Ross Mackinnon: Tougher penalties for illegal encampments will come as a relief to private landowners

13 Apr

Cllr Ross Mackinnon is Executive Member for Finance and Economic Development at West Berkshire Council.

Media coverage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has understandably been dominated by the many violent protests in defence of the right to peacefully protest – an irony probably lost on the rent-a-lefty-mob halfwits setting fire to police vans.

But for me as a councillor in a rural ward, here in West Berkshire, the most significant change the Bill will bring is only just now beginning to attract media interest. There is to be a new criminal offence of residing in a vehicle on land without permission – giving long overdue hope to rural communities like mine blighted by the distress and misery associated with illegal encampments.

Every summer, we brace ourselves for the inevitable intimidation, criminal damage, and economic costs of dealing with the encampments themselves – and the often extensive environmental clean-up operations required in their aftermath.

Long-suffering residents plead to have their concerns taken seriously at parish councils, neighbourhood action groups, ward surgeries, and on village Facebook groups – with varying degrees of success.

Existing police powers under Section 61 of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act allow police to move encampments on if there are “aggravating factors” such as damage to the land or threatening behaviour. Rank and file police officers tell me they would be more than happy to exercise those powers, but a decision on use of Section 61 must be made by a senior officer who is often reluctant to do so, given the potential media interest and loud opposition from well-organised advocacy groups.

If the police won’t act, the civil courts are the last resort. If the encampment is on Council-owned land, the resolution tends to be quicker (although the damage and pollution are no less severe), as local authorities have recourse to more remedies – but for the poor small private landowner whose farm has been usurped, a lengthy and costly court process is the only route to reclaim their land and their livelihood. This cannot be right.

The new offence will impose a criminal penalty of up to three months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to £2,500 for anyone with a vehicle on land who fails to leave and remove their property when asked to do so. The police will also have the power to seize offenders’ vehicles – this will be a powerful deterrent for those who would otherwise occupy the land illegally. In my view, it is likely that the incidence of illegal encampments will fall sharply for fear of losing expensive vehicles.

It’s fair to say that The Guardian is not supportive. Opposition to the reforms seems to come from urban left-wingers who have never encountered the harsh reality of life next to an illegal encampment, and from advocacy groups claiming to represent Gipsy and Traveller communities, who suggest that a legal challenge to the new law is likely, citing Equalities Act and Human Rights concerns that the new law discriminates against protected groups.

I find the discrimination argument unpersuasive. Illegal encampments are undesirable for society as a whole and should be prevented – regardless of the alleged common characteristics of the perpetrators. I have written before about how individuals should be held responsible for their actions, not their wider race, gender or ethnicity.

Also, it’s important to stress that the vast majority of gipsies and travellers are law-abiding citizens who do not illegally occupy land. Perceptions of the wider traveller community are unfairly tainted by the damage caused by a minority. Most gypsies and travellers will be unaffected by the new law.

In the same way, most violent crime is committed by men – yet we have laws against violent crime without men being discriminated against under equalities legislation. Forced Marriage is a practice traditionally carried out within specific ethnic and religious communities, yet we have laws against forced marriage.

The same principle should apply here – there can be nothing more in keeping with the principle of equality, than the law of the land being applied equally to all citizens.

Lewis Feilder: UK laws haven’t been strong enough to protect memorials. But all of that is about to change.

5 Apr

Lewis Feilder is on the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Candidates’ list, works as a management consultant and is a board member of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces.

One element of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 that has received much less attention recently than others is the protection it introduces against criminal damage to memorials.

Like most people, I was appalled to watch during last year’s protests as the Cenotaph on Whitehall was attacked, Churchill’s statue was graffitied and PC Keith Palmer’s memorial at the gates of Parliament was urinated upon.

I despaired at the inevitability of the perpetrators of these acts of gross indecency – if ever caught – being brought up before a magistrate and being sent on their way with a nominal fine.

The young man who tried to set light to the Union Jack on the Cenotaph was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay only £340 in court costs. It’s pitiful and undermines public trust in the judicial system, but it’s sadly what we’ve come to expect.

As a board member of Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces, I wanted to know why and began researching the laws pertaining to desecration of war memorials, whereupon it rapidly became clear there simply were none. In contrast to most other Commonwealth Realms, the UK gives no special protection to war memorials, or other types of public memorial.

When damage is purposefully caused to them, prosecutors have to rely upon existing criminal damage statutes, which only take account of the financial value of the damage caused. Where this is less than £5,000, as is the case in most instances of desecration, courts have very limited powers available to them – a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £2,500. This struck me as wholly insufficient and a failure to take into account the public outrage and emotional distress caused by the level of disrespect shown in these cases.

So, that morning I sat down to write what a new law would look like and circulated this to a few MPs who I thought might be supportive. With the image of a young man trying to set alight to the Union Jack on the Cenotaph still live in people’s minds, support was not in short supply and Jonathan Gullis, the new MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and James Sunderland, the former Army colonel and new MP for Bracknell, took up the cudgels.

Support rapidly snowballed and within 48 hours we had 150 MPs’ signatures on a letter to the Home Secretary. Over the next few weeks, we met with both the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary, who both gave their full backing to updating the law and instructed their departments to find the best way to get it on the statute books. It was clear we were pushing against an open door.

It had in fact been tried previously more than a decade ago, when David Burrowes, the then MP for Enfield Southgate, introduced a Private Members’ Bill, which was rapidly scuppered by the calling of the 2010 General Election.

Finally now, the law is being updated and the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 will soon reflect that where damage or desecration of a memorial occurs and amounts to an offence of criminal damage, the court will no longer be constrained in its options where the value involved in monetary terms is assessed to be less than £5,000.

The maximum sentence of imprisonment will now be ten years’ imprisonment, reflecting the severity of the nature of the crime. Of course, it remains the role of magistrates to take into account aggravating and mitigating factors in applying these new powers.

While the passage of time might dim our collective memory of those who have served or died for their country, war memorials serve as a permanent testimony to those who must not be forgotten. This change to the law ensures that their memory can no longer be sullied with impunity.

Tatiana Gren-Jardan: Modern slavery isn’t in retreat. It’s simply taking cover underground.

21 Mar

Tatiana Gren-Jardan is Head of the Modern Slavery Unit at the Centre for Social Justice and Justice & Care.

Year on year, the number of slavery victims found in the UK has been growing rapidly. In 2019, for example, the increase from the previous year was 52 per cent. But this year was different.

Statistics released by the Home Office last week show there were 10,613 potential victims of slavery found in the UK (47 per cent of which are children) – a very similar number to the previous year. The stagnation of numbers could be a reason for celebration. Fewer cases must mean that we are finally getting on top of this problem, right? Not so in the case of modern slavery. Here’s why.

The official statistics record the number of victims referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the Government’s system to identify and support slavery victims. The fact that this year we have not seen an increase in numbers, sadly, doesn’t mean that the number of instances of slavery is falling. What it means is that modern slavery, already known to be a hidden crime, has been driven even further underground by the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving potentially thousands of victims undetected.

Lockdown has added pressure to already-stretched local authority services and police; school closures and the decrease in social services has significantly diminished the chances to identify victims; and the rules we have all have had to follow have provided far fewer opportunities to spot and report any suspicious behaviour. Criminals, however, have been fast, opportunistic and have managed to use this crisis for their advantage.

It is helpful to dissect the NRM figures and consider them alongside the evidence we are seeing emerging from around the country. According to the statistics, the number of victims of sexual exploitation dropped dramatically.  In the first half of 2020, the number of victims identified fell by a staggering 80 per cent – the figures increased during the second half of the year, but still show much lower levels overall compared to the previous year – 1,171 cases in 2020 compared to 2, 166 cases in 2019.

Similarly, the number of victims identified in labour exploitation, such as those found working in car washes and nail bars, has fallen by 68 per cent during the first six month in 2020 compared to the last quarter of 2019. Lockdowns and the resulting business restrictions make sense of this decline.

Very simply, the exploitative businesses could not operate as normal and the customer base itself was restricted as so many of us were forced to stay at home.  The organisations charged with identifying businesses that may be involving victims of slavery have also been impacted by the pandemic – the police, HMRC, the GLAA have had much reduced capacity to carry out visits where victims may well have been identified.

The criminals responsible for human trafficking have not stopped – they have just adapted. Take sexual exploitation. During the first lockdown, in the West Midlands (Sandwell) there was a 280 per cent increase in advertising of sexual services on adult websites with many new individuals, predominantly from Eastern Europe, appearing online. However, during the second lockdown in Autumn 2020, police found “Covid-compliant” brothels where temperature was checked automatically as clients opened the door; hand sanitizers and other measures were put in place to Covid-proof the venues with evidence of controlled and coerced nature of criminal behaviour.

This picture of adaptation has been seen elsewhere. Police officers from West Yorkshire were concerned that Vietnamese nationals from nail bars could have been moved into cannabis factories, similar to the Albanian and Eastern European nationals from car washes and other industries that had to be closed down temporarily.

This change in the criminal modus operandi is reflected in the NRM figures.  Exploitation of vulnerable victims for the purpose of criminal activity, including growing and distributing drugs, is now the most prevalent type of exploitation accounting for 34 per cent of all the cases, with the additional 15 per cent for criminal mixed with labour or sexual exploitation. Most of those who were criminally exploited were children (51 per cent), predominantly boys (98 per cent).

We should not be duped by the fact that the number of victims identified has stagnated, and conclude that we are winning the fight. Far from it, it is a red flag that should prompt us into more proactive detection now that the lockdown restrictions are being eased. The pandemic has created a breeding ground for criminals who are preying on the most vulnerable of our society. If we do not act now, many more people will fall into the trap of abuse and exploitation.

What is more, official figures represent only the tip of the iceberg. Last year we estimated there could be at least 100,000 victims of slavery in the UK, which means we know of about only 1 in 10 victims at best. Make no mistake, whilst the NRM numbers may have dropped, slavery is still rife and prospering in the UK.

The Government response must place victims at the centre. If action is taken now with priority given to identifying and rescuing victims, this will in turn lead to identifying the criminals responsible. The answer is not only about getting tough on perpetrators. If we focus on identifying and supporting victims properly, they will become the key to finding and prosecuting the criminals still prospering from slavery.

Criminals responsible for modern day slavery have not stopped during lockdown, they have adapted. We must too.

Matthew Barber: After clearing the court backlog, we need to reform the criminal justice system

19 Mar

Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.

Coronavirus has exposed many of the fragilities of the criminal justice system, but the challenges of delivering justice run much deeper.

In recent months, the backload that has emerged as a result of court closures due to lockdown has created stark headlines. More importantly, though, it has thrown fresh light on the fact that even before the pandemic the delays in getting cases to court could be significant.

In the world of criminal justice, it is no good to simply return to “pre-covid” levels of provision; we need to vastly improve on the situation. In the words of Gladstone, justice delayed is justice denied and that is true for all parties, both victims and the accused.

Policing often gets the attention when discussing crime, because the men and women in uniform are literally on the front line of preventing crime and tackling criminals. The arrest however is just the tip of the iceberg and we often neglect the work in investigation, prosecution, and ultimately punishment and rehabilitation. If we want to reduce crime, and improve the protection of victims, we need to ensure that the whole system is working effectively and seamlessly.

The separation between the police and the judicial parts of the process are absolutely appropriate and must be preserved, but whilst the decision-making at each stage needs to be independent, the system needs to be connected. Police and Crime Commissioners are ideally placed to bring about the change that is needed.

In Thames Valley, I chair the Local Criminal Justice Board. These exist in each region and provide the link between all of the agencies involved in delivering justice: the police, Crown Prosecution Service, prison governors, probation, the courts service, victims services, and representatives of the judiciary and defence counsel. Although this body has no formal power, the strong relationships built round this table – these days a virtual table – can deliver real change, both large and small.

It is fair to say that the goodwill and desire to collaborate that we have nurtured in Thames Valley does not seem to be repeated across the whole country. I hear some horror stories of different agencies seemingly working against each other rather than cooperating. That is certainly not the case here. Some of the achievements may seem incredibly small, such as ironing out problems with paperwork between agencies so that prisons understand all of the risks relating to prisoners being transferred to them. Some are significantly larger, such as the successful rollout of video conferencing for use in courts. Coronavirus has unsurprisingly accelerated the use of such technology but it was already embedded and saving police officer time well before the pandemic struck.

We need a whole system approach to deal with criminality from arrest through to reform.

In May 2019, Thames Valley Police launched a programme called Endeavour (an obvious connection with Morse from his old Force) to improve the quality of investigations. With a national shortage of detectives, and a focus on response, the often slow and sometimes unrewarding work of investigations can easily be undervalued. Of course, a large part of policing should be about prevention, but inevitably some crimes will still take place, and the response to these incidents, to find the truth, to hold those responsible to account, really matters. A great deal of police work overlaps with that of other agencies, but one thing only the police are equipped to do is to investigate crime and bring criminals in front of the courts.

Much of the Endeavour programme is about getting the basics right, but also about embracing new technology and dealing with current challenges such as disclosure. Over thirteen workstreams, officers are trained and supported to ensure that investigations are of a higher standard, that they more regularly meet the thresholds for prosecution, and that victims are kept informed of progress. There is still much work to do, particularly on liaison with victims of crime, but it is clear that these efforts are paying off. From April to December last year “positive outcomes” – that’s the jargon for detections – increased by 25.7% across all types of crimes. Serious offences have always been well investigated but this improvement shows a change in the way the bulk of offences are dealt with. It is a trend that must continue.

Progress through the courts is benefitting from new technology. The judiciary, who rightly guard their independence carefully, have engaged with other agencies to ensure that there are more opportunities for victims, witnesses, and police officers to give evidence remotely. Even before coronavirus, the new video suite at HMP Bullingdon reduced the need to transport prisoners to court and therefore reduced delays and costs to the system. One of the biggest frustrations for the public is the issue of sentencing. It is one area where judges have a surprisingly small amount of flexibility. It is an issue for Parliament to resolve, but more clarity about the sentence that will actually be served is essential and part of the solution can be the use of electronic tagging and monitoring to be used as part of a sentence.

Once the jury have delivered their verdict, and a sentence has been handed down, the prison and probation service is by far the most neglected part of the process. Prison should be a place of punishment, but that does not prevent it from also being the start of the process of rehabilitation. We all know that reoffending rates are far too high, and giving people a fresh start in life after prison with the education, treatment and support they need, doesn’t simply help them as individuals, but prevents more people from becoming victims of crime in the future.

Following successful trials, the National Probation Service are about to begin expanding the range of electronic monitoring available, including sobriety tags that can monitor an individual’s consumption of alcohol. These new options can make a massive difference when it comes to ensuring compliance with license terms when someone first leaves prison, and just as importantly it can be an important building block for ex-offenders to find work and a stable home.

In Thames Valley, the Police and Crime Commissioner works closely with several prisons and charitable organisations to provide support for those leaving prison with the aim of reducing reoffending. At the end of 2020 we hosted a virtual conference on the subject that brought together employers who were able to offer opportunities to those leaving prison. Now in 2021 the PCC is leading a bid across Thames Valley to improve provision for prison leavers. The more people who can find a job and a place to live when they return to the community, the more people we can stop from committing crime in the future.

Whilst the focus at the moment is understandably on the backlog in court cases caused by coronavirus there is so much more to do. In Thames Valley the courts are largely up and running as normal, with COVID-secure practices in place, but this is no time for complacency. We must take the opportunity that increased attention on criminal justice gives, in order to improve the entire system from the moment of arrest right through to release and reform.


Ross Mackinnon: In defence of men

18 Mar

Cllr Ross Mackinnon is Executive Member for Finance and Economic Development at West Berkshire Council.

Not all men, but it is always men. Men are the problem. Don’t protect your girls; educate your boys. We are all collectively guilty. All men must do better. We need a curfew for men. Almost all violence against women is inflicted by men, therefore you must know a man who has assaulted a woman.

None of these statements are rational. None of these statements are logical. None stand up to scrutiny. But no-one wants to hear that right now.

In the wake of the shocking, horrific murder of poor Sarah Everard, we’re looking for something, someone, anyone, to blame. It’s an emotional instinct, not a rational one.

We should not live in a world where a 33-year-old woman, wearing bright clothing, keeping to busy, well-lit streets, making all the right decisions, is abducted from the street and murdered. Something has gone horribly wrong, and therefore something must be done immediately. There is exasperation and there is anger. Both are compellingly understandable emotions. I share them.

For the record, we also shouldn’t live in a world where a woman wearing a revealing outfit, drunk on a night out and flirting with strangers in a nightclub is assaulted. raped or murdered either. We shouldn’t live in a world where a woman is abused by her partner. Each and all of these crimes are abhorrent.

The police were in a no-win situation in Clapham Common at the weekend . By most accounts, the vigil was proceeding peacefully until the attendees were asked to disperse. Then things turned ugly. “No Justice, No Peace, F**k the police”. It’s an odd sort of peaceful vigil where some of those present proudly display All Cops Are Bastards signs. It isn’t the first time a good cause has been hijacked by extremists, and it won’t be the last.

Some of the arrest footage looks very heavy-handed, although unless you see the actions which led the arrests then you don’t have the full picture. It may well be that rank and file and senior officers have serious questions to answer.

But no-one wants to hear that right now.

It’s absolutely true that the vast majority of crime, especially violent crime, is committed by men. There are biological reasons for this statistic, of course. Testosterone causes aggression, from puberty onwards. Most male brains keep a lid on it. A minority don’t. Armed robbery. GBH. Murder of men and of women. Sexual Assault. Rape. All overwhelmingly committed by violent men.

But a tiny minority of the male population. The current media narrative of “all men are the problem” will lead women and girls to see all men as a threat. You may think this a good thing. I don’t.

Imposing collective responsibility or guilt on a group, be it defined by gender, race, religion, or any fundamental characteristic, is fundamentally unconservative, and something I hope I never see our party or our Government dabble with. We don’t do it after terrorist attacks, and we shouldn’t do it now.

Crimes are committed by individual people, and those individuals bear all the responsibility. A responsibility they should bear very heavily indeed with the harshest of punishments. Far too often, men convicted of sexual offences are given pathetically lenient sentences. Let’s start with that.

Other solutions? Precious few, at least credible ones. Over the last few days, we’ve heard that it’s a cultural problem. We need men off the streets in the evening. We need more stories written by women on TV. We must educate our boys, teach them that assaulting women, grabbing women, raping women are all wrong.

As if we’re not teaching them that already.  These terrible crimes aren’t carried out by uninformed men simply crying out for education on gender relations. The rapists and murderers already know it’s wrong. Their minds, their lives, have gone horribly wrong somewhere down the line. They make a calculated decision that they’ll probably get away with it. Or they don’t care if they get away with it or not, because their evil compulsion is all that matters.

I don’t have a shopping list of solutions to prevent violence against women because there are no easy ones. Surely those men at risk of becoming violent sexual offenders could be identified earlier? I hope so, but it’s not my area of expertise. Can the police improve the way they investigate crimes? I’m sure they can and I’m sure they will. The conviction rate for sexual offences is pitiful. I wish it were higher. But we can’t make it higher by lowering the burden of proof, or by reversing the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Or maybe more innocent men being convicted is a price to pay for more guilty men being convicted? Over to you. All I know is that holding half the population collectively responsible for the actions of a tiny minority will not go down as our finest moment.

Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve: Saturday’s vigil, its mishandling – and why we should be wary of this plan for more police powers

16 Mar

Steve Baker was a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Wycombe.  Dominic Grieve is a former Attorney General and MP for Beaconsfield.

Sarah Everard’s killing and the subsequent charging of a police officer with her murder are horrors which will have struck us all. Men need to relearn the basic courtesies that enable women to feel safe in public – including challenging those who continue to ignore them – and heed the message that so many women have tried to convey over the last few days.

In its aftermath, Saturday’s events on Clapham Common were a disaster for the image of policing by consent and a vivid illustration of the consequences of the enactment of bad law. Policymakers and lawmakers must learn the right lessons from this as we consider the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The police have been put in an invidious position by poorly enacted Coronavirus law. The police may consider that protests are banned, but as a briefing by Big Brother Watch explains that “whether or not protests are legally prohibited remains unclear.”

While the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (All Tiers) (England) Regulations 2020 contain a specific exemption on gathering for protests in Tiers 1-3, in Tier Four this exemption has been removed.

However, there is a credible argument that silent protest is still allowed as a common law right which has not been specifically banned. That has created an ambiguity which inevitably undermines Dame Cressida Dick’s claim in relation to the Clapham Common events that “unlawful gatherings are unlawful gatherings”.

Given the testimony to Parliament that there is very little evidence of outdoor transmission and no outbreaks linked to crowded beaches, it is hard to see how it was a good policing decision at this stage in the pandemic to break up a vigil for Sarah Everard by force – a vigil attended privately earlier by the Duchess of Cambridge for very good reasons.

This serious fiasco has also become the context for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but it is not necessarily the right context through which to consider all the public order powers in the Bill. The willingness of contemporary protestors to use non-violent mass law breaking to pursue political ends by bringing our cities to a halt and by placing massive pressure on policing resources cannot just be ignored.

In January, Brandon Lewis clarified in the Commons that the Government did not consider Extinction Rebellion an extremist group. But others have suggested that some within it may aspire to undermine liberal democracy by mass protest of this kind, although it must be rather doubtful that this is the agenda of most of its supporters.

If the powers available to deal with such improbable radicalism in practice are really insufficient at present, then this may justify changing the law. But in doing so MPs must uphold the fundamental right to protest along with the rights and freedoms of those whose lives may be seriously disrupted by such demonstrations.

The problem is that there is much in Part Three of the Bill to raise concerns that it may create uncertainty by giving far too much discretion to the police in determining this balance, and far too much power to the executive to change the law by decree if it chooses – a practice of which our experience over Coronavirus ought to make us very wary.

In a free and democratic society, the right to protest in public is fundamental, and the presumption in favour of maintaining that right, even at the risk of its being occasionally abused, is paramount. The criticisms of this part of the Bill from many quarters should not be ignored, even as we ask critics to face up to new policing challenges.

The Bill, being so wide in its scope, also deals with many other issues unrelated to public order and demonstrations. Those voting against it at Second Reading, as the Official Opposition apparently intends to do, must explain and justify their doing so when there will be much in it that their constituents will want. South Buckinghamshire residents will want to deter unlawful encampments, for example.

Conversely, those MPs voting for the principle of the Bill today, because they wish to see parts of it enacted, must make clear their intent to improve it at later stages and address the fundamental matters that go the heart of our civil liberties. Meanwhile, at this stage in the pandemic and the vaccination programme, the Government should proceed immediately to repeal all Covid-related restrictions on the right to protest, and remove the possibility of a recurrence of Saturday’s events.

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.

David Sidwick: Police and Crime Commissioners should not be too cosy with Chief Constables

2 Mar

David Sidwick is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset.

As we face the May elections, there will be much debate about policing and the role of Police and Crime Commissioners.

The first question is why do we have PCCs in the first place? There has always been a local linkage of governance to a police force. First it was via local watch committees which were dissolved when it was felt these were not transparent enough. Then came police authorities, that whilst more transparent, had weak strategic input and no direct democratic mandate. Finally, Police and Crime Commissioners which can provide both the democratic linkage and the strategic input.

The issue is that there has never been a strong enough case put for the role to the public – and there has never been a strong enough differentiated case for Conservative PCCs and the unique benefits that they bring.

This has allowed a conflation and misunderstanding of the impartiality of the police and the political nature of PCCs. The independence of the police was enshrined both in the actuality of the legislation and in the spirit. PCCs in their oath of service clearly state they will not interfere with the operational effectiveness of the police force.

Conservative PCCs particularly understand the complicated and necessarily distanced relationship with the Chief Constable – it must neither be directive nor too cosy as both have the capability to infringe on operational independence.

Conservative PCCs also understand that they hold the grail in that the police must remain operationally impartial. It was in our DNA when Sir Robert Peel set up the Peelian Principles and it is worth restating Principle 5 – Police seek and preserve public favour, not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.

So this is the “no fear or favour” that lies at the heart of the operational policing and it absolutely has to be sacrosanct. But let’s be clear; this has to be impartiality to all, including the following – political parties, lobby groups, rich individuals or corporations, and also those groups that may be a public relations minefield – no matter how good the cause. The law applies to all that commit crimes and should be equally applied.

And therein also lies the issue with the suggestion about removing governance completely and letting the police run themselves via the National Police Chiefs Council – leaving aside the fact this removes the local democratic accountability that has been part of our police forces since the years of their inception – it also means that the institution will no longer serve the public, but themselves – having an internal view not accountable to the public is a very dangerous path.

So the concept of operational impartiality for the police remains at the heart of the concept of Conservative PCCs.

In the South West, there has been a deliberate message to the electorate that confuses the operational and strategic to make the case for Independent PCCs. Far more important and relevant for a PCC are the understanding of strategy, the ability to engage, and the right motivation to be an advocate for the public.

The governance therefore relies on the strategic plan (the Police and Crime Plan (PCP)) and less on the much more discussed but less important ability to dismiss the Chief Constable. This should always be the last resort and the true strength lies in the professional relationship founded on mutual respect between the PCC and the Chief Constable. It is not for a PCC to order about a Chief Constable – that contravenes their operational independence. It is however also vital that the Chief Constable should enact operationally the requirements of the PCP. This is the link through the plan to the democratic will of the people. A connection that too often is forgotten and is the most important.

A PCC therefore should have, above all else, an understanding of the strategic process: from communication with the electorate; to an overarching vision; with a clear mission; with objective-bound priorities that can be directly linked to impartial operational effectiveness.

A Conservative PCC understands this. Crunch the numbers and the vast majority of the areas with the lowest crime rates have Conservative PCCs. I would argue that they also show more clearly the rule of law and a strong moral compass at the heart of their plan. This structure is inherent to our party’s vision of aspiration – you can only build strong communities and businesses within a safe framework of law and democracy, where anarchy and mob rule has no place.

There are great examples of this – North Yorkshire and Devon and Cornwall are first and second lowest in the country for the overall crime rate. Those PCCs that put crime prevention / reduction high on their priorities have forces that not surprisingly perform well – it’s worth comparing PCP priorities across the country and looking at the differences. What links all the high performing Conservative PCCs is that direct link from their population to their force, through a PCP focused on preventing crime and anti-social behaviour. Both in the plan itself and commissioning services, Conservatism should be transparent to the voters – that is not incompatible with operational effectiveness in any way.

The operational effectiveness of the Police is sacrosanct to the Conservative Party and protected by legislation. Conservative PCCs understand the relationship between them and the Chief Constable to be professional not cosy. They demonstrate this with their clear understanding and ability to deliver both effective and efficient policing.

We understand strategy, engagement, and delivery. Conservative PCC candidates have a rigorous selection process including a written exam, literally dozens of informal interviews locally, a panel interview with other PCCs and local government leaders and hustings – this means the electorate can be reassured that we have candidates that pass muster. To truly transform police and crime, the party needs to, at all levels – (CCHQ, every MP, local councillor and party activist) strongly support the Conservative PCC candidates to ensure they get elected so that they can make the link between electorate and delivery, so crime and disorder is reduced for the good of us all.

Let’s unleash the true power of having a Conservative PCC.

Guy Mansfield: Now we must work with the EU to make Britain more safe and secure

19 Feb

Lord Sandhurst is a member of the Conservative European Forum (CEF) Justice and Home Affairs policy group. He is a past Chairman of the Bar of England and Wales (as Guy Mansfield QC), and current Chair of Research of the Society of Conservative Lawyers.

As Conservatives, it is our duty to ensure that the UK is neither less safe nor less secure outside of the EU. Both parties must think again and strengthen cooperation.

Understandably, political and media attention has been focused on the trade elements of the deal agreed between the UK and the EU on Christmas Eve. Now that we have left the European Union, it is time to review carefully all aspects of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to ensure it satisfies all of UK’s needs, beyond simply trade, tariffs and quotas.

My paper published by Conservative European Forum’s Justice and Home Affairs policy group – The Trade and Cooperation Agreement: The Justice and Security challenges ahead – examines, in detail, part three of the TCA, which covers UK-EU security cooperation.

Regardless of one’s view on Brexit, we can all agree, especially as Conservatives, that we do not wish to see the UK less safe or less secure as result of our changed relationship with the EU.

The paper raises a number of concerns. The statement released by the Home Office immediately following the agreement was optimistic. In fact, since 31st December 2020, the UK has been at a disadvantage. We have lost tools ‘to tackle serious crime going forwards’ and to ‘bring criminals to justice.’ The new extradition system will be less efficient.

First, the UK no longer has direct, real time access to two important centralised databases – SIS II, which holds records of stolen identity documents and wanted people, and VIS, which stores fingerprints and digital photographs of those applying for a Schengen visa. In 2019, UK police checked SIS II no fewer than 603 million times. These databases have been vital for UK police forces, notably enabling them to check if anyone is wanted or missing across the EU.

Secondly, we have lost our membership of Europol. As a consequence, the UK’s police forces have lost real time access to its databases. In fighting crime, speed is crucial. Crime and criminals are constantly evolving to evade detection. The UK will no longer be a member of Europol’s management board; it will not be able to exert the same influence over its future focus or prioritise areas of threat. As a non-Member State, the UK has lost the right to initiate operations such as Joint Investigation Teams.

Thirdly, the UK has left the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). This will result in slower and more complex extradition processes. Henceforth UK and EU member states can, if they choose, refuse to execute an arrest warrant for a number of reasons:

  • In non-terrorist cases, on political grounds (the ‘political’ exception);
  • On grounds that the requested person is a national of that executing state (the ‘own national’ exception).
  • On the ground that the crime for which the UK seeks extradition is not a crime in the state from which extradition is sought (‘double criminality’). For such countries to agree to extradite, the crime must be an offence in that jurisdiction.

The political exception may well be an improvement. Not every member state is scrupulous in ensuring that decisions to prosecute are free from political interference.

But the reintroduction of the own national exception is bad news. Germany, Austria and Slovenia have already indicated that they will not extradite their own nationals. There are potentially a further 13 Member States which may likewise refuse to surrender their nationals. The UK will, in such instances, have to provide its evidence to such Member State, which (alone) will then decide whether to prosecute. Any trial will be conducted, if at all, in the Member State.

The double criminality requirement will slow down and even stop extraditions to the UK where the issue is raised. That too is bad.

It is not all bad news. The UK will continue to receive Passenger Name Record (PNR) data in advance of all arrivals by air. We shall continue to enjoy access to the Prüm system (which makes accessible to EU Member States and the UK all national databases which store DNA profiles, fingerprints and vehicle registration data) and the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), which permits access to criminal records of individuals on national databases across the EU. These are not gains; they simply maintain the status quo.

It is important to emphasise that the losses in security cooperation disadvantage the EU too. This is not a one-way street. The UK’s diminished role in Europol will create reciprocal dis-benefits to the EU. The UK’s loss of access to the EU systems means the EU loses access to the UK’s systems.

Our conclusions are intended to be constructive. However, it is plain that we have lost important tools for tackling crime. Looking to the future, the UK and EU member states must address further the security needs of our populations to go about daily lives free from avoidable harm. I urge both sides to continue to work together to strengthen security cooperation. The price of failure is too high, not just for the UK, but for the EU as well. This is not a debate about sovereignty, trade or tariffs. It’s about security. As Conservatives, the security of the UK and its citizens must always come first.

Caroline Ffiske: How non-crime hate incidents came into force. And why they should be reformed – or scrapped altogether.

18 Feb

Caroline Ffiske is a former adviser to the New Zealand Government and Conservative councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham.

Sir William Macpherson, who led the damning report into the Metropolitan Police following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, has died, aged 94. Tributes have poured in for his groundbreaking work in naming and tackling institutional racism.

However, his legacy is mixed. For it was the Macpherson report which introduced into policing, the concept of the ‘non-crime hate incident’ which has become so controversial today.

Introduced with the best of intentions, it has grown and morphed beyond reason – more so than Macpherson could surely have imagined. How can we now freely debate important and controversial political issues, when to do so might land us with a police record accusing us of hate?

The question is of growing importance. Conservative MPs are taking an increasing interest in free speech – and Priti Patel is reported to be considering an overhaul of hate crime law.

Action would be complicated. There isn’t a single piece of hate crime law that, with a tweak or two, would restore us to a Miltonian lost paradise of free speech. But the non-crime hate incident is part of the mix ,and needs reform. Before exploring options, it’s useful and timely to revisit its origin and evolution; and also to carefully consider whether and how it harms.

The origin of the non-crime hate incident

The widely publicised Harry Miller case in 2019 helped to bring the non-crime hate incident to public attention – and gave the police a jolt.

Miller received a call from the police and was told to ‘check his thinking’ – and so learned that participating in online debate about the meaning of sex and gender had earned him a police record accusing him of hate.

When he took the matter to court, the judge agreed that the behaviour of Humberside Police, in their visit to and warning of Miller, had breached the boundaries of the reasonable. Their actions were criticised as being akin to those of the Cheka, the Stasi, and the Gestapo.

However, the judge also concluded that it was perfectly correct for the police to maintain a record of Miller’s tweets. In doing so, they were following the College of Policing Hate Crime Guidance which originated in the Macpherson Report.

This introduced key components of the non-crime hate incident; the most significant being the validity of individual perception. A ‘racist incident’ should be defined as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. That was in 1999.

Concept creep

The College of Policing’s current Hate Crime Guidance can be found here; and the definition of non-crime hate incidents here.

As inspired by Macpherson, this says that all reported incidents must be recorded. There is a reminder of their supposed seriousness; they “should not be dismissed as unimportant; they can cause extreme distress to victims and communities”. After all, they might be “the precursor to more serious or escalating criminal offending”. This reminds us of Macpherson’s original serious intent.

But, twenty years on, nothing seems too trivial to count as a hate incident. It’s anything that anyone perceives to have been “motivated wholly or partially by hostility…the victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief”. Indeed, police officers “should not directly challenge this perception…police officers may also identify a non-crime hate incident, even where the victim or others do not”. Indeed, “victims … may not be aware that they are a victim of a non-crime hate incident, even though this is clear to others”. Hostility? This from the Met: ‘evidence of the hate element is not a requirement.’

Macpherson intended the concept to tackle racism. But more ‘monitored strands’ have since been added: disability, religion, sexual orientation, and, most recently, transgender, in 2015. However, these don’t limit the concept: “non-crime hate incidents are also committed against victims who are targeted because of a non-monitored personal characteristic”.

The non-crime hate incident has become a concept without meaningful boundary – no wonder the police record people’s tweets.

The police keep notes; how is that a problem?

Firstly, the scale of the issue is not insignificant. In January last year, it was reported that police forces in England and Wales had recorded 120,000 non-crime hate incidents over the last five years.

People aren’t told when they’ve been accused of a hate incident now on police record. And there is an issue over how police handle these records.

In the Crime Report relating to Miller’s tweets, Humberside Police stated that “the suspect” was “posting transphobic comments on Twitter” and “showing hatred for the transgender community”.

This was a slur. Sarah Phillimore, a barrister who co-founded WeAreFairCop with Miller, discovered that her local police force has records describing her as ‘a barrister who has been posting hate about Jewish and transgender people‘.

Regarding her comments about Jewish people, they noted that there is nothing ‘overtly offensive’ about them, but nevertheless claimed that she had been ‘posting hate’.

Again, this was a slur. But when Phillimore asked the Wiltshire police to delete the record, they wouldn’t – and here seems to be no mechanism for review. College of Policing Guidance also indicates that records could be shared with future employers via DBS checks.

You may feel sympathy for the police as they battle the intersections of ‘culture wars’, ‘vexatious reporting’, and guidance which requires them to record trivial matters. They must, at least, minimally comply.

But here is a video from the Wiltshire Police touting for trade ‘if you experience any kind of hate crime or incident then please call us on 101 or report it online’.

More generally, the non-crime hate incident now feeds into a police culture too focused on accusing us of offence. It’s one of the building blocks, which, taken together, resulted in the police investigating Darren Grimes for a media interview with David Starkey, and arresting Kate Scottow at her home and holding her in custody for eleven hours, because of some offensive tweets.

In February 2019, Boris Johnson said of Scottow’s case: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of this internet feud, we are wasting too much time and resource on cases like this’.   Macpherson intended the concept to help drive community cohesion; I would argue that the non-crime hate incident has grown into a tool that can be used vexatiously to drive us apart.

Options for reform

The obvious route is a Law Commission Review. But the Commission is already mid-way through such a process – and it’s not boding well for free speech.

It’s more of the same: the Commission proposes to expand the reach of hate crime law, not limit it. It has proposed a new category of communication offence.  Here is a telling extract: “The offence does not require proof that anyone was actually harmed”.

No, the Government must take charge. Racism and discrimination must be taken seriously; so too, must free speech and open debate – and the pursuit of violent crime. None of these benefit from police focus on the inconsequential.

Here are some suggestions for reform:

  • The emotive concept of ‘hate’ is not helpful – would ‘discrimination’ be better?
  • Some degree of significance is needed.
  • If someone is accused of a non-crime hate incident, they should be informed.
  • There should be a mechanism for challenge.
  • Records should use non-emotive language; they should not slur people.
  • The police should not tout for trade.
  • Non-crime hate incidents should not be disclosed in DBS searches.

Alternatively, the government could grasp the bull by the horns; in the spirit of Macpherson, be bold. Twenty years on, the Conservatives could go full circle – and simply do away with the concept of Hate Crime altogether.