Neil Shastri-Hurst: Criminal Justice reform – a modern crusade for a modern conservatism

6 Mar

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a barrister, surgeon, and former British Army Officer.

As of November last year, the UK’s prison population stood at 78,838. A study by the Ministry of Justice predicted that, by September 2026, that figure would rise to 98,700; an increase of around 25 per cent. Add in those on probation, which in September 2020 accounted for some 222,657 people, and that is approximately 0.6 per cent of the UK’s total current adult population.

It would be an entirely nonsensical position to argue that prisons are not necessary; patently , they are. Sadly, people do some terrible things, and it is right that they are appropriately punished. However, for too long we have become bogged down in the mantra of “you do the crime, you do the time”. There is a cogent argument that one size does not fit all. It is an issue that, as conservatives, we must engage in.

Some years ago, I listened to a panel discussion that took place at a Conservatives Political Action Conference in the United States. One might have anticipated this would be a rallying call of the conservative right; quite the contrary.

It was engaging, informative, and surprisingly liberal-minded. A phrase that stuck with me from the talk was from Pat Nolan, at the time Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform. When describing for whom prison should be, he noted that prisons have expanded to include “offenses that are not morally reprehensible. Some of these offenses are bad simply because the legislature says they are. Prison is for people that we are afraid of, not the ones we are mad at”.

Arguably, Nolan’s standpoint was shaped by his own personal experiences. He had been the Republican Leader in the California State Assembly prior to a conviction for corruption, as part of an FBI sting. Convicted and incarcerated, his prison experience led to a desire to reform the American criminal justice system. One can draw analogies with Jonathan Aitken, in the UK, whose own fall from grace led to a journey of reflection and personal reconstruction.

My interactions with the criminal justice system have been, thankfully, limited. I practise in the field of civil law, not criminal. My hospital work brought me in contact with the aftermaths of violent crimes in terms of trauma, but not the inner workings of the prison system.

And whilst my soldiers gave me the odd grey hair with some of their antics, by and large they steered away from criminality. Notwithstanding that, the need for criminal justice reform has been a policy area that has always interested me. I have never been a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” type of Tory.

The purpose of the Criminal Justice System must be aimed towards rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Clearly, that will not always be possible. I accept some individuals will never be reformed however much the system tries to help but that should not stop us trying where we can.

The current model is failing. There are high rates of recidivism. Within nine years, 75 per cent of prisoners reoffend; of those, 39.3 per cent do so within the first twelve months. It would be hard to argue in the face of those statistics that prisons keep us safe.

An interesting mental exercise is to challenge oneself to identify an institution that expands through failure. I can only come up with one; prisons. Moreover, the greater their failure, the greater their expansion and with it a burgeoning cost to the taxpayer.

Conservatism has, at its heart, a desire to preserve the integrity of society. Criminality undermines that social fabric and the current system is not achieving what it is aimed to do; make us safer. In order to tackle the problem and bring down the rates of reoffending, a three-stranded approach is needed.

First, mentorship programmes. These need to be bespoke, and focused on the individual needs and challenges of prisoners. It takes time to find a good match and even longer to recruit a large enough body of volunteers. Mentor and mentee should be paired six months or more before release, thereby enabling them to develop a relationship and smooth the transition into post-prison life. There is good evidence that such systems are effective; former Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced such a scheme, and first year rates of recidivism dropped from 21 per cent to nine per cent.

Second, address the mental heath crisis in our prisons. A significant proportion of the prison population suffers from mental heath disorders. If you include drug and alcohol abuse within those numbers they go up further. The true scale of the problem is unknown, but there have been rates of up to 28 per cent for self-harm amongst the female prison population, and an estimate of two per cent having acute and serious mental health problems.

There are issues surrounding access to medical appointments. “Did not attend” rates are high amongst prisoner; some estimates put them in the region of 15 per cent. Training staff to be aware of mental issues is also an area where improvements could be made. A more pragmatic approach would be to address the root cause. If you lock someone up who has problems associated with mental health or substance abuse and hope for the best, he or she is not going to be better when released. It merely compounds the issue. Setting up mental health wings or halfway facilities that deal with these issues would be a proactive step that would prepare prisoners to cope better upon their return to society.

The third strand, which is arguably the most important, is the improvement of educational attainment. Those leaving school with qualifications have a greatly reduced tendency towards criminal behaviour. Low rates of literacy are linked with custodial sentences. Those struggling and left behind by the educational attainment gap can readily fall into what feels like an inescapable spiral.

t would be easier to argue that this is another layer to add to teachers’ overflowing in-trays, but that would not be fair. Clearly, one would hope that personal and parental responsibility would come into play, but that cannot always be relied upon. And so we come back to the theme of mentors.

But rather than mentoring those already in the system, it is about mentoring at an earlier stage to avoid at risk individuals becoming ensnared by it. In the West Midlands Combined Authority Area, Andy Street has set up the Mayor’s Mentors Scheme. This has been a huge success. However, it could be expanded, and is a prime example of how Metro Mayors, Local Government, Police and Crime Commissioners can work collaboratively to improve the life chances of the younger generations.

None of this comes easy. There will always be those who take a more punitive approach to the penal system. However, a golden thread that runs through conservatism is the desire to unlock potential and provide individuals with the skills and opportunities to succeed. There can be no better embodiment of that desire than not merely rehabilitating those who have offended, but preventing the need of such rehabilitation in the first place.

Neil Shastri-Hurst: Trump is right to criticise the WHO. But it needs reform, not abandonment.

23 Jul

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, surgeon, barrister, and senior member of the Voluntary Conservative Party in the West Midlands.

“The WHO really blew it…We will be giving that a good look”. President Trump fired a shot across the bows of the World Health Organization (WHO).

In his Tweet on April 7 this year, the President barely concealed his disdain. It had been clear for some time. Going further, he vowed to defund the organisation.

At the time, many questioned whether the president had the authority to shift policy in such a dramatic way. Then, at the beginning of July, Trump’s administration notified both Congress and the UN that a formal notice of withdrawal from the WHO was being submitted.

This week, Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, even accused it accused of being a “political not a science-based organisation”, whose director general is too close to Beijing.

These criticisms of the WHO are as scathing as they are clear. Trump claims that the organisation is submissive to China, complicit in assisting a cover up as to the risk Covid-19 posed, and, as a result, has failed to sound the klaxon sufficiently swiftly to the wider world amid the spread of the virus.

Is there credence to his analysis? In short, yes. There is no doubt that the WHO’s response could have been better. There are genuine concerns as to the credibility and weight given by the WHO to China’s assurances regarding Covid-19; in particular, China’s unsubstantiated declaration that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”.

Given China’s history of misinformation, scepticism is justified. Those defending the WHO will point to the challenge it was faced with. Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, is a self-confessed critic of the WHO.

However, she has acknowledged that “[i]t’s hard to fault a lot of what the WHO has been trying to do, given the difficult balancing act of trying to get countries to address this epidemic and take it seriously, while also trying to keep all countries at the table”.

And that is one of the real sticking points; the WHO has a diplomatic as well as scientific role. There is some strength to the line of argument that publicly confronting China may have proven detrimental in the longer term. After all, the importance of data sharing, with respect to this and future pandemics, will be vital. The retrospectoscope is a dangerous tool. Therefore, it would be unfair to laden the WHO with too many criticisms when faced with a novel and evolving situation.

However, in certain respects the WHO’s response has appeared somewhat leaden footed at times. Optics matter, and presentationally a firmer stance with China was needed.

Not dismissing its shortcomings, the United States’ decision to withdraw from the WHO is of concern for all players. I fear that it will serve to weaken our collective ability to tackle future global health crises.

The challenges and, dare I say, deficiencies of the WHO have been apparent for some time. During the Ebola epidemic that spread across West Africa, questions were being asked about institutional failings and their impact on global health. Arguably, the time for reform was some years ago. As the world takes stock in the shadow of Covid, it is high time that such reform takes place now.

When the WHO first came into existence, in 1948, it was at the vanguard of global health. Made up of the world’s leading minds pioneering the health agenda, it was the epicentre of concentrated knowledge. But times have changed. The field is much more crowded, with multilateral and bilateral agencies competing alongside large non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for space.

With the emergence of new stakeholders, the WHO has, at times, appeared to have lost its sense of mission. Its scope has outgrown its budgetary resources. It is weighed down by bureaucracy. It is, in many ways, a conflicted organisation; independent scientists operating in an overtly political arena.

That said, the WHO still carries cachet; its formal authority can and must be harnessed to mobilise other global health organisations in the pursuit of better health outcomes.

A prime example of that cachet can be seen when one looks at information gathering. Its members are provided with access that would otherwise not exist if nations operated in isolation. It is unimaginable that US scientists would have, albeit belatedly, been permitted to enter Hubei Province, and the city of Wuhan, had they not done so under the auspices of the WHO.

In the midst of a global fight against a deadly pandemic, I would implore the United States, and other nations minded to follow suit, not to retreat from the WHO but to reform it. The WHO is more than a sum of its parts: it is incumbent upon its members to work together and shape it for the better.

Covid-19 cannot be managed by nations acting alone. It needs a global response. This will be just as true of future pandemics. Less economically-developed countries will continue to rely heavily on the WHO in tackling these health crises. It is the only global health organisation that has the reach and infrastructure to do so.

By walking away from the WHO, America will take with them 15 per cent of the WHO’s $4.85 billion two-year budget. This will only mean that the organisation, already cash-strapped, will find fulfilling its mission all the more difficult.

There is another point that must not be overlooked. The sizeable hole left by the US will provide an opportunity for less altruistic countries, such as China, to fill the void. With a greater financial stake, they will have greater power and influence to wield.

The task facing the international community is to preserve the integrity of the WHO, while at the same time acknowledging its faults, and setting about reform. This will not be a simple process but its importance must not be underestimated.

There are a number of different models that will need to be considered. One example would involve leveraging expertise from NGOs and multilateral agencies by outsourcing key activities. In order to achieve such a co-ordinated approach, it would be imperative that the WHO provides strong, global leadership and policy direction from the centre.

Furthermore, there is a strong argument for the WHO beefing up its powers. The first step would be bolstering the International Health Regulations 2005, so that the WHO can impose sanctions on those countries who repeatedly and fragrantly contravene the rules.

History is punctuated with examples of when the world has found itself at a crossroads. The world currently finds itself in such a situation. Rather than turn inwardly, we must hope that nation states look outwards. We must hope that global co-operation continues to grow. We must hope for the reform that is desperately needed.

The WHO must embrace this challenge. In facing emergent health threats, a reformed WHO will unite the global community.

Neil Shastri-Hurst: Turkey and Hungary cannot be allowed to continue to contravene the principles of NATO

26 Jun

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, surgeon, barrister, and senior member of the Voluntary Conservative Party in the West Midlands.

Determined, bold, and ambitious. All adjectives that could be used to describe the vision NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, put forward in a speech at the beginning of June. And yet, barely a mention in the newspapers. But whilst Covid-19 continues to dominate the news agenda, Stoltenberg’s speech should not be dismissed. It has the potential to significantly alter the position from which NATO seeks to operate.

NATO has been a powerful military alliance since its inception. National and international threats have not diminished over the last 70 years or so; rather they have grown. The current pandemic should not lure us into a false sense of security. The importance of a strong and effective military alliance, through the auspices of NATO, is fundamental to upholding the democratic principles we hold so dear.

However, in setting out a roadmap for the organisation for the decade ahead, its Secretary General has fixed his sights beyond that. He aspires to something much more ambitious. A shift to focus upon diplomatic and economic levers. A shift to operating more globally; beyond its current North Atlantic milieu. In essence, a shift to operating more politically.

Stoltenberg’s words will have been warmly heard in Washington. It was precisely this type of refocusing that the United States’ administration was pressing for when the alliance leaders met for the 70th anniversary summit on the 4th December 2019. It clearly acknowledges the growing threat that China plays in the wider global security challenges. That said, achieving this ambition will prove much harder than articulating it.

Whilst the focus of the Secretary General’s speech concentrated on the construct of a more political NATO – a NATO “using a broader range of tools”; both military and non-military – this ambitious vision can only be looked at in conjunction with the broader challenges facing the Alliance. Such a paradigm shift would necessitate a change in mindset from its member states.

NATO’s burgeoning inbox is frequently inundated with concerns posed by Vladimir Putin and Russian adventurism. This threat has not retreated. Putin’s posturing and strongman rhetoric continues to present a substantial risk to the Alliance. However, in recent years, there has been the development of a fresh danger. A danger posed by member states themselves. From Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, there has been the emergence of a cohort of leaders who style themselves in the Putin mould.

The bedrock of NATO has always been its shared values. The alliance has been bound through a pledge of collective defence: each member state, a democracy that upholds the virtues of individual human rights. For the majority of the 29, this remains the case. However, a small, but vocal, minority within the alliance has strayed from this path. The principle of collective defence has diminished in importance for these nations.

The schism created by Erdoğan and his ever closer relationship with Russia are well documented. But Erdoğan is not the only leader who has chosen to pursue a more nationalistic political path. Casting one’s gaze to Hungary, we see a country that was once an exemplar of post-Cold War success; a former Communist regime that had succeeded in achieving a strong democracy.

But times have changed. Orbán has adopted an increasingly authoritarian domestic policy platform. However, from NATO’s perspective, it is Orbán’s adoption of a fragrantly pro-Russian foreign policy agenda that is even more worrying: one only has to consider Hungary’s attempts to progressively block and disrupt the cooperation between NATO and Ukraine in order to illustrate this. Whereas the sage heads sitting at the NATO top table recognise the malign influence of a Putin led Russia, Orbán and Erdoğan are amongst a powerful subset that willingly fail to do so.

It would be misleading to suggest that NATO, and its members, have always upheld its founding principles to the letter. Historically, member states have not always been governed under truly democratic principles. That said, the internal menace posed by the pro-Russian, authoritarian rule of some of its own members arguably presents the greatest threat to NATO’s integrity that it has suffered to date.

The importance of NATO cannot be underestimated. As recently as 2016, the Alliance set out its central mission: “to ensure that the Alliance remains an unparalleled community of freedom, peace, security, and shared values, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and rule of law”. However, such a shared set of values operates on trust.

This brings me back to Stoltenberg’s vision for NATO 2030. An ambitious vision must be coupled with a compelling argument that member states’ defence and procurement strategies must be centred upon NATO’s intended direction. In a post-pandemic world, with the global economy having taken a battering, putting forward a persuasive case may be all the harder. Maintaining the two per cent minimum of GDP contribution has historically been challenging for many members. The reality is that, with competing demands upon treasury departments, a not insignificant contingent will formally rescind upon their commitment.

But that may be the least of NATO’s problems. The majority need to stand up to the minority and challenge its offending behaviour. Nation states such as Turkey and Hungary cannot be allowed to continue to operate in contravention of the principles of the Alliance. The Washington Treaty contains no provision to suspend members who do not act within the democratic ideals of NATO. However, that should not deter action against those states that fail to adhere to these; political and economic sanctions, for example, may well have the desired effect in the long-term, if not short-term.

And so, I end where I started. This is a determined, bold, and ambitious vision of NATO in 2030. It will however require an even more determined, a bolder, a more ambitious argument to be put forward in order for it to succeed. To have any chance of success, NATO itself will need to reform. It will need to assure member states that the collective Alliance remains true to its founding principles. It must convince its members to stand up against those who show a disregard for human rights or seek to pursue a pro-Russian agenda.

There is a Russian bear sitting behind the desk of the Kremlin; for the survival of NATO we must not let its cubs play in our midst.