Government reform and the protests in London

23 03 2011

Up to half a million people took to the streets of London yesterday, to protest against the recent spending cuts announced by the Government. I won’t talk too much about the cuts themselves, as I am by no means a politician, but I was both happy and dismayed to hear about the protests: happy, because we are lucky to live in a society where people can openly disagree with the Government, and make their voice heard, and dismayed, because of the violence which took place, and because the media coverage of these events seemed to overshadow a couple of positive developments which went largely unnoticed this weekend, so I thought I’d post about them here.

The first piece of good news could easily have been overlooked, as it appeared in a small three-paragraph article on page 24 of today’s Sunday Observer, titled “Care rather than prison for those with mental illness.” The article states that “the government will make a commitment tomorrow to ensure that more mentally ill people are diverted from the criminal justice system and into care”.

The question is: why has it taken them so long to make that commitment? Articles such as this one, published three years ago, have made it clear that these changes are long overdue, as our criminal justice system continues to spiral further into debt and to incarcerate, rather than rehabilitate, those with mental health issues in our community.

The Ministry Of Justice’s own Green Paper was published last December, promising a new integrated approach to managing offenders, and a new focus on Restorative Justice in the UK. The Green Paper, titled “Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders”, spoke of “fundamental changes to the criminal justice system”, and suggested a “commitment to decentralisation”; moving away from the ‘Whitehall Knows Best’ approach and giving power back to local people and communities. This all fits in well with David Cameron’s continued push towards a ‘Big Society‘; a fantastic idea on paper, although it still remains to be seen exactly how (and whether) it will work in practice.

The Green Paper also warned that the ”plans are supported by changes right across Government, from radical reform of policing to fundamental changes to the health service”. Presumably it is these changes which have necessitated the spending cuts which incited yesterday’s protests. Let us hope they are worth it.

Today’s newspaper article concludes by reminding us that “more than two thirds of prisoners have mental health problems”. The Green Paper promised that “the Government will shortly be setting out a new approach to cutting crime with the publication of a Crime Strategy in early 2011″. Hopefully this will tackle these issues with more clarity and ensure that we start to see real changes in our criminal justice system, as soon as possible. It should also mean good news and more jobs for mental health professionals!

The second piece of good news (although also well overdue) was the announcement that the UK has finally signed up to the new EU directive to fight human trafficking. This is great news, although it is shameful that it took so long. As a strong advocate for those who are victims of trafficking, I look forward to seeing this new directive empowering the EU nations to fight together to stamp out this heinous crime.