Ken Clarke: Aiming for answers; missing the point

Posted on: 06 September 2011 by Alexander Hay

The Justice Secretary's views on the riots and what they mean for the UK lacks a real understanding of the issues at stake, both on our streets and in our politics

Good intentions are all very well, but can Ken Clarke translate them into good deeds?Secretary of State for Justice Ken Clarke's article in today's Guardian, calling for a combination of tough and progressive measures to deal with the root causes of the August Riots, has certainly spurred along debate.

But do they show the government has learned any worthwhile lessons from last month's unrest? A close reading suggests otherwise:

...The criminal justice system was itself on trial and, though it's still early days, so far it has coped well. It has the capacity – whether in courts, in prisons, in prison transit or probation – to deal with those who come before it...

Presumably, Ken has not heard of Dane Williamson, who was wrongly arrested in Manchester for arson,or Nicolas Robinson being given a 6 month term for stealing a case of water bottles.

...The judiciary in this country is independent and we should trust judges and magistrates to base decisions on individual circumstances...

The willingness of the judiciary to issue far harsher sentences than usual in the wake of the riots suggests otherwise. It's also hard not to be reminded of Clarke's previous proposal to lessen sentences for those guilty of 'lesser rape'.

...Injustices can occur in any system: but that's precisely why we enjoy the services of the court of appeal...

Which may or may not free innocent people - ask the Birmingham 6 or the late Sally Clark.

...What the riots really illustrate is the need to make sentencing and other areas of the judicial system more transparent so that the public can understand the decisions that have been reached...

This is certainly true. Greater accountability should also, however, apply to politicians in charge of police funding and how the police themselves are run, given their shortcomings at the start of the riots.

...Punishment alone though is not enough, and that's the third lesson I draw from the riots. Locking people up without reducing the risk of them committing new crimes against new victims the minute they get out does not make for intelligent sentencing...

Again, this is a reasonable argument. Prevention, be it in the form of better environments for children to grow up in, or police maintaining a higher presence on the streets, would be an improvement, but is there the political will and funding for this?

...It's not yet been widely recognised, but the hardcore of the rioters were, in fact, known criminals. Close to three-quarters of those aged 18 or over charged with riot offences already had a prior conviction...

Or it simply reflects the fact that it was easier to spot known criminals in CCTV footage and bring them in. Clarke is confusing causation and correlation here.

...However, reform can't stop at our penal system alone. The general recipe for a productive member of society is no secret. It has not changed since I was inner cities minister 25 years ago. It's about having a job, a strong family, a decent education and, beneath it all, an attitude that shares in the values of mainstream society...

Heartening to hear, but it is easy to be reminded of similar words made by Michael Heseltine in the wake of the 1981 Toxteth riots, which lead to nothing more than the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985.

...What is different now is that a growing minority of people in our nation lack all of those things and, indeed, have substituted an inflated sense of expectation for a commitment to hard graft...

This could, however, also refer to politicians and bankers.

...That's why reform is so important and the reason we have established the communities and victims panel to explore what lessons can be learned, from the riots and the civic action to clear up the damage...

But will anyone in power pay attention?

...Addressing unemployment means making progress on the economy by getting the deficit under control and pressing ahead with welfare reform and work programmes...

But arguably, government cuts have harmed both the economy and public services that help steer young people away from trouble. Welfare reform will also simply cause even more resentment and tension.

...Building stronger families means gripping the 120,000 most problematic ones and really addressing their problems, not leaving them in touch with, but untouched by, dozens of different agencies...

How?

...The coalition has a renewed mission: tackling the financial deficit, for certain. But also, importantly, addressing the appalling social deficit that the riots have highlighted....

But what if the two clash? Clarke does not answer the key question to be asked in the wake of the riots - what needs to be done, and where will the money come from?

Despite some signs of being willing to approach these issues from a new direction, Clarke is simply following a party line while mouthing truisms for the benefit of the audience, if not communities torn apart by the riots.

[SOURCE: The Guardian]

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Alexander Hay

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