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Thursday, 24 May, 2001, 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK
Jack Straw quizzed

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Jack Straw, the Home Secretary and one of the key figures in Tony Blair's cabinet, answered your questions in a live webcast.

He talked about policing and the prison population and also about how ordinary citizens could tackle crime. Listen to his answers on drugs policy, rehabilitation and trial by jury.

Jack Straw answered your questions in a live forum.

Below is a transcript of the interview.


Sean Curran

With me is the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. Do we live in a society where people can't defend themselves? (citing the case of Tony Martin, the man jailed for the shooting a 16-year-old burglar) Should citizens have the right to defend their property and family, and do you agree that we shouldn't be penalising people like Tony Martin, we should be giving more powers to the police?

Jack Straw

We don't live in a lawless society. And in respect of the really serious crime like murder, our murder rates in this country are much lower than many other comparable countries. There is too much crime, and crime, I have to make a political point, this is a fair point, it did double under the previous administration. It has been going down. It's gone down about 10 per cent across the country but it is still too high, which is why we have brought in a lot of extra powers for the police, we are putting in investment into the police and we are seeing results from that across the country. As I saw this afternoon in Crawley, where they had the same number of officers for a few years but they are using those officers much more effectively and they are really getting on top of violent crime. It's really, really interesting to see what's happened.

Now on the Tony Martin point, I can't comment on Mr Martin's guilt or otherwise because he currently has an appeal before the court of appeal. And I think everybody understands that. But what I would say is that people do have a clear right, not only of self defence, but also proactively to use force where they are making a citizen's arrest. And I can tell you that, Sean, because I've done it. And, four times in the last 20 years, I've sought to apprehend somebody who's just committed a crime. Once the chap ran faster than me, after about a mile I lost him. The other three times I've literally arrested somebody.

On one occasion it was a chap about 14, on the Oval tube station, I was told by another youngster that he'd just been robbed by this person. I got hold of him, this youngster, effectively resisted. And started shouting and yelling at me, and saying, effing and blinding, all the rest of it. I remember holding on to him up the escalator while he was telling me I was assaulting him, all the rest of it, and having to hang on to him until we'd managed to get the police called and I handed him over. Now, I was using reasonable force. If I had gratuitously committed an act of violence on him that wasn't necessary in order to restrain him, that would have been a different matter and fair enough. But the law is pretty commonsensical, we'll wait and see what happens in Mr Martin's appeal.

If the law needs to be changed we can change it. But if you read how the courts have dealt with this issue they really have dealt with it in a very straightforward way. And of course, and this is a really key point, it's often missed, if you are faced in the situation that I am and you don't have time to get the textbooks out, you're faced with a split-second. Take the other example, a small chap was chasing a large chap and shouts out to me to stop him. I could see something was going on. You have a millisecond in which to decide what to do. I jumped on him, rugby-tackled him. Now, I mean, and you think about it afterwards, was that really a sensible thing? What if he'd knifed me? But the law allows you take the force that any person would have taken in those circumstances, not with the benefit of hindsight. So if there's a burglar there, you are going to be frightened, you're quite likely to lash out, the law permits you to do that.

Sean Curran

Well, let's move on. Sarah Green from Leeds talks about the manifesto, the manifesto talks about reforming the criminal justice system at every level. But for every, for more than a decade now, every new government and every new home secretary has tried to do this. Wouldn't we have a better chance if it was working to a more consistent, if there was a more consistent approach, a more consistent standard adopted rather than just constant reform adopted by politicians?

Jack Straw

Well you can do both. We've got to get a greater degree of consistency in the way the courts operate. And that's one of the reasons, but there are many reasons why we want to reform the way in which the system operates. Because, for example, at the moment you've got two quite separate court systems, the magistrates and the crown court. The crown courts aren't bad in terms of consistency of sentences for similar offences. With Magistrates there are huge variations in their sentencing approach. There is not enough accountability by the magistrates for the sentences which they issue, nor sufficient feedback to them to find out what has actually happened.

Your job, my job, everybody's job these days, we can find out pretty quickly whether the judgements we make are the correct ones. If you're a sentencer you'll sentence someone, and say, well now we're going to give you three months, we're going to give you a fine. You never know whether that's worked or not, except by chance. Well that's no way to run a system. So we have to reform it, we have to take it out of the 19th century, put it in the 21st century. We've got all these archaic rules which were sensible when defendants were illiterate and unrepresented, but they're not sensible now and we've got to change that.

We've got to modernise the way that the courts operate. We've got to do two other things. We've really got to upgrade, which we are doing, the way the prosecution system operates because that's been the cinderella of the service and at the other end, in terms of sentencing, again, we not only need consistency, but better progression. In other words, if you carry on being a persistent offender and you don't take the advice given by probation officers when early on in your criminal career to go straight, then you'll go away to prison for a lot longer.

Sean Curran

OK, BBC News Online has been doing webcasts across the country. Andy Wright, who is a policeman with Greater Manchester Police, was interviewed on a webcast we did today. Now he said that morale among the police was at an all time low and he said that last year, police numbers increased by only 33 in total and he wants to see more police officers in Greater Manchester.

Jack Straw

Recruitment in Greater Manchester I can tell you is at an all time high. As to morale, it's one of those elusive things. I could, if you wanted go back and produce statements from the chairmen of the police federation for the last 30 years saying morale was at an all time low, and all those statements couldn't all have been true. The police service had tight resources and they had a reduction in numbers from 1993. That is now turning no matter what you find, it's like going into hospitals or into schools, you find that most people are really committed to the jobs that they are doing and the morale is pretty good. Some people are disgruntled, some people had a bad time and their morale is not so good. But we want to see high morale in the police service. The police must be doing some things right because they're getting on top of crime and disorder and that is true in Greater Manchester.

Sean Curran

We've had an e-mail from Jenny Carling, who's the wife of a serving officer in London. She says she's seen for herself the struggles that officers, particularly new recruits face in finding housing in London and the best thing that you could do would be to restore police housing to the level it was around 15 years ago.

Jack Straw

Well, we can't do that. Let me just explain why, and that is that there used to be an arrangement by which most police officers lived in police houses, like an awful lot of people, including myself when I was a kid, lived in a council house. Well people now want to live in their own homes. But what we have done is two things to recognise, well three things actually, to recognise the extra costs that are in London. One is that we now pay all the officers who joined after 1994, the ones before that do get a housing allowance, an extra 3,500 which is a big difference, 70 a week. The second thing is that we've given all London police officers free rail travel, so, a lot of them live in the suburbs, they can travel a 70-mile radius into London, that's making a really big difference. That's for all officers. And the third thing is that we are providing an amount of low cost housing for people who are in really necessary occupations like nurses and police officers, and that's now coming through.

Sean Curran

A similar question from Amy Heavey from Watford. How do you propose to solve the problem of retention in the Metropolitan Police? It is a feature isn't it of the Met that officers, they're not fed up with being police officers, but they find it easier to be police officers in Kent and the rest of the Home Counties.

Jack Straw

There wasn't good enough compensation for officers in London for the fact that their costs are higher. And frankly it is a tougher job, working in London. But we have now changed that and the result of the package which I've just spoken about is that recruitment in London is at an all time high and we are now seeing a net increase in the number of officers in the Metropolitan Police after a ten-year period when numbers went down. This year the Met estimate that they will recruit 2,500 in total, allowing for resignations and retirements, that will lead to a net increase in officers of 1,050 and we want to see that carrying on for quite a number of years to get Met officer numbers back and then beyond record levels.

Sean Curran

OK, now a question about the prison service, and rehabilitation. Ron King, in Bristol wants to know, is the main aim of penal policy to rehabilitate offenders or punish them?

Jack Straw

It's both. And both play a very important part in our society. Prison and all sentences of the court must be there as punishment because there has to be an expression of society's disapproval of what people have done unlawfully and criminally and through that punishment some reparation to the victim. I mean, you see that most often graphically when you have had a very difficult murder trial and finally there has been a result of a conviction. And people say that, the victim's families will say, well at least I have now got justice. I mean they haven't obviously, haven't brought their loved one back, but they feel that there is some justice. So providing that sense of justice is really, really important for our society and it's part of my major responsibilities.

But plainly if you're going to reduce crime you've got to make sure wherever possible that you get people off crime and get them to go straight and that is exactly what we've been doing. We started it with youth offenders and we've transformed the way in which the juvenile justice system works. A huge revolution has taken place amongst young offenders, in terms of a system for them and it is actually taking place among young offenders as well.

So we've ended this sort of endless yellow cards, we now have a proper graded system. But we're going to start doing that with the adult offenders as well. We've strengthened the probation service, reformed the probation service, we're putting a lot of money into drug treatment, into work and education and behaviour management programmes in the prisons. And what we're saying to people is we'll give you the help that we can in order to rehabilitate you, but there is a deal here. Accept this and stay straight, that's fine. You can lead the rest of your life in a law-abiding way, but if you don't, the more you don't, the longer you'll stay in prison.

Sean Curran

OK, moving onto something else now. Drugs policy. And we've had a lot of e-mails about this, a number of them saying why don't you legalise cannabis? But Martin Huxon from Gloucester says can you give a guarantee that cannabis will not be legalised during your next term of office?

Jack Straw

Well, what I can give you is a guarantee that we will adopt the same rational policy towards cannabis as we always have done. Now, why is cannabis proscribed? Not because I think so, or, you know, people around here think so, it's proscribed, it's banned for the same reason as other dangerous drugs are banned, that the scientific and medical evidence is that it is dangerous. Now in the case of cannabis, of course I understand it's not as serious as heroin and it doesn't produce aggressive behaviour on, as for example, as alcohol. But the medical evidence is that it has very chronic adverse affects and really can badly affect people's behaviour. It can greatly exacerbate people who are prone to mental illness, and can lead to violence, amongst people who are prone to schizophrenia. So that's why it's been banned. If the medical evidence, the science, changes, then we will obviously change their approach but there is no information to that effect up to now.

Sean Curran

Now, there's one more about civil liberties and individual rights. Trevor Holding from Tiverton says, do you feel at ease that legitimate protests are effectively outlawed, thus preventing the public from engaging in the democratic process?

Jack Straw

Well, I feel at ease that we allow a huge amount of legitimate protest in our society and no legitimate protest is outlawed. I've taken part in loads and loads of demonstrations myself over the years, I've not taken part in any since I became Home Secretary, usually been the other way around. But I have taken part in a great number of demonstrations, a really important part of our democracy. But I think, what may be in the mind of this person, is the demonstration, or near riot, that took place three weeks ago on May 1st.

Now, if those people had simply been interested in legitimate protest what they would have done is co-operated with the police and said this is our route. On the same day there was a TUC demonstration, because it was May Day, Labour Day, and it was entirely orderly. A huge shame, particularly for the TUC, and it got no publicity at all because it was a peaceful protest with proper co-operation with the police. Instead you had people who were wilfully refusing to co-operate with the police, but also had a track record of violence in the past. Now, there is a gulf between peaceful protest which I celebrate and wish to encourage and violent protest which we can't have.

Sean Curran

It may well be that the organisers wouldn't co-operate with the police but lots of people who must have turned up at May Day weren't expecting that they'd be basically arrested for several hours by the Metropolitan Police in the middle of London.

Jack Straw

Well, there were plenty of opportunities for people to peel off, they knew what they were doing. I mean they weren't there, I can't speak for everybody, but it's perfectly plain to the police that people were turning up there hoping for a bundle, hoping for trouble. And it was perfectly plain to everybody watching those scenes on the television that had it not been so professionally and expertly policed there could and would have been trouble. Just, I mean, in fact, the previous year was well contained within Trafalgar Square but what the organisers did, having had to be contained in Trafalgar Square last time, and with all the disorder we had just down the road here on Parliament Square, the organisers deliberately decided to make it even more difficult for the police. That is at best anarchy. But it was people really obsessed with the idea of violence and seeing the police as the enemy. Well, the police are people who help to sustain our democracy in our society.

Sean Curran

OK, let's hear about one other issue about civil liberties and rights. Trial by jury. Michael Newbold from Oxford says, why are you persisting in your bid to limit the availability of trial by jury and he thinks this would seriously impinge on civil liberties of people in this country.

Jack Straw

Well, not for serious offences, we're not, but we are saying that we have a really eccentric situation in this country. If, Sean, I were to steal your Financial Times just here, OK, it costs quite a lot of money, 90p, or something much less, a Mars bar. I am charged with that offence, I had a right to go for a jury trial. I might be somebody who's got five or ten or 20 previous convictions for doing something similar. Say, for nicking a can of Tennants lager from an off licence.

Are we really saying you have to have the full panoply of a jury trial to determine my guilt or innocence of something like that? Now, of course if it's a very large theft and it's a complicated theft, it's a different matter. Now what we've said is, isn't it time to bring our law into line with virtually every other jurisdiction you can think of including Scotland, and say the decision about the mode of trial for these middle ranking offences, the either way offences, should be one, which should be made by the courts and not by the defendant? I don't think defendants have a right to pick and choose which forum should try them on the basis of where they have a better chance.

And what in practice happens, and this is the real injustice, is that old lags like that will, charged with stealing your Financial Times, will go for a jury trial because they think they can string things out. If you then talk to crown court judges they are driven made by the fact there are really serious cases awaiting trial, like for example rape cases and serious, really serious grievous bodily harm, acts of violence, robberies, and so on, which they can't get on to because of these trials and sometimes they drop their lower, their trials, even those people who ought to be convicted, to make room for the more serious trials. So it's an abuse and we are going to end it.

Sean Curran

Home Secretary, thank you very much.

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