Monday, January 29, 2007

The New Angle on Community Punishment

Community Groups to have say in Court: The detail to come from Government later today (Monday 29th January 2007).

Trailed for some time, this proposal is quite awful.

The extension of the role of "Community Groups" and their integration into the local and regional policy framework has been a core theme of the workings of this Government since 1998. Political Parties have increasing difficulty in finding candidates of calibre (or, come to that, any candidates) for local government elections. The extension of a putative community authority to unelected community group members steps away from democracy, accountability, open procedures and opportunities for scrutiny. At the same time, this feeds the government's claim of an enhancement of community involvement in policy making and delivery. This questionable policy extends the role of community representatives (added to the business and other representatives nominated without public scrutiny) to membership of the under-reported Local Strategic Partnerships. Such extended roles are available only to those who have both the level of commitment and the time to meet that responsibility (not forgetting the income needed in order to release the time). There are no opportunities for community scrutiny or for the election of representatives.

Here in East Bumbleflock, the EB Community Network has 6 seats reserved on the LSP. The 181 members of the EBCN listed on the Website range from Age Concern and the Ataturk Allotments Association to the Zorro Riding School (names changed to protect the innocent). This includes membership for facilitating charities, companies limited by guarantee and agencies based outside the Borough. Unknown to most members, the Memorandum and Articles of Association in effect place the authority of EBCN above that of the Governing Documents of Member organisations (although I as yet know of no case where that power has been exercised nor of parallels in other Boroughs). The number of members serves to enhance the claim on authority for the EBCN and for the LSP.

The procedures for the election of or appointment of Community Group leaders or Officers are not open to all members of a community (however defined) through secret ballot (such would be ridiculous - 181 elections a year in the Borough?). Neither are there any manifestos or policy statements published prior to such appointment. No. Such people are appointed at ill-attended and ill-publicised AGM's, with votes by a show of hands. The field is wide open to entryism by those who, for whatever reason, wish to have local influence. Their authority is exaggerated. Their purported claim on community authority is further reinforced by all of the enabling agencies and larger community networks which can access government or charitable funding. The existence of the groups then justifies the existence (and careers) of the professionals employed within the sector. Such professionals will also help you establish your community group.

It is then in the survival interests of the institutions and enabling professionals to facilitate the expansion of such groups. It is also in the interest of the Government who wish to extend (and perhaps believe) the illusion of greater local involvement in government. This is false, It is greater unelected involvement in the policy of a government which has at the same time been regionalising the administrative tentacles of its centralised authority. In such ways are people misled and subverted.

This vehicle for those who wish to have a say in the policies affecting their communities can open the door for those who recall the ideal of largely unpaid public service, who are personally disinterested in reward or self-aggrandisement. Such beings are increasingly rare and easily dissuaded from their path by jargon, petty power games, and the more dedicated entryism of such as evangelicals, bless 'em.

At worst, community groups can provide a vehicle for the policies of prejudice and unreason, as does this proposal.for involvement in Court procedures and prospective influence on sentencing.

Do you know what Community Groups are in your area? Who their members are?

If it please the Court, I think they should all be crucified. Or perhaps stoned. Stocks on the local green. Ducking stools. Chain-gangs. The pits of Hell.


Friday, January 26, 2007

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"

posted by k

British prisons are nearly full. There's a panic about where to put people.

There are Bridewells in the courts that can be used. The possibility of prison ships ("the hulks") is being raised again. I have even seen references to the single cell in the House of Commons, though no-one thinks that will be used yet.

The debate about justice seems to have changed lately. The main questions asked are:

1. what should be illegal?
2. how can society be policed?
3. how many people can we imprison - and for how long?

It's hard to get away from those questions and ask new ones. It's hard to imagine a society that isn't heavily policed or that doesn't imprison large numbers of people. It's hard to imagine a society in which fewer activities are illegal. Radio 4's debate on what law should be repealed was unusual. But it looked for a single law amid a welter of new legislation and new crimes.

It's worth trying to imagine a society drawing up its laws from scratch. Such a society might be concerned not with illegality, but with justice. Justice encompasses victims as well as criminals and should involve society as a whole. Justice might be concerned that everyone, regardless of income, has free and equal access to the law. Justice might be as concerned with redressing wrong and preventing future crime as with punishing.

If we started from scratch, the first questions we might ask about the police are: who should police society? and, what must the police do? A police force that is separate from society runs the risk of becoming an institution that protects itself and conceals its flaws. A society starting from scratch might feel anxious at the appointment of spies (and the police must spy on society) except in particular, urgent cases.

Violence, theft, rape and murder happen. Not all crimes are committed by the poor. Some crimes occur equally in all social groups. Other crimes are committed by the rich and powerful. The poor are frequently victims. Crimes and cruelty happen even though they are against the law - and even though punishments are severe.

The problem with crime is not just one of laws, policing and punishment - though crimes are, by definition, created by laws (if it's not illegal, it's not a crime). The focus on laws, policing and punishment directs public and political debate away from even more important questions. Why do people hurt and defraud one another? Is it possible to have a society in which all humans are valued? Is it possible for human beings to take responsibility for one another?

If we can't address these questions and move away from the focus on laws, policing and punishment we shall hurtle faster towards the repressive surveillance society which is the totalitarian's dream.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God come near me"

posted by k

Is there a War on Terror?

Sir Ken Madonald, Director of Public Prosecutions, thinks not and has called for "a culture of legislative restraint". He is concerned with saving "fair trials", "human rights", the "consensual rule of law" and "fundamental values".

Meanwhile, George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address, has widened the scope of the current war, in which the whole world is already implicated. He said:

Every success against the terrorists is a reminder of the shoreless ambitions of this enemy. The evil that inspired and rejoiced in Nine-Eleven is still at work in the world. And so long as that is the case, America is still a nation at war."

So it's not terror we're fighting now, nor terrorist actions. We're fighting Evil. Bush's enemies are defined by the effect they have on others and even their thoughts.
Inspiring or rejoicing at evil actions makes you an enemy of the United States. Complexity has been abolished in Bush's world-view. It's good versus evil, light versus darkness, us versus them.

The House of Commons debates the Iraq war this afternoon. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister won't be there. He has more important things to do. He's meeting businessmen.

The war in Iraq is one part of a wider picture defined by the President of the United States. The War on Terror - or the War on Evil - is limiting the way we see the world. In Britain and internationally, it's undermining the idea of a consensual law that protects all equally.

MPs need to look at a picture that's even wider than Iraq and the horrors there. They need to choose between the restraint advocated by the Director of Public Prosecutions and Bush's division of the world into goodies and baddies.

President Bush claims he's defending liberty. I recall Manon Roland's words, "Oh, Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Losing the Mind

A couple of mornings ago, I had the radio on while preparing to go out. I wasn't listening to the programme. I had merely failed to switch it off. I then realised that what I had been ignoring was the context of the broadcast dialogues which assumed that the only context for and value of a degree, of a higher qualification, was that of employability. “Nothing new” I thought. Later, I realised I have become accustomed to accepting the victory of such an outlook, of such devaluation of the mind, of life. That the only value of education is the cynically practical goal of the facilitation of earning as distinct from the facilitation of learning, of questioning, of an awakening of personal capacity for reason.

The earning not learning mentality is the dream of tyrants, of fascists, the goal of the corporate creed. All knowledge, all “learning” is reduced to the status of a commodity, and if a particular commodity is not in demand or of insignificant demand, then it has no value. It will not be provided for (except in a few costly institutions patronised by the offspring of the eccentric rich). The Humanities – Arts, History, Classics, Philosophy, Languages, Literature – become marginalised and dismissed as irrelevant. In an already secular world, where a context of human history has been abandoned, the conceptions of philosophy, of some sense of spirit (shared humanistic or prospectively transcendent) have been omitted in the new canons of social doctrine. A foundation for Ethics has been dismantled. The personally experiential and an independence of reason are dismissed as irrelevant. The capacity to question and resist the interpretation of the world as offered by political, corporate or religious tyrants and their agents is, in all of that, reduced.

The face of tyranny would seek to induce and exploit fear: “I am here to protect you from...” (Here insert one of the following - terrorism, aliens, poverty, disease, the insane, criminals, the poor, extremists, anyone under the age of 21) and with the caveat “as long as you co-operate”. If you don't co-operate, you become socially excluded and in that will fall into one of the preceding categories. When the ability to reason for oneself, to question, to understand more of a context of history and cultures is limited by the stifling of the intellect, then the barbarians are loose among us and have their victory in sight.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

"Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd ..."

posted by k

"Why have one-size-fits-all?" the government is fond of asking.

It's a sensible question when applied to education and healthcare, where plainly the needs of individuals are different. There's a case to be made for personalized education or healthcare, responding to the needs of the individual.

This government has introduced personalized law. Rather than one law which affects us all, there's a power to make personalized laws. There are actions which are criminal only when carried out by a named individual.

Sometimes there's a case for such personalized laws. A woman trying to free herself from an abusive partner, for instance, should be able to apply to a court to ban him from her house and workplace. She doesn't want to ban anyone else. The court rightly examines evidence and acts to protect an individual human being from danger.

Most laws are the same for all of us. No-one is allowed to kill, rape or steal. We are expected to dispose of rubbish properly and banned from hitting people.

ASBOs are different. ASBOs are laws framed for named individuals. They prevent individuals frm carrying out actions that are legal for everyone else: like feeding pigeons, washing cars and licking cameras, drinking in a pub, wearing a bikini in the garden and so on. Those given or threatened with ASBOs have included children with autism and Tourette's syndrome, would-be suicides, travellers, homeless people and protestors.

Some of those given ASBOs have never broken the law. Some are just the kind of awkward or different people that we used to accept in our communities. Other people may have broken
the law. The police prefer applying for ASBOs because the standard of proof is lower than in criminal cases. Hearsay evidence is allowed. Gossip and rumour are admissible in court. Breach of an ASBO carries a sentence of up to five years.

ASBOs were used as the model for laws against people accused (without trial) of terrorism
. The hearsay evidence admitted included evidence obtained by torture in other countries, until the Law Lords surprised the government by ruling against torture.

The government seems not to think it has gone far enough. According to today's Sunday Times, Mr Blair now wants to introduce super-ASBOs for violent offenders. This will be known as a VOO - a Violent Offender Order. But these aren't intended for people who have already comitted violent acts or threatened violence. These are for people who are judged likely to become violent in the future. People given super-ASBOs could be placed under curfew, forced to live in hostels, prevented from entering certain areas or from meeting certain people. They would be placed on the register of violent and sex offenders, even though they had never committed a crime.

The Home Office paper which sets this out, lists some of the factors that may lead to a super-ASBO:

The paper identifies a series of “risk factors” that could lead to a person being targeted for the new order. These include a person’s formative years and upbringing, “cognitive deficiencies”, “entrenched pro-criminal or antisocial attitudes,” “a history of substance abuse or mental health issues”.

Background, upbringing and "bad attitude" have been punished and criminalised by totalitarian and repressive regimes in the past. I could be called anti-social. I'm waiting for the knock at the door.

Friday, January 12, 2007

"Then shall the realm of Albion come to great confusion"

posted by k

Today the Prime Minister stood on H.M.S. Albion in Plymouth.

He promised war. His speech didn't make sense. He said peacekeeping was a retreat unless it was accompanied by "war fighting". Perhaps he thinks the Sermon on the Mount contains the verse, "Blessed are the war fighters".

The speech takes the usual line that 9/11 was a turning-point in history, which makes a good story. The speech is full of stories. Moving seemlessly from 9/11 to Afghanistan to Saddam Hussein, the story suggests Saddam was involved in 9/11. He wasn't. The story almost says that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There weren't. The truth about western involvement with Taleban and Saddam Hussein doesn't fit. Inconvenient truths are kept out of the way.

It's a very dangerous story. It ends as a spy story and conspiracy theory. There's a world-wide enemy whose tentacles are everywhere, infiltrating states and communities. Governments often turn to conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories help win elections (think of the Zinoviev letter or the so-called "Protocols of the Elders of Zion").

Look closely at Blair's story:

"Put simply, September 11 2001 changed everything. Three thousand people died on the streets of New York. They did so as a result of a terrorist, suicide mission. The mission was planned and organised by the Al Qaida group out of a failed state, Afghanistan, thousands of miles away. The state was run by a fanatical, religiously motivated dictatorship, the Taleban. Even now, the bald facts of what happened are utterly extraordinary.

"But though September 11 did indeed change the way we look at the world, the profound nature of the change for our armed forces was not immediately apparent.

"In October 2001, the Taleban in Afghanistan was subject to military action. Within two months by the use of vast airpower, they were driven from office. In military terms the victory seemed relatively easy. The cost to our forces was minimal.

"Eighteen months later, with Saddam consistently refusing to abide by UN Resolutions and with alarm at the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, Iraq was invaded. This time it was more difficult and more costly. Nonetheless, Saddam was removed within 3 months, again by the exercise of overwhelming military firepower.

"What was unclear then but is very clear now is that what we were and are confronted with, is of a far more fundamental character than we supposed. September 11 wasn't the incredible action of an isolated group, a one-off strike masterminded by Osama Bin Laden. It was the product rather of a world-wide movement, with an ideology based on a misreading of Islam, whose roots were deep, which had been growing for years and with the ability to mount a radically different type of warfare requiring a radically different type of response. What we face is not a criminal conspiracy or even a fanatical but fringe terrorist organisation. We face something more akin to revolutionary Communism in its early and most militant phase. It is global. It has a narrative about the world and Islam's place within it that has a reach into most Muslim societies and countries. It adherents may be limited. Its sympathisers are not. It has states or at least parts of the governing apparatus of states that give it succour."

This isn't just propaganda to win an election. This is propaganda to justify an unceasing war. This is the new empire.

Blair tells us what he expects. We should be very afraid:

"The new frontiers for our security are global. Our Armed Forces will be deployed in the lands of other nations far from home, with no immediate threat to our territory, in environments and in ways unfamiliar to them. "

There's a gale outside. The world hurtles to catastrophe. It's time to take a stand against the madness and lies.

Note: The photo by Peter Kennard was in the window of Santa's Ghetto in Oxford Street last year. It is even more relevant now than it was three weeks ago.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

"the surplus population"

posted by k

I like to return to Dickens' A Christmas Carol at Christmas. I grew up watching Alastair Sim as Scrooge and read the original story early on. It's harder-edged and more political than most of the film versions.

These days, it's usual to groan at the sentimentality of Tiny Tim, the boy who will never grow to adulthood unless Scrooge intervenes and becomes a good employer. But for Victorian readers, Tim wasn't just one golden-haired boy who could be the focus of charitable giving. Tim stood against the views of Malthus and those who took a purely economic view of the world.

Asked to donate to charity, Scrooge recommends the workhouse. Told that the poor would rather die than go there, Scrooge replies, "If they would rather die ... thet had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." The "surplus population", according to political economists of the day, were those incapable of economic activity. In economic terms, they were be better off dead. When he encounters Tim, Scrooge finds that the surplus population has a human face, and changes his views.

Scrooge doesn't just encounter one pretty child, however. He also meets two ugly children, hidden beneath the cloak of the Spirit of Christmas Present. These children are Ignorance and Want and Scrooge has to learn that these too are his responsibility - his children. He has to face a general responsibility as well as a particular concern.

Today, we see too much in economic terms - as though money were the only measure of value. We're asked to argue about the economic value of migrants, as though friendships and cultural enrichment counted for nothing. Education and health are measured by their monetary value. Our children are valued not for their kindness, their ideas or themselves but their potential value to future employers. Skills are exalted above thought and questioning because skills are marketable.

Today, in the Guardian, ex-Python Terry Jones takes this monetary approach to its logical conclusion. Seeing human lives - and deaths - in accountants' terms should be an absurdity. Tomorrow we might miss the irony.

Monday, January 01, 2007

"few people in England know what slavery is"

posted by k

An announcement has been made. This year we shall commemorate the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of slavery. At least, that's how it's being presented.

But Britain didn't abolish slavery 200 years ago.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was not the end of slavery in the British empire. The 1807 Act simply banned capturing and transporting new slaves. It imposed a penalty of £100 per slave on captains of British slave-ships. Captains under threat of being stopped by the British navy often cut their fines by ordering their crew to throw slaves overboard - a scene dramatised in Turner's painting, "The Slave-Ship". Meanwhile, those who were already slaves or who were born in slavery were unaffected. It was only in 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act made slavery illegal - with generous compensation for the slave-owners.

The 1807 Act still deserves celebration. Perhaps we could look at modern instances of slavery within Britain, such as the limits placed on workers from overseas. Or we could address the detention of asylum seekers with their children - or other ways in which the vulnerable are exploited and ill-treated today. Self-congratulation seems out of place.

"phantoms of lost liberty"?

posted by k

Readers of this blog may wish to respond to the call in PJC Journal for a list of lost freedoms.

It seems like a good idea to me.

Click through for the e-mail address. If you wish, you can also post suggestions as comments here.

Meanwhile, a starting point might be found in the lead story in today's Daily Telegraph. Travellers from Britain to the United States will find themselves under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. If you use a credit card to book an airline ticket, the American authorities will have the right to inspect other transactions you have made on that card. If you provide an e-mail address, they will be entitled to read other messages sent or received on that account.

Some information may require a court order - but a court order in the U.S. If you wish to contest that court order, you have to do so in the U.S. courts, without legal aid. Files may remain open for as long as eight years.

Where was the parliamentary debate on this loss of liberty?

Where was the public discussion?