Punishing The Weak

This week I was reminded of why I couldn’t vote Labour in 2010. I was fed up with the relentless authoritarianism of Straw, Blunkett, Reid, Smith etc who seemed to regard us not as citizens but as a potential problem to be controlled. We had powers for Councils and others to snoop, we had CCTV on seemingly every street corner, we had ID card legislation, we had ASBOs.

I had forgotten about ASBOs but was reminded when I heard that a London based sex worker was facing gaol at a court hearing yesterday for a trivial breach of an ASBO barring her from certain specified streets. At the time of writing I do not know what the outcome was. I hope that the magistrates showed sufficient common sense and humanity not to send her to prison  but those are rare commodities in these merciless times.

ASBOs, you may recall, were billed as the solution to yobbery that caused alarm and distress but fell short of actual criminal behaviour. That was the problem. They can be issued on the basis of hearsay evidence and can effectively turn perfectly legal activities into tailor made criminal offences. As such they undermine the rule of law.

In practice it is not the yobs who have suffered but the weak and the vulnerable. A severely autistic man  was given an ASBO forbidding him to stare at his neighbour’s garden. A young woman who had attempted suicide by throwing herself into a river was given an ASBO stopping her going near bridges. That these people needed help and not punishment was evidently not considered. Sex workers have been targeted too, as an alternative to prosecution for soliciting. So we come to yesterday’s hearing at Stratford Magistrates Court where a vulnerable woman with a young child was facing prison.

This country is coming to resemble the United States in all its worst aspects. A small elite enriches itself as ordinary people struggle to make ends meet and face decades of stagnation in their real wages, if they stay in jobs at all. If they lose their jobs they face a wholly inadequate safety net now renamed welfare rather than social security, renamed to imply it is a handout to the undeserving rather than an expression of mutual obligations in a civilised society. Finally, for the weak, the vulnerable, those who can’t cope in this cold uncaring society there is prison, probably a private prison so that, even if you’re a failure, big business can still make money of you.  This is a situation that shames us all.

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