Whole Life Tariffs:  Extinguishing the Candle of Hope

In November 2014, Harry Roberts was released from prison after being incarcerated for more than 48 years.  The release triggered an avalanche of complaint from those who believe that, as Roberts is serving a life sentence for the murder of three police officers, he should never regain his liberty.  In his official statement, Steve White, Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said that, after hearing of Robert’s release, ”many police officers felt badly let down by the criminal justice system.”  

Few aspects of that criminal justice system create more controversy or confusion than life sentencing policy so it’s worth clarifying that a life sentence lasts for the remainder of a person’s life:  if someone released on licence after serving their tariff period commits another offence, they can be sent back to prison at any time.

The tariff mechanism itself was described as follows in 2002 by Hilary Benn in his capacity as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prisons and Probation:

“The tariff is the minimum period a life sentence prisoner must serve to meet the requirements of retribution and deterrence before being considered for release. After this minimum period has been served release will only take place where the prisoner is judged no longer a risk of harm to the public.”

Roberts’ tariff was 30 years but, because of concerns about an ongoing risk to the public, he remained in custody for an additional 18 years.  However, some believe that those who murder police officers should automatically receive a whole-life tariff, meaning that there would be no minimum term set by the judge and the murderer would, in effect, never be considered for release.  As Matt Evans writes in his scholarly assessment of whole life sentences in Criminal Law and Justice Weekly, “a whole-life order may not, per se, be irreducible because of the possibility of release under s30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act of 1997, but the prospect of the Secretary of State exercising this power appears so limited as to be almost non-existent”.

Prior to the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, the setting of tariff was ultimately in the hands of the Home Secretary.  While several Home Secretaries amended judges’ tariff recommendations to implement whole-life tariffs in the cases of, for example, Myra Hindley, none saw fit to do so in Roberts’ case, even though at the time of sentence, Mr Justice Glyn-Jones had told him: “I think it likely that no Home Secretary regarding the enormity of your crime will ever think fit to show mercy by releasing you on licence.”  Since 2003, tariffs have been set by judges and the release of life sentence prisoners directed by the independent Parole Board.

The CJA 2003 also sets out guidelines to govern circumstances in which a whole-life order can be issued:

(2) Cases that would normally fall within sub-paragraph (1) (a) include—

(a) the murder of two or more persons, where each murder involves any of the following—

  • (i)a substantial degree of premeditation or planning,
  • (ii)the abduction of the victim, or
  • (iii)sexual or sadistic conduct,

(b) the murder of a child if involving the abduction of the child or sexual or sadistic motivation,

(c) a murder done for the purpose of advancing a political, religious [F1, racial] or ideological cause, or

(d) a murder by an offender previously convicted of murder.

However, in her speech to Police Federation Conference in 2013, Home Secretary Theresa May promised to extend these guidelines to include the murder of police officers.  This unfulfilled promise now distracts from the debate about the meaningfulness of and evidence-base for whole-life tariffs, as those who object in principle to whole-life tariffs are immediately accused of being ‘soft on crime’ or even ‘anti-police’.

The legality of whole-life tariffs has been challenged and found not wanting, though the European Court of Human Rights has ruled to say that these should include the possibility of review.  But ‘legal’ is by no means the same as either ‘necessary’ or ‘just’.  Is there really a case for an extension of the reach of whole-life tariffs, and, if so, should this apply only to the murderers of police officers?    And, given the indeterminate nature of life-sentences, is there really any reason for whole-life orders?

Theories of punishment fall into two categories:  retributive (looking backward at the crime as the reason for punishment) and utilitarian (looking forward and basing punishment on social outcomes) and there are (debatably) five primary philosophies of punishment :

Retributive:  retribution – based on the lex talionis or “letting the punishment fit the crime”.

Utilitarian:

  • Incapacitation: preventing the offender from reoffending in the outside community;
  • Deterrence: demonstrating what happens if you deviate from accepted norms of behaviour;
  • Rehabilitation: restoring a convicted offender to a constructive place in society;
  • Reparation/restoration: restoring a sense of wholeness to the individual and the community.

It’s worth noting that, in Benn’s definition of ‘tariff’, the primary reasons for imprisonment are retribution/deterrence, with incapacitation/rehabilitation taking a secondary position and no mention at all of reparation/restoration.

Clearly, it is uncertain whether imprisonment itself is helpful in addressing these philosophies. For example, does the threat of imprisonment deter people from committing crime? The crowded corridors of US and UK jails would indicate that many are not.  And is prison the best place for rehabilitation to take place?  Only if you would you put someone who was trying to quit smoking into a room full of smokers.  However, there is no doubt is that ‘prison works’ in terms of retribution and, to a large extent, incapacitation (though very many crimes are committed inside jails).

Over the past decades, sentencing has become more punitive, with sentences becoming longer and more indeterminate sentences being issued, attracting lengthier and more whole-life tariffs.  This has resulted in the seemingly endless increase in the prison population at the same time as we are told that crime is falling. Nevertheless, if Roberts committed his crime today, he wouldn’t automatically fit the criteria for a whole-life tariff.  Yes, it was a multiple murder but those murders were not pre-planned and involved none of the other conditions necessary for a whole-life order.  And yet, with just a 30-year tariff, Roberts spent nearly half a century in prison because of the refusal of the Parole Board to be satisfied as to his fitness for release (and indeed they appear to have had good reason for doubt).  The indeterminate nature of a life-sentence enabled the Parole Board to keep Roberts in custody long beyond his tariff date, until they believed that he no longer posed a risk to the public. If they judged that he still posed a risk, they need not have allowed him to be released on licence.  So does a whole-life tariff have any value other than increased retribution?

Moreover, why should murderers of police officers be singled out for whole-life tariffs?  What of prison officers and paramedics, teachers and social workers, and all other professionals who run the risk of being murdered during the course of their duty?  The police inspector next to whom I was sitting during Mrs May’s 2013 speech was not impressed by her promise.  He saw it as a political sop to police officers, many of whom are reeling from the ‘reforms’ which have been implemented since 2010.  He is far from alone.

Time-bounded tariffs offer hope.  They allow prisoners to believe that, if they address their offending behaviour, if they comply with their sentence objectives, if they learn how to conform to accepted norms and demonstrate that conformity, they may one day be able to live outside prison, in the community, with what remains of their families, despite the threat of the life-licence forever hanging over them.   They permit prisoners’ families, their partners and children, to hold that same hope, to encourage the prisoner to do whatever is necessary to enable him or her to rejoin society.  This is a rehabilitative approach, if not yet a restorative one

Whole life tariffs, on the other hand, effectively ignore any possibility of rehabilitation or restoration, focussing only on retribution and incapacitation.  They assume either that the person of today is the same as the offender of yesteryear, unchanged by maturation or experience, or they assume that the crime was of such severity that the only possible punishment is to extinguish any hopes of liberty.  A senior police officer expressed to me the retributive view that “there’s [a] point where you say reform and rehabilitation [is] less important than punishment, which means people may change but they forfeit the ‘right’ to experience that in freedom.

Which of us is the same as we were 50, 40, 30 years ago?   Which of us hasn’t been changed by time and our experience of it?  Which of us would want to deny the possibility of change in ourselves or in another, 30, 40, 50 years hence?  What it if it were our child?  What if it were us?

The role of the state is to seek justice, not revenge.  It should reflect objectively on risk rather than pander to political whims.  It was for these reasons that the right to set tariffs and approve release was removed from the executive in favour of more independent bodies.  Because of the need to satisfy the risk assessment, the elimination of whole-life tariffs wouldn’t guarantee the prospect of freedom to those who have committed the most heinous crimes, but it would at least extend the candle of hope.

This article is a slightly amended version of one written for and published by The Justice Gap in November 2014

Evicting rogue landlords

Weymouth and Portland Borough Council’s Management Committee met earlier today to discuss a wide range of issues, including the question of the council’s approach to the private rented housing sector and specifically so-called ‘rogue landlords’

This issue had originally been raised as a Notice of Motion at Full Council back in September, when Councillor Penny McCartney (Tophill West), who is a long-standing housing campaigner, proposed that the council support the Shelter campaign (endorsed by the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health) to improve the lives of private renters and toughen up its policy in respect of rogue landlords.

On that occasion, several Conservative members expressed the view that approving the NOM would prove extremely expensive.  Eventually the NOM was referred to the housing team to produce a report for submission to Management Committee.

Given the context of that debate I found the report quite fascinating, particularly the clarification in paragraph 6.1 that there were ‘no financial implications directly associated with the recommendations‘.

The debate on the report was robust. I was, however, rather concerned that more than one councillor attempted to switch the subject away from rogue landlords to what they termed ‘rogue tenants’: assured shorthold tenancies put the balance of power firmly into the landlord’s hands and leave most private renters in a state of constant insecurity.

I work in the advice sector and every week in my ward or my work I come into contact with people whose landlords, in Cllr Brookes’s own words, ‘sail close to the wind’.

  • Landlords whose properties are damp and poorly ventilated, contributing to the ill-health of vulnerable people.
  • Landlords whose properties are cold and poorly insulated, causing tenant to pay excessive heating costs.
  • Landlords who fail to respect the law which should govern the tenant-landlord relationship by entering at will or by failing to protect deposits (and indeed, the report notes that only 68% of tenancy deposits in the borough are protected despite this having been a legal requirement since 2007).
  • Landlords who respond to complaints by threatening the tenant with eviction rather than by addressing the problem.
  • Landlords who frankly do not understand the requirements that are incumbent on them or, if they do understand, are willing to flout the law in order to make a fast buck.

Yes, as the report states, the majority of landlords are doing a good job and care about providing a decent home for their tenants but just one poor landlord is one too many and councils must not be seen to tolerate it.  It was therefore heartening that, when it came to a vote, the report was adopted unamended, allowing Weymouth and Portland Borough Council to sign up to the Shelter campaign to ‘evict rogue landlords’.

If you’re a landlord and you think you would benefit from some advice on how to be a better one, this might help.  If you’re a tenant and are experiencing problems, this might be useful.

 

Transforming Rehabilitation

Earlier today it was announced that two companies, Sodexho and Interserve, will run more than half the newly-privatised probation services (CRCs) in England and Wales.

These companies, many of which have little experience of the criminal justice system, will supervise 200,000 offenders designated as low- to medium-risk, leaving a public sector rump to supervise those designated as high-risk,

I find this decision indefensible: it is ethically unacceptable for the state to devolve responsibility for  supervising the risk posed by offenders or to allow profits to be made from this activity;  risk is a mutable concept which cannot be neatly divided into ‘low/medium/high’; and that I fear that fragmented provision will leave dangerous gaps, increasing the pressure on our already-beleaguered police service.

Moreover,  the £300m+ “poison pill” clause, guaranteeing bidders their expected profits if the 10-year contracts are cancelled after #GE2015, is yet another ideological bond designed to fetter political discretion and force future administrations into transferring even more public money into private hands.

Did the experience and knowledge of the ‘experienced voluntary sector providers’ enable these to submit more realistic bids and thus price themselves out of a race-to-the-bottom market?

If you want to know more about Transforming Rehabilitation, this BBC Radio 4 documentary by @dannyshawBBC is worth a listen.

 

Who’s responsible for CSE?

Today is the day of the by-election for a new Police and Crime Commissioner in South Yorkshire, a vacancy left by Shaun Wright’s resignation.  Mr Wright eventually resigned not because of his actions as Police and Crime Commissioner but because his earlier inactions as Rotherham Council’s briefholder for Children’s Services severely compromised his ability to carry out the PCC’s role of victims’ champion.

Ukip have created a furore by running a poster campaign which proclaims that the victims of Rotherham’s Child Sexual Exploitation debacle are “1400 reasons why you should not trust Labour again.”  However, if Ukip were serious about addressing the root causes of CSE, rather than in political point-scoring, would they have chosen an ex-South Yorkshire police officer as their PCC candidate?

Of course, Rotherham’s Labour-controlled administration was hugely at fault for allowing this issue to go unchallenged for so long but, as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham demonstrates, South Yorkshire Police are similarly culpable. And if you think, or encourage others to think, or claim for political advantage that abuse couldn’t or wouldn’t or doesn’t occur under any other administrative hue, you are sorely mistaken and standing in the path of the solution – a solution which has to come from the whole community and for which we are collectively responsible.

If you would like to know more about community responses to child sexual exploitation, I’d recommend this and other blogs by @itsmotherswork

 

 

Water cannon: policing by consent?

On 10 June, the Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) announced that it had given the Metropolitan Police Service permission to purchase three second-hand water cannon, preempting the Home Secretary’s authority for the weapons to be used on the British mainland.

Since that announcement, debate has raged about the safety of the weapons and their capacity to kill or to maim, culminating in Boris Johnson’s offer to be ‘blasted’ by water cannon to ‘prove’ their safety.

This is the wrong debate.  As with all weapons, water cannon are neither ‘safe’ nor intended to be ‘safe’.  Water cannon are not garden hoses but ‘less lethal’ weapons for use in dangerous, violent situations.

The Association of Chief Police Officers’ own, somewhat ambiguous, briefing paper notes that “the term ‘less lethal’ (as opposed to non-lethal) accepts that water cannon are capable of causing serious injury or even death”. Although not designed to be aimed directly at humans, it is inevitable that humans will be caught in the line of fire and equally inevitable that some of those humans will be hurt, injured and possibly killed.

Rather than quibble about the relative ‘safety’ of a weapon, the questions we should ask are:

  • What is the intended purpose of water cannon?
  • Do we, the people, consent to that purpose?
  • Are water cannon the right tool for their intended purpose?
  • Have both purpose and tool been given democratic legitimacy?

MOPAC has employed no little sleight of hand in respect of the intended purpose of water cannon, with their spokesman referencing “learning from the riots of 2011”  when commenting on the purchase of the weapon.

Water cannon are not designed for use in the agile protests which characterised the 2011 riots. They can, however, be used to separate rival crowds or separate a protesting crowd from the object of that protest.  In the words of a police officer, water cannon “provide reach, which provides distance, which provides protection for static police lines” and they in turn need re-arming and protecting, thus tying resources to a static point.  So the purpose of the purchase of water cannon is not to deal with fast-moving riots similar to those of 2011 but to cope with another kind of protest entirely.

Do we, the people, consent to that purpose? The second of the Peelian principles states that “the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour”.  Do we approve of and consent to the purchase of a weapon, the very presence of which may prove inflammatory, which contributes to an increasing mechanisation and militarisation of policing, which further and physically distances the police from the public? Richard Seymour believes that the use of water cannon is a move towards “treating protest as something to be crushed and thus tilting the balance of power further away from citizens and toward the state.” Do we consent to that imbalance?

Are water cannon the right tool for their intended purpose?   Now we stray into the realm of crowd psychology and evidence-based policing. In his scholarly and well-evidenced report for MOPAC’s public consultation into the proposed introduction of water cannon, Dr Chris Cocking explains that:

 “crowds may initially scatter briefly once water cannon is deployed and used[but] any such scattering would be momentary, and rather than dispersing from the area, crowd members would quickly re-group, with increased collective militancy more likely. Therefore, water cannon’s effectiveness in quelling disorder would be minimal, and possibly even counter-productive, in that I believe its use would be more likely to increase any such disorder. It is also possible that the very appearance of water cannon could generate increased crowd militancy and result in the crowd attacking such a visible and symbolic target.” (p 5)

Similarly, Dr Clifford Stott’s 2009 submission to HMIC notes that “indiscriminate use of force can [ ] somewhat ironically contribute to a widespread escalation in the levels of public disorder.” (p 10).

Dr Cocking is an expert in crowd behaviour while Dr Stott’s research focuses on the social psychology of crowd conflict and its relationship to public order policing.  One would hope that expert evidence which so compellingly indicates that use of water cannon might exacerbate disorder would militate against the purchase of said weapons but it seems that compelling, expert evidence is insufficient.  When these papers were recommended to a Police and Crime Commissioner who was previously a police officer, his response was simply “I disagree”.

Finally, have both purpose and tool been given democratic legitimacy? The apparent purpose of the weapons has been allowed to become enmeshed in the public mind with the desire to avoid a repeat of the events of 2011, even though the tool is wholly inappropriate for that apparent purpose.  Meanwhile, the Mayor’s decision appears to have outmanoeuvred the Home Secretary, who has not yet sanctioned the use of water cannon on mainland soil. Is it likely that, once the weapons are purchased, the Home Secretary will refuse to authorise their use?  Would MOPAC have approved the purchase of the weapons without a least a tacit assurance that their use would be legitimised?  And once the weapons are in the hands of the MPS, how long will it be before a reason is found for their use?

If  the Home Secretary or the Mayor or the Deputy Mayor with Responsibility for Policing and Crime really wish to reduce the risk of unrest, rather than using the indiscriminate threat of water cannon to cow a disaffected populous, they might be better advised to link that disaffection to the increasing levels of inequality and social injustice and with the cuts which have decimated the pro-active and protective nature of neighbourhood policing and then to listen to the expert voices which are so clearly warning of pitfalls ahead.  Otherwise, the introduction of water cannon onto the British mainland may prove to be the beginning of the end for policing by consent

 

This blog was originally written for The Justice Gap.

LibDem Leadership

Weymouth borough councillor Ryan Hope was suspended by Liberal Democrat HQ on Monday 27 January 2014.

Clearly, I welcome this decision. which has to be in the best interests of the electorate. However, I am astonished that it has taken four months to take the action which should have been evident from the outset. With such serious charges there should have been an urgent consideration of a without-prejudice suspension. What does it say about the internal structures and communications of the Liberal Democrats that they ignore all calls for action from local people and only respond to intervention at a national level? Irrespective of the outcome of Cllr Hope’s criminal trial, these are serious allegations which must impact on his ability to carry out his public duties. South Dorset Labour group raised this issue at least twice with the Liberal Democrat group leadership. Cllr Roebuck, the leader of that group, dismissed these concerns out of hand and instead chose to sweep what are very serious allegations under the carpet. It is hard to believe that he didn’t know that there were explicit rules covering situations of this kind. Cllr Roebuck says he told LibDem HQ: they say he didn’t: people deserve more transparency and responsibility. In the light of concerns surrounding both Lord Rennard and Mike Hancock, this refusal to act shows poor judgement, a failure to comprehend the severity of the situation and contempt for the electorate and speaks volumes about a party which appears to be characterised by a lack of communication and accountability.

I was interviewed about this matter on BBC South Today on Tuesday 28 January and Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg discussed his dissatisfaction with the situation on LBC Radio on Thursday 30 January (at 13:00).

On 1 March the Dorset Echo revealed that the local Liberal Democrat group had formed a Coalition of Liberal Democrats and Allies which it had invited Cllr Hope to join, with the stated aim of protecting his place on council committees.

I find this move quite astonishing.  Nick Clegg gave a clear direction on this matter, both in removing the mantle of Liberal Democrat membership from Cllr Hope and in his LBC interview.  It seems that, in an attempt to shore up his party’s fortunes, Cllr Roebuck has chosen to circumnavigate the wishes of his party leader, showing an absolute disregard for public opinion and Cllr Hope’s own well-being.  The affair is nothing more than a shambles.

 

Mental Health Cop: a PR catastrophe

On the afternoon of Friday 14 February a twitter account run by Inspector Michael Brown and entitled @MentalHealthCop was suspended by West Midlands Police. Later that day, the associated award-winning blog was closed down. A social media storm ensued, a storm which later migrated to mainstream media.

This incident comprises two separate issues, which must not to be conflated.

The first is the reason behind the suspension of Inspector Brown’s @MentalHealthCop twitter account (I understand that the blog was later taken down by Inspector Brown himself in order to protect its contents). I doubt that the concerns which lie behind suspension are straightforward. This investigative process will be dealt with by West Midlands’ Police’s internal disciplinary team. Clearly, I cannot comment on this matter and nor should anyone who isn’t directly involved.

The second issue is the public relations catastrophe that WMP have managed to create for themselves by a failure of communications which I have criticised publicly via Twitter, addressing my comments to both WMP @WMPolice and ACC Garry Forsyth @GarryForsythWMP, who was put in the unenviable position of having to rectify the situation on Saturday morning.

I understand that the twitter account, with its 16000+ followers, was suspended on Friday lunchtime. Certainly, I noticed it had gone at 1315h. WMP issued no statement until Saturday morning, and then included in that statement this somewhat chilling phrase: “I also can’t imagine any organisation that would want its employees to be openly critical of it – or indeed allow it”, a phrase which sums up the eternal organisational tension between rank and expertise. However, in the temporal space between the suspension and the statement, the information vacuum was filled by a Twitter frenzy, speculation leading to Chinese Whispers, a situation most unhelpful both to WMP and to Inspector Brown himself, whose position has almost certainly been misrepresented.

WMP, which has a history of good engagement and which employs many excellent users of police social media, should have predicted this crisis.  If they wanted to avoid it, they should have advised Inspector Brown to tweet that he was taking half-term off, which would have given them ten days to come to a decision or they should have had a statement ready prepared for immediate issue. It would be interesting to find out whether WMP (or indeed, any other force) ever does desk-top exercises to establish a procedure for preventing and dealing with crises in corporate and social media communications.

Inspector Brown is in the business of social media. Social media is 24/7 and the response needs to be 24/7 too, because where there is a vacuum, Twitter will fill it, with fiction and fantasy if not with fact.  But no: another case of a classic Friday afternoon syndrome, carelessness to the point of negligence. Yet again the police failed to appreciate the nature of social media or to control their own story.

Over the weekend, the story escalated, with articles about Inspector Brown and his blog appearing in national mainstream media, including in the Independent and on the BBC website.  However, it was a piece in the Birmingham Mail which gave me most cause for concern.

This piece included screenshots of two tweets in which Inspector Brown appears to have made comments about stretched resources and “poor choices”.  The newspaper assumes the choices to be political and the comment in general to be critical of the government and its cuts to the policing budget.

I would be interested to know who screenshot the tweets and why and how the Birmingham Mail got hold of them but also how the paper has come to the conclusion that the comments relate to police cuts when, as an ex-practitioner, it seems clear to me that the comment about “poor choices” relates to the choices that the public make and the consequences thereof and the impact of those poor choices on the always-limited resources of public services: it is interesting to note that the comments were made in conversation with a paramedic. As an aside, I am curious about how the Birmingham Mail has reached the conclusion that these tweets are the reason for the suspension of MHC’s twitter account when, at the time of writing, no reason for the decision has been made public. As I intimated previously, an information vacuum leads inevitably to dangerous assumptions and wild speculation.

It seems important to conclude by saying that it is evident from the numerous people clamouring for its return that Inspector Brown’s blog was providing a vital service to police and other professionals dealing with mental health. A cursory look at, amongst others, @TheCustodySgt’s twitter feed over the weekend shows that its absence has left a gaping chasm. It is something of an indictment on police forces around the country and on the College of Policing (and its predecessor, the NPIA) that it is has been left to an Inspector (who, I understand, has worked largely in his own time) to provide an information resource of such value. I would urge the College of Policing to remedy this situation as soon as possible. I fear that, if this is not done, there is a risk that the recent speculation may lead to a hardening of positions, an entrenching of views, the inevitable rise of hubris, all to the detriment of Inspector Brown and to the many, many people – police, lawyers, health and social care professionals and the interested public – who have grown to rely on his insight, his learning and his unrivalled expertise.

 

This blog originated as a series of replies to a blog by @CllrJonSHarvey.  You can read the original blog here.

 

All For One

Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper included an editorial entitled “Plebgate: stop digging” .  This editorial contains two recommendations, both directed at the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW):

  • that the Federation should drop its challenge aimed at preventing the IPCC from reopening the investigation into the meeting between Andrew Mitchell and his local PFEW representatives;
  • and that it should stop funding PC Toby Rowland’s libel action against Mr Mitchell.

On twitter I said that, in terms of political awareness, I considered this to be good advice, adding the caveat that “if I were a member of @PFEW_HQ, I would disagree”.

I said this from a non-policing perspective but with some appreciation of the pain that the chain of plebgate-related incidents has caused to the vast majority of police officers.  It seems to me that the public have had their fill of plebgate, that the position espoused by aggrieved politicians is in the ascendency and that the press laps up every opportunity to criticise this most high-profile of public services.  The front page of this morning’s The Times would appear to support the third point.

The decision to take the IPCC to judicial review in respect of the Midlands-based Federation representatives seems to me to be fraught with reputational danger.  Moreover, I was unconvinced whether the funding of PC Rowland’s actions, which is neither an investigation nor a disciplinary matter, was in the interests of the membership at large.

As I had anticipated, my comment was immediately met with a barrage of disagreement from prospective, serving and retired police officers. Every comment related not to the decision to go to judicial review but to the funding of PC Rowland’s defence and all but one comment was in favour of the decision to fund.  Here are some examples:

@j0annepsi stated: “The Fed must not back down on this. PC Rowland is entitled to legal funding for workplace incidents. He has been slandered by Mitchell for over a year now – I can understand why he needs to set the record straight.”

@BriW74 added “I believe PC Rowland has the right to defend his reputation not only from AM but his [AM’s] friends.”

And @Njg28 (an ex-Inspector and ex-Federation representative) explained “If Feds back down from supporting & funding PC Rowland there will be a huge backlash by members. Can’t have disgraceful AM press conf go unchallenged.”

 The sole dissenting view came from an officer who didn’t disagree with these principles but was extremely concerned about the possibilities of further public relations catastrophes and for that reason felt that PFEW should desist.

The press conference to which Mr Gunn is referring is that of 26 November 2013 in which Mr Mitchell said: “Police Constable Toby Rowland, who was responsible for writing these toxic phrases into his notebook, was not telling the truth.” (6:29) A written resumé of this press conference can be found here.

I was then contacted directly by a serving officer who told me:

“The editorial omits to recall that Mitchell called Rowland a liar on national television, no doubt conflating Rowland as an individual with the acknowledged stuff-ups of other officers and the sheer awfulness of the whole affair. There seems to be no proof whatsoever that Rowland acted dishonourably, yet his character has been publicly impugned. 

 Why should he drop his action and why should the Federation not fund it? Mitchell could just issue a public apology and that would probably be that, but he seems to have lumped everyone together and lost the plot.

 The Guardian editorial, taking a lot of time to specify certain details, misses this important fact in order to make the whole thing look like a stitch-up that is all police wrongdoing.  Mitchell doesn’t emerge from any of this smelling of roses: it seems to me he should be held accountable for his shortcomings in this whole affair, which he has now whipped up into a condition of victimhood.”

 My initial support of the Guardian editorial was from the stance of political and media awareness and a concern about the PR aspect of both the judicial review and the libel action. However, I am also a staunch supporter of trade unions and of the rights of employees.  The very recent Independent Review of the Police Federation, chaired by Sir David Normington, highlighted that that police officers “need a highly effective representative organisation to be their safeguard” and that the Federation should aim to be an organisation that “genuinely serves … its members’ interests”.

So the question is whether the funding of PC Rowland’s libel action by the Federation “genuinely serves… its members’ interests” and it seems that police officers believe that it does. Despite the waning public interest, despite the scorn of politicians and despite the scepticism of the press, it seems that, in funding PC Rowland’s defence, the Police Federation is doing what is right.  Not for the press.  And not for the politicians.  But for the constables, sergeants, inspectors and chief inspectors who comprise its membership and who rely on the Federation to safeguard their interests.

 

This article was first posted on ManyVoicesBlog, courtesy of @Cate_A_Moore, and has been extensively commented on.

Localism: not all it’s cracked up to be (a poll-tax for the poor)

This Government is cutting into local government funding more deeply and more quickly than any other part of public service.  All local authorities have suffered to a greater or lesser degree. Weymouth and Portland Borough Council’s funding has been slashed, its government grant cut by 38.62 % over the past three years, projected to increase to a cumulative total of 56.89% by 2016, a reduction in grant from £5.145m in 2010/11 to £2.218m in 2015/16. (At time of writing the settlement for the financial year 2014/15 has not been finalised: the Government may say we are open for business but this is hardly the way to run one).

These cuts, which formed the backbone of the speech made by the Conservative Sir Merrick Cockell to the Local Government Association conference last July, are not only damaging the essential services that the council provides but are also having a direct and negative impact on the local economy. And things are likely to get worse not better.

Even local Conservative MP Richard Drax complained about the funding of Dorset Councils and made special mention of the difficulties being experienced by WPBC.

One of the Government’s most divisive cuts has been to reduce the funding allocated for Council Tax Support.  This has lead many councils, including Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, to abandon 100% Council Tax Support for the least wealthy members of the community.

At WPBC’S Full Council meeting on 24 January 2013 I requested an amendment to the Council Tax element of the 2013/14 budget proposal to maintain 100% relief in order to protect the most vulnerable residents of Weymouth and Portland. You can see the summary of the debate about the amendment in the minutes of the Full Council meeting paragraphs 155-161 and read more about in my first “Localism” blog.

The amendment was not supported by the majority of Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors. Councillor Chapman, the brief-holder for Finance, explained that he opposed the amendment largely because of the knock-on effect that such a decision would have on the budgets of the the other precepting authorities and particularly on Dorset County Council’s own budget proposals (see paragraph 159). However, I suspect he may have slanted his opposition rather differently had he known what was to happen next.

On 14 February 2013, Dorset County Council decided not to increase their precept – that is, not to increase their share of council tax. Effectively this decision meant that the least-well-off WPBC residents who were now required to pay a percentage of their council tax (including the county council, police and fire elements) would be subsidising more affluent residents across Dorset.

I suggested at the time that, in future years, it would be sensible for precepting authorities which span the whole shire county (county councils, police and fire services) to set their precepts first so that borough, district and parish councils can take this information and the consequent burden on the tax payer into account when setting their own precepts and when deciding on the percentage of council tax that the very least well-off will have to pay. Unfortunately no steps yet seem to have been taken to try to achieve this outcome.  Certainly such a move may have prevented the débacle which is currently engulfing Portland Town Council, which has attempted to increase its own precept by 1000%.

Let’s be clear: those who were, until April 2013, eligible for 100% council tax benefit are, by definition, the poorest in our society.  Under the new LCTS scheme they have been required to pay a contribution of 8.5% towards their council tax bill.  This is money they simply do not have.

This time last year I said that the outcome of the decision would be two-fold:

  • People who could not afford to pay council tax would be required to do so. Being unable to make the payments would cause them distress and would push them into debt.  Many would default and some might incur convictions as a result.
  • Collecting authorities (borough and district councils and unitary authorities) were already spending significant amounts of money chasing up non-payment of council tax. This change would increase the amount spent chasing non-payment with very little to show as a result.

Essentially we would be pursuing people who have no means of paying.  I found (and still find) this both morally shameful and financially wasteful.

On Thursday 23 January 2014 the issue again appeared on the Full Council agenda.  Councillors were asked to adopt a Local Council Tax Support Scheme for 2014/15 which again “limited the maximum entitlement awarded to non protected cases to 91.5% of the Council Tax liability”.

During the past nine months I have asked on several occasions how much of this projected revenue was being collected and how much it was costing to collect and every time I have been told that the exercise is broadly “cost-neutral”.  That is, the council is making no money from the policy which is placing an additional burden on our most vulnerable residents..

Earlier this week the Institute for Fiscal Studies produced a report which showed clearly that cuts to council tax support increase the number of people seeking debt advice. During the six months from July to December 2013, 364 people approached Weymouth and Portland Citizens’ Advice Bureau for assistance with personal debt: of these, 89 had council tax arrears.

I acknowledge that many councils across the country have set their maximum rate of support at a much lower percentage than Weymouth and Portland’s 91.5%. Equally other have maintained a 100% band. At Thursday night’s Full Council meeting Councillor Chapman admitted that he doesn’t yet know what the full financial impact of the current scheme is locally and clearly this will not be fully known until the end of year accounts are produced.  However, local anecdotal evidence suggests that the scheme is only breaking even while nationally the evidence suggests that we are pushing residents into debt for no noticeable financial gain.

I do not find this in any way justifiable.  I was therefore pleased when Councillor Huckle proposed an amendment to reintroduce a scheme which would enable the least-well-off to claim 100% council tax support, was happy to speak in support of that amendment and was disappointed when the amendment was defeated by a margin of 18-13 and the motion itself was passed by the same.  I would however like to pay tribute to the one Tory and two LibDem councillors who defied orthdoxy and voted against what is, as Councillor Hodder so pithily stated,”a poll-tax for the poor”.