We must reel in Grayling and his legal reforms

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Kat Houghton

Since they were revealed, Chris Grayling’s legal aid reforms have been met with widespread criticism. Recently the Justice Secretary was forced to drop his plan to prevent those receiving legal aid from choosing their own solicitors: a state interference which Tory backbenchers argued was ‘un-Conservative’. However, many still have deep misgivings about Mr. Grayling’s other proposals. These criticisms share a common complaint: that little or no consideration has been given to possible ramifications for the justice system.

For example, there are concerns that by creating one fee for criminal trials, there will be a conflict between the financial benefits of a client pleading guilty and the client’s best interests. Another worry is that the proposed 75% reduction in legal aid firms would lead to the collapse of small firms which provide vital specialised legal advice. Some, such as Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson, have argued that the £37,500 eligibility threshold would lead to an increased number of unrepresented defendants. In 1995, the Equal Opportunity Tribunal of New South Wales compared the length of trials where both parties were represented with those where only one side had representation, and discovered that trials where the claimant was unrepresented lasted twice as long from referral to completion.

As the Australian legal system is closely modelled on our own, it is likely that similar patterns would occur in the UK. The difference in trial length is in part due to the lack of legal training that lay people have. I recently witnessed a case of unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal with an unrepresented claimant. Proceedings were frequently halted when the claimant struggled to find evidence in a poorly organised set of notes, and the judge was repeatedly required to provide lengthy explanations of legal terminology and procedure. An influx of unrepresented defendants would likely lead to an increase in costs, not a reduction.

On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that there are cuts that need to be made to the Ministry of Justice’s budget. Fortunately, there are more effective ways of reducing costs by modernising procedure and increasing efficiency. Unfortunately, Mr Grayling appears to have overlooked these. In 2006, the National Audit Office reported that “£173 million was spent last year on trials and hearings in magistrates’ courts that did not go ahead as planned”. There are many reasons that trials are delayed or adjourned. During my time as a mini-pupil I saw trials delayed due to simple administrative errors, such as misplaced documents or failure to book interpreters. In making improvements to the process by which cases are prepared for trial, many of these administrative errors could be avoided. 

In 2012, the National Audit Office published a report on local projects’ attempts to improve the Criminal Justice System. In Kent, a trial system was run which attempted to reduce the number of processes between charging a defendant and a trial at Crown Court, reducing the chance for administrative error and improving victim and witness care. Under the project, trial readiness increased from 45 per cent to 70 per cent: an additional 250 trials ready to proceed when they reach court. In Warwickshire, the Justice Centre was created to provide a “‘one-stop shop’ for services to victims, witnesses, suspects and the wider community”. By housing services such as Warwickshire Crown Prosecution Service and victim and witness support in the same building, the hope was to share resources and simplify the procedure for victims and witnesses. The results indicated the project would annually produce around £650,000 of non-cashable savings and around £800,000 of cashable savings, as well as improving effective trial rates and witness care.

Put simply, there are possible ways of reducing legal spending without damaging the legal system.

The legal aid proposals are currently undergoing review, with a debate in Westminster Hall and a published second consultation on the finalised proposals due in September. The reasons for success in the projects listed in the report above include “good strategic governance structure” and “establishing a sound understanding of the needs of service users before commissioning services”. Perhaps if Mr Grayling were to learn from other successful projects and be mindful of the long-term impact his reforms will have on those who require legal aid, he will be able to produce an efficient and fair system of which we can all be proud.

Human Rights Act: Some questions for Mr Grayling and Mrs May

Craig Prescott 10.51am

Over the weekend, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, indicated that a Conservative majority government could repeal the Human Rights Act. Meanwhile, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has suggested withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) itself.

These are two very different things, and there is some muddled thinking involved here; but if both were to be pursued the policy could be called ‘Withdrawal and Repeal’.

As Mr Grayling has admitted himself, there needs to be a lot of work put in to the detail (to put it mildly). But as work towards possible 2015 manifesto pledges starts, here are some questions and issues that need to be considered.

  1. Why? It can’t be for political advantage. At the last election, 3.1 per cent of people voted for a political party who advocated ‘Withdraw and Repeal’, namely UKIP. By contrast, a combined 52 per cent of the electorate voted for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who did not. Whatever Mr Grayling and Mrs May may think, the electorate has shown time and time again disinterest in tinkering with constitutional matters. This does not look like a massive vote winner to me, in face of more pressing matters such as living standards and the broader economy.
  2. Replacement? A British Bill of Rights has been suggested, but to what end? The content of such a Bill of Rights is likely to be similar, if not identical, to the content with one or two additions (such as a right to a jury trial) to make such a document ‘British’. Take a look at the Articles incorporated into English Law by the HRA, the Right to Life, Prohibition of Torture, Prohibition of Slavery and Forced Labour and the Right to a Fair Trial and so on. Would you like to live in a country that does not provide in law for these  protections? As one of the finest judges of recent times, Lord Bingham stated in his book the Rule of Law, countries that do not make such protection in law tend not to the best of places to live. Belarus or North Korea? Another issue is how are the courts going to interpret any such legislation. Experience before the HRA suggests that on the whole, the courts will take notice of the ECHR, as they do of other international treaties and case-law for interpretative guidance.
  3. Leave it to Parliament? If ‘Withdrawal and Repeal’ is pursued, then the position will be more akin to the days before the HRA, but without a route of appeal to Strasbourg. This is a dangerous option, as it risks pitting the courts and Parliament in direct opposition. It is easy to think that human rights began with the HRA, but that neglects the strong - if imperfect - vein in the common law that protected people’s rights before the HRA. One could go back to the 17th century, but during the 1990s the courts began to recognise at common law certain rights as being of ‘fundamental’ status, such as access to justice. This fundamental status means that the courts require strong signals from Parliament before the courts hold that they can be interfered with. This is an open-ended category of right, creating a clear risk of an ongoing conflict between the courts and Parliament, potentially giving more scope to the courts, the exact opposite of what the Lord Chancellor, Mr Grayling, wants. Such an approach would be destined not to end well.

There are other issues to consider. The devolved institutions are required under the devolution framework to comply with the ECHR at all times. Any amendment of this requirement is likely to require their approval, which the Commission on the Bill of Rights indicates will not necessarily be forthcoming as approval of the ECHR is generally seems to be higher outside of England than within it. (This raises concerns that the Conservative Party becoming ever more an English, and not British Party). Further, the EU is engaged in an ongoing process to become a signatory to the ECHR, meaning that even if ‘Withdraw and Repeal’ is pursued, the ECHR will still be a highly relevant to UK law as long as Britain remains a member.

All of the above is not to say that the human rights architecture of the UK and Europe is perfect. Far from it. There are issues over the length of time it takes to hear cases, and the number of appeals possible in human rights litigation are both issues about which courts themselves have voiced concerns. A close look at the process shows that the vast majority of the time, it is these problems which lie at the root of problems with human rights. After all Abu Hamza still got deported to America. Is it really necessary to embark on such a hazardous journey, jeopardising a central tenet of the unwritten constitution that Parliament and the courts respond to each other in a dialogue and understanding, to solve a problem which for the vast majority of the electorate is simply not there?

Ultimately, the problem that Mr Grayling as Lord Chancellor (who has a duty to uphold the rule of law) needs to grapple with is that some human rights are innate in the liberal democracy to which he wishes to belong and to strengthen. Any human rights apparatus constructed does not create rights but merely recognises them.

Craig Prescott is a member of the School of Law at the University of Manchester. Follow him on Twitter @craigprescott

Tory ex-minister Stephen Dorrell tells sceptics that the Coalition remains uniquely placed to face Britain’s challenges

Nik Darlington 9.59am

This evening in Parliament, Stephen Dorrell, chairman of the Health Select Committee and TRG patron, will give a speech billed as a robust case for the Coalition.

Mr Dorrell will invoke the memory of Benjamin Disraeli, the great nineteenth century Tory prime minister and novelist, as he argues that the Coalition is treading a similar ‘One Nation’ path. Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation Labour’, on the other hand, which we covered on these pages, cannot achieve the same breadth. Moreover, he isn’t the first Labour party leader to try.

“So attractive is Disraeli’s combination of humanity and purpose that Ed Miliband is the second Labour leader in 20 years to attempt to cloak himself in Disraeli’s clothes. Like Tony Blair before him, Miliband is attracted to the slogan “One Nation” but, also like Blair, he faces the problem that his party cannot reconcile Disraeli’s aspiration with its own inherited prejudices.

“As David Cameron puts it – “There is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same thing as the state”. When Ed Miliband can repeat those words to his party conference and receive a standing ovation he will have earned the right to speak of One Nation”.

Mr Dorrell will remind Tories that Disraeli had a vision for a broad-based Conservative party, not narrowly defined nor narrowly represented.

“Disraeli was not interested in creating an instrument for the complacent defence of self interest; he sought to maintain the trust of the traditionalists while reaching beyond them to embrace a changing world.

“Our challenge is, as it always is, to do exactly the same. That is why David Cameron was so right to lead the Conservative Party into coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and why the record and programme of the Coalition Government are so deserving of the support of all Conservatives.”

It is on economic policy that the Coalition is strongest and most pertinent. The economy is the reason for its creation and will be the benchmark of its success.

“The Coalition exists because none of its members believe, like the two Eds, that the solution to excessive debt is more borrowing. The electorate took a decisive step away from that approach in 2010, and the Coalition has agreed a deficit reduction programme which commands the confidence of the financial markets in part because its broad political base enhances its credibility.

“The two Eds continue to argue that we need to borrow more ….  but the fact of the Coalition has made it impossible for them to win that argument”.

The Coalition also offers a prime opportunity for radical and broad public services reform of the sort that one party alone might struggle to achieve. Tony Blair struggled to enact necessary public sector reforms at a time of boom; it is something of a miracle that the Coalition is managing to reform the likes of health, welfare, education and justice (including the police) at a time of bust and recovery.

“Public services need to be open to disruptive new ideas. Closed systems are too easily convinced of their own excellence; mediocrity goes unrecognised and shibboleths go unchallenged. We need to encourage challenge in a system which instinctively distrusts newcomers.

“But if we are to maintain public confidence during this process we need to demonstrate both nationally and locally that changes are being implemented in order to improve the quality of service delivered – not simply to save money. It is a task to which the Coalition is singularly well-suited”.

Moreover, contrary to general perception and media speculation, Europe is a subject that the Coalition is uniquely “well placed to address” - a passage that ConservativeHome not-very-shockingly omitted from their own preview of the speech.

“In other words I believe the European argument has changed fundamentally over the last decade. Our partners have decided to create an economic union and we have chosen not to be part of it. It is a decision made. On both sides. Job done.

“It will be for our grandchildren to decide whether we were right; they will write the history, not us. Our job is to make our decision work.

“And that is where the role of the Coalition is so important”.

Stephen Dorrell will conclude by saying that the Coalition between David Cameron’s Conservative party and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats has managed to tackle tough political issues that other governments ducked, fudged or got wrong. What is more, the spirit in which the Coalition was formed should outlive it.

“[Disraeli] built the Conservative Party as a permanent coalition between the landed interest and the Victorian cities. His coalition was further broadened when Chamberlain made Birmingham a Conservative slogan.

“That coalition held office for two thirds of the twentieth century, but towards the end of the century it ignored Disraeli’s challenge and retreated into its comfort zone.

“In 2010, David Cameron challenged both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to leave their comfort zones and face the realities of office in a Coalition that has the right to speak for the majority its compatriots. In doing so the Coalition has demonstrated both its ability and its willingness to face issues which other governments have regarded as too hot to handle.

“The Coalition Agreement is David Cameron’s answer to Disraeli’s challenge.  The issue for the future is simple.  The Coalition Agreement comes to an end. Disraeli’s challenge does not.”

Previewing the speech, Tim Crockford, chairman of the Tory Reform Group, had this to say:

“In the days after the 2010 election, the TRG was the first Conservative group to call for a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats. As a Party, we must continue to support the Coalition as it carries out these essential reforms.

"The Coalition with the Liberal Democrats has evolved into a stable government enabling it to carry out its One Nation programme. David Cameron has moved the Conservative Party out of its comfort zone. Our One Nation values hold wide public appeal. We must continue to occupy the centre ground of British politics: that is where we win elections.”

The Decay of Relativism: Man is flattened for the good of Man

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 10.49am

Western history, almost uniquely universal in its claims, marches us up inexorably to the guilt of the twentieth century and hastily concludes that no idea or value should ever be worth harming a person for.

Man must therefore be circumscribed. He must be domesticated.

This philosophical adendum to the world wars chimes nicely with the political mood that endlessly flirts with what Orwell described as, “the underlying motive of many socialists [:] a hypertrophied sense of order… a desire to reduce the world to something resembling a chessboard”.

The problem with this uninventive outlook is of course that if you take away values worth dying for, you tend to take away the values worth living for. If men died in trenches for values that could not withstand the onslaught of the decadently dessicated intellect; men now risk not really living in a world full of banal simulcra.

Nature abhors a vacuum. The state necessarily fills it. It arbitrates and acts as the sole moral agent. A soft, pragmatic nihilism is the result while the relics of a Christian legacy can be relied upon to provide some form of vision - a cogency between past and future. However, in the long term, genuine nihilism or its opposite, absolutism, present themselves as solutions to the deficiencies of the current system.

Both trends are already apparent. Nihilism a la Dark Knight Rises is evident in the justice system that treats both parties as victims of circumstance. Absolutist values too are elevated from constituent parts of discourse into the demarcators of progress. If an argument or a fact contradicts one of these beacons (e.g. equality) it is discounted as incorrect; not because of some innate falsity but because it transgresses the social gravity placed upon the value.

So the West plays out its end game. Even to relativist stalwarts relativism is necessarily relative to its time. It is intrinsic to its very nature that nobody should be truly willing to suffer for relativism.  Not even its most vocal servants, the self-hating white middle-classes.

We stand therefore at the blurred frontier of late civilisation and barbarism. Ibn Khaldun, echoed in Spenger, and later in the English historian AJ Toynbee’s A Study of History, famously wrote about how the Empires that abandoned the values of early civilisation usually fell to barbarians or to civilisations that did not.

Relativism may be a luxury we cannot afford if we still believe the West is worth fighting for. But the rot may have set in. I’m not sure many of us really think anything worth dying for any more.

Across the opinion pages: the Master, technical schools, open spaces and prisoners

Nik Darlington 2.15pm

The Times (£) has a brilliant range of comment pieces published today, worth venturing behind the paywall to read. Opinion genuinely is one of the newspaper’s USPs, along with its beautiful and accessible multi-platform digital interface.

Tuesdays typically mean Rachel Sylvester’s unmissable column, and today she plays on a favourite theme, ‘the Master’. Often enough she has commented how Conservative party modernisers afford Tony Blair deified status, his autobiography a fixture of Tory bedside tables and playbook for the contemporary political scene. This week, however, it’s all about how everyone’s wrongly reading the Blairite tea leaves, including Ed Miliband.

The truth is that Mr Blair was authentically of the centre in a way that neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband is. He was an entryist who had taken control of his party, whereas the current Tory and Labour leaders are both, in background and beliefs, far more of their tribes. The success of new Labour was based on turning this reality into a political strategy that was pursued with ruthless efficiency and consistency. Everything that Mr Blair did and said - to begin with at least - was dedicated to demonstrating that he was more at home on the middle ground than in the Labour comfort zone…

Mr Blair took office promising new Labour would be the “servants of the people”. He lost power when the perception took hold that he wanted to be a Master of the Universe and his MPs turned on him. Neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband have yet shown whether they are the servants of the people or their parties.

Rough reading for both leaders, who feel the weight of the former prime minister on their shoulders in more ways than one. And a reminder, yesterday, of Mr Blair’s uncommon talents.

Meanwhile, Lord Baker, an honorary life member of the TRG, writes about “a new wave of university technical colleges”. The Government is nearly doubling the number of these colleges, which supported by universities provide technical training to pupils between 14 and 19-years-old. Britain’s school leavers need more technical nous to compete in a challenging global marketplace.

We had a few technical schools at the end of the war but these were killed off by English snobbery. Everyone wanted to go the grammar school on the hill, not the one in the town with dirty jobs and oily rags. Germany didn’t make the same mistake: they adopted and still have the 1944 English education system and it is one of the reasons why Angela Merkel is ruling the roost. These colleges are our chance to rectify that mistake.

Under the Labour government Lord Baker, a former Education Secretary himself, convinced Andrew Adonis to trial two of these UTCs. Their expansion was supported by the Conservative party at the last general election, a pledge that has been wholeheartedly fulfilled by the coalition government.

The outgoing Director-General of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds, eulogises on the centenary of Octavia Hill’s death. With a theme that I also used in an article earlier this year for the Richmond Magazine, Dame Fiona writes that the protection of open green spaces is a battle still being waged, and one still very much worth waging.

When [Octavia Hill] died in 1912, the National Trust had 713 members. We now have four million. While she would no doubt be impressed, she would not be surprised, and she would certainly not be complacent. She believed, as we do, that beauty, nature and heritage are fundamental to the human condition. She spoke of everlasting delight. If she were here now, she would describe the past hundred years of the Trust and what we stand for as one of enduring relevance; a cause which we must never cease to pursue.

Finally, the experienced barrister and chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC, writes that Britain should give in to the European Court’s ruling to award the vote to prisoners.

Far from being harmless, giving prisoners the unqualified right to vote has positive values. How better to promote peaceful coexistence in society than to remove any sense in prisoners of second-class citizenship. It is precisely what the Government is preaching in its recent legislation on sentencing reform - namely, greater efforts to make the rehabilitation of prisoners more vigorous in penal institutions.

The right of every citizen to vote is acknowledged to be a constitutional right. It is in truth not a human right but it certainly is a civil liberty guaranteed by Article 3 of Protocol No 1 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom, which the UK ratified as long ago as 1952.

Egremont has long been favourable to the Government’s principled and correct stance on penal reform, and last year we published an excellent article by the Howard League’s Sophie Willett. The ‘bang them up and lock away the key’ school of justice is outmoded and discredited; Britain’s prisons are at bursting point. That much is true.

However, the right to vote is not God-given, as Sir Louis agrees. Nor should it be beholden on any sovereign government to afford certain constitutional rights to individuals who transgress this country’s laws and bring harm to fellow citizens.

Reform the nature of a criminal’s penance, certainly; but that penance must still be served.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Is it time to review government policy on drugs?

Alexander Pannett 11.15am

The fecund lands of Latin America have always attracted interest in their abundant resources.

From mines to agriculture, the region is particularly rich with potential for human development.

In recent decades, the coca leaf has been one of the more infamous products to have dominated the region’s trade. Used as a constituent of Bolivian tea, as well as a mild, traditional stimulant when chewed, it is now most widely used for producing cocaine.

Consequently, the USA has insisted that the coca leaf’s cultivation be banned, which has antagonised Bolivians who see the use of the coca leaf as an important part of their national identity. At the same time, demand from America and the wider West for cocaine has soared. This has driven cultivation and the huge profits it generates into the arms of organised crime.

For four decades, the “War on Drugs” has been fought by the USA and its allies against organised crime’s stranglehold of the illegal drugs industry. There has been only limited success in tackling the production of illegal drugs.

Where one area has its production cut through action by the authorities, production increases in other areas to compensate.  The $8 billion Plan Colombia reduced coca production there by 65 per cent, while production increased 40 per cent in Peru and doubled in Bolivia.

However, the biggest failure of the war on drugs is its inability to reduce the soaring demand in rich consumer nations such as the US. It is this demand, and the huge profits, that fuels production and gives organised crime the resources and firepower to intimidate and corrupt law enforcement agencies.

The more punitive and aggressive governments act in their approach to drug enforcement, the more violent and ambitious the drug cartels become. In Mexico, it is estimated that as many as 50,000 people have died as result of the ongoing government war against the drug cartels.

The failures and escalating violence of the drug wars has started calls by Latin American governments of a major re-think of the strategy behind drug enforcement. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has proposed the establishment of a taskforce of experts, economists and academics to analyse the realities of global drug addiction, trafficking and profiteering.

Other leaders have been more forward and called for the legalisation of drugs. It is also not just the more liberal-minded who are calling for an end to the drug wars. Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina, a general during the country’s “dirty war”, came to power promising an “iron fist” against drug consumers. He recently called the war on drugs a failure and argued that “consumption and production should be legalised” within certain limits.

There certainly seems to be much benefit in re-casting drugs as a social problem of dependency on stimulants rather than a criminal concern. This is the approach that is taken with alcohol and cigarettes, the most popular legalised drugs in society.

Regulation of drugs would raise quality, removing dangerous products from the streets. It would also lower prices and raise tax revenues that would pay for the health and social services needed to provide support to those suffering from drug abuse.

Consumers could still be required to be a certain age - 18, say - before they could purchase drugs (just as with alcohol); advertising would be banned (as with tobacco); drug-driving would remain illegal; and the law relating to liability whilst intoxicated would remain the same.

Substances could also remain banned if they are deemed to be above a certain addiction threshold. This would encourage legal drug producers to concentrate on creating the stimulating rather than addictive effects of drugs.

The negative side of legalisation is that it would likely lead to higher use as drugs would become more available. This would likely lead to higher numbers of drug-related health issues in society. When prohibition was introduced into the United States in the 1920s it reduced alcohol-related illnesses dramatically. As the monetary cost of drinking tripled, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver declined by a third. This improvement in health, however, hid and fed rampant criminality and a dis-respect for the law by all sections of society.

The law must protect us from other humans but, concerning our own bodies we have seen progressive strides, from abortion to sexual freedoms, in allowing humans the choice to do what they will with their own selves. Considering both the law and society already accept the right of humans to intoxicate themselves through alcohol, tobacco, coffee and other legal stimulants, it may be time to accept other drugs onto this list.

It would be naive to assume that the vast death toll and social cost of drugs in the Americas will not soon reach Europe. In many deprived areas it already has. To pre-empt such a social disaster we should respond to the call of Latin American governments and review our own government policy and attitudes towards drugs.

A drug-free utopia, after all, is a fantasy we could never achieve naturally.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

Bideford: Not only have Christians done no wrong, they only ever intended to do good

Jack Blackburn 12.58pm

Legally speaking, the High Court’s ruling that Bideford council was breaking the law by having prayers on its agenda was absolutely correct. It does, however, demonstrate an unfortunate state of affairs in this country concerning how we view religion and how we actually approach the idea of toleration.

It should be stressed that, despite what either side of the debate would like you to think, Friday’s judgement was very narrow. Christians have cried wolf by claiming some form of “marginalisation” in this ruling. Mr Justice Ouseley’s judgement stressed that it was the fact that these prayers were formally added to the agenda of Council meetings which was unlawful. The prayers are not illicit, but the law suggests that there is a time and a place for them.

On the other hand, Clive Bone, the former councillor who brought the case, and the National Secular Society should not be claiming a victory. They’re uppermost aim was to claim that what Bideford council had done in putting prayers on the agenda was against Mr Bone’s human rights. Mr Justice Ouseley rejected this outright. All Mr Bone and the NSS served to do was to clarify a point of law, which Eric Pickles claims is soon to be outdated when the Localism Act comes into force.

So either way, the Bideford ruling is not as extreme as has been represented, but the reaction to it does highlight a depressing state of affairs. The view that we should “tolerate people’s beliefs” is widely held but often expressed in manner which makes the act of toleration sound like an onerous task, akin to keeping a dangerous lunatic happy so that they do not overrun the asylum.

In certain instances, the general rule of tolerating everyone’s sincerely held beliefs logically runs into absurd situations which are rightly put under intellectual scrutiny. For instance, can we really tolerate the sincerely held beliefs of Muqtada al-Sadr? Clearly, most reasonable people would say no, implying the conclusion that there are limits to our toleration.

Did Bideford Council transgress those implicit limits? No. Not even close. The less hysterical Christian response has highlighted that all the councillors were doing was conducting a ritual according to the beliefs of their faith to assist them in making the best decision for their constituents. They did not force Mr Bone to partake, and many other councils across the country do not force their councillors to take part in prayers (Christian or otherwise), though it is reasonable to say that the prayers do not have to be the official agenda.

But one could equally say that it costs nothing for an atheist councillor, or a councillor of a different faith, to sit there and accept the prayer in the spirit it is given, which is one of goodwill and generosity. It should be noted that this is not a Christian issue. Indeed, the NSS gleefully pointed to an incident in Portsmouth when a councillor walked out to avoid a Muslim prayer. The councillor’s actions are as bad as those who do not accept the prayers in the spirit they are given. Any prayer, sincerely offered with a view to making better decisions should be accepted as a good gesture, even if you think the prayer will have no effect.

To claim that prayers at council meetings come even close to a violation of human rights is absurd, and one can understand why Christians have been so upset. Not only have they done no wrong, but they only ever intended good.

In part, toleration means accepting the generosity of a religious tradition and being grateful for its benevolence. Regardless of whether or not you think it is going to have any actual effect, the act of prayer itself has meaning. In the case of al-Sadr, that meaning can often be malicious and we should stand against that. In the case of Bideford council, our society, religious or atheist, should have taken this generous act with thankfulness.

Follow Jack on Twitter @BlackburnJA

Let’s make restorative justice a reality in 2012

Robert Buckland MP 2.53pm

Having worked for many years in the criminal justice system, prosecuting and defending in criminal cases, I am acutely aware that the trial process does not - and cannot - address the problems faced by victims of crime.

Since my election to Parliament in 2010, I have taken an increasing interest in restorative justice and how it can play a bigger role in the criminal justice system in the UK. Restorative justice can help turn lives around for the offenders and aid the healing process among victims of crime.

Restorative justice allows a victim of a crime and the offender to meet face-to-face, enabling both of them to play a part in finding a positive way forward. The practice, already being used across England and Wales in our schools, workplaces and in parts of the criminal justice system, can empower victims and communities to come to terms with their trauma and may also help to reduce crime by making offenders understand the impact of their actions.

In the immediate aftermath of the summer riots up and down the country last year, it was clear that far too many of those involved in the rioting and looting were young people.

In the debate held following the recall of Parliament, I encouraged the need for making those responsible come face to face up with the victims of their crimes and making them play their part in restoring the damage that they have done. I suggested this to be a good way to divert those young children from further involvement in the gang culture and crimes that we have seen.

I was very pleased to be part of an inspirational meeting held at the Pilgrim Centre in Swindon one Friday evening in November last year, organised by my local Quaker group.

Quakers are committed to working for peace and justice through nonviolent social change. Quakers seek to practice peace at all levels, whether being active in disarmament or promoting mediation among children.

It was an excellent evening and I was pleased to see that there are many local people in Swindon, in the Council, in schools, in church groups and the police who are committed to restorative justice. We all agreed that there were excellent examples of restorative justice methods being used in Swindon by the police and the Youth Offending Team, and that more work should be done to spread its use.

In the House of Commons, I asked Nick Herbert MP, Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, about the steps the Government is taking to increase the use of restorative justice. I took this opportunity to raise awareness of the effective use of restorative justice procedures in Swindon by both the youth offending team and the police, particularly in the sentencing process and as an alternative to prosecution.

The Government has specific plans to support the invaluable work being done locally. The Minister assured me of the Government’s commitment to delivering more restorative justice across the system. The Minister agreed with me about the value of the work in Swindon in not only providing enhanced victim satisfaction, as victims are otherwise too often an afterthought in the process, but also in reducing reoffending rates.

Last month, I met Lizzie Nelson from the Restorative Justice Council. The work of the Metropolitan Police and Greater Manchester Police was highlighted; they have been doing some useful restorative justice work in response to the riots.

Greater Manchester Police as a Force is very pro-active in the use of restorative justice. In November 2011 they resolved over 600 crimes using these methods. While the restorative justice work has been slower than anticipated and the Force have not been able to resolve as many cases as they would have liked given this method, there is tentative progress being made, with one offender having agreed to a conference and another using a ‘shuttle method’ with a second offender. This can only help both the victims and also the offenders face up to the severity of the crimes committed.

The Government is considering how they can increase capacity to enable local areas to provide more effective responses to crime and disorder. Funded by the Ministry of Justice and implemented by the Restorative Justice Council (RJC), the Government has also recently introduced a register that lists all qualified practitioners of restorative justice - a process where offenders meet their victims and hear about the pain they have caused.

The Government will also be piloting new Neighbourhood Justice Panels, where local residents, properly trained and with advice and support, will be able to bring victims and wrongdoers together to deal with local problems in a way that gives them a real say in the outcomes for their communities. I am delighted to say that Swindon will be one of the pilot areas.

The great thing about restorative justice is that victims are never forced to go through the restorative justice process. The wish to meet the offender has to be led by the victims themselves. Currently many victims of crime who want to meet and confront their offender have to fight very hard against entrenched practices in some of the agencies that purport to offer welfare. I am keen for Swindon to be used as a beacon for restorative justice practices and am pleased that the Swindon Youth Offending Team and the Neighbourhood Team are already well engaged in these practices.

I believe that momentum is starting to build around restorative justice issues. Between November 2011 and February 2012, there was media coverage of restorative justice issues that almost reached 40 million people. An ICM poll, commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust, showed that 88 per cent of the public felt that a restorative approach was an appropriate response to the UK riots. Books such as Belinda Hopkins’ The Restorative Classroom show how thinking on restorative practice in schools can make a difference.

In conclusion, it is about all of us, you and me, and how as a society we work together to tackle the problems and conflicts that we face. Let’s make this vision more of a reality in 2012.

Robert Buckland was elected MP for South Swindon in May 2010.

Follow him on Twitter @RobertBuckland