Wednesday, March 10, 2010 

The electoral war over crime.

Up until now there's been something of a phony war instead of anything approaching all-out combat between Labour and the Conservatives in the fledgling election campaign. Sure, there have been skirmishes over Ashcroft which have involved plenty of claim and counter-claim, as well as more than a little obfuscation, and individual launches on policy from both parties, especially from the Tories, which for the most part seem to have failed miserably but we've thankfully yet to see anything on the scale of say, Jennifer's ear, although there's still more than enough time for such low skulduggery masquerading as a serious issue to come to the fore yet.

The closest we've probably come has been the Tory insistence on using statistics on violent crime which are strictly non-comparable. This started when Tory candidates were sent information from Conservative Central Office which compared the number of recorded violence against the person stats of a decade ago with those of 2008-09. These packs failed to make clear that the way the police recorded violent crime changed in 2002 - whereas then the police decided what was and what wasn't a violent crime, which led to accusations that they were fiddling the figures, this was changed to the victim deciding whether or not the incident they were subject to was a violent offence. This, predictably, has led to a huge inflation in the number of recorded violent offences, as any such subjective change is likely to. According to the stats given to the local media by Tory MP Mark Lancaster, there had been a 236% rise in violence against the person in Milton Keynes, going from 1,790 offences in 1999-2000 to a staggering 6,015 in 2008-2009, or as Mark Easton noted, a violent attack every 90 minutes. Thames Valley police themselves objected to this crude comparison, pointing out that the figures were now incomparable, as well as illustrating how the change in recording has ludicrously boosted the figures: they judged that there had been just 81 victims of serious violence in MK, with around 2,000 victims of low-level assaults where a minor injury had occurred, while the violence against the person stats quoted by Lancaster included a dog being out of control in a public area.

Despite a reprimand from the UK Statistics Authority that using incomparable statistics in such a way was "likely to mislead the public", the Conservative shadow home secretary Chris Grayling was unrepentant and has come up with a novel way to get around such minor quibbling: he asked the Commons library to take the violent crime stats from 1998-99 and apply the new counting methods, which he then compared with those from 2008-09. Quite how they performed such a trick when, as noted above, it's the public themselves that now decide what is and what isn't a violent offence is unclear, and it seems destined to remain opaque as the Tories have failed to publish their research in full, instead giving it only to sympathetic newspapers. The library's conclusion was that the new figure for 1998-99 would be 618,417, as compared to 2008-09's 887,942, or a rise of 44%. Certainly not as startling a rise as the 236% in Milton Keynes or the previously claimed 77%, which was also based on statistics which expressly said they were not to be compared and which were also misleading, but still a very serious one.

Naturally, these figures have been ridiculed by Alan Johnson during Labour's own press conference today on crime policy, but it's hard not to conclude that both parties are, as usual, equally guilty. This is after all the same Labour party which produced the knife crime figures just over a year ago which were heavily criticised by the same UK Statistics Authority which has lambasted Chris Grayling. While the British Crime Survey is by far the most authoratitive source on crime statistics with its huge 40,000+ sample, and which the Tories almost never quote from because it suggests that crime and especially violent crime has dropped off a cliff since a peak in the early 90s, both sides only cherry-pick the figures which suit their needs best. There are flaws in the BCS, such as only recently specifically recording incidents with knives, and how again it has only just started interviewing 10 to 15-year-olds, but it remains superior to the police recorded stats both because it records offences which were never reported to the police or which they missed, while also remaining almost completely free of potential bias. It may rely on the honesty of the respondents, but with a sample the size of 40,000 any attempts to deliberately interfere with it are hardly likely to be significant. After exchanging more letters with Grayling over his newly obtained figures, the UKSA pointed out that while his new research is from a body which provides "professional statistical advice", he'd still be advised to make reference to the BCS, something which Grayling has not done when sharing his new findings.

If however Tory crime policy is indicative of Grayling's approach to statistics, being dishonest, crude and punitive, then as we've suffered over the past close to 13 years, Labour's reign of authoritarian solutions to far more subtle and complicated problems seems forever destined to continue. Johnson was today defending the government's indefensible position on the keeping of the genetic profiles of those arrested but not charged or found innocent of any offence for 6 years on the DNA database, the government's attempt at reaching a compromise following the European Court of Human Rights' ruling on the case of S and Marper. They claim that if the Tory policy of only 3 years was in place that 23 murderers and rapists "would have gone" free, a ludicrous and risible position to take which ignores that old fashioned police work would have had to have been used rather than just relying immediately on DNA records, and which does nothing to prove the efficacy of a database which is now the largest in the world. Alongside the ridiculous proposals to chip all dogs and make all owners insure their animals to tackle what is a tiny problem of dangerous breeds, a statist overreaction which only a Labour government which has been in power too long could possibly think was appropriate, the unworkable fantasy that there could be some sort of "alarm" when a known paedophile goes online, and the cynical ending of the early release scheme just before the election, the choice between one group of authoritarians and another, one of which will sadly gain power, is just one of the low points in what is shaping up to be a truly dismal couple of months.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009 

The shape of the Tories to come part 2.

The plan for the Tory conference has been both obvious and has worked: ensure that Osborne and Cameron get all the coverage and limelight and hope that the underlings stay in the shadows, or at best don't make any horrendous gaffes. This was clearly what was in action yesterday, hoping that only the faithful or interested would notice that both Michael Gove and Chris Grayling were making speeches on their specific areas and announcing either new or somewhat new policies. As it turned out, this was further helped when Grayling himself gaffed by describing the appointment of General Dannatt as an adviser as potentially a gimmick, not realising that it was err, his side, not Labour, that had done so.

It was Gove's proposals though which were clearly the more ghastly. Alix Mortimer thinks of him as a prep school teacher circa 1965 and it's clearly a description which fits. His proposals for what should be in and out of education when the Tories come in are so overblown it reads like a an old reactionary's wish-list. What's wrong with our school system, it seems, is that the kids aren't dressed archaically enough. Just as much of the rest of society decides that suit, blazer and tie aren't perhaps the most practical or comfortable of clothes, in comes Gove, who thinks that as adults are giving up on it, children should wear it instead. His other great wheeze, setting by ability, is just as old and hoary. Listening to Gove you'd think that state schools haven't so much as tried such a thing. I hate to break it to him, but at my bog-standard, at times failing comprehensive we had setting by ability, and all it did was further entrench those in the particular sets at that level of knowledge, not stretching them or helping them, just leaving them to get on with it, failing everyone. Adding to the sense of nostalgia, rote learning was the next thing to be mentioned. He also wants "the narrative of British history" taught, without mentioning whether or not history will be made compulsory post-14, and which in any case Alix Mortimer demolishes. Just when you think it couldn't get any worse, he also wants soldiers to be brought into instil discipline, which is just the thing that we need in general in schools: ex-military personnel with a high opinion of themselves thinking that all the children of today need is regimentalism and a shared bond which develops in the line of fire.

Chris Grayling didn't have much of a chance of living up to such a litany of pure bollocks. He did though have a go, further broadening the mind-bogglingly stupid policy of taxing strong lager and cider as well as "alcopops" because of their link to anti-social behaviour. There is a case for taxing the likes of Special Brew and the ultra-strong ciders which have never seen an apple for the simple reason that the only people who drink them are alcoholics and those looking to get drunk as quickly as possible, but the downsides are obvious: when an ordinary can of Wife-Beater isn't going to cost any more, you might as well just downgrade slightly, and it's what people will do. You have to challenge the behaviour, not the drink itself. I've also lost count of the number of times I've said it here, but it needs stating yet again: those meant to be targeted by this tax do not drink alcopops. The people who do are those might get drunk, but are not those who specifically go out looking for trouble; it can be best described as a tax on those who don't like the taste of other drinks. Despite all the mocking, Grayling also still believes in the "21st century clip round the ear", now examining "grounding" as an "instant punishment". We laughed when New Labour proposed taking yobs to ATMs; now the Tories, that party of the family, wants police officers to take over parenting. Finally, once again the Tories want to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group which although reprehensible and may have incited hatred in the past, most certainly does not incite violence. If we're going to ban every group alleged to do both, why focus on HuT and not the BNP or EDL, who are the number one current threat to community cohesion? Answer came there none.

All everyone was interested in though was the main event. There is one thing to be said for Cameron's speech, and that's at least that it was a speech rather than just a series of connected thoughts, as both Brown and Clegg's attempts were. It was also a good speech in another sense: that it at least partially showed what Cameron does believe and think, and quite how wrong his interpretation is of what has gone wrong, primarily with the economy:

And here is the big argument in British politics today, put plainly and simply. Labour say that to solve the country's problems, we need more government.

Don't they see? It is more government that got us into this mess.

Why is our economy broken? Not just because Labour wrongly thought they'd abolished boom and bust. But because government got too big, spent too much and doubled the national debt.

It is indeed putting it simply, and also not accurately. Labour may have massively increased the size and scope of the state, but to break this down to saying that Labour's only solution is more government is nonsense. If it was, it wouldn't have spent the last 12 years trying to insert the private sector into every public service or continued with the horrendously wasteful private finance initiative, to give but two examples. More gob-smacking though is that Cameron seems to be suggesting that the reason our economy's broken is because of the size of government and because it spent too much: this isn't just wrong, it's politically bankrupt. The reason the economy's broken is primarily because there was too little regulation of the financial sector, not too much. Even if we had saved for that "rainy day", we'd still be in the same recession even if the deficit could be dealt with quicker, and considering that the Tories would have hardly done anything different on the economy to Labour until very recently, this is hindsight of the lowest order. He continues:

Why is our society broken? Because government got too big, did too much and undermined responsibility.

This is even more nonsense. Even if you accept that big government has and does undermine responsibility, and even if you accept that society is broken, the real thing that broke it was the undermining and even open destruction of economic communities over 20 years ago. Labour has tried and mostly failed with its initiatives, but at least it has tried. All Cameron offers, and continues to offer in this speech, is the firm smack of responsibility and the recognition of marriage in the tax system, something just bound to cure problems at a stroke and not just provide the middle classes with a helpful cut. And so it goes on:

Why are our politics broken? Because government got too big, promised too much and pretended it had all the answers.

Cameron on the other hand doesn't pretend to have answers, as he doesn't offer any specific reform of politics in this speech except for the cutting of some ministerial salaries. All the talk of a new politics has completely evaporated, and who could possibly be surprised? Cameron doesn't need to change anything to win, and so the status quo is far more attractive.

Again, like Osborne on Tuesday, Cameron also offers precisely nothing on economic recovery. It's presumably just going to happen magically, while all we need to worry about is getting the deficit down. As Chris Dillow and an increasing numbers of others are now arguing, the preoccupation with the deficit is potentially dangerous when there are other threats and decisions to be taken. The Tories have focused on the deficit because this is one of their very few selling points, yet it's also a point on which they could be attacked if Labour was reasonably sure of itself, with even the potential to turn everything back around. While trying not to be triumphalist, what is clear is that the Tories themselves are now absolutely certain of their return to power. From his mention of Afghanistan at the very beginning to the condemnation of the EU at the end, this was also a speech written to touch every hot button on which the Sun newspaper has recently focused. Nothing is being left to chance. The irony of it all is that on the one thing that the Tories are significantly at odds with Labour on, they're wrong. The sad thing is that it seems it won't make any difference.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009 

When you walk through the garden...

In one way, you've got to give Chris Grayling some credit. In what is otherwise an entirely run of the mill speech on law and order, which offers precisely no new policies at all from what I can see, he's managed to get the attention of the entire press corp, all thanks to his mention of The Wire, which although few of the people reading the story written up in the papers may have seen, those writing it almost certainly will have. By run of the mill, I mean, in Grayling's tradition, deliberately deceptive, misleading, tenuous and predictable. There's the personal anecdote from Manchester which is then applied to the country as a whole, ringing with hyperbole of a "urban war"; there's the selective use of statistics on violence which don't even begin to give the whole picture, as he relies entirely on police figures rather than the British Crime Survey, which he then later uses when it does help his cause; the now obligatory claim to being more progressive than Labour, which isn't difficult, but which the Tories still manage to fall down on; then, despite claiming to be the new progressive alternative, he goes through all the old law and order dog whistles, benefit culture, broken society, family breakdown, how voluntary organisations and the"third sector" will solve everything, all without even beginning to explain how their proposed alternative would help.

Grayling rather let the cat out of the bag when he said he had only seen a few episodes of the first series of The Wire; I doubt he's even seen those, although those who wrote the speech for him and advise him almost certainly have. As other bloggers have pointed out already, if you can't tell that the The Wire is about the utter futility, hopelessness and disaster of the war on drugs, then you haven't been watching it closely enough, and as indeed the co-creator himself even said. I have a suggestion though: if Grayling thinks that parts of this country now reflect Baltimore as portrayed in The Wire, then let's try some of the solutions which the characters in the show themselves experimented with.

For instance, in the third series, beaten into a corner by the insanity of the pressure on him to reach targets to cut violent crime, as well as his disgust at seeing how following the demolition of the main area of the city where drugs were bought and sold the trade has spread out into neighbourhoods previously untouched, Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin finds an almost deserted part of the city and sets up a "free zone", which as long as the dealers and their underlings and the other assorted hangers-on keep to, they'll face no charges and even be helped or protected by his officers. Colvin's plan isn't of course without hitches, and soon, pressured by an old friend into also providing clean needles, free condoms and outreach workers, as well as a murder, it all inevitably falls apart as his superiors realise what he's done, with councillor Carcetti, starting his campaign to be mayor, also milking it for all its worth. Now, while I don't think many would suggest that we should set up similar style "free zones", what's stopping the Tories from thinking really radically and following the example of Portugal and decriminalising drugs almost entirely while drastically improving the facilities for treatment, detoxing and help back into work and society itself? That would be truly progressive.

Then there's the fourth series, with its focus on the school system and the programme which Colvin, now outside the police and into academia attempts running which focuses on the "corner kids" and attempts to both socialise and civilise them into being able to return to their normal classes. Few schools have anything as radical or as breaking out of the mould as similar programmes, and as Colvin himself points out, these are the kids that are being left behind anyway, regardless of claims by politicians that no child will be. Or there's the overall theme which permeates all five series, which is that politicians and police don't mix, and that targets set by politicians only distract from real police work. The Tories still seem set on the idea of elected commissioners, which has to be one of the very worst ideas they've come up with. The police do of course have to be accountable locally, but electing someone who will do little more than interfere and also potentially bring out the very worst in both policing and politics is straight out of the mad house. Three ideas then for genuine, progressive reform, all of which the Conservatives would almost certainly baulk at.

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Monday, February 23, 2009 

Grayling's Conservatives: somehow worse than New Labour.

For those of us who are now becoming resigned to the sad fact that there is very real little difference between Labour and the Conservatives, and that even on some measures Tory policies are incredibly, conceivably to the left of Labour's, it sometimes takes a speech like today's by Chris Grayling, the latest non-entity to fill David Davis's rightful position, to bring you back to earth with a bump.

Unsurprisingly, the issue is crime/law and order. Ever since the death of James Bulger, which New Labour at the time shamelessly exploited, just as the Conservatives today equally shamelessly claim that the country is broken, there has been a devastatingly destructive war on who can be seen to be tougher. This war has delivered in Labour's approaching 12 years in power over 3,000 new offences and over 80,000 now locked up in prisons which are bursting at the seams. This has came against the backdrop of what is an unprecedented drop in crime (PDF) (with only a very few rejecting both the British Crime Survey and police's separate findings), the reasons for which are not clear, although the influence of policy itself is probably relatively minor when compared to demographic changes, especially an ageing population and an increase in general prosperity, hence the concern about a rise as we enter what looks like being a lengthy recession.

At the same time as this drop, the coverage of everyday disturbances and random, violent, vicious attacks has increased exponentially. Violent crime, for example, according to the BCS, peaked in 1995 and has been falling ever since; paradoxically, the police have recorded, since the statistics changed in 2002/03 and became incomparable with the previous ones, that violence has increased by 25%, hence the terrifying claims by politicians (including Grayling) that violent crime has risen by something like 80%, which it may have done if you're reasonably selective with the specific police figures. By any reasonable measure, Labour has lived up to its promise to be tough on crime; it has failed miserably, however, to be tough on its causes. To be fair, one is reasonably easy while the other is reasonably difficult. No prizes for guessing which is which.

Grayling is intent on being both, but if he does indeed become Home Secretary, you can be sure that it'll be the former that he'll implement and the latter which he will disregard, if indeed the Tories' policies on curing our "broken society" don't in fact make things worse. In any event, he begins with an example:

Let me tell you a story about life in Britain today. It was told me by the father of a serving soldier, who will be risking his life for us in Afghanistan this spring.

He was home on leave and was out in his local town centre when he was the victim of an unprovoked attack from behind by two youths. He was able to hold them off and the police were called.

He was left badly bruised after what was a completely unpremeditated attack.

The two young men were arrested, but then extraordinarily they were let off with a caution.

That's life in Britain today.

A nation where we appear so used to a violent assault of this kind that police only deem it fit for a caution.

And where the incidence of an attack like this is routine and not a rare exception.

Well, no, it isn't really extraordinary. You can quibble, but we don't know the exact circumstances of what happened here: this may well have been a first offence for both men; first offences invariably result in cautions, and as the only injury they seem to have inflicted was bad bruising, this doesn't really seem that outlandish or outrageous. It may be to the victim, but in all of these cases either the police or the Crown Prosecution Service will have decided whether it was in the public interest or not to bring the matter to court; they decided it wasn't. Grayling can want every such incident to be prosecuted, but he might decide otherwise when the court system becomes even further clogged up, when the prison population rises, and by the effect it has on those who find themselves with a criminal record and automatically excluded from an increasing number of jobs for what might have been a completely out of character incident influenced by alcohol or drugs. This is why prison and prosecuting need to be incredibly carefully considered: to declare across the board that everyone who does something should automatically be charged and if found guilty sent to prison, with the exception of the most serious crimes, is to ignore the nuances and multiple reasons for the original offence.

The real cause for concern comes very early on, and sets the tone for the rest:

It's time we dealt with the wrongs against society - not just the rights of their perpetrators.

Fewer rights, more wrongs.

Doubtless Grayling just intends this as a flippant, populist remark, not intended to be taken as a statement of intent. Yet a time where few deny that we are facing an unprecedented reduction of liberty and where rights are being routinely curtailed at the expense of supposed security, this is a truly dangerous statement to make, and also seems to completely miss the current mood.

Next Grayling tries to paint a picture of a country disentegrating:

Another snapshot of a broken society.

Where antisocial behaviour is endemic.

Where violence has become a norm.

Where the offenders don't seem to give a damn.

Where carrying weapons is increasingly the norm.

Where families can be terrorised by teenage gangs.

Where pensioners are in fear of their safety from the troublemakers outside their houses.

Where too many communities are being disrupted by things that just shouldn't be happening.

On almost every one of these measures, the figures tend to suggest things are in fact improving; whether that continues during a recession is of course uncertain. This is of no concern to a politician who has a point to make, but such febrile exaggeration, which itself further scares people into imagining they will be victims of such behaviour, is unhelpful in the extreme. Grayling goes further by challenging the whole nature of what is defined as anti-social instead of criminal:

Worse still, many of the things that disrupt our society are now treated as almost a norm.

That's not good enough.

I call it crime - when somebody vandalises a bus stop - that's not anti-social it's criminal.

Indeed it is, and it's recorded as a crime.

When somebody shouts at an old person in the street and leaves them shaking and scared - that's not antisocial behaviour - that's criminal.

Err, no it isn't. As unpleasant as it might be, no crime has been committed, unless we intend to make shouting in the street an offence. What would the punishment be for committing this transgression?

When a teenager jumps on a car bonnet - that's not antisocial behaviour - it's criminal.

Not unless the jumping on the bonnet causes damage to the car - are we going to create a specific offence of jumping on a car bonnet to cover it?

This behaviour is far worse than being anti-social, it's anti-society.

And so Grayling adds even further to the Unspeak of political language. What exactly does anti-society mean? Can someone jumping on a car bonnet really be said to want to destroy society, which would be the presumed meaning of such a term?

The infuriating thing about Grayling's speech is that some of the analysis is spot-on - much of the passage about the causes of crime is accurate, although I would demure from his claim that it's a deep rooted issue affecting almost all of the country, which is bordering on being nonsense on stilts. It's just in the policy, which is of course crucial, where he falls completely down. He states that the government doesn't know what to do about it, but the truth is that no one does. He can only claim to know, without knowing what effect those policies he wants will in actuality have. He also, as previously noted, selectively uses crime figures to paint an alarming, inaccurate picture, such as here:

Violent crime is up almost 80% under Labour. Nearly 1.1 million violent crimes were recorded last year - half a million more than in 1998-99.

Robbery is up 27% under Labour.

Criminal damage is up past 1 million offences - that's nearly 3000 incidents each day.

There are over 400 serious knife crimes a week - 22,000 in one year.

Fatal stabbings up by a third.

Gun crime has nearly doubled under Labour - a gun crime was committed every hour in England and Wales in 2007-8.

Injuries from gun crime are up almost four fold.

And how has the Government responded?

By being soft on crime.

This is a page of diagrams and charts from the 2007/08 BCS which handily deals with some of these claims. The BCS, based on around 50,000 interviews, is regarded as more authoritative than the police figures which Grayling seems to be mainly relying on:

What then are Grayling's solutions? Almost uniquely a step in the wrong direction:

Letting people out of prison early - that's soft on crime

Since Gordon Brown came to power 47,000 people have been released on early release, including 9,000 convicted of violence against the person.

Nearly 1000 crimes have been committed by criminals who have been released early.

Grayling doesn't offer an alternative to letting them out on early release, presumably for the reason that there isn't one. We cannot build ourselves out of an overcrowding crisis, or at least not quickly enough. 1,000 crimes committed by over 47,000 released early in fact seems to be an incredibly low figure, going by the re-offending figures which suggest that over half re-offend. There is very little here about actual prison reform, which could have an effect on crime levels and help to increase genuine rehabilitation, but that doesn't make for as good rhetoric as being tough on crime will.

Rejects our calls for a presumption of prison for those carrying a knife.

Lets five out of six offenders convicted of knife possession off without a jail sentence.

Automatically sending thos caught carrying a knife to prison is probably the worst use of jail that could possibly be envisaged, and designed to further embitter those who carry it out of fear that just one time, who find themselves being made an example of in the very worst case of "sending a message". The less direct restrictions on a judge's personal discretion the better.

After a couple of old Blair quotes, we have something approaching Grayling's thoughts on what to do on targeting the causes of crime:

In true backstreet fashion, Gordon Brown took all four wheels off welfare reform back in the 1990s when he disagreed with Frank Field thinking the unthinkable. He left it on four piles of bricks for a decade, and only now have we persuaded them to start to be as radical as is needed. Even so, we've still only had words and not action.

Is there any evidence that Purnell's or the Tories' welfare reform will have any great impact on crime? Not much, unless you consider that it might in fact increase it when you effectively impoverish a distinct minority as may well happen, especially to the young people that Grayling previously proposed should form "chain gangs" if they couldn't find a job within 3 months or actively refused one. Prison looks attractive by comparison. Then there's a piece of evidence which directly contradicts the entire Conservative message on the "broken society":

Recent analysis suggests that around 2% of families - or 140,000 families across Britain - experience complex and multiple problems. When parents experience difficulties in their own lives, it can have a serious and lasting effect on both their and their families lives. The consequences of family breakdown can influence the rest of peoples individual lives and may also carry significant costs for public services and the wider community.

That 2% undoubtedly affects a far larger proportion than it actually makes up, but 2% does not a broken society make. Again though, that simply wouldn't make for effective rhetoric. 2% of our society is broken doesn't have the same ring to it.

The area which stands as a totem of Labour's failures to get to grips with the causes of crime is drugs.

UK drug abuse is the worst in Europe. A report by the UK Drug Policy Commission found that the UK has the highest level of problem drug use and the second highest level of drug-related deaths in Europe.

The UK is the cocaine capital of Europe. A report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction, which compared drug use in 28 countries in Europe, revealed that the UK has the highest proportion of cocaine users amongst adults and 15 and 16 years olds.

The UK has the third highest teenage cannabis use in the OECD.

Half of prisoners are drug addicts - some prisons report up to 80% of inmates testing positive for class A drugs on reception.

Drug offences are up 68% - there were 228,958 recorded drug offences in 2007-8 - that's more than 600 per day.

He states all this, but he doesn't ask why. Why are we so dependent on drugs, in comparison to the rest of Europe? Is it something wrong with our work-life balance? And then there's the whole message which this also gives: prohibition has comprehensively failed. It's time that we tried legalisation, yet that is completely anathema to the Conservatives, more so even than it is to the evidence-ignoring New Labour. Having addressed the causes, or rather listed them rather than addressed them, he cops out completely:

But tackling the causes of crime was a key part of my last job. If I am Home Secretary after the next election, my job is very simple - to be tough on crime.

A good soundbite, but a staggering lack of aspiration and ambition, those very things that government constantly wants to inculcate, for any politician.

We are then onto supposed concrete policies. A more sorry bunch could not be dreamt up, starting with some complete nonsense:

The first is to find a 21st century alternative to what would once have been a clip around the ear from the local bobby.

Plenty of teenagers stray off the straight and narrow sometimes.

But today there are no consequences when they do.

Really? No consequences whatsoever? Even if this were the case, shouldn't we be encouraging parents to put in consequences rather than relying on the law instead?

All too often if you look at the case of a fifteen or sixteen year old who is starting to commit serious crimes, you find a story of years of minor misdemeanours that have all too often gone unpunished.

That just can't be right.

I don't want to criminalise children - but I do want our police and our society to be able firmly to say No. Before those young people get used to flouting the law.


Ministers are now even proposing measures to move on ten year olds if they are causing trouble in the evenings. I don't think we should be shifting ten year olds out of their home areas - I think we should be sending them home to bed.

So I will instruct our police to remove young troublemakers from our streets altogether, not just move them on to disrupt a different street.

If police find young people doing something stupid out in their communities, I think we should give them the power, sometimes, to take them back to the Police Station and make their parents come and get them. For their own safety and protection as much as anything.

We're exploring the best way of making this possible but it's got to be the right thing in some cases.

This seems to be a recipe for ridding children and the young from the streets when no crime or otherwise has been committed, on the whim of the officers themselves. "Something stupid" - I can see that looking good in the legislation.

Our police should have powers to go straight to a magistrate and get an order against that troublemaker confining them to their homes for up to a month - except for during school hours. And if they break that curfew order they should expect to find themselves in the cells.

Grayling then doesn't want to criminalise children... except he does. He's talking about potentially "grounding" troublemakers, not potentially anyone who has ever committed any crime, with those who then break that order being sent to the cells. There is not just huge potential here for abuse and casual victimisation, but also again it's riding roughshod over parental responsibilities. They should be the ones grounding the child, not the courts, if indeed there are grounds to "grind" them in the first place. This is taking ASBOs and making them even worse.

In my own constituency, I've learned two lessons on tackling antisocial
behaviour from the local police.... that's when they've got it right.

A clash between two gangs of youths a few years ago was dealt with by thirty police, dogs and a helicopter overhead. The trouble has never been repeated.

Grayling is MP for the mean streets of Epsom and Ewell. That there was no repeat doesn't mean that it was the police action which halted it; it might well have been an isolated incident which was patched up regardless of it. This is hardly evidence-based policy making.

There is now a strong case to end Labour's twenty-four hour drinking regime. It has not created a continental café culture - it has just made things worse in many town and city centres.

Except this is the opposite of the truth, as John Band noted. We do have a drinking problem, but again we have to examine why that is rather than go back to ridiculous previous laws which failed just as much.

The third thing we need to do is to stop the ridiculous system of cautions that has built up even for serious offences.

Remember that young soldier, beaten up by local hoodlums.

Why did the police choose to caution the offenders?

Because issuing a caution means case closed - a tick in the box - a crime solved for the official figures to be sent to the Home Office.

And avoiding the danger that the Crown Prosecution Service will say - three young men, a fight - too difficult to prove so we won't bother.

That's just not good enough.

Some cautions are undoubtedly down to a lack of imagination or lack of belief that it's worth going through the rigmarole of a court case, but for the most part they are actually usually the right punishment. Politicians shouldn't second guess police into ordering them to not issue cautions - that's just as bad as Labour's myriad of targets. If the Conservatives want to free police to do their jobs as much as possible, then they shouldn't put other restrictions on them either.

The fourth change we desperately need is that oldest political of political chestnuts. More police on the streets. More bobbies on the beat.

May as well stop it here, as again, the evidence suggests that "bobbies on the beat" is an incredibly bad way of using police resources. Nick Davies wrote a whole series on this back in 2003 which effectively debunked the entire idea. It still though remains the simplest and easiest way to win press and popular support.

Grayling finishes with a flourish:

The Conservatives are the party of law and order - law and order based on common sense, strong families and communities and a system which places the victim above the criminal.

Labour has had eleven years and they have collectively failed - their musical chairs based system of Home Secretaries has left Britain a more dangerous, less civilised place to live in.

Two more nonsensical paragraphs would be difficult to come up with. Anyone who makes allusions to common sense should be considered suspicious, when "common sense" is often the actual inverse of it, just as how if you say the reverse of what you've just said it probably tells you it isn't worth saying. The idea though that Labour's lack of continuous Home Secretaries has somehow made the country more dangerous and less civilised is hilarious: more accurate is that they've made the country less civilised through their criminal justice policies; getting rid of the lot of them and not having one at all could have undoubted beneficial effects. One thing however is clear from this dire, dismal, predictable speech: Chris Grayling and the Conservatives have the potential to be even worse than New Labour.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009 

A welcome back to Ken Clarke.

Probably the most astonishing thing about the last few months politically has been one of the things that has been barely touched on: just how badly the Conservatives have been doing when they should be, by rights, decimating Labour in the polls and potentially getting ready for government. By badly we have to keep things in perspective: at no point has Labour actually regained the lead in the opinion polls, although it has come strikingly close to it in some. Looking back historically however, Labour after the 92 election consistently led the Conservatives in the polls, sometimes by ludicrous figures of 25%+. The Conservatives for a while managed comparable figures in the middle of last year, before the second Brown bounce after the bail out took full effect.

Things have since improved, the gloom of January, the ever rising toll of job losses, and now increasingly the beleaguered nature of both Brown and Darling, no longer looking like they know what they're doing, or rather at least not radiating the confidence which infected the former during the initial stages of the banking crisis, all coming into effect.

Less immediate will be the impact of the bringing back of Ken Clarke, a move long mooted and encouraged but which still seemed unlikely. Looking at the Conservative front bench today, excepting Clarke, it was impossible not to see a group of grey men, one which you'd find it difficult to have any confidence in. The wider Conservative reshuffle, and Cameron's strange refusal to bring back the irascible David Davis, still apparently smarting from his decision to resign and fight for a principle, said much the same: for all the boasts that Cameron's shadow cabinet now contains more women than Brown's, all, except for perhaps Theresa May, moved to Shadow Work and Pensions, are in the jobs which rarely result in them appearing on our screens. Similarly mystifying was the move of Chris Grayling, a true grey, underwhelming man if ever there was one, to shadow home secretary. When we have a government which is so apparently wedded to the casual dilution, even evaporation of our civil liberties, you want someone in the seat opposite to have something approaching credentials for fighting against such policies. Say what you will about Davis's support for capital punishment and hard-line approach to immigration, you knew where he stood on ID cards, 42 days and everything in-between. His first replacement Dominic Grieve, moved back to his former job as shadow justice secretary, was never likely to live up to Davis's success in outliving, even bringing down consecutive home secretaries, but apart from his supposed libertarian leanings he made truly abysmal speeches and comments on the Human Rights Act and came across as having been promoted above his competence.

All the immediate comparisons regarding Clarke's re-entry to the shadow cabinet were to Brown's far more surprising offering of a job to Mandelson, to whom Clarke will shadow, but to compare the two any further than that is more than a disservice to Ken. Both might be widely disliked amongst the parties' respective core supporters, but Clarke is lovable, affable and endearing when Mandelson is a person you suspect only a mother could truly love. Doubtless that is part of the reason why Mandelson succeeded in most of what he did outside of his resignations; even those that loathed him seem to have a grudging respect. Clarke on the other hand has always been, along with Alan Duncan, regardless of his involvement with Vitoil, the "acceptable" Conservative, the ones that don't instantly set your teeth on edge. Compared to George Osborne, supposedly having lessons in how not to make people resort to violence on hearing or seeing him, there simply isn't a contest. It helps also that as Cameron retorted at PMQs today, he has something of a shining record as the last Conservative chancellor.

It might well have been coincidence, but today was also the first PMQs for quite some time when Cameron comprehensively scored a victory. Brown was so desperate to change the subject away from the economy that he brought up the completely irrelevant fact of Clarke's differences with most of his Tory colleagues on Europe, when surely more damaging would have been Clarke's also apparent agreement with Brown on the need for a stimulus, that the VAT cut wasn't completely idiotic or a "bombshell" as the Conservatives portrayed it, and that anyone going into the next election promising tax cuts was asking for trouble. For someone who appeared to be finally getting better at the dispatch box, it was embarrassing, and the silence on the Labour benches was eerily apparent.

When criticising Conservative politicians you can't of course ignore the fact that there are much the same problems on the Labour benches, with the added disadvantage that these less than promising individuals are actually in power. The only consolation is that we know the Conservatives would introduce even more swingeing reforms of benefits than James Purnell is proposing; there is however no one quite as pompous or over-promoted on the opposite side as Geoff "Buff" Hoon, and that only Harriet Harman could possibly be so utterly stupid as to try to block freedom of information requests on MP's spending in the current economic situation. Not that the Tory shadows would be much better in the same jobs, and indeed, the idea of George Osborne being chancellor is terrifying in the extreme. Likewise, Eric Pickles, the new party chairman, who is doubtless very popular with the Tory grassroots, seems such a throwback to Thatcherite days that he appears to have the exact same bulk as the pre-diet Nigel Lawson.

The bringing back of Clarke bears further comparison to Brown's strategy for a further reason: while Brown has been apparently desperate to put back together the original New Labour coalition, sans Blair, with the equally dislikable Alan Milburn also brought back into the fold, Clarke is from an even earlier era. The difference is that his stretches in Thatcher's government, and spell as, however humourously aesthetically, health secretary, have been all but forgotten. We instead remember him as chancellor, as the successive leadership challenger that could have restored the Tories' fortunes earlier if only he could have closed the chasm between himself and the rest of the party over Europe. Mandelson and the rest just remind us, quite rightly, of spin and the decadence now in retrospect of the early New Labour years. He might well be, as Lord Tebbit characterised him, lazy, but his laziness might just be the thing that convinces those uncertain of the economics of Osborne that there is something of substance there after all.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008 

Scum-watch: Watching the Sun on the fringe.

Cross-posted at the Sun Lies

Being one of the supposed politics editors on the Sun Lies blog is difficult for one short reason: the paper very rarely actually "does" politics. This doesn't mean that the Sun doesn't feature political stories; that it does. Rather, the Sun presumes that its readers aren't interested in politics as reported by say, any of the ex-broadsheets, but they are interested in policies, albeit ones which the Sun pre-decides they should be interested in and that have already been defined by the editorial team themselves. Hence the Liberal Democrats hardly receive any coverage at all, except when they're mocked or insulted; they are an irrelevance. When it comes to crime and law and order however, that's something the Sun knows its readers deeply care about. They deeply care so much about what their readers think about law and order that they provide the exact remedy which they themselves think would solve all our problems in a flash. Whether the readers actually agree or not is something entirely different.

It's therefore well worth pointing out that this year, for the first time ever, the Sun newspaper has been holding fringe events at the Labour and Conservative party conferences. These have long been dominated by the broads, holding stiflingly boring meetings with stiflingly boring politicians, never meeting a real actual person except the delegates themselves who turn up and become stiflingly bored as a result. They deserve something approaching credit for this, because the Guardian for example has been holding truly dismal sideshows where politicians make the case for their greatest ever respective member. No surprises to learn that Labour voted for Keir Hardie while the Tories chose Margaret Thatcher.

The theme of the events, in case you couldn't guess, is "Broken Britain", the Sun's now long-running theme on how the country bends over backwards to allow every armed chav to knife crime your son/daughter/husband in the face while the police and judiciary doing everything in their power to instead persecute the victims. I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly. There's no dispute that we have endemic, deep problems, especially in some of our inner cities, with gangs, crime, drugs and poverty, both of aspiration and wealth. The toll of teenage lives in London is undoubtedly sickening. There are however no quick solutions to any of these things, and the constant demands for immediate action, of which the paper never supplies any real point plan except to rip up the Human Rights Act and install zero tolerance only increases the chances of bad policy being made on the hoof. Politicians shouldn't give in to such demands, it's true, but the relationship between the media and the government has become so essential to the management of every day life that now those in powers have little choice but to take heed.

The first of these meetings, at Labour's conference last week, did not actually go especially smoothly from the Sun's point of view. Only one member of the actual panel - Michael Gove of the Conservatives - unsurprisingly considering the party's own views, agreed with the Sun that the country is "broken". Just so that the argument was not completely lost, the newspaper took the precaution of arranging for the relatives of those recently involved in some of the most notorious murder cases to be in attendance. Perfectly acceptable, of course, but what is not is the idea that this was their first opportunity to speak out or speak to politicians, nor was it all thanks to the Sun. It also distorts the true picture of crime, which almost everyone agrees has now fallen for the past decade, with rises in certain offences, but with the chances of becoming a victim of crime actually the lowest since the early 80s. The Sun never though has any intentions of being representative.

I've written previously about the tyranny of grief, the power of emotion and how it is almost unanswerable without coming across as ill-feeling or not grasping the full scale of what has happened to the individual - and the Sun knows this perfectly well. Politicians can do nothing but spout platitudes, pretend to feel their pain, and all it does is come across as false, which is because it is. It is impossible to know how they feel without having experienced a similar tragedy. Overwhelmingly though, emotion and anger are not good starting points to make policy from. This is obvious when you read what some of these traumatised individuals want to be done:

In an impassioned plea she called for tougher sentencing, more police patrols and earlier action to identify potential yobs.

Brooke [Kinsella, whose brother Ben was stabbed to death], who later met Prime Minister Gordon Brown, added: “We need to get through at the grassroots. We need to get these kids before they even think about committing a crime.”

And just how exactly do you do that? Without exactly the kind of nanny statism and surveillance which is so decried, especially by the Sun, how are you meant to identify those likely to commit crime before they even think of doing it?

Apart from back-slapping, about the only real controversy at the Labour meeting was that Cherie Blair and Jack Straw clashed over why George Michael had only received a caution for possessing crack cocaine.

More stormy was yesterday's at the Conservative party conference. Like at the first, there was the outpourings which if anything suggest that some of those still involved ought to be attempting to move on:

Marcia Shakespeare – whose daughter Letisha, 17, died in Birmingham gang gunfire – said: “The police try their best but what about the rights of victims? I don’t get answers to my job applications because I am stigmatised as the mother of a murder victim.”

I'm not sure that the government can be blamed for someone continuing to in effect stigmatise themselves.

The headline though was the merely inscrutable:

VIOLENT thugs who kill and maim should forfeit their human rights, The Sun’s crime summit was told yesterday.

Grieving Paul Bowman – dad of murdered model Sally Anne Bowman – called for a shake-up of Broken Britain’s liberty laws at the Tory Party conference in Birmingham.

Paul, joined by Sally’s mum Linda, told the meeting: “In this country animals have animal rights and a dog has every right to be treated well and kept healthy. If that dog decides to act outside what we regard as acceptable – for instance bites a child – its rights are taken away and it is destroyed.

“When somebody decides, like the perpetrator of the crime against Sally, to go out armed with a knife to murder, leave it till the coast is clear and then rape, bite and desecrate the body of an 18-year-old girl, I believe that man’s human rights should be waived to a degree."

“I think there should be an amendment to the Human Rights Act where someone, if they step outside being a human being and commit an inhuman act, then the Human Rights Act does not apply.”

When then should someone lose their human rights? When they're accused of the crime? After they've been convicted? After a number of appeals? And what exactly is an inhuman act? How will we define it? The Human Rights Act has never affected the Sally Anne Bowman case in any shape or form: Mark Dixie is appealing against his conviction, but considering that the case against him was almost as straight-forward as they come, he's hardly likely to succeed. With a minimum sentence of 34 years passed, he'll be 70 before he can apply for parole. It sometimes has to be asked: how much more do they honestly expect the state to do? Bowman supports the death penalty, but you only have to look to America to see that it is no deterrent, especially against crimes such as those committed by Dixie, and it simply is not going to be brought back, however much a minority would like it to be.

There also seems to be a complete lack of perspective of what prison life is actually like, especially for those who commit crimes like Dixie:

Paul blasted the “worry-free” life brutal offenders can lead in jails.

If worry-free is getting beaten up, excrement and spit put in your food and being in constant fear, then you have to wonder what sort of regime would be preferred. It hardly seems like Dixie will flourish in prison - the police officers who arrested him after an altercation in a bar were surprised he was crying over such a minor incident, until the DNA results came back.

It was again though the involvement of Blair which made headlines outside the Sun, with Cherie quite rightly calling the Tory MP Chris Grayling "specious" for offering the ripping up of the HRA as some sort of solution. The Tory pledge to bring in a British bill of rights has always been a joke, as all repealing the HRA would do is mean that applicants would have to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights rather than a British court, as the Tories would hardly be likely to withdraw from that institution also.

The Sun's job though had been done. It's presented, via those who have suffered the most from indiscriminate violence which can almost never be wholly prevented, the same simplistic solutions which it has been pushing from the very beginning. It points to Bill Bratton and his success in bringing down violent crime in New York and Los Angeles without mentioning that the number of murders in both those cities is far higher than the toll in London. It doesn't mention that part of what helped bring down crime in those cities, apart from zero tolerance, was the crime mapping that has just been recently introduced in London. He's quite right about the targets which do burden the police, and possibly about local accountability, but that also raises the spectre especially over here of the BNP effectively seizing control of neighbourhood policing. It also completely ignored the aspects of the debate which it rather wouldn't present to its readers, such as Blair's strong defence of the HRA, and Jonathan Aitken, along with Charles Clarke, robustly denouncing the Titan prisons plan which the Sun supports, as it does any prison enlargement. This is how the Sun's politics works: it comes to a predefined conclusion and sells at as if that was the one that was came to naturally. And that's partly why the newspaper has such control over politicians as a whole.

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Monday, May 26, 2008 

On yer chain-gang!

As Labour prepare yet another doomed comeback, it's instructive to examine exactly what it is that's going to be replacing our current overlords in a couple of years' time. If you thought that New Labour was heartless, callous and Machiavellian, you ain't seen nothing yet:

A future Conservative government will bring in "boot camps" for unemployed young people aged between 18 and 21 who refuse to take a job, Chris Grayling, the party's welfare spokesman, will say tomorrow.

In a significant hardening of Conservative policy towards welfare claimants, he will announce the abolition of benefit payments for any able-bodied person under 21 who is out of work for more than three months and who refuses to go on a compulsory community service programme or a "boot camp" training course aimed at improving their work discipline and giving them basic skills to get a job.

It's about time that someone broke down the barrier between the unemployed and the criminal classes, because, let's face it, they're one and the same. Both are robbing from the taxpayer and both only understand one thing: the cold steel. Thought that boot camps were only for those that broke the law? Think again!

To be slightly more serious, who can honestly say that they're surprised that it's the weakest in society who can look forward to getting whacked again once we're back under the security of a Conservative government? They've got off slightly under Labour, despite all the rhetoric about getting tough on welfare and the triangulation policies that have already led to Brown stealing some of the Tories' original idea, but the unemployed, single mothers and foreigners can all be assured that the old guard are back in town. Nasty party doesn't even begin to cover it.

You can also rest assured that this would just be the rolling out of it to begin with. The "healthy" young (the so-called NEETs can almost always be defined by their depression, desperation and profound pessimism about their chances of getting anywhere, and mostly they're right to be) are the easiest to demonise: after all, if you can't find a job within 3 months when you're that age, they might as well be put down and save the taxpayer the money entirely. It doesn't seem to matter that this is the equivalent of the bringing back of the workhouse, getting the poor to sing for their supper rather than allowing them to sit on their arses all day, as that's clearly what they do with their time. The Tories would put them to work on "community service programmes", doing all the jobs that even the immigrants won't do: cleaning the graffiti that they probably sprayed up in the first place off, washing out drains, cutting the grass, picking up rubbish, and all for much less than £70 a week! As we're so often reminded, there's the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, the aspirational and the feckless, and the feckless will be made to face up to their lot in life by receiving far, far less than minimum wage for doing so.

The community service programme will be what the lucky get off with. "Boot camp" training course, it just sounds so inviting, encouraging and bound to enthuse, doesn't it? It's just what these kids need, discipline, a jumped-up man with a thin moustache screaming at them when they put a foot wrong, ensuring that they get the "basic skills" needed for a job. First question: can you read what this tin says? If yes, please report to nearest supermarket for the rest of your life. If you work hard enough, you might even get to become manager in 20 years time! Now that's an aspiration we can all respect.

If you thought Labour wanted to privatise everything and use PFI to build everything, then again, the Tories are prepared to go that little bit further. It's quite obvious that the welfare system just isn't working at the moment: the Jobcentre Plus is providing jobs mainly for the private sector, so why don't we just square the circle? The private and "voluntary" sector can pick up the slack straight away, and we all know that they'll be far more efficient and realistic with the unemployed than the current lot, who tend to get attached to those they're working with. There's no room for sentiment in big business, and when there's the dirty great big carrot of £5,000 for every young person they stick in a dead-end job which makes hell look like an attractive proposition, they'll soon forget there's an actual person they're dealing with and instead turn it into the conveyor belt one size fits all system which it should be. Doubtless, these firms won't be providing the Tories with funds in the mean time, or be directly offering money to Tory shadow ministers studying the portfolio. That would be an unthinkable slur and allegation of corruption.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. The Conservatives under Cameron have looked at New Labour under Blair and found a lot of it that they like. Just one problem: it's not quite right-wing enough, and the Conservatives are determined to be even less subtle than the Blairites. All the things Blair wished he could have done they will be straight on to push through, and this welfare package is just the beginning. Inheritance tax will be next, then a huge expansion of the "academy" system, directly bribing the middle classes, a huge prison building programme, a major rise in defence spending, tax cuts for those who declare that they are "one of us", while all will be forgotten about those they're currently trying to appeal to over the 10p rate. As for tackling tax avoidance, which some studies suggest takes far more from the exchequer than the welfare system even does, that won't even get a mention. The Conservatives are the new, real Blairites. And Labour only has itself to blame.

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