Blunkett's criminal bill

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. That convention seems to require "an independent and impartial tribunal established by law" (a description that does not easily fit Mr Blunkett) to decide the length of criminal sentences. After reviewing practice not just in Europe and the Commonwealth, but also in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Appeal Court agreed that this was "a characteristic feature of democracies".

Indeed, yes. Democracy comes in many forms, not just in giving the people what they want, good and hard, as Mr Blunkett apparently imagines. It restrains the executive and, to this end, separates its powers from those of the judiciary - an essential safeguard against the use of imprisonment to silence political enemies. Since it is impossible for the whole population to vote at every criminal trial, it arranges for a randomly selected group to hear evidence and pronounce on guilt - but that bit of democracy also happens often not to suit Mr Blunkett. No doubt a jury could also decide on sentencing but, since it doesn't involve a straight "yes" or "no", it seems better left to trained experts. Murder is a complex crime - in contrast to, say, burglary, where there is rarely much doubt about intent, motive or degree of provocation. But that does not matter to those of Mr Blunkett's mind. Murder is abhorrent to everybody, he reasons. Ergo, there is nothing more to be said. Judges cannot be trusted with sentencing precisely because they will think about it too much.

All too often, this is the new Labour attitude. Teachers cannot be trusted to teach, doctors to diagnose or heal, judges to apply the law. All must be controlled from the centre. This is not good government and, if the people think they want it, they will eventually regret it.

An honourable deception?

So George Washington, after all, had no need to tell the truth: he could have got away with an honourable deception. This phrase, used by Clare Short to a select committee of MPs last Tuesday to describe Tony Blair's claim that we all faced an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, has the ring of one that will go in the history books, alongside other great euphemisms. Ms Short was making a fair point. If Mr Blair was being economical with the truth, he did not do so to cover up Ugandan relations. All damage inflicted on doctrines of democratic accountability was collateral, and Ms Short's own position in the government was semi-detached. For now, Mr Blair thinks he can stir up apathy on the subject. But at some stage, he will no doubt announce that previous statements on this matter are inoperative. Perhaps we should then suggest that he spend more time with his family.