A bad Monday for principles


As two of today’s news stories underline, utilitarianism tends to put common sense and the short term ahead of principles and the long term.

This tendency helps explain the apparent hostility to using human rights as a criterion for arbitrating on domestic policy. Arguably, the most important aspect of the idea of rights is that they are absolute: not only should rights be protected in hard cases (cases, which, for example, offend our sense of fairness or common sense) but this is indeed the test of whether a right is really a right rather than merely a contingent entitlement.

This principle has featured recently in debates about prisoners. Most high profile has been the UK Government’s resistance to the imposition by the European Court of a prisoner’s right to vote. In keeping with this position the Government is now seeking largely to remove the right of prisoners to seek compensation as the victims of crime.

The most important question here is not whether victim compensation is a right but whether the state’s scope to remove rights from prisoners should be seen as restricted or open ended. Even the most liberal minded will accept the right of the state to remove those rights which are lost as a direct consequence of incarceration, for example freedom of movement or association; while even the most punitive would not want to deny prisoners the right to basic health care. But should the state be free to add further losses of rights and entitlements which are not a necessary consequence of the loss of liberty?

The UK Government clearly feels the answer is ‘yes’ and no doubt ministers have public opinion on their side, but it is perhaps reasonable to ask where this discretion should end. Given that neither voting nor access to compensation are a necessary consequence of the loss of liberty how about, let’s say, access to nutrition or warmth above the absolute minimum required for survival? After all common sense might argue that many law abiding citizens are cold and hungry; surely it goes against decency that prisoners should be more fortunate? This is indeed the kind of argument which has driven prison policy in some of the more punitive American states.

Another example of the logic of utility was the announcement by the Home Secretary of a new ‘five calls and we’re in’ rule for anti-social behaviour. On common sense grounds it is difficult to argue against the police being compelled to intervene if five different people have reported the same incidents of anti-social behaviour. It has certainly made for some good headlines at a time when rising crime and falling police numbers are making the Coalition vulnerable on law and order.

But Ms May’s announcement does beg some questions. Such targets are bound to generate anomalies: for example, should the police direct resources towards the fifth complaint about children kicking balls over garden fences at the expense of intervening in a case where there have been only three complaints about a vulnerable person being systematically bullied? On other policy areas the Coalition has exposed the danger of these kinds of unintended consequences. Ms May’s apparent abandonment of the principle of localism may now be used when ministerial colleagues in other areas seek to resist calls for national safeguards.

Indeed, with the direct local election of police commissioners taking place in the autumn, policing is often mentioned in the Coalition’s localism script. Whether these elections will attract candidates of calibre and a reasonable turnout remains to be seen, but it is unclear what the value of a local mandate will be if policy can be dictated by Whitehall on an issue as detailed as how many telephone calls trigger action on anti-social behaviour.

Human rights and localism are very different kinds of principles. Both, it seems, are vulnerable to the pressure on all politicians to meet the voracious appetite of public opinion and the 24 news cycle.

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