Queen Speech: my response to the crime and justice sections

My Lords, it came as no surprise to me that there was nothing to delight my soul in the Government’s programme. For example, a fair justice system that keeps people safe takes more than a royal commission; it takes resources. When budgets have been cut by one-third, the system does not function well and justice suffers. I hope that the royal commission will examine the impact of austerity on fairness and access to justice. I also question any attempt to impose longer sentences when we are failing to deal with the care and rehabilitation of the large number of people already in the system. The probation service and the Prison Service are unable to cope properly with the existing numbers. If you add to that number, you are adding to those pressures and problems.

The tighter rules on carrying knives repeat the same rhetoric we have heard for years and fail to address the fear on the streets and the lack of a visible police presence, which can lead many to arm themselves for so called self-protection. The deaths and injuries from knife crime are a horrendous outcome of bigger social problems. We should be debating legislation that strengthens the family and community bonds that stop knives being seen as the solution to anything except eating dinner. Increasing Section 60 stop and search is not the answer. Research by the Times into the use of stop and search in London throws doubt on its effectiveness. In Enfield and Camden, two of the boroughs where the tactic was used most, knife attacks over the past year rose by 28% and 13% respectively. Use of this tactic risks alienating communities that could assist in combating knife crime.

We should be getting drugs off the streets and out of the hands of organised crime by regulating their use and selling them at pharmacies. We should be focused on breaking the cycle of violence experienced by far too many who come to see it as an inevitability in their lives. While I welcome the government support for action on domestic violence, the rest of this proposed legislation lacks the vision to deal with the problems we face. In fact, many of the big issues are not discussed at all.

The preventable deaths of five people a day on our roads is a scandal. The facts that these deaths are taken for granted by the Government and that our efforts to address road danger have stalled in recent years display shocking complacency. This level of criminality receives no attention from the Government, when the obvious solution is to hand out a lifetime ban to anyone who fails to stop and take responsibility for their actions as a driver.

Instead of action on the big issues that impact on the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people, we have a government proposal to criminalise unauthorised encampments. This is targeted at Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities, which is discriminatory and adds an extra threat on top of existing prejudice against those communities. I am also deeply concerned about how criminalising encampments will affect a whole form of peaceful protest that was previously a civil matter. It means criminalising the setting up of protest camps for the pettiest of reasons. It is because the Government and their corporate backers have been losing the debate. For example, Extinction Rebellion has changed the debate by being inconvenient. That can involve blocking roads, but obviously that is nothing like our Prime Minister, who today blocked the cycle lane on the Embankment so that he could get to work. I do not know where he was coming from. Extinction Rebellion sets up temporary protest camps to co-ordinate its actions, provide advice, handle liaison with the authorities et cetera. Last year, these actions sent a message to people and to Parliament, and Parliament responded by declaring a climate emergency. It showed that protest can be a powerful positive legitimate force in our democracy.

Local people setting up anti-fracking protest camps as a way of mobilising a continual presence on the doorstep of the frackers was very important. The frackers lost, despite all their powerful connections and party donations. Powerful people do not like losing, and they look at ways to make life more difficult for the protestors. That is the inspiration behind the proposed legislation to make this form of trespass a matter for the police and to give them the ability to seize property and vehicles. There are other protest camps. For example, local people protesting against HS2 are camped out near water meadows and ancient woodlands that face destruction, for example at Harvil Road in Hillingdon. They have been pushed out today.

I welcome the setting up of a constitution, democracy and rights commission, but could we not open that up to citizens’ assemblies to consider the way forward? The process should be designed to obtain maximum public consent and create a democracy fit for the 21st century. Obviously, the first issue of constitutional reform should be an elected second Chamber using proportional representation. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for so passionately advocating proportional representation and for pointing out that Greens have to work much harder for a seat than any other party. The problem for me is that this Government will attempt to use this constitutional commission to cement their own power and give even greater autonomy to Ministers. We need a Parliament elected via a fair voting system which can take back control.

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Mike Schwarz has been a human rights lawyer at Bindmans for 25 years. He has represented numerous campaigners, including all three of Jenny’s part time staff. He describes the ups and downs of the right to protest over those years. Continue reading “Latest podcast”