By Colin Foster
In the run-up to the Queen's Speech on 13 November - the Government's announcement of its plans for next year's new laws - Prime Minister Tony Blair said vandalism, graffiti, litter and other low-level crimes are "probably the biggest immediate issue for people in the country".
The prospect of a huge war in the Middle East? Mass unemployment? Increasing inequality? The progressive shredding, by cuts, privatisation, and semi-privatisation, of public services? The continued crippling of trade-union action by Tory laws? No real issues there, according to Blair.
He chooses instead to play to the prejudices of the most short-sighted Mr and Ms Grumpy in the land, of people who can see no further than a desire to "clamp down" on unruly teenagers in their neighbourhood.
A society where sharp elbows to do down your neighbours and "get ahead" are praised and celebrated; where health care, education, and public services are increasingly ranked in tiers and regulated by markets; and where vast numbers of young people can see no prospect of stable and worthwhile jobs - that sort of society runs on anti-social behaviour, and is bound to generate anti-social pathologies at the edges.
The Government's programme now, however, is to increase rewards to the anti-social behaviour of the rich and respectable, to accentuate the dog-eat-dog character of society, and to try to keep the lid on by a heavier hand against the alienated and poor.
The Government proposes to let selected NHS hospitals spin off from the rest of the Health Service and become "foundation hospitals", able to raise cash from private capital on their account and set their own wages for staff. This will be a big step towards a formalised two-tier health service, with one tier giving minimal care to the poor and an upper tier giving better care to the well-off.
Further steps along the same two-tier road are planned in higher education. The Queen's Speech said no more than that "university reform proposals will be published", but new Education Minister Charles Clarke has supported plans by élite universities to charge students "top-up" fees. The Government's announced plans also promise "greater diversity" (in fact, inequality) in secondary schools.
The Government plans to make it easier for councils to evict "anti-social" tenants, to increase on-the-spot fines for minor offences, and to launch a "crackdown" on graffiti, fly-tipping and the use of airguns.
It promises "tougher sentencing". In fact, while the number of people coming before the courts has remained stable over the past 10 years - in 1990 218,900 offenders were dealt with by magistrates and judges, compared with 217,300 in 2000 - the proportion sent to prison has almost doubled, from 17% to 30%.
This "toughness" probably increases crime, rather than reducing it. But the Government also wants to remove the right to jury trial for some cases; to scrap the "double jeopardy" rule by which people cannot be tried twice for the same offence; and to allow previous convictions and hearsay evidence to be brought more easily into court hearings.
In a joint statement, Liberty, Legal Action Group, the Criminal Bar Association and the Bar Council commented: "Since the celebrated miscarriages of justice of the early 1990s, the majority of changes to the criminal justice system have undermined the rights of suspects and defendants and are likely to increase the numbers of innocent people being convicted...
"We believe that any relaxation of the bar on double jeopardy might result in repeated prosecutions of unpopular defendants to achieve a popular result, and lead to them being hounded by the media.
"We do not accept that adducing previous acquittals and convictions into evidence could have any other than a seriously prejudicial effect unless they are truly relevant to an issue in the case. Weak cases should not be bolstered by prejudice. It greatly undermines the presumption of innocence and risks serious miscarriages of justice".