661 New Crimes -- and Counting. (Cover Story)
Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)
Nick Cohen tots up new Labour's most extraordinary record: the hundreds of fresh reasons it has found for sending people to prison. And there are more to come
Historians may look back on the new Labour government of 1997-2009 (shall we say?) and wonder how it filled its days. When mass murderers weren't crashing planes into skyscrapers or tyrants weren't being overthrown, the Blair administration had little to do. Like other parties that are content with the status quo, it appeared to struggle to find reasons to get out of bed in the morning. After an early burst of reforming energy produced devolution and the Human Rights Act, it settled down to sleep through the great issues of the day, with the exception of one.
New Labour's search for new punishments is as frenetic now as when it came to power. Between the 1997 and 2001 general elections, Jack Straw's Home Office passed 31 law and order and immigration acts through parliament. The flow of tough stances and ferocious laws shows no sign of slackening as the government ages. The Tories worked out that, in the 18 months after June 2001, Downing Street and the Home Office launched 100 anticrime initiatives. Between June 2001 and May 2003, David Blunkett's Home Office passed 14 law and order acts. Without the determination to show that they were hard men and women, MPs in the parliaments of the Blair years would have been on short time.
It's not only old-fashioned criminals who have been in the government's sights. People who weren't considered criminal until the turn of the century have found that their "inappropriate behaviours" have been outlawed. Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, has asked each government department how many criminal offences it has created since May 1997. The Ministry of Defence hasn't replied yet (I suppose it's been busy), but the rest of Whitehall has admitted to inventing 661 crimes. As Hughes points out, Labour home secretaries of the past, such as Roy Jenkins, strove to reduce the number of criminal offences -- by legalising abortion and homosexuality, for example. Not so Straw and Blunkett.
Many of their new laws conjure up an unnerving picture of a Britain on the edge of anarchy. What, for instance, explains schedule 26 paragraph 18 (4) of the School Standards Framework Act 1998, which made it a criminal offence "wilfully to obstruct an inspector conducting an inspection of a nursery"? Had kindergarten teachers locked their tots in the classroom and refused to open the door? Or armed themselves with Paddington Bears and beaten the inspectors senseless? Section 3 of the Transport Act 2000 criminalised "the provision of air traffic services without a licence". Until then, presumably, the clear and present danger of demented radio hams directing transatlantic flights into Gatwick hotels had flourished unchecked.
Other offences were the result of bureaucratic housekeeping -- the Home Office created nine "racially aggravated" versions of existing offences so that the racial motive behind crimes could be recorded. But a substantial minority of the 661 reflected the government's paradoxical authoritarianism. It's a paradox because statutes that were pushed through parliament, with bellows that they were necessary to protect the public from pressing perils, have never been used. They are authoritarian on paper, but redundant in practice, and seem to justify H L Mencken's wisdom that "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary". In 1999, the hobgoblins were asylum-seekers. The offences to control them, created by the Immigration and Asylum Act of that year, implied that the government was legislating to protect the public from an invading army of scrounging crooks.
Hughes found that, by the end of 2001, the Home Office had bagged the following tallies of convictions for the following offences. …