Up until two weeks ago I was a lay magistrate, a Justice of the Peace. I’d applied for the role in a new open process because I wanted to make a difference to my community. Becoming increasingly frustrated I realised I could make a greater difference outside the judicial system; and it was the completely senseless murder of a boy I’ve never met that was the catalyst for my decision. I’d ask you to read this blog, comment on the blog itself and forward it to everyone you know because I firmly believe social media is a major vehicle for change, and our collective voices will make the difference. Please also join our Facebook page, Hearts Matter.
Below is the text of the letter I sent to all our newspapers and TV stations yesterday.
Dear Mr Cameron – the problem with society is us.
I welcome the concept of The Big Society, because we need fundamental changes to the way we now live. Today, a new site and campaign has started, called Hearts Matter. It has two elements to it.
The first is to look at how we change the hearts and minds of the people of this country. We will be collating information about what is out there already, finding stories of ways people have changed their community, and adding tools and resources to support what is missing. A few months ago I watched in horror a report on GMTV that showed a woman with a disabled son effectively held hostage in her home. How can this happen in the first place – and how can we allow it to happen? It’s time to move away from fear, gang culture selfishness, anger and aggression to kindness, happiness and to finding again the hearts in our community. This is not impossible; it is only impossible if we say it is so. We can change hearts through education and action. Years ago, in answer to a question that The Times had posed on “What’s Wrong with the World?” G K Chesterton wrote one of the shortest ever answers when he simply wrote, “I am.”
The second element will be a political campaign to ensure that the governments of the UK have a change of heart in how it legislates and sentences knife crime and how it treats anti social behaviour. Until last week, I was a Justice of the Peace. Part of a new intake through an open process, I spent a year in training and a year sitting on the bench so I understood the administration of justice and the importance of impartiality. I’d applied because I wanted to make a difference to my local community – but ultimately I felt I could make more of a change outside the legal system, so I resigned. Three things concerned me.
1. My conversations with many more experienced JP’s showed me that it’s hard to make a difference to my community within the constraints of the current system. The emphasis on “summary justice” and targets has led to quicker administration of justice but not necessarily better. JP’s have historically deferred sentences for good behaviour because they know that if someone knows they are being observed they tend to behave better. Often, hindsight shows them that this can make the difference between a young person continuing down a life of crime, or not. This is what makes the difference in a community. So the pressure to simply sentence to close a case off as “summary justice” did not sit well with us.
2. There was increasing frustration at the amount of court time taken up in hearing those cases that the police can now deal with. Any matter that can get an on the spot fine now appears to be seen as worthy of challenge. The high level of trials over mobile phone use, because of badly drafted legislation (and the definition of “using” a phone) is but one example. This is at least frustrating and we certainly do not feel we make a difference to our communities.
3. Growing concerns about how judicial independence was quietly under attack. Judicial independence is fundamental to this country, so it is independent from any outside pressure, particularly the government in power at the time. When the court sentences someone to prison, they do not sentence to tagging, for instance.
4. The discretion in sentencing leads to wide disparity across the country and local people need to have a voice in these matters; it is all about the administration of justice, yet the victims of crime or their families have their grief compounded by short sentences and/or automatic early release and/or life sentences that do not mean life. Prison is not the answer for all crimes; but it is for some. Martin Luther King said, Morality cannot be legislated but behaviour can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.” It’s time to protect society and restrain the heartless effectively.
Why is anyone carrying a knife? Protection isn’t an argument – unless people don’t have the protection of the law. If I carry a knife, it’s there for a reason – but even if I argue it’s for protection, the very fact I have it on me means the chances of me using a knife are increased by 100%. I don’t care that our prisons are full; that’s also a planning issue that hasn’t taken account of population changes and projected spaces based on that.
The final straw for me was the senseless murder of Reamonn Gormley in Blantyre. One of his best friends is one of my husband’s apprentices although we did not know the boy. It could just as easily been him that night, only he was delayed getting back from a concert. It could also just as easily have been one of my two sons; young men who have so much to offer their communities, our country – and indeed the world. I had often said that it looked as if it would have to take the murder of a public official’s child or a member of the legal profession’s child to change things – a very public tragedy instead of the private tragedy. Perhaps though, it’s taken the murder of a wonderful young Scot to be the catalyst for change. I cannot begin to comprehend what his family are going through but I know enough is enough I attended a packed meeting in Blantyre on Tuesday night and heard how angry and fearful the people of that community were – and how frustrated they were at policies and the disappearance of local policing or police being unwilling to act. So now I hope to make a difference outside of the justice system by joining with those who will effectively lobby for change.
So Mr Cameron; the problem with your Big Society is me. And it’s you – and therefore change starts with me – and it starts with you. This isn’t anyone else’s responsibility; it’s ours collectively and individually. As individuals, we will make a difference; collectively, we can make THE difference.
If anyone wants to join us – anyone who wants to help change by ideas for policies or programmes or anyone who wants to get involved in action and lobbying for change – please contact us firstname.lastname@example.org