Liberal Democrat Voice team discusses…..the Huhne/Pryce sentencing

It may not surprise you to know that the team at Liberal Democrat Voice quite often talk to each other about how we’re feeling about events in the news. We tend to write our own posts, though. I thought it might be a good idea to occasionally do a single post where several of us contribute our opinions on an issue of the day.

I think all of us share a sense of sadness at the way the destruction of a family has unfolded in front of us, disappointment that a highly effective minister is now in a prison cell in disgrace. His interview with Channel 4 was very human. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch it here. I’m not convinced it was the best course of action for him to take but I felt he gave a very honest account of himself.

So what do we team members think about the severity of the sentence?

Me (Caron Lindsay)

I think that, yes, they broke the law and deserve to be punished. Given that the sentencing guidelines for this offence mean a custodial offence, even though they had already lost so much, it couldn’t be avoided. They’ve been given longer than the minimum recommended sentence. Reading the sentencing guidelines, I had thought a sentence of 4-6 months would be likely.

I wonder, though, whether we need to send people who commit essentially victimless offences like this to prison? I tend to think that locking people up should only be done if they are a danger to society or persistently break the law. Swapping speeding points is serious, and respect for the law is important, but then take into account that the sentencing guidelines for a summary conviction for child pornography suggest a sentence of six months. And that’s a crime that’s far from victimless.

As a liberal, I believe in rehabilitation and I think that a major fine plus loads of community service might have been more appropriate for two people who have acted incredibly selfishly.

I have been dismayed by the amount of “lock them up and throw away the key” type comments in the hothouse of Twitter. Some people are enjoying this way too much. The intrusive behaviour of the press as Chris Huhne arrived at Court today also made me feel quite sick. I wouldn’t want to buy a paper whose photographers jostled and harassed someone in their last walk in free air for a while. It’s just a compassion thing. Have a look at this, from Twitter:
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Mary Reid talked about wider issues of inequality in the criminal justice system:

I would want to argue for consistency rather than harshness.

The criminal law system tends to come down very harshly on working class offenders, with long jail sentences for crimes that involve physical property or bodily harm. The majority of people in jail have suffered from poverty and poor literacy and they lack opportunities for social mobility.

Middle class crimes tend to be dealt with less severely, even though they undermine trust and often involve very large sums of money. And middle class criminals don’t have to battle with poor literacy, and lack of chances in life.

There’s a huge inequality problem here.

Yes, of course we all believe in rehabilitation, but for all criminals not just the wealthiest.

Joe Otten said:

It is a serious crime so I wouldn’t argue against harshness, but prison is just hugely expensive, and there ought to be some way two talented people can be made to give something (more) back to society.

Stephen Tall will be back with his own post later [Update: Huhne / Pryce: I just don’t see how ‘prison works’ for either us or them], when he’s finished doing his media rounds, but he said on Twitter:

Mark Valladares feels that the sentence is justified:

Given that a breach of trust in a public servant is always treated as being most severe, it seems reasonable that the sentencing in this case should reflect that. Accordingly, a custodial sentence is only right and proper. It has to be significant enough to be a meaningful punishment, and more than six months covers that. Bolt on the tendency to give the convicted reductions on the tariff for guilty pleas, and to take time off for good behaviour, eight months seems appropriate, long enough to ensure that they will do some jail time and have an opportunity to reflect on their stupidity, but not so much time that they will be an unnecessary burden on the public purse.
And yes, they have lost far more than their temporary freedom. But they both acted with calculation, and must bear the consequences of their actions.
Finally, Nick Thornsby speculated as to what might have been in their minds when they committed the crime:

As economists both Pryce and Huhne are used to thinking rationally and balancing risks, and that’s what I suspect they did in 2003. With the knowledge they had at the time they looked at the risk of ever being prosecuted and balanced it against the potential negative consequences being banned from driving would have on their lives and careers.

Given that in the interim Huhne went on to become an MP, almost party leader and a Cabinet minister, it wouldn’t surprise me if he can still rationally justify the decision. Had a driving ban stopped him from winning Eastleigh he might not have achieved any of those things.

I generally agree that prison should be reserved for offenders who represent a danger to others, but not completely. For example, I think jury members who disobey clear instructions (by, for example, contacting defendants) should go to prison – I am in no doubt that a judge at the swearing in of a jury being able to say that disobeying his instructions will result in a jail sentence helps maintain the integrity of the jury system.

Neither is it necessarily true that swapping points is a victimless crime: it allows people who have broken driving laws to continue being on the road, potentially endangering the lives of fellow motorists.

That said, I think a jail term for perverting the course of justice in this way is disproportionate. A combination of a heavy fine, a lengthy driving ban and a community service would have been punishment enough, on top of the damage they have already suffered (and incidentally that damage should be taken into account, just as personal circumstances in every case should be).

I hope you enjoyed this first “team” post. We are not a million miles away from each other on this. I’m sure there will be other issues where we have vastly differing opinions. We all share a wish, though, having all been saddened by the texts between Chris Huhne and his son, that he will be reconciled with his children one day.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • andrewmerton@onetel. 11th Mar '13 - 9:39pm

    Lord Hanningfield stole my money (ie fiddled his expenses – my – your – money).
    He was sentenced to nine months imprisonment. He was released after nine weeks.
    Who is the greater rogue /criminal?
    Similar sentences for quite dissimilar crimes, in my opinion.

  • Andrew Merton 11th Mar '13 - 10:12pm

    Sorry, my name should, of course , be as above.
    The auto fill jumped in!

  • Thankyou Mark Valladares for your sensible comment, which Stephen Tall should ponder if his soundbite tweet is really what he thinks…

  • Some of the vox pop comment around giving points to others (not the straight issue of perverting the course of justice), has focused again on speeding. Whatever else, speeding DOES cost lives, so for those who incur points involving either bans, or near bans, they are often speeding, and not only just marginally breaking limits, but seriously so. Those who do this are risking their own, and others’ lives, so the penalty of a ban should be imposed. Those dangerous drivers cannot be allowed to escape their punishment by giving others points, allowing them to drive freely again, in an unfettered way when they will have less incentive to learn better driving behaviour. So, I think that aside from this offence being perverting the course of justice, it is also extremely dangerous, and a custodial sentence can cause reputational damage beyond a fine, which may deter further behaviour of a similar type. I think I am right in saying that Chris Huhne has had at least two driving bans in his life, so it is clear that the first ban did not have a serious enough deterrent effect! High profile politicians seem to have a tendency to speed a lot, and certainly within the Lib Dems it was known Chris was in that category, along with others. May I own up to the fact that I once “earned” myself 3 speeding points (on my way back from Dunfermline, having campaigned for Willie Rennie in 2006!) – so I don’t speak with a clean sheet.

    Of course, I agree with the LDV contributors that I am very sorry for the damage to his family, but much of that has come about from his walking out on them, and the furious reaction of his wife, which has in turn created reactions within other family members.

    Away from the criminal justice element, I could not understand his emphasis on the fact of needing the car to campaign, especially in a relatively urban seat like Eastleigh. And as for someone who has claimed to be green, who was caught speeding returning from Luton Airport in a car to his home in Clapham. For goodness sake, had no-one told him about Eurostar, running at that time from Brussels to Waterloo, a short train journey to Clapham Junction or other local stations. I could go on at length about these aspects, but if someone with his green ideas couldn’t make a train journey then how on earth are we EVER going to get large numbers of people off planes and out of cars??

  • “that the sentencing guidelines for a summary conviction for child pornography suggest a sentence of six months. And that’s a crime that’s far from victimless.”

    Production is a minimum recomended 2 years. Possession depends on the level and quantity of images but starts at community orders.

    BTW the maximum for any summary conviction is 6 months unless the magistrates refer the matter to the Crown Court of sentencing so suggested sentence of 6 months for a summary offence is actually very high (that’s England at least).

  • All of the comments above seem to ignore the dangers of driving at excessive speed, and the need to enforce the penalties for that. So many wealthy people seem to just assume that the law in this area simply does not apply to them at all, as evidenced by the number of large expensive vehicles which overtake anyone travelling at the speed limit. Sadly it was this arrogance that lay at the heart of this offending, and the attempt to cover it up. Habitual speeding also directly contradicts Chris’s own oft-stated commitment to cutting carbon emissions.

  • andrew purches 12th Mar '13 - 10:11am

    Apart from the that,as a nominal tax payer,I do object to prison being used punish these two twerps, believing that in both instances, a suspended sentence and a very heavy fine would sufficed,I can’t help feeling that the behaviour of Chris Huhne was probably triggered by the belief that the earning of speeding points is not a recordable criminal offence – at least not until the break point of twelve is reached, and I am not absolutely certain that the temporary loss of a licence even then is treated as a reportable crime. So he probably saw it as a civil matter,fool that he is. But Ms Pryce’s behaviour by any stretch of the imagination was criminal, and she,as a mother really should have put her children’s well being first. They really will be the ones to suffer for many years to come, and this will be made quite plain to her by many of her fellow inmates in Holloway.

  • @Mark Valladares
    “As economists both Pryce and Huhne are used to thinking rationally and balancing risks, and that’s what I suspect they did in 2003. With the knowledge they had at the time they looked at the risk of ever being prosecuted and balanced it against the potential negative consequences being banned from driving would have on their lives and careers.”

    I disagree. I think that the likes of Huhne (i.e. successful businessman/politician/etc) are rather attracted to risky behaviour. I think this is evidenced by the fact that Huhne continued to speed despite having 9 points on his licence (and he was also banned in 2003 for 3 months following a conviction for driving whilst using a mobile phone) . I don’t think that is the behaviour of someone that dispassionately appraises risk.

    There is sufficient, and hardly surprising, evidence that a larger than normal percentage of the prison population have personality disorders that involve psychopathic traits (e.g. lack of empathy, risk taking behaviour, etc) and it has long been argued that the only thing separating that part of the prison population from many successful people outside of prison is simply the ability to get away with it (e.g. because they are from the right background, have the gift of the gab, etc).

  • Alison Smith 12th Mar '13 - 1:18pm

    I agree with Terry and Tim. Apparently the ‘swapped’ points came from speeding through road works in the middle of the night, which is only a victimless crime until some poor road maintenance guy gets flattened by a speeding BMW. Unfortunately, this actually happens with frightening regularity. Also, the sentence will reflect the fact that both parties maintained their innocence until a very late stage, wasting police and CPS resources, and indicating that they didn’t seem to take the matter seriously. Whether or not prison is, in general, the best way to deal with this kind of ‘crime’ is a different matter – as Stephen says, it’s very expensive, it’s far from clear that it does any good, and it does seem to be a tremendous waste of talent. However, the law as it stands should be applied consistently, regardless of social capital.

  • @Mark Valladares
    Apologies – my last post was in response to the quote which was taken from Nick Thornsby in the article.

  • Hilary Leighter 14th Mar '13 - 9:54am

    Please Andrew Purches stop saying: “As a mother, Vicky Pryce really should have put her children’s well being first. They really will be the ones to suffer for many years to come, and this will be made quite plain to her by many of her fellow inmates in Holloway.” What about Chris Huhne as a father walking out on them all? No wonder they hate him!
    Do not wish malice onto people – there is enough malice in the world already.

  • I think this is all a very sorry affair of (not uncommon) human failing. It doesn’t mean it’s ok, it’s just a fact.

    What it has made me reflect on most though is my identity as a new member of Liberal Democrats. I have been asked a few times ‘well how do you feel about the Chris Huhne situation’ – in relation to my membership. Well how should I feel? Sorry for him really. It’s just a tragically messed up situation. But how on earth does that affect me and my ability to represent my constituents as a prospective councillor? I don’t believe it does.

    The thing I took away from the spring conference is that the party is focussed on listening, not broadcasting (although sadly and slightly disastrously this doesn’t always follow through as with Secret Courts).

    Fundamentally, I have come to view my role as a member to represent my constituents’ views in one of the major (and most ‘listening’) parties. My membership allows me to become better informed by being part of the debate with an (impressively) diverse group of people. It allows me to influence from the bottom up rather than to be dictated to from the top down. And that is how politics should be – surely?

    My (accidental) tag line of sorts is ‘I don’t want to be a councillor to be a better member of the LibDems – I’m a member of the LIbDems because I want to be a better councillor’. I’m not on the doorstep wanting to push LibDem rhetoric (if there were such a thing) down my neighbours throats and represent LibDems to them – rather I want to LISTEN and represent them within the LibDem party.

    So – I celebrate and embrace belonging to a party whose conference is made up of a mix of all ages, with many women, many people with different disabilities and a good representation of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It could be an even better mix of course – but still it’s one of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever been part of. I rejoice in this mix and the agenda informed by this diverse group of passionate people.

    But – inevitably, we are all different. I haven’t warped into a uniform mould of a ‘Liberal Democrat’. I am still me, I am passionate about where I live; of course I’m going to differ from people in the party rather than being one autonomous blob with them. It’s what makes the Liberal Democrats liberal and democratic.

    And so, how does Chris Huhne’s situation, that of an individual who is no more or less entitled to be a member than me, affect my membership and my position in my community? Well, patently, it doesn’t

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