Matthew Norman: The bewildering bluster of Charles Clarke

What I think he is struggling to articulate is simple distaste for the presumption of innocence itself
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However well inured to the Home Secretary one imagines oneself to be, it is an iron law of British politics that Charles Clarke will invariably dredge up some new way to drop the jaw and leave you wondering again what on earth his game might be.

Is he a sleeper for crypto-anarchism, who infiltrated the political system solely to highlight its inherent failings and provoke a revolution? Is he yet another pliant cipher for the Prime Minister... a mouthpiece for every piece of populist chicanery Mr Tony Blair doodles in the back of the Jag? Does Mr Clarke unleash his weekly assaults on the precepts of justice because he has a crush on Shami Chakrabarti, and is desperate to ogle her on Newsnight?

Does he suffer from a rare neurological ailment, a kind of jurisprudential Tourette's, that makes him blurt him out every lunatic idea on law and order that flits across his mind before he's taken the 30 seconds required to see the flaw? Or is he just what he seems - an unthinking, knee jerking, ultra-right wing hoodlum of the kind for whom Mrs Thatcher tended to have a soft spot, but wouldn't let near her Cabinet?

Honestly, I haven't a clue which, if any, comes closest to explaining Mr Clarke, aspects of whose latest pub bore ranting about criminal justice scale new zeniths of befuddlement. It's not the "Violent Offenders Orders", dreamt up to deflect anger from his resignation-worthy failure to protect the likes of John Monckton and Mary-Ann Leneghan from men who palpably shouldn't have been released in the first place, that cause bemusement. When this idea appears in his forthcoming Criminal Justice (Escaped Equines and Stable Doors) Bill, few will pick a fight with that.

What is bewildering is the stuff about introducing the halfway house finding of "not proven" (long unpopular in Scotland) to Appeal Court reviews, and cutting compensation payments to the wrongly imprisoned. "It is a matter for the greatest regret when anyone suffers punishment as a result of a miscarriage of justice," Hansard quoted Mr Clarke, then a Home Office minister of state, saying in 2001 when John Kamara emerged after serving 20 years for a murder he didn't commit. "I welcome the decision of the Court of Appeal to quash Mr Kamara's conviction, and that of the Criminal Cases Review Commission to refer the case to the Court."

Five years on, such cases seem a matter of less regret as he tries to equivocate between a miscarriage of justice and a common crime. This at least is the nominal rationale behind his desire to recoup a laughable sum from reparations to the wrongly imprisoned, and divert it to compensating the mugged and robbed.

Although Mr Clarke claims that dealing with miscarriages of justice is "a massive industry for the legal profession", the truth is that it's tiny beyond belief. The total proposed saving for the Home Office - from capping compensation at £500,000, limiting the circumstances in which victims can claim, and reducing payouts because of irrelevant previous convictions - is £5m per annum, the sort of loose change that could be recouped by selling part of the Government's wine cellars or making the pension arrangements for MPs a little less cushy.

As an amount of money it is negligible, but as a statement of intent it does have some value. Many would agree that the £906,000 to Michael Hickey for the time he did for the wrongful conviction for the murder of Carl Bridgewater (less a quarter for "bed and board", which is fair enough; you can't encourage these buggers to wangle their way into the nick to scrounge off the taxpayer) seems a pitiful reimbursement for 18 lost years.

Of course there can be no formula for compensating people for the criminal failure of the state to protect their liberty. If Mr Hickey and his brother Vincent, Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, had each received £1bn in cash, it wouldn't come within a million light years of righting the wrong. Perhaps if the police and forensic scientists whose errors helped to put them away had been punished themselves, it might have helped. Then again, no officer has been convicted of perjury or perverting the course of justice over the 1,500 estimated miscarriages of justice in Britain during the past several decades.

If Mr Clarke were really concerned about recouping that £5m, he could oblige all police officers and forensic pathologists to take insurance to cover mistakes leading to wrongful imprisonment. But this isn't about the money at all. This is no more than the voice of the frustrated, inarticulate Sun reader railing against the complexity and difficulty of criminal justice, thumping the table and yelling "if they hadn't done it in the first place, they wouldn't be standing there in the dock."

Examining the Home Secretary's quotes reveals the extent of his non-thinking. He wants the Court of Appeal to make fewer decisions on the "technicalities" of reviewed cases, he says, as if such matters as unreliable confessions are too trifling to bother with; and more on the facts of whether the appellant committed the crime. "What individuals want to see is a legal system that correctly finds guilty those who are guilty of an offence and acquits those who are innocent."

Well that's just brilliant. There we were thinking we wanted a system that convicts the innocent and acquits the guilty, and Mr Clarke turns that orthodoxy on its head. Genius.

You always know a politician is blustering maniacally when for no apparent reason he comes out with the embarrassingly bleeding obvious. Mr Clarke is flailing around for a fake distinction between the processes of law designed to protect the innocent from conviction and the cold, hard evidential fact, as if one is worthless and the other infallible. In fact the two are supposedly equal partners in a system that fails too often as it is.

In the late 19th century, the US Supreme Court observed that it's better for 10 guilty persons to go free than for one innocent to be imprisoned. While one might quibble with the maths - personally, given that a crime committed by the state is almost infinitely more abhorrent than one perpetrated by an individual, I'd put it at 1,000-1 - the principle has always held here as well, which is why we set the criminal standard of proof as high as possible, at "beyond reasonable doubt".

No credible politician has ever dared to challenge the sacred belief that the price we pay for a comparatively decent and humane system of justice is that now and then the guilty get the benefit of the doubt. In that winsome, babbling way of his, what I think the incredible Mr Clarke is struggling to articulate is pure and simple distaste for the presumption of innocence itself.