One of the most reliable signs that elections are imminent is the rush of initiatives that pours forth from a government scared of being seen as soft on crime. It is in this light that the measures just announced by the Home Secretary need to be seen. The Government has been forced on to the defensive by a spate of particularly brutal killings carried out by individuals on early release or probation. It fears the return of Labour's old vulnerability on law and order.
Enter Charles Clarke, with some fierce-sounding remedies. First, he summarily abolished the scheme that pays out discretionary compensation to those who have suffered miscarriages of justice. He capped payments under the separate statutory compensation scheme and said he wanted no compensation at all paid to those with previous convictions. The money saved would go towards compensating the victims of crime.
Then yesterday, the Home Secretary announced plans for "violent offender orders" and a register of violent offenders akin to the sex offenders register. Amply trailed in advance, this announcement was a classic of the New Labour genre. As yet, the proposals are but a gleam in Mr Clarke's eye; details have yet to be worked out. We can expect to hear about them several times more before - if ever - they come into being. The prime purpose was to show that the Government was addressing public disquiet.
That the introduction of such measures may be some way down the road does not mean, however, that what Mr Clarke has proposed should go unchallenged. On the contrary, it is all the more important that the measures should be exposed for what they are and rejected before they get any closer to the statute book. This is, after all, the same Charles Clarke whose tenure has been marked by illiberal legislation, from draconian anti-terrorism measures to ID cards, via a clampdown on immigration. His latest announcements demonstrate yet again that, when under pressure, the tendency of this government is to pander to the baser instincts of some voters. There is an element of demagogy here that would be unseemly from any democratically elected government, but is especially so when peddled by a party that claims to be enlightened and progressive.
The low-key way in which the Home Secretary customarily presents his proposals can also blur the many questions of justice and civil rights they so often raise. Why should those with a previous conviction be barred from receiving compensation if they subsequently suffer a miscarriage of justice? Are they lesser citizens? And what justice is there in an arbitrary "cap" on compensation for wrongful conviction? Compared with the annual cost of payments to victims of crime, the bill for payments to those wrongfully convicted is tiny.
The notion of "violent offender orders" and a register of such offenders grabs attention. But is it right that someone who has served his sentence should be branded for life? Anyway, no order or register can substitute for the good judgement, efficient procedures and accountability that are essential to a well-run criminal justice system. The failures that contributed to high-profile crimes, such as the murders of John Monckton and Mary-Ann Leneghan, related to pressure on prisons, rushed procedures and poor co-ordination among different agencies - the same failings essentially that are observed time and again in child abuse and other cases where co-ordination goes wrong.
The single most effective measure announced by Mr Clarke in recent months is that one individual should be responsible for supervising a paroled prisoner until the end of his sentence. This makes good sense. But it is not the stuff of crime-busting headlines.Reuse content