Blunkett's Criminal Bill. (Leader)

Article excerpt

As one of our correspondents reminds us this week (Letters, page 36), democracy, according to H L Mencken, is "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard". The trouble is that "the common people" are often misinformed, as surveys repeatedly show. They think crime is rising, when it is actually falling; they underestimate the sentences handed out by the courts by as much as a third. Some Home Secretaries might think it their duty to correct public misconception and do their best to propagate accurate information. Not David Blunkett who, by Mencken's standard, is the greatest democrat of our age. No prejudice is too ignorant, no vengeful demand too barbaric, no Sun or Mail campaign too mendacious for him: let the popular will be expressed, and he will do its bidding. Mr Blunkett, in the days of lynch law, would have been the first to dash off to fetch a rope and find a suitable tree. His behaviour raises more profound constitutional issues than the Prime Minister' s perfectly reasonable decision to dump two redundant cabinet positions and to abolish a third that should have gone out with the divine right of kings.

Under the Criminal Justice Bill, now going through parliament, Mr Blunkett proposes to put into statute sentences for different types of murder: a true life sentence for the "sexual, sadistic" murder of children or terrorist murder; 30 years minimum for the murder of a police or prison officer or for racially motivated murder; 15 years minimum for other murders. Though judges will technically have the right to vary these "guidelines", they will have to explain themselves in court like errant schoolboys. Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, speaking in the Lords last Monday, described the whole thing as "extraordinary", and was right to do so.

The Criminal Justice Bill is an illiberal measure in many respects, tipping the balance away from (possibly innocent) defendants in criminal trials. Like many of its predecessors, it is a diversion from more important issues: for example, the recruitment difficulties and loss of efficiency among the police and probation services. It will probably deepen the crisis in prisons, where the population, already at a record 70,000, is forecast to rise to at least 100,000 in six years, making any re-education and rehabilitation almost impossible. Addressing these and other issues, such as the deprivation that breeds crime, is the best way of protecting the victims rights that ministers prattle on about. But Mr Blunkett's grab of sentencing policy illustrates better than anything else how shamefully new Labour courts popular support.

He inserted these clauses into the bill after the Court of Appeal found last year that the Home Secretary was not entitled to decide how long a life prisoner should actually serve. The court reached its decision with reference to the Human Rights Act 1998, which Labour, in accordance with an election promise, had introduced to give effect to the European Convention on Human Rights. …