciding whether it has reached its "targets" than those in whose service it operates. He will, in short, stop bigging up his political gang, stop shit-bagging those who give the lie to his gang's wilder boasts, and try instead for a more modest, achievable and honest approach.

No group has been berated more consistently and comprehensively than those who run the bunch of loosely related agencies that we call the criminal justice system. The rise in crime, it has been accepted for what seems like forever, is due to the "failing criminal justice system". In order to change it, Labour has battled for years against the judges, fiddled into a third term with an ailing probation service, and flirted as ineffectually with the idea of progressive prison reform as it did in the "wilderness years". Yet what it has never done is simply get to grips with the fact that is staring it in the face - that its whole top-down approach may be quite simply wrong.

In a masterly little document published last year by the Social Policy Foundation, its founder, Richard Garside, laid out a basic reason why this might be. For a long time now it has been widely accepted that the growing "justice gap" is an indicator of declining efficiency in the system. The gap itself has certainly got a lot bigger. In 1980 six offences were recorded by the police for every individual successfully convicted. By 2000 it was 11. Using the British Crime Survey - preferred by the Government to police figures - the gap is even more alarming. In 1981, there was one conviction for every 25 offences, in 2000 there was one for every 30. Yet while this sounds pretty scary, it's actually the tip of the iceberg.

Garside argues eloquently that this supposedly huge justice gap is actually a huge underestimate. He contends that crime is far more widespread than is ever measured. He's not the only one.

Back when John Birt was Blair's great blue skies thinker, he prepared a report on reducing crime that suggested that neither of these systems actually manages to measure many offences. Birt's report was never published - it was released instead under the Freedom of Information Act. But it claimed - with some justification - that the real rate of attrition was virtually negligible. Birt and others have contended that something like 99 per cent of indictable offences probably did not result in an individual being convicted. Which means, of course, as the report so prettily puts it, that the Home Office has for 10 years been "attempting to turn a system that performs dreadfully into one that performs badly".

Yet the use of this amazing set of statistics as a benchmark actually frees the Government from the pettifogging idea that the criminal justice system and the prevalence of crime are intimately linked. When one thinks about it, the Government's obsession with adjusting the criminal justice system in order to adjust the prevalence of crime suggests that it almost imagines the system to be the generator of crime rather than its regulator.

Yet when you look at crimes that the criminal justice system has managed to keep a stable attrition rate on - such as murder - it suddenly becomes clear that the attrition rate is not much of an indicator of anything at all. There is no justice gap in murder. The attrition rate of 65 per cent has remained the same for 20 years, even though the rate of murder has been increasing all the time.

When Danny Dorling analysed the murder figures in Scotland, England and Wales from 1981 until 2000, he found that the rate of murder increased as the Eighties moved into the Nineties, but that the increased rate was not distributed evenly across the nation. It increased for men, but decreased for women. It decreased for the rich, but increased for the poor. In fact, the rise among murder victims was almost exclusively among men of working age living in the poorest parts of the country, who grew up in mass unemployment. So the rising rate of this crime was due not to a failing criminal justice system but as a result of deep-rooted social, economic and political change.

What can the criminal justice system do to tackle this? At present, Garside points out, it can do nothing but reproduce rather than ameliorate profound inequalities. It simply mirrors, in theatrical, symbolic gestures, the iniquities played out in the society that it regulates.

In other words, the usefulness of the criminal justice system lies in its ability to tell us how the rest of our society is working. A failing criminal justice system merely reports on a criminally failing society and even, when it is administered inhumanely, makes its own contribution to making things worse.

Which means that nearly every department in the Government has a more active role to play in cutting crime than the Home Office - at least in as far as its duties in running the criminal justice system are concerned.

Yet more than anything, it becomes apparent as one thinks more about the crimes we know are seldom brought to justice - assaulting children and sexually attacking women are two towering examples - it is changing our own attitudes, rather than changing Home Office systems, that can make our society safer.

Garside turns all the received wisdom of decades about the criminal justice system on its head, and suddenly there is clarity instead of an angry, ugly, mess. Why don't I think that John Reid will be doing the same?