Both wrong on marriage

The Tories are promising tax-breaks for married couples, which Harriet Harman has described as ‘hypocritical moralising‘. But both are in fact wrong — Harman for her notion that ‘Families won’t want to be lectured by anybody about how to lead their lives’, with the implicit underlying assumption that all forms of family are equally functional, and the Tories for attempting to use tax-breaks as a form of social engineering.

Large numbers of studies have shown that long term stable parental relationships are better for children, and that married couples are less likely to split up than cohabiting couples. But equally strong evidence suggests that increasing wealth inequality across society has an at-least equally detrimental effect. The pivotal study is described in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, which shows how more equal societies do better.

The problem with the Tory proposal of creating a more advantageous tax situation for married couples (and I was one of those disadvantaged when Labour took this away in the 1990s) is that they are piling material rewards onto those who are more likely to become wealthy anyway. Voters, of course, love the notion of rewarding the good (married couples) while punishing the bad (single mothers on benefits), and it’s an easy button to press if you are an unpopular politician facing an angry crowd. But the truth is, if you punish single mothers by limiting their benefits, then you exacerbate inequalities in society, and the result will be more crime, more social unrest, less happiness, a greater differential in life expectancy, and a vicious circle which we should be doing everything we can to avoid.

Harman’s attack on the Tories is misguided — there is nothing hypocritical about supporting marriage, and a tax-break is not a form of lecturing. But the Tories have reverted to type by making a financial appeal the measure of all things. The reason we are now in a recession, despite the promises of Mssrs Clarke and Brown of an end to boom and bust, is that we have persisted in evaluating all things in economic terms. We have urged the brightest, most able, and (let’s face it) the luckiest on with ever higher bonuses, and we have supported an industry where companies are free to advertise loans to people who cannot possibly afford them, and no-win-no-fee court cases to those who would be better to get on with their lives. At the same time, our culture has increasingly valued possession of goods as the marker of personal worth. The three consequences of this should be obvious to all: economic recession, as we adjust to only spending money we actually have, climate change, brought on by conspicuous consumerism on a global scale, and deep social malaise, as everyone looks at the ideal world presented in TV ads and colour supplements and sees themselves falling short.

Social cohesion is essential for our future, and marriage is a key building block in social cohesion, but rewarding it with more money simply adds to another social problem.

As I mentioned before, I was personally cross when Gordon Brown took away our married person’s allowance, and that, with the subsequent demise of MIRAS which kept our mortgage down, had a very serious impact on our finances at the time. Taking things away that people rely on always causes hardship, and rarely does anywhere near the amount of good that was expected of it. But reinstating this allowance, as the Tories wish to, will not really be helping those who are hardest hit by the recession. Doing so in a means-tested way might help, but means testing is what the Tories hate most, since they want to reward people who have money with more money. I would not go so far as to ever accuse them of wishing to punish the poor for being poor. But in a society where relative, rather than absolute, poverty contributes so strongly to low self-esteem and consequent problems, that is effectively the result of what they are proposing.

We do need to support the things which hold society together. But we need to think of more creative and effective ways of doing it. As long as we continue to make money the measure of all things, we will continue to see British national life slide into oblivion.

At last – action on behalf of trafficked women in the UK

The government has finally taken action on behalf of trafficked women. Under the plan, the Home Office is planning to criminalise paying for sex with a woman “controlled for another person’s gain”. However, the move has already been undermined by cuts to the budget for human trafficking investigations and the closure of the leading unit.

Jacqui Smith came under considerable pressure this morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme, but, effectively, the presenter missed the point. Whatever the views of libertarians (a position which should not be confused with liberalism), the most important action to reduce human trafficking into the UK is to reduce the demand, and the only method open to legislators is the law. Pimps and traffickers have many ways of concealing their linkage with trafficked women. In previous generations, the women themselves have been penalised, often with scant regard for the possibility that they are trafficked or otherwise coerced. Penalising clients who knowingly make use of coerced prostitutes is by far the most reasonable, effective and intelligent approach.

Radio 4 made much of the suggestion that a man might unwittingly make use of the services of a coerced woman, believing that this was not the case. However, this is not legally dissimilar to any case of people who recklessly purchase stolen goods or profit by other illegal activity without making reasonable enquiries. There is a strong body of case law and police practice to prevent the innocent from facing charges.

Objections from the English Collective of Prostitutes are similarly misguided: women who choose prostitution will not be affected by this. In fact, this is progressive legislation, because, in the past, almost all legislation regarding prostitution has focused on penalising prostitutes themselves. It is not very long ago that the same government was introducing ASBOs and CRASBOs which, frequently, resulted in prostitutes facing fines which they could only pay by returning to prostitution — a vicious cycle which could have been anticipated, but was not.

At its most simple, we have to face the question: does any man ever have the right to sex with a woman who is coerced into doing so? There are few questions where the result is so clear cut. No human being has this right. It is a fundamental violation of the very basis of human rights. In that case, we are left asking: why has this not been illegal for some time? This is a much more difficult question to answer, and a much more promising line of attack which Radio 4 might have considered pursuing. Given that there is widespread awareness of the problem of human trafficking, most men who use prostitutes must have some inkling that there is a possibility that the people they are dealing with are either traffickers or trafficked women. In that case, why have men not banded together before to drive the traffickers out of business? A lot of work was done on this question in Belgium in the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the publication of the seminal ‘Ze zijn zo lief, menheer’, by Chris de Stoop. In Belgium, where prostitution is effectively legal in all its forms (and therefore a counter example to those who argue that legalising and regulating prostitution will end people trafficking), 1/3 of men are estimated to use prostitutes, and, as de Stoop demonstrated, high numbers were aware of the status of the women they were using. De Stoop explored the reasons for which men engaged in activity which, when considered in the coldest light of morning, was utterly brutal and degrading, and was not (as it is often put) ‘equivalent to a modern form of slavery’, but is, in fact, with no qualifications, slavery itself. The most commonly occurring ‘reason’ became the title for the book “because they’re so nice”.

After many, many years of campaigns, the government is finally doing something. They should be applauded. But there is much work still to do, and, if they are serious, they must now reinstate cut funds for trafficking investigation.

Whether or not the police are ever funded to enforce the new laws — a serious issue, given the recent cuts — the fact that sex with trafficked women will become illegal is a massive step forward in itself. Far too often, the most compelling argument put forward by people engaged in activities of this type is “if it was that bad, it would be against the law”. At last, it will be.

Why Gordon Brown should watch Doctor Who

Did you see this week’s Doctor Who? You didn’t? You’re wondering what the fictional Time Lord has to offer the Prime Minister? (If you’re reading this and are saying, Gordon Who?, then you have some other catching up to do). Actually, this week’s episode didn’t really feature Doctor Who at all. It’s about what would have happened if the various calamities averted by the man in the TARDIS, generally on Christmas Day, hadn’t been averted after all. For the first twenty minutes it’s diverting entertainment, of the ‘very good, but we have seen this kind of episode before’ kind. But then it changes. Crisis hits Britain. The family of Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble are billeted in Leeds (“I am not living in Leeds”), along with two other families including some Italians. It’s hard times, but they’re sure to pull through. Except, after a while, the soldiers take away the Italians to the labour camps, as England is now for the English (the French have previously closed the borders). Just when we’re wondering if we’re actually watching this on family TV, we have an emotional farewell, with Bernard Cribbins in tears, reminding us that “that’s what they called it the last time”. And then we see the Italian family being driven away in an open topped truck, the wife burying her head in the husband’s shoulder as they both weep.

Doctor Who not really your thing? Then perhaps you remember seeing the first two episodes of the fifth series of Spooks, when Harry Pearce and someone unnervingly like Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti are imprisoned under a ‘temporary detention order’.

How do these award winning dramas connect with the rather more lacklustre Gordon Brown? In this: both present a picture of Britain after a few shocks have caused people to put far too much hope and trust in their leaders, and the leaders have responded by rescinding traditional British freedoms for the greater good.

Clearly, a series of invasions by aliens are unlikely to be on the horizon, and even the MI-6 (as script writers still insist on calling SIS) plot which triggers the Spooks episode is pure fiction, notwithstanding what we now know about Harold Wilson’s fears when he was in office.

But the great historical example of this, to which all such fiction alludes, which still looms like a spectre over all debates over freedom, that is, the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, was neither triggered by aliens nor by the machinations of sinister and secret government agents. It was triggered by the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression, and the willingness of ordinary people to sacrifice traditional freedoms for the sake of a supposedly better world.

Gordon Brown has just put through the most wholesale reduction of liberties since the establishment of the Magna Carta. It is unlike anything in the English speaking world. More chilling was its reception by the public. Most people, according to polls, backed Gordon Brown. One man on a vox pop suggested that Brown should go further: “anyone who commits a crime should be kept in prison, until they are either sentenced, or not sentenced”. In other polls, we learn that most people are dissatisfied with the legal system, and want more powers for police and the courts to deal with the criminals swiftly.

Perhaps this all sounds like liberal hand wringing. But, in law, Gordon Brown has created a situation where people may be imprisoned without the intervention of the courts in a situation far short of a genuine emergency. In the six cases that the existing (and equally malign) 28 day legislation has been used, half of the people were never charged. That is to say, no evidence was acquired either before or during their detention that provided a reasonable case for prosecution. But if there was no evidence before their detention, on what basis were they detained in the first place?

In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change has pulled out of the elections, ostensibly because they will not be ‘free and fair’, though we all knew that they would not be free and fair anyway, but, in reality, most probably because they recognised that violence and killing would increase until Mugabe was confident of victory, and even if Morgan Tsvangirai was victorious, there would be no reason to believe that Mugabe would step aside. But Mugabe has nothing like the legal power to fix the election which Gordon Brown has just given himself. Under the 42 day rule, Mugabe could have had virtually the whole of the MDC rounded up on suspicion of terrorism. He has more or less accused them all of terrorism anyway, he merely lacks a law that would give him the powers he wants.

Of course Gordon Brown would never do such a thing. But, when Lord Carrington negotiated the creation of Zimbabwe in 1980 out of the civil war in Rhodesia, nobody ever thought Robert Mugabe would do such a thing. The whole world watched the ‘miracle of Rhodesia’. The world watched again when the office of prime minister was abolished in 1987 in favour of an executive president.

Clearly, in a world of better organised criminals and better organised terrorists, we need a legislative framework which enables police and the security service to function effectively. But, at the moment, as a nation we are sleep walking into a future where our basic freedoms have been abolished in order to protect them. Can we be so blind? Or is it that most of us feel unthreatened, because we know that only Muslims, and extremists at that (or their family and friends) are liable to be targeted? What about when that is extended to Eastern Europeans? And what to Jews? And then trade-unionists? Then evangelical Christians? Political opponents of the government of the day?

In the words of Martin Niemöller, protestant pastor who died in a Nazi concentration camp:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

If twentieth century history has a lesson, then it is this: when tyranny comes, it does not come as an onslaught, but little by little, as one freedom after another is eroded.

Just seven years for £6m scam?

BBC NEWS | UK | How holiday scam snared thousands

A gang which cheated thousands of holiday makers out of a total of more than £6 million have been given sentences of between three and seven years, but £5.6 million of the money is unrecovered, and will be paid back by credit card and insurance companies and an industry body. So, is this a fair sentence, or are we encouraging criminals?

A few months ago someone broke into my car. He caused about £500 worth of damage, didn’t get my SatNav which wasn’t in the car anyway, but did find my iPod which I had left somewhere because I’d forgotten about it. In exchange, he left behind one drop of blood which, thanks to CSI Bordesley Green (soon to be a major US series endlessly repeated on Channel 5), resulted in a conviction and two months in jail. He probably got fifty quid for my iPod, or maybe as little as twenty. Twenty pounds for two months in jail — you’d think that would deter him. As it happens, in the week that he would have got out, my car was broken into in exactly the same way again, and with the things rummaged through identically. This time the thief didn’t get anything, only broke a window (the previous time he destroyed the locking glove compartment), and left no blood behind. Same bloke? Very probably. If it was the same bloke, then he clearly decided that risking two months in jail was worth it for an iPod.

2 months for £20, versus three years for a million pounds (I understand there were six in the gang). To make crime pay at the same rate, the holiday-scam gang should have been given 4166 years each. Or the kid who broke into my car should have been given 58 minutes.

Our system doesn’t add up. Of course, the gang now have criminal records, and will be tagged by the police if ever they try to scam again. But if the bloke who stole my iPod read the story, he’s probably thinking that three years for £1 million is time worth doing. After all, to earn that much, once you take income tax into account, he would have to be on more than half a million a year. Which, unless he also has talents in football and gets picked by a top side, is unlikely ever to come his way.

There are three things which deter criminals, and you need all three to make the system work. There has to be a high chance of them being caught, there has to be a relatively short time between the offence and the conviction, and the punishment has to significantly outweigh the apparent benefits of committing the crime. As a nation, we seem addicted to increasing the sentences for crimes we find particularly horrifying. This is emotionally satisfying, but doesn’t actually help: making the criminal certain he (or she) will be caught, and catching them quickly, before they offend again, is a much more effective strategy. However, with crimes where the criminal believes they are getting a substantial financial benefit, the penalty must be substantial enough that, even with calculations about the likelihood of being caught, the kind of calculating criminals who are expert in financial crime and fraud decide that it is simply not worth it. Until then, sentences like this one will simply encourage potential criminals to have a go.

How dismal.

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