In the Media

Human Traffic

PUBLISHED February 7, 2007

?For eight years I have battered the criminal justice system to get it to change. And it was only when we started to introduce special ASB laws, we really made a difference. And I now understand why: the system itself is the problem. We are trying to fight 21st-century crime - ASB, drug-dealing, binge-drinking, organised crime - with 19th-century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens.?

A great deal of attention has been necessarily focussed on the Government?s draconian anti-terror proposals. Nevertheless an equally insidious and regressive set of proposals have surfaced without attracting the same degree of analysis. They appear to be the product of some political think tank attempting a revamp for Labour?s 3rd term. They are packaged by the term ?Respect?, not as a tribute to George Galloway but in the hope of staking out the moral high ground and pre-empting criticism. The new buzz word is not just about the uncontroversial need to treat out fellow beings with dignity and care, a multitude of T-shirts already bear the slogan, but it hides an entirely new approach to behaviour management. It creates a form of social engineering through summary action avoiding the need for due process and the criminal justice system. Underlying this is a deep-rooted antipathy to the courts, judges and of course lawyers. It all takes too long, costs too much, juries are perverse and the judiciary are interfering and obstructive. Why not treat people like cars ? not stopping zones, resident only areas, fixed penalty notices and on the spot fines paid through the nearest cash point? Once everyone is used to this, summary execution on our streets won?t seem so shocking after all.

None of this is far fetched, especially given recent events when an innocent Brazilian was shot dead pursuant to a shoot to kill policy that has never been subject to public scrutiny. Let alone legislative authority. There is an unseemly haste to empower the police and other authorities with the ability to impose forms of social control and summary justice. The reasoning and direction of those developments are set out in Tony Blair?s speech to the Labour Party Conference. It repays careful examination, not to be expected at such an event where even the merest hint of opposition is manhandled out of earshot and detained under the anti-terror legislation.

With that in mind, it is somewhat ironical that Blair should introduce the section of the speech that deals with the need to challenge traditional thinking on law and order by talking about respect. ?Respect?, he said, ?is about more than crime. It's about the loss of a value which is a necessary part of any strong community: proper behaviour, good conduct, the unselfish notion that the other person matters.?

Tell that to Walter Wolfgang Sadly there are plenty of other examples where actions speak louder than words that do not demonstrate an adherence by the Prime Minister on his Government to the concept of respect especially for the Rule of Law eg. The UN Charter and the basis for War, the detention of foreign nationals in Belmarsh, the repatriation of detainees to regimes with no respect for human rights; the use of material extracted by torture, inhumane and degrading treatment whether in Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere and their concomitant attempt to argue their way out of obligation and protections afforded by the European Convention on Human Rights incorporated into domestic law by them in the first place!

Blair?s speech continued by identifying the roots of the loss of value or respect as the ?forces of change in our economy, the break-up of traditional communities and family structures. The bonds of cohesion have been loosened. They cannot be tied again the same way.?

It will be noted that this analysis of causation does not suggest any role played by the criminal justice system. It is primarily linked to a consumerist, materialist and market led change espoused by the Thatcher years where the individual came first and society apparently did not exist. The Blair Government is a continuation of the same forces, individualisation and privatisation. Once again this has little to do with the way criminal justice has been dispensed. It therefore beggars belief that the very next section of the speech should somehow or another link all this to the need for change in the criminal justice system!

?For eight years I have battered the criminal justice system to get it to change. And it was only when we started to introduce special ASB laws, we really made a difference. And I now understand why: the system itself is the problem. We are trying to fight 21st-century crime - ASB, drug-dealing, binge-drinking, organised crime - with 19th-century methods, as if we still lived in the time of Dickens.?

Besides the blatant non sequitur ? where is there anything about being tough on the causes of crime, addressing needs and inequalities, about inclusion, about an electoral system that does not give effect to the spectrum of opposition. And what are the 21st century methods being envisaged for organised crime and the rest of the criminal calendar. Aldous Huxley must be restless in his grave.

For a start let?s not get hung up on the presumption of innocence. We know who is guilty; let?s just deal with them, foregoing the legal niceties. It?s not that we disregard human rights but the human rights of the accused should not get in the way of the victim. The arguments of balance and proportionality are all very well for the woolly minded chattering classes of Hampstead or even the House of Lords. We are the party of hard-fisted action!

What Tony Blair actually said was less bluntly put than this but its message was unequivocal:

The whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Don't misunderstand me: that must be the duty of any criminal justice system. But surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety. It means a complete change of thinking. It doesn't mean abandoning human rights; it means deciding whose come first.

No doubt this goes down well with hawks and floggers, but is seriously divorced from the principles so assiduously crafted and fought for over many generations concerning equality before the law, the rule of law, due process etc. safety and security for law-abiding people is not to be found in arbitrary justice, in looking up or admonishing the wrong profile or in an overweening police force that acts first and asks questions afterwards. Such a spectre presents a graver risk to freedom and security than the ones listed by Blair. It is this jurisprudential approach which their Lordships so graphically grasped in the Belmarsh appeal and which is so ruthlessly rejected by the Blair Government.

Instead there is to be ?a radical extension of summary powers to police and local authorities to take on the wrongdoers. We will publish plans to do this by the end of the year.?

While we are waiting, it is as well to reflect on the situation as it stands which will doubtless provide the framework for the future. The Anti-Social Behaviour Acts have introduced some alarming concepts.

Firstly, what is ?anti-social behaviour?? Unlike the majority of criminal offences it is extremely broad and non-specific. It embraces behaviour likely to cause ?harassment, alarm or distress.? ? an extraordinarily subjective judgement.

Secondly it is a civil order, the breach of which becomes a criminal matter. Breaches are running between 36-40% and a high proportion are sentenced to imprisonment. A wide range of state and quasi-state bodies are entitled to collate evidence in order to obtain an order ? local authorities, housing associations and private management companies. It can be granted without the representation or challenge of defence Counsel, only on the balance of probabilities rather than the criminal standard and maybe based on unsubstantiated hearsay. The curfew zones of which thee wee 40
0 in July 2005 are even more onerous. Merely being under 16 in the wrong place between 9pm and 6am can result in you being presumed guilty, and of communities being criminalized. Fortunately, Liberty has successfully challenged the legality of the dispersal and curfew zones.

Thirdly, there is evidence that the incidence of the ASBO falls upon the vulnerable, like a hyperactive 13 year-old boy with special needs being placed under virtual house arrest. These measures have been aptly described as ?institutionalised intolerance.? On the 17th of June 2005 the European Commissioner for Human Rights observed: ?It is essential that measures to combat anti-social behaviour be both fair and effective. It is doubtful whether the excesses of the ASBO and the high levels of juvenile detention achieve either of these aims. As a general impression, it seems to me that more effort might be expounded on explaining the successes of positive reforms and presenting an accurate picture of juvenile crime rather than concocting new measures, which may well inspire confidence through empowering local communities to act themselves, but which would appear neither necessary nor appropriate.?

What has emerged since Tony Blair?s speech hardly inspires confidence in a regime of fairness and effectiveness. Quite the reverse. On the 10th of October, the Home Office revealed it was considering an extension of ASBOs to under 10?s ? baby ASBOs. This it is hoped will circumvent another inconvenience of the criminal justice system in that liability for crime does not arise below the age of 10.

Alongside these surreal notions run the final touches to the Police State so frequently referred to by commentators in the 70?s & 80?s, and by the world of film and literary fiction. Sin Bin units guarded by security staff and monitored by CCTV for unruly neighbours; the employment of military or specialist non-police personnel for firearms, surveillance or financial investigation; and the delivery of instant on the spot justice by the police. Sir Ian Blair, the Met Police Commissioner, addressing the Police Superintendents? Association, coincidentally at the same time as the Labour Party Conference, heralded much of this. He suggested the time had come to enable officers to impose interim ASBOs directly on the perceived culprits because, he claimed, it ?can be very difficult to deal with? through the normal criminal justice system?

It is only a short step to policing your thoughts ? ?Minority Report?-style. Still, as long as we say ?Respect? ? Hey!

On October 11th 2005, Tony Blair, prior to any public discussion let alone Parliamentary debate, told Ian Blair ? ?You tell me what you need. I will deliver it.? Could that possibly be giving a certain sigh to both the public and parliament ? respectfully speaking??