Leading Article: The man who holds the key to Hindley's future

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Public opinion, a great home secretary once said, is a compound of folly, prejudice, wrong-feeling, right-feeling ... and newspaper paragraphs. On 1 May public opinion seemed to vindicate itself and, speaking with particular cogency about the need for political renewal, affirm our democracy. We witnessed the demise of a government that had become insensate, had swung too far from public sentiment. But, in a political culture in which right-wing tabloid newspapers owned by foreigners are so influential, hewing too close to perceived public sentiment can become a recipe for cowardice and retreat to the lowest common policy denominator.

A similar point can be made about the operation of the criminal justice system. To ignore the public's opinion about the gravity of certain offences and the fitness of punishment is to risk subverting the foundation of judicial legitimacy. For the courts to trim to passing flashes of public anger and immediate sensation would rob them of that particular quality of disinterest on which the rule of law equally depends.

At the fulcrum of the scales of justice sits that peculiar politician, the Home Secretary. That recent occupants of the position have played fast and loose with partisan disregard for consistency and dignity is neither here nor there. On the shoulders of the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, lies responsibility for upholding the rule of law while ensuring public sentiment about infractions is adequately recognised. The case in point is that of Myra Hindley.

She has benefited from the fashion for judicial review of executive decision-making. The murderer's lawyers have got leave to challenge Michael Howard's decision to affirm the Home Office's earlier imposition of a "whole life" sentence, amending a previous ruling that she serve a 30- year term. There may well be issues of procedure and propriety here. Given Mr Howard's carelessness and occasional indifference to legal form (first witness for the prosecution, Ann Widdecombe), it is possible he has given hostages to fortune. Say the court were to judge that Howard had acted outside his powers. All that would do is put Jack Straw in the front line: he would then have to decide what he is to do with Myra Hindley. But, almost regardless of the outcome of the judicial review, the new Home Secretary ought to make up his own mind on the case. For him to claim that his lips are buttoned is to let discretion take over from valour: it is tantamount to saying politicians ought to be permanently dumb in case their actions are challenged in the courts. That cannot be right.

As a Lancashire MP Mr Straw needs no instruction in how the memory of the Brady-Hindley crimes lingers, especially in the North-west. With time, other crimes and other events of horror fade from public recollection, however long the relatives of victims may grieve; their perpetrators leave jail after serving their time, forgotten. But this offence has not been erased from public consciousness. Hindley's various noisy interlocutors and admirers have not helped her case; nor has the long delay in her revealing the full extent of her crimes. Reports of her own demeanour do not paint a convincing picture of a penitent. Perhaps it was also the cultural context of the crime - a side of the Sixties so distant from the music and fashion that gripped the popular imagination.

But is that relevant, if Hindley has served an appropriate sentence and, like others who murdered in their youth, must no longer be considered dangerous? The trial judge said she should serve a very long time. She has. If the only considerations in the case were Hindley and the impartial operation on her of the homicide law, she would merit release.

But the Home Secretary must do more than check off boxes on a list of criteria. He has also to use his political imagination. At the use of that word some people will complain that the criminal justice system ought to be immune from politics. After all, our misgivings about mandatory sentences and other "reforms" enacted by the Tories in recent years have been around the substitution of politicians' judgements for those of judges. As a broad principle it must be true that judges are largely there because they are better placed to execute justice than politicians, who are subject to whims and pressures that might undermine a balanced judgement.

But Jack Straw has responsibilities that no judge carries. On his shoulders rests public confidence in the legal mechanism, which is influenced by judicial outcomes. His, too, is the task of maintaining public order. The release of Myra Hindley threatens good order, both literally and figuratively. She would, out of jail, become prey. The media would hunt her, however many disguises and new addresses she went through. Avengers would stalk her. Considerable police resources would almost certainly need to be expended in her protection, and that would in turn feed public resentment and anger. To recognise this is not to bow down before the prospect of mob rule or succumb to atavism. No home secretary concerned for the good order of society would wish to provoke confrontation of this kind. That is the higher-minded reason for denying Myra Hindley her long-sought release.

There is a more cynical reason, but also one which will necessarily play a part. Jack Straw could be a first-rate Home Secretary. But he has a limited amount of political capital to expend. He will have to take many more important decisions that either offend sections of his party or elements of the public. There is little point in wasting his political capital on Myra Hindley. He should be clear why he should keep this woman in custody, even if objectively she deserves her release. Public opinion about her is too fierce. For her own welfare incarceration must remain her fate.