The guilt trip

A revolution in crime policy is being put forward to ministers in which criminals are encouraged to

A woman sits in a police station. Beside her is the man who tried to rob her of her wallet. He says he is sorry; she is afraid and sceptical. But her assailant looks less menacing now. He has brought his baby and his girlfriend, who tells the victim that she is livid about what her partner did. An accident had stopped him working as a builder, she says. They were short of money, isolated, in despair. The victim accepts that her attacker feels remorse. In the light of this, the judge decides, for the first time ever, not to impose a jail term for robbery. Several years have passed. As far as anyone knows, this man has not committed another crime. Proponents of rebarbative measures will think this story emblematic of a soft-touch system. Others hope that such solutions are a foretaste of justice in Gordon Brown's Britain.

A report published on 8 February suggests a revolution in law and order thinking for the UK, with restorative justice (RJ) at its heart. Law rence Sherman, Wolfson Professor of Criminology at Cambridge University, and his co-author, Heather Strang, have evaluated evidence worldwide for the first time, and come up with conclusions that sound like manna for any crisis-swamped Home Secretary.

According to Sherman and Strang's research in Australia, the US and Britain, RJ has been proved to reduce repeat offending by up to half. It has doubled, or more than doubled, the offences brought to justice by conventional means, has reduced crime victims' post-traumatic stress. And it could slash costs. Controversially, it appears to work better for more serious types of crime.

Restorative justice has been used as an alter native or adjunct to the criminal system from America's death row, where relatives of murder victims speak to condemned perpetrators, to Dudley Zoo, in the case of a gang of youngsters who kicked a wallaby to death. Normally, the victim and the offender meet along with relatives and mediators - often specially trained police officers - who help draw up agreements, designed to allay victims' fears, and chart a course of action, such as drug treatment, that will stop the perpetrator reoffending. The tough-on-crime lobby may shrink from such collegiate problem-solving. But Sherman says: "The main question is what works - not what the bastards deserve. In giving vent to our own temper, we only make things worse."

The number of prisoners in England and Wales is at a record 80,000 and rising. Government sentencing guidelines mean longer jail terms, and the lack of drug treatment, rehabilitation and education contributes to a reoffending rate of 76 per cent. Women and the mentally ill are warehoused in institutions that cannot cater for their needs or safeguard their lives. Self-harm and suicide are rife, and 29 young boys have died behind bars since 1990. Apart from Luxembourg, Britain is the most intensive jailer in western Europe, squandering money and humanity to scant avail. Though crime is falling, with murder down 15 per cent for 2005 if you exclude the 7 July bombings, the public has rarely felt less safe.

In this climate, a mood in favour of RJ has been building. The Archbishop of Canterbury called for its adoption in his Prison Reform Trust lecture at the beginning of this month, and many judges, including the former Lord Chief Justice Harry Woolf, are vocal champions. Rob Allen, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London and a member of Sherman's steering committee, says: "The current crisis in the Home Office clearly exposes the limits of relying simply on punishment to solve complex social problems. Properly resourced and led, restorative approaches promise a more productive way of tackling the harm alongside, and in some cases instead of, conventional criminal justice."

Researchers' randomised trials produced some startling results, notably among North umbrian teenage girls in trouble with the police. Half had an RJ conference; the others went into the criminal justice system. The RJ group of poor, violent white girls proved twice as likely to stay clear of trouble. Judging by the findings, the RJ conferences prevented 71 crimes for every 100 offenders.

RJ appears to work better with more serious crimes, such as robbery, than with victimless offences such as shoplifting. Researchers think that violent offenders may be persuaded to change their ways after realising how much grief they have caused victims, who are often similar to them. Sherman believes that crimes of high emotion may lead to greater remorse. For him, the single most potent argument for RJ is that it is much more likely to bring offenders to justice than a criminal system in which cases routinely fail for lack of witnesses or proof. But the rule of law, whether enshrined in sharia or the English statute book, has a cautious relationship with informal solutions.

Early evangelists

Will Brown allow Britain's criminal justice system to be revolutionised on his watch? The Treasury was one of the first evangelists for RJ. Eight years ago, when the Home Office turned down a request for funding, one of the Chancellor's staff seized on the idea and offered funds.

Later, the Home Office relented, offering modest amounts. RJ gained a toehold, especially in youth justice, but the biggest slice of a £4.9m government grant went into testing the system on adult burglars and robbers, who met their victims at conferences held in London prisons. All the offenders went on to be sentenced at Crown Court, where the judge was made aware of any remorse, explanations or apologies offered.

These conferences were held in the presence of high-profile onlookers. The cream of the judiciary and ministers, including the Attorney General, watched an extraordinary experiment in justice. As the only journalist allowed to sit in, I saw the meeting at Pentonville Prison between a drug-addicted burglar and his victim, an elderly Turkish widow. Maria dared not leave her front room, where she slept on the sofa with a knife beside her. Her daughter and her son, a City lawyer, had had to sacrifice their independence and return home to care for their mother. Alexi, who had wandered into someone else's kitchen in search of money for a fix, had ruined a family's existence. He promised to go straight, and perhaps he did. His victim, faced with a needy wastrel rather than the monster of her imagination, had got her life back.

When the conference ended, amid tears and rapprochement, it was as if a seance had been ruptured. Back at the Home Office, an even sharper awakening was in store. Despite pleas by some judges, funding for the project was wound down, excellent police teams were disbanded, RJ lost its showcase, and victims - the undisputed beneficiary of restorative solutions - had a potential lifeline removed. Two years have passed, and critics talk of "the dead hand of the Home Office".

RJ is not short of cheerleaders. Charles Pollard, the former Thames Valley chief constable, says the Sherman report "quashes the idea of a fluffy solution in which offenders get off lightly. This is hard-edged research, and it [RJ] is a no-brainer." The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, which funded the study's publication by the Smith Institute, has been a pioneer in the promotion of RJ. So has Cherie Booth. She told me, some time ago, that the government should do more. "If the evidence shows it [RJ] is successful, in particular in helping cut reoffending, I believe it could boost confidence in the criminal justice system."

Now that some hard evidence is on hand, could the Prime Minister's wife and the Chancellor, whose relationship is famously glacial, find a concordat in endorsing an alternative, if fallible, justice system? Enver Solomon, deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, warns that, despite its "distinctive benefits for offenders and victims", it should not be seen as "a magic bullet".

Despite widespread enthusiasm, some leading figures in criminal justice are said to be even more sceptical. And where RJ appears to work, important questions remain. When should it be used instead of court proceedings, rather than as a supplement? How can vulnerable offenders keep promises to stay off drugs or drink if they cannot get good treatment? What kinds of crime should RJ deal with? Canada reports success in domestic violence cases, and Strang and Sherman cite a successful Australian case in which a man who tried to kill his girlfriend's alleged rapist was dealt with through RJ rather than the courts.

Powerful drug

There are still many mysteries as to why restorative justice works (or fails to work), and when, and on whom. Sherman and Strang concede that there is much work to do. Their report calls it "a powerful drug which needs to be carefully tested for specific kinds of cases before it is put into general practice".

The next step, they say, is to expand their research and run it to scale. Last month, King's College criminologists sent Brown a paper recommending a Restorative Justice Board, similar to the Youth Justice Board, and possibly annexed to a new Ministry of Justice. The projected cost for a board plus an RJ roll-out over the three financial years from 2008 to 2011 is £71m, £221m and £317m.

Treasury insiders say Brown has doubts about investment in such a major expansion. What works on a small scale may not, in his view, be replicated. In addition, the Chancellor is at pains to stress his "toughness". Some criminologists believe that, on criminal justice, you could not slip an Asbo between Brown and Blair. None the less, those close to the Chancellor say he is instinctively sympathetic to RJ as well as to its close cousin, community justice.

RJ is likely to appeal to him on two levels. The first is that a justice system re-rooted in humanity, compassion and mutual understanding fits with his championing of the good society and his targeting of "hearts and minds". The second imperative is cost. The Treasury has been reluctant to bankroll John Reid's eye-wateringly costly plans to build his way out of the jail crisis. It costs £35,000 a year to keep each offender behind bars at present, and RJ could yield substantial savings. So far, the evidence of success is modest, but growing numbers of criminologists, police officers and sentencers are arguing that the government must now build on the first worldwide evaluation of its benefits.

If Brown can be persuaded, then justice could face the most radical upheaval in memory. Assuming the proponents of RJ are right, the shift could begin to empty prisons, reduce reoffending and halt the criminalisation of children. The promises are not underwritten, but the alternatives are demonstrated every week by a criminal system in free fall. The question is not so much whether Brown dares take up the challenge of restorative justice. It is whether he dares not to.

The international experience
Research by Sophie Pearce

In Northern Ireland restorative justice (RJ) was legally enforced in the Justice Act 2002, in the form of "youth conferencing" for young offenders. A study of 185 meetings found that 85 per cent of victims received an apology they were satisfied with from the offender. Northern Ireland also has community restorative justice (CRJ), which is used to address low-level crime and neighbourhood disputes. The recidivism rate for the 400 cases dealt with by CRJ each year is estimated to be as low as 8 per cent.

RJ has also been successful in curbing crime in Australia and the US. In Canberra, recidivism fell by 84 per cent when offenders under the age of 30 were assigned RJ, while the number of offences brought to justice rose by 75 per cent for adolescent shoplifters and 45 per cent among violent offenders under 30. In Indianapolis only 15 per cent of violent offenders subjected to RJ reoffended within six months, compared to 27 per cent of those given standard punishments.

However, specific groups have shown discrepancies. Recidivism among Aboriginal youths and drink-drivers in Canberra actually rose when RJ was applied, and in Pennsylvania, young people arrested for theft were found more likely to reoffend if given RJ. None the less, in all these cases the samples were deemed too small to be conclusive.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia

Picture: David Parkin
Show Hide image

The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496