Minister withdraws criticism of judges

A junior minister was forced to apologise to the lord chancellor last night for criticising judges over sentencing policy.

Constitutional affairs minister Vera Baird said a judge who handed out a five-year minimum sentence for sexually assaulting a three-year-old had “got the formula wrong”.

Her comment reflect a statement by home secretary John Reid that the tariff handed down to Craig Sweeney was “unduly lenient”, but contradicted that made by Lord Falconer – her boss – two days earlier.

“I should not have made those comments on the case following your statement outlining the clear position of the government,” wrote Ms Baird, the MP for Redcar.

“Accordingly, I withdraw them and fully support the government’s position, both on this case and on the broader issues of sentencing.”

In his reply, Lord Falconer said the retraction brought the matter to an end, and said he had “complete confidence” in Ms Baird’s ability to do the job.

“I believe that, as a new minister in this department, you have much to contribute to the government and the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA),” he wrote.

“I value you as a member of the government and of the ministerial team at the DCA. I have complete confidence in your continuing role.”

Ms Baird’s original comments came amid a major row about the government’s sentencing policy, prompted by the Sweeney case but made worse by the Home Office admission that 53 people given life sentences since 2000 have since been freed on licence.

She told Any Questions on BBC Radio Four: “The way [the judge] halved the [minimum] sentence from 12 to six years is wrong.”

The QC added: “I’m critical of the judge for three reasons – starting too low; deducting too much for the guilty plea; and getting the formula wrong.”

However, earlier in the week Lord Falconer had insisted it was not the judge who was wrong but the sentencing guidelines under which he had to operate.

“We have to be extremely careful that we don’t attack the judges on these issues where it is the system – and it is not one or other political party – it is 30 years of statutes that have led to this,” he said.

The lord chancellor subsequently launched a review of sentencing policy, and Tony Blair is expected to make an announcement this week.