Ministers no speaky nothing

Why does the government insist on following the ideas of a country which provides a terrifying model

It was difficult not to get a sinking feeling from the news that John Reid, the Home Secretary, had ordered his junior minister Gerry Sutcliffe to travel to the US to look at Megan's Law, the controversial measure that permits parents in certain states to know whether child sex offenders are living in their area.

In response to the latest tabloid hysteria, the hapless Sutcliffe will make his trip over the summer. If he has any sense, he will conclude, like others at the Home Office before him, that it should not be introduced in the UK. As Terry Grange, the eminently sensible chief constable of Dyfed-Powys pointed out, five people have been killed by vigilantes in the US this year alone, following disclosures under Megan's Law.

This is unlikely to stop our government from turning to America for inspiration. Ministers have wholeheartedly embraced its privatised penal culture, which means US-based corporations now make millions from Britain's exploding prison population. We are told that "US-style" night courts could provide instant justice for violent drunks. The new Serious and Organised Crime Agency has been dubbed the British CIA because it is supposedly modelled on that institution. Reid has even inherited a top American cop, the former Boston police chief Paul Evans, who runs the Police Standards Unit at the Home Office.

Spot the linguists

In a speech in Bristol designed to launch a national debate on crime (yes, another one), the Prime Minister will say he is planning to extend "community courts" being trialled in Liverpool and Salford, which are designed to give local people a greater say in justice: yet another idea imported from the US.

In America there are nearly 700 prisoners for every 100,000 of the population, compared to 140 here; the murder rate in Washington, DC is around 30 times that of London. Surely it would make more sense to look at what they are doing right in Brussels, where the murder rate is less than one per 100,000, or send a minister to Norway, where the rate of incarceration is half that of this country. So why does the government insist on imposing ideas on us from a country which provides a terrifying model of how not to run a criminal justice system? The answer, it seems, is simple: language.

"In America they speak and read English, it's as crude as that," says Denis MacShane, the former Europe minister, who has the distinction of speaking French, German and Spanish. He believes MPs should be offered language courses. "It's reasonable to expect a working knowledge [of a European language]. But people just pick up what they want to hear." He said it was common to see an American or British newspaper in the office of a European minister, but that he had never seen a British minister reading a European newspaper.

I tested MacShane's theory by calling relevant departments to see which ministers possessed the necessary language skills to engage with European policy ideas. The replies were coy. A Home Office spokeswoman could not comment on the linguistic abilities of Reid or Sutcliffe: "We don't have that information about individual ministers available," she said. "And anyway, whether they speak a language is not relevant." Home Office ministers were looking at other examples of good practice on paedophiles from Europe and elsewhere, but she couldn't tell me exactly where, or when Sutcliffe would be paying them a visit.

At the Foreign Office, where you might think languages would come in handy, a spokeswoman said she did not have information about individual ministers. There is one at least: the minister for Europe, Geoff Hoon, has a smattering of French from his time as an MEP.

Look at Europe

Across Whitehall the picture is patchy: Ben Bradshaw speaks German from his time as the BBC's Berlin correspondent, and James Purnell speaks fluent French, having been brought up in France. But as ministers for marine and animal welfare and pensions reform, respectively, it is not clear that their linguistic abilities are being put to best use. Among opposition parties, William Hague speaks good French, while Nick Clegg is something of a polyglot, with languages including Dutch.

The situation will not change when Gordon Brown takes over; his grasp of languages is worse than Tony Blair's. At least the PM holidays in France and Italy. Among Brown's team, the Cabinet Office minister Ed Miliband has been learning French from MacShane's researcher.

Brown's US obsession is a shame; this tired administration should be searching far and wide for new ideas. In the area of criminal justice, at least, ministers could do a lot worse than look to our European neighbours, which have kept crime rates relatively low without resorting to high rates of incarceration.

But they might need to brush up on their languages first.