Everyone makes mistakes

Sometimes governments get details wrong. A policy that they devise from the best of intentions may, when the rules are put together, have some flaw which renders the policy less effective. When the flaws are pointed out, if the government remedies them, the opposition will loudly proclaim that the government does not know what is doing, and seek to show the government as incompetence or worse, indecisive. However, most of us would rather have good rules that work, than bad rules that are flawed and we should congratulate a government when it get things right, rather than damn it.

Over the past few months there have been many alleged “U Turns” by the government of the United Kingdom. I welcome these changes of policy where they give us better laws and praise, rather than criticise, the government for them. It is easy to make broad general statements of things that we wish to happen. It is harder to turn those broad statements into a cohesive policy and harder still to join all the dots and fill in all the blanks so that the policy will become workable law which achieves the broad general objective.

One wonders how many bad laws and bad policies have been enacted and acted upon because governments were too frightened to admit error and do the right thing.

Recently Mr Clarke proposed that rapists who pleaded guilty at the first opportunity should have their sentences reduced by 50% instead of the usual discount of 33% which is given when a rapist pleads guilty at any stage before the trial begins. Mr Clarke pointed out that there were degrees of seriousness in rape, rather as there are in all serious crimes, but was met with howls of derision as though he had said that rape is not a serious crime.

We start from a broad proposition that rape is wrong and rapist should be convicted and punished in a way that does not harm the victim further, and in the case of this proposal, in a way that reduces the cost of convicting rapists to society. Mr Clarke translated that broad proposition into a slightly flawed policy. Under the present sentencing regime rapists who availed themselves of a 50% discount would not be punished sufficiently but society would be saved some cost.

The flaw could have been amended in various ways; penalties for serious crimes could be increased across the board by say 50% so that a tariff of 20 years becomes 30 years. Then we could apply a 60% discount for an immediately admission of guilt reducing the tariff to 18 years. This would contrast to a present sentence for a guilty plea of 20 years reduced to 13.5 years. Society would have found that proposal fair and acceptable.

The fact that this was not suggested indicates that Mr Clarke was compromising sentencing with costs.  Of course long sentences cost society a great deal but they do protect society. If you make sentences too long the guilty accused has nothing to gain by a guilty plea and everything to lose so will fight with every legal trick available to him to confuse and befuddle a jury in the hope of any chance, however slight, of defeating justice.

There have been other “U Turns”, such as those on the National Health Service reforms, but frankly I cannot understand whether there has been a genuine change of direction or just a modest swerve to a slightly new direction. A few months ago Mr Cameron decided to hire a personal photographer at public expense and after reflection (no doubt brought about by the press and public reaction to the proposal) thought again and decided that his party should pay the photographer’s wages, rather than the taxpayer. We may criticise Mr Cameron for agreeing to do such an asinine and vain thing as hiring at taxpayer’s expense someone to make a photographic and video record of his tenure, but can we really criticise him for thinking again and do the right thing?

The problem that criticism of U Turns creates is that if we criticise them too forcibly governments, who inevitably make mistakes as we all do, may simply decide that it is better to enact bad laws and undertake flawed policies than admit mistakes. Nearly two thousand years ago a Roman philosopher, Seneca wrote “Errare humanum est, perserverare autum diabolicum”. Humans always make mistakes but to persist in those mistakes is diabolical.

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