Home Secretary talks to the EADT

This interview first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times on Monday March 7 2005 In the first of a series of interviews with the country's top party leaders in the run-up to the General Election, EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES talks to Home Secretary CHARLES CLARKE.

This interview first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times on Monday March 7 2005

In the first of a series of interviews with the country's top party leaders in the run-up to the General Election, EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES talks to Home Secretary CHARLES CLARKE.

CHARLES Clarke has been a Member of Parliament for just eight years, one of the intake swept into the Commons by Labour's landslide.

His rise to the top has been meteoric and the former confidant and aide to Neil Kinnock is one of the five leading members of the Cabinet.

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Homeland security and law and order are pivotal to the nation state and are at the forefront of the way the electorate judges a political party when it comes to voting.

That election is likely to be just two months away but Charles Clarke – MP for Norwich South and the most prominent East Anglian in the Cabinet - has not had a honeymoon period to bed himself into the Home Office.

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He took over in December when David Blunkett quit – and immediately found himself on the wrong end of an overwhelming condemnation by the law lords acting as the supreme court who ruled eight to one that Britain's anti terror laws were in breach of European human rights legislation.

Mr Clarke's response was to introduce control orders, which would mean house arrest for suspects believed to be plotting terrorist outrages but who cannot be brought before the courts without revealing the identities of informants.

But in the face of opposition from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and scores of Labour backbenchers, the original plan for the Home Secretary to issue the order has been dropped.

The Government has conceded that only a judge can sanction what is in effect a draconian depravation of human liberty without the ability to test guilt or innocence before the courts.

He believes the new law is needed to combat the growing terrorist threat to the UK. He said: "We know for a fact that there have been attempts by terrorist organisations to commit outrages in this country since 9-11 which have been stopped by the security services."

Even though the Tories and Liberal Democrats have mauled this legislation – which has to be passed by Parliament before the current powers on March 14 – Charles Clarke refuses to go into the election campaign echoing the words of Commons leader Peter Hain who said only Labour could be trusted with the nation's security.

"That's not my line to accuse the opposition parties of not caring about the security of the country," he added.

"I think they are serious about it, but have not thought through carefully enough this issue of the balance of security and liberty – and in a sense, to be fair to them, it is difficult to do that when in opposition."

But he will campaign long and loud on what he sees as the Government's achievements. "Labour has put law and order and crime reduction at the centre stage. From Tony Blair's first remarks 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,' to now, we have acknowledged it is a real issue.

"We have addressed it with resources - the highest number police we have ever had, a wireless communications system, a DNA data base. We have put in place a penal framework which is much more rigorous."

This includes anti social behaviour orders (ASBOs), which he regards as a success in fighting graffiti, vandalism, and petty crime that blights the lives of thousands of people. "Anti social behaviour remains an absolute concern to communities such as the estates of Ipswich," he says – and stands by his view that juvenile made the subject of ASBOs should be named in newspapers and shamed in communities.

"There are young people who are threatening the security of their neighbourhoods and they should be known.

"Young people can desist from these orders and it is not unreasonable for it to be known that an individual has been told not to harass Mrs Smith and number 68.

"It may seem harsh but it is very important that society says anti social behaviour is not acceptable and we should be ready to throw the book at people."

The Home Secretary believes the Government is putting adequate resourcing into rural policing, even though police authorities such as Suffolk protested at the level of grant received this year from Whitehall, coupled with the threat of capping if they tried to raise council tax by more than 5% to meet the shortfall.

"Suffolk police authority is better resourced than at any time in its history," he claimed. "That is a real contribution to the safety and security of people in the county."

When a former junior minister in the Home Office, Mr Clarke says he was responsible for putting in place a package of measures to help rural areas, focussing on visibility, on neighbourhood police, and the power of special constables

"I think I need to say that the level of crime in rural areas is significantly lower than in urban areas and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that fact.

"If you go to any rural Suffolk community, and identify the crime in that community, it is relatively low compared to similar built-up areas.

"That means it does not exist or it is not a serious problem, but it is a different set of issues. "However, the whole idea of visible neighbourhood policing including rural areas is central to the Government's policies."

He pointed to the growth of Government-funded CCTV in the last few years, which meant that villages 10 miles outside of Ipswich were now monitored by a central control room in the town, helping protect communities from crime.

With regionalisation the key to the Government's devolution solution for England, there is a fear that county constabularies will be merged into super regional police forces. Would he rule it out?

"Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabularies has looked at the structure of police forces in this country and we are looking now at the report. I think it is important to have greater regional co-operation so you can easily imagine back office functions, training and even control rooms operating on a regional basis

"There are no proposals to create regional police forces – but I don't absolutely rule them out. I am not totally against them, but there is not even a discussion about them yet.

"Some years ago, there was a serious effort to bring Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire together as one force and I always thought there was some merit in that.

"I can say there will be no merger involving Essex, but Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire is a more interesting prospect – but there will be nothing in our manifesto"

Mr Clarke also defended the centralisation of magistrates' courts, which under Labour has led to the closure of small, rural courthouses in counties such as Essex and Suffolk. "The court system does not take decisions fast enough fast enough and justice is delayed.

"We need to have an efficient criminal justice system. That is very important and inefficiency has led to people having a lack of confidence in the system. The argument for moving to regional centres was designed precisely to make courts more efficient."

Would he accept this takes lay magistrates out of the community? "No, they still sit in courts no matter where those courts are. Stipendiaries and district judges play a big role in raising standards but my view remains that the system of volunteers from the community serving as magistrates is very important."

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