Monday, February 21, 2011

big 'R' us

I thought I would write about the Big Society. But then I thought I should wait until Big Dave explained it, so I waited and, once I had heard him explaining it, I was not much the wiser. Oh I understand what he is getting at, and I understand how it could work if everybody subscribed to it and worked hard for each other voluntarily and with a smiling face. It’s a great alternative to the rat race, because a lot of rats won’t race if the incentive of money is removed, though even in the voluntary sector there are still rats. The Big Society is not without its little snags, teething troubles, obstacles to overcome, such as how we might buy food and clothes without any income, and how we might cope with the ludicrously priced property market that those of us who aren’t multi-millionaire members of the Cabinet (or bankers) have to deal in if we persist in the annoying habit of wanting somewhere to live.

Unsure for several decades of whether we should be an independent nation or a member of an increasingly bureaucratic, obstinate and wayward Europe or an additional little state of an aggressive America, we are now being given the vision of becoming a rather large Israeli kibbutz. We can create our own schools, cultivate our crops, set up a library, a farm shop, a park, a sports centre. After a long, hard today in the fields, we could get together in the evening to clap hands and sing a few songs. Why not take it further, create our own police force, tax office, parking wardens ? Maybe not.

I’ve been waiting too for a grand gesture; agreement by MPs to waive their salaries for a year, footballers to give a serious proportion of their obscene and undeserved wages to charities instead of car dealerships, bankers, let’s be reasonable.

The Big Point is that there already is a Big Society and has been for a very long time, long before this government invented it, and if politicians looked outside of their narrow world they would see it staring them in the face. (And that is apart from the privatisation of public services, which is not far beneath the camouflaged covering of the Big Society spin.) The government’s criminal justice system couldn’t function without committed and voluntary magistrates; their educational system couldn’t manage itself without the support of unpaid and devoted governors; their precarious national health service would be in an even worse state if those looked after day and night by dedicated, unrewarded and un-cared-about carers instead became a burden on the state’s resources and purse. And there are many more examples. Look around you, Big Dave, the Big Society is alive and kicking.

But what is the incentive for its members when they are afforded little in the way of acknowledgement, regard or respect ? The selfish, over-ambitious and power crazed don’t understand the committed, caring and selfless. The small minded can’t relate to the big hearted. Even when some semblance of appreciation can be given to those groups, for example awards of the unjust and politically motivated honours system, the powers choose instead to hand out the gongs to those who already have gained acknowledgement, recognition, rewards and copious amounts of money; civil servants, politicians, celebrities, and successful business folk, especially if they have climbed to high seniority in those rich, me-first, self-indulgent organisations called banks.

Marketing of the Big Society by government to us is futile. It appeals to those who would join it anyway and is a complete anathema to those who don’t even know, and don’t want to know, it exists.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

fatuous imprisonment

Julia Saker was desperate. Desperate to stop her daughter going out to meet a drug dealer and buy heroin. Her love and concern for 19 year old Tabitha pushed her beyond reason and she ended up tying her legs together with parcel tape in an effort to keep her in the house. It was an incident of high emotion that quickly became frenzied. Tabitha phoned 999 and that led to a charge of false imprisonment and a conviction. She wrote a letter on her mum’s behalf to the judge asking for compassion, and blaming herself for what happened.

Was the mother wrong ? Legally yes but morally no. No harm was done, certainly not compared to the harm that buying heroin would bring. If Tabitha had been under 18 then no charge would have been laid; at worst it would have been debatable parenting. This wasn’t so much imprisonment as clumsy safeguarding.

The judge ignored the letter and had no empathy with the love and fear that drove Julia to her action. 12 months imprisonment, the maximum given the circumstances of the offence and the credit for a plea of guilty. The maximum !

This case cried out for understanding of the intent of the mother, compassion for the whole family and some vision of what will happen now. Who will be there to help Tabitha avoid the temptation of more class A drug taking, when the devastated father is at work ? Nobody. This case cried out for a suspended prison sentence, if that. Why the judge did not take a clear opportunity to keep a mother, who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called dangerous, out of prison is a mystery. Why the police and CPS did not use simple common sense and decide not to charge her is, unfortunately, not so puzzling.


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

a right nonsense

Even the European Court of Human Rights has the right to get it right and they have got it right. They have considered a claim by our old fiend Abu Hamza that, when he was convicted in 2006 of inciting murder and racial hatred it breached his article 6 right to a fair trial because, so his argument goes, the jury would have been prejudiced against him by the adverse publicity he received. A bad press can influence to a degree some jurors but, generally, the aggregate outcome of 12 viewpoints is robust enough to narrow judgement down to the evidence alone. It is doubtful that being called a global terrorist by George W would have carried much weight anyway.

Passing through the irony of Mr Hamza reacting against the possible existence of prejudice, an attitude that underscored much if not all of the rantings that gave rise to his arrest and charges in the first place, his lack of faith in the objectivity of juries and the criminal justice system in this country seems to conflict with his previous and successful fight to remain British.

Another limb of his complaint was that the speeches that caused his arrest were given a long time ago and the context in which they were spoken would, by the time of trial, have been lost. In other words, what he said at the time was perfectly acceptable political and religious rhetoric but its meaning has been distorted over the passages of time. Come off it. Firstly, it wasn’t that long ago and many cases can take years to come to court. Secondly, preaching to followers that it is their obligation to kill non-believers doesn’t depend on context. It’s straightforward incitement to murder no matter when, where, how or why the remarks were made.

So the ECHR has rejected his spurious claims, as it should, concluding that they were manifestly ill founded. But having had them rejected at the trial and later at the court of appeal in the UK, there should not have been further recourse. We can manage human rights arguments ourselves with objectivity and don’t need the ECHR nanny to tell us whether we got it right or not. We need to focus on our judicial processes and improve them until we are confident they wil always reach complete fairness. The very existence of the ECHR is a disincentive to do that. In this case particularly it was not difficult to see that the claims were entirely fatuous; human rights must not include the right to try and pervert justice.

The futility of the appeal is exacerbated by the fact that even if the ECHR had perversely decided that there was not a fair trial, it was five years ago and his seven year sentence has been served. He remains in prison whilst the US tries to extradite him (not easy) where he may face another conviction (quite easy). The ECHR is yet to rule on the extradition. If it does go ahead then Mr Hamza may face a much worse confinement than he currently experiences in Belmarsh.