Boris Johnson can’t see any reason why lawbreakers “shouldn't be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society”. If that isn’t a nod to Britain First whose policies include the introduction of chain gangs to provide labour for public works- it’s at least an evidence free appeal to the public’s baser instincts to punish and humiliate people in conflict with the law.
The Prime Minister is probably unaware of Recommendations made by the Council of Europe about prison and probation services, but if he is serious about this chain gang proposal – which I doubt- they provide a number of important grounds for avoiding it.
The 2010 European Probation Rules, developed by leading international experts and approved by the 47 CoE member states including the UK, make clear that probation agencies must respect the human rights of offenders, with all their interventions having due regard to their dignity, health, safety, and well-being. Community service, in particular, “shall not be of a stigmatising nature.” The Commentary to the Rules say that “uniforms that identify community service workers as offenders at work are unlikely to support reintegration”.
In 2017, the CoE adopted Rules which require community-based sanctions to be implemented in a way that does not aggravate their “afflictive nature”, because to do so would be unjust. Gratuitously punitive measures “can also be expected to create resistance and unwillingness to co-operate in any attempt to secure the individual’s law-abiding adjustment in the community”.
The 2017 Rules also require adequate safeguards to protect offenders from “insult and improper curiosity or publicity”, because community-based penalties may expose them to the risk of public opprobrium or social stigmatisation.
In fact, many people doing unpaid work already wear bibs- Jack Straw introduced the idea in 2008 in one of its many rebrandings as “Community Payback (CP) ”.
A 2016 inspection of unpaid work found that “a small number of offenders expressed concern at having to wear the high visibility tabards as they felt it was stigmatizing” . One told inspectors that “some members of the public see the CP vests and look down on you. I bet they think ‘what’s he done’ or ‘is he a sex offender’. I have said good morning to people and been ignored. But others appreciate what we are doing so that’s good.”
While the Beating Crime Plan may amount to less than the sum of its parts, it actually contains one or two good ideas. The best unpaid work is already delivered in consultation with local partners so requiring schemes to support community objectives and meet identified needs should bolster public confidence. As the CoE say, “work should have purpose and wherever possible should be of genuine benefit to the community.”
More problematic is the pledge to increase the use of electronic monitoring. Expanding EM has been promised countless times since then Home Secretary David Blunkett launched the pilot “Prisons without Bars" in 2004. Will this finally be the time for satellite technology to take off?
The Plan claims that the use of EM has increased substantially over the last year but statistics out this week show that although the number of subjects on EM on any given day has risen over the last 12-months, the number of new orders has not, "indicating subjects are being tagged for longer periods."
Moreover, in their latest assessments of confidence in various government programmes, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) rated the MoJ’s EM project as amber/red. That means it’s in doubt, with major risks in key areas. Urgent action is needed to address problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible.
The IPA mention specific concerns about delays & the quality of case management being provided by suppliers. Apparently “the Project is working collaboratively with suppliers to identify contingency options”. This does not sound like the strongest basis for the promised expansion.