Blunkett – redefining rights

At his first keynote speech as home secretary, David Blunkett showed his intention to define rights out of existence.

Josie Appleton

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At his first keynote speech as UK home secretary, David Blunkett came across as a reasonable man trying to sort out a messy criminal justice system, for all of our sakes.

His speech to the National Probation Service on 5 July 2001 was not delivered with Widdecombe-like breast-beating or finger-wagging; he was likeable, self-effacing, he told jokes (as in, ‘You’re not allowed to joke as home secretary – you’ve got to be miserable as sin’).

This couldn’t be a man who is going to restrict our liberties and rights even further – could it? Well, not exactly. He won’t take away our rights, so much as define them out of existence.

Blunkett stated his desire to get away from the debate between liberal defenders of rights and proponents of ‘lock ’em up’ authoritarianism. Such ‘futile posturing’, he said, drives the public ‘crackers’. Instead, he called for an ‘intelligent, balanced and responsible debate’ about ‘how as a society we tackle and punish offending behaviour’.

Some of his proposals, taken from the Halliday Report on sentencing reform, published on 5 July 2001 (1), are about being tougher on criminals – including longer sentencing for repeat offenders, and violent and dangerous criminals. But most of the proposals mean giving courts and the police even wider powers to punish offending behaviour – not in the manner you might expect from the state, but more in the way you would expect from a parent who just wants their child back on the straight and narrow.

To stop offending behaviour, a parent would be able to impose a variety of behavioural controls over their youngster – they could make them get a job, try to get them to give up drugs, or tell them to be home by a specified time. So too, if Blunkett’s plans go ahead, will the police.

So according to the plans, courts will be given powers to impose a ‘community sentence’, which could involve elements such as supervision in the community, curfew, compulsory work and attendance at offending behaviour programmes. The emphasis throughout is on the intense supervision of the behaviour of individuals – before and after offending.

Blunkett’s objection to short custodial sentences is that they provide ‘little or no opportunity to change the behaviour and problems which put offenders there in the first place’ – such as drugs or alcohol, mental illness, or depression. With dangerous offenders, he proposed that courts should have the power to impose a 10-year supervision period after their sentence, ‘so that we can track their movements and their behaviour every step of the way’.

The criminal justice system should not just be brought into play after somebody has committed a crime, but should prevent offending from occurring. This means the police taking action to ‘intervene, before it is too late, rather than picking up the pieces at the end of a long line of criminal activity’. To this end, Blunkett suggested Acceptable Behaviour Contracts for youngsters – the equivalent of a ‘virtual clip around the ear’ that would say, ‘you’ve got a chance, we’ll work with your family, with you’ to help improve behaviour.

When I questioned Blunkett about the erosion of rights, he suggested that these kinds of issues were only important to the so-called ‘chattering classes’ of London. The chattering classes, apparently, can afford to be concerned about liberty, from the safety of their ‘comfortable homes’. On the other hand, there are people on estates in Blunkett’s constituency, whose lives are made a misery by anti-social behaviour. It is these people, who have lost faith in democracy and the justice system, for whom the criminal justice reforms are being carried out.

Ironic really – the very point about rights is that they are supposed to be the concern of everybody in society. Ironic, too, that the last people to be on the sharp end of behaviour contracts will be the children of the ‘chattering classes’.

(1) ‘Making Punishments Work: Report of a review of the sentencing framework for England and Wales’, John Halliday, Home Office, July 2001

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