05.12.19


The current election campaign has not lacked for low points. Jacob Rees Mogg’s outrageous comments about victims of the Grenfell tower fire has mercifully seen him confined to a bunker in Tory Central Office, where presumably he is kept company by the cretins responsible for trying to pass off the party’s Twitter account as a genuine ‘fact checking’ tool!

The creative accounting that brought us 20,000 ‘new’ nurses who are already working in the NHS was not enough to stop the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies criticising the Tory manifesto, like the Labour one, for tax and spend policies that simply “don’t add up”.

We have been treated to leadership debates that exclude key leaders and leaders who exclude themselves from interviews and debates they prefer to give an icy cold shoulder. All the while, the spectre of Brexit looms ever larger, compounded by the gathering threat of another independence referendum. Frankly, it’s hardly a recipe for getting people into the festive mood. All we need now is for President Trump to turn up…!

Matters, though, took an altogether more depressing turn at the weekend, in the aftermath of the fatal stabbings on London Bridge that left Jack Merritt (25) and Saskia Jones (23) dead. Armed with few facts about what happened, why or how it might have been prevented, Boris Johnson somehow felt able and justified in taking to the airwaves to lay the blame for these tragic events at the door of his political opponents.

Plumbing new depths of self-serving opportunism, the Prime Minister presumably concluded that to avoid being put on the defensive, he needed to go on the offensive by attacking the Labour Party. It clearly didn’t occur to him that confining his comments, at this early stage, to expressing shock, condolences, thanks and an unwavering resolve to determine the facts might be a sufficient response. Shame on him.

David Merritt, Jack’s father, has since launched a blistering attack on Boris Johnson. Writing in the Guardian this week, Mr Merritt said,” “He (Jack) would be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against.”

This, of course, was reference to Jack’s role as a coordinator for Cambridge University’s Learning Together initiative, which brings together offenders and those in higher education “to study alongside each other”. To lose a child in such horrific circumstances is almost unimaginable. For that tragedy then to be manipulated in this way is inexcusable.

I am certain there will be many lessons to learn from what happened last week including, as Boris Johnson suggests, around sentencing policy. Consideration will also need to be given, however, to the possible impact of recent cuts to police numbers and wider criminal justice services, including rehabilitation.
Having sat on Holyrood’s Justice Committee for the last three years, I have seen the overwhelming evidence that managing and monitoring the release of prisoners back into the community increases the chances of them successfully and safely reintegrating. Assessing and controlling risks is vital, of course, but the alternative to such a transition is individuals coming to the end of their sentence and simply finding themselves left to sink or swim. In those circumstances, the likelihood of individuals reoffending is significantly higher

In Scotland, automatic early release for the most serious offences has been ended, but we have also seen a massive reduction in the use of so-called Home Detention Curfews, resulting in Scotland’s prison population soaring to the highest level in Western Europe. One consequence is that prison staff have less opportunity to work with individual prisoners to improve the prospects of rehabilitation.

What is also clear from all the evidence is that there are no short cuts, nor cheap or easy solutions to reducing re-offending. Recognition of this fact underpins the work of the Learning Together initiative and many others like it.

It will take time to establish precisely what happened on London Bridge last Friday and inform the actions that will need to be taken. Before then, for a man who appears to enjoy an ‘open’ relationship with facts and the truth to use this tragedy so cynically is surely the lowest of low points in this campaign.


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