Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Shortened Sentence

It's a sad old thing to be pleased at U-turns from a Government you (sort of) voted for. As you may have guessed from my hilarious play on words in the title, we're talking prisons today, and the Coalition's latest U-turn on shortened sentences for those entering guilty pleas is welcome to me (and to the right-leaning elements of the press). The last couple of weeks have had back and forths over the sentencing policies of the Coalition, and today we see the culmination in the new Justice Bill.

Our prison system is one I have written about before (here and here), and the way in which successive Governments have approached it causes me great discomfort. Labour's policy was all based on targets. If they could prove that fewer people were in prison, the world must have been a safer place, because that must mean there were fewer baddies about. Unfortunately it meant that they just started letting people out early because there wasn't enough room. The Coalition were seemingly basing their policies on working out how much money they have (or don't have) and therefore how many prisoners they can afford to have. Then they would adjust the sentencing policy to suit the figures. Both approaches are beyond terrible. They have been playing fast and loose with a very serious topic.

There are a couple of strands to pick up on here. The first, is that of what should govern the size of our prison population: The number of people in prison should be in pretty direct proportion to the number of bad people being caught doing bad things. What we want in society is fewer bad people doing fewer bad things. This won't always happen though. If that means sometimes we go through a phase of increasing the prison population then so be it. There is no point massaging the output figures (numbers in jail) cosmetically to pretend the input (volume of crime) is getting better - look where that has got us with school exam results.

The cost of this incarceration is something we have generally to grin and bear (though we can surely find savings). Simply locking fewer people up for shorter periods of time to save money is itself criminal. We cannot allow the question of cost to be the primary factor or even a major factor in determining how long a sentence should be. By all means, it should be considered within the wider scheme of the cost of crime; not just walls, guards and bars but the cost of the justice system, the damage crime does to the economy, to the social fabric of society. Therein we may see more investment in crime prevention, but the costs of physically locking people up should not have a major direct effect on sentencing policy which it so obviously was having under these latest proposals.

The point that they are all missing is that you do not reduce crime by reducing prisoner numbers. It works the other way round. We should not think of the number of people in prison as a measure of how well or how badly we are doing in the fight against crime. Instead we need to look at why people commit crime and how we can have a positive influence there. If there are more criminals we need to address the causes, but in the meantime, build another prison.

Crime is linked with many things; drugs, drink, deprivation, social class, joblessness, geography. Ultimately though, the vast majority of it comes down to one thing - education. Whilst there are a few intelligent, well-educated lags languishing behind bars. they are the exception.

So we lead onto our second strand - what can the prison system do to help itself and help society? Simply put; education - and with this one stone we kill two birds. We remove the well-placed public disquiet at the easy life some lead inside of Sky tv, computer games, pool and generally doing nothing with their lives and at the same time reduce reoffending rates and help society (and the prisoners themselves) by the rehabilitation of prisoners.

Now I'm sure people will tell me education is available in prisons, but that is not enough. For many, they didn't want to learn at school, and there were plenty of alternatives. Prison gives them similar alternatives and very few leave more educated than they entered. I say remove the alternatives - all of them. Let the only thing prisoners can do be educate themselves and work, be it academic or vocational/skills based training. Prisons will be rather better guarded boarding schools. I'm sure there will remain a core of people totally disinterested who will sit in their cells lamenting the "breaches of their human rights" as they have their Playstations removed, but it has to be a step on the right direction for the prison population.

Prisoners cost the state more per capita to support than soldiers or children. Yet we ask nothing of them and are surprised when they give nothing in return. Prison should not be easy, and there is no doubt in my mind we are far too soft in this area. It needs to serve as a deterrent and cannot do so when prisoners can laze about doing nothing, kicking back watching tv, not worrying about where the next meal is coming from. Life on the inside is not meant to be a breeze in comparison to life outside - if it is we have missed a trick. On the other side, the prison system should be rehabilitative, and nothing is more intrinsic to improving the chances of released prisoners not reoffending than educating them and giving them the skills to survive in the real world of straight jobs. Give them qualifications; from basic literacy to manual trade skills and even further education through Open University for the more academically talented. By changing prisons to schools, we remove the soft side to prison that clearly is not working as a deterrent and attracts much negative attention form the press and people, and give prisoners a genuine chance at turning their lives around. The potential benefit for all is obvious.

A third strand we could talk about is sentencing policy, but that is a very large topic. Are initial sentences what we think is the right amount to serve or are they artificially raised (like pre-sale store prices) to account for the inevitable deductions (guilty plea / early release)? Are we sending the right people to prison for the right amount of time? Should we be using community service orders more, or doing more for those with mental problems? They are all key discussion points, but regardless, prison can and should be made to work better for society and for prisoners. Dostoyevsky wrote that "the degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons." I'd say right now such a journey would make us look naive, with a system that neither deters nor rehabilitates. Unfortunately, pleased as I am to see the further shortening of sentences for guilty pleas axed, I do not see the new Justice Bill going far in addressing the systemic issues at hand.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

That's What I Go To School For...

So today saw the announcement from two of the main unions representing teachers in the UK, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), that they are planning the first of a series of strikes later this month. The news was met with mixed reactions. Some supported the rights of the strikers to do just that. Others lambasted the selfish action of those charged with the education of our future generations.

The strike is, of course, over the amendments proposed by Lord Hutton in his report of earlier this year. Now the crux of the matter was nicely surmised by the union spokesladies. They are seeking to justify their striking stating that the evil plans of the Government meant that they would have to work for longer, pay more towards their pensions and ultimately receive less.

Now I shall sit down to try to deal with this staggering news. Already seated, so there's a moment saved. Yup, I think I'm over it. I'm not sure I should be that impressed that it took an entire two unions' worth of teachers and lecturers to work out the Government's proposals. Maybe I have missed the point? I think the idea the unions are proposing is that this move is in some way a) unfair (ah, the "fair" word again), and b) malicious.

As I have been into in rather more depth already (here), public sector pensions and national pensions were devised when the population was a fraction of what it is now, when life expectancy was far shorter and when people accepted a lower base standard of living. Getting 40 years work out of someone and then paying for 40 years rest probably won't work if they only put a small amount in. It probably won't work if the country doesn't discover endless wells of oil just outside Bracknell. It probably won't work if we continue to define a "fair" amount to live on as what will pay for luxury goods as a staple rather that a luxury.

In short, there clearly isn't enough money to keep on with the original plan. One has to adapt when situations change. Anyone who cannot see that the goalposts have moved is an arse, plainly put. So, anyone planning on striking over this is a little simple for my money. Now I might have accepted a defence of not understanding the exact economics of it all from perhaps the union of village idiots (should such a thing exist, and I'm doing my best to resist the temptation here to liken a great many unions to this one), but from the teachers?

Maybe then it won't be such a shame if they all go on strike as anyone failing to comprehend the need for amendment to pension policy probably shouldn't be teaching our children even basic arithmetic. Get with the program people - you aren't victims, you're not targets, it's just adapting to the realities of modern life, plain and simple. Burying your head in the sand and saying "I want the same pension as they used to hand out", ignoring the glaring impracticalities and unaffordability won't work. Striking over this is idiotic. There are too many of us living too long and not enough dosh. You can't just magic the money out of thin air. Although Ed Balls will probably come out to say he could.

Monday, 13 June 2011

You Spin Me Right Round, Baby, Right Round...

Well this past week has seen the Government in a spin with more U-turns than by the drivers at the sodden Canadian Grand Prix. One does rather get the feeling that the Coalition, or more specifically the Tories within the Coalition, have decided on quantity over quality when it comes to some policy. There are rumours that they have taken onboard Tony Blair's regret (from his self-aggrandising autobiography) that he did not set about the big legislation early enough in his terms. This in itself is quite a worry seeing as he went at about a law a day throughout his time in office. One imagines it was probably the only thing he could imagine he did wrong during his tenure too.

Whilst the quick action the Tories have made in some areas has been laudable (e.g. their swift work on deficit reduction appeased money markets keeping our astronomic borrowing from sinking us with interest rises), one wonders whether everything was fully thought through. They run the risk of losing public support to change intrinsic and systemic flaws in education, welfare and the NHS by going too quickly into policy making. It is possible as some individual reform policies begin to look unpopular, the fickle public might withdraw its backing for any type of (desperately needed) reform; throwing out the baby with the proverbial.

One area they should not be contemplating a U-turn, however, is the benefits cap. Not only should they not be 'bending to Lib Dem pressure' (is there such a thing?) because the Lib Dems have less leverage than ever (which I wrote about here), but they should stay the course because this is not only morally and economically a sound policy, but a vote winner. It is a small percentage of the population who will lose much from this, but some of them will lose a lot. These are more than likely not a demographic who are planning on voting Conservative, rather tending towards the Labour 'pay them to remain poor' camp. The people who would be happy to see this cap come in form a far greater part of UK society.

I genuinely believe the man in the street does not think it is right for some families to remain workless, produce children to their hearts' content, live somewhere nice and get the tab picked up by John and Jane Q. Taxpayer. I don't think the average Briton thinks it right that you can make more staying at home than at work, therefore I think making the cap at the average wage a particularly shrewd bit of political economics.

IDS certainly thinks the cap is still in place, but yesterday Lord Freud, the Tory welfare reform minister suggested that there would be exemptions from the cap because it would be "unfair to punish larger families". He went on to say that ministers would be looking hard to make sure large families were not treated unfairly. I must take umbrage with the word "fair", or "unfair". Yet again, a word bandied about with impunity. As long as you say "fair" anyone countering what you say must be "unfair" and therefore nasty and wrong. Nobody ever bothers to qualify or quantify fairness though - like how much tax one should pay in a "fair" world.

It is not fair for the rest of us who have to make informed decisions on how many children we can afford, or which areas we can afford to live in to have to do those things whilst supporting those who choose not to work but can have all of those things with none of the worries. I shan't totally drag back out my full thoughts on the matter, but if you fancy a refresh, they're herehere and here. Ultimately, the state is there to help you up when you need a hand. It's there to support the needy (I'll always caveat the welfare cap with those with serious disabilities). It is there to top up from time to time. It is not meant to be a long term way of life.

£26,000 is OK for the average Joe to survive on pre-tax, so one should not expect more than that from the Government (much of it un-taxed), under the banner of fairness or any other without having to lift a finger. If it costs more than that to live where you live, move. It's what everyone else has to do. If you can't afford to pay for more children, don't have them. It's what everyone else has to do.

It is "fair" to expect the Government to help you out provided you do your bit on your side, and that you don't take the piss. A third of the families currently receiving over the new cap are single parent families with a staggering 5 or more children. It's not the single parent part, telling though it may be, that is important here. It is the 5 or more children bit. I'd say it may well be fair to expect some help with your first couple of children, but after that? You're just taking out loans funded by taxpayers because you biologically can. So let us hope this U-turn frenzy that Dave and Co. have going on doesn't spread to the proper policies, and certainly not because of the Lib Dems or some bizarre idea of fairness.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Indefinite Articles

True to form I am joining a debate just as the dead donkey is having the last of its once lustrous flanks flogged from it (are donkeys ever lustrous?). As you may have guessed from my cunning title, today's post centres on Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. You may, though, have worked it out from my subtle pictures on the right. I thought about using that over-produced picture of Miss Imogen Thomas strutting to court in a flattering but staid, high neckline blue dress. However, after some really extensive research (this is what I have been doing for the last 2 weeks), I thought this one offered more to flesh out the post, artistically speaking.

So, I guess it is time to vent my feelings on the great 'public interest' debate. First and foremost it makes sense to make the obvious distinction between "in the public interest" and "of interest to the public". The former I shall take to mean knowledge that is due to the public as citizens and taxpayers because it has the ability to affect them, the services and organisations they fund, and their lives as players in British democracy. Here we are talking about nefarious activities of Members of Parliament, the head of the BBC running a sleaze campaign against ITV, Liam Fox having an affair with an executive at BAE Systems whilst considering a tender for an MOD contract. That sort of thing; and I stress, all hopefully imaginary.

Now as we see from the last example, in particular, the lines can easily blur between "in the public interest" and "of interest to the public". This is because the last one is about sex, and sex sells. Yes, this is what is "of interest to the public" - anything that gets printed in Hello!, OK or any number of other publications in the UK and abroad. In short, things the public will pay to read about and see pictures of.

You may point out that even broadsheet newspapers print a mix of the two, and you would be right. We should know about the Foreign Office talks with Syria, that's "in the public interest", but we simply like knowing about the old tortoise that got stolen but escaped and walked 200 miles home over the course of a year. That is a "public interest" story, in that it is simply something we'd like to know. It lightens the paper and provides some contrast. We didn't need to know it, nor have any particular right to it, it having no bearing on our lives as citizens. Incidentally, I made that one up too, but if your tortoise really is that heroic and navigationally astute, congrats.

So we know what at least I think is the difference between the two types of public interest. This is important because it seems to be this distinction upon which judges base the fad of today, the injunction, or even super injunction. It all boils down to readings of the ECHR's articles 8 and 10. Now they are more focussed, as you can read, on when Governments can infringe said rights, rather than when other members of society can, but as with much law, there is always room for interpretation. Herein lies the crux of the matter. Does Article 8, "the right to a private life" as it is bandied about, trump Article 10, "the right to freedom of expression" or vice-versa?

So here's my take. If something is "in the public interest", it is clearly defined that it may be made public, where it "is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." So, if the head of MI5 is sleeping with the the head of Mossad, or an elected representative is illegally paying their partner to rent their own home, it is clear cut.

Where it gets hazy for people is the "of interest to the public" area, but I cannot see why. It's all rather simple, for my money. If you choose to live your life in the public eye and thereby make money from the associated publicity you have engaged in a transactional relationship. You pose for pictures in magazines, do interviews; you get paid. Companies sponsor you to advertise their stuff because you have high exposure. You make your money this way. The public are interested in you, and you get paid because of their interest.

So where does one draw the line in terms of finding out each and every detail about your life? One glance at modern popular media tells us people will read about anything a "celebrity" does? Whilst I can understand you may not want everyone to see you looking crap with a hangover on holiday, you have to take the rough with the smooth. If you do it in public, it will possibly be caught on camera. I sympathise with those who get their boobies plastered worldwide care of 100 mile telescopic lenses whilst trying to subtly rearrange a bikini on a boat, but for the most part that's the business they signed up to. It's not "in the public interest" but I think it's all fair game as part of your contract with the people who now think of your public antics as interesting.

So, where does the remit of the telescopic lens stop? I think it invasive and intrusive to go around tapping phones, trying to entrap people, or taking photos of people through the windows of their own home. That stuff should rightfully be all illegal, and any newsworthy stuff garnered that way should be barred as having breached Article 8. So, that's stuff that may well be "of interest to the public" but to which they have no right. So, it shouldn't be gathered, and if it is and someone tries to publish it, an injunction here is totally justified.

However, Article 8 actually says "everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence". The key part is "respect". It is not a carte blanche. If you live your life in the public eye and choose to show no respect yourself for your private and family life, you cannot then hide behind the same article which you have just flouted. That is if you, a married superstar footballer father of 3, decide to shag a publicity-seeking bimbo without the express permission of your wife, you're on pretty shaky ground. Likewise if you, a multi-millionaire motorsport head honcho decide to engage the services of some ladies of dubious reputation to play out some curious sexual peccadillo, you have breached you own privacy.

You have let into your 'circle of trust' some dodgy characters. If said bimbo/hooker decides to ring up the Sun and tell all for £50,000, well my friend, that is your fault. Article 8 only allows for the right to respect for family and private life, a respect you have chosen to disregard, unless in breach of others' rights and freedoms. Now as little as you care for the bimbo/lady of the night, they have a right to freedom of expression under Article 10. They have done nothing to invalidate their right to freedom of expression. As long as what the say is true and not libellous, they have a right to say it, and anyone to whom they say it has a right to repeat or publish it.

All of the articles within the ECHR have similar caveats. Those who drew them up no doubt knew there would be times when two articles would be drawn against each other. There is no natural hierarchy of the articles laid down; none has natural precedence over another. Some may try to argue that the clause in Article 10 caveating free speech with the "protection of the reputation or rights of others" justifies gagging injunctions due to Article 8. However, common sense must be applied in this situation. Clearly Article 10 trumps Article 8 here: those hiding behind Article 8 have themselves shown no respect for their own privacy; those invoking Article 10 have said nothing untrue.

It is madness to be able to hide any wrongdoing behind the right to the private life you chose to live in public and the right to a family life for which you show nothing higher than contempt yourself. Simply put, if you choose to live a public life you must accept the concomitant higher level of public scrutiny. You still get your private life, and it should be protected (but will be inevitably less private than my private life as nobody takes photos of me going to the shops, so yours is probably now just what you do in your home and that of your friends and families), but be careful with whom you share it. You cannot ask only for the good publicity either - the only way to do that is to only do good things. Perhaps that is a lesson young aspiring famous wannabes should learn before launching themselves into the limelight.

I'm quite glad someone did something about this ridiculous situation, and am amused at those who want to sue Twitter for what its users have written. It is as farcical as suing your school for what you think little Johnny Briggs wrote about you on the wall of the boys' loos. I wish them luck trying to track down those tens of thousands of users who can easily be anonymous who have breached these injunctions. I'm not convinced this is what the authors of the 1668-1669 Bill of Rights had in mind when their Bill allowed John Hemming MP to name Ryan Giggs under Parliamentary Privilege (oops, add me to the list of breachers), but it got an important debate going. I suppose the moral of the story is if people knowing you are a naughty boy might be bad for you, don't be a naughty boy.