Saturday, August 25, 2007

Tough on crime victims...

"Laura Norder" has leaped back to the top of the political agenda this week following the Learco Chindamo controversy and the Rhys Jones killing. Here's what I had to say in my weekend column published in the Newcastle Journal and Derby Telegraph this morning.


Every so often, an individual crime takes place in Britain that is seen as so horrendous and which provokes such a degree of public outrage that it actually shifts the political consensus.

The death of Liverpool toddler James Bulger in 1993 was one such instance. It produced some in us deep soul-searching as to what kind of country we had become, and a new emphasis on the need to mend our “broken society.”

It was shortly after this that the then Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, first displayed his infallible ability to capture the zeitgeist by coining his memorable soundbite "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime."

It is arguable that the Bulger death played at least a part in Mr Blair being elected leader of the Labour Party the following year ahead of Gordon Brown, who up until then had been the senior of the two men.

A similarly seminal episode was the Dunblane Massacre, in 1995. It resulted in the Labour ban on handguns introduced after 1997 and, with the Tories having opposed the move, was a small but significant issue in the general election of that year.

Then there was the murder of the London teenager Stephen Lawrence, which led to the Macpherson Report into “institutional racism” in the Metropolitan Police and a huge change in the culture of UK policing.

Few crimes, though, have generated as much public debate and as many political repercussions as the 1995 murder of the London headteacher Philip Lawrence while trying to protect one of his young pupils.

This week, the case was dominating the political agenda again, following the judgement that Lawrence's killer, Learco Chindamo, should not be deported to Italy if, as expected, he is released on parole next year.

The Lawrence case was always one that pushed a lot of buttons. The extent of knife crime, the rise in gang culture, and the rights of victims were but three of the issues it threw up.

It gave rise to a knives amnesty at the time, and later helped lay the ground for the introduction of “victim statements” in which those most closely affected by individual crimes were allowed to address the court at the end of a trial.

But for all the Blair government’s oft-repeated hype about “putting the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system,” the system remains stacked against the victim as this week’s ruling showed.

It remains the prevailing legal view that the justice system is not about delivering the wishes of Mrs Frances Lawrence or any other victims, and that attempts to make it do so stem more from “tabloid hysteria” than ordinary common sense.

For what it’s worth, my own view of the case is that the focus on the row over the deportation of Chindamo has obscured an even more glaring injustice – the pitifully short sentence he has had to serve in view of the seriousness of the original crime.

This was also the case with Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger, who were set free under new identities several years ago.

But the fact that Chindamo has become eligible for parole after just 12 years only serves to emphasise the extent to which the deportation tribunal decision has failed Mrs Lawrence, who must now live with the thought that her husband’s killer is at large in the same city.

If life could not mean life, the system could at least have ensured that Chindamo was sent somewhere a long way away from the people whose lives he has ruined.

So much for my views – what of the law? Well, the initial blame for the ruling attached to the Human Rights Act passed by New Labour in 2000, which holds that Chindamo has a right to a family life.

His Filipino mother still lives in London, and although his father lives in Italy, he is currently in jail for throwing acid in a woman’s face and has not seen his son for many years.

But as the week has gone on, it has become clearer that the real legal culprit was not the Human Rights Act but the 2004 EU Free Movement Directive, which makes clear that Chindamo cannot be deported unless he is a serious threat to public security.

Politically, this is something of a heady cocktail, encompassing not just concerns about youth crime and gang culture but also Britain’s whole relationship with Europe at a time when the EU constitution referendum row is raising its head once again.

Little more than 48 hours after the Chindamo ruling came the fatal shooting of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, a crime that carried more than a few overtones of the Bulger killing a few miles away on Merseyside.

It has also stirred similar emotions, with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith struggling to hold back the tears in a television interview yesterday after watching Rhys's parents talk about his murder.

Meanwhile, in a further shift away from traditional Tory concerns, David Cameron has insisted that the “broken society” would be a central theme of his party’s general election campaign.

Even before this week’s events, the youth crime issue was growing in importance as talk of that election continues to intensify. It is sure to be a key election battleground now.

It was one of Tony Blair's great political achievements in his 13 years as Labour leader to make crime a “Labour issue,” and it is still too soon to talk of it becoming a “Tory issue” again.

But simply by virtue of having been in power for ten years in which the problem of gun crime in particular has continued unabated, Labour is once again vulnerable on the issue.

The political impact of the James Bulger murder was to catapult youth crime to the top of the agenda and put Tony Blair in pole position to become Labour leader and later Prime Minister.

Fourteen years on, the combined political impact of the Chindamo ruling and the Ryan Jones killing might just be to put David Cameron back in the game.

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septicisle said...

I agree with you that I think Chindamo's sentence was too short to begin with, but disagree over the sentence given to Venables and Thompson. Their crime, however horrific, came early enough that they could and have been completely rehabilitated, and despite the tabloid attempts to out them and potentially drive them to an early grave, they have not re-offended and are now living a normal life. Why should we destroy more young lives through exposing them to prison for no greater reason than to appease public opinion?

All the evidence, despite tabloid attempts to smear him, suggests that Chindamo has also reformed, feels great remorse and wants to make up for his dreadful crime. We can argue he should have had a longer sentence, but why should that also prevent him from rejoining society, and seeing as he wants to be a carer, from potentially saving lives to make up for the one he so cruelly took?

Daily Referendum said...

Labour - tough on crime, tough on the manipulation of the statistics of crime.

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul

Cry the Beloved Country

A lot of Chickens are now coming home to roost

but do you or your Visitors see that there is any real heart-searching or desire to repent of the things which are going wrong in an over-affluent & over-comfortable Country

Your obedt Servant etc

G Eagle

Anonymous said...

Don't be a victim. Vote about Europe at!

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece Paul; I especially liked your point about individual tragedies can vault crime up the political agenda. I agree that Labour is vulnerable on this.

New Labour dishonestly projected itself as tough on crime, and at times has been rather sickenly populist. This was probable neccessary as part of becoming electable again, but Labour's true heart was never in it. Consequently, there was little (any?) intellectual rigour to its criminal policies. Even more importantly, it was always unwilling except under duress to adaquately invest in the prison and judicial seefcie that was expected to bear the hugely additional demands of its populsit and highly illiberal law making and sentencing policies.

I suspect that it may be that Brown will personally prove vulnerable on the latter point, since it was he who was the undoubted treasury czar during the period of chronic under-investment.

Anonymous said...

Ted Harvey I completely disagree with your assertion that Labour is "sickenly" populist on crime.

The fact is that Jon Venables, Robert Thompson and in Paul's argument about Chindamo.

We are seeing a government which is saying, rehabilitation works! We can allow offenders back into the community no matter how grievous their original crimes. Not a statement that the tabloid press would have us believe is particularly populist.

Rehabilitation has to work and the fact that Chindamo is at a point that he can be released into the community is something to praise the government for! Not berate without an appreciation of what prisons are there for in the first place.