In the Media

Blair pledges to 'reclaim' criminal justice system

PUBLISHED June 24, 2006

Tony Blair today defied some of Britain's leading crime experts by outlining plans to "reclaim" the criminal justice system and change the mindset of an "out of touch" political and legal establishment.

The prime minister signalled moves to introduce more laws "that properly reflect reality", despite a welter of criminal justice legislation already introduced under nine years of Labour rule.

Politicians and the legal establishment were "in denial" about the changing world, which has seen crime spiral in the past 50 years, while both detection and conviction rates had dropped, he said.

The prime minister complained that previous efforts to introduce tough summary powers that had been watered down by parliament.

In a long speech outlining his philosophy on crime, Mr Blair said "unpalatable choices about liberty and security" needed to be made to "rebalance" a system in favour of the law-abiding public.

Mr Blair listed a number of improvements under his watch, but added that the criminal justice system was still "locked" in the 20th century following the great progressive reforms of Victorian times, which sought to tackle unfair sentencing policy in an era where there was no equality before the law.

One unforeseen consequence was that the pervading culture still ensured the fair treatment of suspects and criminals was detached from an equivalent concern with victims.

Part of the problem was the absence of a proper, considered intellectual debate about the nature of liberty in the modern word, Mr Blair said.

"It's about which human rights prevail," Mr Blair said. "In making that decision, there is a balance to be struck. I am saying it is time to rebalance the decision in favour of the decent, law-abiding majority who play by the rules and think others should too."

He added: "It's no use saying that in theory there should be no conflict between the traditional protections for the suspect and the rights of the law-abiding majority because, as a result of the changing nature of crime and society, there is, in practice, such a conflict; and every day we don't resolve it, by rebalancing the system, the consequence is not abstract, it is out there, very real on our streets."

Citing a number of causes for the changing face of crime in light of geographical and social mobility and more fluid family structures, Mr Blair said the establishment was "in denial" about the need for "wholesale reform".

"The public are anxious for a perfectly good reason: they think they play fair and play by the rules and they see too many people who don't, getting away with it.

"By the public, I don't mean the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade. I mean ordinary, decent law-abiding folk, who believe in rehabilitation as well as punishment, understand there are deep-rooted causes of crime and know that no government can eliminate it.

"But they think the political and legal establishment are out of touch on the issue and they are right."

Laws already introduced, such as antisocial behaviour legislation, have made a "real difference", but have not been clear or tough enough, he warned.

"We need to do an audit of where the gaps are, and the laws that are necessary."

Mr Blair said the court system needed an overhaul to become fit for 21st century purpose. "... What is necessary is, piece by piece, to analyse where the shortcoming are and put in place the systems to remove them."

He concluded: "Such is the changing nature of that world and the ferocity of those forces, we need to adjust, to reclaim the system and thereby the street for the law-abiding majority.

"That means not disrespecting civil liberties but re-assessing what respect for them means today and placing a far higher priority, in what is a conflict of rights, on the rights of those who keep the law rather than break it.

"This is not the argument of the lynch mob or of people who are indifferent to convicting the innocent, it is simply a reasonable and rational response to a problem that is as much one of modernity as of liberty."

Mr Blair's speech drew on his own experiences stretching back to his days as an opposition home affairs spokesman, as well as the views of five experts - ranging from an MP to a criminologist - specially commissioned to provide research.

But one of the crime experts today rubbished notions that the criminal justice system was in crisis, stressing that crime rates had been falling for the last decade.

Professor Ian Loader, who submitted a written paper on the No.10 website, said those who felt let down by the criminal justice system were "a noisy minority".

Prof Loader, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, said that instead of knee-jerk reactions, the government should encourage an informed dialogue and try to take some of the "heat" out of the debate.

"We have had 25 years of government that have taken law and order very seriously... We have had 40 pieces of law and order legislation from this government.

"We have had countless new criminal offences, we've got a prison population that is bursting at the seams and we have got sentences in aggregate terms going up not going down.

"And yet he [Mr Blair] is expecting us to believe that the criminal justice system has become unbalanced and therefore we need a further round of reform in order to protect the rights of the victim.

"I think that thesis needs some more evidence to support it. My current position is that is beggars belief."

The Conservatives also rounded on Mr Blair for accusing others of being in denial.

The shadow home secretary, David Davis, said: "Tony Blair claims that everyone is in denial - but he fails to recognise that it is he and his own government that has failed. "How can a prime minister who has had nine years in office - with some of the largest majorities in history - accuse parliament of watering down his legislation?

He talks about being beaten by the rules after nine years of setting the rules.

"As for talking about accelerating justice, we remember his proposed night courts and cashpoint fines for yobs - once the headline passed, so did the political momentum behind them."

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Nick Clegg, said Mr Blair's comments were an "admission of failure".

"It is striking that after 10 years in power, the gap between his rhetoric and reality is wider than ever. It is a continuing failure of government policy that is letting people down, not some nebulous 'liberal establishment' or an ill-defined need to 'rebalance' the system."

He added: "We have prisons bursting at the seams, a judiciary at loggerheads with the government, a probation service on its knees, falling conviction rates for serious crimes, one of the highest rates of reoffending in western Europe, and a Home Office in a state of institutional meltdown.

"One speech at the tail-end of his premiership cannot absolve Tony Blair of his responsibility for this dismal state of affairs."