Leading article: If our legal and political systems are riven with flaws, whose fault is it?

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The Independent Online

Yesterday offered a classic example of this surrealism. We heard Tony Blair speaking in Bristol of the need for "a complete new mindset" that would make "protection of the law-abiding public the priority" and measure success "by the reality of the street and community in which real people live real lives". Which, of course, is wonderful, stirring stuff. Until you ask precisely whose "mindset" he has in mind. What was at fault, he elaborated, was "the culture of political and legal decision-making" that still had to take account of the way the world has changed.

Excuse us for asking, but who has actually been responsible for creating the present "culture of political and legal decision-making"? For the best part of a decade, Mr Blair and his ministers have enjoyed some of the largest parliamentary majorities of recent times. How come it always seems to be someone else's fault that Britain is still as flawed as it is? Yesterday Mr Blair seemed to have in his sights a judicial establishment that he implied was letting ordinary people down. And he made a strong plea for court decisions to be "re-balanced" in favour of the "decent law-abiding majority who play by the rules". To this end, he proposed yet more legislation and more opportunities for summary justice: more on-the-spot fines, more Asbos and the like. In other words, more short-term, knee-jerk responses to whichever brand of crime finds itself at any one moment demonised in the headlines of the popular press.

He also suggested, bizarrely, that part of the problem was "the absence of a proper considered intellectual and political debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world". We venture to suggest that the discontented voters Mr Blair met during his meetings in Bristol had something less ethereal in mind - and we do not mean public flogging or hanging. This government has been responsible for introducing between 40 and 60 new pieces of criminal justice legislation (depending how you count them). Yet there remains deep dissatisfaction with the way the police, the courts and the prison system operate.

There is no point in operating - to cite one short-lived experiment - expensive night courts to dispense immediate justice when 999 calls are not efficiently answered, and when the standard response to a public nuisance or house burglary is that such everyday occurrences can wait. It is no good promising more police on the beat when they are not seen out and about every day, and no point recruiting large numbers of so-called community support officers who patrol only in daylight hours.

The successive public outcries there have been - about illegal migrants, about prisoners on early release who reoffend, about foreigners who were erroneously not considered for deportation - are matters of simple administrative competence. There is no need for flashy new legislation. There is no need to send anyone to the United States to look at the working of "Megan's law". How about sending someone to other parts of Europe to find out why the prison population is so much lower there? And there is certainly no need to blame the Human Rights Act. The one really urgent imperative is to ensure that the many laws already on the statute book are effectively, and justly, enforced.

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