Saturday, April 13, 2013
There is a rather vicious strain of old Tory nastiness beginning to peep through the urbane curtain that cloaks the Minister of Justice, Chris Grayling. Those of us who were quietly hoping that he would broadly follow the course of Ken Clarke, even whilst talking tough to please the Tory Right, are having to cope with pointed reminders that the Conservative Party does contain a streak of straightforward oppressive nastiness. This was last seen in relation to criminal justice, to any great extent, with Michael Howard and Ann Widdecombe.
Jack Straw attempted to pick up their baton and did a fair facsimile, but the reality of him was that not only couldn’t he couldn’t resist the authoritarianism inherent in the Leftist ideology but he coupled it with a populism that was so barefaced and naked that he was in perpetual risk of being visited by the Porn Squad. The policy outcomes may look similar in intent, but in motivation Leftist authoritarianism and Rightist nastiness are worlds apart.
This is no consolation for those on the receiving end of Grayling’s venomous proposals. Three, in particular, strike me as being not only repellent but utterly futile – they will cause untold harm but add nothing to the social good. This is a hallmark of Conservative law and order spasms.
The bill for legal aid is high. Not staggeringly so, and given the importance of Justice to a society it would be hard to fairly say what is too much. Even so, removing legal aid from those at risk of genuine personal harm and persecution should be the last consideration of a Government in straightened financial times. Asylum seekers appealing deportation no longer have the ability to claim legal aid. A thousand miles from home, afraid to return for fear of the consequences, all of a sudden these people have to grapple not only with their personal situation but with an alien language and a legal procedure that baffles even the natives of this country. Quite how much will be saved from the bill for this, and how many will be returned to countries who will abuse them, is a calculation only the most immoral will be willing to contemplate. Grayling has chosen that mantle.
The nature of prison regimes is a perpetual bugbear, a target for the ill informed, the plain stupid and tabloid journalists. These categories are not mutually exclusive… Having trundled along for nearly 20 years with a system of earned privileges and regimes as set out by Michael Howard, Grayling has thrown this stability into the shadow of potential chaos. I wrote a blogpost on his idea – Grayling's Riot Recipe – which sums up my view of the potential consequences. And, as with legal aid changes, there is no earthly possible good that can come from this. It is simply an attempt to make people miserable, at risk of huge instabilities and suicides, with no known or foreseen reductions in crime.
Four million quid. That’s less than the Ministerial biscuit-budget. But in order to shave this off a 2 Billion legal aid bill Grayling is preventing prisoners gaining legal aid to sue the prison service for a whole range of issues. One of these is transfers. With about 130 prisons to choose from, prisoners are shuffled around the nation on an hourly basis, all to suit the particular needs of governors. It is, essentially, “bed management”. Like many internal prison issues this may seem trivial to outsiders, but consider – being transferred a hundred miles away from home, too far and too expensive for your family to visit. Children lose their father, wives lose their husbands, and society will later pick up the many costs of that. Such are the issues Grayling insists can be dealt with by the internal complaints system- that is, the prison service holding itself to account. The main cause of the riots in 1990 was the perception by prisoners that they were not being treated justly….Anyone else see the flaw in this idea?
It is being plain nasty for the sake of it. Which brings me to the latest uttering from Grayling – to make those convicted of a crime pay the costs of their own prosecution. So we take the largely disposessed and poor, sling them in prison, then release them back into a society that doesn’t want to employ them with a bill for their own punishment.
Morally, I would suggest this is ambivalent at best. Courts already have the power to make compensation and cost orders. To make this a mandatory scheme will be a structural invitation to criminals trying to go straight to just throw their hands in the air and reach for the jemmy and the shotgun.
There are ways to cut crime, to deal with illegal immigration and cut the legal aid bill. But to use the ineptitude of Government and the financial system to persecute and further exclude those on the margins and already bearing the weight of government power is repulsive. And yet, it is politically popular or Grayling wouldn’t do it. Whether it is popular with the electorate is a matter yet to be seen; but it is certainly popular with a section of the Tory party which has a nasty, vicious streak running through its psyche.