Leading Article: Howard: why I resign

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The Independent Online
HERE IS the speech that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, should make at next month's Conservative Party conference, but certainly will not, even if he is still in office to deliver it. The audience response indicated (in italics) is another piece of wishful thinking. Or, then again, perhaps not.

'Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen (no applause). Last year, I basked in the warmth of your reception, as I announced my 27-point programme for dealing with burglars, hooligans, squatters, New Age travellers, party-goers, demonstrators and all the other people that this conference loves so much to hate. You will recall that Lord Archer - are you here again this year, Jeffrey? (embarrassed coughs) - called on me to 'stand and deliver'. You will also recall how I said: 'Prison works.' I had hoped this year to return to you in triumph. But I have to tell you the truth. (Gasps of amazement.) My prisons are not working. I have failed to deliver.

'The discovery of Semtex in Whitemoor jail is only the latest disaster to befall me. It is being argued by my friends that this incident does not require my resignation, that ministers should be held responsible only where their policies have been proved wrong, not where implementation is at fault. My friends are making a false distinction. (Sound of pin dropping.) Policy, however sound, cannot succeed unless the minister carries with him those who must put it into effect. Thus my colleague John Patten was dismissed from the education department because his high- handed manner towards teachers threatened the implementation of perfectly sensible proposals for testing children. I have succeeded in upsetting almost everybody involved in the criminal justice system. Seven senior judges have told me that I am 'short-sighted and irresponsible'. Magistrates have accused me of producing 'knee-jerk legislation'. And, of course, the prison officers loathe me: my policy of privatising prisons has caused them to worry about their job security, rather than their duties.

'There is more. (Shocked silence.) As long ago as 21 July, Judge Stephen Tumim sent me a report warning of security risks at Whitemoor. I passed it to the head of the prison service. This is normal procedure. But that is not the point. It is the job of a good minister - as of any good manager - to retain an instinct for potential trouble, to distinguish between the important and the incidental. Whitemoor is a high-security prison; it contains people who are thought to be of particular danger to the public. It is quite absurd to pretend that the Home Secretary can treat it as though it were just another prison. Further, the board of visitors for Whitemoor warned that high-security prisoners had too many privileges - that, for example, they were allowed too many personal belongings. Visitors are the sorts of do-gooders who normally want to make prisons more comfortable; their comments should certainly have set the alarm bells ringing.

'Then there is the question of my Criminal Justice Bill, which was supposed to embody the 27 points I outlined to you last year. (Shuffling of papers.) This has brought more people on to the streets in protest than any measure since the poll tax - for which, come to think of it, I was also responsible. It was too hurriedly drafted. Its abolition of the right to silence put even the Lord Chief Justice in the opposition camp. Its reduction of the entitlements to compensation for criminal injuries has made enemies of people who might be expected to support me. Even after numerous concessions, I suffered several defeats in the Lords. As a result, the Bill is still not on the statute book.

'I was also humiliated over the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, where I tried in effect to take control of police authorities away from local councils in favour of myself. How I expected to get away with it I cannot now imagine. I found Lords Whitelaw and Carr, both former Tory Home Secretaries, speaking against me in the Lords. I had ignored their private advice. This, whatever you think of the issue, was bad politics. All in all, I have tried too much to satisfy the prejudices of people like yourselves, listened too little to people who have direct experience of dealing with criminals. 'People want effective arrangements in place,' I once said. 'I will provide them.'

'I have failed to provide them. Fifty-three once seemed an early age for retirement; but Tory economic policies have changed all that. My wife told the Daily Mail earlier this year that she wanted more help in the garden. I have decided to oblige her.' (Sighs of relief.)