A decade of austerity makes the Home Secretary’s controversial Policing Bill harder to deliver on. Plus the county climate report

And the decisions by police commanders at Clapham Common a couple of days ago ended up amplifying a very noisy alarm bell around the right to protest – something that has led to further spontaneous street protests despite lockdown – which is in the process of slowly lifting.

You can read the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill here. (Though most of you will probably find the explanatory notes in the same link more easier to understand than the very complex legalese text that is often found in legislation).

Part of the policy background is this paper from the Home Office – which basically uses a quotation from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dicks, about the aftermath of the Extinction Rebellion protests of 2019. A quick reminder of what happened in London nearly 2 years ago (how time flies) is here.

The Climate Emergency hasn’t gone away – as Cambridgeshire politicians found out this morning.

The Mayor of Cambs & P’boro commissioned Julia King – Baroness Brown of Cambridge to undertake an independent review into climate change and its impact on the county. She didn’t pull her punches in her committee’s report, the names of whom you can find here.

You can read the initial recommendations in their interim report here. I’ve pulled out the industry & finance-related risks considered both likely and of high impact in the report, because they are the things that are all-too-easily overlooked by a complacent cohort and sector. The reasons why those listed below are important to finance and industry is because of insurance. The risk analyses coming in from a variety of sources indicates that climate-related incidents are going to be an increasing burden on the sector. The impact of flash flooding due to extremely short-but-intense periods of rainfall falling on dry ground is one such example. If the insurance system breaks down, a whole hose of consequences arise.

And yet the Bill before Parliament criminalises non-violent protest with draconian prison sentences of up to ten years.

Concern from over a hundred civic society organisations

150 at the last count. Chances are it will be even more over the next few days. Furthermore, when news of the Second Reading of the Bill spread across social media, it led to spontaneous protests in Parliament Square earlier this evening.

This followed the vigil/protest/call it what you will gathering of people – mainly women, at Clapham Common’s bandstand on Saturday, where even the Duchess of Cambridge was spotted in attendance. This then raised awkward questions for the Commissioner Cressida Dick who indicated had the gathering been legal, she said she would have been there herself.

…which then had people wondering what action she would take against the Duchess of Cambridge for attending an illegal protest. And thus inviting all of the fines issued that evening to be dropped. A series of concerns were raised in Parliament as the Home Secretary was forced to issue a statement on what happened on Saturday. You can watch the statement, and the Qs that MPs put to the Home Secretary here.

There will be two days of debate for the Second Reading of the Policing Etc Bill – the video of the first of those two days is here. This debate and vote is on the principles of the proposed legislation before them. Does the House of Commons accept or reject the principles? If you are unfamiliar with the passage of legislation through Parliament, they have produced a guide here. A bill of this size & complexity normally takes a few months to get through Parliament before it becomes law. Given the size of the Conservative majority, it is a given that this will become law. The question is whether the most controversial parts of the legislation relating to protests will still be in it. That ultimately depends on whether the House of Lords is willing to stand its ground and strike out the offending clauses when the Bill reaches that part of the process. Ironically, the only other way for the offending clauses to be dropped are if ministers decide to strike out the clauses themselves in Government-tabled amendments to the Bill. That only happens if there is significant unrest from backbench MPs on the Government’s side – normally due to enough constituents (especially those that don’t usually contact their MPs) giving them a hard time over the issue. So if you want to persuade your reluctant MP to do something, it normally helps to get your friends and contacts involved as well – esp those that don’t normally ‘do politics’.

“Where are they going to find all that jail space?”

The Conservative Party gutted the criminal justice system over the past decade, whether it was cuts to police numbers to closures of magistrates courts.

Between March 2010 and March 2018, police forces in England and Wales lost 21,732 officers – a drop of 15%, according to Home Office figures.”

BBC Reality Check 26 July 2019

…which is why their political opponents state that Conservatives’ promises of increased spending and rising numbers is meaningless when all they are doing is clawing back some of the losses that they were responsible for.

It gets worse for the magistrates courts:

“Based on the available information, between 2010 and 2020:

  • 164 magistrates’ courts closed, out of 320 (51%)
  • 151 constituencies contained a magistrates’ court which closed, with 13 constituencies containing 2 courts which closed”

The above stats are from the House of Commons Library here. One of the courts threatened with closure was Cambridge. It led to a campaign to save it – ultimately successful. In part because the Conservatives argued that the closure of Ely’s Magistrates Court in 2010 was decided not just because of costs but also because Cambridge was nearby and the two could merge. Indeed, the MP for Huntingdon, the minister responsible stated:

” “At a time of financial constraint, it is critical that this service is operating efficiently, and that it is delivering for all those who use and work in it”

Jonathan Djanogly MP 15 Dec 2010

Mr Djanogly is still the MP for Huntingdon, Cambs. With the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections due in early May, it will be interesting to see how his party’s candidate defends this decision, along with the state of Crown Courts before CV19. The human impact is summarised by The Secret Barrister for his piece in The Big Issue here from 2018.

Where the prison space is I’m not sure…

This 2020 research briefing again from the House of Commons Library shows that the UK’s prison population doubled since 1990 – with a noticeable spike coming after the enactment of the Criminal Justice Act 1994, followed by a further rise not long after Labour’s first Crime and Disorder Act – something that political commentators later started noting that every session of parliament had an anti-crime Bill tabled by ministers.

Furthermore, looking at the spreadsheet in the link (I’m like that) half of the prisons listed are at or above their “Certified Normal Accommodation”. Which is civil-service-speak for ‘At or over capacity’ – i.e. overcrowded. The Justice Secretary can build more prisons if he likes – and if The Treasury will let him, but it doesn’t seem the most effective use of public money when actually responding maturely to the issues that the protesters are campaigning on would be an easier and cheaper approach.

“Isn’t prevention better than treatment after the incident?”

I can’t remember where I read it but it was in relation to the debate on police officer numbers. Success in policing is not in the number of officers on the beat, but in the absence of crime. To which I add ‘And the absence of the fear of crime’ as well. I learnt this the hard way with my anxiety illness. It was something that massively inhibited my ability to go out on a weekend and have a good night out: the fear of being assaulted. Only now have I begun to appreciate just what a negative impact that had on me, and how it significantly altered my behaviour and even life choices. (Crime rates of the cities were a consideration when choosing universities, for example).

In the mid-1990s, after nearly 18 years of austerity under successive Conservative governments, all that schools could offer in terms of advice to year 11 students was a 30 minute talk by a serving police officer who would come in and tell us we were about to join the cohort of people most likely to be victims of crime. Our introduction to democracy wasn’t much better – a 15 minute talk by one of the local councillors which was utterly forgettable. I remember blaming John Major, John Redwood and Gillian Shepherd at the time. Have I forgiven them? Hell no! (One of my biggest weaknesses is that I can carry a grudge for years – decades even).

Ministers can commission more prisons, but will it solve the problem of unnecessarily criminalising people who might otherwise stay out of trouble?

To take the earlier analogy, one sign of a functioning society is the absence of violent protest, not the large numbers of police officers and prisons around being used to contain it.

One of the things that many of the older, more affluent Extinction Rebellion protesters realised is that after a decade of austerity the Tories did not have the resources for law enforcement to deal with the numbers that the movement was able to mobilise. That’s why they were able to shut down Marble Arch for so long.

Furthermore, the older, more affluent protesters from middle class backgrounds took the view that they had the sort of unwritten privileges in our unequal society that made it easier for them to run the risk of getting arrested – especially those that had retired. One result was the overloading of police stations and magistrates courts with paperwork from all of the arrests.

With their actions on Saturday night at Clapham Common, and the powerful photographs and videos that came out, the Police and ministers demonstrated the approach they were capable of under the existing emergency legislation – and also under the proposed laws now tabled before Parliament. They could have avoided it as a number of accounts mentioned it was already cold outside and people were already beginning to leave before the police moved in.

“So…what happens now?”

On paper the inspectorates will make their investigations, reports will be written, statements of ‘lessons will be learnt’ will be made.

In the longer term it remains to be seen whether any of this has an impact on 1) The local levels of CV19, and 2) the local elections. The scientific advice is that outdoors the risk is low – much lower than indoors. The vigils and the gatherings in Parliament Square are about to test that. On the local elections, it could go either way. One side might accuse the protesters of breaking lockdown, while another side might say given the success of the vaccine rollout and the scientific advice, so long as people take reasonable precautions with social distancing and masking, that’s their call.

Me? I’m still staying indoors for most of the time. I’m not in the business of micro-policing every other member of the public about what they do, what they wear, and where they go. (Commenting on, and scrutinising government policy is a different matter).

And if you got this far:

Remember to vote in the local elections in May! The candidates will be listed (with social media links) at https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/ from 10 April. some are already up now. You just need your postcode to find out who is standing for what and for which party in your neighbourhood.

In the meantime, statues have been in the news again. This set of questions from Prof Catherine Rowett, the former MEP for the Green Party in the East of England.

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