I was confident that the British press would spend much of the week calling upon a woman in high public office to consider her position. But it never occurred to me that the woman in question would be Tessa Jowell.
While I can see that the game of hunt the minister is a highly diverting one for newspaper editors - and I have played that game myself in the past - the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has not put up much scent for the hounds. It seems that her only offence is to be married to a man - David Mills - whose greed is greater than his much-proclaimed intelligence.
The Daily Mail yesterday tried to get round this point by describing him in its front-page headline as "Mr Tessa Jowell" - but even this ingenuity will surely not convince readers that by some biological miracle they are the same person. Yes, Ms Jowell has disappointed feminists with her dopey acquiescence in her husband's increasingly exotic mortgage arrangements. But if foolishness in this area of personal finance was a resigning matter, then Mr Blair would have gone long ago.
No, the woman who I thought would have been spending the week dodging the press hounds is Christine Glenn. Ms Glenn - just in case you didn't know - is the chief executive of the Parole Board. On Tuesday, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Andrew Bridges, released his long-awaited report into the circumstances that made it possible for Damien Hanson to murder the financier John Monckton. Hanson had been paroled after having served just over half of a 12-year sentence for attempted murder, but within weeks of his early release murdered John Monckton, and attempted to murder his wife, in a carefully premeditated assault.
The Bridges report, commissioned by the Home Secretary Charles Clarke, is a most unusual government document in two ways. First, it is written in clear, concise English. Second, it is unflinching in the way it lays bare the incompetence of decision-making in one of our public services.
The press reporting of the case duly recorded Mr Bridges' strictures against his own service, principally the way in which Hanson seemed to have been assigned a range of probation officers, none of whom showed any signs of taking individual responsibility for the case, and the fact that he was put in a hostel in London, rather than Essex as the parole board specified. As a result, four probation officers have now been suspended.
But neither MPs nor the media seem to have absorbed the appalling shortcomings of the Parole Board - which actually took the decision to release Hanson - laid bare in the Bridges report. First of all, Bridges observes that when Hanson was sentenced (with a co-defendant, Aston Tew) for attempted murder in 1998, the judge at the Central Criminal Court said that Tew and Hanson "will not be released until they have served at least two thirds of their sentences". So how could the Parole Board release Hanson after half his sentence?
As a matter of fact, the Parole Board did turn down Hanson's first parole application, in May 2003. Bridges reveals that on that occasion a Parole Board panel interviewed Hanson, and when asked by its independent member about his record of offences Hanson replied: "You can't say 'my offending'. It's not me that has done anything on any of my offences." Not surprisingly, the panel rejected his parole application.
Yet a year later, the Parole Board did accept his second application, even though - "remarkably", says Bridges - the reporting probation officer had not even met Hanson since the unsuccessful hearing of 2003. What is more, the Parole Board decided on his release without conducting an interview. Instead, says a clearly astonished Chief Inspector of Prisons, "there was however a lengthy written personal statement from Hanson himself and representations from his solicitors. Both make note of his growth in maturity and his concern for his victims."
Well they would, wouldn't they? Finally, Bridges observes that a probation officer had given the Parole Board an assessment that Hanson was 91 per cent likely to reoffend "with a high probability of sexual or violent offending".
So what was the response of Christine Glenn when, in the week that Hanson was convicted of the Monckton murder, Charles Clarke commissioned an enquiry. Contrition? You've got the wrong lady. Interviewed by The Sunday Times, Ms Glenn said simply: "If the Parole Board had known Hanson was going to be living in London he would never have been released." Aside from the unattractive way in which Ms Glenn thereby shifted the blame - rather successfully, as it happens - on to the probation service, this raises two obvious questions. Did Ms Glenn think that there is no one in the county of Essex rich enough to interest Damien Hanson? Did she also think that it is impossible for an able-bodied man to travel from Essex to London, if he wanted to burgle a house in Chelsea?
And what did Ms Glenn say publicly, when the Bridges report was released last Tuesday? Nothing. The chairman of the Parole Board, Sir Duncan Nichol, did however release a statement. It contained not a single expression of regret or sympathy. By contrast, Charles Clarke went out of his way to offer his sympathy and apologies to the Monckton family for the appalling catalogue of official blunders which allowed Damien Hanson to do to them what he did.
In his statement to MPs, Mr Clarke also made a remarkable proposal which went entirely unreported (as is usual with Commons statements). The Home Secretary pointed out that in 2003 a Criminal Justice Act was passed enabling "indeterminate" sentences to be passed on sexual or highly violent criminals. He told MPs he was now examining whether such sentences could be applied to those who were convicted before the 2003 Act came into force.
Legally fraught as such a plan would be , it is actually essential if Mr Clarke is to justify something else he said to Parliament on Tuesday: "Dangerous and violent offenders should only be let out of prison if it is clear that they are no longer a risk to the public." Under current policies, as Andrew Bridges himself points out, "when an offender is being managed in the community it is simply not possible to eliminate risk altogether".
Pending Mr Clarke's attempts to change the law on the release of dangerous criminals, I have my own suggestion to improve the Parole Board, which might simultaneously deal with Tessa Jowell's immediate employment prospects. Christine Glenn should be sacked and replaced as chief executive of the Parole Board with Ms Jowell, who for many years was a psychiatric social worker, and is therefore not without qualifications for the job. It is true Tessa Jowell is not omnicompetent. But she is, at least, a woman with a concept of decency.Reuse content