Monday, 9 May 2011

Just, For A Start

I am not at all sure about charging by post. But the abandonment of both pre-trial convictions and pre-trial acquittals by the Crown Prosecution Service is an excellent idea, and should be accompanied by the abandonment of the existing erosion of trial by jury and of the right to silence, of the existing reversals of the burden of proof, of conviction by majority verdict (which, by definition, provides for conviction even where there is reasonable doubt), of the admission of anonymous evidence other than from undercover Police Officers, of conviction on anonymous evidence alone, of the secrecy of the family courts, of the anonymity of adult accusers in rape cases, of any thought of identity cards, of control orders, of Police confiscation of assets without a conviction, of stipendiary magistrates, of Thatcher’s Police and Criminal Evidence Act, of the Civil Contingencies Act, of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act, and of the Official Secrets Acts.

The point cannot be made too many times that light sentences and lax prison discipline are both expressions of the perfectly well-founded view that large numbers of those convicted, vastly in excess of the numbers that have always existed at any given time, are in fact innocent. We need to return to a free country’s minimum requirements for conviction, above all by reversing the erosion of the right to silence and of trial by jury, and by repealing the monstrous provisions for anonymous evidence and for conviction by majority verdict. And we need to return to proper policing. Then we could and should return to proper sentencing, and to proper regimes in prison. But only then.

Only then could we, as we must, raise the minimum age for jurors at least to 21. Extend to the rest of the United Kingdom the successful Scottish extension of the right to serve on a jury without compromising its restriction to those with a tangible stake in society. Return to preventative policing based on foot patrols, with budgetary sanctions against recalcitrant Chief Constables. Ensure Police Forces at least no larger than at present, and subject to local democratic accountability though Police Authorities composed predominantly of councillors, not by means of elected sheriffs, which, like directly elected mayors, have no place in a parliamentary rather than a presidential res publica, and are wholly incompatible with the defence, restoration and extension of the powers of jurors, magistrates and parliamentarians. Restore the pre-1968 committal powers of the magistracy, along with the pre-1985 prosecution powers of the Police. Make each offence to carry a minimum sentence of one third of its maximum sentence, or of 15 years for life. Introduce a single category of illegal drug, with a crackdown on the possession of drugs, including a mandatory sentence of three months for a second offence, six months for a third offence, one year for a fourth offence, and so on.

More broadly, we can and must return to the situation whereby a Bill which ran out of parliamentary time was lost at the end of that session. Restore the supremacy of British over EU law. Require that EU law apply in the United Kingdom only once it has passed through both Houses of Parliament exactly as if it had originated in one or other of them. Require a resolution of the House of Commons before any ruling of the European Court of Justice, or of the European Court of Human Rights, or of the “Supreme Court”, or pursuant to the Human Rights Act, can have any effect in the United Kingdom. Restore British overall control of our defence capability. Remove all foreign forces and weapons from British territory, territorial waters and airspace.

And we can and must extend to Scotland the historic liberties, largely as set out above, which have never applied in that far more oligarchic country, where middle-class institutions and upper-middle-class power have been defined as the esse of national identity, a situation which has been made even worse by devolution’s weakening of the Labour Movement. While this may be a factor contributing to the retention of more rigorous minimum qualifications for jurors in Scotland, criteria which should be applied nationwide, nevertheless it means that, while there is an automatic right to trial by jury for serious offences in Scotland, the decision on which way to proceed in an ‘each-way’ case lies with the prosecution rather than with the defence. The Police have no power to caution and proceed entirely under the direction of the locally unaccountable Procurator Fiscal, who does not prosecute unless it is in the public interest to do so, which it is for the prosecution alone to decide and for which it does not have to give any explanation. It is extremely difficult to bring a private prosecution, far in excess of the necessary restrictions on that practice which rightly exist elsewhere. These profoundly illiberal arrangements must change.

That would be a start, anyway.

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