HOW fascinating to learn that a burglar armed with a machete is spared jail in order to develop his career as a poet! It makes you think...

I nicked ten quid from Auntie Hetty,

Then sliced her up with my machete.

I stole a bag and then a purse

Then wrote about it all in verse.

I'm pleased to say that writing rhyme

Is softer work than doing time.

Took some silver and some Spode,

Confessed the crime in a perfect ode

Composed it all within a week

And passed it over to the Beak.

I wonder what other unusual punishments notable criminals and dictators from history might have been given? Instead of hanging Dick Turpin, the judge might have prescribed compulsory embroidery classes instead. Or put Jesse James in the ballet school. It could have saved a world war if Adolf Hitler had been kidnapped, brought to England and made to stand on the street corner in Golders Green selling salt beef sandwiches and bagels.

But to more serious matters. It seems that the only things governments learn from history is that they learn nothing from history. There was a ban on handguns imposed after the Dunblane shootings with the result that in the period since that atrocity shootings have gone up by 40 per cent. So what does the Government propose after the murder of the two girls in Birmingham? Why, more restrictions on guns of course!

In fact the control-freakery of the Government guarantees that whenever it perceives a liberty it immediately sets out to remove it. Despite protests from all parties in Parliament and in the Press, the Government still intends to bring in the Extradition Bill which includes the so-called European Union Arrest Warrant. Under this warrant, British nationals living in this country will be susceptible to extradition to any other EU country by the law enforcement agencies of any of those countries - and for alleged offences which are not crimes in Britain. People so arrested will be tried, not under the British system in which there is the tradition that one is innocent until proved guilty, but under EU systems which work on the presumption of guilt. So innocent British citizens could find themselves languishing in, say, a Greek jail without recourse to an appeal. Is this the sort of thing New Labour means when it bangs on about "personal freedom"?

And then under the Criminal Justice Bill, the Government will seek to abolish double jeopardy: this is the ancient rule enshrined in British law that you can't be tried twice for the same offence. So every time anyone is tried and acquitted, the acquittal will be only conditional, since at any time in the future, if the police say they have new evidence, the person will be liable to re-arrest. It conjures up a nightmare prospect of innocent people being dragged before the courts until a guilty verdict is achieved.

Add to these degradations, the move towards identity cards, the banning of foxhunting and new laws on "xenophobia", and in no time at all the cherished expression, "It's a free country", will be a thing of the past.

* Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill, in the City of London, and Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.