Monday 23 May 2011

Hanging and Flogging

It is interesting that populist politicians in the two largest parties in Parliament are falling over each other to prove which is "tougher" on crime - or, put another way, who can polish their "hanging and flogging" credentials sufficiently to gain respect from the Sun's editorial team.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is the exception as he argues that he will continue to consider logically how crime can be reduced by reducing reoffending which is not necessarily achieved by banging people up more often and for longer spells.

It was assumed by the media and some hard-line politicians of all parties that his ill-chosen words on rape might finish him. But it is not that simple as the public too may have a more sophisticated view of these matters as witnessed by Question Time (see the story here). Nevertheless Clarke remains on shaky ground not because of the remarks on rape but because he is out of line with the prevailing attitudes to criminal justice of the old guard in both parties.

The significance of Clarke's tenure for people with a mental illness cannot be underestimated. He is the first Justice Minister to acknowledge unambiguously the pointlessness and inhumanity of imprisoning so many people with a mental illness and, though the jury is out on whether he can actually change things, his replacement with one of those "short, sharp, shock" populists could be a grave set-back.

During the Thatcher years when I worked for NACRO I met two Home Secretaries (when that brief also managed justice) of widely differing perspectives - patrician, liberal old Etonian Douglas Hurd and Llanelli-born Michael "Prison Works" Howard. But the fact was that there wasn't much difference in outcomes between these two any more than between Tory and Labour Ministers. Have things changed? Clarke probably offers the best hope in this Government but I think he won't survive long enough.


In case the above would lead you to believe that Llanelli only breeds hard-liners contrast the actions of my great, great, great, grandfather (and incidentally the father of the founder of the Felinfoel Brewery) David John, whose best friend was hanged and gibbeted for sheep-stealing in the early 19th Century. Contrary to law and at significant personal risk David cut him down at dead of night and gave him a decent burial. I'm not sure if the authorities ever caught him so please keep it to yourselves.

We too should find dignified ways to challenge the barbarity of today's system which incarcerates people with extreme psychotic symptoms causing them unspeakable distress.