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

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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.

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