Category: Politics

Scotland Decides: What Now?

Yesterday Scotland voted and today we woke up to knowing what Scotland had decided.  Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom 55% to 45%.  While the world had been following over the last few weeks and months, this has been a process which has gone on in Scotland for at least the last 7 years; certainly in earnest over the past 2 years.  The Country has talked, it has debated and it has argued and it culminated in yesterday’s “no” vote to independence.

The referendum campaign has engaged people who have long been disillusioned with politics.  Yesterday people turned out to the polling stations around the country in a remarkable number: a turnout of 86% with 97% of the population being registered to vote.  Many of those who turned out to vote yesterday were doing so for the first time: whether they be young people who had never been entitled to vote before or older people who had never decided to vote before.  The engagement that has come from the Referendum campaign is fantastic to see and should be celebrated by everyone, regardless of which side of the debate you were on.  One of the important things that must be done in Scotland now is to ensure that this engagement does not subside.  People have shown that they are interested and engaged and that is fantastic to see.

The campaign has been a largely friendly and pleasurable experience.  There have been elements from both sides of the campaign which have not shown themselves in a great light.  Whether that be ‘no’ campaigners abusing Andy Murray horrendously over his decision to vote yes or ‘yes’ campaigner engaging in bullying and harassment, it has shown some individuals up to be immature and incapable of engaging sensibly in an adult discussion; however, it certainly shouldn’t be the thing that defines the campaign.

We also awoke today of allegations of electoral fraud in Glasgow.  It would be entirely wrong to suggest that it was a supporter or supporters from a particular side of the campaign.  If someone (or some people) committed electoral fraue yesterday they could have come from either side of the campaign, or indeed from both sides of the campaign.  It’s right and proper that the affected ballots are identified and that the police investigate the matter thoroughly.  It’s unacceptable in a democracy for people to engage in conduct like that; however, it is by far a very small (almost unnoticeable) minority.

What the referendum campaign has shown is that in Scotland, and indeed in other parts of the UK, there is a real appetite for change.  It’s far from the case that yesterday’s vote has put an end to discussions about constitutional change.  What it should hopefully mean is that the discussions are not confined to a few ‘political geeks or nerds’ inhabiting certain corners of the internet.  Hopefully, it will mean that people from right across the UK engage in a real discussion about how to change the political system in this country.

There will be people across the UK who are exteremely disappointed with the result of the referendum.  Part of living in a democracy is about dusting yourself down and moving onto the next fight when one ends – irrespective of what side you were on in that fight.  Our attention should now be focussed on changing the UK, not just constitutionally, to make it better, fairer and more equal for everyone.  It is more than possible.

An unfailing, positive belief in Young People

A certain tabloid ‘newspaper’ ran an article bemoaning the lack of young people who are working.  The article cited a number of reasons: lack of jobs, exam-pressure and of course, laziness.  Some of the readership of that certain newspaper, of course, lapped it up and posted some rather depressing comments about young people.  Only a few weeks ago we had the A Level results and prior to that the GCSE results.  Yes, the newspaper reported the success of young people; however, that was, as ever, accompanied by comments from certain quarters determined to undermine the results wittering on about how exams are “too easy” and such like.  With ever story on education, whether it be education in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, comes those who do nothing but downplay the hard work and achievements of young people. All of this seem to fit a rhetoric that can clearly be seen: young people are good for nothing, lazy louts.

I struggle to recall a positive newspaper article about young people in the last few years.  Even on the rare occasion that there is one celebrating the success of a young person, people will jump on it and run down young people.  Up and down the country young people are dedicating their free time to their communities (more often than not for free), going abroad to help those less fortunate than themselves and working hard to achieve good exam results.  That is rarely seen or heard about in the news.  When a small number of teenagers cause a problem in a local community they get an extraordinary amount of press coverage at the expense of those young people who are not causing any problems.  A group of teenagers on the street is something to be feared apparently.

While the tabloids are lambasting young people for being outside causing a ‘nuisance’ by being noisy and congregating in the streets, they are also lambasting young people for being lazy sitting on the sofa watching TV and playing video games instead of being outside doing stuff.  Add to that the chronic underfunding of youth services in communities and you get something that you really couldn’t make up!

Yes, some young people cause problems.  Yes, some young people damage property and shout abuse at passers-by.  Yes, some young people engage in criminal activity.  However, so do some adults.  We don’t judge the entire adult population by the actions of a minority.

The chronic underfunding of youth services isn’t helping with any of it.  Many youth clubs and groups have closed and many more will.  These services are vital to young people.  They give them somewhere to meet their mates and have a laugh (they can’t congregate in the pub like adults can).  Youth clubs and centres get them out of the house and give them somewhere to go which means they’re not mucking around outside people’s houses (which might be annoying, but for the most part is utterly harmless).  With these youth centres can come help and support for young people who are in trouble: whether that be young people having a tough time at home or those who are going down the wrong path in life.  These youth service shouldn’t just be targeted towards those young people who are considered to be ‘problems’, but they should be available to all young people. 

We have to remember that young people are still developing; they’re still working out who they are and how they fit into the world around them.  Their bodies are going through drastic changes as they go through their secondary school careers.  Alongside that they’re undergoing what is, despite what some think, a stressful curriculum with constant testing.  The results of those and tests determine whether they can take the next step in life.  As they progress through school their attention has to turn to life beyond school (whilst still being on getting through school).  Career choices begin to be made: which subjects do I take? Do I go onto college or university or just get a job?  Being a teenager is stressful and the older we get the less able we are to remember just how stressful those teenage years were for us.

Yes, when they go out into the real world they’ll have to cope with many big decisions at a time; they’ll have to take personal responsibility and won’t have someone to walk then through each stage.  However, as I’ve already said young people are still learning: they’re not adults and they shouldn’t be expected to be able to function as adults.  They need support because it’s all alien to them.  We’re training them to be decent human beings.

I believe that as a society we need to have an unfailing, positive belief in our young people.  We need to believe that they have potential and that they can reach that potential.  We need to help them reach that potential and we need to be willing to invest in them: they are the future of this country after all.  Constantly running them down in the national and local press isn’t going to help them one bit.  We need to be building them up.  We need to celebrate with them when they succeed and comfort them through their failures.

The death of the death penalty in the UK: 50 years on

At 8am on 13 August 1964 at Strangeways Prison in Manchester Gwynne Owen Evans was hanged by executioner Harry Allen for the murder of John Allan West. At the same time 30 miles away in Walton Prison, Liverpool Peter Anthony Allen was hanged by Robert Leslie Stewart, also for the murder of John Allan West. Evans and Allen were to be the last two men executed by the State in the United Kingdom. The Death Penalty was effectively abolished in 1965; however, remained an option until 1998 in cases of Treason and Piracy with violence.

Fifty years on there comes with each high profile murder, and indeed other cases which prove the public’s revulsion, calls to re-instate the death penalty in the UK. Only 50 years ago crowds were taking to the streets in protest at the death penalty. The death of the death penalty in the UK came about from a number of shocking miscarriages of justice in which innocent people were wrongly convicted and executed by the State.

One of those cases was that of Timothy Evans who was executed on 9 March 1950 for the murder of his wife and daughter. His neighbour, John Christie, was later executed for the murder of Evans’ daughter as well as the murder of a number of others, including Christie’s own wife. John Christie had been a witness at Evans trial for the prosecution, and almost certainly saw Evans be sent to the Gallows. On 19 November 2004 the Court of Appeal accepted the Evans did not murder either his wife or his child, but refused to quash his conviction on the basis that the cost and resources of quashing them could not be justified. The case caused public outrage and was one of a number of cases which saw Capital Punishment being confined to history in the UK.
There were other cases that saw the end of the death penalty in the UK, but the Evans case highlights perfectly the very real dangers of Capital Punishment. It is a non-reversible form of punishment; no quashing of the conviction and no financial compensation from the Government can ever rectify an execution. If an innocent man is executed; he is dead and remains dead even after the mistake is discovered. While imprisoning an innocent person can have some devastating effects on that individual, th every fact that they continue to breathe means that they can, when mistakes are uncovered, be released.

There have, of course, been some exceptionally high profile miscarriages of justice over the years. Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power, John Walker, Paul Michael Hill, Gerard Conlan, Patrick Armstrong, Carole Richardson and Sam Hallam are all individuals who have been convicted of Murder, and whose convictions were overturned long after they would have been executed had Capital Punishment remained in the UK.

Of course, investigative techniques have moved along and advances in science have drastically changed the way in which the police investigate crimes. We have also moved on from the days where murder trials are over in a matter of a few short days, with these trials often lasting considerably longer than a week – sometimes even running into months. However, to argue that forensic science, such as DNA, helps prove who is guilty and who is not of murder in a lot of cases is to overstate the value of DNA evidence. DNA evidence is not, as some may thing, the golden bullet in a criminal trial. It cannot, and is unlikely to ever, prove conclusively that the accused is guilty of the crime libled. It helps to build the picture and along with other circumstantial evidence might be able to convince a jury to beyond reasonable doubt; however, as with all systems that involve humans there is room for error. When the end result is going to be the State depriving an individual of their life, there can be no room for error.

The case of Shirley McKie highlights the errors that can be made in examining forensic evidence. Shirley McKie, a form er Detective Constable, was accused of perjury after testifying at the Murder Trial of David Asbury for the murder of Marion Ross that she had not been in the house of Marion Ross, where she had been killed. A scandal erupted following the case and it resulted in changes being made to the comparison and verification of fingerprints in Scotland.

Regardless of whether you take the view that morally someone who takes the life of another should lose their own life or not, or whether you believe executing people is a deterrent to others; the very fact that there is a risk of the State executing an innocent person should be reason enough not to return to the days of capital punishment. Executing an innocent person deters no-body, it’s not justice and should never be considered an acceptable price to pay for executing people who really are guilty.

‘Prisoners’ are people too

There is rarely a day that goes by without there being some story in the press about prisoners or prisons.  When we do, we often hear them described as ‘thugs’, ‘beasts’ and ‘monsters’ (among other things).  There is a large (and sadly influential) section of the population who view prisoners as second-class citizens, as things which are not worthy of being considered as or respected as human beings.  We see it clearly, first they are de-humanised and then it becomes possible to justify all sorts of abuses and ill-treatment upon them.  Indeed, we can see certain sections of the population advocating treating prisoners in ways that we wouldn’t be allowed to treat animals.  However, prisoners are people.  Yes they are people who have done bad things, but they are people nonetheless.

As a group they are identified by what they have done wrong, and the fact that they are in prison.  They’re considered as a homogenous group of people; something which they are not.  Within the prison population you have some of the most vulnerable and broken people in society.  You have people with multiple mental health problems, people who have suffered the most horrendous abuse as children (and often as adults too), you have people who were neglected by the adults who were supposed to have looked after them while they were children and I could go on.  Of course, none of these reasons is an excuse for what they have done; though, it can offer an explanation as to why they offended in the way that they did.  As well as those who are vulnerable and broken, there are people who have simply made bad choices in their lives or been caught up in situations that got out of hand (it’s not just “bad people” who end up in prison; anyone can, in the right circumstances, find themselves on the wrong side of the law).  We’re not dealing with a homogenous group of people; we’re dealing with a wide variety of people who all have one thing in common: they’re in prison.

It is a legitimate aim of society to want to be safe, and to be free from crime.  It is also a legitimate aim of society to punish those who offend against the community.  The mess that can be left behind after a crime has been committed can be huge; and it will often be the community that’s been impacted who are left to pick up the pieces.  However, punishment alone is not enough.  We need to look at radical ways of dealing with crime if we are going to see the changes in society that we want to see.  Simply warehousing people in prisons for set periods of time isn’t going to bring about the changes that we want to see.

When it comes to prison we seem to be confused, as a society, about what it is for.  We are all agreed one of the justifications for prison is as a form of punishment.  However, is prison itself the punishment or is prison a place that we send people to be punished.  There is a subtle difference in wording, but in practice this makes a massive difference to how prisons are operated.  We frequently hear the line that prisons are like holiday camps being trotted out (which, when you actually think of it is an absolutely ridiculous saying; prison is about as far from Butlins or Centre Parcs as you can get).  We see regular calls for prisons to be unpleasant places (they already are) where harsh regimes are the order of the day.  In England and Wales that view seems to be winning out as the prison regime is being continually made more harsh and more unpleasant by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP.  Those who favour such policies say that if we make prison a harsh and unpleasant place then people won’t want to go back and thus when they’re released they won’t commit another crime.  It’s utter nonsense and has little or no scientific backing to it whatsoever.  In any event, in my experience, people who leave prison in the UK today genuinely don’t want to go back when they walk out the gates.  The problem is though they often walk out of the prison gates into homelessness, unemployment and back into the chaotic lifestyles that they lived before they went to prison.

Let me tell you the story of Jimmy (not his real name).  Jimmy was released from prison; while he was in prison he lost the home that he had been living in before he went into prison.  However, a place for him to stay had been arranged.  Due to failures in the prison system, he was released later than expected.  It was a Friday afternoon.  By the time he made it to the housing association the person who had the key for his flat had gone home and wouldn’t be back in until Monday morning.  He was simply told to come back on Monday morning.  He went to the Council to present as homeless and to try and get emergency accommodation.  He was told that there we no places to give to him.  Faced with spending the weekend sleeping rough, Jimmy committed a minor crime knowing that he would be held in the police station until court on Monday.  So, he put a brick through the window of a shop and waited until the police turned up.  He was duly arrested and held in police custody over the weekend.

This is the type of thing that happens time and time again.  People undergoing methadone treatment for heroin addictions are released with a doctor’s appointment three days away; of course in that time there is nothing treating the cravings and they end up feeding their habit with heroin, which puts them back into the revolving prison gates.  People are released from prison unemployed and often have to wait weeks to get any form of benefits payment, by which time they’re back in prison having either stolen to try and feed themselves or simply committed a crime to get back into prison where they know they’ll be fed.  These situations are not uncommon either, they happen all the time.  It’s particularly bad for people released from prison on a Friday because all of the services that they can turn to close for the weekend.  Foodbanks, for example, often require you to have been referred to them from organisations like Social Work, the Job Centre, Citizens Advice etc.  All services that either close down for the weekend, or are so overstretched that they can’t assist everyone that needs it.

As a society we need to begin to change our attitudes because as it currently stands we set up people coming out of prison to fail.  We’re not willing them to give them a chance; we’re happy to discriminate against them in terms of employment opportunities and wonder why they commit further crime or label them layabouts because they remain on benefits long-term.  We’ll let our prejudice and discrimination get in the way of policies known to work and to cut re-offending because they don’t give us the retribution that we consider to be just.  The system is broken and its brokenness is creating fresh victims and costing us as a society dearly emotionally, physically and financially.  The first thing that we need to do is recognise that people who have offended, regardless of how heinous their crime, are human beings.  Only then will we be able to have sensible discussions about justice and penology; only then can we ensure that we have a justice system that ensures the public are protected long-term by transforming the lives of those who have caused harm to their communities.

Immigration and the UK

Immigration stories continually make the headlines. The right of politics has been engaging in some highly questionable activity aimed at appeasing readers of certain newspapers (especially certain tabloid newspapers). Racism is very much alive among certain people in the UK and that is extremely disappointing. Yesterday the Home Office sent a number of tweets highlighting the enforcement action it had been taking to combat immigration offending. Twitter was quickly alive with condemnation of the Home Office and it’s ‘boasting’.

Is the reaction of many on Twitter, including many who are not so reactionary, reasonable or is it an over-reaction?

Immigration is a fundamentally good thing. Migrants to this country contribute a great deal and highly qualified migrants can often be found doing poorly paid jobs which some in this country consider to be beneath them. The NHS would very probably have collapsed without migrant nurses and cleaners.

The migrant population of the UK brings a great deal of variety to UK society. The many different cultures that make-up society each contribute to our society in a different way. As people from different cultures mix it leads to understanding and an appreciation for the way we are all different. It helps to create an open-minded society which is accepting of differences. It helps people to have a better understanding of the world in which we live and share.

I am as dismayed as anyone about the rise of UKIP with their anti-foreigners stance, the way our political elite seem to be turning on those who have contributed so much to our society. The (actual or apparent) racism displayed by so many in our country depresses me. Whether we are white, coloured or something in between or whether we are British, French, German, Polish, Nigerian, Indian or some other nationality is irrelevant: we’re all human beings and have equal worth.

The Home Office driving vans around parts of the country with high migrant populations (most of whom are here perfectly legally) encouraging migrants here illegally does nothing to support community cohesion and will no doubt make those here legally feel unwanted, especially in the current climate of hostility towards migrants.

That said, I have no issue with the Government taking enforcement action against those in this country who are illegally. If someone has entered this country illegally (unless a victim of human trafficking or a refugee) they should expect the authorities to track them down.  Equally, I have no issue with the Government publicising enforcement operations, the number of arrests and the numbers of immigration offenders who have been deported. I see this as no different to the police or Trading Standards publicising similar information about other offenders. I don’t automatically consider it to be divisive or morally wrong.

Illegal immigration causes problems in our society. Illegal immigrants can be much more easily exploited by unscrupulous employers which reduces the work available for those who have the right to live and work here (whether that be by migration or birth). Not only does it reduce the work available, but it has the effect of lowering wages.

Pro-active and intelligence led operations to track down and arrest people here illegally should not be condemned. UKBA (or whatever they’re called now) operations on the streets are not a bad thing either (provided it isn’t abused). The police do it regularly. Who is acting suspiciously around the UKBA officers? Who looks nervous? Who actively tried to avoid them? All techniques used by the police, all raise suspicion and all worth checking out. They might not be wanted by UKBA or they could be wanted by another law enforcement agency. I would have a problem with officers quizzing people solely based on the colour of their skin: that’s arbitrary and racist.

I have absolutely no issue with people coming to this country to better their lives, providing that they do so legally. Plenty of migrants jump through the hoops (if outside the EEA) to get the right to live and work here legally, it is not fair on them to ignore migrants who ignored the rules in force at the time (whether those rules are right or wrong).

Of course there are two classes of people who enter this country illegally who need to be treated differently: refugees and victims of human trafficking.

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees quite rightly requires states not to penalise refugees who enter the country illegally.  Refugees are fleeing from the most horrendous of circumstances and don’t really have time to worry about getting passports or visas. They simply need to get to a country where they can be effectively protected. As part of the human race we have an obligation to protect our fellow humans who are being persecuted and at risk of having their inalienable rights as humans ignored.  Of course, it is right that we robustly investigate those seeking refugee status before granting it. Refugee status needs to be protected, if it is not it has serious repercussions for those who refugee law was designed to protect.

The other group of people in this country that need to be treated differently are those trafficked into this country. These people will have been abused (mentally, physically and/or sexually). They are victims and deserve our help and support in order that they can rebuild their life (here, in their own country or elsewhere). There will be serious mental health issues that need to be addressed (and probably some physical health problems as well).

In short, immigration enforcement action is not always wrong nor is it necessarily wrong to publicise the results of pro-active immigration operations (provided it is done so properly). So long as those arrested are treated with dignity and according to the law, and so long as the UKBA are attempting to identify victims of trafficking and refugees (and treat them accordingly); then there is no reason why we should condemn the Government over enforcement action. Some of the criticism and conemntation that I saw on Twitter yesterady evening (And thourghout today) was unwarranted and some of it was fair.  We need a proper discussion in this country about immigration which separates all the different issues, but we can’t have that with racism infecting it, nor can we have it when every single enforcement action taken is condemned outright.

Anonymity upon arrest

The naming of suspects by police at the point of arrest and charge has become a hot topic.  The Home Secretary has written to Chief Executive Officer of the College of Policing, Alex Marshall, expressing her concern about the different policies operated by different forces in England and Wales.  She wants it made clear to forces that unless there are very good public interest reasons for naming suspects who have been arrested, it shouldn’t happen.  The press have repeated concerns that this amounts to some kind of ‘secret justice’.

I really have little concern about suspects under arrest who have not been charged remaining anonymous.  Far too often we see examples of the press effectively having a trial which convicts the person while that person is still in police station being questioned in connection with an alleged offence.  By the time this person is then released from the police station their reputation has been destroyed, even if they are entirely innocent of any involvement in any crime.

Persons who have been arrested and not named do not fall into some big black hole; indeed millions of people are arrested in England and Wales every single year and very few are named at the point of arrest (in fact very few are named publically at any point, even after conviction).  There are important rights, protected by law, which mean that it is impossible for someone to be secretly arrested.  Those arrested have the right to have someone informed of their arrest and are entitled to legal representation; although both of these can be delayed, they are still rights which have to be exercised eventually if the arrested person wishes to exercise those rights.

It has been argued that naming a suspect at the time of arrest allows further victims to come forward, but so would naming them at the time of charge.  There is nothing stopping the police from arresting the person again in connection with different allegations that come to light after they have been charged.

In effect what a policy of anonymity for suspects under arrest would prevent is the press from publishing endless stories ‘monstering’ a person over something they may or may not have done.  We should perhaps be more than a little suspicious of the motivation of the press on this story; evidently ‘monsetring’ stories are the type of stores that make newspapers (particularly tabloid newspapers) sell.  Such a motivation cannot be ruled out of the press opposition to a move towards anonymity of arrested persons.

The clearest example of this was that of Christopher Jeffries, the man who was wrongly arrested on suspicion of murdering Joanna Yeates.  What followed, while he was still in police custody being questioned, was a press frenzy which painted him as a deviant, gave the impression that he was a nasty individual and by implication that he was clearly Joanna Yeates’ killer.  However, he was later released from police bail (having never been charged) and won substantial damages from eight newspapers for libel.  The Attorney General also prosecuted two newspapers for contempt of court, both of whom were found to be in contempt.  Another mab, Vincent Taback, eventually convicted of her murder and is currently serving life imprisonment.

Charging a person with a crime is a formal process; it is when criminal proceedings begin against a person.  From the point that a person is charged it is clear that the Contempt of Court Act rules kick in.  These rules provide sufficient protection in respect of the person’s right to a fair trial and news stories which are sufficiently prejudicial could even cause the collapse of a trial (although that is rare and it would have to be something of great significance).  The only cases where publishing the names of people who have been charged with an offence which causes me to pause and really think are those accused of sexual offences.  With sexual offences, more than any other offence, there appears to be a guilty until proven innocent mindset amongst general pubic; there is no smoke without fire, so to speak.  However, there are strong arguments in favour of anonymity and disclosure in those cases and it is a finely balanced argument.  Although I have argued in favour of anonymity before, I now believe that the arguments in favour of disclosure are slightly weightier.  However, in sexual offences cases I do feel that the authorities responsible for bringing cases in respect of alleged contempts of court have to be more pro-active.  Perhaps also providing for a possible (short) custodial sentence for editors who are guilty for allowing a seriously prejudicial story to be published (i.e. that type of story that causes or is seriously likely to cause the collapse of a whole trial) might make editors slightly more responsible around high profile cases.

It would be entirely right for the police to move to a system of neither confirming nor denying to the press whether they have a specific person in custody under arrest.  This gives the police the space to conduct that initial investigative phase and it will minimise the reputational damage done to those who are innocent and unfortunately arrested.  Without confirmation from the police of the name of the person in custody it is unlikely that the press will publish any name that they do have.  However, if such a move did not stop the press frenzy that we currently see around arrested persons, I would certainly not be adverse to Parliament passing legislation which specifically prohibits the confirming of names of arrested persons outside of a set of clearly defined circumstances where it really is in the public interest (and that’s not what the public are interested in) to release the name at such an early stage.

We do have a system of public justice and it is important for both the public and those accused of crimes that trials happen in the public eye.  This is not so that the public can gawp and stare and slander individuals accused of crimes, but so that the public can see that justice is being done and to protect those accused of crimes from oppressive state practices.

Vote2013: English and Welsh local authority results

Throughout today the results have been flooding in from those local authorities in England and Wales which had gone to the polls yesterday to elect councillors.  A total of 2362 seats were up for grabs from the North of England through to the South and in Wales, Anglesey was the only area voting yesterday (a total of 30 seats there).

In England the vast majority of the seats were in the south of England making it firmly Conservative territory where the battle would likely be between the Conservatives and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).  The results were as follows:


The big surprise in this election has certainly been the rise of UKIP.  An increase in their representation on these councils compared to 2009 of 1737% is a roaring success for the party.  Quite what factors went into that success will no doubt be heavily analysed over the coming days as pundits and politicians alike try and work out what effect, if any, this will have on the 2015 general election.  There will certainly be a mid-term and protest element to that vote, but it could also be a sign that the three main parties (the Conservatives in particular) are not engaging with the public properly on issues like Europe and Immigration.  The rights and wrongs of Europe and immigration policy are not a subject for this blog though.

The UKIP success will inevitably open the party up to greater scrutiny; that was already evidence in the last couple of weeks of the campaign.  Not only the personalities of those who have been elected, but the feasibility of its policies (and any gaps in its policies) will also come under greater scrutiny.  The question is whether UKIP were prepared for success on this scale; if not, then this could be a one off success for them outside of European elections.

The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives both had a hard time.  The Conservatives lost control of 10 of the councils they held going into the election and both the Lib Dems and conservatives saw the number of councillors in the councils which voted yesterday drop by around a quarter.  These will no doubt be uncomfortable figures for David Cameron and Nick Clegg as the two work together in coalition, but at the same time try to put their parties on an election footing heading into the 2015 general election.

The Labour Party saw some success, increasing its representation on the Council which were elected yesterday by 117%.  The Party held onto Durham, regained Derbyshire (from No overall control) and took Nottinghamshire from the conservatives.  These results will certainly take some of the pressure of Ed Milliband from within the party.  However, for a party hoping to win the next general election, the results could have still been better.

The other notable result in England’s local elections was the loss of presence from of the British National Party; they lost all three seats that they were defending.

In Wales, Plaid Cymru should also be happy with a 50% increase in representation in Anglesey, one of those local authorities (like Cornwall) where the largest group of councillors are the independents.

There will no doubt be much more analysis over the coming days of these results.  The above thoughts are my (extremely) initial thoughts on the results.  More will undoubtedly follow here over the coming days as well.

Abu Qatada and the Rule of Law

The latest episode in the saga that is the case of Othman (Abu Qatada) v the Secretary of State for the Home Department occurred today when the Court of Appeal refused the Home Secretary leave to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s earlier judgment to the Supreme Court.

The facts of this case are well rehearsed so I feel that I don’t need to go over them again.  As one would have expected, the Court of Appeal’s refusal to grant leave to appeal caused an uproar on the internet (and this was probably no doubt replicated in homes, pubs and offices around the country).  Let me be clear, I am no fan of Abu Qatada.  He is alleged to have committed some very serious crimes and it is right and proper than he faces trial in Jordan for those crimes.  However, it is equally right and proper that the United Kingdom upholds the law of the land, international law and its other international responsibilities.

Predictably, a lot of the comments were directed towards the judiciary and their apparent failings.  However, I would suggest that this is the wrong place to direct criticism towards.  The law is clear and it is for the judges to apply the law and to uphold the law.  Judges are not there to make or to change the law; that power lies with the Government and Parliament.  If courts are consistently finding against the Government on the same point of law, it would suggest that any problem that exists does so either with the law or the legal position of the Government.  In both scenarios only the Government, not the judiciary, can change the situation.

The Court is there to apply the law as enacted by Parliament and to uphold the rule of law.  They don’t take sides in any legal debate; they are not on the public’s side, the Government’s side or the side of any other party.  They are an independent tribunal charged with applying the law to a particular set of facts and to determine who, in law, is right and who is not.  The Appeal Courts are there solely to interpret the law which is then to be applied to the facts of each case by the lower courts.  They’re not there to look at whether a Court or tribunal below was right to conclude that a particular fact is indeed a fact or whether it is not; they are there simply to ensure that the lower courts and tribunals are applying the law correctly and to resolve any ambiguities in the law.

The Supreme Court only considers what are termed ‘points of law of general public importance’; those are legal questions and conundrums that affect a wide number of people in society.  They will look at serious legal questions and determine the law so that it is clear for all in our society and so that the lower courts are applying it consistently to all.

The Government is, like each one of us, subject to the law.  It does have a slightly more empowered position than the ordinary citizen has, in that should it lose a case in court it can (with the consent of Parliament) pass legislation to reverse the decision.  In this increasingly global world though, the Government (and Parliament) is somewhat restrained in what changes to the law it can make.  The United Kingdom has signed up to various international treaties, including many human rights ones (although we only ever really hear about the European Convention on Human Rights it’s not the only one we are signatory to) and then there are other principles of international law that the United Kingdom has to comply with as well (see my post on the ECHR, Abu Qatada and international law).

It is quite right that the Government is subject to the law in the same way that ordinary citizens are subject to the law.  If it were not, the Government would be extremely powerful with no real check or balance on its power and it would be impossible to effectively hold the Government to account.  There are countries where the Government is outside of the law (either constitutionally or because of the political situation is effectively outside of the law because the judiciary turn a blind eye).  When you look to those countries you soon realise that such a situation is not one which you want in this country.

Abu Qatada (and people like him) wants to destroy democracy and bring tyranny to the ‘West’; the Rule of law is fundamental to democracy.  If we suspend the Rule of law and start to allow the Government to ignore the law and judges to turn a blind eye to the Government ignoring the law the terrorists have effectively won.  Is that what you really want?

Some brief thoughts on the Benefits system

I’m unashamedly a supporter of the welfare state.  I think it’s fundamentally a good thing that the State, rather than independent charities, steps in to provide support to people who are facing a tough time.  There is abuse of the system though, as there is with every single system that exists.  There will always be people who take advantage and there comes a point where there is little more you can do to deal with this small group without harming the vast majority of people who are not abusing the system.  In terms of the welfare state, I think we have reached that point.

While I am a supporter of the welfare system and while I don’t think there is much more we can do to deal with those who abuse the system without harming the vast majority who don’t, I am of the view that there is room for reform within the system.

The benefits system we have in the UK today is very bureaucratic and complex.  There is little doubt in my mind that if we looked at it from scratch again we could simplify the system reducing the bureaucratic nature of it as well.  That would ultimately reduce costs in the long term without actually harming the living standards of those who rely on the benefits system to help them make up a shortfall.

One thing I find when I discuss the benefits system with people is that many of the examples people give are not what I would term abuse (by abuse I would refer to people who claim no more than what they’re entitled to, but make no effort to try and get out of those circumstances), but rather they refer to people making fraudulent claims.  I often hear people saying that their neighbour or someone they work with is claiming benefits to which they are not entitled.  That’s called fraud and it is a criminal offence.  People do need to be more forthcoming in reporting those who are fraudulently claiming benefits.  Those who investigate these crimes often have to work on information passed to them from the public as without undergoing a very expensive and labour-intensive process of personally visiting every single benefit claimant in the country, it is often difficult to spot fraud.  CrimeStoppers will even take reports anonymously and pass it to the Department for Works and Pensions, Police or local authority.

I don’t necessarily agree with the way in which the present Government is dealing with welfare.  For instance, I think that the popularly named ‘Bedroom Tax’ (or under-occupancy penalty) is a highly unfair system that doesn’t take account of people’s personal circumstances.  It’s a blanket policy, which rarely works (especially in welfare cases).  It takes no account of the need disabled people might have for a bigger house than they would otherwise need, or of parents who have separated and require a spare bedroom (or bedrooms) for their children when they come to stay or of people who have children who attend residential schools (for educational reasons such as learning difficulties) and a whole host of other circumstances.  One can understand the reason behind the Government introducing the policy, but it is flawed and is poorly thought out.  It also fails to take account that because of the Right to Buy and a failure of local authorities (of all colours) to ensure an appropriate supply of housing to meet the needs of the people in their area, that there is actually insufficient housing for people to downsize into if they do find themselves with too much space.

In terms of things like the benefits cap, I think the Government are failing.  Again, it is understandable why the Government want to introduce the cap; however, it fails to take account of circumstances.  The benefits system should be there to act as a safety net, ensuring that those who find themselves in temporary difficulty are not at risk of losing their home and are able to maintain at least a basic standard of living.  That means that when a person who was working become unemployed (perhaps because they’ve been made redundant) they should be able to access support to ensure that their rent or mortgage is covered, that they have enough money to put three balanced meals on the table for each member of their household, that they are able to continue ensuring that their children are properly clothed and able to participate in relevant educational activities and such like.  It may not be popular with some in society, but equally we shouldn’t put people in a position where because of no fault of their own they are facing homelessness or can’t feed themselves properly.  Both of these situations costs the public purse a lot more than it would to support them until such times as they get back on their feet.

That’s half the problem, there is little thought put into the residual effects of these policies.  It might very well be possible to feed a family on £7 per person per week, but is that going to produce a healthy and balanced diet?  I’d suggest that it won’t be.  That then has a cost to public health and to the NHS in the long term.  What savings a Government might happen to make to the welfare budget by simply slashing what is paid is likely to later be dwarfed by the cost to the health budget when people’s health starts to deteriorate because they’re not eating healthily.

As a student I’ve been attempting to eat healthily lately.  I have found it to be much more expensive than not eating healthily.  I can buy crisps and chocolate to last a week cheaper than I can buy fruit to last only half a week.  Meat and fish are also expensive, but pretty essential to a balanced diet.  I can buy processed pizzas and other junk food like that for cheaper than I can meat and fish.  Fruit, meat and fish are almost certainly going to be off the list when living on budgets as small as £7 per week per person.  I know when I undertook the ‘Live below the line’ challenge a couple of years ago (living on £1 per day for 5 days to raise money and awareness for extreme poverty around the world) that fruit, meat and fish were all off the menu for those 5 days.  Instead I was filling up on rice, noodles, eggs and bread: not the healthiest of diets.

The reality is this constant chipping away at the system and policies aimed at appeasing party supporters is not working.  A proper discussion is needed about welfare, which puts the problems, costs and benefits into perspective so that we can reform the system in a way that doesn’t harm the people it’s there to help and protect.  As I said earlier, you are never going to eliminate abuse from the system so we should stop pretending that we can.

Prisons, prisoners and prison conditions

There has been a lot of talk over the last few days about prisons and the conditions within them.  We have seen the traditional tabloid/right-wing mantra of prisons should be tougher and they’re too much like holiday camps.

In Scotland it was suggested that prisoners should have phones inside their cells while in England and Wales the Secretary of State for Justice has said they are looking at the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme; particularly how they could make it tougher.  The former has resulted in condemnation while the latter has resulted in celebration by the tabloid press.

These types of discussions make me angry.  This pandering to prejudice does not help society; it actively harms society.  When talking about prisons and prisoners the terms used are dehumanising in nature: “thug”, “lag”, “lout”, “animal”, “monster” and “caged” are some of the ones I dislike the most.  In order to have a criminal justice system that works we have to proceed on the basis that we are dealing with human beings and not animals.  When we work on the basis that they’re sub-human or animals it becomes so much easier to treat them in a way that would ordinarily be condemned.

There is also a great misconception about prison.  A person is sent to prison as a punishment and not to be punished.  The two are worlds apart and when we recognise that it is prison that is the punishment and not what happens inside the prison; we can begin to think properly about what needs to happen in prison in order to ensure that prisoners are rehabilitated.

The idea of placing phones in each cell is a good one.  It is well known that family contact is important.  Currently there are so few phones in prisons for prisoners’ use that it is not possible to maintain a proper relationship.  Calls are short and there can be significant periods between calls.  The time available for prisoners to use the phone is limited due to the amount of time that they spend out of their cell.  For some it can be a choice between having a shower and making a phone call to their children/parents/partner or whoever else is on the outside.

There is of course written communication.  However, that is still conducted by way of ordinary post.  The time that it takes a letter to get through the system to the prisoner and for that prisoner’s reply to get back through the system it can easily be a whole week.  Visitation is also permitted, but it is also limited by time and numbers.

In other words, the current system isn’t very good at ensuring family contact is maintained.  However, the amount of time that prisoners spend locked in their cell in the evening and over the weekend could be put to better use.  Having phones in the cell will ensure that more prisoners will be able to have better contact with their friends and family on the outside.

Of course, processes would need to be put in place to ensure that the phones are not abused and that is the role of the prison authorities to work that out.  It shouldn’t be dismissed simply because it’s a “perk”.

The idea that prison should be tough is a false presupposition.  For most, the conditions inside of prison play little part in whether they offend/re-offend.  The Conditions outside of prison play more of a role than the conditions inside prison do.  It’s about the community that someone lives in:  if they’re surrounded by people to whom taking drugs and committing crime is normal then that is likely to play a significant part in whether a person begins taking drugs and committing crime.  It’s not the only explanation: people from good backgrounds where drugs and crime is not the norm still commit crime.  However, for those that re-offend after prison the community they go back to plays an important role.

A person can develop a determination to change while in prison; however, upon release the cold hard reality hits them.  They go back into the community from where they came and start associating with the people they associated with before they went into prison: they know nowhere else and know nobody else.  They are then surrounded by all the temptations of drugs and crime that they were before and very quickly they are living their old life again.  That might make people question the sincerity of their determination to change, but it shouldn’t.

Those who have a real determination to want to change should be offered a radical change in lifestyle.  They should be offered the chance to be released into a different location (one which is well away from where they were before prison) and should be placed into contact with people willing to help prisoners on release and who can help guide them through getting a job.  These ordinary people can introduce them to a new community; one where drugs and crime is not the norm.  It’s really an extension of the probation service, but it’s stuff that the probation service doesn’t have the time or the resources to do.  It can be offered to those who are serving both long and short sentences.

I think this kind of approach would radically change re-offending rates.  In order to break the cycle of crime we need to treat people like humans and give them real practical help to radically change their life.  Putting them back into the circumstances they came from is unlikely to really help them change.  Society has to take a greater responsibility for helping break the cycle of crime.  The ultimate decision is that of the offender, but if someone wishes to change then society should get round them and help them to do that.