Michael Brown: Tough talk and cheap headlines don't solve crime

If it was down to sheer volume of legislation, Britain would be the safest society in the world


There was a distinctly weary tone about the Queen's delivery of her speech to Parliament yesterday. But it was unlikely that her recent back pain could have had much to do with it. After all, only the night before, a radiant monarch had attended the film premier of Casino Royale. I wondered, as she listed the familiar litany of Home Office Bills, whether she was secretly reflecting that, if only the new 007 - Daniel Craig - was for real, he would be far more likely to make a successful difference to crime, terrorism, and security than anything she was reading out from the throne.

The wearisome nature of the speech probably had much to do with the fact that the Queen has said so much of it all before, during the course of the 10 years she has been reading out Tony Blair's scripts. Not for the first time was she foreshadowing "legislation to reform the criminal justice system". In fact she must have been wondering whether the Lord Chancellor had accidentally (or maybe deliberately) put old copies of previous speeches in his purse by mistake.

How about this in 2004: "My Government will bring forward legislation to reduce re-offending by improving the management of offenders." Exactly the same words appeared in 2005 Queen's Speech. This was yesterday's version: "Legislation will be introduced to improve the way that offenders are managed and supervised." Notice that this time, however, the wording suggests that she appears to have given up on her government legislating to reduce re-offending.

The trouble is that this new session of Parliament is Westminster's equivalent of a university gap year. Normally a state opening is supposed to signal a fresh parliamentary beginning. This had the whiff of a fag-end parliamentary session, more normally associated with a government that is facing the end of its term in office.

Some were describing the speech as Tony Blair's last will and testament but I suspect that he will actually leave office intestate, with few of the latest measures on crime, punishment and terrorism being enacted by the time he departs. Even then, whether they will make a ha'pennyworth of difference to our domestic security and safety must be doubtful - assuming they are all enacted under a new Prime Minister. Indeed, of the Bills foreshadowed last year, 17 never materialised at all. This series of measures has more to do with trying to paint the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats into a corner with the implicit suggestion that they are soft on crime. There must even be a suspicion that the Home Secretary, John Reid, is being given free rein to strengthen his own leadership credentials in a possible battle with Gordon Brown.

But the more the Home Office legislation - so far - is analysed, the clearer it becomes that there is as much to be gained, politically, by David Cameron reinforcing his recent remarks about addressing the causes of crime. Mr Cameron may have been lampooned for his "hug-a-hoodie" and "love-a-lout" approach, but leaving aside the crude and initially embarrassing headlines, there is a growing realisation that the current approach is not working.

So far there have been 59 Home Office Bills since Labour came to power - 23 on criminal justice measures alone. If sheer volume of legislation were the determining factor, Britain should be the safest and most crime-free society in the world. And, as Mr Cameron pointed out, of the measures in the Criminal Justice Act of 2000, of its 110 provisions, 17 have yet to be implemented while 39 others have already been repealed.

Some of the legislation outlined this time seeks to reverse previous Acts passed in earlier sessions. In 2003, powers were given to judges to cut sentences where defendants pleaded guilty to an offence. That will be changed under yesterday's proposals: two Bills gumming up the parliamentary works to end us up where we were in 2002.

And the latest wheeze to throw rowdy families out of their own homes looks as impractical as Mr Blair's derided plan to march drunken yobs off to the nearest ATM. Families living next to troublesome neighbours all over the country will be eagerly anticipating this new law. But they better not hold their breath. Yesterday, while Dr Reid was hailing the idea, his own Home Office consultation document Strengthening Powers to Tackle Anti-Social Behaviour estimated that only 50 premises would be closed a year.

If Mr Cameron can make the case that Labour's legislative incontinence has done little to deal with crime, he will get a much better hearing for his analysis on the causes of crime than Dr Reid has so far calculated.


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