David Gauke: Ten years for lying on a form. Misguided, disproportionate – and characteristic of our cavalier approach to sentencing.

13 Feb

No one is going to be sentenced to ten years imprisonment for lying about where they have travelled from. Such behaviour might be reprehensible and, in the current circumstances, it may be justifiable to make it a criminal offence which, on occasion, may need to be punishable by imprisonment. But ten years – on a par with threats to kill, non-fatal poisoning or indecent assault – is evidently disproportionate. Even Michael Ellis, the Solicitor-General, who is not exactly a signed-up member of the awkward squad, has let it be known that he questions the “credibility” of the sanction.

I make this point not as a sceptic of measures to control the spread of the virus nor as a critic of Matt Hancock. Some of his Parliamentary colleagues appear to take out their frustration at the existence of Covid-19 and all that this entails on our way of life on the Health Secretary. Implicit in some of the criticisms he receives is the view that, if only someone else was in charge, we would all be going about our business unimpeded by lockdown restrictions. This is obviously nonsense.

On the big issue about the need to suppress the virus until a vaccine became available, Hancock got it right. Not everyone in Government can make that claim.

Nonetheless, the proposed maximum sentence is far too long. It also revealed an attribute that is not unique to one Minister or one government but which has been prevalent in our politics for nearly 30 years – a cavalier approach to sentencing policy.

Before making my case, let me set out some data. When I was Justice Secretary, I asked for information as to how large our prison population was compared to other European countries. For every 100,000 people in in the Netherlands, 61 were behind bars. In Denmark it was 63, in Germany it was 76, in Italy it was 99 and in France it was 104. In England and Wales it was 139.

This high prison population is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1993, we had approximately 45,000 people behind bars. Fifteen years later, we had reached 83,000, which is roughly where we have been since (the current exceptional circumstances has resulted in a fall to 78,000, but is forecast to rise rapidly over the next few years).

The increase in numbers has not been driven by higher levels of criminality, but by tougher sentences. Speak to experienced judges, and they will tell you of how someone who would have been sentenced to five or ten years in the 1980s would now get ten or 20 years. Our prison population has risen not because there are more criminals or that more criminals are getting caught, but because our criminals are locked up for longer.

Quite right too, many will say. Longer sentences tend to be very popular. Even this week’s announcement polled well – 51 per cent thought it ‘about right’ and 13 per cent thought it ‘not harsh enough’, according to YouGov. That does not make it a good policy.

We have to ask ourselves, when it comes to increasing the time people are imprisoned for any offence, why we are doing it. The first argument is deterrence, but there is little or no evidence to suggest that, say, the threat of ten years in jail is more of a deterrent than five years.

The second argument is about incarceration protecting society from reoffending. But, again, the evidence tends to be weak to support this (and, by and large, the more serious the offence, the less likely the chances of reoffending).

The third argument is about society articulating its feelings of repugnance at particular behaviour by the severity of the punishment. I certainly do not dismiss the need for our criminal justice system to reflect our shared sense of outrage over particular crimes. This is a legitimate factor in determining sentencing policy. However, as a society, in recent decades we have become noticeably keener to articulate our feelings of repugnance.

This process often starts with a targeted announcement that applies to only a small number of criminals. To give an example, a minimum sentence of 30 years for murder involving firearms or explosives was imposed in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act. This applies, thankfully, to very few cases but it made the minimum sentence for knife murders look low, so that increased from 15 years to 25 years in 2009, after a high-profile case. And then when it comes to determining the appropriate sentence for other offences – such as attempted murder, or grievous bodily harm, or possession of a weapon – judges will take that minimum sentence for a more serious crime as a reference point.

Consequently, we have a ratchet effect. There is a high-profile crime; there is tabloid outrage over the leniency of a sentence, the Government increases the maximum or minimum sentence for that specific crime, sentences for lesser crimes increase accordingly – by which time many offenders face a longer stretch and the prison population rises yet further.

I am acutely aware that trying to step off this escalator is enormously difficult. In my own time as Justice Secretary, I tried to resist routinely inflating sentences for serious offences, rather than going as far as trying to reverse the trend for the previous 30 years.

Instead, I focused on trying to keep minor offenders out of prison. These are people who are frequent offenders where the focus has to be rehabilitation. Prison – with the inevitable disruption to family life, accommodation and employment – makes that much more difficult. The evidence points to non-custodial sentences being much more effective in reducing reoffending. Politically, there is widespread support for such an agenda and – although my policy of scrapping most short prison sentences has been dropped – there is very good work being done by my successor, Robert Buckland, and prisons minister, Lucy Frazer on this front.

Nonetheless, the Government’s Sentencing White Paper, published in September, as well as containing many excellent policies on matters like Community Sentence Treatment Orders, also contains a long list of measures that will mean sentences become even longer.

No doubt these poll well – even better than locking people up for ten years for giving inaccurate information as to their recent holiday travels – and those who will face lengthy imprisonment are deeply unsympathetic individuals.

There is a constant pressure on Ministers to be seen to do something, to demonstrate their abhorrence at criminality and to take the side of the victim. But where does this end? If – when faced with an individual crime that cuts through to the public or a crisis that requires the creation of a new criminal offence – the reaction of Ministers is always to impose a yet more draconian prison sentence as a form of virtue signalling, or to win a political arms race, sentences will become disproportionate, our prison population even more of an outlier and the burdens on the taxpayer (assuming we want a secure and humane system, which we should) unsustainable.

Yes: ten years for lying on a form is a bad policy. But this is not the first time that a misguided and disproportionate sentencing policy has been set out in order to liven up an announcement and show that the Government is being tough. And it certainly will not be the last.

Vaccine passports for travel get the go ahead. But there will be concerns about where else they could be applied.

5 Feb

This time last year, the concept of a “vaccine passport” would have sounded utterly bizarre to most people; dystopian, even.

And yet, here we are. Today The Times reports that the Government is developing “Covid vaccine passports to allow foreign holidays”. 

Currently anyone who has been vaccinated is given a rather primitive record card.

But all of this is set to change as the Foreign Office, Department for Transport and Department of Health and Social Care are putting together documentation to help travellers reach countries that might demand vaccine verification upon entry.

Already there are complaints about this proposal, not least because Nadhim Zahawi, who’s in charge of the vaccine roll out, Tweeted on January 12 that the Government has “no plans to introduce vaccine passports.”

To add to the confusion, in December last year he suggested that restaurants, bars and cinemas could use an immunity passport system, only for Michael Gove to say “I certainly am not planning to introduce any vaccine passports, and I don’t know anyone else in government who is.” 

Overall, the Government has sent out very mixed messages on vaccine passports/ identification, which are poorly defined. So the news today will invite more questions and concerns about what activities they are applied to.

People naturally have fears about a vaccine passport for many reasons, some of which I detailed in December for ConservativeHome.

For instance, it could lead to a two-tier society in which one’s health status is a determinant of freedom, and raises lots of questions about the sharing of health data.

That being said, the Government’s pursuit of vaccine passports is only really directed at travel currently – and largely a result of other countries insistence on having such a system in place.

Already Denmark and Sweden have said they’ll introduce digital vaccine “passports” for travel; Estonia and the UN’s health agency have been creating e-vaccination certificates; and the list goes on.

Corporations, too, are getting tough on proof of vaccine. Saga, which provides holidays for people over 50, says passengers on its future trips must have had their jabs.

Qantas, the Australian airline, has also said the same for its flights.

So the Government is ultimately at the whim of market/ international forces, doing its utmost to make sure Brits have the tools to travel where they want to in the summer.

The move is also about boosting tourism in countries such as Greece, where two million Britons visit Greece every year, spending over €10 billion.

The country is preparing to waive its quarantine rules for tourists who can prove they’ve been inoculated against Coronavirus, and government officials have been speaking to the Greek Ministry of Tourism to get this system finalised.

The challenge for the Government is determining other parts of policy.

For instance, would the vaccine passport mean that older generations get to travel this summer while young people (who will be vaccinated last) stay at home?

What happens to vaccine passports if the virus mutates?

And will the passports vary to take into account the different efficacy levels of vaccines?

There are also signs of employers wanting workers to be vaccinated, but it’s not obvious what government policy is in regards to which occupations should have jabs (if anyone should be mandated at all).

In short, choosing to have a vaccine passport is the easy part.

Given the lack of unified communications so far, the Government’s messaging on the fine details of vaccine passports will be interesting to say the least.

The proposed foreign aid cut. Many Tories are against it. But Sunak has limited options as he tries to salvage the economy.

18 Nov

Given the Coronavirus crisis is estimated to have cost the UK £210 billion and counting, the Government is under enormous pressure to explain how it will pay its debt back. One of the ways Rishi Sunak is reportedly planning to do this is by cutting foreign aid, which he is expected to announce in a spending review next week.

Currently, the UK spends 0.7 per cent of gross national income on foreign aid, a target that is recommended by the United Nations and was written into law when David Cameron was in office. But the Chancellor apparently wants to bring this down to 0.5 per cent. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said of the idea: “we are looking at how the aid budget is spent, ensuring it serves the UK’s priorities and represents value for money. It is legitimate to consider where savings can be made when the public finances are under huge strain.” 

Several prominent Conservatives have opposed the move. Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, said: “The damage would be we are retreating from the global stage at the very time when we should be doing exactly the opposite.” Jeremy Hunt and Bob Neill are also against it, as is Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, apparently, who previously dismissed reports it would be cut as “tittle tattle”. Cameron’s disapproval has been made known in several newspapers.

One concern is that a reduction would harm international relations. Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, said: “It would be an extraordinary decision at the very point at which Britain is about to take over the chairmanship of the G7, with a new administration in the White House which will strongly champion the international system”, and Anthony Mangnall, the Tory MP for Totnes, echoed these concerns.

Others point out the moral case for keeping foreign aid as it is, given that the pandemic is when the world’s poorest people need help the most. Even before the cut was suggested, the Government was due to spend less than its anticipated £15.8 billion this year, due to a contraction in the economy. When Conservatives have spent tremendous sums on the flawed contact tracing app, PPE, and other Covid projects, some might call foreign aid a drop in the ocean.

And yet, others will say the cut is necessary at a time of intense national need. Given the Conservatives won last year’s election with a manifesto based on “levelling up” the UK, by way of domestic investment and infrastructure, the Government no doubt believes voters want this to be reflected when the Chancellor plans the economic recovery.

If there is a cut to 0.5 per cent, it’s also worth remembering that the UK will still be one of the biggest global contributors to foreign aid. In 2019 and 2018, it was one of only five countries to hit the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid target (level with Denmark, but below Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden), and there’s an argument that other countries need to increase their spending. New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the USA have not reached 0.5 per cent, never mind 0.7 per cent. 

Furthermore, it is understood that Boris Johnson wants this to be a time-limited measure, with a return to 0.7 per cent. In the interim, the UK can make a sizeable difference is by helping to facilitate the global supply of vaccines.

Either way, this is just the beginning of Sunak having to make some incredibly unpopular decisions about how to salvage the economy. Having become one of the most popular politicians in a staggeringly short period of time, he is now going to deliver policies that illicit completely the opposite response to Eat Out to Help Out. There is no painless way out of this. The next few months are going to be testing for the Chancellor to say the least.

Rehman Chishti and Knox Thames: Freedom of religion is under threat. Trans-Atlantic efforts can combat that.

12 Oct

Rehman Chishti is an MP and the former UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on FoRB. Knox Thames served as the US Special Advisor on Religious Minorities at the State Department for both the Obama and Trump administrations.  

The United States and the United Kingdom have worked closely on joint efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) worldwide. It’s a reflection of our shared values, and the partnership presents a unique opportunity for joint action. And the time to act is now.

Religious repression is at all-time highs, with the Pew Forum reporting 84 per cent of the global community lives in countries with high or very high restrictions on faith practices. That’s not to say everyone is persecuted, but that the space for freedom of conscience is shrinking. People of all faiths and worldviews are affected by these trends, which have implications beyond human rights, including international security and the growth of violent religious extremism.

Solving a problem this large requires diverse coalitions. Through our work, we recognised the substantial advantages of partnerships with like-minded governments. Thankfully, there is unprecedented interest in a new trans-Atlantic effort to promote this fundamental freedom.

In the UK, the Truro report, launched the day after Christmas in 2018 by Jeremy Hunt, the then UK Foreign Secretary, specifically examined persecuted Christians. The report found troubling examples of Christian persecution, but noted that other communities also suffer, and recommended Her Majesty’s government do more to assist all persons persecuted for their beliefs. I (Chishti) was tasked with setting the 22 recommendations into policy, getting 17 into place before leaving office.

In the US, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 created a special ambassador at large on the issue and office, as well as required the annual reporting on religious freedom conditions worldwide. During the Trump administration, the State Department convened two ministerial-level summits that elevated the issue and launched a new Alliance to bring together the most committed countries on advancing religious freedom for all.

We both believe that holistically advocating for everyone’s right, as opposed to singularly focused on just one community, is the best approach. We grounded our activities in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience, the right to change faith or have no faith, meet alone or with others for worship, and share one’s religious views. While, of course, we should speak out when individual groups face persecution, we must do so in the context of advocating for the right of religious freedom for all. A balanced approach focused on the right will ensure space for all beliefs.

Why? We’ve seen that it’s the most durable path to guaranteeing the right over the long haul. Environments where every individual is free to seek truth as their conscience leads is one where every community can thrive. In contrast, narrowly focused efforts, such as Christian persecution by Hungary or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s concentration on Muslim persecution, will most likely fall short of their long-term goals. It’s not that Christian and Muslim persecution isn’t happening – it most definitely is, and we must speak out.

But an environment providing freedom of conscience for all will ensure that individual communities can survive in the future. Otherwise, we risk creating religious Bantustans of special exemptions or carve-outs benefiting specific groups.

Working closely with Sam Brownback, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, we instilled this approach into the new International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and its founding charter. Alongside our Dutch and Brazilian counterparts, the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed, and key civil society experts, we helped build an organisation of 30+ nations from different regional, political, and religious backgrounds. Of course, none of these countries are perfect, but they all agreed to uphold their Article 18 commitments at home and abroad, including contentious issues like conversion and free speech.

Working together with those committed to the same principles can meet the challenges of today. For instance, the Alliance devised new strategies to advocate for all, such as a statement on Covid to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t become a pretext to limit religious freedom. Another vital network we participated in with Canada – the International Contact Group for FoRB – was also grounded in this religious-freedom-for-all approach.

In the face of new challenges and opportunities, progress will depend on North American and European leadership. The challenges facing religious freedom are beyond the capabilities or influence of any one government or organisation. Fortunately, our common understanding creates a platform for coordinated and elevated activity. Now, in addition to the US and UK envoys, others exist in several countries and organisations: Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, EU, the Netherlands, Norway, OSCE, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the United Nations.

The time is right for a more assertive trans-Atlantic approach, but parliamentarians and governments must demonstrate a lasting commitment to the right. Freedom of thought, conscience, and belief isn’t a conservative or liberal value or some sideshow to other issues, but a fundamental human right relevant to people of all faiths and none worldwide. It deserves the full attention of the international community.

Pressing repressive governments toward reform will not be easy or costless. China is playing hardball, with its persecution of UighursTibetansChristians, and the pressuring of countries daring to speak out. Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy law is in overdrive, while India is taking a wrong turn against minorities. Burma’s genocide against the Rohingya grinds on, while Christians in Nigeria suffer from Boko Haram.

In response, networking efforts among like-minded allies can share the burden and multiply the effectiveness of bilateral engagements. For instance, sanctions and other corrective measures like the Magnitsky act, which our countries have implemented, can create political leverage to encourage change. Hopefully, others in Europe will follow. Speaking out on specific cases is another example, such as on Yemen or blasphemy laws. To further elevate, our countries can use our UN Security Council seats to press for reforms. We can share data and train diplomats. All European and North American countries can immediately response to atrocity crimes, including genocide, or establish early warning systems.

More action is desperately needed. Governments must take this human right seriously and incorporate concerns across their policies. People of faith must speak up for persecuted believers (and non-believers) from other communities, to stand in solidarity with the repressed. Religious leaders should tackle this issue head-on, using their pulpits to advocate for soul freedom of all.

Everyone speaking up for everyone, even outside their belief system, is most impactful for the global effort. By working together, as rights-respecting communities on each side of the Atlantic, we can make a difference.

Alexander Stafford: Renewables – not just providers of green energy, but enablers of levelling up

15 Jul

Alexander Stafford is MP for Rother Valley.

In every conversation around the clean recovery there is, rightfully, a tendency of NGOs and commentators to look at how we can take the steps needed to achieve our net zero ambition. Job-rich initiatives such as energy efficiency and EV charging development are particularly alluring. The development of green hydrogen is promoted as strongly for its regional growth benefits as much as its importance for decarbonising heat.

The potential role of renewables in the green recovery is celebrated, but often overlooked. But it is these that are already driving jobs in the North of England and would help with this Government’s “levelling-up agenda”, as well as being the most publicly popular.

The Government has an ambitious target of 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, which will bring over £50 billion of investment into the UK over the next decade. The industry is already transforming ports across the country such as Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Tyneside, employing thousands in high-wage high-value jobs and supporting our levelling up ambitions.

What’s more, as the cheapest large-scale new power source, the offshore wind that the UK will be building in the coming years, and indeed the onshore wind and solar, will be helping the British economy stay competitive.

Our competitive market framework of Contract of Difference auctions has ensured consumers get the lowest cost renewables, whilst supporting the development of a world-leading supply chain. New companies like Tekmar in Sedgefield have emerged as world-leaders in cables. Traditional oil and gas companies such as James Fisher, headquartered in Barrow-in-Furness, have found new contracts servicing offshore wind farms. However, we could be doing much more to support the development of the UK’s supply chain.

The Prime Minister is looking for infrastructure investment which will unlock future regional growth. The next generation of offshore wind turbines will be almost as tall as the Shard, so it is essential that we re-develop our ports so that they’re able to handle these incredible machines and their component parts.

Similarly, our manifesto rightly saw the opportunity of floating offshore wind, and the Government is looking at the CfD reform needed to develop it. We are well placed to become world leaders, with an established wind industry supply chain, expertise, and great wind resources. There’s the potential to power millions of homes by developing floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea and deep in the North Sea, but we need to invest in ports like Milford Haven and Nigg to do so – vitally, to maximise the development of the UK supply chain in the process.

We know proactive industrial strategy works in renewables. It was a mixture of market opportunity and Government support that unlocked £310 milliom of private investment in the Siemens Gamesa blade factory in Hull, which now employs over a thousand people, 96 per cent of whom live within a 30 mile radius of the factory.

We need to reignite bilateral conversations with major supply chain companies, and set up a policy environment that better supports the vast number of UK SMEs. Test facilities like the ORE Catapult in Blyth are fantastic in allowing UK innovators to trial new products on wind turbines but, once they’re proven, we will need to ensure the grants, tax relief or financial de-risking schemes are in place which help these innovators to scale-up their businesses.

Increasing our research and development funding to the levels of competitor countries like Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Japan will ultimately ensure UK’s companies are at the forefront of innovation and remain competitive in the global market.

When the global market in offshore wind is set to increase to at least £30 billion a year by 2030, we should be increasing our export ambitions and the support that government gives companies in entering these global markets.

Just as Denmark has an ecosystem of multiple agencies working to boost renewable exports, we too should work across Government. We’re rightly levering our role as COP President and world leadership in offshore wind to encourage countries such as Brazil, Mexico and India to take advantage of their vast wind and seabed resources too. We do so for the future of the world’s climate. But we should also acknowledge that, in doing so, we’re developing markets for our supply chain companies, and departments should act accordingly.

Finally, and most importantly,  the Government shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of also ensuring that people are re-skilled so they can take advantage of the jobs we create through the nurture of our renewables sector. We need to manage the transition.