how do we decide what is just?

I was at a Guardian event yesterday (The Alternative Party Conference – great fun and thought provoking) and a passing comment rekindled an issue that had been laying dormant for some months.

Simon Danczuk was contributing to a panel discussion about (amongst other things) corruption in Westminster, and commented that he had been responsible for getting Chris Huhne prosecuted. He clearly viewed that as a personal achievement, and as a significant contribution to exposing (and eliminating) corruption. I was tempted to ask a question but it was not an appropriate moment, and the time for it passed.

My question was “who do you think benefitted from Chris Huhne & his ex-wife Vicky Pryce being sent to prison?” I thought a lot about this at the time, and reflecting again I’m pretty certain that my answer to my own question is “nobody”. (Actually I am wrong – the respective legal teams undoubtedly benefitted financially). The legal process was quite protracted and accompanied by huge media coverage – coverage that must have been incredibly difficult for the couple’s children to deal with. I cannot imagine what it must be like to face one’s school friends day after day as one’s parents pour vitriol on one another in the full glare of the country’s media. Divorce is never easy for children of any age to deal with; my experience working in a student counselling service made me realise that adult children often find it the most difficult to cope with. I suspect that it will be very difficult for the Huhne-Pryce children to maintain good loving relationships with both their parents.

Clearly both Huhne and Pryce broke the law. Having said that, neither inflicted any physical harm on another person and neither inflicted financial harm on others. I am firmly of the opinion that custodial sentences should be reserved for those who pose a threat to others. Those who have broken the law and pose a threat to themselves should be detained in psychiatric hospitals. Our prisons are grossly overcrowded and any suggestion of a rehabilitatory function is derisory. Short to medium term prisoners are essentially contained for the duration of their sentence, and as many have mental illnesses when they arrive in prison they are highly likely to be discharged in a worse state. If prisons genuinely cared about rehabilitation and were able to offer comprehensive mental health services including effective drug and alcohol programmes, and also appropriate educational and vocational courses, then there might be an argument for selected people to receive prison sentences. However that is not currently the case, nor is there much likelihood that things will change in the foreseeable future.

Huhne and Pryce are extremely highly educated individuals with impressive curricula vitae and a range of skills to offer that are relevant to public service. Neither has, as far as one can tell, suffered career-wise from their time in prison. Huhne is working for a US owned sustainable energy company with a reputedly very high salary, and Pryce has written several books and articles, gives talks, and has employment using her skills as an economist. It is abundantly clear that few ‘normal’ prison inmates fall into employment of any sort after release; many have difficulty finding a safe place to live. Other celebrated ex-public figures who have spent time in prison, such as Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer seem to have enjoyed the same smooth transition back into society as Huhne & Pryce.

My husband argues that prison is a deterrent, but I find that difficult to accept. I am sure that the shame of publicity was extremely embarrassing for Pryce & Huhne at the time (although Pryce in particular seemed to revel in it) but since their release the entire ‘episode’ has been glossed over. The previous prison sentences for Archer and Aitken do not seem to have deterred their fellow parliamentarians from all many of corrupt practices, from the expenses scandal to alleged child abuse. I recognise that perverting the course of justice is serious offence, but in most people’s minds the offence boiled down to asking your spouse to take your speeding points (I, like many people, know friends or acquaintances who have done the same), and then falling foul of ‘the woman scorned’. Lying about it was inexcusable, but again, who has not told a stupid lie and then found oneself in a position where it is impossible to go back and retract it without ending up in even worse trouble?

It is regrettable that the judicial system is not much more flexible. I would like to see the punishment become much more appropriate to the circumstances of the guilty person/ people. Pryce and Huhne have considerable assets. They also have considerable skills that lend themselves to deployment in the public sector. I would have preferred to see them fined – with substantial fines, fines that hurt. This happens in football – in the past few weeks Jose Mourinho has been given fines of about £125,000 in total – admittedly not huge in the context of his salary, but I see no reason why the courts could not impose fines equivalent to, say 8 months wages each for Huhne & Pryce, rather than 8 months in prison. This might be a real deterrent to many of their colleagues (certainly those indulging in financial skullduggery). In addition to a fine surely skills could be harnessed for the public good? Instead of highly paid consultancies both could be providing their services in the public sector for the London living wage, which might focus their minds on the ill-advisedness of their behaviour.

Was Simon Danczuk providing the public service that he obviously thought he was when he reported Huhne? In principle yes, of course. However, given the ultimate outcome it is difficult to see who has really benefitted.

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