The Bickerstaffe Record
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Being Labour, Cotterill on the Council

Now this REALLY is unacceptable

07.29.08 | Comment?

I’ve commented before that it’s unacceptable for West Lancashire District Council go around naming and shaming someone for a crime they have not actually committed, as part of the tough-guy PR image thing it’s got going on. 

Now things just got worse.  I’ve looked at this videoblog by the Chief Executive of West Lancashire District Council, and the accompanying ‘opinion piece’ in this week’s Ormskirk/Skelmersdale Advertiser – not a paper I read very much because it’s crap, but which I opened when I was waiting at the Council offices the other day.  The headline was “The hard truth is that soft sentences don’t work”? (I don’t think it’s onine but I’ll try and get hold of it).

My view is that this is not an acceptable use of the time of a £100k+ salary Chief Executive, is deeply misleading to the public, does the public a disservice, and raises some really serious questions about the way the Council is being run. 

First, the article and videoblog are inaccurate and, it seems to me, wilfully misleading.  They both refer to the recent report by  Louise Casey (aka the Crime Tsar) ‘Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime’, and the report is used as the key evidence that the Criminal Justice System is not being tough enough on criminals, and that sentences need to be much tougher.   

Thus, in the videoblog the phrase ‘the full force of the law’ is repeated forcefully to suggest that magistrates are bnot foing their job properly.  In the article the headlines is “The hard truth is that soft sentences don’t work”?,  and while I know that’s not the Chief Executive’s own headline, I’ve not seen any emergency press release on the website to say that the headline misconstrues the article).  So it’s pretty clear what the message is…. 

The problem is that Louise Casey’s report says nothing of the kind!  It is a very good report which focuses on why people distrust the Criminal Justice System, and makes recommendations for making the  justice system as a whole more transparent and understood.  There is an intelligent section on which the influence of the popular media on perceptions of crime and criminal justice are assessed as having importance, though local experiences are also important, and there is a useful section on what is referred to as ‘late-modern anxiety’ as a significant cause of fear of crime. 

What it does not do, anywhere, is say sentences are not tough enough.  Quite the contrary – the report spends a large percentage of its pages setting out the distinction between the actuality of the justice system and the public perception.  It makes clear that sentences are actually much tougher than they were ten years ago.  Indeed, the report notes:

evidence suggests that when members of the public are given detailedinformation about cases and asked to make judgments, as in Her Majesty’s Court Service’s ‘You be the Judge’ events, they are often less harsh than courts have been in dealing with similar cases.”

Leaving aside for convenience the question of whether a move towards more prison sentences (the evidence suggests neither) does actually act as deterrent  (hat tip) or is cost-effective in comparison to other sentences, the article/videoblog is insulting to magistrates, who deal with the vast majority of cases and who are generally very competent at their (volunteer) job – I should know, I was one.  Frankly, who’d be a magistrate when you’re blasted in the press by the Chief Executive of the District Council just for doing your job and following with appropriate discretion the sentencing guidlienes of the Magistrates’ Association?

Much worse, though, these Chief Executive pieces  (just like the scare stories in the national press) actually contribute to the fear of crime – the ‘late-modern crime complex’ set out in the Casey report – under the guise of calling for action on it,  As the Casey report notes:

“Closely linked to such anxiety, are the issues of the increasing ‘politicisation’ of crime, and high crime-rates experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s. Regarding the former, while crime-rates have decreased steadily over the last ten years, this decrease followed a steep rise in crime that peaked in the mid 1990s. It is possible that these high crime-rates haveacted as a sort of tipping-point for our attitudes to crime or that our perceptions tosome extent lag behind actual changes in the crime-rate.” 

Here, therefore, is the highly-paid Chief Executive of a District Council doing a direct disservice to the population he is supposed to be serving, under a veneer of ‘tough guy’ public servant-speak.  He also indirectly insults Louise Casey through this misinterpretation of her report – as I’ve noted, it is a very good report and says some very useful stuff, but it should be read and used for what it is. 

Perhaps the most important question is why he is doing it?  Surely, one might ask, it is not the job of a Council officer, however senior, to go sounding off in the press about his views on crime policy. Firstly, in this respect, he’s paid to implement policy set by elected representatives, not make it up himself as he feels fit. Secondly, the Council he runs is only really a bit player alongside the police and other agencies in the whole criminal justice system. 

There are two different answers to why he’s done what he’s done.  First, it may be a personal initiative of self-aggrandizement.  Maybe he has designs for a move on to a bigger, better salaried job in this ‘tough guy’ area, and this is just the kind of publicity he needs.  There are hints of such a strategy, for example in the  Big Interview earlier this year, where care is taken to mention his tough upbringing.  Interesting enough, but relevant to service delivery?

In this version of events, the Conservative Council have no influence at all on what he’s up to, and he’s just a loose cannon. 

The other version – and I think this is  more likely – is that he’s operating to a loose instruction from the senior Tories in control of the Council to portray the Council as being ‘tough’, and for him to head that up personally.  My own knowledge of the Chief Executive is that he’s a decent guy, and a good public servant.  He is also a modern Chief Executive who has stepped beyond the old ‘town clerk’ stereotype of an officer simply operating to instruction – no longer a sustainable concept in a world of multi-agency governance – and who therefore picks up signals from his ruling party councillors about the direction they want to go, and gets on with.  There may be a bit of personal pleasure here, but I think for the most part he’s just playing the role the Tories want of him – a ‘hardnut’ boss focused on blaming others as a diversion to the developing inequities and injustices in the services the Council is actually supposed to be delivering. 

That’s what the Tories want.  What I want, and what I think the residents of West Lancashire is a Chief Executive who does not spend  a couple of hours a week (at £100k+ salary plus oncosts, that adds up) doing stuff that’s not really his job, and which ends up making fear of crime a bigger issue than it might otherwise be.

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