Thursday, 23 May 2013

Political Interference

This post was intended to be about the eternal conflict between punishment and rehabilitation using the example of how Community Service was transformed into Community Payback, via Community Punishment. However, as is often the case, I've been blown off course by events and although not entirely unconnected, that topic will have to wait for another day.  

I notice that Rob Allen's most recent blog is dedicated to former Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard and his lasting legacy. It serves to remind us that if anyone was the architect of our present rehabilitation problems, together with probation's demise and imminent abolition, it was him:- 

Twenty years ago this month, Michael Howard became Home Secretary , bringing a sea change to penal policy in England and Wales with which we have been living ever since.   Overturning a consensus that Home Office policies could do little to reduce crime, he embarked on an ambitious programme designed to increase arrests, prosecutions, and convictions but it is his view that “prison works” and the impact of his policies on the numbers behind bars for which he will be most remembered.

Howard’s 27 point law and order package  delivered to the Conservative Party Conference in October 1993 included new Secure Training Centres for children as young as 12 and  mandatory minimum sentences for repeat  burglars and drug dealers to be served in decent but austere prisons.  Later policies to abolish parole and severely limit early release were never implemented but during his four year tenure prison numbers rose from 44,500 to 61,000.

Howard’s legacy was longer lasting however. By provoking political adversaries to oppose his reforms, he pushed his shadow Tony Blair and New Labour as a whole into a repressive approach to penal policy.  Prison numbers have continued to rise ever since 1993.

Howard’s treatment of the probation service was equally cavalier, removing the requirement for university based social work training and threatening the very existence of the service.  When he left office recruitment had almost dried up and it was left to Jack Straw to introduce a new scheme of professional training as an urgent priority.

But Rob also reminds us that Michael Howard unashamedly used his political position to interfere in criminal justice matters in order to further political aims, something which continues to this day despite legislative changes that have sought to reduce political interference. In particular he cites the tragic Bulger case:-
More disturbing perhaps was Howard’s  shamelessly  populist approach to law and order- most notoriously in his attempts to increase the tariff for the juvenile  killers of James Bulger, later described by  a senior judge  as “institutionalised vengeance ... [by] a politician playing to the gallery”.  In respect of his sentencing policy the Lord Chief Justice told the House of Lords that “Never in the history of our criminal law have such far reaching proposals been put forward on the strength of such flimsy and dubious evidence.” Indeed the most recent review of evidence by the Ministry of Justice has found that  “to date there has been no clear consensus from criminologists and commentators about whether there is an incapacitation effect at all, and if so, its scale.”

Now some see a certain similarity between the 'tough' approach of Michael Howard and the current Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. The case of David McGreavy serves to admirably illustrate this I think. On Monday the High Court overturned a gagging injunction imposed in 2009 that prevented any publication of details surrounding this prisoner and the offences committed in 1973. Apparently the application to overturn the injunction had been made by several national newspapers, including the Daily Mail, but with the active encouragement of Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary.

Now as far as I can see the only purpose for Mr Graylings intervention is as a blatant attempt to interfere with the Parole process by in effect encouraging newspapers to whip up a public outcry. Sadly some politicians always feel there are votes to be had by such tactics and of course it could be said that this was the real reason why Myra Hindley could never be released safely.

Interestingly it is said that McGreavy was first considered for a move to open conditions 23 years ago, but of course only those with intimate knowledge of the case will know the real reasons why progression has been repeatedly frustrated. I am absolutely and firmly of the belief that such matters must remain the purview of the independent Parole Board and they must be trusted to make sound judgements on our behalf, utterly free of political interference. It didn't stop Grayling gloating though:-

The justice secretary welcomed the ruling, saying: "This is a clear victory for open justice. The public has every right to know when serious offenders are taking legal action on matters which relate to their imprisonment."

Sign the No10 petition here.

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