Sunday, 2 March 2014

Keep these people locked up until they pay up

With very few exceptions (railway electrification; gay marriage), the present government has so far done very little good, and a lot of harm.

Home Secretaries, meanwhile, of whatever political hue, rarely do anything but harm. You have to go back nearly 50 years for the only exception I can think of, Roy Jenkins.

It therefore comes as quite a surprise to find myself welcoming a proposal made by Home Secterary Theresa May.

According to the London Evening Standard, Ms May is going to introduce default sentences for convicted crime bosses who fail to pay back their illicit profits. Furthermore:
New legal agreements and closer cooperation will be sought with Spain and the United Arab Emirates — two countries in which £200 million of British criminal assets are estimated to be held. There will be similar deals with West African governments and other nations such as Pakistan.
It is years ago now that I was outraged to discover that professional criminals have often been able to stash away the loot from their crimes and gain access to it once they are out of jail.

As I wrote nearly five years ago in Let Ronald Biggs die in jail,
My proposal is that professional gangsters should never be let out of jail until they have paid back everything they stole. They should certainly remain locked up until they have said where the loot is stashed and allowed the authorities to recoup it.
There ought to be a new kind of sentence, such as "20 years (say) or until the amount stolen is fully paid back, whichever is the longer". Ms May's new proposal does not appear to go quite that far, but it is a step in the right direction.

What, I hear you ask, is a woolly old lefty liberal like me doing supporting heavier penalties, a stance generally regarded as "right-wing"?

The answer is that I draw a sharp distinction between professional criminals -- organised gangsters -- and the general run of casual or petty offenders who make up so much of the prison population. As the various prison reform groups having been pointing out for decades, many of these people are more inadequate than evil, and often simply mentally deficient. Arguably, little purpose is served by locking them up.

And, as I wrote in my earlier piece,
If society had its moral compass right, [hardcore professional criminals] would be more vilified even than paedophiles, rapists and random killers. Many of the latter, it can be argued, are sick. There is something wrong with them: they are psychopaths, or their brains don't work properly; they are mentally ill, whether temporarily or permanently. 
No such defence is available to the professional criminal, who is perfectly sane, knows exactly what he is doing, and is motivated by sheer greed.
I don't entertain much hope that these people can ever be reformed. They simply need locking away for as long as possible, and above all must not be permitted to benefit from their evil activities.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

NCCL, Harman, Hewitt, PIE, and the 1970s

I hold no brief at all for Harriet Harman or Patricia Hewitt as Labour politicians. Indeed, as it happens they both featured in a list of the 15 most irritating women on the planet that I wrote nearly six years ago.

Nevertheless, in the light of the present fuss arising out of the Daily Mail's nasty smear campaign, the following needs to be said about the NCCL all those decades ago.

At the time in question (1970s), I was part of the leadership of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), an organisation which, like PIE, was affiliated to the NCCL. I attended many NCCL conferences in those years.

For an organisation to be affiliated to the NCCL is not at all the same thing as the NCCL being affiliated to the said organisation. The NCCL was not an affiliate of PIE. PIE was an affiliate of the NCCL. It was a one-directional transaction. Much of the press coverage in the last couple of days has been quite misleading on this point.

One paid one's membership fee and received papers and publications, and the right to attend the NCCL annual conference and table resolutions. I don't recall that it gave any kind of direct line into NCCL policymaking. If you wanted to shape NCCL policy you had to make your case on a resolution at the annual conference and get it passed on a vote of those present. Even then, it was quite likely that the few overworked staff would not get round to acting on it.

Hundreds of bodies were affiliated to NCCL and it would have been unreasonable to expect the half-dozen or so office staff to "vet" every organisation applying for affiliation to check whether its policy was in line with that of the NCCL. There was never any such expectation. That just was not how the system worked.

The idea that PIE successfully "infiltrated" NCCL and used NCCL staff like P. Hewitt and H. Harman as mouthpieces for its ideas is therefore wrong. Contrary to what the Mail has tried to insinuate by selective quoting from certain documents, NCCL policy -- on, for example, the age of consent -- did not reflect PIE's aims. For a long time the NCCL argued for an age of consent of 14, much higher than what PIE was agitating for (ten, or zero, depending on whose account you read, but either way a completely unacceptable idea to everyone else).

True, nowadays an age of consent of 14 would itself be seen as unacceptable to most. But that was the NCCL's carefully argued policy at the time, nothing to do with PIE, and I remember Patricia Hewitt speaking in favour of it. I don't know if Harriet Harman ever did -- she came rather later. If the Mail and its ilk want to attack anyone on this score, it should be Hewitt rather than Harman. But Hewitt is no longer an MP so of course that wouldn't serve the Mail's purpose, which is to smear the current Labour leadership.

I'm sure that, if pressed on the PIE question at the time, NCCL people would have said, in the phrase usually attributed to Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". In other words, for NCCL it would have been essentially a question of freedom of speech, the principal aim of the organisation since its founding in the 1930s.

Since those days, freedom of speech has become much less fashionable. But fashions come and go, and one cannot reasonably judge the past according to the fashions of today.

The Mail also produced a document signed by Ms Harman in 1978 on a different topic -- the possession of child pornography. People have forgotten that at that time the mere possession of such material was not yet an offence. There was a proposal to make it one, and as I understand it the Harman paper was NCCL's attempt to influence the wording of the legislation, agreeing with the idea of making possession illegal but trying to prevent such cases as people being prosecuted for taking pictures of their own children in the bath (unsuccessfully, it would appear, since there have subsequently been such cases).

For a refreshingly fair and level-headed take on this whole story, see this piece today by the Conservative commentator Iain Dale.