The Great Crime Panic: David Blunkett Is the Most Intelligent Home Secretary in More Than a Decade. So Why Does He Charge around like a Crazed Wildebeest?

Article excerpt

"What a lot of garbage!" cried David Blunkett at criminologists who had asked him what he thought he was doing. "It's time people grew up in [this] country and helped me. What I'm determined not to do in this job -- whether people like me or like it or not -- is walk through, in a metaphorical sense, with my eyes closed."

The course of his journey is as confused as his syntax. The route that the rest of the criminal justice system is lurching along is no clearer. With their eyes, in a metaphorical sense, wide open, the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice warned in March that the prison service was at the end of its tether. All courts must know that imprisonment should be used "only when necessary and for no longer than necessary", said Lord Woolf. Blunkett, who has to stuff Europe's largest prison population into jails on the edge of riot, embraced the Lord Chief Justice as if he were the love of his life. "Crime is falling but the prison population is rocketing," he said. "Programmes of training, adult literacy and preparation for work on release are being completely disrupted."

His mention of adult literacy was telling. The most revealing statistic the Home Office has produced in years is that two-thirds of prisoners have been brought up in such deprivation that their reading age is seven. They are incapable of filling 96 per cent of all vacancies in job centres. If you are serious about cutting crime, you must believe that prisons should try to make inmates lawfully employable.

Crime is also prevented when prisoners are kept close to girlfriends and family, who offer an incentive to go straight. A record jail population of 71,000 (and rising) means that thousands of men are shunted hundreds of miles around the country into the few spaces available. Most end up far away from stabilising influences.

Lord Woolf was famous for recommending, in his inquiry into the 1990 Strangeways prison riot, that inmates must be kept within visiting distance of their families. He clung to this principle until January, when Britain's demented political culture finally drove him mad.

Mobile phone thieves should be sent down, he ruled, regardless of their age or previous convictions or, "except in exceptional circumstances", the nature of their offence. Whether the victim was beaten up or merely inconvenienced did not worry His Lordship. He proposed filling the cells with recipients of mandatory sentences. The punishment need no longer fit the crime. A man who snatched a phone and hurt no one must go down, while a man who snatched a wallet and hurt no one may be put on probation.

At least Woolf's skidding from sense to raving and back again was the work of months. Blunkett stood on his head within hours. The day after he ordered that prison overcrowding should be contained by tagging and releasing minor offenders, his heels went up and he promised a crackdown on carjackers at a Downing Street" crime summit". Blunkett's critics said he was all over the place. This was the "garbage" he railed against; carjackers were invariably serious villains, not the petty offenders he was proposing to let out early. "If anyone thinks there is a contradiction between what I say today and what I said yesterday they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land."

The Home Secretary is mistaken. His critics are not living in cloud-cuckoo-land. We are in Blairland, a fantastical world in which only perceptions matter. A map of Blairland was found in July 2000 when a private memo from the PM was leaked. Blair was in agonies about his appearance. "We are perceived as weak," he spluttered, "we are seen as insufficiently assertive... we are lacking a tough public message. The perceptions were the perceptions of the Tory press. They were, in Blair's view, false. Nevertheless, something must be done. His luckless aides were ordered to produce "eye-catching initiatives". …