Friday, 12 August 2011

Just when they thought it was safe to go back into the water!

MPs must have begun to think they were safe. They would have thinking that the expenses scandal was starting to be replaced with other things. Yes a few of their number had been sent to prison, and perhaps one or two were yet to end up in court. But by and large, things like wars in Afghanistan and Libya, hacking scandals and riots on the streets of Britain, were now the subjects in the headlines.

It seems that they were wrong, as news of the severe sentences being handed out to participators in the riots leaked out, people began to remember the behaviour of MPs, and what had happened to them.

Theft is theft, and regardless of whether it is a bottle of water, or a flat screen television, the principle is the same. That at least is what many would argue, but judges do have a lot of discretion in the sentences they hand out. It seems that the word has gone out to them that those before them must be made an example of.

I study and teach history, and is apparent over the centuries, is that justice for the have and have nots has always been starkly different. Even when it came to executions, the rich and the nobles were beheaded, whilst the poor were sentenced to a slow death at the end of a hangman's rope.

In the modern world, people see the members of the House of Commons as the modern nobility. I know we have the Lords, and the royals etc, but in the overall scheme of things to the majority of us, MPs live in a world completely detached from what we experience.

When the expenses scandal broke, the public were astonished at what had been going on. Members had been claiming for televisions (Michael Gove and Gerald Kaufman as examples), moats, duck houses and all sorts of things the ordinary man or woman in the street would only see on programmes like 'relocation, relocation, relocation.'

On programmes like that, these people are using their own money (I presume), but MPs were trying to live the high life at the taxpayer's expense. The stories of 'house flipping' and the ludicrous claims left many of us aghast. And it wasn't just that they did it, politicians have been very low down the public's respect ladder for a long time, it was that they just seemed to get away with it.

Education Secretary Michael Gove was featured today, having been able to repay some £8,000 in expenses for a claim, and Gerald Kaufman a similar amount for a Bang & Olufsen television. These men have both resumed their careers uninterrupted, one a senior member of the government, the other the chair of a committee, and one of the most respected voices in the House.

Yet, we know that if most of us had been in the same position, we would have ended up in court, probably a criminal record, which would have had a serious effect on our future career prospects. There are many other senior politicians; Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, David Cameron, Francis Maude, Gordon Brown who have all repaid sums, or had to admit mistakes. But as I understand it, in law, 'ignorance is no defence.'

Now Wandsworth Council is seeking to evict the family of a man charged in connection with the riots. It is his parents who are being served with the order, and if he's convicted they will seek to throw them out. This is a measure which is just going to cause problems for the council (and Manchester and Salford have similar plans), because not only will the family have to be housed somewhere, they will be given leave to appeal and I don't see it being allowed by the courts.

Ravi Govindia, the leader of Wandsworth Council, was saying this evening that tenants had contracts which stated conditions of residence. This is, of course, true, but evicting someone because their son has been convicted of a crime, sounds retrospective action to me. This is without them trying to explain what is so different about this crime to others of vandalism or robbery. Will the council be changing the terms to include all those convicted of crimes, and evicting them in the future, and the past?

David Cameron has jumped on the bandwagon, and saying they should have thought of this before commiting the crime. Now the mother of Daniel Sartain-Clarke faces an uncertain future, and many will say she should have been controlling him. He's 18, and therefore legally an adult, so what do they expect her to do about him?

Mr. Cameron was saying that those evicted would have to move into the private sector. Apart from the shortage of private rented accomodation anyway, the cost os prohibitive. especially in London. The Prime Minister has made yet another statement without having grasp of the facts, and this will come back to haunt him. As the leader of this country, he should not be making kneejerk statements, but taking the time to think this through properly.

I don't recall a single MP who flipped a house, being threatened with eviction (these houses were in the main being paid for by us, so a form of social housing), yet people who are innocent of any wrong doing are going to find themselves not only homeless, but stigmatised, and that never goes away.

So, our Members of Parliament, our Prime Minister and other public figures need to be very careful how they approach the aftermath of these events. Although a ComRes poll tonight shows strong support for punishing rioters, the same poll also said the sentences being handed out were too harsh in many cases.

Our MPs and their past are, therefore, once more in the spotlight, as Nick Clegg has discovered as his previous indiscretion of arson was raised again. He says he was drunk, and they ran away, and anyway it was only cactus.

Yet, will any of the people appearing before magistrates this week be allowed to just repay the value of goods they stole. Will they be allowed to laugh off vandalism as 'youthful indiscretions' which will not impact their future careers? As most of them are poor, it would not seem so. Now as it always was, justice will depend on who you know, and whehter you have the money to defend yourself.

So, having thought that their recent crimes were being forgotten, MPs now find them thrust back into the spotlight. Every member that talks about how examples must be made of those caught will find their past raked over, and anyone who has hoped that their 'errors' have been forgotten will find they are very much mistaken. The defence of many was that 'everyone else was doing it,' and if that's not going to work for the rioters, then it shouldn't do so for those that lead us.

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