Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Vote 'stocks' while local villains last Patrick Wintour reports in yesterday's Guardian that the government is preparing a green paper which may allow local people to vote on what form of punishment is handed out to convicted criminals in their neighbourhood. This would apply to low-level crimes such as disorderly conduct. (Daily Mail coverage here). It does have the unfortunate feel of government by the miserable standards of contemporary broadcasting. As I understand it, a broadcast programme can have expert judges dismissing a comic-but-flat-footed celebrity in a televised dancing competition to the resounding displeasure of millions, who then overturn the decision by the power of popular vote. Be sure the message did not go unnoticed in Whitehall. Maybe it's just one of those 'test-the-water' ideas which policy makers dribble from time to time, to see if anyone's paying attention. But it has its justification in Louise Casey's review of community engagement in the justice system, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. I note also that the green paper will be published (this spring) by the Ministry of Justice, not by the Home Office; and that Communities Secretary Hazel Blears is said to be supportive. So it may well come to pass in some form. Watch out for the option of online voting to spice it up. A few moments thought about just who would be motivated to review thoroughly the available evidence in any given local case and make a judgement on it, should be enough to shiver the spine a little. The potential for amplifying local social divisions, rather than stimulating cohesion, is not trivial. It could force people to 'take more of an interest in local issues' (and is this the best way to achieve that objective?) or more likely it could lead to more people withdrawing from local affairs in despair. But let's say a senior civil servant, having worked hard promoting this policy measure, is making their way home one evening in spring. Turning the corner of their home street they are accosted by a local person coming out of a pub. Believing themselves under attack and lashing out, the official's elbow strikes the other's head (who, your honour, was just asking for a light). Down he goes, striking his head against the kerb. Blood on the pinstripes, sirens in the night, intensive care, incensed relatives and furious friends who, ah, happen to live nearby. The case comes to court: the official is found to have acted with unreasonable violence. Invited to decide on the punishment, how do local people vote? Would you be ready to accept the outcome yourself? Wintour writes in the Guardian: The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said that she favoured local people being given a much clearer choice in deciding what form of community punishment is imposed in their neighbourhood. ['Community punishment'? What does that mean?] Smith told the Guardian it was wrong that Casey, former head of the Respect unit, was not retained in the Home Office but was moved to the Children's Department soon after...

Recent Comments