If every person who swapped penalty points for motoring offences were detected, tried and convicted, then the entire justice system would collapse under the sheer weight of numbers clogging up the courts: and that’s even before considering the effect on the prison population. According to a survey carried out by the insurance company Direct Line, around 3 per cent (564,000) of male drivers have passed on points to avoid them being added to their own licence; apparently a further 180,000 men “have tried point swapping, but failed”.
The total prison capacity is just shy of 100,000 places, which gives some idea what the effect would be if this crime were efficiently uncovered and prosecuted. But of course the point is that if it were an easily detectable crime, it would not be committed by nearly so many men (it is, to an overwhelming extent, men who pass the points on to their spouses or partners, rather than women doing the same to theirs).
So one reason why the courts regard a custodial sentence as necessary for such an apparently trivial offence must be that a deterrent effect is required to counter the impression that this is a form of law-breaking which can be carried out with absolute impunity. This argument is especially powerful when the convicted offenders are people in the public eye: now anyone who is vaguely sensate will be made aware, by media coverage, of what might happen should they break this law.
It is for a similar reason that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is especially assiduous in bringing tax-evasion cases against people in showbusiness or sport (think Ken Dodd or Harry Redknapp): a conviction – which was not achieved in either of those celebrated cases – will bring home to almost everyone the risks of trying to con the taxman, much more than it does when obscure businessmen are prosecuted.
Such condign punishment – in the case of Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Price – can seem peculiar, in the wider context of how our criminal justice system operates. Only half those convicted of burglary are given a custodial sentence, even though the vast majority of such offenders are career criminals. Of the half who do not receive prison sentences, many are not even given so-called “ community sentences” but instead receive conditional – or even absolute – discharges. This policy also applies to many crimes involving physical violence. For example, the London Evening Standard revealed last year that, in the 12 months to March 2011, a total of 16,447 violent offenders in London alone received only cautions. Of those cautions, no fewer than 6,719 were for carrying out “assault with injury”.
A cynical interpretation of this state of affairs is that it represents the middle classes ensuring that the costs of crime remain with the poor. After all, crimes of violence are overwhelmingly by the poor against the poor; but the costs of building more prison places – and thus ensuring that a higher proportion of violent offenders is safely behind bars – would be largely borne by those who pay the most significant portion of general taxation: the middle classes.
Indeed, when Kenneth Clarke, as Justice Secretary, repeatedly claimed that it “costs more to put someone in prison for a year than it does to send a boy to Eton” he was appealing to exactly this sentiment (which studiously ignores the costs to victims when habitual criminals are left at liberty). The juxtaposition of “Eton” and “prison” has a sense of the incongruous about it. Yet Etonians go to prison, too. Arguably, they are better suited to such privations than the standard white-collar criminal. The Old Etonian Jonathan Aitken, who served a seven-month stretch for perjury, recalls being “a dab hand with the Harpic and the wire brush” as latrine cleaner. He might well have had to do the same as a “fag” at Eton – fagging being the public-school term for how younger boys would have to act as menial servants to the older ones (the “fag masters”). Chris Huhne’s public school, however, was the more urbane Westminster and by his time there “fagging” had been almost entirely abandoned: the only faintly servile task the 13-year-old Huhne would have had to perform was passing – or throwing – toast to older boys at breakfast in the school’s 14th-century College Hall.
Yet I suspect the former Cabinet Minister will find prison life less of an ordeal than it might appear in anticipation – and certainly less so than having to sit next to his ex-wife for hours in court yesterday. Huhne had walked out of a 26-year marriage with the most brutal abruptness; but her attempt to destroy him thereafter will have been more terrifying than anything he will encounter while serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
A friend who has worked for years as a psychiatrist in the prison service tells me that when he started he always feared for the state of mind of the middle-class arrivals but that they almost invariably “did very well; soon they’d be running the library and becoming popular by helping the inmates by assisting with their appeals, or letter-writing more generally”. This prison psychiatrist’s long-range assessment of Huhne is: “He’s the sort of person who will be able to distance himself from the experience. His carapace of self-regard will protect him.”
He is not so confident of Vicky Pryce’s chances—and, since I know Ms Pryce slightly, I can concur with his bleak assessment. It is not just that she is a much less confident character than her ex-husband. According to my friend, “because judges are much more reluctant to give women custodial sentences, women’s prisons tend to contain a higher proportion of truly dreadful personalities”.
Still, it is understandable why the judge gave Pryce the same sentence – eight months – as her husband. The original offence was a joint enterprise; and she had intrigued to get him “nailed”, while initially attempting to persuade journalists that the other half of the conspiracy was not her, but a blameless assistant. Nor was it the case that Pryce had been led down this path of self-destruction by a newspaper reporter (The Sunday Times’ Isabel Oakeshott): on the contrary, the ex-Mrs Huhne had been using the media for her own purposes. Her methods were, admittedly, those of an abandoned woman driven almost demented by a desire for revenge: it is hard, otherwise, to conceive how someone as intelligent as Pryce could have been so bereft of basic judgement – not least in so far as it will have affected the children she loves.
There is, then, a stark lesson from yesterday’s events, though not the one that the judge will have set out. For the moral of this particular tale is nothing to do with obeying the law, or the illicit swapping of points for speeding. No, it is this: treat the mother of your children with respect.