Mr Blunkett and the threat to freedom

Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin warns of a new danger to our traditional civil liberties

Talk: Are the Conservatives more liberal on crime?

Observer Crime and Justice debate

Sunday November 17, 2002
The Observer

Our country today faces a serious crisis of criminality. In many parts of Britain, our police have lost control of the streets. Violent crime has risen by 34 per cent in the last three years and criminals have just a 3 per cent chance of being convicted. Crime is costing our economy up to 60 billion a year. If you spend five minutes reading this article, 60 crimes will have been committed by the time you reach the end.

I have no doubt that David Blunkett recognises the crisis we face and is making every effort to do something about it. But my problem with the Home Office is that instead of dealing with a problem in a strategic and reasoned manner, it hides behind a smokescreen of initiatives, targets, manipulated statistics and copious amounts of legislation.

Twelve Criminal Justice Bills over five years have been accompanied by 95 initiatives since the last election. At the same time, the Home Office has failed to meet key targets for recorded crime, for class A drugs and for reducing robbery. Other targets have been quietly dropped or removed.

None of this would matter if there had been any real impact on crime, but unfortunately our criminal justice system is in disarray, a fact acknowledged by Mr Blunkett himself. Now, in the wake of the Queen's Speech, we face another raft of legislation with six new Bills. Of course, we will reach accommodation with the Government where we agree. For example, there is much common ground over the proposals for child protection and sexual offences.

There is agreement on some of the measures in the Criminal Justice Bill. It is a matter of consensus that we require new codes on criminal offences, on sentencing and on court procedures. It is clear that we need a new working relationship between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts. We need more thoroughgoing protection and support for victims and witnesses. We must explore means of preventing the ludicrous circumstances where people are more frightened to be witnesses or victims in court than to be accused in court.

In rebalancing our criminal justice system, we will not compromise on issues where our historic liberties - the right of the individual to resist the arbitrary power of the state - are under threat.

Unfortunately, we have a Home Secretary who is careless with our civil liberties time and again. First, he tried to curtail freedom of speech in the Anti-Terrorism Bill. Second, he tried to restrict and control the operational independence of our police forces. Third, he set about giving the Government powers to snoop on our emails and mobile phone conversations.

Adjusting the rules on double jeopardy to allow for a retrial may have real merit in a small number of cases where it becomes clear there is compelling evidence that a dangerous and wicked criminal has wrongly been acquitted of a serious offence. But it might also, in practice, make a fair retrial extremely difficult if the necessary safeguards are absent. We will need to ensure that any change provides benefits without damaging principles of justice. We will need to look, in particular, at safeguards developed in Sweden, to see how these have worked in practice.

It hardly inspires confidence that Tony Blair last week cited the examples of Germany, Finland and Denmark as having scrapped double jeopardy. According to the Bar Council, he is wrong: Denmark and Finland both have express protection against retrials.

The Criminal Justice Bill is also to propose that a court or jury should be allowed to learn of a defendant's previous convictions during the course of a trial subject to judicial discretion. Of itself, a previous conviction does not prove guilt any more than previous good character proves innocence. Previous convictions may already be used as evidence under certain specific circumstances, if the judge allows.

There may be good grounds for extending these categories, but we must be careful not to lose sight of the potential prejudice that the revelation of the existence of previous convictions may cause. Again, we need to be careful that adequate safeguards are in place.

We will also not acquiesce in any measures that threaten our liberties by the change to our extradition laws, whether contained in a European arrest warrant or otherwise, which lead to the arrest of people in this country for actions that are not crimes in this country.

The Conservative Party will vigorously oppose any measures in the Extradition Bill that compromise the principle of the presumption of innocence by allowing people to be arrested in the UK, in order to have to prove their innocence following trial in absentia in another EU country.

Despite the Home Secretary's enormous energy, the sad truth is that in the central preoccupations of this forthcoming criminal justice legislation, there will be little serious, concerted and effective action to achieve a long-term change in the level of crime that has actually occurred during the past five years.

There are no focused programmes to take young people off the conveyor-belt to crime. There are no efforts to recapture the streets through real neighbourhood policing. There are no measures to get young people off hard drugs. The Government has missed a chance properly to get to grips with crime. We will not give it the opportunity to compromise our civil liberties.