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Home Secretary John Reid's webchat transcript

Participating in Home Secretary John Reid's "moderated" webchat via the Number 10 Downing Street website, this afternoon was a frustrating experience, and some of John Reid's comments were deeply worrying and creepy.

Obviously none of our "real time" or previously submitted Questions were chosen by the Moderators.
e.g. Why is there still no ban on the Taleban in the UK ?

Apparently, according to John Reid, the biometric National Identity Register, ID Cards and passports are somehow the only possible way forward:

"Without these, we cannot begin to track people in and out of this country, combat organised crime, tackle illegal immigration or counter terrorism"

Really ? How do other countries mange to do so then ? How were criminals ever caught in the past or even today, without the benefit of this ill-conceived system which will not be in place for several years ?

Moderator says: This webchat will start at 1500 GMT on Tuesday 27 February 2007.

We look forward to seeing your questions.

Moderator says: Hello and welcome to our John Reid webchat. Thanks for all your questions. We've had several hundred but we'll get through as many as we can during the hour the Home Secretary has available. Some of the questions address specific and personal issues which Dr Reid won't be able to able to deal with while he's here, but we'll make sure the Home Office are given all the unanswered questions. We've also received some questions about ID cards - Dr Reid may answer some of these, but we recommend that you log-in next Monday for our webchat with James Hall, head of the ID card scheme, who will online to deal with the issue.

Moderator says: The Home Secretary will be here in a minute or two

Moderator says: sorry for the delay, we hope to start very soon


John says : Hello everybody. Sorry I am slightly late but as ever it has been a delightful day in the Home Office!

mr john wilcox: i think the new law on the use of mobile phones in cars will be seen as just another way of extracting money from the motorist when in fact you should have made the use of mobile phones ilegal and people who use them other than when the car is parked off the public road should have their phones taken away from them.all the best

John replies: Thanks John. Like any new law, this is difficult to enforce at the starting period, not least because people are not yet acculturised to the dangers. But the dangers are real as some tragic injuries and deaths testify. Always open to suggestion that the phone should be confisciated, although given their widespread availability and relatively cheap cost this may not be a deterrent.

Mr Tom Graham: I just wondered what the thinking was behind the headline of reducing the age at which there is a mandatory 5yr jail term for carrying a gun from 21yrs to 17yrs when most of the recent victims and murderers have been under that age? Why do you have to recommend a new law everytime there's a problem when all you have to do is enforce existing laws.

John replies:

Thanks Tom. Of course we have to both enforce existing laws and to change the law where necessary as circumstances change. And it is obvious that circumstances have changed. There have always been gangs of course but the increasing use of guns or knives and the lower age at which they are being used can't be ignored. One thing I would say, is that this will not be solved by the police alone or tougher sentences alone. Unles we can engage the whole community, including the vast majority of young people against those that threaten the livelihoods (and the ngihts out), then we won't succeed.

Incidentally, tougher sentences can help. Since we introduced the 5 year mandatory sentence for gun crime firearms offences have fallen by 14% and the number of people killed by the use of guns has fallen from over 78 to 50. Still 50 too many, but moving in the right direction.

Daran Thomas
: Do you think that complete media coverage of criminal cases has any effect on public confidence and perception regarding crime figures and convictions?

If so, how can the government restore these factors and regain public confidence against the media?

John replies:

I think we should be very careful about allowing more and more coverage of offenders, their details, pictures and so on. Of course the public have a right to some information about crime, criminals and the justice system, but I am uneasy about pressures to move in the direction of the United States and think we should proceed with care.

Of course, where conviction has taken place, especially where those convicted are guilty of crimes against children like child abuse, I think there is a case for further information to be made available to the public.

What is John Reid doing about all the "climate of fear" propaganda , rumours and unattributed background briefings from "Whitehall" or "Police" or "Security" sources etc. which seem to feed the media frenzy associated with every major terrorism or even simple murder cases, even before any charges have been laid against those arrested ?

Nothing, except basking in the glow of "Must Be Seen To Be Doing Something" publicity, with claims like "I have been kept fully briefed about the situation", when he should have been keeping well out of it, for fear of prejudicing a fair trial.

Miss Debbie Howard: I watch the news in horror as young people are getting shot for no reason across the country. Would it be a good time to consider re-introducing National Service? Not only would this give the youth generation of today some discipline it may also encourage more people to join our diminishing Armed Forces. Yours sincerely, Miss D Howard, Aged only 46!

John replies: Dear Debbie, Iam not sure that national service as we knew it half a century ago would be welcomed by military chiefs, young people or most of the population. However, I do think there is a demand and a role for public service. That is why community sentences - where offenders are forced to do unpaid work for the benefit of the local community - are such a good idea and why I support them so strongly. They let people see that offenders are truly paying something back rather than just costing the taxpayers £40,000 a year in prison. Of course serious, dangerous or persistent offendeners should be sent to prison but there is a role, as you suggest for communtiy service and payback.

Robert Groves
: Home secretary. Why are the Police Service in Hampshire cutting down on police numbers by 76 front line officer they say not enough goverment funding, they need to save £1 million to balance the budget ,by reducing front line officers surely that will not be cost effective when anti social behaviour is on the increase, cost local council more to repair the damage done, Police on the streets would both prevent or arrest those reponsible.? like in the passed.

John replies: The truth is Robert that Hampshire, like every other police service in the country, is receiving more money than ever before. We have a record number of police in England and Wales at 140,000.

Buzzword Bingo - "record number of police"

And on top of this we are heading for 16,000 police community support officers. On top of this again, we have more ancilliary staff than ever before. Put simply, police staff numbers have increased by over 20,000 since 1997 and poilce funding has increased by almost 80% (39% in real terms). However, police chiefs locally have always asked for more responsibility and more power to vary their own numbers between officer numbers, equipment, cars, police community support officers etc so that they can maximise their own capabilities by combining these elements to suit themselves in the local area.

Mr Steven Baum: Having been to New York last year I was impressed that there is not graffiti, and street crime + anti social behavior has really declined. I did a lot of research on this and the main reason attributed to it is "ZERO TOLORANCE". plus 3 strikes and you are out. The youth of New York fear going "up river" for 20 years. This country is declining into a yob rule. The human rights act encourages kids to get as "asbo" as they get steet cred for getting one, and anyone under 16 has no fear of the police. I am not sayinmg go back to the stocks etc. But please please get a grip on society. I got the cane at school, it did not turn me into a violent person or encourage me to go out mugging old ladies. I was brought up to respect my elders but the youth of today has no respect because they know they can get away with anti social behavior. Take a look at what happened in New York and make a tough stance. he public are getting fed up with the weekly new "ban" and want our streets back.

John replies:

Thanks for your comment Steven. Lets never forget that the vast majority of young people, millions of them, are hardworking, law-abiding who just want to get ahead and make a future for themselves.

However, if we are to have a decent society everyone has to operate with a respect for other people. That is the whole point of ASBOs - to intervene early and show people that certain types of behaviour - even short of criminal offence - is just not acceptable. Of course there are always some, sometimes idiots, who regard being lifted by the police or ASBOs or prison as a badge of honour. That doesn't mean that any of these things are unnecessary, just that they are a necessary part of educating people out of their behaviour and part of that education is sanctions ranging from ASBOs right through to indeterminate prision sentences. Indicentally, a recent National Audit Office report concluded that the majority of people who received an ASBO intervention did not re-engage in anti-social behaviour bringing a degree of peace to the communities they had disturbed, and the overall British Crime Survey shows that in the 3-4 years we have been using ASBOs to around 2002/3 - 2005/6, the percentage of people believe in their to be high levels of anti-social behaviour in their area fell from 21% to 17% so a lot more needs to be done but a good start.

T Robbins: Why should I be prevented from having a passport merely because I wish to keep my private information secure by keeping it away from your proposed intrusive and unsafe 'National Identity Register'?

John replies

Dear Mr Robbins, obviously everyone needs a passport if they want to travel abroad. Increasingly country after country is going to require a biometric passport or visa (eg the USA already does) - ie a passport with your fingerpriint or the iris of your eye or exact facial features. If you are going to have biometric passport with that feature their obviously has to be a record of the feature to check it against. If there is a record of features, there is therefore a register.

Incidentally, the use of biometrics is intended to protect the individual. One of the greatest threats to indivdiuals and to our country as whole is the theft of identities. It is the major element in identity fraud (credit cards, bank accounts etc), internet theft, organised crime and terrorism through the use of multiple identities.

This is simply untrue ! "Theft of identities" is only a minor factor in most frauds, which involve false declarations of entitlement or circumstances, not of persobnal names and addresses.

There is no way in which "biometrics" are of any use whatsoever in combating "internet theft" - how can you believe that say, a fingerprint image sent over the insecure internet, belongs to a real person? Even if it does, how can you trust that it is not simply a Replay Attack using a fingerprint gathered from a previous online session, or from a latent print left somewhere by the victim of the impersonation ?

A secure infrastructure of biometric readers and encrypted communications networks would be required for this, which is not the internet.

According to the figures from MI5 quoted by David Blunkett and Des Browne, over two thirds of terrorists operate under their own names. This is especially true of suicide bombers, who hide their intentions and preparations but who leave specific identifying information, in their perverted attempts at notoriety.

See Home Affairs Committee ID Card soundbites

Those who do use "multiple identities" make use of forged or falsely obtained Foreign documents, so even a perfect UK biometric ID card scheme would have little effect.

It is not entirely safe now even with a pin number to go and withdraw money from a "hole in the wall" because people can discover your pin number. The one thing they would not be able to replicate on your passport or on an ID card is your fingerprint or your iris. That's the benefit of identity management and having a register against which to check it.

John Reid still does not understand that "biometrics" cannot be used to replace a PIN or password !

The "biometrics" used in ID Cards of Passports are only copies of digital images rather than your actual fingerprint pattern or iris pattern - they can definitely be copied by anyone with access to a medium quality digital camera and a home computer !

Unlike a PIN or password, they cannot be easily changed periodically or when it is suspected that the individual images or a central database has suffered a security breach.

Catherine: Dr Reid, you mention that the tougher sentences for gun crime have acted as a deterrant to this offence type.

Without the facilities available within the Offender Management Service to accommodate a significant number of additional criminals, what action will the Home Office be taking to manage adn deter other forms of criminal behaviour?

Also, what rehabilitation is available to offenders within the NOMS system when the resources are overstretched just containing the current population?

John replies:

Catherine, thanks for your follow up. Over the last five years we have increased the money available through the probation service (National Offenders Management Service) by 40% to more than £900 million. This is the equivalent of £3,800 for every offender they supervise and is a third more than they got in 1997. In addition, there are now 7,000 additional staff since this government came to power.

At present I am taking a bill through Parliament to make sure that in addition to all of this within the publicly provided probation service we can tap into the skills of the voluntary, charitable and private sectors in providing a wider range of services. Of course we are always looking to do more on rehabilitation in prisons themselves but we spend around £300 million on that at present which isn't peanuts.


John replies: Yes we are building around 10,000 extra prison places, 8,000 of which I announced in July 2006 within a couple of months of becoming Home Secretary. This year alone prison places will increase by 2500 places. I don't think anyone pretends that building prisons is the only solution to covering crime but the deterrent of being sent to prison is certainly one element of an effective penal policy.

Andrew Lewin: Recent criminal justice reforms have angered civil liberties groups as going too far: so where do YOU feel the line is between the needs of security and the rights of individual freedom? What 'red lines' would you NOT consider crossing?

John replies: The truth is that all of our liberties are under threat from extremist terrorists who have a contempt for the liberties that we value so much. Therefore, we need to protect them and in a civilised society people accept that requires some curtailment on our own liberties. For instance, while everyone agrees on the desirablitlity of freedom of speech, most people agree that it has to be curtailed when it comes to racist remarks or encouraging hatred against others. It is that balance which is always difficult to achieve, but I am proud that in this country we are amongst the most libertarian in the world, though we are under one of the greatest threats from terrorism.

What exactly has John Reid done as Home Secretary which has actually enhanced the freedoms and liberties which we have in this country ? Nothing.

He and his Labour predecessors have palpably reduced the freedoms and liberties of the vast majority of innocent people in the UK, crucially, without any commensurate or proportionate successes against terrorists and serious criminals.

They have forced through thousands of pages of badly written, improperly scrutinised legislation, most of which is not enforced or is actually unenforceable, except against the very weakest and most vulnerable people caught up at the edges of criminality, or innocents tarred with the brush of "guilt by association".

J. Kaufmann: Why are so many non-violent offenders sent to prison, especially now, when there is prison over-crowding?

John replies:

I have made my own view plain that violent, serious, persistent or dangerous offenders should be sent to prison but there are other offenders who should either be fined or put into community service. This is the assumption which is meant to underpin our penal policy, although when I said this recently you may remember it caused a bit of controversy.

sandra: Dear home secretary: whats your plans for the Illegal Immigrants in the UK thats lived, work and setteled here? are you considering an Amnesty to all immigrants in parallel with the new UK border bill?

Many Thanks

John replies:

Thanks Sandra. While I understand your question I don't think an amnesty would be a good idea since it would send an immediate signal to everyone that Britain is a soft touch for illegal immigration and compound our problems. We have no option but to work our way through the backlog of cases which I have estimated we can do within the next four years.

We are removing more people than every before for example removal of principal asylum applicants increasing by 237% between 1996 and 2006, but intake decreased by 21%. We are going to build on that, but I don't pretend its easy.

Candy Mathews: Please put all police back to walking the beat as they use to. In most communities just that extra police presense can make a huge difference to both the level of crime and peoples fear of crime. Now there is no fear of being caught.

John replies: Dear Candy, I think you are right. Neighbourhood policing - putting more poilce back on the beat and making sure the same police become known to people in the local community - is an essential element of what we want to achieve. I am pleased to say this is being done throughout England and in London, for instance, neighbourhood police teams with police constables and police community support officers have been established already, and by 2008 every area in England and Wales will have a dedicated policing team.

Nerissa Deeks: There is a direct correlation between the length of a prison sentence and the rate (ie how soon) and likelihood of recidivism (with the excsption of sex offenders). Instead of falling into the Daily Mail debate of build more/prisons/lock them up for longer, why not look at the alternatives, which may well be more expensive in the short term but will eventially reap benefits in terms of snuffing out criminality in younger offenders?
Can I refer you to the owrk of my cousin, an Australian sociologist Dr Chris Trotter, whose model of close supervision of offenders dramatically cut recidivism in Victoria state?

John replies: Dear Nerissa, thank you very much. I wlll commend your cousin's work to my officials.

Gordon Friel: would Mr Reid share my concern about media reporting.

whilst we need a free press and we need to be informed
do recent event show the news to be over zealous and indeed compromising for authorities.

Sometimes it appears that the media actual give enough information to assist acts, for example giving out bomb making ingredients.

I do not wish our press/broadcasters gagged but feel that
a code of "responsibility" is perhaps needed.

thanks for your time

John replies: Thanks Gordon. I have a great deal of sympathy with the points you raise. The best discipline on these matters is self-discipline by the press.

So how exactly is John Reid proposing to censor the worldwide internet of such "bomb making recipe" information ?

Like the vague European Commission plans under Franco Frattini ?

Response from the European Commission regarding the policy of censoring "terrorist" web sites - part 1

Mr Paul Mills: Why worry about the signal being sent now that Britain is a soft touch for illegal immigration? Hasn't this been the case for the last 10 years?

John replies: The answer is no, Paul. For instance, under the last Government, it took 22 months to process an asylum case. It now takes no more than 2. As far as deterrents are concerned, we received fewer applications for asylum in 2006 than in any year since 1993. We have removed more failed asylum seekers in 2006 than ever before. Under the last Governemnt that was a maximum of 5,465 staff in the whole of the immigration nationality department. Now there are nearly 9,000 staff dealing with borders, enforcement and detention alone.

Mr. Robert Allen: I am becoming increasingly concerned at the growing number of offenders of foreign origin who are commiting crime and filling up our prisons. Are there any checks on theIr police record from the country which they come before they are allowed to be residents in our country.We need to know that there are some protections.

John replies: Dear Robert, I share your concern. We do what we can in sharing of data but the truth is until we get identity cards for foreigners, as this government proposes, and use biometric identitty managment (fingerprints, iris etc) we cannot be confident of cracking this problem the way we should. That is why the Government is so committed to biometric ID cards, first of all for foreigners, biometric passports and British ID cards. Without these, we cannot begin to track people in and out of this country, combat organised crime, tackle illegal immigration or counter terrorism. That is why I constantly invite everyone else including all Parliamentarians to support us on this.

It is rubbish to claim that the ID Card Scheme is the only effective way to "track people in and out of this country, combat organised crime, tackle illegal immigration or counter terrorism." !!

John says: Many thanks for your questions and comments. Look forward to our next online chat.



We do what we can in sharing of data but the truth is until we get identity cards for foreigners, as this government proposes, and use biometric identitty managment (fingerprints, iris etc) we cannot be confident of cracking this problem the way we should.

Does this mean that iris scanning is back on the agenda, which seemed to have been dropped in favour of fingerprints according to the Identity and Passport Service's Strategic Action Plan (.pdf) ?

Or does it simply mean that John Reid is, yet again, simply not up to speed on the technology and on what his own department is proposing ?

More analysis of this transcript at the UK Liberty blog.

nulabour == nu-big-brother?

no - they don't deserve the respect of being equated with big brother - "joined up thinking" isn't in the agenda - unless it is was from a "join the dots for pre-teens" type puzzle book ..

the more things change - the more they stay the same ...

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