Huhne and Pryce went to jail despite their privilege, not because of it

Chris Huhne and Vicki Pryce broke an important law and, after a fair trial, got rightly sent down for roughly the right amount of time. It's as simple as that, writes Alex Andreou.

I found the obsessive media coverage of the Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce hearings quite illuminating. The extent of it was almost certainly down to the high public profile of the two players. It is, after all, a very rare pleasure to witness the actual moment when The Arrogant discover that the sun does not, in fact, shine out of their backside.

The tone of it, however, hid something much darker. As I watched broadcast after broadcast, a pattern began to emerge: Paula Harriott on Channel 4 News, having discussed the process of losing “jewellery and nice clothes”, was asked by Jon Snow: “Is it worse for a middle-class, successful professional woman?” 

“Do you think it is a case of the higher you are the harder you fall—I mean, harder for someone like yourself or Chris Huhne than someone who has been through the process before?” asked Adam Boulton of Jonathan Aitken on Sky News. The presenter and the disgraced former minister then share a joke about how the strict rules of Eton might prepare one for jail.

Lord Taylor of Warwick, jailed over expenses fraud, comments on the eight month sentence on Newsnight: “It’s not the length. It’s the going to prison that is the real punishment for people like this.” He proceeds to advise Chris Huhne to “just go down to the same level as every other prisoner.” 

The same people who demand tougher and longer sentences for people who dare even look at their BMWs, the same people who unquestioningly repeat Cameron’s “criminality pure and simple” when it comes to the 2011 riots, are full of furrowed brow worry when it concerns one of their own. These strivers, entrepreneurs, hard workers and leaders of men, are apparently in grave danger of falling apart when taken out of their greenhouse, with its carefully monitored politesse and humidity.

Explicit in these interviews, the idea that prison is somehow easy-peasy for those who have thus far had a brutally traumatised existence. This actually makes sense to these white, highly educated, middle class reporters, with six-figure salaries. If your life has been utterly shitty from birth, losing your liberty is not only unremarkable, but par for the course. If you have nothing to go back to when released, this only makes the time pass more pleasantly. Your skin is hardened, the squalid conditions natural to you, your Dickensian existence fits neatly into Holloway.

Less explicit, but no less present, is a sense of shock that people like “them” would do something like this, get caught, get convicted and end up doing time. Sarah Williams describes her shock when she got caught having convinced her mother to take her speeding points: “I’m hardly a hardened criminal: I’m a successful businesswoman, running my own marketing firm… I kept waiting for someone to say we’d been very naughty and that they hoped we’d learned our lesson, before sending us on our way. As two respectable, middle-class ladies, surely we’d be able to apologise our way out of this.” 

It is important to note that Chris Huhne already had nine points on his license (as did Sarah Williams above). A few weeks later he was caught driving while on his phone and his license suspended anyway. It could have been a little girl on her bicycle that stopped him, rather than the police. There is a compelling public interest argument in keeping people who habitually break safety rules off the road. There is a compelling public interest argument in the punishment falling on the person committing the offence. 

Impressive statistics are being wheeled out to demonstrate the insignificance of the crime. The AA estimates that thousands of people “swap points”. Well, thousands of people beat their spouses. Thousands of people drink and drive. Thousands of people dodge fares. Thousands of people evade taxes. The prevalence of a damaging practice is an argument for, not against, harsher sentences with a deterrent effect.

How many teachers, nurses or cops could we employ for the cost of the two kids sent to jail for four years for drunkenly posting an invitation to a riot which nobody attended? Who was the victim of their crime? What about the student jailed for six months for stealing water from Lidl worth £3.50? What is her future when she is released, lacking as she does Huhne’s property portfolio estimated at £4.8m? 

All these misconceived objections appear to endorse the oft quoted maxim: “the poor commit crimes; the rich just make mistakes”. The rich have much less reason to offend in the first place. They get to influence the laws which oversee their behaviour. They get access to better quality of legal advice when they do break the law. Studies consistently show that the denizens of higher socioeconomic strata get caught less often, charged less often, convicted less often, sentenced more leniently and released earlier. The deck is stacked.

We live in a country where David Laws, Liam Fox and Andy Coulson deserve second and third chances, but peaceful protesters in Fortnum & Masons are viewed as vandals; where tabloid journalists are arrested in dawn raids, but their editors by convenient appointment; where benefits “cheats” are given a prison term, but MPs defrauding the state of dozens of times the amount are just asked nicely to pay it back; where you are sent to jail for not paying a month’s worth of council tax, if you’re a nobody, but get to negotiate £4m of your tax bill, if you’re Vodafone; where the concept of personal responsibility is lauded, while that of government responsibility eroded. 

I disagree. Those who believe they are above the law, who are convinced they can manipulate the system and get away with it, are a tangible danger to others. And when they happen to be in positions of great power - whether in politics or in the media or in an investment bank – that danger is amplified. This arrogance, this hubris, this sense of invincibility conferred by position is precisely the link between the Huhne case, the financial crisis, the Savile scandal and the phone-hacking affair. 

***

Here is a thought experiment for the many experts who have offered their opinions on the outcome of the Huhne/Pryce case, readily and loudly.

Start, if you will, from the far-fetched idea that manipulating the legal system by conspiring to lie is quite a bad thing for the administration of justice and it would be desirable to avoid it. Next, consider the preposterous theory that a jury with the real responsibility of someone’s liberty in their hands—having heard hours of submissions, been privy to all the evidence, had access to every telephone recording and every email—may have arrived at a verdict more carefully considered and better informed than yours. Finally, entertain the fanciful notion that a judge, trained, skilled and experienced in such matters and following detailed guidance, may understand sentencing better than you do.

Do this and you arrive at quite a radical conclusion: Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce broke an important law and, after a fair trial, got rightly sent down for roughly the right amount of time. Not because they were privileged. Despite it. 

Supporters of Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of Chris Huhne, wait for her arrival outside Southwark Crown Court. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.