Matthew Norman: The hard man with a soft centre

Will Dr Reid denounce Rupert Murdoch for the criminal activities of his staff?
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The Independent Online

Fans of "Dr" John Reid are in for a treat as our courageous Home Secretary sets about tackling the two most urgent items in his bulging in tray. Talking tough on crime is the good doctor's pièce de résistance, as it has been for all holders of the post since Michael Howard first delighted the nation with the mantra "Prison works". So the intriguing question today for Reid lovers everywhere is how tough he plans to talk on two specific crimes.

Will "Dr" Reid publicly denounce the Russian government if and when the radiation trail leads to the Kremlin, and even issue extradition proceedings over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko? And will he publicly urge the trial judge to impose the maximum two-year sentence on Clive Goodman, the News of the World journalist who bugged those princely mobiles, and even ask the police to investigate whether his editor knew about this and was therefore an accessory before and/or after the fact?

Somehow, one suspects, there may be limits to Reid's toughness on crime after all. For whereas it is extremely easy to bang up the powerless for too long in conditions seemingly designed by a malevolent genius to guarantee that they reoffend, it is rather difficult to accuse an ally with his finger on the gas pipelines of murder; and, for the would be next prime minister, perhaps even more dangerous to attack one of the newspapers which has dictated the penal policy so cogently lacerated in yesterday's Independent by Lord Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons.

For more than a decade, from Mr Howard via Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Charles Clarke all the way down to John Reid, each home secretary has ingratiated himself with the populist press by doing their bidding on this issue, and the results speak for themselves ... a record prison population of 80,000, up 30 per cent in 10 years, with far more children and women behind bars; an underfunded probation service in perpetual crisis; and most revealingly an adult male reoffending rate up from 55 per cent to 67 per cent in just the pastfive years.

Everyone who knew what they were talking about has warned of this for ages, and as always the Government eschewed expert opinion in favour of assuaging the knee-jerk idiocy of right-wing leader writers from the sort of papers which routinely bug Prince William's phone.

The fundamental argument about penal policy is an ancient chestnut that might crudely be characterised as a battle between the "three strikes and you're out" approach of some states in the US, where a man was sentenced to 50 years a while ago after completing his hat-trick by stealing a slice of pizza; and the more enlightened approach in Holland and Scandinavia, where the far lower proportion of criminals sent to prison are encouraged to develop skills that will minimise the odds on them ever returning.

In British penal terms, it might be styled as Barraclough versus MacKay. Mr Barraclough was the gentle, sensitive warder in Porridge, you will recall, who believed in treating Fletch, Godber and the rest as human beings, whereas Mr MacKay was the pedantic, militaristic screw who thought that committing a crime invalidated a man's human rights.

Once, and for a long time, home secretaries such as Roy Jenkins, Douglas Hurd and (for all his introduction of the "short, sharp shock") even Willie Whitelaw tended to the Barracloughian view. Strong enough to ignore the screeching demands to bang up more people for longer, they ensured that, however paltry the rehabilitation programmes, at least the prison population remained fairly static, rather than 25,000 too great for the outmoded facilities.

Since middle-Thatcher onwards, Britain has moved away from Europe towards America on most important issues, and this one is no exception. From Mr Howard to this day, we have had only MacKays in the Home Office, each striving to outdo his predecessor in barbarism, each ignoring the findings of every serious piece of research conducted, that the Scandinavian approach is not only the more humane and successful, but also far less expensive. The result has been the penal system's descent from archaic and inadequate to nothing less than catastrophic.

Were "Dr" Reid interested in cutting the reoffending rate, he would do what his government has done with every other facet of the public services, and introduce league tables. He would force every nick in the country to produce annual statistics on the number of academic or vocational courses offered and exams passed, and, most crucially, the percentage of those released the previous year since convicted of another crime.

He would no more dream of doing so, of course, than denouncing Rupert Murdoch for the criminal activities of his staff. League tables would focus attention on the failures of the system, pressurising him to divert funds from creating yet more prison places for people who shouldn't be there in the first place to improving educational facilities... just the sort of policy that would see him demonised as soft and liberal by the stern moralists of the red-top press.

And so instead he will continue to talk tough on crime as the penal system sinks ever deeper into the chaos so vividly described by Lord Ramsbotham and others yesterday. You have to say that for a self-styled hard man, John Reid shows an amazing talent, even by New Labour standards, for taking the easy option.