Wednesday, December 29, 2010

sign up sign up

There is a plan to allow online petitions to be debated in parliament and for those which attract the support of MPs to form the basis of new laws or amendments to existing ones. To filter out the really daft ones it is likely that only petitions with 100,000 ‘signatures’ will take up precious Commons time. So the current petition to make a law for teenagers to pull up their trousers and not walk around showing their pants will probably not hit the House as only the author has as yet signed up for it. The one to stop chronic hunger throughout the world has just a handful of supporters (despite an impassioned plea by an actor), possibly because no solution is offered; whereas the one to give the job of Prime Minister to a TV presenter reached 50,000 signatures. Over half a million petitioned for a national holiday to commemorate our war dead and 2½ years later it is still ...(wait for it)... being considered. The facility to e-petition on the official site of the PM’s office was suspended earlier this year, pending review, but will be re-opened.

The government’s plan is commendable for giving more power to the people, letting us 'have our say', and encouraging more interest in the generally so unimpressive parliamentary debates. But it has serious flaws. Apart from the exclusion of many, e.g. the very elderly, who have not embraced the online world, internet conversations, however well meaning and rational to start with, are often grabbed and then dominated by the irrational, the fanatical, the inarticulate, the profane and those wannabe comedians who are just so unfunny. (A petition banning them from the internet would be a laugh.)

If 100,000 signatures are needed for a nonsensical proposal that is crazy enough to capture the imagination and the anger of the anarchic and revolutionary then they will be gained, and more, quite easily. The new gateway to parliamentary debate will fall into disrepute.

And what will become of the old gateway, the route to the ear of government via our MPs ? Even the sketchiest idea of promoting the use and importance of petitions signifies the undermining of this route and acknowledges that contacting our MPs directly to protest, to solve a problem or to bring about change are usually going to fail if not already on their agenda and politically beneficial to them. The initial thrill of receiving a response is deflated when discovering it was a standard script sent out by any MP who was asked the same or similar question by one of their constituents.

As an MP’s relationship with his/her electorate is increasingly by way of email and web site, and decreasingly by face to face, with communications often dealt with by staff, and with the vast majority of the constituents never wanting any MP time at all (partly because many of the issues of relevance to most people are created by local rather than national government) the question is begged as to whether we have too many of them.

Our current alloctaion of 1 MP per 90,000 population is generous and if each one represented 200,000 people instead then we would need only 300. In the US there are just 435 members of the House of Representatives, each one representing on average 700,000 people. Even adding the 100 Senators from their Upper House, there is just 1 member of their national parliament for each 580,000. And the comparison does not take into account our Upper House, though exactly how it represents anybody is another discussion.

The US, along with many European countries, does though have far greater local (including US state) representation. We should follow suit but with unpaid councillors and greater accountability to their electorate, replacing the selfish, intimidating power that some of the more dictatorial council leaders like to wield with a democratic and monitored responsibility to do good.

So to increase the influence of wisely moderated petitions may be a way forward, but should be coupled with a recognition of a reduction in the need for so many MPs. The rest of the public sector is facing huge cost savings & job losses and MPs should bear their rightful share.


Friday, December 17, 2010

his rights not hers

He killed Amy in 2003. She was 12 years old.

Driving although disqualified, he knocked her down and then ran off leaving Amy, who was trapped under the wheels of the car, to die. If he had taken her to hospital straight away she might have lived. Incredibly, he was charged only with driving whilst disqualified and failing to stop, rather than the more appropriate charge of manslaughter. He received a 4 month prison sentence, serving less than 2 months, and was released. Oh, and he was in this country illegally. He still is.

All attempts by the UK Border Agency to deport Ibrahim to Iraq were unsuccessful; it has, as so often it is, been a long and difficult process. After prison, he met a British woman, well of course he did. Then they had a child, well of course they did. And then another. They gave them royal names, Harry and Zara; a nice touch. So he now has a family, which is always a good move in a campaign to avoid deportation.

Two senior immigration judges have this week rejected UKBA’s appeal and decided that he cannot be deported to Iraq because, as he has a family, it would be in breach of Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Many will have greeted this result with a shaking of head, closing of eyes and deep exhalation; maybe saying ‘we just don't get it do we!'

The judges should read again Article 8 as they have got it badly wrong. It does say that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life. But it also says there are situations in which the right should not be applied, for example when necessary for the prevention of crime, for public safety, or for the rights and freedoms of others.

Apart from the convictions resulting from the incident in which Amy was killed, Ibrahim also has committed the offences of driving whilst disqualified (3 years later), burglary, theft, criminal damage, driving without insurance, harrassment and possession of class B drugs. (He received only a caution for the burglary!) How then can it be argued that his deportation is not necessary for the prevention of crime ? It clearly is. Just as it is necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others, namely his future victims. So, under Article 8, he has no rights to stay in the UK or demand respect for his family life here.

Where was his respect for Amy’s family life, when he left her dying in the road, or for her father who wants, and is entitled to, some justice ? This is not in any way opposing immigration or the granting of asylum when the cause is just, but when considering whether to allow dangerous criminals to stay we should have at least a passing regard for the human rights of those already here.

The Prime Minister has said he is angry about the appeal decision and that the legal interpretations of the European Convention on Human Rights sometimes “fly in the face of common sense.” He is quite right. He also says there is no reason not to deport to Iraq as it is a much safer place now that Britain has lost many lives and spent billions of pounds in making it so.

It would certainly be safer for Ibrahim in Iraq than his presence in Blackburn was for Amy.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

bite thy neighbour

Crown court judges often leave the courtroom less than best pleased, but not often swearing out loud and carrying a criminal conviction. Judge Bolton was devastated at being found guilty of an offence under section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act, by allowing her dog (ironically classified by the police as not dangerous) to enter her neighbour’s part of their shared garden and bite him on the leg. Frederick Becker, aged 20 and known as Fritz, was bitten by the German Shepherd (you couldn’t make this up) causing him a bruise and a cut. Georgina has received obedience training since the incident; that’s the dog, not the owner.

Regretting her outburst, she (the owner) said “I above all else would never disrespect a court", forgetting for a moment that she had been asked during the trial to stop chewing gum.

It seems Judge Bolton was a bit unlucky in that she had previously offered to put up a fence between their territories to limit Georgina's range, but the neighbours refused. She feels strongly there has been an injustice, and maybe there has because, from studying the footage from the neighbours’ security camera, the court could not be certain that Fritz's injuries arose from the dog’s teeth or from some other mishap.

No injustice is welcomed, though it may be a harsh but salutary lesson for a judge to understand how a defendant feels to have received a guilty verdict when believing, or even knowing for certain, that he/she is not guilty. At least she still has her freedom, and the dog has hers.

On leaving the courtroom, apart from using the f word and calling the verdict a travesty, Judge Bolton also shouted that she will “never set foot in a court again". The Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor may take her up on that.


plots and kettles

The protests by students et al. over the tuition fees were never going to achieve anything other than making the public and the authorities aware that many passionately disagreed with the government’s action. In itself, a worthwhile achievement and their voice should be heard. The problem with passion is that it is exhibited in different ways, by most through spoken, shouted or written words and by their visibility on protest marches, whilst by others, either pro-actively or reactively, through violent attacks on persons or property.

It is tempting to believe that the throwing of bricks at police, the smashing of windows and the forceful charging into riot shields are carried out solely by political agitators who are not really students at all. But it wouldn’t be true and there are genuine students who love the sound of breaking glass, the dare of defiling statues and monuments, the confrontation with uniformed authority. Some are self-motivated towards violence or get so caught up in the passions of the moment that the group psychology takes over and, in a red mist of detachment from their reason, they end up doing atypical but incredibly stupid and dangerous things, like throwing a fire extinguisher down from the roof of a building on to an area densely populated by police. This coupled with the abuse and obscenities screamed at any kind of authority presents to the country a distorted view of students and reinforces the view of a great many of the population that those wanting higher education are either not worthy of it or should pay substantially towards its cost. In a lot of ways students do themselves no favours.

But it is wrong to place all the protesters in the same category, and it is the responsibility of the police to discriminate between those who show evidence of criminal activity and those who do not. That is their job. It may not be easy but there is no justification for harsh retaliatory actions against anyone who they have no grounds to suspect are committing crimes or about to. Violent disorder must be dealt with very firmly, and by using whatever force is reasonable to bring it to a quick end. The perpetrators of violence, and those encouraging them, must be identified and arrested. But those who remain peaceful should not suffer punishment too. Video clips of police pushing teenage girls so forcefully that they go to ground, using batons on those in the front line who are pushed against them, and dragging a man from his wheelchair are deeply disturbing. We want police to have authority but not arbitrary and unjustifiable power.

Which brings us to kettling. The containment of people (innocent and guilty) in an area, depriving them of exit, access to water, food and toilets for several hours. The idea is to make it easier for police to prevent criminal offending and to halt the movement of the protest to areas where it would be more difficult to monitor, contain and respond to.

Such action is a violation of police responsibility; a catch-all attempt at a solution to a problem they not only can’t solve but exacerbate by the kettling itself. There will be potentially violent people amongst the kettlees so punishing the innocent is justified, or so they irrationally think and argue. But it is detention without conviction, charge, or arrest and caution, just as it would be if the containment were at a police station rather than on the streets. They have invented the right to do it and they know they can get away with it as our politicians are not inclined to interfere.

There have been legal challenges to kettling in the past, on the grounds that it breaches human rights, which have failed. There will be more, enabling lawyers and senior judges to spend many a lucrative hour sifting through the wording of Articles 5, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and engaging in highly intellectual semantic debates. Actually Article 5 is very clear that there is a right to Liberty subject to certain exceptions which clearly do not include people peacefully marching along a street. So that settles it; well no it is never that simple. The wigs and gowns will not want such a quick and easy end to the game they play. Bogged down by their knowledge and skill of interpretation of the words, they will entirely miss the point.

Stopping innocent people from going home or to work, stopping them from using a toilet or buying a bottle of water, stopping them from getting warmth and shelter, even denying them an answer to their requests to be released, and making threats towards them if they don’t do exactly as instructed, are so obviously breaches of their human rights that it is remarkable anybody can question it. Laws should reflect what reasonable members of the public regard as the rules by which we want to live. Laws are for protection of the people and if any law has allowed kettling to take place then it is not a law we want, and we should get rid of it. Better still, police actions should be ruled by fairness, common sense and justice rather than by the semantics of European human rights legislation. In the end the practice will be deemed unlawful, it has to be, but in the meantime kettling will continue and the final outcome may be a chilling one.


Friday, December 10, 2010

unreal and unjust

The nation is on a heightened state of alert. There is tension everywhere and speculation that something awful might happen. People are talking about it at home and at work; productivity has declined and internet chat has increased dramatically. We have to suffer the anxiety and the frustration that, individually, we can do very little to influence the outcome. All we can do is wait and see what happens; for some the state of terror they are in is almost unbearable. Somebody we don’t like might win the competition, as our favourite Reality TV shows reach their finals.

You can tell it’s Reality TV because it is so detached from the reality most people know, and the men hug each other. In no particular order, the contestants dance, they sing, they cry, they swear, they complain, or they just talk rubbish in the hope of gaining a job working for someone whom, apart from the highly attractive salary, nobody in their right mind would want to work for.

If politicians could somehow stimulate the passion, the love, the hatred, the interest and the excitement shown towards the contenders in X-factor, Strictly Come Dancing and the Apprentice then turnout at elections would be enormous, and democracy would be back in fashion. If we felt the same level of caring about ordinary and disadvantaged people then charities would be awash with funds and every day would be Christmas.

But we don’t of course and never will. We want celebrities, known or unknown, because they are special. They either have talents we admire, and wish we had, or they have a conspicuous lack of talent at what they are asked to do, lured into jumping out of their comfort zone by the temptation of more fame and publicity and huge sums of money, that we wish we had.

Watching them just competing on TV is nowhere near enough. We must have the spin-off programmes too so we can keep up with what they are feeling, what publicity they are getting, what romantic liaisons they have formed and how much it all means to them, to which the usual answer is everything. We need to read about them in newspapers and magazines, make posts in chat forums and listen to phone-ins so that we can all debate (passionately of course) who should win and who should be thrown out, metaphorically although many would prefer physically.

On X-factor, the audience screams continually when the judges are judging, hating them for saying anything critical of their favourites, loving them for praising a good performance. And the judges want to be loved, so they usually say something nice, whilst with little subtlety encouraging the voters to prefer the acts they each own, or, as they like to put it, mentor. Some say it is all fixed, but it isn’t; at least no more than any democratic election is perverted by tactical voting.

The public decide ! Aren’t we lucky. Well, we partly decide; we choose between those contestants that the judges engineer to reach the final stages. We always keep in one of the talentless for as long as possible because we want to upset the system, show its flaws, teach the authorities that we are in charge, and have a good laugh. The most marketable will win through in the end.

No other show generates as much emotion, some of it surfacing in disturbing ways, for example the vile, and often illegally threatening, twitters about the contestant Cher, who, as some say, may well be as or even more unpleasant than her critics but stayed in the competition because people voted for her. So who are the haters attacking; her or their fellow viewers who voted her in each time ? This is a vitriolic civil war between players in an unreal and entirely trivial game.

On the curiously titled Strictly Come Dancing, this year they abolished the power of judges to choose between the two couples least preferred by the viewers. It may have seemed a good idea at the time, power to the people and all that, but it wasn’t. It resulted in the continued appearance week after week of the smug and mouthy Anne Widdecombe on the show, well past her natural expiry date. She was the joke contestant from the start, but the joke wore thinner each week that she captured the hearts and malice of the voting viewers. She can’t dance at all, and doesn't even look good (the essential talent in all Reality TV shows), but still maintained the arrogance and conceit of a time honoured politician. Despite her high academic intelligence, she mistakenly thought that she commanded the support of her voters because they liked her and empathised with her absurdly spurious notion that she was representing the ordinary elderly lady amidst a collection of the beautiful, young and talented people.

No, she stayed in because we wanted to laugh at her, to revel in schadenfreude, to see a famous politician lifted up and then thrown to the floor and receive deserved criticism from those judges, i.e. Craig and Bruno, who were (unlike their colleagues) not afraid of telling it as it was, even if it endangered their own popularity. Overwhelmingly awful, as Craig rightly said of her, when he was able to utter anything, so sickened as he was by the ugliness of her movements on what he sees as the sacred land that is a dance floor. In another age, she would have appeared at the Coliseum in Rome, a club in her hand, chasing after similarly shaped and unfit combatants until all but one met a bloody and horrible death. Now, that would ‘up the ratings’ in the Reality TV wars.

But even she can be easier to watch and listen to than most of the would be Apprentices. Chosen largely for their ghastliness, their eagerness to argue with each other in their fight to be top dog (or bitch), they amaze us with their unjustified self-obsession, their incongruous ignorance, and their insensitivity. Proud Children of Thatcher, they speak in random phrases torn from a badly written ‘Business for Dummies’ textbook. They don’t have abilities, they have a skill set; a strategy instead of a plan; a methodology rather than a method; they make errors of judgement but never mistakes. They all give at least 110% but can’t calculate a percentage. They know nothing about project management but all rate themselves as expert.

And yet they are a watchable drug that is so easy to become addicted to. We want to laugh at how they make a mess of the tasks, we are embarrassed by their lack of embarrassment, we want to know what they will say and do next, we want to see them fight (almost literally) for survival, to set upon each other with venom, stab their team mate in the back, and plead with a stern, sour, unimpressed Lord Sugar to allow them just one more chance to prove themselves not even half as brilliant as they think they are. The cheating Laertes killing Hamlet with a poisoned sword could not match the vindictive melodrama of the boardroom. Whatever nastiness the loser has been dealt by a colleague, a false but heart warming hug is always the next scene. As they say in the Godfather, it’s business not personal.

One contestant seemed to be breaking the mould. Personable, intelligent, and sensible, Liz spoke in non-bizspeak language, knew what she was doing and worked hard. She could sell, plan, manage people and was numerate and literate. Not the kind of self-absorbed, jumped up, cold, humourless anti-personality that the Lord would hire. So she had to go of course, and this week, despite being by far the best on her team, she did.

Nobody should watch Reality TV to see fairness or reality, nor should we complain at their absence. It is a compelling mixture of randomness and contrivance. That's the whole talking point of it.


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

get out of jail

The prison debate usually occupies minds during the run up to a general election; afterwards it is then locked up for a few years and is released to re-offend us the next time our politicians seek to gain votes. But prison is a hot topic again, following the publication this week of a Green Paper by the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke and the widespread knowledge that there is just no room at the inside. Engaging the public at large in the debate is a praiseworthy but difficult task, as the subject tends to polarise people into the lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ club and the ‘prison is not the answer’ society. There is a generally more quiet majority in the middle but it intelligently prefers to reserve its judgement in the knowledge that, on such a difficult argument, if an answer is arrived at too quickly then it is very probably wrong.

The political drive to reduce the prison population is dressed up in an attractive wrapping of the need for greater rehabilitation and restorative justice, phrases that are re-invented by successive governments under the pretence that they have come up with something new. They express alarm at the rate of re-offending by ex-prisoners and deduce that prison is somehow causing the committal of further offences. This is one of the best chicken-and-egg arguments of all time. It is because they have the propensity to re-offend that they have become prisoners, not the other way round, though prison can reinforce and enhance that propensity because of the worsening of the prisoner's prospects and social status.

But re-offending rates are key to the government’s strategy and the idea is to reward organisations that rehabilitate successfully with payments dependent on the re-offending record of those under their supervision. A job for the probation service you might think, but, as their budget is cut, the responsibilities will be shared with other kinds of organisations that will bring into play new ideas, motivated by the income that the good behaviour of their clients will bring. A project for teams on The Apprentice perhaps.

The real political motivation is to reduce cost, but the premise is a flaky one. Of course prison is expensive but the cost of management of a released re-offender, from supervision to policing to arrest to possibly a crown court trial is also huge, not even accounting for the harm to the victims which can be permanent and unquantifiable. The cost of state benefits for some also needs to be offset.

Currently there are about 85,000 people in prison and we are frequently told that this represents one of the largest proportional prison populations in Europe. But 4,000 of these are Europeans so that figure should be deducted from the total, and added to each of the respective countries' numbers. Another 9,500 are also foreign nationals, so the comparison with other countries is misleading as their preference is often to deport convicted foreigners rather than imprison them.

But there is no denying that the prison population is high and would be much higher if the police were not suppressing it by giving cautions for offences that would previously typically have earned custody, such as burglary and assault causing grievous bodily harm. The aim to reduce it is a laudable one but the methods must be such that any resultant increase in crime is prevented as far as possible. Prison must be an available option to sentencers for the more serious crimes, for persistent offenders and for breaches of community penalties, otherwise the deterrent is lost and those, already heavily criticised sentences, will fall into further disrepute, leaving nothing much more than fines (that often won’t be paid). Custody is already, except where demanded by the sentencing guidelines, the sentence of last resort and is used comparatively rarely, contrary to the beliefs of many. Tougher curfews are certainly a good way forward, as long as the custodial deterrent remains.

Despite the pressure on prison places, the lack of any plan to build more prisons, and the strategies for reducing re-offending, KC’s target for the reduction in the number of prisoners is at first glance strangely underwhelming; a drop of only 3,000 by 2015, amounting to just 3.5%. (It even rose by 1200 as a result of the withdrawal of End of Custody Licence earlier this year, which could again be introduced.) A government wants a target that it is pretty confident of achieving otherwise its strategy will be labelled a failure, but a reduction of this small size would hardly reflect any noteworthy, successful shift in policy. There are over 8,000 on remand and untried, 1,200 aged 15-17 and 13,500 foreign nationals. Taking 3,000 of them out of the prison system can’t be too dificult, unless of course there is an expectation that crime is going to rise significantly.

And there is the big problem. It isn’t a reduction of 3,000 on the current prison population that is the target, but a reduction of several thousand more on what it would otherwise be in 5 years time. The budget cuts in the criminal justice system, and our general economic and social problems, will themselves lead to more crime and more custodial sentences. The government is making the right noises and has some good ideas, but it knows that it is losing the battle against increase in crime, despite the efforts of police to mask it with out-of-court disposals. Prevention of re-offending can be the main, and very worthwhile, objective but coping with crime will be the practical task for the government and indeed everyone; prisons will still be playing a major part.