A strike for Bonfire Night

Are public-service strikes ever an abuse of power?

The liberal-minded usually have no problems in spotting abuses of power. And the liberal-minded can usually see straight through the protestations of the abusers.

They can call out the City bankers who abuse the bonus system, regardless of the bankers' charming assurances about the "free market". They can deride the tabloids for their excesses, even when the tabloids loudly invoke "freedom of the press". They can dismiss those justifying misuses of police power, notwithstanding the often alarming claims for the need for "law and order" and "anti-terrorism".

In each of these cases, and in many more, the liberal can simply say: that is an abuse of power, and it matters not how you try to defend it.

However, there seems to be a blind spot for many liberals: unnecessary strikes by public-service unions.

When workers who provide public services go on strike, it is an exercise of power. Of that, there can be no doubt. The question then becomes: what kind of an exercise of power is it?

Any exercise of power can be an abuse of power in certain circumstances. Some may perhaps say that there are no such circumstances: striking public-service workers are beyond criticism. Their unions never abuse their power.

But surely this cannot be a serious proposition. Bosses abuse power; tabloids abuse power; police abuse power. There is no good reason why unions are not capable of abusing their power, too.

So, when is it an abuse of power for public-service workers to go on strike?

There are perhaps two elements.

First, there must be regard to the motivation of the strikers. They may use the language of "health and safety" and "long-term benefits", but it is possible that their motives are primarily selfish and financial. If so, such a motivation necessarily prioritises their personal interests above those whom they serve.

Second, there must be regard to the effects. The adverse impact of strikes by public-service workers is normally most keenly felt not by the strikers – or by their bosses. Nor is it felt by those with resources to circumvent the strike.

In particular, a strike by transport workers is hardly noticed by those with the luxury of being able to work from home or drive in to work. Instead, the effects hurt those who will not be paid if they do not turn up; those whose bosses will insist the day be taken as holiday; and those who may actually lose their jobs.

The direct and immediate consequence of any strike by public-service workers can arguably be worse for certain vulnerable and impoverished members of society than any George Osborne Budget.

But public-service unions seem to get away with it again and again. And they do so often with the silent complicity of the liberal-minded.

An abuse of power is an abuse of power; and selfish motives are selfish motives.

And so, as the London firefighters' union astonishingly threaten a strike on – of all days – Bonfire Night, the liberal must ask the questions: Is this an abuse of power and, if so, why is it being allowed to happen?

David Allen Green blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman. He has recently been appointed a judge for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging, for which he was shortlisted this year.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.