Talk tough, but carry a small stick

Home Secretary Jack Straw gives his first newspaper interview
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The Independent Online
When the Home Secretary speaks, his word is law. The judges hearken to his tone and amend their sentencing policy with alacrity. Others too hang upon his every phrase for guidance. In this, Jack Straw's first ministerial newspaper interview, the awesomeness of his office seemed suddenly to weigh heavily upon his shoulders. In his vast office (was it exorcised of its previous dark tenant by some prison chaplain?), there we sat with his two chaperones, my tape recorder head-to-head with theirs, so unlike relaxed interviews in his old cramped office. Picking his way with furrowed brow, he chose his words, at times, with painful deliberation.

For symbolism is the name of the game and in his first 10 days great symbols have indeed rung out from his office. First, he declared the most radical constitutional reform of our era - the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law: citizens will now have a fundamental check on parliamentary autocracy. Then he announced he would take full responsibility for the prisons - no more Howard-like ducking and weaving about what is policy and what is operational. He announced a new specific crime of racial harassment. He froze all the asylum deportations that were being rushed through and, a good small symbol this, he let the Nepalese adopted son of a millionaire stay.

Not bad. But it will not be enough to satisfy the most idealistic of the many reform lobbies. "Please," said one to me before this interview, "tell him to be nice. The war with Howard is over and he has won it, devastatingly. He doesn't need to speak about punishment all the time. It's time to move on." I convey the message, and Straw grins: "We'll see." And they should wait and see before they rush to judgement. For he will still talk the tough language of punishment, because he means it. But his plans for the criminal justice system, already worked out in the fine detail, are equally about prevention and cure.

We begin with crisis in the prisons. A week before the election, prison numbers topped 60,000, the highest ever: overcrowding has demolished every good initiative to treat, train or rehabilitate. Will he do what Douglas Hurd did in the late Eighties, releasing 2,000 petty offenders at the tail end of short sentences? On those criteria, 6,000 could now be released, saving some pounds 150m.

Straw says his first nasty shock was to find that prison numbers were rising far faster than the projections Howard had announced. So he picks his words with extreme care: "I don't think getting the prison population down in the short term is even remotely possible. It's about containing the rise while maintaining public safety." How will he do that? First he will reduce the 20 per cent of prisoners who are on remand, by cutting court delays with mandatory time-limits, as in Scotland. Then he will get the Court of Appeal to set sentencing guidelines: "Crown Court judges are using far more custodial sentences than they did, and they lack any collective memory of the crucial decisions they make. Published sentencing guidelines will allow public discussion and understanding of the system." Next, with extra deliberation, these words: "For many non-violent offenders, it would be more sensible to punish them in the community." That is what the judges and magistrates need to hear. When Howard bellowed "Prison works!" they jumped to it - so now hear this: community sentences work!

But what about Hurd's executive releases? Will there be a Straw amnesty? No. "Hurd didn't take public opinion with him. He did it at a time of rapidly rising crime and the public thought he had no serious crime-prevention policy." The pressure on judges to give longer sentences sprang, he concedes, "from the political climate created by both sides of the House." But now he wants to build public confidence in community sentences. "The language we use to describe it matters. We must use the language of punishment. If we only talk of diversion from prison and excuses for criminals, then public demand for prison will continue."

He points to the disastrous statistics of the last few years - crime up by 50 per cent, convictions down by 50 per cent, yet prisons are 50 per cent fuller. Catching people and sentencing them to punishment is what matters most, he says. "Sanctions do work, but you have to build public confidence that punishment also happens in the community."

Amongst cartoonists, Straw is already the children's bogeyman - putting them in chain gangs, sending them to bed early, the beak with the cane straight out of Beano. Nipping young criminals in the bud is his big idea, the thing he cares about most passionately - but it will be a fiendishly difficult project, embracing every aspect of a child's life.

How will it work? There will be beefed-up Young Offender Teams in every area. On first offence, a child will get a final stern warning, administered by the police. They will be made to write a letter of apology to the victim or to apologise to the victim in person: "The youth justice system is stuck in a time warp. Youngsters inhabit a culture of excuse and they don't think anyone is a victim but themselves." On a second offence, the new fast track means strict legal time limits on handling cases: "No more delays waiting for case conferences, stuck in treacle, kids' futures left in pending trays in social services departments." He says pounds 1bn a year is spent on a useless legal processing of young criminals, with an average of three adjournments per case, and then nothing happens. There will be no more conditional discharges, but fines and reparation orders, making them pay for their crimes.

That is the punishment bit, the easy part. But then come the magic and expensive words "intensive supervision". "We will ask what the kid does all day, if they're out late at night, or not at school," and they will be served Action Plan Orders. Can Straw make an Order easily written on paper into a reality in a child's life, with effective and constructive supervision?

Few doubt that someone urgently needs to get a grip on out- of-control wild children, often from catastrophic families, beyond reach of school or courts. But it will be hard to deliver, for it crosses lines from probation to social services, schools and police. It crosses budgets too. Can he be sure savings on the Lord Chancellor's costs will flow back into the project? Straw rightly identifies vast sums awash and wasted in the system, from courtroom to prison, but it will not be easy to get his hands on it. And forcing departments to work together on the ground will be the ultimate test of Cardinal Richelieu Mandelson's brief to make such inter- departmental schemes happen.

What kind of Home Secretary will Jack Straw be? Pragmatic, certainly, but no cynical crowd-pleaser. His pragmatism ensures a cool assessment of what really works, based on hard evidence, the programmes that genuinely reduce re-offending both in and out of prison. Some liberal nerve-endings will twitch, because he does believe in punishment. But he has lived with the loathing of liberals for a while now. Taking public opinion along with him matters rather more, as he knows he can do little without it.

This job tests character, sometimes to destruction, with its multitude of explosive liabilities - police, immigration, terrorism, prisons and much more. That means a Home Secretary's gut instinct is often as important as his well-laid plans. Which way will he jump in a crisis?

Judging by his first symbolic acts, inspecting what he really wants to achieve, I suspect his instincts are largely all in the right place.