Thursday, 5 March 2015

Cowardice Under Fire : David Cameron, Young Offenders and the Cadets

Today’s coverage of David Cameron’s refusal to participate in a live TV debate with Ed Miliband reminds me of a personal experience of his flakiness back in 1993 when I was working in the Home Office. I was a humble official responsible for advising ministers on juvenile justice policy. David Maclean, the Minister of State was very keen on exposing delinquents to a taste of military discipline. An ex Territorial Army Officer, he wanted to see the Cadet Forces take on more young people who had been before the courts. A meeting was arranged with the Ministry of Defence to discuss the idea.

Maclean could for some reason not attend and I was dispatched across to Whitehall, accompanied by 
Cameron who was the Home Office Special Adviser. We were expecting to meet some middle ranking officials to chew over the possibilities. Perhaps we might agree some sort of initiative that would satisfy Maclean while reassuring one of the country’s largest voluntary youth organisations that they would not be overrun by the kind of persistent young offenders who were making all sorts of headlines at the time.

When we arrived at the MoD, we were ushered into a room containing not an Under Secretary or two, but a Minister of State, the Permanent Secretary, and the Heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force, all in full regalia. As the minister made some opening remarks, a nervous looking Cameron elbowed me in the ribs and whispered into my ear “You Do It.”

Rightly as it turned out, he had sensed the high level turnout was not to praise Maclean's plan but to bury it.  Already the politician, Cameron decided he wanted nothing to do with a bid which was bound to fail, leaving it to me to put the Home Office proposals as best I could. It was all fairly friendly but the Military Chiefs left us in no doubt that it was a non runner. While  a great idea in principle,  it would be simply too hard in practice. It might put off the “good kids” in the Cadet detachments or worse contaminate them. Parents wouldn’t like it. Maclean’s idea had been firmly and permanently kicked into the long grass (although he was more successful later on in getting the Probation service to develop yomping activities for some of  their lads). Cameron had barely uttered a word.
We wandered back to Queen Anne’s Gate empty handed and went our separate ways, Cameron to the ministerial corridor , me to the third floor . My boss, a cricket enthusiast, thought the Special Adviser had, like Donald Bradman, simply taken a look at the pitch and sent someone else in to bat. I thought he’d been a bit of a coward. 

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Property Values : Should we give higher priority to lower level crime?

Whatever you think of their ideas, there’s little doubt that Think Tank Policy Exchange has exercised considerable influence on crime and justice developments in the last few years.  Recommendations for Police and Crime Commissioners, tougher community sentences and bigger cheaper prisons can all be found in PX reports and while their closest links are with the Conservatives, the charity can boast connections with all parties. Tottenham MP David Lammy  is a Fellow and today presented the fruits of his labours :  a report called Taking Its Toll The Regressive Impact of Property Crime in Britain. Somehow I can't see it joining the list of PX policy successes.

All in all it’s a disappointing piece of work whose central tenet that there is a property crime epidemic sweeping across Britain seems manifestly untrue. The latest Crime Survey found thefts to be at their lowest level since the survey began in 1981. Yes 4.2 million is a big number. But a whole range of action has been taken in recent years to address the problem, which gets only cursory attention in the report. Of course there’s more to be done and some of Lammy's recommendations for better prevention and data analysis are sensible ones. But his call for a return to proper neighbourhood policing, focussing on what matters to the community, seems in the current financial climate pie in the sky.

Lammy also overcooks his argument by claiming that that property crime enjoys a "de facto decriminalisation". Try telling that to the 30,000 people sentenced to custody last year for theft offences- about a third of the total who went to jail. Lammy wants courts to send more – at least that’s what I think he means by “implementing a penalties escalator”.  There’s hardly any mention of restorative justice or rehabilitation which could break the cycle of reoffending he deplores.  He’s right that the victims of burglaries and other serious crime deserve better treatment by the system. But his argument is not helped by lumping together a disparate range of offences. At his launch event there was talk of devastating impact on victims in the same breath as concern about London’s 20,000 bike thefts. I’ve had countless bikes nicked over the years.  I actually got one back -the police told me they have loads that owners never reclaim.  But I could not really argue that the police should devote more resources to investigating the thefts. There are just more important things for them to do.

And that is the nub of the problem. The police have to make choices and priorities, all the more if they are to face a further 20% cut in resources. As would be mayor does he really want them to spend more time on low level misdemeanours at the expense of knife crime, child abuse or terrorism; or indeed of the cyber- crime through which more and more people are likely to suffer losses?