Tuesday, 27 February 2007

"Together We Can Cut Crime": rejecting the policy paper

In four days time the Liberal Democrat federal conference will have the opportunity to debate and vote upon the law and order policy paper, Together We Can Cut Crime. This is a worthy attempt to tackle the perception of rising lawlessness in our society and to genuinely bring down rates of criminality and especially re-offending. Sadly, in the process it brushes aside too many of our fundamental principles and seeks centralising and patronising solutions. It needs amending. Failing that, it needs rejecting.

To be fair, the paper really isn’t that bad. It tries hard, and many of its suggestions are really rather good. So I will dwell first on these strong points. Section 3, on crime prevention, is really quite good: a review of ASBOs and a focus on establishing responsible behaviour contracts before behaviour deteriorates are long overdue – it is almost forgotten now that the police were originally set up to prevent crime, rather than catch offenders. Addressing repeat victimisation is sensible, as is boosting the capacity of police to recognise and deal with metal health issues and the proposal to appoint dedicated youth officers in each ward.

Similarly, section 4 on punishment, reform and rehabilitation is excellent. For too long the prison system has been viewed as a means of punishing offenders and protecting society rather than reforming characters and enabling criminals to lead constructive, law-abiding lives. Prisoners are the ultimate captive audience: they can be obliged to attend lessons to teach them literacy (only one in five can cope with an application form, according to section 4.2.10), numeracy and perhaps a trade.

But other parts of the paper are less strong, falling as policy papers all-too-often do into the traps of all governments-in-waiting: centralism and micromanagement.

Take, for example, section 2.1.4: “Licensing regimes should also be used to ensure responsible behaviour… We propose: Requiring local authorities [to] have regard to ensuring an appropriate ratio of seated to standing areas in all pubs, bars and clubs…” An ironic twist for a party that is promising a Great Repeal Act, a bonfire of the regulatory vanities. The same is true of the previous clause, to extend the House in Multiple Occupancy licensing regime to include minimum security standards. There may be evidence to suggest that these will reduce crime, but it is rather incongruous that these two proposals immediately follow the statement (2.1.2) that “We are reluctant to over-regulate, especially where stipulating design standards…”

Sadly, over-regulating is exactly what this is about. Local authorities are to be given the powers to tell publicans, private clubs and landlords how much floor-space must be set aside for seating and what types of locks must be used. Never mind that publicans are serving the publics desires, or for that matter that the amount of revenue they generate per square foot of floor-space depends on a goodly proportion of their customers standing. Their profitability, like that of so many small businesses, is to be sacrificed on the alter of the regulator. “Licence holders and their staff need to take the lead in promoting a responsible attitude to drinking…” says 2.3.4, but they are not to be trusted to do so without regulation.

Similarly, the ability of tenants to consider for themselves whether they wish to pay extra for heightened security features, or would like to go to a busy, lively venue where there is standing room only (or for that matter, dancing-room only) is not to be trusted; these poor fools don’t know what’s good for them!

If individuals are not to be trusted to make their own decisions, neither are local authorities. Councils are to be “required to have a designated website to allow local residents to express their concerns and review… progress” (2.1.7). This is not a decision to be taken by local councillors; neither are local electors free to choose whether this is a better use of council resources than care for the elderly or better recycling or even (heavens!) other crime-prevention initiatives. Government knows best. The decision to base PCSOs in schools (3.1.2) sounds like a good idea, but should this not be the decision of local authorities and local police boards, responding to particular needs, rather than a central government diktat that assumes that every area suffers youth crime?

Then there is the target setting. One of the greatest problems with the Labour Government has been its obsession with setting targets that reflect the views of bureaucrats rather than the needs of deliverers; that deflect service providers from responding to the needs of their patients or pupils or the citizens they serve. “Setting and average of 90 days between arrest and trial” (5.1.5) and dictating call centre response rates (2.4.7) is no different from the Blair/Brown target setting we have suffered for a decade: maximum waits become uniform waits, and attention to other, perhaps more urgent problems is subsumed by the desire to tick the Whitehall boxes. The faith in the national plan and the wisdom of departmental officials flies in the face of our commitment (in both policy papers and, more importantly, in our ideological foundations) to trust individuals, local providers and county and municipal authorities to make decisions in their own interests and that of their local area.

Finally, and most egregiously, there is the section on the victims’ compensation fund. Section 5.4.4 states that “Liberal Democrats sign up to the principle that victims of crime should be entitled to some compensation whether this is obtained from the perpetrator… or… is paid by the state…” This is absolute nonsense. While there is a compelling case for requiring offenders to make reparations to their victims (both as compensation and as a means of demonstrating to them the personal harm they caused their victim), there is absolutely no reason why the state should act as an insurer-of-last-resort, soothing with money the pain meted out by criminals.
Compensation is not a liberal principle. It is the offspring of a paternalism that believes that the state should be a shoulder to cry upon and a nurse-maid to provide a sticking-plaster for the poor, crying child that is the citizen. Of course we feel compassion for the victim; we would be heartless if we did not. But the victim’s financial losses should be met by offenders and private insurers. The state’s efforts should be devoted solely to ensuring that crime is prevented and criminals brought to justice. If there is a spare pound, it should be spent on the two, primary purposes of Government: to provide a stable legal framework in which we can all live peacefully, and to protect the citizen from harm. It is not to act as nanny.

This paper, in current form, is not worthy of being adopted by a liberal political party. It ignores the principles that the party has set out in other policy papers and the philosophical basis of our beliefs: that the individual must be free of meddling officialdom; that decisions are best taken at the most localised level, nearest the citizen; and that the state exists to protect, not to mother, the individual.

Together We Can Cut Crime is not a disappointment because it is entirely wrong. Worse than that, it is a disappointment because much of it is right. But it is marred by illiberal micro-management and patronising paternalism. It desperately needs to be revised. Until then, it must be rejected.

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