Stephen Pollard: Blunkett wants the punishment to fit the crime

The Home Secretary has a remarkable ability to say what people outside Islington think
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The Independent Online

There are few things more ex than an ex-inspector. One day, ministers and the media hang on your every word; the next, you're Sir David who? The ex-Chief Inspector of Prisons, that's who.

In an article published today on a website, Sir David Ramsbotham writes that David Blunkett is "not fit" to be in charge of Britain's prisons. Why not? In large part because of the Home Secretary's comments after the suicide of Harold Shipman: "You wake up and you receive a phone call telling you that Shipman has topped himself. And you think, is it too early to open a bottle?"

According to Sir David, "No one who rejoices - or says they understand why someone rejoices - at the death of someone for whose safety they are responsible, is fit to be responsible for the custody of any fellow human being."

Really? What a strange world in which Sir David must live. I can't imagine not rejoicing in the death of Myra Hindley or, when it comes, of Peter Sutcliffe, even if only momentarily. It's a natural, human reaction to the snuffing out of evil. Are home secretaries not human, too?

But this dispute points to the most fundamental divide of all in criminal justice policy, between those who think that, at root, criminals should be pitied, and those who think that they should be punished. In the end, most of us come down on one side of that fence. Of course it's more complicated than that but, like most generalisations, it has a basis of truth. And it's in the ground between those two poles that the complications and misunderstandings start.

Take Mr Blunkett. The caricature view is that he's the most "right wing" Home Secretary since... well, since whom? Jack Straw? Or Michael Howard? The facts say something rather different. Rather than the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" caricature, Mr Blunkett is engaged in a fascinating experiment to see whether it is indeed possible to be both tough and tender, and to be severe where necessary and lenient where permissible.

The typical chattering class response when I tell people that I am writing Mr Blunkett's biography is an asinine variation on that "right wing" theme, followed by a self-congratulatory guffaw at their having had so astonishingly original a thought. That there might be more to the policies emerging from the Home Office - that it might be possible to want retribution and rehabilitation, for example - doesn't cross their mind.

In part, that's because of the Home Secretary's remarkable ability to say what people outside Islington think. To most people, pointing out that immigrants are better off if they can speak English is sheer common sense. To others, it's racist. Again, admitting that you felt a surge of joy on hearing that Shipman had "topped himself" is part of that same phenomenon: to most people, murderers - especially the likes of Dr Shipman - are, to put it bluntly, scum. To others, they are as worthy of respect as any human being.

That divide was typified by the remarks of Sir Oliver Popplewell on his retirement from the bench last year. Talking on the Today programme about Mr Blunkett's plans for "life to mean life", he accused the Home Secretary of "populism". As Mr Blunkett responded: "I don't think listening to the people that... I represent, is populism. I think it is decent common sense in a democracy that works"

Indeed, those sentencing guidelines are a perfect demonstration of the "on the one hand, on the other hand" approach Mr Blunkett has adopted. Anyone who abducts and murders a child will never be released from prison. Whole life terms will also be imposed for terrorist murder or multiple murders that are premeditated, sexual or sadistic. As he has put it: "Murder is the most serious and heinous of crimes... When capital punishment was abolished, it was intended that a strong, rigorous alternative needed to be introduced and strictly maintained. I am determined to ensure we have modern arrangements which maintain that commitment."

But the other side of the picture, which tends to be reported only to be castigated, is the belief that where prison is not necessary, community punishments are most appropriate. Here, Mr Blunkett has vastly increased the range of options, such as tagging and "intermittent sentences", where a convict is allowed home at weekends or for some specific, regular purpose. American experience shows that these can help protect family relationships that can otherwise fracture, often at the expense of children who end up suffering the most.

Does that mean the Home Secretary is another lily-livered liberal? No more than ensuring that "life must mean life" is populist, or a sign of being viciously right wing. They are both part of a mixed approach which is, it seems, too nuanced for many critics to grasp.

But then life is so much easier when we imagine that people conform to a stereotype. Sir David, after all, is a retired General; he too is hardly the wet of the stereotypical prison reformer. Can't we just accept that both he and Mr Blunkett are more complicated than their caricatures?

Stephen Pollard is a senior fellow at the Centre for the New Europe. His biography of David Blunkett will be published early in 2005