Steve Richards: Crisis, what crisis? John Reid is being pilloried for getting something right

In order to ensure that the dangerous go to jail, he was reminding magistrates of agreed guidelines
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Any story relating to the Home Office feeds a single fuming theme marked "Crisis!!". The very different events of recent days are conflated into one nightmarish drama. Apparently everyone is up in arms because they want more people in prison and the jails are full. In this latest "Crisis!!" Britain has run out of prison places and therefore the streets are filled with violent criminals and paedophiles who should have been locked away.

The Government is culpable for the perception and accompanying panic in ways that are becoming increasingly familiar. The Home Secretary, John Reid, made a great big rod for his own back by macho posturing at the start of his reign, encouraging headlines about the great enforcer arriving to deliver us from all forms of evil. He made a shamelessly populist speech at the Labour conference last September when he should have been aware by then of the troubles that were about to erupt.

A humbler tone would have been more appropriate, but Reid allowed some flattering media coverage to divert his attention from what was happening in his department. How much better it would have been if he had stressed persistently, as he did yesterday, that he expected to find further problems in the Home Office. Instead perhaps with one eye on the Labour leadership, he played to the gallery.

As he did so he was widely praised in parts of the media. Now that he is being partially more restrained and mature, he is being torn apart. Reid's most immediate contribution to the current mayhem was entirely legitimate and sensible.

In reminding magistrates and judges of the sentencing guidelines he was carrying out his responsibilities rather than going beyond them. He was not ordering them to act differently and nor specifically was he commanding them to give non custodial sentences to dangerous criminals. The message was the opposite. In order to ensure that the dangerous go to jail, he was reminding judges and magistrates of agreed guidelines that make clear fines and community sentences are available to those that that pose no threat.

It is extraordinary that a reasoned statement could cause such a frenzied reaction. He said nothing to suggest that paedophiles should be free, even if individual judges chose to interpret his words in such a manner. The spark that lit further flames was in reality a bucket full of water aimed at alleviating a raging fire.

Of course Reid, Tony Blair and others are trapped by their own crude populism, showing off about how many are in prison under Labour when they should be ashamed that so many of the wrong people are incarcerated. But it should be noted that the present crisis was started by Reid making the right move. Instead he is widely perceived to have made another terrible mistake.

The other key events in recent days are also not what they seem. In particular the resignation of Professor Rod Morgan, the head of the Youth Justice Board, became part of the crisis and yet he resigned because too many youngsters were being locked up. He was not storming out because too few were being incarcerated as a result of a shortage of places.

Professor Morgan was doing a good job in difficult circumstances. His departure is an indictment of government policies. But we should be clear precisely what policies are being challenged by his departure, the recent focus on locking up more youngsters. Ironically his resignation was an inadvertent echo of Reid's reminder to judges of the sentencing guidelines. Fleetingly, both were united in their warnings about an over dependency on custodial options.

Unusually for a crisis this one has clear solutions, although whether anyone in this timid government will adopt them in place of headline-grabbing initiatives is another matter. Most obviously, sentencing policies must be brought into line with the number of prison places available. This used to be known as joined-up government. As far too many of the wrong people currently get custodial sentences, reductions should be achievable without increasing spending on prisons.

Ominously Reid said yesterday that he had been in talks with Gordon Brown on Sunday evening. As the two of them were unlikely to be discussing Brown's leadership ambitions presumably Reid was asking for more money to be spent on prisons. The Government spends too much already. It needs to review the sentencing guidelines and specify clearly what they are, even if some newspapers rage.

If there is spare additional cash as a result of such an initiative the money should be spent on new and innovative ways to rehabilitate criminals. Currently the re-offending rate is so high that most of those released might as well be arrested as they leave the prisons. This is especially true in relation to the growing number of young prisoners. Such a shift in emphasis would involve the government being genuinely bold and tough, standing up to populist prejudice rather than pretending to be tough by reinforcing prejudice.

Most of the other stories that erupted last week cannot be blamed on Reid and the Government. They were administrative cock-ups. One of the stories highlighted more failures to keep records of Britons in jail abroad. Home Office ministers cannot keep a running check on every document coming in and out of their department. This must be the responsibility of civil servants. Perhaps the officials are doing their best and are overwhelmed by government initiatives. Maybe some of them are incompetent. The point is we do not know.

A hidden issue is the role of civil servants. As Guy Lodge from the left-of-centre IPPR think tank wrote in this week's New Statesman: "For too long civil servants have been able to hide behind the protection of ministerial shields ... This may have made sense in 1913 when the Home Office employed 28 people but it is nonsense to apply it to today's Home Office, which employs more than 70,000." Anonymity can lead to complacency. Rather than splitting the Home Office into two, ministers need to reflect on a wider cultural revolution that will lead to senior civil servants appearing on the Today programme. Some officials wield immense power. We need to know more about them.

Instead ministers are held to account too much. In the summer I argued that the sacking of Charles Clarke at the Home Office would change nothing, but would temporarily appease the media. That is what happened. Clarke went. There was a brief lull. For a short time Reid enjoyed a media honeymoon. Now the issues that blew Clarke away are whirling around Reid. Sacking or moving ministers becomes part of the problem. There is too big a turnover. No one stays long enough to get a grip.

Nothing is what it seems. Once more the Home Office is in a mess. Reid's removal would make it worse.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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