Published:

Joseph Silke is communications manager at Bright Blue.

On the evening of Thursday 15th August 2019, 28-year-old Thames Valley police constable Andrew Harper was dragged along a Berkshire road to his death, lassoed while pursuing three fleeing suspects in an incident of quad bike theft.

The suspects were later cleared of murder, but convicted of his manslaughter. Henry Long, who was driving the bike and had pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole, who had pleaded not guilty but were found guilty by the jury, were both sentenced to 13 years.

PC Harper’s widow, Lissie Harper, has since campaigned for a significant change in the law, which the Lord Chancellor and Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, formally backed last week: mandatory life sentences for those who kill an emergency worker in the course of their duty.

Few can comprehend the grief she must be feeling, but the Government’s decision to back her campaign by passing a ‘Harper’s Law’ is illiberal and alarming.

Regardless of what one thinks about the severity of the sentence handed down to his killers, and however well intentioned the campaign for it might be, Harper’s Law should be opposed by all those who believe in a free and fair society in which all life is treated equally.

Harper’s Law would signify a fundamental unbalancing in the relationship between the individual and the state. It would create a two-tier hierarchy for killing, with agents of the state elevated above the people they serve. The lives of emergency workers, particularly police officers, should not be considered of greater importance than those of the rest of society.

The police are a vital part of the community, and their efforts during the pandemic have been rightly recognised and praised, but the Peelian principles upon which British policing was founded rests on the notion that police officers are regarded as citizens in uniform, as one of us, underpinning policing by consent. This law would undermine that bond.

The proposal also erodes the vital distinction between murder and manslaughter, and between different examples of manslaughter, which has been a key component of criminal law for hundreds of years.

A mandatory life sentence removes the discretion usually available to judges to determine the proportional punishment in cases of manslaughter. Manslaughter takes many forms, with some more egregious than others. It is for judges to consider what mitigating factors might be at play when sentencing, which is an integral part of their role.

As such, defendants found guilty of manslaughter can already be given a life sentence by a judge if deemed appropriate. Harper’s Law isn’t needed for that, but would instead automatically inflict the most severe punishment in English law in every case, regardless of the circumstances involved, on par with murder.

This would be a massive expansion in the powers of the state and would inevitably lead to miscarriages of justice, in which higher sentences are handed down for crimes which would otherwise have involved lighter prison terms. Even for those who believe that Harper’s case ended unjustly, with sentences that were too lenient, the reaction cannot be to introduce new injustices elsewhere.

There is also already an existing process by which sentences deemed to be insufficient can be challenged by the Attorney General’s Office, and potentially increased by the Court of Appeal. In this case, an appeal was made, and the sentences were not changed.

The Government wants to show its commitment to key workers, especially the police, and that is perfectly reasonable. Harper’s Law, however, is the wrong way to do it. It is lazy policymaking, with highly damaging consequences.