Monthly Archives: June 2009

…and punishment

150 years in jail is quite a sentence. But then Bernard Madoff was quite a criminal and many ordinary Americans have been reduced to penury by his activities. The practical result of course is that, barring a successful appeal, Mr Madoff will die in prison.

Here in Britain our judges would never hand down a sentence like that. But our sentences are just as deviod of reality as the one given to Mr Madoff. If you are convicted of rape in this country you can expect a sentence of about 5 years. But you won’t actually spend that time in prison. You’ll only spend half of your sentence in prison and then you’ll be let out early. Without having to do anything to earn your release. It doesn’t give the public any confidence in the justice system.

We must move to an arrangement whereby the person convicted is given a minimum and a maximum sentence. The actual date he is released will depend entirely on what he does inside. If he makes efforts to improve himself (eg by learning a skill or trade, or perhaps even learning to read) he gets out nearer the minimum date. If he just “does his bird” he will get out near the maximum date.

This will work. Prisoners at the moment focus on their release date and nothing else, counting down day after meaningless day. If this dumb certainty were removed they’d have to make a positive effort and that is a good thing. If you leave prisoners to fester in prison doing nothing, is it any wonder that they commit more crimes when they are let out?

Finally the prison system has to deal with the drugs problem. Stopping drugs getting in and treating drug-addicted prisoners properly whilst they are inside. No prisoner should be released if he is still dependant upon drugs, no matter the length of the sentence handed down.

The next Conservative government must not fight shy of building more prisons or of spending taxpayer’s money on the rehabilitation of offenders. It will save the taxpayer money in the long run.

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Crime

Ask any government minister about the current level of crime and they will give you a raft of statistics showing you that crime has fallen in the last 5 years. You might therefore be forgiven for wondering why, of the 6 stories featured on the front page of this week’s Surrey Advertiser, 4 were stories about local criminal activity and a fifth was about a sacked policewoman.

The fact is that the official figures only measure the clear-up rates of reported offences. Behind those figures is hidden the evidence which presents itself to anyone whose eyes are open: that petty criminality is rife and is quite simply not being reported or prevented.

For example the bus shelter at the end of my road seems to be vandalised every 6 weeks or so. The local council fight a losing battle against the spray-paint brigade who tag the walls of a local pathway. Flower baskets put up by the local Cobham in Bloom voluteers are taken down and thrown across the high street.

I used to go up to Doncaster every Friday evening. To get from the trian station to where my car was parked the shortest route lay directly through the town centre. I always took a long detour. Despite the fact that police cars patrolled the area and officers would intervene if violence actually occurred, they did nothing to stop the shouting, swearing, leering, spitting, foul-mouthed groups of both sexes stumbling from one cheap booze venue to another. If I was giving the town centre a swerve is there any surprise that older citizens never went in at all after dark? And if no-one who is not trying to get as drunk as they can as quickly as possible goes into our town centres is it any surprise that no-one wants to open new cafes and restaurants and so the only business capable of making money is the “vertical drinking establishment”, to borrow an unlovely trade phrase?

It has got to the stage where we must try “zero-tolerance policing”. This is the system popularised in New York where the police arrest anyone acting in an anti-social manner and always fully investigate the most minor act of vandalism. The result there was that, whilst it is true you are still more likely to be murdered in New York than in London (no doubt due to the ready availability of firearms), you are less likely to be the victim of virtually any other crime.

This will may mean the public paying for more officers to be trained. I suspect that we would be prepared to do that if we could see the results. It would also require a bonfire of the forms that officers currently have to fill in whenever they stop someone. And if that horrifes the human rights industry, then it can only be a good thing.

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Garson’s Farm

Just a quick plug for this fantastic garden centre come pick-your-own farm in West End, Esher. After Sports Day (see below) what do you do with a little girl on a fine afternoon? Take her to pick some strawberries, that’s what you do.

An hour or so later we have two big punnets of delicious strawberries, we’ve paid just over a fiver and a 4 year old girl has learned that strawberries don’t grow in supermarkets.

Here’s the link: www.garsons.co.uk

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Sports Day

Today was Sports Day at my elder daughter’s school. She has been looking forward to it and all her friends are taking part. Mummies and Daddies are very welcome to come and support thir little ones.

This is a tough one for working parents. One of you needs to be there or your child will feel unloved, especially as most of her friends will have their Mums or Dads there. We decided I would take the  day off  – and it is a whole day, as they’ve organised it for the morning not the afternoon. My wife has to take two afternoons off this week as our childminder does not “do” Tuesdays and we have always picked our elder girl up ourselves on Fridays.

Helping working parents juggle their responsibilities is a major challenge for Governments. Most of the mums at my daughter’s school don’t work but for those that do, special events such as this are a nightmare as the whole week’s plan goes out of the window. Luckily I’m self-employed. I can more or less control my work diary. Some employers can offer their staff flexi-time but many simply cannot afford to do so. Striking a balance between the needs of industry and the needs of working parents and their children will be on David Cameron’s in-tray when he walks into No. 10 next spring (I hope…).

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Speaker Bercow

So much for a career as a political tipster. My runner fell half way through the race and the man from Buckingham broke the tape. I hope those members who voted for him genuinely believed he was the right man and didn’t choose to vote for him in order to deliver a slap in the face to the Conservative front bench who, if the papers and blogs are right, don’t like Mr Bercow very much. I’ll wish him luck – he will need it.

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Speaker

You might be forgiven for thinking that if ever there were a definition of the job that no-one would want then Speaker of the House of Commons would be pretty near the top of the pile just now. Nevertheless 10 punters have put their names forward. They are:
Margaret Beckett (Lab)
Sir Alan Beith (Lib Dem)
John Bercow (Con)
Sir Patrick Cormack (Con)
Parmjit Dhanda (Lab)
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Con)
Sir Michael Lord (Con)
Richard Shepherd (Con)
Ann Widdecombe (Con)
Sir George Young (Con)
I suppose one positive note for whoever is chosen is that he or she couldn’t possibly do worse than the outgoing man. However the winner (and this is being done by secret ballot) is facing a monumental task in restoring the reputation of Parliament. They are going to have to be radical and they are going to have to face down the vested interests of both the Government and of  long-standing members who like their club just the way it is. Cosmetic changes would serve them just fine. The electorate on the other wants visible change.
So it’s very disappointing but quite predictable that the Government are apparently trying to fix it to ensure that New Labour loyalist Margaret Beckett gets the job, or failing her John Bercow whose only qualification appears to be that he’s not very popular within his own party. You have to ask yourself: have these people learned nothing?
My choice? Ann Widdecombe. Tough, independant minded and , given that she is standing down from Parliament at the next elelction, she has  absolutely no incentive to keep things as they are.

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Expenses

Last week’s publication of MPs’ expenses with large areas redacted was a waste of time. Nothing short of full disclosure will begin to repair the damage done to the reputation of our democratic institutions. David Cameron has begun to do that with the Shadow Cabinet’s expenses and other MPs would do well to follow suit.

But the bottom line is that the whole system has to change. My view is that MPs should be paid a decent salary, and that they should have the support of civil servants to deal with their personal admin and to assist with their constituency caseload. Some MPs would need more staff than others – it’s easy to see that someone representing a deprived area with a hopeless local authority (eg Hackney) would need more help than someone in an affluent seat. An independant body would decide what level of civil service support any MP might need.

Political advisors and researchers, currently employed by many MPs at the public expense, should from now on be paid for privately by the individual member or supplied by his political party. Public money should not be spent on propaganda.

No MP living within 1 hour’s commute of London should be allowed to claim for a second home or the cost of travelling into and from London. The MP’s constituents have to pay to go to work on crowded trains and so should the MP. On the rare occasions when debates and votes go on so late that public transport has closed down, these MPs could fairly claim for an overnight stay. But not otherwise.

Next there’s the question of second homes. The MOD has access to a number of properties in London which it makes available rent-free to military personnel who are posted to London from their usual bases. This system could easily be adapted to work for parliamentarians. Ideally Parliament would own a block of flats close to Westminster which could be leased for the duration of a Parliament to MPs whose constituencies are more than 1 hour’s travel from Westminster. Some extra rooms could be made available to MPs nearer to London to cater for those late-night sittings.

Then there are the many freebies offered to MPs by groups lobbying for influence. I have no problem with these in principle but, just as members of my local council are required to declare any free gift or hospitality worth over £25, so should MPs be required to declare any perks they receive. I can also live with the odd “fact-finding mission” where MPs are provided with free travel to foreign countries to examine how they conduct their affairs. Every MP should publish his daily diary on the Web so that their constituents know what they are up to and can hold them to account if they spend too much time on the sun lounger and not enough attending to their constituents’ needs.

Finally, all Conservative MPs should be selected in open primaries so that all voters can have a good look at their proposed representatives.

The key to it all in the end is openness.

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