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Last Updated: Friday, 23 June 2006, 20:56 GMT 21:56 UK
Blair attacks the 'justice gap'
Police officers
Mr Blair has been giving a speech on criminal justice

There is a huge and growing gap between the criminal justice system and what the public expects from it, Tony Blair has said in a speech in Bristol.

In the wake of controversy over prison sentences, the prime minister said the rights of suspects must not "outweigh" those of the "law-abiding majority".

His speech comes after he met victims of crime in inner city Bristol.

But a leading criminologist has claimed government initiatives are "like putting a plaster on a broken leg".

Oxford University's Prof Ian Loader is one of several experts invited by Downing Street to contribute to the debate on law and order. Their views are published on the No10 website.

On Friday, Prof Loader told the BBC: "We have had 25 years of government that have taken law and order very seriously. We have had 40 pieces of law and order legislation from this government.

Screaming headlines?

"We have had countless new criminal offences, we've got a prison population that is bursting at the seams and we have got sentences in aggregate terms going up not going down.

Think hard before deciding that what our society needs right now is another grand statement of governmental purpose and a further round of headline-grabbing legislation
Professor Ian Loader

"And yet he [Mr Blair] is expecting us to believe that the criminal justice system has become unbalanced and therefore we need a further round of reform in order to protect the rights of the victim.

"I think that thesis needs some more evidence to support it. My current position is that it beggars belief."

Shadow home secretary David Davis said there was "no government in modern memory which hasn't put the victim first".

"However, because of the way the government has been incompetent, they've let people out who shouldn't have been let out."

He said murderers have been let out on to the street "as a result of incompetence, not intent".

'Meltdown'

Lib Dem Nick Clegg said: "We have prisons bursting at the seams, a judiciary at loggerheads with the government, a probation service on its knees, falling conviction rates for serious crimes, one of the highest rates of reoffending in Western Europe, and a Home Office in a state of institutional meltdown."

Downing Street has stressed that 1,000 new prison places will be ready for next year.

Victims of Crime Trust director Norman Brennan said if the government really was interested in making the streets of Britain safer cash for at least 50,000 new police officers and five to 10 new prisons would have to be forthcoming.

In his speech, Mr Blair argued "screaming" headlines have often prevented a rational debate on how to tackle crime.

The consequence is not abstract, it's out there, very real, on our streets
Tony Blair

He picked the issue as the theme for the first of a series of speeches entitled Our Nation's Future.

Friday's speech will be seen as part of a bid to regain the initiative on law and order in the wake of the rows on sentencing for sex offenders and the foreign prisoners' crisis.

Mr Blair said: "It's no use saying that in theory there should be no contradiction between the rights of the suspect and the rights of that law-abiding majority.

"In practice there is such a conflict and every day we don't resolve it, the consequence is not abstract, it's out there, very real, on our streets."

Getting personal

Mr Blair pointed to his own 25 years of experience around the legal system - as a barrister, constituency MP, shadow home secretary and prime minister.

He said: "I have come to the conclusion that part of the problem in this whole area has been the absence of a proper, considered and intellectual debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world."

Tony Blair at a meeting in Bristol
Tony Blair met victims of crime in Bristol
Mr Blair said politicians need to get away from the convulsions of the issues of the moment.

"Crime, immigration, security, because of the emotions inevitably raised, the headlines that scream, the multiplicity of the problems, we desperately, urgently need a rational debate from first principles," he will argue.

And he insisted the welter of legislation under his government had been necessary.

Earlier this week, the chief constable of Dyfed Powys Police, Terry Grange, accused ministers of being swayed by the News of the World over calls for new laws about sex offenders.




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