Prison will be a less terrifying experience for Chris Huhne than facing his ex-wife’s fury

The starkest lesson of this scandal was not one elucidated by the judge

Share

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.

I suspect the former Cabinet Minister will find prison life less of an ordeal than it might appear in anticipation

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.

It is understandable why the judge gave Pryce the same sentence as her husband

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 TimesIsabel 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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + TBA: Randstad Education Reading: Geography Teacher neede...

***Sports Graduate***

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Preston: This role has arisen due to inc...

Business StudiesTeacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Bu...

***Are you a Support Worker? or a Youth Worker? ***

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Preston: The RoleDue to demand we are cu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Scientists believe the discovery could lead to new treatments for loss of memory function caused by ageing and other factors  

We need a completely new approach to caring for older people

Carol Jagger
 

Daily catch-up: out of time, polling and immigration and old words

John Rentoul
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past