In my time I’ve shot the breeze with some fairly rum types. The kind of cads you probably wouldn’t want to be sat next to at one of those Islington-metropolitan-elite dinner parties to which people with my views are allegedly invited. Men who’ve killed random people for sport. Parents who’ve raped their five-year-old children. Premiership footballers.
But by far the most difficult companion at my hypothetical North London soiree is the type whose views on criminal justice heavily outweigh their understanding of the facts, or indeed their comprehension of why the facts might matter. Who intends for you to hear those views. And who will be neither challenged nor corrected. The Donald Trump, if you will, of the British middle-class social milieu.
I’ve struggled to digest these Trumps at weddings, birthday parties, extended family gatherings and long, desperate nights in pubs serving unpleasantly expensive bitters named after types of roadkill. But, by and large, channelling innate national reserve, I can politely squirm my way through, distracting myself by replaying The Mask in my head and resolving to find a new set of family and friends. “Maybe…”, I’ll hum as they recount a story they read in the Mail and how it’s an outrage that prisoners get free happy endings on the NHS and how they know a friend who got locked up for speeding when a paedophile gets compensation for a breach of their cat’s human rights.
It is much more difficult to waft out Trumps, however, when they have been, astonishingly, elected as representatives of the people and, even more upsettingly, appointed to the House of Commons Justice Committee. Step forward Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, self-annointed voice-of-the-people and regurgitator-at-large of Daily Express editorials. The non-thinking man’s Richard Littlejohn. The weight of intellect for which talk radio was invented. The man, if we had a Fox News, whose framed visage would adorn the studio walls, flashing up subliminally between commercial breaks.
Not a single story on criminal justice can be reported, it seems, without Mr Davies chipping in with his own views. Views that he felt not only competent but compelled to inflict upon the press, public and Parliament, notwithstanding his own admission that, prior to August of last year, he had never set foot in a Crown Court. His views have been characterised by Peter Hitchens as “genuinely conservative”, but this smear on genuine conservatives ignores the dearth of intellect behind Shipley’s one-man Tea Party movement. A superficial rummage around Google will take you to reports of various leakages of his rhetorical diarrhoea on all manner of topics. There was his plea to abolish sex education in schools, due to the fact that some of his constituents had opined to him that “more sex education led to more teenage pregnancies”, in blissful ignorance of the statistics showing teenage pregnancies continuing to fall. He made friends and influenced people when he suggested that employers be permitted to pay disabled employees below minimum wage, as “people with a learning difficulty, clearly by definition cannot be as productive in their work”. But it is criminal justice that is the former Asda marketing manager’s forte. And it is therefore a matter of great sadness that, for someone so invested in the subject matter, every utterance he has ever articulated on criminal justice has been ill-considered, insubstantial and resplendent in its ignorance of both the evidence and the workings of the legal system.
Davies prides himself on being one of those who “puts the victims first“. By which he means he likes locking people up, regardless of evidence as to what actually reduces reoffending and, y’know, protects victims. He thinks we should do more of it, and that those who urge that we look at the evidence are “do-gooders” and “friends of criminals”. He was demanding “tougher prison sentences” long before he himself ever entered a courtroom to understand how sentencing operates in practice, and why it is that an offence reported a certain way by the press might in fact be more justly resolved – for the defendant, for the victim, for the public – by not sending someone straight to prison. (When he was challenged by Bradford’s most senior judge to actually attend court and watch sentencing in practice for a day, Davies meekly conceded that every sentence passed was “fair and reasonable”.)
In 2011, when Parliamentarians were debating replacing Control Orders for terror suspects with Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, his carefully considered view on how to devise a proportionate legal mechanism that would protect the public was thus: “My first thought would be to scrap the Human Rights Act for foreign nationals and chuck them out of the country.”
In November 2012 he introduced a Private Member’s bill seeking to impose a minimum sentence of 6 months’ imprisonment for anyone using a stolen disabled parking badge – regardless of whether they knew or believed it was stolen – and, when fellow Conservative MPs suggested this may be draconian, Mr Davies responded: “I am quite happy to be found guilty of being draconian, and I seem to spend my life in Parliament asking for more draconian sentences for a range of offences. I do not mind his describing me in that way, because there are far worse things to be described as when it comes to law and order. I would sooner take the tag of being draconian than the tag of being soft on dealing with crime”.
With this in mind, it perhaps comes as no surprise that he made this observation on youth justice and lowering the age of criminal responsibility (currently 10 years):
“Criminals are becoming more precocious and police tell me that those involved in criminal activities are at a much younger age than before. People take the view that if they are old enough to commit the crime, they are old enough to take responsibility.”
The age of the would-be defendant in one of the cases to which he was referring? Three. THREE YEARS OLD.
Davies’ enthusiasm for the death penalty extended to a BBC-recorded fact-finding trip to death row at Florida State Penitentiary where he purred, “If the British people could design a prison regime, this is what they would design”. Enjoying a bounce in a real-life electric chair, he concluded: “I feel remarkably cool and confident that this is the right system of justice…I really am in favour of capital punishment in the UK.”
Chris Grayling’s doomed ban on books in prisons was defended by Davies on the speculative ground that allowing prisoners to receive books might allow paedophiles to receive porn. And, bringing us right up to date, when the Justice Committee yesterday heard evidence about the operation of the abysmal Criminal Courts Charge, Philip Davies, accepting that the Charge may well be pressuring innocent people to plead guilty, defended it by positing that it discouraged the guilty from “working the system”. For Mr Davies, justice is locking up as many people as possible, for whatever they’ve done, whether they’ve done it or not.
He brings to mind Inspector Grim from Ben Elton’s gentle 90s police sitcom The Thin Blue Line, whose prescription for justice was:
“Presume everyone in the country is guilty of something – which they are – and lock them up. The entire population. And anyone who can, to the satisfaction of a senior judge, prove themselves to be wholly and fundamentally innocent, will be released. There’d be a bit less fannying about then, wouldn’t there?”
Addressing Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform yesterday, it seemed just a matter of time before he accused her, Grim-style, of “a load of wishy-washy, diddums, half-cock, up your social worker, foldy-roll ‘blame it on society’, psycho-sicko-socio-claptrap crap.”
The tragedy is that there are real and genuine problems within criminal justice. Many barristers would agree that sentences, in particular for serious violence or sexual offending, do not attract public support, particularly when automatic release at the halfway stage applies. The underfunding of the Crown Prosecution Service means that victims are being failed on a daily basis. A politician – of whichever party – with a genuine interest in gathering evidence and prodding assumptions in the criminal system would be a vital component of a good Justice Committee.
But we don’t have that. Instead, we have Philip Davies MP, wallowing in his own ignorance, a comic creation who, unlike Inspector Grim, is far more difficult to pause, mute or put back in his box.
UPDATE: Philip Davies MP has, hours after my original post, propelled himself to retweet fame by calling for a debate on “men’s issues” on International Men’s Day. Women are a recurrent bugbear of Mr Davies’, who has previously complained that there is “sex discrimination against men” in criminal sentencing, and that women in prison receive special treatment, such as the fact that, unlike men, they don’t have to wear uniforms. Readers will judge from his voting record whether his concern is motivated by a genuine passion for equality, or whether there’s a lurking psychological hangover from the fact that he didn’t get much female attention at school.