Crime. Kicking the politics out of crime

Imagine this: a politician, desperate for power, decides to make an issue of crime. Justice policy had been subject to cross-party consensus but, as time goes on, it becomes a thorny, contentious issue.

Soon, every election becomes a battle over who can be tougher on crime. But all the attention does not decrease the problem – crime rates soar, and the debate delivers little more than hot air.

If the process sounds familiar, it should not. Reference is not being made to the UK, but the US from 1972 onwards. And the politician involved is not Michael Howard but Richard Nixon. He was the first US presidential candidate to make crime an issue and US politics has barely looked back since.

Crime's emergence into UK politics is a new phenomenon. Legislation such as Howard's bills on mandatory sentencing and the rights of the police to bug and burgle are, say observers, designed specifically to create problems for Labour in the run-up to the General Election. Meanwhile, Howard and his opposite number Jack Straw have engaged in an “I'm tougher than you,” battle all of their own, which, says Professor Sean McConville, professor of law at Queen Mary and Westfield college London, is quite unprecedented.

“This is a relatively new phenomenon in British politics. Until recently there was a partnership approach,” he says. “It has become impossible to have a rational debate at all now. Both Howard and Straw are watching each other and if one makes a step forwards the other will be right behind.”

Government agencies, the police, the courts, the prosecution, the probation service and the prison service are separate and often address different agendas. There are obvious clashes and no unifying organisation.

While this war of attrition has been grabbing the headlines, behind the scenes, McConville and Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC have moved from despair over the present situation to the beginnings of a solution.

Blink and you might have missed it, but their modest proposal, launched in a pamphlet at the end of last month and backed by the Prison Reform Trust, for a standing Royal Commission on Crime and Punishment could change the face of British justice.

Their idea is simple. To bring consensus back into crime policy, they propose a permanent Royal Commission, its remit to cover sentencing, reduction of crime, clarification of old law, the role of the police and the role of punishment.

And it has high-profile support. Two letters to The Times on the subject were signed by such luminaries as Lord Callaghan, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, Lord Runcie, Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine and Brendan O'Friel. Even retired Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, agrees with it.

And it is not a new proposal. A similar Royal Commission was set up in 1964 and operated until 1966 when it was abolished by then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins on the grounds that it had failed. But this was largely because there was not the statistical data in existence at the time to make practical research possible, and because it was perceived as unable to take difficult decisions.

The Advisory Council on Penal Systems (ACPS) was quangoed into existence as a replacement but abolished quietly in 1980 by the Thatcher administration. The effects, say Blom-Cooper and McConville, are obvious – recently there has been a crime bill every year. “One of the reasons for us doing this now is that there has been such a plethora of criminal justice legislation recently,” says Blom-Cooper. “Ministers really can't make up their minds. Legislation should not be constantly revised.”

Bruce Houlder QC, vice-chair of the Bar's Public Affairs Committee, agrees. “My personal view is that it is an excellent idea because at the moment we have no philosophy behind our sentencing policy,” he says. “The goalposts are moved depending on the public mood of the day.”

The movement is putting serious pressure on those in the justice system. Bryan Gibson worked as a Justices clerk for more than 20 years. He served on committees for the Justices Clerk's Society and worked in negotiations with the Lord Chancellor's Department.

But, eventually, the politicking became too much for him – he left two years ago to set up a legal publishing company, Waterside Press. “I didn't like the way things were going,” he says now. “I was extremely fortunate that I had somewhere to go.”

The statistical evidence which did not exist in 1966 and spelt the end of the original Royal Commission is available today. In McConville's words: “There are tons of the stuff around now.” And the Royal Commission of 1993 was regarded as a success by the government (if not totally by the legal community) so why should there not be another?

Lack of enthusiasm this close to an election appears to be the answer. The reaction has been, according to the Blom-Cooper and McConville, “nugatory”. The authors of the pamphlet say Ministers either express ignorance or are just not interested – letters to The Times are, after all, never going to have the effect of letters to The Sun.

The view of the Home Office is officially dismissive (although it is thought to have replied at length to Blom-Cooper, who is reticent on the subject). “There was a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice less than four years ago and we see little purpose in establishing one now,” says a spokeswoman. “There already are ways of reviewing existing law and procedures.”

Labour's legal affairs spokesman, Paul Boateng, is equally unenthusiastic – and does not agree that crime and punishment has become over-politicised. “Criminal justice policy is a matter for parliament. I don't see it as a political football. There is a necessary and healthy debate around criminal justice at this time which reflects widespread public concerns. No party can ignore rising crime rates and a decrease in public confidence.”

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, is not surprised. “In the run-up to a general election, no-one wants to argue 'let's set up a Royal Commission' rather than appear tough on crime,” he says.

This sanguine approach is based on the theory that, come the Friday after election day, whoever wins will come to regret promises made in the weeks before, mainly on grounds of the cost of imprisoning more people. “Part of the attraction I would have thought is that it provides a way out of the trap which they have set themselves,” says Shaw.

Furthermore, the Legal Action Group's Roger Smith, referring to moves to remove trial by jury from many cases, points out that there is more to this than politics. “Fundamentally, there are issues coming up which are constitutional and I do not think that political debate is serving them well.”

So, perhaps the silence surrounding McConville and Blom-Cooper's plans does not bode entirely ill. A standing Royal Commission on Crime and Punishment could even become a regular feature of British legal life. Of course, even if it does, there is no guarantee that crime will become politics-free – proposals would still have to be ratified by Parliament. But it could take the heat off and, in the words of Roger Smith, “kick the issues out of touch for a while, which would be a good thing”.

And, quietly plugging away in the background, will be Blom-Cooper, McConville and the Prison Reform Trust. “We'll continue to promote the idea,” says Shaw. “Really, the point is that this is an idea whose time will come.”