Monday, February 08, 2016 

The fundamental lack of imagination remains.

If there's one thing worse than telling the son of a deceased political figure how ashamed or upset they would be with the decisions they've made, as clearly the likes of Alex Salmond know better than Hillary Benn how his father would have reacted, then it's squabbling over which side a passed on political behemoth would have chosen.  

Yep, in case you missed it, the big debate in the Tory press over the past couple of days has been whether Margaret Thatcher would have been on the side of staying in or leaving the EU.  Charles Powell is convinced she would have been for in, with much the same reservations as David Cameron; Norman Tebbit and assorted others regard that as heresy.  That Thatcher had gone as crazy as a coot by the end of her time in Downing Street seems to have passed them all by, as does the fact they got rid of her for precisely that reason.  You could argue the Tory worship of Thatcher is more healthy politically than Labour's attitude towards Tony Blair, and it probably is.  It doesn't alter how unutterably creepy it is, not to mention unanswerable: failing Boris Gypsy Rose Johnson managing to channel the spirit of Thatch from the other side, we're never going to be any the wiser.  Which in a way, is the point.

Quite how miserable the next few months are going to be is summed up by the big politics story of the day, the claim from Downing Street that should the referendum result in our leaving, the migrants camped out in Calais and Dunkirk will instead be setting up tent cities in Dover.  The idea is so absurd many have claimed it's another "dead cat", designed to move the debate on, and judging by the coverage of the ensuing argument compared to that of the speech Cameron gave today, it seems to have worked.  Apart from anything else, the obvious point is that if those camped in Calais and Dunkirk make it to Britain they wouldn't then be sitting around waiting to do anything; they'd be claiming asylum or moving on to find work.  The French might be less cooperative than they are now, it's true, but why would you trouble yourselves overly with people who don't want to stay in your country anyway?

We can then only ready ourselves for weeks of claims and counter-claims, all on a subject that few are truly interested in and even fewer know anything about.  If, on the other hand, there is something approaching truth in the rumours today's speech by Cameron on prison reform is part of the move to guarantee justice secretary Michael Gove's support for the remain campaign, there might be the very slightest of silver linings.

That's a silver lining dependent on first, some of Cameron's proposed measures being implemented, and two, their working.  When you then consider that Cameron himself claimed today's speech was the first in 20 years by a prime minister focusing exclusively on prison reform, when it soon turned out Dave had forgotten he gave a speech promising a rehabilitation revolution back in 2012, the omens are far from good.  It's true, as various commentators have noted, that simply hearing a prime minister saying things like prisons are "often miserable, painful environments", "full of damaged individuals" and that "being tough on criminals is not always the same thing as being tough on crime" is novel, and welcome.  Referring to prisoners as potential diamonds in the rough, and turning remorse and regret into lives with new meaning is language of the sort politicians rarely use, often for good reason as it sounds hollow and fatuous.  That it didn't coming from Cameron today is itself something to cheer.

This said, the problems of the prison estate are obvious, and there's little to suggest that Cameron or the Tories are willing to recognise them.  The first is plain and simple, funding: the cuts to the Ministry of Justice have been some of the most swingeing, and prisons are expensive.  Part of the reason there is so little chance of rehabilitation in prison and so much idleness is lack of staff, and the amount being spent on overtime for those remaining is astronomical.  Second is overcrowding.  While it is true as Cameron says that very few, only 7% he quotes, are imprisoned for a first offence, and over 70% of prisoners have 7 or more convictions to their name, most of those will be minor, or non-violent.  As he goes on to say, almost half will have an identifiable mental health problem, while others will have an addiction of one variety or another.  Reducing the prison population by say 20% would be perfectly achievable and help massively if there were alternatives available, either in the form of expanded secure accommodation for those with mental health problems or monitoring in the community for those guilty of non-violent offences, women in particular.  This might have been possible prior to austerity: now it seems laughable, despite Cameron asking Gove and Jeremy Hunt to look for alternative provision for the most severely mentally ill.

As Frances Crook writes, it doesn't matter how much independence or autonomy you give a prison governor if they don't have the staff, the resources, or the space for their ideas to take root.  More promising is the idea of "secure academies" as an alternative to young offender institutions, although the obstacles frankly look overwhelming; it's all well and good saying you want to make it "aspirational" to work in a prison and attract the best, but again why would you when there is very little here to suggest this is anything other than rhetoric?  Similar schemes in schools themselves have fell by the wayside.  Indeed, at worst, Cameron's plans smack of introducing further privatisation where the true aim undoubtedly will be on achieving savings, at the expense of the very rehabilitation and reforms he claims to want.

Great as it is to hear a prime minister saying he wants prisons to be places of care, not just punishment, the one metric we have to judge Cameron and the Tories by so far is as he apparently accepts, the reports of the chief inspector of prisons.  By that measure prisons have got worse in the last 5 years, not better, with the reasons why staring the government in the face.  Closing the worst of the Victorian jails and building replacements will do no good if they are to be just as overcrowded and short-staffed.

Last weekend Nick Hardwick criticised the "lack of imagination and failure of empathy" of policymakers.  Today's speech by Cameron showed that when pushed, politicians can be compassionate and point towards innovations that could help.  Fundamentally however, that lack of imagination or refusal to question the failed shibboleths of old remains: prisons cannot work when they are the equivalent of warehouses for the sick, the damaged and the dangerous.  For all his fine, often empathetic words, David Cameron still refuses to recognise this.

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Friday, February 05, 2016 

Shaker.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016 

"An extraordinarily nice man to work with" redux.

As an addendum to the recent post on Cecil Parkinson, worth sharing is Private Eye's tribute to the great man.  Which you'll probably have to click on to not strain your eyes.


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The search is over.


Update: This guy only beat me to it by 12 hours or so. Using the exact same Sooty photo no less. Memes and originality, eh?

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Wednesday, February 03, 2016 

Very well, alone.

Every so often you get a sudden burst of articles on the same topic.  This week it's loneliness, general wellbeing, and that topic we talk about while not talking about it, mental health.  Not that these articles generally tend to dwell on what my personal experience of these things has been: I can't say I get lonely at work for one, I'm not old, and it doesn't exactly come as a surprise that the people most likely to report the least satisfaction with life are what we would have used to call middle-aged.  You hit 40, you've got a mortgage, kids that are old enough to be embarrassed by your very existence, you start getting routine aches and pains, your face begins melting, you might have started waking up without an erection; all those things are bound to get you down.  Come 59, you've either got used to the idea of life now being one grand downhill slalom into the grave, or on the horizon there's the hope of living long enough to be just as awkward to your offspring as they've been to you.

Then again, there is also the nagging suspicion that surveys asking an individual to quantify their quality of life are always going to be subject to the mood of the day.  Can it really be true when personal experience would suggest that by far the most miserable people you'll come across on a daily basis are the over-60s, and whom for the most part you tend to give a pass because frankly, life for more than a few over-60s, especially those on their own or caring for a partner is unenviable?  To really get an accurate picture, you'd want to drill down further into the data by socio-economic status as well as age and gender, to see whether class and wealth have an effect, as you'd have to suspect they would.  You also have to wonder if the 40-59 group's data isn't being skewed by how men of that age, often single, are now most likely to take their own lives, and so correspondingly would report less satisfaction with life.

Nor does ranking your wellbeing and happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 really cut it when thankfully relatively few of us go through life constantly on the edge of the abyss.  Everyone's experience of depression is different, and some are constantly affected by it, but far more hit a plateau, with occasional descents and sometimes peaks.  These troughs can be terrible, and go on for a long time, but usually you come out of them.  Likewise, the peaks can be euphoric, if far shorter-lived.

The thing is, some of us, I, have no real problems.  I have no real worries.  I'm not in debt.  I don't have anyone dependent on me.  I have a reasonable amount of disposable cash.  Compared to previous generations, we have a quality of life, of health, of pretty much everything that they could only dream of.  There are endless distractions, new things to see, do, play.

And yet you still want more.  Want to think that there is more to this, to life, than just existing.  More than anything, I suppose, I increasingly find myself thinking about the emptiness of being by myself.  Of course, I'm not alone.  None of us are really.  But there is no one there that I really share myself with.  The closest thing I have is a friend that I can't thank enough for putting up with my bullshit, only he's sadly 50 miles away down the train line.

I don't ask for much.  Someone who'd sit alongside me, watch Netflix or whatever it is the cool kids do, eat lamb pasanda.  The Mark from Peep Show dream life.  It doesn't have to be Isy Suttie or Dobby doing the sitting, mind, and we could occasionally mix it up with a chicken madras or a Chinese, but otherwise it sounds all right.  Put up with my horrendous taste in exploitation cinema, preferably enjoy the X-Files, have a tolerance for dubstep, that sort of thing.  Not have a problem with my slamming a keyboard for a few hours of a week night, or shouting obscenities at the television when the news is on.  Enjoys long walks going nowhere in particular.

What I'm saying is there reaches a point in the loner's, loser life where the mundane becomes the most extreme fantasy.  The odd, not odd thing is that you feel the same pangs: of looking in the mirror of a morning knowing you're only getting older and uglier, having done none of the things that people of your age are supposed to have done.   Seeing a father with his daughter alongside him on a scooter, or with his son controlling a remote control car, and smiling, while knowing almost for certain that you'll never do the same, and at the same time as not wanting the responsibility, when you've never really had a relationship to speak of anyway, and when such feelings would so short a time ago have been so alien.

Loneliness to me is knowing there is no escape.  However much I want there to be a way out, I know secretly there isn't, or that I'm just not capable of one.  The truth is I'm happy being sad.  I'd rather wait for something to happen to me that won't than take the risk of doing anything.  I can point to the usual, same old excuses, and they do inhibit.  I can blame the fact I live in a cultural wasteland where there is nothing other than populism on offer, and yet it's not as though my standards are high.  It's that I don't think I'm worthy, deserving of anything other than this.  Or it's just too much trouble.  Complaining without being willing to do something about it yourself is about as low as it gets.  That's me, right there.  Pointing, mocking, contributing nothing.  Feeling entitled to something.

Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016 

Cameron's gamble with everyone else's chips.

David Cameron, Matthew d'Anconservative wrote only yesterday, is "like almost every Tory of his generation, a Eurosceptic to his fingertips".  This Eurosceptic to his fingertips, a leader who has at every turn given in to the demands of his backbenchers, has now been served up what can at best be described as very thin gruel in the form of European Council President Donald Tusk's proposed deal on renegotiation.  "Hand on heart", Dave insisted, the deal fulfils the promises made in the Conservative party manifesto.  Presumably with hand still on heart, he also said that if Britain wasn't an EU member and these were the terms on offer to join, he would do so.

Cameron is not and has never been a Eurosceptic.  Above everything else, Cameron has always been an opportunist.  Combined with his belief that through the sheer force of his will and combined animal magnetism he can achieve practically anything, he has made every appearance of being a Eurosceptic while never for a second believing the nonsense spouted by the more virulent within his party.  His move to leave the EPP grouping in the European parliament?  Utterly meaningless and incomprehensible to anyone outside the Tory party, but it helped convinced those uncertain about him that he was truly one of them.  Likewise, his much garlanded wielding of the veto back in 2011 achieved precisely nothing, other than help soothe the tendency within the Tories that regarded his failure to win the 2010 election and necessary coalition with the Lib Dems as little short of treachery.

And yet, each time he refused to call the bluff of his restive MPs, it encouraged them to push for something else.  Finally, in 2013, Cameron gave them what they had long demanded, a referendum on our membership of the EU.  As has been comprehensively proved since, Cameron has never thought for one second that Britain would be better off out.  Cameron is many things, but he's not an idiot.  For every negative, there is a positive. More than anything else, the idea that Britain will somehow manage to get a better deal on exit than either Norway or Switzerland managed having never been members is just as fanciful as the SNP's claim that once independence was won, the rUK would delight in the necessary negotiations on how to share the pound and split oil revenue etc etc.

Whether Cameron honestly believed he would win the majority necessary to hold the referendum we don't know.  Still, once achieved he had to push on, knowing full well that short of bringing back the head of Jean-Claude Juncker on a silver platter the Eurosceptics in his party would moan incessantly about how feeble his renegotiation was.  He did so also knowing full well that the the rest of the EU, dealing with a refugee crisis Cameron refuses to lift a finger to help with over, was not for so much as a second going to offer anything like the concessions on immigration and benefits that have become the proxy for public debate on the EU.

To give Cameron some credit, he has got something that didn't look to be on offer until very recently.  The emergency brake, allowing for the restricting of in-work benefits to EU migrants is roughly analogous to the ban promised in the Tory manifesto.  No one thought for a minute that Cameron would get four years, and while he hasn't quite got that, he's got something similar, albeit tempered by how migrants will get "gradual" access to in-work benefits once they've been paying into the system, probably after a couple of years.  Likewise, on the sending of child benefit to children back in their home countries, he hasn't got an outright prohibition but has won a concession that will mean the benefit will be paid most likely at the same rate as it would be if the claimant was doing so back home.  On fairness if nothing else that passes muster.

Except, of course, this has been a phony war from the beginning.  Cameron and the Tories know that benefits are not a draw for migrants; they come for the jobs and the wages, not to claim.  Every possible effort has been made to prove that benefits are a pull factor for migrants both legal and illegal, and not once has anything approaching conclusive evidence been turned up.  Cameron knew the rest of the EU would never agree to a "brake" on the free movement of labour, and so was reduced to instead attempting to convince the public into believing that rather than it being down to how we were one of only three EU nations that opened our borders in 2005 without restrictions, or to how the British economy has recovered faster than most other EU states post-2008, it's all been about tax credits.  This went alongside the attempt to restrict tax credits overall, since abandoned, meant to be made up for part by the increase in the minimum wage.  Evidence for the minimum wage being a draw is far higher than it is for benefits, so if the aim has partly been to reduce net levels of migration, it's a far bet Cameron's renegotiation will achieve little other than saving the relatively slight amounts currently claimed back in tax credits.

Most of the other concessions, including the "red card" national parliaments could wield against proposed new EU laws if 55% vote against, are relatively minor or were always going to happen when the rest of the EU undoubtedly wants Britain to stay.  Judged against the letter sent to Tusk that started this process, Cameron has got most of what he wanted.  Then again, what he wanted has no connection whatsoever with the "full-on treaty change" or fundamental reworking of our relationship with the EU once promised, and which the more naive Tory backbenchers thought they might get.  The others, those who were always going to treat whatever was served up as not good enough, have a deal they can be justifiably dismissive of.

As for the public, excepting the relative few who go along with the UKIP narrative on loss of sovereignty and the eleventy trillion pounds sent to Brussels every day, most will care only about the impact it has on migration.  Which will be next to none.  To judge by the response to the deal, which has been tepid to say the least, most quite rightly don't give a stuff about the EU.  It's there, it does things, it occasionally impacts on us, but for most it means little other than open borders and free movement of labour, for better, for worse, and that itself is threatened by the aforementioned refugee crisis.  Trying to get people who weren't bothered enough to vote in the general election to interest themselves in a referendum on something relatively arcane and on a day in high summer, should it take place on the "preferred" date of 23rd of June, is going to prove far more challenging than many seem to think.

Which only reinforces the view that Cameron and his relatively slight band of fellow Tories who don't like the EU much but prefer it to the alternative have backed themselves into a corner out of pitiful weakness, and now have to sell their gruel to the country.  Perhaps the thinking is that the engaged, the pro-Europeans versus the Eurosceptics will balance themselves out, leaving Project Fear 2.0 to work its magic on those undecided and who can be bothered to interest themselves.  Perhaps, as Lord Ashcroft's polling and research suggests, Cameron himself can win enough people over by his leading the remain campaign.  Perhaps the fact that the leave campaigners themselves seem to accept they cannot win on immigration alone, and so will have to put their otherwise easily countered and pretty feeble arguments out for public consumption, made by politicians and business leaders no one has much affection for, will count against them.

From this remove, with no solution in sight to the refugee crisis, much that can happen between now and June, and with the voter coalition he formed to win the election liable to be against him on this occasion, Cameron's great gamble looks just as mad and as hostage to fortune as it did three years.  The only real advantage he has, as then, is himself.  If it proves to not be enough, with all it will set in motion, a likely second Scottish independence referendum, inevitable resignation and a country ever more uncertain of its true place in the world, will it have been worth it?

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Monday, February 01, 2016 

A fundamental lack of imagination.

At the weekend, out-going chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick gave a blistering interview to the Graun.  All but told his services were no longer wanted after he proved to be one of the most critical of inspectors in what has often been a post filled by those of an independent bent, he made clear he was in fact glad to be leaving, fearing that he was at the point of becoming desensitised to the problems of the prison estate.  Levels of self-harm and suicide are at record levels in a system that Hardwick declares has deteriorated further in the 5 years since the coalition government promised a "rehabilitation revolution".  

The only bright spot is Chris Grayling, who Hardwick relates attempted to interfere with his annual report, has since been moved on from his role as justice secretary, replaced by Michael Gove.  Amazingly considering his record as education secretary, Gove is now without doubt the best minister of a very bad lot, if only because he has spent almost the entirety of his time cleaning up the mess left by Grayling.  In little more than six months Gove has lifted the ban on sending parcels to prisoners, scrapped the criminal courts charge, reversed further planned cuts to legal aid, and persuaded David Cameron to put an end to the proposed link up with the Saudi Arabian prison system.

As Hardwick outlines in his interview, there are manifold things wrong with the prison system, but one of the most obvious is that there are still far too many people in jail who either shouldn't be or who would be far better cared for elsewhere.  Policymakers, he says, have two major failings: "lack of imagination and failure of empathy".  This could be expanded from just policymakers to be a criticism of the justice system as a whole, afflicting not just politicians and those who put pressure on them, but also the police, prosecutors and judges.  It affects not just those being processed through the system, but victims too: witness how 20 years after her death the family of Cheryl James have only now managed to obtain a second inquest, thanks to the Human Rights Act the government wants to repeal.

The absurdity of the system as it stands is perhaps best illustrated by the lack of consistency in decisions made by prosecutors.  Approaching a year after they left, the four school girls from Bethnal Green academy who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State will still apparently be treated as victims should they return to the UK, despite it would seem having no intention whatsoever of doing so.  As I've pointed out on a number of occasions, it seems doubly perverse to prosecute the sad sacks who do return home after quickly discovering they are not cut out for life in a war zone, the Mashudr Choudarys, the Nawazses, and now most notably of all, Tareena Shakil, the 26-year-old who travelled to the capital of Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, only to make her escape less than 3 months later.

Shakil it's safe to say is also the most perplexing character of all the jihadis so far charged on their return.  She apparently loved shows like The Only Way is Essex, seems to not always worn the hijab, let alone the full veil that she would have been required to in Raqqa, and it's not disputed that her brief flirtation with the jihadi cause came after the breakdown of her marriage.  Whether she genuinely was radicalised online by contact with individuals who told her she would go to hell if she didn't live under Sharia law, as well as by other notorious online figures Aqsa Mahmood and Sally Anne Jones we can't know, but it seems more realistic a claim than in many similar instances where families have insisted their loved ones were preyed upon.

Also not in dispute is that whatever the reality of how she managed to make it out of Raqqa, bribing a tax driver and then slipping past Islamic State fighters on the border as she told the court after first telling police she had been kidnapped, she did so because she had become disillusioned with life in Syria.  The claim made by the police that she posed a threat to this country has not been substantiated in the slightest by the evidence heard in court, nor by her conviction for being a member of IS and sending messages inciting terrorism.  She genuinely was escaping, not attempting to return without being noticed with the aim of either proselytising for IS once back in the country, or worse, launching an attack.  Some of the case presented against her was downright laughable: a "senior security analyst" insisted that women in Raqqa were only allowed access to weapons if they were members of an IS police unit, as clearly Shakil couldn't of borrowed a gun for the pictures she posed for from one of the other 30 women she was living with.

This is not to overlook how utterly irresponsible it was of Shakil to take her young son with her, nor how shocking and perverse it was to allow him to be photographed by the side of an AK-47, or wearing a hat with IS insignia.  We can't know for certain how much of a choice she had in much of what she did once in Raqqa, especially when like most radical organisations IS is paranoid in the extreme about spies, where refusing to do what is asked of you can soon result in suspicion and potential execution.  Nonetheless, after admitting the truth of her decision to travel to Raqqa, she has also said she doesn't want sympathy.  Nor does she deserve any for that decision.

What she does deserve sympathy for is realising the terrible mistake she made.  While it doesn't seem to have been reported what has happened since to her child, one would presume he is either now with his father or in care.  Precisely what benefit the public receives from imprisoning her for six years, of which she will likely serve three, is not immediately obvious.  Is it meant to send a message of deterrence to others in a similar position, thinking of travelling to Syria, when we know full well that such thoughts are often furthest from their minds?  Is it meant to make clear you can't "join" a terrorist organisation and then come back as though nothing has happened, regardless of regrets?  


Would it not make far more sense to let individuals like Shakil tell their story, once it has been confirmed they pose no threat, when the only people those at risk of radicalisation are likely to listen to are those whom for whatever reason felt the same way they did?  Wouldn't it be a far better use of police time and court resources to ensure that those who do pose a threat, like Siddhartha Dhar, aka Abu Rumaysah, the man thought to be in the IS video directly addressing the UK are not able to skip bail?  Shouldn't we have learned at least a few lessons by now about the way Islamic State operates, and that while we must be suspicious about anyone attempting to return, the IS view in general is that to leave is to disassociate yourself, to go back to the land of unbelievers?

Indeed, the other message the sentence sends to others who've travelled to Syria is that there is no escape.  You can leave, try and repudiate what you've done, but you'll still likely go to prison for years.  Life after prison is hard enough for most offenders, let alone those branded for life as a terrorist, needing to report to the police for years afterwards as Shakil will.  Knowing that awaits, it's hardly surprising that few whether still believing in the cause or not have made the journey home.  As Hardwick identified, fundamentally it comes down to a lack of imagination.  Shakil could have been an asset in the fight against IS.  Now she'll rot in a cell.  Terrorism aside, her fate is the same as many others who could have been helped previously, who could still be helped, but won't be until our criminal justice policy is completely re-evaluated.

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Friday, January 29, 2016 

No justice.

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