Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The 'Tsar' of Downing Street

Louise Casey is an archetypal New Labour apparatchik. She doesn’t care too much about human rights (if at all) and believes that the state’s priority is to identify and punish people as a way of changing behaviour. Listening to her is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Casey is a classic case of a poacher turned gamekeeper. She made her name in the housing world, rising to deputy director of Shelter. Recruited to New Labour in 1997, Casey was appointed to head the government's rough sleepers unit and earned the title, "homelessness Tsar". She immediately declared that handing out soup and sleeping bags to those living on the street was merely perpetuating their misery.

The government was determined to rid the streets of the destitute and claimed a great success. Her old employers disputed her claims. The charity points out that the number of homeless people is at record levels and now stands over 100,000. "Homelessness is now a hidden problem. We want the government to build more affordable homes," says Shelter.

After this great achievement, Casey was appointed “respect Tsar” and headed the Home Office’s so-called anti-social behaviour (ASB) unit. This immediately set about criminalising young people by handing them ASB orders (Asbos) through the civil courts. When the orders were invariably broken, the teenagers were often jailed. Other “undesirables” also became targets, leading Harry Fletcher, from the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), to say of Casey. "She seems to be defending every Asbo ever made. We are concerned that the original purpose of the legislation has been exceeded."

Napo is one of 30 organisations, including Liberty and the Howard League for Penal Reform, that banded together to form "Asbo Concern". Fletcher adds: "[The orders] are being used to sweep anybody off the street who is deemed to be undesirable: the mentally ill, those with Asperberger's syndrome and so on. People are being locked up for breaching orders imposed for offences, such as prostitution or begging, that are not imprisonable.” While she was “respect Tsar”, Casey famously made an expletive-ridden speech to senior police officers which joked about binge drinking.

After the respect issue was taken care of, Casey turned her attention to the criminal justice system. Now A cabinet office adviser and would-be “crime Tsar”, Casey today announced that the system is "distant, unaccountable and unanswerable". Her analysis was typically brutal and authoritarian: "We're all a little tired of hearing about the human rights and civil liberties of people who break the law. For years we have been listening to that - who is speaking up for the rights of law-abiding decent people?" she told BBC Breakfast. She recommends that offenders serving community sentences be made more "visible" to identify that they are being punished for breaking the law.

Casey said: "Once these people commit crimes they disappear into the system. We need to get over some of the hand-wringing that says we cannot put them in a uniform." She also suggests the government should consider contracting out enforcement of community work from the probation service and that probation officers be given powers to extend the time served by offenders on community service.

So now Britain is set to become a sort of Guantanamo Bay camp, where the unfortunate inmates at the notorious Camp X-ray wear orange jump suits so that they can be more easily identified. When you see someone in the street wearing an offender’s “uniform”, you will have Casey and New Labour to thank for the latest in a long line of human rights abuses that resonate with some of the darkest days of European history.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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