Neil Clark

Let’s hear it for David Blunkett

Neil Clark says that the Home Secretary is wrong about many things, but not about life-imprisonment for murderers

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Like most New Labour ministers, David Blunkett gets considerably more things wrong than he does right. Up to now, his tenure at the Home Office has been characterised by a series of ill-thought-out reforms, half-baked policy proposals and regular verbal gaffes. In three years we have had the draconian Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act – which suspends the 800-year-old habeas corpus in the case of foreign nationals suspected of terrorism – attacks on trial by jury, as well as criticism of Asian arranged marriages, and lectures on what language immigrants should speak in their own homes.

When he strays from his Home Office brief, Blunkett's public pronouncements have been even more toe-curdling. His recent prediction that the Labour vote in northern local elections would be helped by a 'Baghdad bounce' – thereby implying that northerners would be more likely to support the bombardment of Iraq than namby-pamby southerners – received the contemptuous electoral response it deserved.

Nevertheless, every dog has his day, and David Blunkett is no exception. With his new proposals for a much tougher three-tier framework of sentencing, in which Parliament, despite the odious European Convention on Human Rights, retains the right to set recommended sentences for murder, the Home Secretary has finally got something right.

When the death penalty was abolished in 1965 (against the wishes of the vast majority of Britons), it was done so on the clear understanding that murder would be punished by life imprisonment and that life should mean life. Forty years on, when 'life' means on average a mere 121/2 years in jail, and more than 70 people have been killed by convicted murderers released early, it must be clear to all but the most die-hard members of the Howard League for Penal Reform that something has gone seriously wrong with the criminal-justice system. Blunkett's new principles – which stipulate that judges who depart from the recommended sentences will have to justify their reasons in open court – are in effect the first serious attempts by a British home secretary to reverse the disastrous trend which has led to the uniquely serious offence of taking another's life being so devalued in the eyes of the law.

Predictably, Blunkett's proposals have been met with howls of outrage from Britain's legal establishment and its libertarian elite: the eminent judges, Lords Bingham and Goddard; Matthias Kelly, QC, of the Bar Council; Liberty; the Howard League for Penal Reform; the left-libertarian scribblers of the Observer and their right-libertarian allies at the Daily Telegraph; and, of course, the ubiquitous Helena Kennedy, QC. All these have sought to portray the Home Secretary's measures to encourage more appropriate sentencing as an unwarranted extension of state power and a breach of the separation of powers so serious as to have Montesquieu turning in his grave.

Allan Levy, QC, has argued that 'no matter how terrible the crime, the sentence should be reviewable over the years'. Can he really be serious? Allan Levy is a leading children's rights lawyer and signatory to the NSPCC's Don't Smack Children campaign. Does he believe that someone who had abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered a child (such as Roy Whiting, the murderer of Sarah Payne) should have – by dint, perhaps, of finding God and not behaving too badly in jail – his sentence reviewed and, by implication, at some future point in time be released?

While the self-proclaimed guardians of our ancient liberties profess to be motivated chiefly out of concerns for judicial independence, what I suspect they find most objectionable about the new proposals is the idea that the views of the man in the street should, via the person of the Home Secretary, have any influence at all on the sentencing of murderers in Britain.

Until half a century ago, it was acknowledged that in a country which called itself a democracy public opinion should have such a role. The view of the late Lord Denning that 'in order to maintain respect for the law, it is essential that the punishment inflicted for grave crimes should adequately reflect the revulsion felt by the great majority of citizens for them' was widely accepted by both Parliament and the judiciary. But since the abolition of the death penalty, and the deluge of liberal penal reforms that followed in its wake, this crucial democratic link has all but been broken.

The man in the street, with his consistent calls for the punishment to fit the crime, and for first-time burglars to be sent to jail, is, for Britain's post-Roy Jenkins libertarian elite, a tiresome nuisance. He should be content to pay his taxes, cheerfully accept he is to be burgled on average once every three years, and leave matters of sentencing policy to those who know so much better. Such as Lord Justice Sedley, who said that the police owed a duty of care to the convicted criminal Carlo Vellino, since he was well known for jumping from windows to evade arrest; or Judge Simon Goldstein, who let the serial offending machete-carrying burglar Mark Patterson off a jail sentence so that he could carry on writing his semi-literate poems.

If someone as esteemed as Lord Chief Justice Woolf doesn't believe in sending too many housebreakers to jail, and Observer leader-writers tell us that there is no crime problem, then who is the man in the street to argue otherwise? (The fact that Woolf and Observer leader-writers have been proved wrong on just about every aspect of reform of the criminal-justice system for the past 40 years is, of course, neither here nor there.)

Britain's libertarian elite hold the opinions of the general public on issues of law and order in deep contempt, partly through snobbery but also because of a deeply patronising and erroneous view of how those opinions are formed in the first place. While media barons can easily enough whip up an extra 10 per cent or so support for an otherwise unpopular war against Iraq, the public's view on the most suitable punishment for murderers is altogether much less malleable.

The fact that 90 per cent of British people (myself included) hold that it was right that the late Myra Hindley was never released from jail is not because Sun editorials told them so, but because of an innate sense of justice that, even in such a godless and value-free society, most people thankfully still retain. For this they are condescendingly referred to as 'vengeful' by those who mistakenly equate justice with leniency, and who smugly believe their concern for the human rights of serial killers to be a badge of superior compassion.

Talking of such people, the Howard League for Penal Reform has predicted that Blunkett's proposals could increase the present 3,900 life-sentence prisoners by 50 per cent. I would like to wager with the pressure-group's director that if the judiciary do work within the new framework, the very opposite will happen. Britain's prisons are bursting at the seams not because sentences are too severe, but because they are ludicrously light and because custodial sentences are all too inconsistently and infrequently applied to act as an effective deterrent. To solve our prison-overcrowding problem in the long run, we paradoxically need to send more malefactors to jail in the short term – and for longer periods – so that our criminal classes get the message loud and clear that crime does not pay. By increasing tariffs for murder, Blunkett's package will go some way to achieving this.