In the Media

Blair seeks radical changes to boost justice system

PUBLISHED June 24, 2006

Tougher punishments and faster prosecutions in the courts, tighter monitoring of drug offenders and tailor-made services for the victims of crime were demanded by Tony Blair yesterday as part of "a complete change of mindset" in the justice system.

In a speech at the University of Bristol, the prime minister offered a bleak and at times despairing assessment of his and previous governments' failures on law and order. He promised an unspecified increase in the number of prison places and greater use of summary justice for anti-social behaviour.

But Mr Blair also appeared to rule out amendments to the Human Rights Act, or greater interference in judges' sentencing powers, both of which have been under fire lately - often from his own ministers. Instead, he said, the issue facing the country was "far more profound: it is the culture of political and legal decision-making that has to change, to take account of the way the world has changed.

"It is not this or that judicial decision, this or that law," Mr Blair said. "It is a complete change of mindset, an avowed, articulated determination to make protection of the law-abiding public the priority and to measure that not by the theory of the textbook but by the reality of the street and community in which real people live real lives."

This did not mean disrespecting civil liberties but "placing a far higher priority, on what is a conflict of rights, on the rights of those who keep the law rather than break it".

The speech is the first of three on domestic policy, under the banner Our Nation's Future. The next, on the public services, is expected next month. With the prime minister due to stand down before the next election, the speech had a valedictory tone, as he returned to the issue on which he had made his name as shadow home secretary in the early 1990s.

Mr Blair talked yesterday of the "culmination of a personal journey" which began with his upbringing by a law lecturer father and his career as a barrister.

Though crime had fallen under Labour, Mr Blair said "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".

Every piece of asylum and criminal justice legislation he had introduced had been "diluted, sometimes fundamentally" in parliament, he said. Islamist terrorism, globalisation, the growth of drug trafficking and other organised crime had overtaken the criminal justice and immigration systems "in a way that, frankly, mocks a system built for another decade but another age".

Intervention to tackle likely offenders in socially excluded and/or dysfunctional families had to begin "far earlier", before those concerned even wanted it.

"In truth we can identify such families virtually as their children are born ... on the basis of my experience, the normal processes and the programmes of help we have rightly introduced won't do it." But there were no concrete proposals offered by either him or his spokesman yesterday.

Mr Blair said those who broke bail or drug treatment orders needed to receive quicker and tougher punishments. Drug offenders "should be tracked throughout the system, given not just a sentence but an appropriate process for sorting their life out". If they ignored it, they should be "brought back to court".

There was now "a strong case for handling different types of crime in different ways", with specialist courts for antisocial behaviour, drugs and domestic violence. Too many cases were dragged out with victims "having to live with the people who are making their lives hell".

Professor Rodney Morgan, chair of the Youth Justice Board, who shared the stage at Bristol with Mr Blair, said there had "been far too much legislation" in his area which had created "uncertainty and confusion" - echoing comments made by Ian Loader, a professor of criminology at Oxford University who was called in to advise the prime minister.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said the speech amounted to "an admission of failure by the prime minister". David Davis, the shadow home secretary, ridiculed Mr Blair for complaining about parliament after benefiting from some of the largest majorities in history. "He talks about being beaten by the rules after nine years of setting the rules."