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A sliding scale of injustice

The proposals to reform the police and the criminal justice system will all operate at our expense, argues John Fitzpatrick

In case you haven't noticed, the state is overhauling and rehabilitating its police and criminal justice system. Published within the space of a few days recently were the Police Reform White Paper by home secretary Michael Howard, Sir Patrick Sheehy's Enquiry into Police Responsibilities and Rewards and Lord Runciman's Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. Call me a conspiracy theorist but that looks like more than a big, happy coincidence to me. I don't buy the alibis either. Listed among the ostensible reasons for the mega-review were a determination to address the 'miscarriage of justice' cases and serious concern about the cost and efficiency of the police 'service'.

Don't believe a word of it. No doubt the establishment is genuinely concerned about the lack of public confidence in a system that keeps getting caught out locking up innocent people, and concerned, too, about the spending bill for the Bill. The proposals themselves, however, hardly disclose a burning guilt about injustice, nor any real intention to make substantial savings in police budgets.

Dangerous disgrace

What the proposals, and more importantly the whole context in which they have emerged, actually disclose is a very clear and profoundly anti-democratic drive to strengthen the grip of the executive and its police force. It is not a question of this or that suggestion being unreasonable or unjustified, although many are; taken together they are a disgrace, and a dangerous one. In many ways the details are less menacing than the overall consolidation developing in every way at our expense.

To get a flavour of the context, consider what has been happening on the 'miscarriages'. Remember first that after all those acquittals not one single politician, civil servant, judge, lawyer or senior policeman so much as resigned. Expressions of regret, let alone apologies, were as rare as a smile from Lord Lane. Instead, these monkeys began a whispering campaign to selected journalists suggesting that a lot of the freed prisoners were really guilty, and only technicalities had got them off.

The high point, so far, of this campaign was the trial in May of those accused of framing the Guildford Four. The prosecution picked on just three fairly junior officers, focused on just one narrow issue, took three and a half years to bring them to trial, failed to call important witnesses such as Patrick Armstrong, and generally seemed reluctant to inconvenience the defendants. The jury, of course, refused to convict the policemen, and the press shrieked that the acquittals of the Guildford Four were now in doubt. Leaving aside the scandal that the prosecution was a patent sham, it still does not for one moment follow from an acquittal of the police that the Guildford Four were guilty. Nowhere did I read that simple fact.

The ground has indeed been well prepared. Kenneth Baker may have announced the royal commission in March 1991 on the day the Birmingham Six were released, but by last month we knew Runciman didn't have to worry about 'miscarriages' any more. That was all in the past, and, pssst, they did it anyway. Since then, we'd met the user-friendly judiciary. In came Lord Chief Justice Taylor sticking up for legal aid and promising to do away with wigs. Legal aid may have got clobbered, and wigs may still be with us, but the image of the new broom was dutifully promoted by every editor and pundit in the land.

We now have a listening bench. In the same week that Runciman reported, the Lord Chancellor announced that lay advisers would help him advertise for judges in future, and the high court told the home secretary to respect the people's wishes and pardon Derek Bentley. A week earlier the Court of Appeal reduced the prison sentences of a pair of thoroughly understandable vigilantes, and ticked off defence solicitors and barristers for the standard of their preparation (ah yes, all those convictions must have been the defence's fault).

Levered right back to the top of the agenda is not the corrupt judge or bent copper, but the criminal: the crack dealer, the armed robber, the Dixon's shoplifter, the New Age traveller, the delinquent burglar, the joyrider. The crime panic has been twisted to a new high. A Mori survey at the end of June revealed that the public are now more worried about mugging and vandalism than unemployment, health, education or public transport. It would appear that concern about violent crime has increased much faster than violent crime itself. For 1991, the Home Office recorded only a three per cent increase for offences of violence compared to 16 and 21 per cent increases for theft and burgalry. In 1992 figures for assaults were up six per cent, while burgalries were up by 13 per cent.

Preying on fear

The panic, however, is obviously the result of more than sustained media campaigns, although no doubt those help. It seems that people's fears about crime are connecting with the more general feelings of bewilderment, impotence and apathy so prevalent today. The results are worrying. Irrational views are formed, like mugging being 'the most serious problem' facing the family. There is also an increased tendency to fall back upon those forces which at least impose some order and control, whatever they represent.

We see it in the yearning of every other columnist for a strong political leader to steer us out of the malaise. We see it in the constant call for the law and the police to solve problems that we should address ourselves. For example, even in respect of problems like racial attacks which are so blatantly encouraged by racist immigration laws and racist police practices, we see the Labour Party demanding a new criminal offence and increased police activity in order to deal with it.

With this level of fear and uncertainty, it is that much easier to promote the need for an active police force and an effective criminal justice system. Scepticism about the police remains, but starts to focus less on injustices, and more on inefficiency and on them not being there when you want them. It becomes easier to complain that too many defendants are being acquitted, rather than too many innocent people going to jail.

Now come the sucker punches:
  • From the white paper - fewer elected representatives on police authorities, more government appointees. These authorities have no authority, of course, and provide no accountability. But now even the idea that they should be, sort of, er, democratic, is dismissively spurned. In London the home secretary, and not a new elected authority, will remain in control of the Metropolitan Police. Vigilante Watch, sorry I mean Neighbourhood Watch, will be extended and 10 000 more special constables will be recruited (a 33 per cent increase).

  • From Sheehy - he wants to deliver a streamlined police force with modern management methods. How far he will succeed in reducing the £4 billion annual pay bill by £107m remains to be seen, but he will undoubtedly cut out some dead wood. There are limits, however, to how far Sheehy and the police can believe their own propaganda. 'I cannot, like the social services, or even the Samaritans, close for the evening', says Chief Superintendent Suzanna Becks of the Thames Valley police. 'We have to offer a service.' Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
The police are not a service, they are a force. They are not there to solve our burglaries efficiently, they are there to keep us in our place. The efficiency drives of Sheehy, and indeed those who promote contracting out to competing private security firms, will always be constrained by that imperative. Keeping control of a force which keeps control is cheap at any price.
  • From Runciman - an end to jury trial for thousands of people; plea bargaining for thousands of others, ie, pressure to plead guilty; a new data base, this time of DNA profiles of offenders; early disclosure of the defence case, significantly shifting the burden of proof on to the defendant, no longer 'innocent until proven guilty', more like 'innocent if you've explained yourself in good time to the prosecution'; uncorroborated confessions will still be admissible. It is a grim list for defence lawyers and their clients.
The attack on jury trial is significant not only because it will mean more defendants will be found guilty (30 per cent of contested cases are acquitted by magistrates, 57 per cent by a jury), but because it will reduce the role played by the ordinary person in the whole process. The jury system is hardly the bastion of our liberties that it is often cracked up to be, with all that guff about Magna Carta. But once again even the idea that people should participate in and decide matters of public interest is being steadily snuffed out.

There are of course more attractive-sounding proposals for reform, such as improved access for the defence to forensic facilities and a body to review potential miscarriages. There will be some resistance from establishment ranks - particularly about abolishing the right to jury trial. This is all fine tuning. The truth is that the broader political climate is making it possible for the defenders of the police and criminal justice system to regain the initiative, and strengthen their hold.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993

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