From David Maughan Brown in York: Taking Back Control

July15th 

Another day, two more U-turns.   Michael Gove’s libertarian assertion a couple of days ago that he wouldn’t favour making face-coverings compulsory for people entering shops because it is ‘common courtesy’, and the great British public can implicitly be relied to exercise that courtesy, has been overruled.  Whoever makes this government’s decisions in the shadowy depths of 10 Downing Street – usually Dominic Cummings – appears to have rather less confidence in our collective courtesy, and face coverings are now, very belatedly, going to be compulsory for anyone visiting shops after all.  But, fair play, it is important to be even-handed, and common courtesy needs to be exercised towards the virus as well:  it needs to be given a chance to infect people for at least one more week, so face coverings don’t need be worn in shops until 24th July.  This will give the government time to ask the police, who are going to have to work out how to enforce the law, whether they think making it compulsory and making people who don’t wear face coverings eligible for £100 fines was a good idea in the first place.  They don’t.   But we shouldn’t bank on there not being another rapid U-turn, as the Tory backwoodsmen don’t like the idea of having to wear face coverings any more than Michael Gove does.   Desmond Swayne, of deepest and darkest backwoods fame, declared in parliament yesterday that the new regulation was a ‘monstrous imposition’ that would deter him from going shopping.  So goodbye to the V-shaped recovery then.

The other U-turn, much more dramatic and with the potential for vastly more serious long-term consequences, sees our government performing an abrupt about-turn and reneging on its previous commitment to allow the Chinese private company Huawei to be involved in the 35% of the roll-out of the UK’s 5G network that isn’t security sensitive.   Not only is any future involvement arbitrarily ruled out, but all Huawei- manufactured components of the existing 3G and 4G networks need to be stripped out by 2027.  Now there’s common courtesy for you.  It isn’t as if Johnson and company have suddenly unearthed the fact that Huawei is a Chinese company and that China has a communist government with some very unsavoury propensities.  Nor have they suddenly discovered that Huawei poses a more serious security threat than they had realised in January when they made their original commitment.   It is unlikely that even Dominic Cummings, radical thinker that he is, has been influenced by the deranged conspiracy theorists who think that 5G masts are responsible for Covid-19.   A conservative estimate suggests that the sudden volte-face will involve picking another £2 billion from the magic-money tree, and up to two years delay in the roll-out of 5G.   Any pretence that this U-turn has anything to do with China’s new stance on Hong Kong or its treatment of the Uighur Muslims would have to be based on the assumption that Tories have even the first remotest interest in Human Rights which (with a few honourable minority exceptions) is entirely belied by, among other things, the Windrush scandal, and the government’s persistence in maintaining Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ with its appalling attitude towards immigrants.   The Huawei U-turn can be laid entirely at the door of Johnson and cronies’ cringing subservience to the erratic whims of Donald Trump, so desperate are they to feast on the crumbs under his trade table. Trump, needless to say, has no qualms about making it embarrassingly clear what he thinks of them by boasting to the world about having persuaded them to do turn their backs on their commitments to Huawei.

The English Nationalists have taken control of the ship – otherwise known as hi-jacking – that had been comfortably and productively docked in a European harbour for the better part of 50 years.   They didn’t like having to pay harbour fees and there were too many pesky foreigners around for their liking – foreigners who for the most part couldn’t even speak proper English.  So, after spending three years blundering around in the engine-room before finally managing to get the engines started, they have set sail and headed out into the unforgiving ocean towards the Americas, following in the wakes of heroes like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, their eyes alight with the prospect of fresh riches and empire.  Regrettably, unlike those plundering knights of the realm, they haven’t the first idea about how to sail a ship, nor have they the faintest notion about where they are going or how to navigate the way to get there.   So they go round and round in circles, not catching the faintest stirring of a trade wind but caught in a trade war between the world’s two major economic powers, China and the USA.  They had hoped that China would be a source of riches, at it used to be, but the trade war, over which they have no control, has crushed all hope of that.   They are tempted to seek safe harbour on the other side of the Atlantic to replenish their supplies, of chicken in particular, but that would make it a bit too embarrassingly obvious that they are, in fact, handing control to the mad Donald Trump. So much for taking back control.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Build, Build, Imprison …

July 9.  Here’s a happy tweet from the Ministry of Justice: ‘We are building 4 new prisons to: Improve rehabilitation.  Help local economies.  Support construction industry to invest & innovate.  Part of our £2.5bn plan to create 10k additional prison places.  Delivering modern prisons & keeping the public safe’ (thanks to my colleague Ros Crone, for this). 

Each line has a helpful little illustration.  The one for the construction industry has a crane and jib which at first sight looks just like a gallows.  Next time perhaps.

The prison population of England and Wales has almost doubled over the last twenty-five years.  According to the figures for 3rd July, the current population of 79,522 is just over two thousand less than the ‘Usable Operational Capacity’.* The press release accompanying the tweet stresses that the new cells will be an ‘addition’ to the present stock, presumably, taking into account the need to replace prisons no longer fit for purpose.  They will be on top of already planned new prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva, which are to provide 3,360 places by 2023.  The announcement reflects an expectation that prison numbers will expand still further in the coming years.

Last February, the then Justice Secretary of State, David Gauke, announced a policy of abolishing custodial sentences of fewer than six months.  But he took the wrong view of Brexit, lost his Cabinet post, was thrown out of the Conservative Party and is now out of Parliament.  His junior minister in charge of prisons, Rory Stewart, stated that ‘We should be deeply ashamed as a society if people are living in filthy, rat-infested conditions with smashed-up windows, with high rates of suicide and violence.’**  He was quickly promoted to a Cabinet post at the Department for International Development, since abolished (do keep up!), before he was himself abolished, following Gauke’s trajectory out of office and out of Parliament because of his opposition to Brexit (and to Johnson personally).

As noted in my diary entry for June 2, the Ministry of Justice failed to implement an early undertaking to make an emergency reduction of 4,000 in a prison population threatened by mass infection in confined spaces.  Now cause and effect has been reversed.  The response to the virus demands growth not contraction.  The overriding need is to get the economy moving. The MoJ’s press release explains the broader purpose of the announced expansion: ‘Thousands of jobs will be created overall in the areas surrounding prisons during construction and once they have opened.  This will provide a major spur to local economies and support the construction industry to invest and innovate following the Coronavirus epidemic.’  

This is the new mantra of ‘build, build, build’ given form.  There seems no good reason why the Government should stop at 10,000.  We need to be world class at something, and setting aside the United States we are already well ahead of advanced countries in the proportion of the population in prison.   Each new prison takes undesirables off the streets, cures unemployment, boosts the private sector (only one of the new prisons is certain to be run by the state).  What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, according to a new report from the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee.***  It has just demanded that the government ‘should end the Covid-19 visiting ban on children in England and Wales whose mothers are in prison and consider releasing those who are low risk… The committee said it had heard heartfelt evidence from children prohibited to visit their mothers during the outbreak which had exacerbated problems and posed a serious risk to an estimated 17,000 youngsters.’   It further called for the ‘early release for those mothers who can safely go back home with their children.’

The Committee is on the wrong side of history.

*Ministry of Justice, Official Statistics, Prison population figures: 2020.  July 3, 2020.https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/prison-population-figures-2020

**Cited in House of Commons Justice Committee, Prison population 2022: planning for the future

*** https://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2020/07/06/are-squalid-prison-conditions-and-the-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic-breaching-human-rights/