Leading article: New Home Secretary, same old vice of populism

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John Reid is a busy, busy man these days. Not content with trying to sort out a dysfunctional Home Office, he is scattering headline-ready expressions of zero-tolerance all around the media. On taking office, he called his new department "not fit for purpose". Ten days ago, triggering a row that has a good deal of life in it yet, he incurred the wrath of the judiciary by saying that a minimum sentence imposed on a convicted paedophile was "unduly lenient". Now he has trumpeted a seemingly tough new initiative, at the invitation of The News of the World, that reinforces the hard-line tone.

Specifically, he has instructed that no child sex offender may reside in accommodation directly adjacent to schools. Any residents who fit that description are being moved. He also promises to consider whether information about the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles should be made more widely available. A junior minister is being sent to the United States to look at "Megan's law", which provides for the disclosure of such information to local communities.

In response to which we offer three observations. First, it is hard not to echo the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, who said he was astonished to learn that there were paedophile hostels close to schools and described the transfer of such offenders "a no-brainer". Of course, it is. But it also gives the Home Secretary a cheap and easy point to score. If ever there was an issue that could be described as easily picked "low-hanging fruit", paedophiles housed near schools must be it.

The difficulty is that sex offenders have to be housed somewhere when they are released from prison, and households with children exist in most communities, as do playgrounds, nurseries and, yes, schools. It also has to be borne in mind that as many as four in five sex offences are committed within the family. Tightening residential arrangements will mean little unless parole, monitoring and other measures are also working effectively. The problem is not as one-dimensional as Mr Davis, Mr Reid or the popular press presents it, and it is dishonest to suggest that it is.

Our second observation is that learning from "Megan's law" could, and probably should, mean rejecting the US precedent. "Megan's law" gives local people the right to find out when a convicted sex offender arrives in their community and establish his identity and address. The risk is not only that of the lynch-mob, but that former offenders, including the most dangerous, will choose to go underground - which is, in fact, what has been happening. Having seen what happened in this country when an individual was erroneously identified as a paedophile, we need to ask whether this is really the direction in which we, as a society, wish to go.

Our third observation is that it is dispiriting to watch John Reid, an able administrator with a wealth of ministerial experience, turn so quickly into a tub-thumper for law and order, prepared to dance so shamelessly to the illiberal tune struck up by the popular press. In so doing, Mr Reid has reverted to the ignoble tradition set by David Blunkett, and continued - after a more considered start - by Charles Clarke. It almost makes us nostalgic for New Labour's first Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who yesterday pointed out that prison sentences had actually gone up on average over the past 10 years, and strongly defended the integrity of Britain's judges.

Of course, the former Defence Secretary was transferred to the Home Office not only to tackle a crisis of management. His task was also to restore public confidence. We can only regret that he has chosen crude populism rather than rational argument as the vehicle for presenting his case. We had hoped for much better from John Reid.