David Cameron tries being ‘cruel to be kind’

Est. read time: 24 min

It was truly stomach churning to hear David Cameron on Monday 22 October 2012 unctuously setting out his government’s revised law and order agenda for dealing with the presence of knives and guns on our streets, punishing and rehabilitating offenders and giving private contractors outcomes related incentives for reducing offending.

This was the same David Cameron who in the wake of the massive civil disturbances in London and other cities in the summer of 2011 was encouraging and endorsing the practice of jailing those arrested and charged for their involvement in the disturbances by the hundreds, a majority of them for first and relatively minor offences.

One is often led to wonder whether politicians such as David Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Gove – and Tony Blair before them – inhabit the same planet as the rest of us. For one thing, they would have us believe that they suffer from a type of amnesia which kicks in with a vengeance when, in desperation, they reach for particular policies and make headline grabbing pronouncements.

So, David Cameron wants the courts to hand down life sentences to those supplying guns to criminals. He wants prisons to place more emphasis on rehabilitation while ensuring that prison regime is tough and focused on punishment. He wants to give those who run prisons outcomes-based financial incentives to reduce the rate of re-offending and help him demonstrate that prison works.

No doubt, he would have us believe that this latter preoccupation has nothing to do with his sacking of Ken Clarke, former Justice Secretary, who clearly demonstrated both by his statements and his policies that contrary to the fundamental canon of Tory law and order policy, prison does not work for the vast majority of those who are sent there. What is more, it patently fails to act as the deterrent that politicians and the courts assume it to be.

50% of adults are re-convicted within one year of being released. The shorter the sentence, the greater the rate of re-offending. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 61%.

David Cameron presumably wants us to believe, also, that his new-found concern about the supply of guns to criminals is a holistic law and order consideration and nothing to do with the police and government’s attempt to manage the police killing of Mark Duggan which sparked the civil unrest in August 2011.

Duggan gets killed by the police in a police sting operation. False and misleading statements are issued about the circumstances of his death and his actions when confronted by the police. It turns out that he had not shot at or attempted to shoot at the police after all. His family is given no explanation of his death, despite grave and ongoing concern in the African community about the hundreds of deaths in custody, some of them in Tottenham itself, in which African men and women are killed by the police with no policeman or woman being prosecuted. The community’s frustration at the police’s response and the police reaction to the expression of that frustration act as a trigger of the worst civil unrest Britain has seen in thirty years.

The riots and the ‘moral collapse’ of our society

The state responds by treating the violent unrest as ‘sheer criminality’ and those who engaged in it as ‘feral’, ‘sick’ and morally bankrupt. Even before the police gathered evidence from those arrested, David Cameron returns from his summer holiday and boldly announces that the riots were caused by gangs and that they were evidence of ‘a slow moving moral collapse within sections of our society’, i.e., the African Caribbean community where there are too many ‘fatherless families’, where children are ‘out of control’ and where young men routinely kill one another at will.

The courts take their cue from the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the media and begin to deny bail, remanding in custody everyone charged with committing an offence during the disturbances and imposing ‘exemplary sentences’, even upon first time offenders, for committing petty offences. The emphasis is on revenge and on showing the country that the state has not lost control and that the government is still tough on crime and social disorder, rather than on dispensing justice and treating each offence and offender on its own merit.

I argued at the time that the response of the state was epitomised by the Recorder of Manchester, Judge Andrew Gilbart QC, who produced his own sentencing guidelines. Sentencing Stephen Carter, David Beswick, Linda Mary Boyd and Michael Gillespie-Doyle for their part in the disturbances in Manchester city centre and Salford Precinct, the Judge stated:

Those who choose to take part in activities of this type must understand that they do so at their peril… In my judgement the context in which the offences of the night of 9th August were committed takes them completely outside the usual context of criminality. For the purposes of these sentences, I have no doubt that the principal purpose is that the Courts should show that outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be and must be met with sentences longer than they would be if the offences had been committed in isolation. For those reasons I consider that the Sentencing Guidelines for specific offences are of much less weight in the context of the current case, and can properly be departed from.

As a starting point, it seems to me inevitable that any adult offender out and about in the City Centre or at Salford Precinct that evening who took part in crimes of the type I have described must expect to lose his or her liberty for a significant period.

David Cameron had himself encouraged the Courts to ignore Sentencing Guidelines and send out a clear message to the ‘rioters’.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, saw things very differently, as he told Mary Riddell of the Daily Telegraph:

We should not treat these cases as a separate category to be dealt with differently. We should treat them as we do any other case. We need to keep our feet on the ground. In other areas, such as big terrorism cases, we have resisted the temptation to call for special measures. With disorder cases, we should adopt the same approach.

The Appeal Court, sitting to consider the first cases to come before them from the summer disturbances also criticised the Manchester Recorder for his remarks on sentencing and for setting his own tariff for the crimes committed during the civil disorder. Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice remarked that ‘if other crown courts had circulated alternative tariffs for various crimes it would have been a “recipe for chaos” in the judicial system’.

Be all of that as it may, the state and the police were still left with a problem. Mark Duggan was dead and the police had killed him.

Kevin Hutchinson-Foster, a 30 year old black male, was arrested and charged with supplying a gun to Mark Duggan minutes before he was shot dead by police. He denied the charge. On 17 October 2012 a jury of seven men and five women at Snaresbrook crown court in East London was unable to reach a verdict even after deliberating for 21 hours over a four day period. At least ten of the twelve jurors needed to agree one way or the other. The Crown Prosecution Service said it would seek a retrial.

On 22 October 2012, David Cameron made his speech in which he announced that he wanted courts to hand down life sentences to those found guilty of supplying guns to criminals. Coincidence of timing? Maybe.

Without daring to accuse the Prime Minister of capriciousness or cynicism, however, I am compelled to ask the following questions: Why now? Why this new-found concern about the supply of guns to ‘criminals’? Would Cameron had made that announcement if Duggan had been shot by another black male, thus becoming ‘one more statistic’ in that seemingly never ending roll call of black victims of gun and knife crime that dates back to the early 1990s in our communities?

Go after the gunrunners

For well over a decade, I have been posing some fairly obvious questions to the police in Greater Manchester (which in the 1990s earned for itself the moniker ‘Gunchester’), in London and elsewhere: you are seeking to infiltrate gangs, to locate guns and discover how guns get passed around, such that the same gun can be seen to have been used in eight different murders, and you want the community’s support in this. But, what are you doing about those who supply those guns to young people in our communities?

Those guns are not manufactured in Moss Side or Longsight, in Harlesden, Brixton or Hackney. Why then is it so easy for young African heritage boys, some as young as ten, to acquire and use or threaten to use guns? Why is it possible to get hold of a gun in our communities without effort and for less than you would have to part with to buy a mobile phone? There never have been answers to these questions. We have become quite used to the statistics on gun-and knife-enabled murders and on police success in convicting perpetrators or lack of success because of the ‘wall of silence’ in communities. Never have we seen statistics on the results of police operations to apprehend the suppliers of guns into the hands of young men in our communities.

Print screen from The Guardian's website

In June 2010, The Guardian published one of my articles entitled “Go after the gunrunners”

David Cameron talked in general terms about those guilty of ‘supplying guns to criminals’. Criminals plotting armed robberies or gangland killings and procuring guns for those purposes have been part of the culture of Britain for generations. David Cameron must know that this phenomenon is of a completely different order to what has become an all too familiar news story, i.e., the shooting of black young men and, thankfully less often, black young girls, by other black young men. That is precisely why our communities and the entire British nation needed answers from the police and successive prime ministers and home secretaries to the questions I posed above.

No such answers have been forthcoming and the issue of the source of the supply of guns to our communities has never been part of the narrative around guns and gangs and so-called ‘black on black’ murders. Operation Trident has operated in the Metropolitan Police since March 1998 when it was first established in Lambeth and Brent. Because of the alarming number of gun- and knife-enabled murders, black communities have been cooperating much more with the police in London and elsewhere in the country where special units similar to Trident have been established.

Nevertheless, ‘Stop & Search’ remains a vexing issue for the majority of black young people who feel unjustly targeted because of the illegal activities of a small but dangerous minority of their peers. Yet, we hear absolutely nothing from the police about their activities to identify and prosecute those gun suppliers who are as guilty of our children’s murders as the many young black men serving life sentences for those murders and the many more still running around our communities with blood on their hands.

That is why I told BBC News on Sunday 21 October in anticipation of Cameron’s announcement: we need to ensure that police efforts to identify those who supply guns to young people in our communities are not concentrated upon young men who might use their knowledge of physics to convert replica guns for use as firearms, albeit the use of such guns could have equally dire consequences, but that they focus on the people who import quantities of guns and ammunition through the UK’s porous borders.

I believe we also need to ensure that, under this new law, the charge of ‘joint enterprise’ is not used to bag groups of young men for having and not supplying to the police information that a gun was being passed to someone else.

‘Black on black’ crime and the media circus

The state and successive governments’ failure to act in relation to the supply of guns to our communities is evidence of what I have described as a callous disregard both for the scandalous extent of the murders within our communities and of the fact that black community organisations and academics have been making a range of interventions in relation to those murders over the years.

For example, when Ben Kinsella, a young white boy, was fatally stabbed in London in 2008, his death received instant and wall to wall media coverage because he was the brother of the TV soap, ‘East Enders’ actor, Brooke Kinsella. Scores of black youths had been shot and stabbed in London and other cities since the early 1990s. The media hype about Ben Kinsella’s stabbing mirrored their reaction to the shooting of a little white boy, Rhys Jones, in Liverpool who was caught in a cross fire between two sets of gang members on his way from football practice in 2007.

For weeks following his killing, there was a whole media circus and the clear message coming from that was: we expect this sort of thing from these blacks who routinely slaughter one another, but we don’t expect a decent young white lad from his kind of family, living in this desirable neighbourhood, to fall victim to this sort of street violence. This is a matter I dealt with up front in the media interviews I did at the time, including on BBC News 24.

Rhys Jones’ death prompted former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to vow to take all sorts of action to deal with gangs and with gun violence, except evidently rounding up and jailing those who supply guns to our communities.

In a speech in Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on 24 August 2007, David Cameron, then leader of the Conservative Opposition praised the “awe-inspiring” bravery of Rhys Jones’s parents as he declared that their son’s murder symbolised Britain’s social breakdown. He blamed rap music bosses, lad magazines, feckless fathers and the video game industry for the rise in gang violence and yobbish behaviour. In language that heralded his pronouncements in August 2011, Cameron said:

“Parents who don’t know where their kids are and what they’re up to at night should not just be helped to do their job properly – they should be shamed into doing it,” adding that fathers who abandon their families, “should be treated like the selfish people they are”.

This is a mindset that says:

This is primarily ‘black on black’ crime. It has to do with the nature of the black community itself and with the cultural habits and preferences of black youth. It has to do with too many absent fathers and too many ‘baby mothers’. It has little to do with the state of Britain itself and with the structural condition of being young and black in British society.

It is clearly the same mindset that led Home Secretary Theresa May and David Cameron to appoint Brooke Kinsella in June 2010 to head up a fact-finding mission into the work of schemes designed to stop young people carrying and using knives, and to assess the effectiveness of current work designed to keep young people away from violent crime.

Kinsella is an actor, not a community activist, let alone a sociologist, social analyst or criminologist. She had no known interest in street violence or in the fact that scores of young black men were being killed year on year for nearly 20 years before her own brother was killed two years earlier. Most of the projects she was expected to visit were run by black community organisations in response to the senseless murders of young black people, predominantly male. So, even in our worst nightmares we had a ‘great white hope’ like Brooke Kinsella imposed upon us to pronounce upon the value and effectiveness of our responses and interventions.

That I why I believe our communities need to be vigilant and hold David Cameron and the police to account for their performance in bringing to justice the suppliers of guns to our communities. That is why we need to ensure that this law and order initiative does not mirror the all too familiar phenomenon where the police and courts target drug dealers low down the chain, the ‘small fry’ in communities, while the ‘big fish’ continue to live in luxury and to move in the respectable circles to which their ill-gotten gains and their lifestyle give them access.

And what about Cameron’s focus on rehabilitation of offenders?

I suppose this is evidence of the benign face of the Janus-like law and order policy David Cameron would have us believe he is pursuing. On the other hand, it could well be an example of what he described in his speech, in Munich of all places, on 5 February 2011 as a ‘muscular liberalism’, having declared multiculturalism all but dead.

So, what do we know about the Prison Service David Cameron is seeking to reassure the nation he could make work?

In October 2011, the UK prison population was in the region of 97,000, 4,635 of whom were women. The prison population of England & Wales on 7th October 2011 was 87,673, Scotland (with 15 prisons) around 8,000 and Northern Ireland (with 3 prisons) nearly 2,000.

Some 55% to 60% of the overall prison population are functionally illiterate and have poor social skills.

The Prison Reform Trust Social Exclusion Unit gives some worrying statistics:

Almost half of prisoners ran away as a child – compared to 11% of the general population;

About one in three female and half of male prisoners were excluded from school and a majority have no qualifications;

Less than 5% of the general population have two or more mental disorders, compared to 72% of male and 70% of female sentenced prisoners;

Re-offending rates among offenders are high – about two thirds are reconvicted within two years of release. Among men aged 18-21 the rate is about three quarters;

Accommodation problems are common – nearly one in three will not have somewhere to live upon release;

A majority of prisoners will have no job to go to and six out of 10 employers automatically exclude those with a criminal record;

It is estimated that between 120,000 and 160,000 children each year have the experience of one parent being in prison;

Over half of those under 18 in custody have a history of being in care or involvement with social services;

More than 50 per cent of male and 72 per cent of female prisoners had no qualifications when sentenced and 37 per cent were at or below Level 1 skills in reading.

Thirty per cent of prisoners were regular truants from school and nearly half of school-age offenders were excluded at the time of arrest.

The correlation between school exclusion and youth offending has been long established, not least by research conducted by government itself. Black school students, males in particular, are up to six times more likely to be excluded than their white counterparts.

In 2010, the RSA published The Learning Prison and recorded that:

Young black people and those of ‘mixed’ ethnicity are likely to receive more punitive sentences than their white contemporaries;

Black people are six times more likely to be in prison than white people: black and minority ethnic people accounted for 26 per cent of the male prison population and 28 per cent of the female population in June 2006;

In 2004, Black British people made up 12 per cent of the prison population and only 2 per cent of the population as a whole. The British black and ethnic minority prison population grew by 124 per cent from 1992 – 2002, while overall prison numbers grew by 55 per cent;

On 30 June 2009 just under 27% of the prison population, 22,292 prisoners, was from an ethnic minority group. Black people constituted 15% of those who were stopped by the police in 2008-09; other ethnic minority groups were also over-represented;

Over half of black and ethnic minority groups perceived that they had been subject to racial discrimination while in prison (Edgar and Martin Home Office 2004);

Overall black prisoners account for the largest number of minority ethnic prisoners (54%). Between 1999 and 2002 the total prison population grew by just over 12% but the number of black prisoners increased by 51%’.

Since 1997, the government has created more than 17,000 extra prison spaces , with a further 8,000 planned. From time to time, as in 2007, jails become full to the extent that some prisoners need to be held in court and police cells.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has noted that ‘incarceration levels in Britain are now among the highest in western Europe. England and Wales have an imprisonment rate of 155 per 100,000 and Scotland of 149 per 100,000 of the population. This contrasts with rates of less than 100 per 100,000 for most of Britain’s neighbours’.

The commission also warned of the rising numbers of women in jails, highlighting the fact that the “number of women prisoners has nearly doubled since 1995 in England and Wales, and since 2000 in Scotland – currently around 5% of prisoners are women”.

In 2006, the Howard League for Penal Reform reported that:

The incarceration rate of England and Wales was found to be around 50 percent higher than comparable countries such as France, Germany and Italy and double that of the Scandinavian states.

The Howard League also revealed that there were more children and young people in prison in England and Wales than in any other Western European country—with the tally trailing only Turkey and Ukraine in its table of 32 countries. It also has one of the highest proportions of women prisoners.

In April 2010, Frances Crook of the Howard League called upon the leaders of all political parties ahead of the general election to set out their policies to tackle the size of the prison population.

She said: ‘This ceaseless growth in prison numbers is untenable and any new administration will have to bite the bullet and find a strategic way to reduce the prison population’.

One year later, as we have observed, the Coalition Government was doing the exact opposite. In the wake of the civic disturbances in August 2011, the prison population was growing at the rate of several hundred per week and in just one week saw an increase of 723.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, pointed out that: “More than half of our prisons were grossly overcrowded before the riots with many prisoners, including children and young people, held long distances from their homes. Too many people were already in limbo, awaiting trial or a parole hearing”.

Courts worked round the clock in the aftermath of the events of summer 2011 to process the 3,000 plus who had been charged with offences related to rioting, burglary and looting. Seven out of ten were remanded in custody, even in cases where the crown prosecution service did not oppose bail. In 2010, only one in ten of those charged with serious offences had been remanded in custody. The judiciary clearly had no time for the Director of Public Prosecutions’, Keir Starmer’s plea that:

We should not treat these cases as a separate category to be dealt with differently. We should treat them as we do any other case.

Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt was bullish in his defence of the number of people being sent to jail and of the tough stance being taken by the courts, insisting that the jails could cope with the burgeoning numbers:

What we have to do is make sure there are prison places for those sent to prison by the courts and we will continue to do that regardless of how many people are sent to prison.

All of the above forms the context to David Cameron’s muscular approach to offender punishment and rehabilitation. Add to that the financial stringencies being imposed upon those for whom poverty and the struggle for survival is a living reality, the level of youth unemployment overall and among the black and ethnic minority population in particular, the powers given to schools to exclude young people, the link between school exclusion and youth offending, and you do begin to wonder what planet David Cameron is on.

The trouble is that this government and its predecessor would have us believe that they are incapable of joining up these dots and seeing the whole sorry picture. It does not take a genius to understand that if you have well over half the prison population functionally illiterate and since you know that in addition to their lack of basic skills they will most likely face prejudice and discrimination by employers on release, you need to something drastic to ensure that they get the remedial education and skills development they need while they are in prison.

About six years ago, I chaired a research group for the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) to examine prisoners’ experience of accessing prison education and of the quality of that provision. The PRT report was entitled Time to Learn. In the Foreword to that report I argued that all the evidence points to the urgent need to ensure that all prisoners have access to education and learning as an entitlement and not as a reward for good conduct, hard work or anything else.

The then Prisons Minister Ivan Lewis attended the launch of the report and we presented him with the evidence and urged him to take action on the matter. To this day, however, education and life and social skills provision remains a lottery for most prisoners and does not form the core of any rehabilitation and resettlement plan.

In the last twelve years, successive Education Secretaries have failed to tackle the wasteful, destructive and discriminatory practice of school exclusion. It is a practice that severely disadvantages the most vulnerable in the schooling system: looked after children, children with special education needs, African heritage children, dual heritage children, children with disabilities. They are the ones that are to be found in pupil referral units, or excluded and on the streets, or in parks and shopping malls. What is worse is that schools are excluding them at a younger and younger age.

The number of primary school exclusions has risen exponentially as compared to 20 years ago. CEN, the education charity I chair, is currently dealing with a case in which a 4 year old has been permanently excluded by a Church of England primary school for ‘sexually inappropriate behaviour’. The child has been kept at home so far for nearly four weeks. The school tried to get him into a pupil referral unit but the PRU refused to have him on the grounds that he is a little child and should not be excluded and expected to start his schooling career in a pupil referral unit.

What kind of a country is it that makes it legal for a school to use the power to exclude a child of that age for any conceivable reason? What sort of schooling system, what kind of Church is it that would stigmatise a small child in that manner? What sexually appropriate behaviour is the child supposed to display?

The little boy is black.

Even at his tender age, he and his parents cannot have an expectation that his school would act with common sense, discharge a duty of care and guide the child’s development. On the contrary, he is starting his schooling career with a blot on his record and stereotypes heaped upon him and his family by a church school that simultaneously purports to teach Christian values. The fact remains that education law empowers the school to take such action and the Independent Appeals Panel is no longer authorised to compel the school to reinstate the child.

It is this absurd obsession with punishment that lies at the heart of this country’s record for jailing the most people in Western Europe, excluding the most young people, having the most illiterate prison population, and all the rest of it. Is it any wonder, then, that rather than examining the systemic issues that lie beneath the eruption of violence in August 2011, all David Cameron and his government could do is show the nation and the world how tough they could be on ‘sick’, ‘feral’, ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals’.

Sadly, though, there are those who would find Cameron’s rhetoric beguiling and who no doubt are already lining up to run off and form welcoming parties for prisoners being released. Cameron told us that one of his strategies for supporting rehabilitation and resettlement is to pair up reformed gang members in the community with gang members in prison or about to be released from prison.

So long as this or any other government could depend upon sections of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society to play host to oppressive practices and see government’s intentions as benign and benevolent, communities will continue to side step the task of empowering themselves to hold the Executive to account and taking collective action in pursuit of change.

Picture (home): “David Cameron” by University Hospitals Birmingham (Flick – CC BY-ND 2.0)


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