A Quick Commons Reform

At the time of writing there are a number of MPs in the House who have resigned their whip to face various charges. Most recently, joining their number this morning Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock.He has resigned his whip, but not his seat, to fight allegations of sexual assault without causing his party any embarrassment in the meantime.

That’s an admirable position, and assuming he’s innocent, (which we must) there’s no reason for him to lose his job (at least not before the next election). If he’s cleared of all charges then there’s no reason at all for him not to continue in his career.

But…

While he’s fighting these quite serious charges, he’s not likely to be able to acquit his role as a constituency MP to the standard his constituents ought to be able to expect.

So how to square this circle: He shouldn’t have to resign and lose his job, career and prospects over what may turn out to be entirely spurious, even malicious charge. If we were to expect MPs to resign their seat while they prove their innocence, then it’d become very easy to spitefully destroy an MP just by making an accusation. On the other hand, his constituents deserve an MP who will be focussed on them.

So how about this: Each party submits a list of perhaps half a dozen ‘deputies’ to a cross party committee. The committee can approve the list members (or not if there’s a solid reason). Should a circumstance arise where an MP is temporarily unable to do his or her job, perhaps through personal illness, compassionate leave or – as with today – fighting a criminal charge, one of the list members can be parachuted in as a temporary Deputy Member of Parliament.

Should it become apparent that the absence will become permanent, then a by-elections would be triggered in the usual way, the DMP being barred from standing (to prevent the mechanism being abused to ‘grandfather’ in new MPs). But should the MP be able to return to their seat, then the DPM would step aside and representation return to normal.

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[Originally posted on Fifth Donkey]

The Voting Reform I’d Like

You’re in the polling booth and you really don’t support the mouse party or the dog party. You’ve never heard of the bird party, but hell, you really don’t want the cat party to win. Who do you vote for?

Many hundreds of column inches are expended on the problem of voter turnout and voter disengagement. The two are, of course, closely linked. The less engaged the voting public feel, the less likely they are to vote.

Lots of reasons are proposed and discussed but when I’m on the campaign phones the one that comes up more than all the others combined is “I won’t bother, because you’re all the same.” This appears to make it hard for people to feel passionate about supporting a particular party.

While I think having political parties that appear driven by different management ethos rather than different political ideologies is a problem (and entirely untrue, incidentally), I also think this is a red herring. Passion in politics is alive and well, it just isn’t directed positively. It’s easy to get people to be passionate against a party. Or an individual. Watch the news, read twitter accounts: there’s a lot of “Anybody but them!” going on.

It has always been thus, with tactical voting for instance: voting for the party most likely to beat the one you dislike the most. So why not make this a real, tangible part of our system.

If you don’t feel passionately in favour of a party, but feel passionately against one, why not have a system where you can choose to cast a negative vote instead of a positive one?

Picture it:

You’re in the polling booth and you really don’t support the mouse party or the cat party. You’ve never heard of the bird party, but hell, you really don’t want the dog party to win. Who do you vote for?

Tactical voting has you deciding which of the mouse, cat or bird party has the best chance of beating the dogs. But why not simply vote against the dog?

It’d be illuminating. As it stands, many MPs are elected with deceptive majorities and feel this is a mandate. But often it’s just a default victory. With minus votes, a newly elected MP would have a real sense of the level of support they have in the constituency. “Hmmm, I got 17,000 in favour and 6,500 against. I still won, but look how many really didn’t want me.” Perhaps they’d work to build their positive vote, perhaps they’d work to win over all the negative votes.

Some candidates would poll a negative figure. That’s a very quick and simple way to see who should lose their deposit. More people didn’t want you than did. Bye-Bye deposit.

But it might also, ironically, focus people’s minds on what they do want, and on who is really the bad guy on the ballot paper. Do you really hate the Labour or Conservative candidate more than the BNP candidate? Really? Do you really want to vote for the Liberal Democrat more than you want to stop the EDL option? Really?

Perhaps when people say “Anybody but Them!” They’d pause for though if there was the chance that the ‘Anybody’ they end up with might be Nick Griffin! Perhaps, just perhaps, they’d start thinking about what they do want, not what their lifelong reflex says they don’t want.

Then again, perhaps not. But it’d still be great fun on election night seeing a high profile candidate’s majority wiped out by minus votes.

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[Originally posted on Fifth Donkey]

The Importance Of Legal Aid To Justice

You’re an upstanding citizen. You’ve never been in trouble with the Police. They’re on your side. They keep you safe, and they’re there when someone makes you the victim of a crime.

Why would you ever need Legal Aid? Why should you even pay attention to any changes? Justice, that’s why. Plain and simple.

Consider this: Legal Aid is for you when you’ve been wrongly accused.

You’ve done nothing wrong. Absolutely nothing. When out of the blue you get a phone call from the police, or a knock on the door. Someone has made a vexatious complaint against you, falsely accused you of a crime, knowing that you’re not guilty. Shocking though this sounds, and craven disgraceful behaviour though it is, there are any number of reasons someone might do this. Perhaps to save face with friends and family that they’ve been lying to to make themselves look good, or to you look bad, or perhaps they’re just an attention seeker. You know the accusation is rubbish, utterly without foundation. You can’t imagine why that someone would make this complaint. You know you can show it’s nonsense but you’ve never been in trouble with the police. This is an entirely alien experience. You’re in a police station, the Police have arrested you, you’ve had your possessions taken from you and bagged up for evidence, your belt, tie, scarf and laces have been taken, too. You’re feeling dehumanised, disorientated and you just want to get out and go home.

Spare a thought now for your arresting officer. He’s been sucked in by an accomplished liar, someone who’s turned on the tears and sounded plausible. He’s dreading the paperwork. Maybe he’s dumb enough to believe to complainant. maybe he fancies her a bit, maybe he’s a friend of a friend. Maybe he knows there’s nothing of substance in the complaint, and he just wants to get this dealt with as quickly as possible. What’s the quickest way he can do that? Get you to accept a Caution, that’s what. That’ll look good on police detection statistics, his personal record, and there’s less paperwork. It’s not a stretch to imagine that sometimes a less conscientious officer might put the frighteners on you to get you to take the Caution by suggesting it’s the alternative to being remanded in custody pending trial and perhaps going to court.

So what can you do? You can choose your solicitor, based on personal recommendations, reputation, quality of service, record of success… The best person for the job. And Legal Aid will pick up the bill.

You need a solicitor you can trust. In that situation, they are your only friend. I don’t just mean in terms of understanding the legal issues, but the processes. Through a very alien and troubling experience they keep you at your ease and enable you to address the allegations against you without panicking in the face of some considerable stress and pressure. By choosing your own solicitor you can spend time before you go to the police. Your solicitor has time to spend before, during and after your interview and, crucially, their interests are to do the best job they can for you.

The proposed changes mean that you won’t get to choose. You will be appointed a solicitor after your arrest. Your solicitor is chosen for you, and has won the contract to represent you on the basis of cost alone. Yes, they’ll have met a minimum standard of competence, but they’ll be paid by the numbers. The more people they represent, the more they’ll be paid.

Their interests no longer align with yours but with the Police: To get through as many cases as possible in as short a time as they can. This is not in the interests of justice. What’s the quickest way to get through a case: It’s that Caution again. Suddenly an innocent person, unfamiliar with the process and the consequences, is going to be under pressure from both the police and the advice of their solicitor to accept that Caution. They’ll only discover the reality of the consequences later when they realise they have to declare their criminal record to a potential employer, or when they’re applying for a visa, or when they’re accused of something else in the future and discover they’re not considered to be of “Good Character”.

Remember that even though it’s not allowed, people will be offered Cautions over the phone under threat of being arrested if they don’t, under these circumstances they’ll not be told all the consequences before they agree, and it sounds like it might be an attractive option. Quick, done dusted and in the past.

Criminals, people who often come into contact with the police, people who are often in trouble and are not in this situation for the first time… they know the system, they’re not intimidated, anxious, a fish out of water. They know their rights, they know the consequences. It’s the stock in trade of the petty criminal, and hardened criminal alike.

You’re innocent, you’ve never been in this entirely alien circumstance before. You will be intimidated, dehumanised, frightened. You will be worried about the outcome. Will you be able to show you’re innocent? Will the Police give up trying to get you to take a Caution and take the next easiest route: passing the papers to the Crown Prosecution Service for charging, regardless of how empty the accusation is? These questions will prey on your mind.

You need a solicitor who is on your side, who will act entirely in your interests, not be looking for the quickest solution, but the best solution.

That’s why you need to sign this petition to Save UK Justice.

Because it protects you. You, the person who hasn’t committed a crime, has never committed a crime and has no intention of ever doing so. But You, who’s about to have some venal, spiteful, attention-seeker make a spurious complaint against you. Because although the system exists to find the truth, it’s not your system and it doesn’t work the way you think. You need a guide you can trust, and one who isn’t going to take short cuts because it’s in their interests to do so.

Go, sign. Or one day you might be unlucky enough to regret it.

…unless of course you are a venal, spiteful, attention-seeker who makes spurious complaints.