Leading Article: Howard's way with words

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MICHAEL HOWARD is unrepentant. All those legal luminaries who have supported Lord Woolf's powerful challenge to the Home Secretary's 'lock 'em up' speech at the Tory Party conference had misunderstood his proposals, Mr Howard insisted yesterday. But if highly trained legal minds failed to grasp the thrust of what he said at Blackpool, whose fault is that?

In reality, he was clear enough. 'Prison works. It ensures that we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists - and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice.' If, he said, his new measures meant that more people would go to prison, 'I will not flinch from that'.

Perhaps Mr Howard would be more impressed by the views of previous Conservative Home Secretaries. 'Imprisonment is not a cheap way of dealing with offenders . . . nor is it the most effective way,' William Whitelaw said in 1981. 'Prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse,' Mr Howard's fellow right-winger, David Waddington, said in June 1990. Fifteen months later Kenneth Baker acknowledged that 'imprisonment can lessen people's sense of responsibility for their actions. Some, often the young and less experienced, acquire in prison a wider knowledge of criminal activity.'

A 1986 report from the Home Office itself showed that a 40 per cent rise in prison population would be required to achieve a 1.6 per cent fall in the annual crime rate. A recent update suggests that today's prison population of 47,000 would have to increase by 25 per cent to cut the annual crime rate by 1 per cent. In the United States, the prison population is growing by 1,600 a week, despite a near-tripling in the number of prisoners since 1980.

Those who question the wisdom of Mr Howard's readiness to stuff Britain's already crowded prisons yet fuller are not suggesting that violent criminals should not be imprisoned. Nor do they question the public's right to be very angry at the large number of burglaries, muggings and the like, and the failure of existing policing and the judicial system to reduce it.

In many people this anger produces a somewhat inchoate thirst for retribution. Yet if asked to choose between more severe punishment and less crime, who would not choose the latter? If non-custodial sentences could be convincingly demonstrated to cut post-prison reoffending rates, there would be less public enthusiasm for 'locking 'em up'. The merits of alternatives such as community service need to be widely trumpeted.

Lord Woolf, for his part, made a serious error last week in suggesting that those who failed to protect their property adequately should perhaps be fined. That gave tabloid newspaper editors a field day and enabled the Prime Minister to say triumphantly: 'I reject outright any proposal that would penalise the victims rather than the criminal. We need to consider victims more, not less.'

Neither the legal nor the liberal establishment can afford to move too far from public opinion. At the opposite pole lies the temptation - to which politicians such as Mr Howard are prey - of putting short-term popularity and party ideology before the objectively best solution for the country. Such cynicism and opportunism can only fuel the growing and dangerous hostility to the political classes that is sweeping the democratic world, and could one day produce a world governed by simplistic, populist anti-politicians.