Friday 30 November 2018

The Met and the moped-mounted muggers

I’m going to assume, for the purposes of argument, that you are not, in principle, in favour of killing children.

I’m also going to assume, for the same reason, that you don’t think stealing a mobile phone or a handbag should be punishable by death.

So I wonder what you make of the Metropolitan Police’s newly revealed tactic of deliberately knocking moped-mounted muggers, some of whom are in their early or mid-teens, off their bikes.

The Met say that so far this year, they have used the tactic sixty-three times and that none of the suspects has been seriously hurt as a result. It is not unreasonable, however, to assume that one day, someone will die. Bear in mind that in 2016, police pursuits led to the deaths of twenty-eight people, most of whom were innocent bystanders.   

The Met also say that the tactic works and that the number of thefts from mopeds has dropped by more than a third. According to a report in The Times, however, ‘Much of the reduction in moped-enabled crime is linked to the force’s drive to stop thefts of mopeds and catch the thieves by using forensic marking techniques and raising awareness among owners.’

Perhaps I need to spell something out here: there is a real, urgent crime problem, in London as elsewhere, especially among teenagers and young men, and the police are faced with a genuinely complex set of challenges. Knife crime is a particular issue – in England and Wales as a whole, the number of young people killed in knife attacks this year looks set to become the highest for ten years, and the fourth worst on record.

But simple solutions are rarely the answer, even when law enforcement officials insist that they are effective. I’m sure that prosecutors in Saudi Arabia would argue that chopping off the hands of thieves reduces the numbers of thefts in that country – and that their counterparts in China would similarly argue that shooting corrupt local government officials in the back of the head reduces corruption. Even so, I very much doubt that the Met would be tempted to follow their example.

Chasing miscreants on mopeds along crowded city streets is a highly dangerous activity, even if, as the Met insist, the only officers involved in such pursuits are specially trained and will always attempt to slow down a suspect before ‘nudging’ him off his bike. (If you want to see what ‘nudging’ looks like, by the way, there’s a helpful police video here.)

And there seems to be some doubt as to whether the tactic is even legal. The Police Federation, for example, which backs the policy, says it clearly breaches current legislation. ‘Judged against the common standard, as police officers are, it is dangerous to drive a car deliberately at another road user. The law classifies this as dangerous driving, and officers could be prosecuted.’

The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, doesn’t seem to be too bothered about such niceties. His view is that ‘risk-assessed tactical contact is exactly what we need. Criminals are not above the law.’

Wouldn’t George Orwell have loved ‘risk-assessed tactical contact’? I’m going to add it to my dictionary of euphemisms, along with ‘collateral damage’ and ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’. And as for ‘criminals are not above the law’ – well, er, no, they’re not, obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be criminals, would they …

Diane Abbott, on the other hand, got it exactly right. ‘Knocking people off bikes is potentially very dangerous. It shouldn’t be legal for anyone. Police are not above the law.’

Politicians know that you never lose votes by promising tougher action against criminals. And the police know that juries very rarely convict officers who are alleged to have exceeded their lawful powers. So both Sajid Javid and Scotland Yard are probably right to think that few voters will object. That doesn’t mean, however, that their policy is right.   

There are nearly always better, safer and more effective ways to tackle crime than by focusing only on criminals. Take car thefts, for example: in 2002-3, more than 300,000 vehicles were reported stolen – by 2017-2018, the number was down by two-thirds, to just over 100,000. (It was even lower three years ago.) Why? Because car makers worked out how to make it much more difficult to steal cars.

So perhaps moped manufacturers should do the same. It would be a lot less dangerous than encouraging police officers to deliberately knock teenage thieves off their bikes.

Friday 23 November 2018

Meanwhile, in other news ...

Suppose Brexit wasn’t a thing. What would the government be worrying about instead?

More to the point, what should it be worrying about – because although you’d never know it from the newspaper headlines or the TV news bulletins, the rest of the world’s problems haven’t magically vanished while we try to extricate ourselves from the Brexsh*t.

Perhaps, for example, the government should be engaging more seriously with the conclusions of the UN’s devastating report on poverty in the UK, which said, among other things: ‘British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and callous approach …’

To which Amber Rudd, having barely found her way to her new desk at the Department for Work and Pensions, responded merely that she was ‘disappointed to say the least by the extraordinary political nature of [the report’s] language.’

Or how about doing something about the 320,000 people who, according to Shelter, are now homeless, more than half of them in London alone? It should be – is – a national scandal.

Or trying to tackle the suffering of the tens of thousands of young people who are now seeking online counselling for mental health issues? The number has risen from 20,000 in 2015 to 65,000 last year, and is expected to reach 100,000 this year – little wonder as waiting times for appointments with NHS mental health providers can now be up to 18 months.

Or dealing with the appalling conditions in prisons, where so far this year 71 inmates have taken their own lives – more than during all of 2017. According to a report by the NHS regulator, the Care Quality Commission, leaked to The Observer last month, nearly half of the prisons in England are failing to provide adequate health care to inmates.

If Fyodor Dostoevsky was right when he observed that ‘the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,’ we would fail miserably to be regarded as even moderately civilised.

Perhaps you think the UK government should be looking beyond the borders of the EU. Perhaps it should be expressing its utter disgust that, according to Save The Children, an estimated 85,000 children in Yemen – I’ll repeat that number: 85,000 – have died of starvation over the past three years as a result of that country’s civil war. (Reminder: the UK is a leading provider of arms to Saudi Arabia, which is the main foreign participant in the conflict.)

True, the UK has sponsored a resolution at the UN appealing to the warring parties to take ‘constant care to spare civilian objects, including those necessary for food production, distribution, processing and storage.’ Which, in the apt words of the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, sounds depressingly like the ‘safety instructions for a new vacuum cleaner.’ Not quite what’s called for.

I’ve saved the best for last: how about making a priority of the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the hope of saving the planet for future generations? As I write these words, I see that the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation, Petteri Taalas, is warning that ‘without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.’

Ministers will doubtless argue that in the corridors of Whitehall, all these issues are being tackled. But they know – and we know – that for the foreseeable future, they will have neither the time nor the energy to deal seriously with anything that isn’t Brexit-related.

And that’s one of the main reasons why I shall never be able to forgive David Cameron for having unleashed the Brexit genie from the Tory bottle. We now know, thanks to the grotesquely inept chocolate soldiers of the European Research Group, that the anti-EU fanatics in his party are a tiny minority who would find it beyond their abilities to organise a group outing on Eurostar.

So he didn’t have to appease them by promising them a referendum, any more than Theresa May had to set her negotiating ‘red lines’ so as to guarantee an outcome with which  absolutely no one will be satisfied.

Meanwhile, those who are homeless, or living in poverty, or in prison, or struggling with mental health issues – they will all just have to wait while the Conservatives indulge in their favourite pastime: tearing themselves apart. It is both a tragedy and a disgrace, and I hope that one day, at least some of them will be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Friday 16 November 2018

Paying the price of cowardice

They didn’t know.

They didn’t know how complicated it would be.

They didn’t know how intricately woven is the UK’s membership of the EU.

They didn’t know that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland might turn out to be a bit of a problem.

They didn’t know how divided their party was. Or how divided the country was.

Boris Johnson. David Davis. Michael Gove. Liam Fox. Jacob Rees-Mogg. None of them knew.

Or perhaps they did know, but they lied. They said Brexit would be easy-peasy. They promised a glorious future, as a proud, independent nation forged a new beginning, freed from the shackles imposed by pesky foreigners. In the words of Mr Fox, speaking just last year, agreeing a new trade deal with the EU would be ‘one of the easiest in human history.’

I am reminded of the Scottish preacher who is said to have told his parishioners the tale of the sinners who were cast into hell and then pleaded with the Lord to save them from eternal torment as they had not known what would be the price of their sinful behaviour.

‘Well,’ replied the good Lord. ‘Ye ken noo.’

In the case of Brexit, the sins were those of the Brexiters, but the torment is all ours. Their wilful blindness, born out of ideological zealotry, has led the UK to the precipice. I have no doubt that future historians will marvel at how two successive Conservative party leaders – first David Cameron and then Theresa May – sold their souls to the zealots.

I am no EU-fanatic. I have attended far too many EU summits to be blind to its shortcomings, the most serious of which has been the refusal of its leaders over many years to recognise that voters throughout Europe were increasingly unhappy at where the union was heading.

But its benefits still far outweigh its failings. Having just marked the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War, and having remembered that the Second World War erupted barely twenty years later, how can anyone fail to give thanks for the more than seventy years of peace that Europe has enjoyed since 1945. The EU has played a major role in that achievement.

All nations think that they are special, and Britain is certainly no exception. We are an island nation, unbeaten in war, a former imperial power with a democracy, admittedly imperfect, that has stood the test of time.

But go it alone? In the age of globalisation, international organised crime, cyber-warfare, climate change? Seriously? Go it alone? Who do the zealots think they are kidding?

Their recklessness, their cavalier disregard for the truth, their nonchalant shrug that we may have to suffer what David Davis calls ‘a hiccup or two’ – what it all adds up to is a truly appalling abdication of responsibility for the well-being of the nation.

Believe me, I understand why so many people voted for Brexit. They have watched their towns slowly die, their incomes stagnate, their children’s life chances diminish. They have seen the Polish supermarkets take over from their local greengrocer and heard the builders on construction sites and the patients in their GPs’ waiting rooms speaking languages they don’t understand. They have heard their children complain that all the extra help in the classroom goes to their classmates who can’t speak English.

And when the ideologues and charlatans offered them a miracle cure – an extra £350 million a week for the NHS; an end to ‘uncontrolled’ immigration; no more laws ‘imposed’ by Brussels – well, why wouldn’t they jump at the chance?

Did anyone try to explain why the world has changed? Or how the EU has helped some of the UK’s poorest regions? Did anyone extol the virtues of international cooperation to counter the cacophony of xenophobes and nationalists?

The crisis which now confronts us is the result of the abject failure of an entire political class. (And yes, I include the Labour party, under a succession of leaders.) A failure to listen, and a failure to be honest. British voters were lied to, again and again and again, and now the liars are taking to the hills. In the words of David Aaronovitch of The Times: ‘The Raabs are deserting the sinking ship, a scurrying made additionally poignant by the fact that they are the ones who sank it.’ One by one, faced by the inconvenient reality of the world as it is, rather than as they would wish it to be, they adopt a look of injured innocence and head for the door marked Exit, not Brexit.

Remember Dominic Raab, who resigned as Brexit secretary because he didn’t like the deal that, in theory, he himself had negotiated? He admitted just a few days ago that he had been surprised to learn that Britain is what he chose to call a ‘peculiar geographic entity’, which is -- who would have thought it? -- particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing for its international trade. Gosh. Britain is an island. Who knew?
 It didn’t have to be like this. David Cameron didn’t have to bow to the demands of the Europhobes in UKIP and his own party – and Theresa May didn’t have to interpret the referendum result as a popular demand for the hardest Brexit imaginable. They each made a conscious political choice, and we are now paying the price of their political cowardice.
By the way, if you didn’t see my article in last Sunday’s Observer about becoming a German citizen, you can read it here.