Leading Article: Mr Howard is playing with fire

Yesterday's winners face nightly meetings, crank calls, the odd bouquet among the brickbats. Stephen Molyneaux has some tips

Related Topics
It hardly even counts as news: "Courts overrule Howard - again." We have heard this story so many times before. Rarely a month passes without Michael Howard the Home Secretary being found by the judiciary to have abused his powers. In March the immigration board told him he couldn't exile the Saudi dissident Al-Mass'ari to Dominica. In February, the European Court of Human Rights said independent review boards - and not the Home Secretary - should decide whether a young killer is safe to be released once his minimum sentence has been served.In September he was found guilty of injustice over parole applications by IRA prisoners. The list goes on and on.

Yet even in this long list Mr Howard's clash with the judges over the sentences for the killer of little James Bulger was bound to be special. The High Court ruled yesterday that the Home Secretary was wrong to set a minimum sentence of 15 years for the two children convicted of murdering James three years ago.

It isn't hard to see how an injustice could be done. Richard Thompson and Jon Venables were only 10 years old when they killed the two-year- old James. The trial judge detained them "at Her Majesty's pleasure" and recommended that they serve at least eight years. The Lord Chief Justice bid the minimum sentence up to 10 years. Higher, higher, hollered the crowd; 300,000 people signed a petition and 20,000 Sun readers sent the Home Secretary coupons demanding longer sentences for the boys. Ever ready to please his public, Mr Howard settled on 15.

When politicians get their hands on cases that hit the headlines, it is hard for justice to be done. However, the judges are not - yet - arguing that the Home Secretary should mind his own business entirely. Last December they upheld his right to set minimum sentences for adults who are convicted of murder.

The injustice for the Bulger boys, according to the High Court, was not so much that a politician had intervened, it was the fact that he had treated them as adults rather than children. Until now children and teenagers who kill - like convicted adult murderers - have been given recommended minimum sentences. But children who kill should have their cases continually reviewed as their personalities develop and mature - something which was inconsistent with a 15-year minimum sentence. Fifteen years constitutes about a quarter of a typical adult life. But it is an entire childhood.

Mr Howard responded to the ruling yesterday by summoning the will of Parliament, as well as the passions of the public, to his defence. He was, he claimed, simply using the powers Parliament had given him, just as Home Secretaries had in 400 other cases since 1983. Perhaps. But the broadest and most unreasonable powers may go unchallenged until they are abused. The Home Secretary seems to enjoy deliberately provoking liberal opinion and playing games with justice for political ends. Such an approach might work in the short-run but in the long run it will only further tarnish the Tories' damaged reputation.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Read Next

August catch-up: Waiting on the telephone, tribute to Norm and my Desert Island Discs

John Rentoul
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home