Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Denying prisoners of the vote can only cause social and political harm

I have been following the developments of this issue since the very start when the Coalition took office in May 2010 and must say that on balance it is wrong to deny voting rights to prisoners serving short sentences.

But let us be realistic, the government’s commitment to ensuring prisoner’s voting rights are kept away from them has proved highly popular, but it seems that what the Coalition are doing over this issue is more consumed with garnering a much needed boost to popularity, rather than to bring about any positive change.

Why is it worth all this effort? The government have been at loggerheads with the European Court of Human Rights for several years now. Is this part of a wider agenda of being seen to repatriate powers from Brussels and other such International institutions? Or do they believe it will make a meaningful difference in the criminal justice system, worth all this hassle?

Politics aside, the denial of  the vote from prisoners can only cause harm, rather than good. It can only further disenfranchise criminals and unnecessarily disrupt their integration back into civilised, law abiding and decent society. It certainly will have little crime-deterring or retributive effect, as very few prisoners are inclined to vote anyway.

What the government always have to do with issues of this nature is get the balance right between retribution and rehabilitation. It seems on balance to me, that the Coalition have got it very wrong on this issue. 

What we are talking about is not the voting rights of murderers and rapists here; we are talking about shoplifters, drug dealers, burglars and other ‘petty’ criminals tried at a Magistrates’ Court. What possible positive effect does this elicit?   Criminals need not be given any legitimacy for feeling hard-done-by and disenfranchised. The State must not risk giving further ammunition to apologists who explain away the causes of crime as being the fault of the wider law-abiding majority. The Coalition ought to set the standard to which prisoners should abide, and this is by the standards and practices of the law-abiders in society. This includes voting.

Universal suffrage is the bedrock to any developed democratic system In which all can succeed or fail based on the own endeavours. Disproportionate legal discrimination against certain sections of our society is against the grain of a One Nation government. To use in vogue language, never must we risk, through statute, the development of Two-Nations. One of law-abiding and civilised people, and the rest being of another Nation: that of chronic and an unwelcome Underclass.

I used the term ‘underclass’ because non-voting is a defining characteristic of people who are in this ‘Underclass’ that is the uneducated, the long-term unemployed and in general, the persistently and permanently impoverished. It is a crime to trap these people in poverty through disproportionately comfortable welfare subsistence, taking away any incentive of the individual to improve their condition (both financial and social) through finding work. Such welfare encourages dependency which strips them of any hope of the dignity of self-sufficiency., Likewise though, it is a crime to take away the suffrage of a prisoner, making their sense of disenfranchisement and resentment of the law-abiding majority ever more ingrained, trapping them in a culture of crime by taking away the incentive of being part of civilised society, which for these people within this culture, is already the far tougher option.

Should this whole issue be dictated by the EU and the European Court of Human Rights? No, if this is purely a matter of political principle, then I'd back the government's stance on this, However, viewing the issue at hand as a principle in itself, then for me I have to disagree with the government.

However, where the issue is complicated again, is in the politics. Cameron is not campaigning to take away the vote from prisoners, rather he is fighting to stop prisoners being given the vote, and at that, by an external institution, undermining the democratic will of Westminster. Whilst I think prisoners on short sentences should, as a matter of principle, be able to vote, democracy (ironically) dictates that the motion shall never be supported by government. It is however, and probably shall remain, an oddity in our free and democratic country that we don't reserve the taking away of civil rights for only the most serious of offenders.

Public turn out in numbers as series of Kent PCC hustings gets underway

The race for Kent Police and Crime Commissioner is an election that for months now has been hotly contested but of late, after attending two recent hustings, it seems that the people of Kent, contrary to what the media says is general apathy nationwide, are also very much engaged with the process. 

People in their vast numbers have attended these two debates on the University of Kent, Canterbury campus and at Midkent College, Gillingham, in which all six candidates took part  This in part I think is a credit to the candidates, who of varying success have campaigned all around the cities and towns of Kent, but this is also because the people of Kent are aware that whoever wins this election has a huge task on their hands in order to coordinate the protection and prevention of crime in Kent which has disrupted far too many people.

Whoever wins this will have control over a £225 million budget and where this is spent, or not spent will have a direct impact over the safety of all in Kent. There shall be no time for bedding-in period for whoever wins on the 15th November. Whilst the role is new, the job of Police and Crime Commissioner is not one for a novice.

In Kent, under the traditional responsibility of unelected, target-obsessed and detached bureaucrats in the Kent Police Authority (KPA) over 70% of crime in Kent went unresolved. 84% of burglaries and 82% of car crimes have gone ‘undetected’, drug problems and the general influence of the Black Market over the lives of Kent residents are rife. This is before the impact of a 20% reduction of the police budget is felt. The move towards a more accountable police service, with a democratically elected Commissioner cannot be more timely and welcome.

Candidates Ann Barnes (Independent), Dai Liyanage (Independent), Craig Mackinlay (Conservative), Steve Uncles (English Democrats) , Piers Wauchope (UKIP) and Harriet Yeo (Labour) all attended the two recent hustings in which all put forward their own cases for becoming the first PCC of Kent. I was struck by the range of candidates on offer in Kent. Far from a bunch of career politicians, we have Harriet Yeo, a proud trade unionist, Craig Mackinlay, a local Magistrate and accountant and current Councillor, Dai Liyange, a former Liberal Democrat member and Mayor of Medway, Piers Wauchope, another Councillor, Steve Uncles, an activist within the English Democrats, and lastly Ann Barnes, formerly of the KPA. This variety is refreshing and shall only improve general attitudes to the newly formed PCC role at a time when public faith in traditional politicans in Westminster is at an all-time low.

The big issues which came up in both hustings were firstly drugs. All candidates conveyed their hard-line approach to drugs in Kent. All were in agreement that illegal drugs have no place in civilised society. Mackinlay and Yeo in particular, spoke candidly on the issue. Mackinlay, as a Magistrate in one of the most challenging wards in the whole country, reiterated that the overwhelming majority of crimes have a drug element to them, in which most of these criminals have a drug habit. Harriet Yeo challenged the notion that drugs are of no harm to society when she talked of how a helpless parent, which she met whilst on the campaign trail, could do little to prevent the damage of the fumes, spread from a neighbour from reaching her 3 year old child. A reminder that it is those around the drug user that suffers at the hands of illegal drugs. Mackinlay also supports drug rehabilitation programs as the way forward to help hooked users off the habit.

Another issue that was prevalent was fears of privatisation. Again all candidates appeared to agree that privatisation of the front line is not on the agenda. Harriet Yeo attacked Ann Barnes for her record on privatisation on the KPA. Yeo called for Mrs Barnes to be upfront about the private companies she oversees to carry out Kent Police roles.

Craig Mackinlay however was more realistic on the issue. Mackinlay reiterated that ‘capital P’ privatisation is something he will never bring onto the front line provision of the police, however he explained that for back-office functions, private companies can carry out functions at a cheaper cost to taxpayers whilst providing more effective service.

Another issue was an apparent dissatisfaction with the lack of police presence on the streets of Kent, meaning that police officers become detached from the public, who lack community ties with their local officers. Craig Mackinlay offered hope to Kent's rural communities, who many claim to have not seen a police officer 'in years'. Mackinlay's promoted his rural manifesto's six-point rural crime policy, emphasizing the need for increased police interaction with rural communities, the need for more Special Constables and better use of intelligence to combat crime in rural Kent. 

However all candidates defended the closure of police stations in Kent. Ann Barnes acknowledged that they were too expensive to maintain. Mrs Barnes said that her policy would be to provide 'mini mobile police stations' to combat the 'emotive element' of station closures. Mackinlay said that the rise of technology and its widening distribution and usage meant that Police can be more responsive now, through the use of technology, meaning that the  police stations purpose and effectiveness was diminishing.

Another issue in the forum was over the salary for the role. On a show of hands at Midkent College, very few believed that the position justified the £85000 annual salary. Dai Liyanage claimed he would only accept a salary of £40,000, whilst committing the rest of the allocated amount to police technology research.  

Interestingly though, Mrs Barnes, Chair of the Kent Police Authority, whilst in her six year tenure oversaw a rise by 45% to her six-figure salary, this for her work in unelected position. This authority shall, come November 16th be abolished and replaced by the elected PCC . The salary for the role shall be significantly less than what Mrs Barnes paid herself whilst Chair of the KPA with taxpayers money in these roles. This salary for a new, elected and democratically accountable person seems far fairer than the previous regime and whilst at the same time as reducing salary cost, shall also increase democratic mandate and representation in our police force.

Craig Mackinlay in Canterbury led the concern at rising bureaucracy costs under the previous KPA, at a time when the police budget is being cut by central government. Candidates Yeo, Mackinlay, Liyanage, Wanchope and Uncles all expressed concern of this trend. Mackinlay said that these ever-increasing costs were unnecessary and , if elected he would ensure that the money allocated to admin would be spent on protecting the front line. Dai Liyange agreed that these costs will have to be brought back down under control.

Consensus on the issue however did not quite form around the podium. Ann Barnes, believed to be a front-runner for the job, defended the tripling of back office and admin costs spent by the KPA in the space of only six years, this whilst front line officers have been made redundant in Kent, conceded that she could not promise that these costs won’t continue to increase from the £1.5 million she already administers.

So as the event drew to a close in Gillingham, attendees at the forums will have much to ponder when it comes to their crucial choice in 22 days time. Each candidates respected campaigns shall no doubt step up in intensity as election day on the 15th November approaches. How the new Police and Crime Commissioners will impact crime and the police agenda is something that will be of much interest in the coming months and years. But for now, the elected Commissioner is here to say and it is essential that Kent selects the right one.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Don't even think about it: Why backbenchers must back off Cameron

Last month it was alleged by backbencher Bob Stewart that he had been approached by colleagues to form a leadership challenge to David Cameron. With ‘Borismania’ the centre piece of this year’s Party Conference, talk of an pending challenge has been filling the political gossip pages for weeks now, not helped by Boris’ regular public disagreements over government policy. What such a challenge would represent is highly detrimental to the Party and it begs the question over whether some in the party have learned the lessons of the past.

Not many of the core supporters or those of the grassroots would say that this frontbench is representative of their views or interests everytime, nevertheless overthrowing this leadership, without democratic mandate from the public would come at a massive cost to the Party going forward.

What those disgruntled on the back benches must remember, before pressing the issue of a change of leadership, is the context in which David Cameron assumed the leadership.  

The Party was left toxically divided by the ruthless casting aside of Thatcher throughout the difficult years of Major’s Premiership. This disunity continued after 1997 by the rise of popularity of so called ‘New Labour’, this marginalised the Tories, especially the unfashionable Right faction of the Party, leaving us simply unelectable.

Poor choices out of a poor selection of leadership candidates simply made this part of our history even more harrowing. What David Cameron, whatever his flaws may be, picked up in 2005 was a shambles. A broken Party, broken by the best part of 20 years of disunity, infighting, scandal and perceived ‘outdated’ and ‘out of touch’ principles. What Cameron did in his years in Opposition was modernise the party, reclaim and reach out our appeal to the electorate. Cameron, with the help of the incompetence of Brown in Number 10, put the Conservative Party back on the map and this is where we must stay.

Cameron’s change in approach and claim over the Centre Ground, paved the way for our return to Government, albeit not in triumphant fashion, with the failure to secure an overall majority. This return to power paved the way for Michael Gove’s excellent education reform and Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare changes. Cameron’s gestures of modernisation, such as ‘hug a hoodie’ , ‘liberal conservatism’, support for gay marriage and ‘Web Cameron’ made a significant difference to the Party’s image, making us again credible and appealing to the wider public.

So where has it all gone wrong for Cameron? Ultimately this stems back to a poorly presented Budget and various ministerial scandals. But these issues have had such an exacerbated effect due to frustration over the slower than expected economic recovery, making such scandals further irritable to an already agitated public and Conservative backbench. But a change in leadership now would make the matter so much worse. Again, we would be a party rife with vicious division. It would be reminiscent of the Post-Thatcher era of infighting and detachment from reality. To the public it would appear that we would have learned nothing from this forgettable episode. But we cannot forget as the only winners here would be Labour and no doubt we would again be punished by the electorate.

So how can Cameron ensure this scenario no longer threatens to become reality? This all said it is the state of the economy that really matters. Not just for the public, but to those inside his own party.

Cameron and his inner circle of “metropolitan elites” must, of course oversee an economic recovery, bought by the public. They must do this by maintaining their sense of mission in wiping out the budget deficit. But they must also successfully turn their attention to growth. All efforts must be committed to presenting a credible set of policies to bring about growth and private sector jobs. Moving Michael Fallon to the Business department is long overdue and is a masterstroke to  change public perception that this Government has growth at the top of its agenda. This would surely sooth disgruntled backbenchers.

The frontbench must also, if they can reflect backbench opinion more in Government. If they can, given that it is a Coalition, they could bring more core conservative principles and policies to the agenda. But what the Right of the party must remember is that it is the moderate Centre which has a democratic mandate, not the Right. Anything beyond this is simply party politics.

Cameron cannot be judged by his backbenchers solely by what he does in Coalition, all effort and energies must be committed to securing a landslide majority in 2015. Then, Cameron must get the balance right between appeasing the Right of the Party and staying in touch with the moderate public. Cameron’s ability to assert himself is limited inevitably, by the presence of the Liberals in the Government. How Cameron would fare as the Leader of a majority Conservative Government is a question for the Party post-2015 and not a day before.