Caribbean leaders know that hanging wins votes

Many of my friends in the law (I was at the Middle Temple once) seem confused at the giant step backwards into judicial murder now practised by their Caribbean counterparts. They are entitled to be, even though Caribbean attorney- generals chide them about interference in the internal affairs of independent countries.

In St Lucia recently a crowd of demonstrators gathered outside the High Court baying for blood. A murderer, after spending five years on death row, had applied to the judge for his sentence to be commuted. He quoted the case of Pratt and Morgan where, more than ten years ago, the Privy Council in London (still a final court of appeal for some Caribbean countries) ruled that so long a period on death row constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The judge in St Lucia, bound by case law as she was, found for the murderer and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.

The demonstrators wanted to carry out the death penalty themselves and made no bones about what the verdict should be. They resented, they said, being dictated to by "a bunch of old dodgy white men in the Privy Council in England".

This frenzy has been part of Caribbean jurisprudence in the past couple of years or so, following some pretty gruesome drug-related murders. In Trinidad, a man called Dole Chadee, known as "the Don", ordered the execution of an entire family in lieu of an outstanding drug debt. With so many murder trials in the offing, Chadee and the executioners, if they had taken their place in the queue, would probably have spent many years of uncertainty awaiting their fate and thus qualified for "cruel and unusual punishment". So their trial leap-frogged others, the attorney-general bringing it to the front of the queue in record time.

Meanwhile Chadee was ordering the execution of witnesses from his prison cell. Before he, too, was executed, one witness, a policeman, gave a tape-recorded statement. He said that one of the accused, called Sankerali, knew nothing about what his co-defendants were up to. He went along with them for a ride, he thought, and not a murder spree.

As the execution date approached, the tape was passed to the president of Trinidad and Tobago, who in turn passed it to the attorney-general. The latter agreed with the director of public prosecutions and the prime minister that the evidence was of no consequence. Sankerali's lawyer was never given the evidence, lest the Privy Council rule in his favour. The attorney-general was heard to say: "Hang everybody."

He and the prime minister used to run a human rights organisation that campaigned against capital punishment. Now they are in power they know that judicial murder is a popular cause that can win elections.

Now there is a desperate attempt by Caribbean governments to set up a final court of appeal to replace the Privy Council. In that way they can get around Pratt and Morgan and any other Privy Council judgment that binds them.

But I fear that the only kind of court that could possibly emerge out of Caribbean jurisprudence is a kangaroo court. The Privy Council is constantly amazed by the awful quality of Caribbean judges. Sheer incompetence and violation of procedures frequently have to be rectified in London.

At one time, Pratt and Morgan seemed the height of success. Caribbean lawyers did not need to stir up passions by going for an outright abolition of the death penalty; Pratt and Morgan amounted to de facto abolition. But unstable Caribbean governments increasingly need the courts to provide verdicts that are politically palatable, and the independence of the judiciary is slowly becoming something of the past.

Nevertheless, I say that the Privy Council should be cut loose from the Caribbean legal profession. Let them stew in their own juice. People get the governments and judiciary they deserve.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.