Friday, 25 April 2014

THE WRONG CONVERSATION

Image Credit - http://www.flickr.com/photos/dannyman/4672474943/
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
The campaign to prevent UK asylum seeker Afusat Saliu being returned to Nigeria, where she fears her two daughters will be victims of female genital mutilation, looks unlikely to succeed, despite 100,000 people signing up in 4 days to the petition on change.org.

Particularly interesting are the reasons people have given for supporting this campaign: they are thoughtful, informed, compassionate, empathetic – all the things you would want people to be who have the power to make decisions that so profoundly affect people’s lives.

This case, like that of Yashika Bageerathi, the A level student deported to Mauritius before she had the chance to complete her studies, illustrates how far political decision-making has fallen out of touch with the human qualities that people value in their daily lives. It is easy to argue that the law is the law, except that the implications of that argument are that compassion, empathy and thoughtfulness ought not to be applied where the law is concerned. That sounds like the language used to justify all manner of barbaric acts: “I was only following orders”, i.e. not thinking for myself and acting in a spirit of shared humanity.

The issue here is not, as often portrayed, between rules and no rules; it is between smart rules and blunt rules. Smart rules say that people who have been in the UK for a few years, are integrated into their communities and are living useful lives should be encouraged to stay, whatever the circumstances. We need people like that, and we have no business to be increasing the sum of human misery in the world by destroying the new lives they have built. That they may suffer additional abuse if they return to their country of origin should strengthen their case, but people who have built new and useful lives should not be thrown out whatever the circumstances.

Blunt rules say that Yashika was 19 when she was deported, so the regulations that say that children should be allowed to stay to finish their exams do not apply to her. They say that the present circumstances of an applicant for asylum are not relevant, that it doesn’t matter how long ago or how recently they arrived, or where the rest of their family is, or where they have made their lives. They say, in effect, that the human reality of a case is not a legitimate area for consideration.

You have to wonder, What planet are these people on? As so often, they are having the wrong conversation, in this case about hard, arbitrary, artificial, generalised regulations rather than soft, specific, real, individual people. Politicians don’t get it that anti-immigration sentiment is not anti-immigrant; it is a generalised sentiment fuelled by the choice (when available) between unemployment and long hours on poverty wages, that many now face. In these circumstances, any government action intended to make people’s lives even more difficult than they already are will continue to attract outrage, whether it is the UK Border Agency destroying a family or the Department of Work and Pensions applying sanctions to its meagre benefits.

Monday, 14 April 2014

ARE THEY READING THE SMALL PRINT?

Do they know what they're doing?
Did Nigel Evans vote for the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012? Presumably not, because as a deputy speaker of the House of Commons he had forsworn political partisanship in that chamber. Would he have voted for it had that not been the case? Did he know what was in it? If he did, would he have voted for it if he had known that two years later he would be on he wrong end of a £130,000 bill for legal costs incurred in his defence against a string of sexual assault charges,of all of which he was found not guilty?

The question arises because Mr Evans has been making the rounds of the media demanding, among other things, that the Crown Prosecution Service should pay his legal bills. On Five Live Breakfast at about ten to nine this morning (14th April) the incisive Nicky Campbell was quick to note that it was not only the wrongly accused who were potential victims of legislative injustices, whether inflicted for ideological or fiscal reasons. Benefits claimants, in particular, had a right to complain, as Mr Evans was doing, that nobody who had not experienced the consequences of the legislation that targeted them could appreciate the extent of the harms that it caused.

What is surprising, however, is that Mr Evans says he did not know, until his solicitor recently told him, that his costs were irrecoverable under the 2012 Act. Nicky Campbell missed a trick here in not asking him why he did not know, bearing in mind that he was a member of the legislature that passed the act. Is it acceptable that lawmakers should not know the contents and implications of the laws that they are passing?

Part of the answer is to be found in the act's long title, which, at risk of losing my readers, is worth quoting in full:
An Act to make provision about legal aid; to make further provision about funding legal services; to make provision about costs and other amounts awarded in civil and criminal proceedings; to make provision about referral fees in connection with the provision of legal services; to make provision about sentencing offenders, including provision about release on licence or otherwise; to make provision about the collection of fines and other sums; to make provision about bail and about remand otherwise than on bail; to make provision about the employment, payment and transfer of persons detained in prisons and other institutions; to make provision about penalty notices for disorderly behaviour and cautions; to make provision about the rehabilitation of offenders; to create new offences of threatening with a weapon in public or on school premises and of causing serious injury by dangerous driving; to create a new offence relating to squatting; to increase penalties for offences relating to scrap metal dealing and to create a new offence relating to payment for scrap metal; and to amend section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008.
This act contains a string of high profile and controversial provisions, including a reduction in legal aid (which is different from recovery of legal costs), the criminalisation of squatting in residential property and new, minimum sentences for knife crime. There is so much tied up in here that Mr Evans may, perhaps, be forgiven for missing the full import of the particular gem that has left him out of pocket:

After section 16 insert—“16A Legal costs (1) A defendant’s costs order may not require the payment out of central funds of an amount that includes an amount in respect of the accused’s legal costs, subject to the following provisions of this section. (2) Subsection (1) does not apply where condition A, B or C is met. (3) Condition A is that the accused is an individual and the order is made under—(a) section 16(1),(b) section 16(3), or(c) section 16(4)(a)(ii) or (iii) or (d)...."

There is always a frisson of schadenfreude when a MP falls victim to a law that their own party has enacted, and Mr Evan's case does not come close to that of Lady Scotland, who was fined £5,000 for a "technical breach" of a law that she had, as the relevant minister, been responsible for shepherding through parliament. Nonetheless, here is yet more evidence of a parliamentary system that is out of touch with reality and unable to keep tabs on a government that is far too quick to legislate on matters that it does not fully understand.

Mr Evans's more important point, that the process for prosecuting historic sex-related offences needs thorough reform, is well made. But this is a sensitive issue requiring careful thought and consultation. There are no quick wins and certainly no vote-grabbing sound-bites to be had, so don't expect Westminster to get onto it any time soon.