Saturday, July 14, 2012

he said it first

It was over the top. A trial, adjourned for five months, lasting five days with dozens of witnesses for a straightforward racially aggravated Section 5 Public Order offence, was extravagant.  

Magistrates courts are now under a duty to keep adjournments to a minimum, list trials for as short a duration as possible, and restrict the number of witnesses to only those that are essential to the case, eliminating the repetition of identical  evidence. These parameters are part of an initiative called Stop Delaying Justice, instigated by, amongst others, the District Judge who presided over this case and who, almost immediately after all magistrates and court advocates had been trained in its principles, adjourned the case for five months, set it down for five days and allowed a stream of footballers and coaches to give, seemingly much the same, evidence.

Anybody with an internet connection can see a video of Terry shouting out “you f**king black c**t”. To be guilty of the offence charged, the words must be threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby, and they must demonstrate hostility towards a racial group.  Well the words are hardly complimentary, could well cause distress and if they don’t reflect a hostility towards a racial group then what do they reflect ?  What phrase, worse than the one he used, would indicate hostility ?

The defence, which the DJ accepted, was that Terry was just repeating the words. The verdict stated  that “what he said was  not intended as an insult, but rather as a challenge to what he believed had been said to him.”  Said to him ?  Terry was being called “a f**king black c**t” ? I’m confused and so will be many footballers (amateur and professional) who will deduce that such language on the pitch is acceptable if there is any kind of provocation or doubt as to the reason for the words. But ref I was just repeating what someone said to me !

I wasn’t in court and it is well known that the reporting of cases can give a misleading account of the evidence presented. The highly experienced DJ would have considered everything very carefully and if there was any doubt in his mind, which there clearly was, then acquittal was the right decision. That is how it should be and I don’t dispute the finding, despite the force of the video evidence and the undisputed fact that Terry did use those words.

But the verdict in this protracted case doesn't really matter. What he said has been publicised and publicly denounced, with many exceptions of course. It has now been established in a high profile case that there are situations in which shouting “you f**king black c**t” is perfectly legal, but nevertheless is surely exceptionally nasty and disrespectful. 

It is for that reason, not the legality or otherwise, that the phrase shouldn’t have been uttered in front of anyone, let alone tens of thousands of people and TV cameras. And it is for that reason that we should condemn the use of those words or words like them.

Obscene and distasteful swearing is epidemic in this country, where the most commonly used adjective begins with the letter f. It should not be too much to expect professional footballers to set some kind of example by avoiding that kind of language in public, but it is too much to expect.  The quality of spoken English here, driven by nastiness, disrespect, selfishness, laziness and the lack of any better vocabulary, is steadily deteriorating and things will get worse, much worse.

And if the question is whether or not Terry's behaviour was exceptionally nasty and disrespectful, and reflective of his character, then the verdict is clear and unequivocal.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

high speed low sense

An MP publicly criticising their party leader, especially when in government, used to be a dramatic rarity, occasionally resulting in a motion of no confidence, usually defeated by those remaining loyal or just scared of how an adverse outcome might affect themselves. With the rise of more opportunities outside of the House of Commons for airing grievances, gaining easy publicity and ingratiating themselves to their constituents, such criticisms are more frequent and less newsworthy. A 'misunderstanding', to use the political parlance.

But when a Tory MP and personality like Nadine Dorries calls the PM and his chancellor of the exchequer "not only posh boys but arrogant posh boys with no passion to understand the lives of others" then that is criticism indeed and damaging at that. Leaving the robotic Osborne aside, Cameron probably does want to understand the lives of others but just doesn't know how to. This and the arrogance bit are exemplified in the folly of the plans for the high speed railway known as HS2.

I have written about this before and I will again and I make no apology because it is so damaging, so unnecessary, so irrational, so unforgivable and so so so expensive that it must be stopped. The government's own underestimate of the cost has already risen by £4bn to over £36bn and that doesn't include the £8bn or so for trains (a curious omission), nor the environmental costs. At over £160m per mile it will be the most expensive railway in the world.

In April the Public Accounts Committee called HS2's financial assumptions 'bonkers'. HS2 says the railway will create jobs, but that is another assumption without basis. It won't, apart from the ones being created now at HS2 where there will shortly be over 300 employees, some now being recruited on annual salaries of £100k. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, HS2 admits that their Benefit to Cost Ratio for the project (i.e. the return on every £1 invested) has fallen from £2.40 to £1.20. If all costs are included it falls much further to about 50p, a hugely negative return. The Taxpayers Alliance calculates the net cost to the taxpayer at over £45bn.

In determining the benefits, HS2 have included an illusory financial gain from reducing journey time between London and Birmingham by a few minutes. This is clutching at straws to try and justify the unjustifiable. HS2 can never ever make money. A compulsory assessment of the project has concluded that, on a traffic light rating system, HS2 has a red-amber rating. That officially means “the successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible.” The PAC didn't think much of this either. The Department for Transport brightly commented that "Amber-red is not something we aspire to stay in". Really ? Who'd have thought ?

Even if HS2 were managing the project competently, and they are a million miles from that, this is a national madness. Sickeningly damaging to people, towns, countryside, homes, and the environment, just so we can say to the world "look what we've got". But the world won't be impressed. There is not the demand for it, certainly not for HS2's plan for 18 trains an hour each carrying 1000 people, and there are much better alternatives that will cater for any likely increase in demand for faster rail travel and greater capacity. We are not the first in Europe to have the daft idea. High speed lines in Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Poland have had to be closed or bailed out by their governments. USA and a number of other countries have turned against the concept of high speed rail.

Weekly, if not daily, more arguments against the senseless project materialise. HS2 Action Alliance is currently engaged in legal action against HS2 by way of judicial reviews, suspicions have been raised about two of the directors of HS2, there are doubts about the safety of a train travelling at 225mph, and the Treasury are beginning to realise that the country doesn't have the money to throw away.

And that money could be better spent in so many ways. One way, which really would give huge tangible benefit to people and businesses is to improve our forlorn broadband capability. Ranked only 16th in Europe in terms of average speed, we are also way behind some countries in other continents that we used to call Third World. The case against HS2 is clear. There is no half decent argument for it and plenty of compelling arguments against. Nearly everybody is saying so but Nadine's Posh Minister is not listening.


Monday, April 16, 2012

risk inherent

The spectacle of very wealthy horsey people celebrating victory in the Grand National whilst two horses were being shot dead (having suffered untreatable injury during the race) left a feeling of nausea and injustice. A day later, a high profile football match being ruined by one of the worst refereeing decisions witnessed for some time gave rise to similar feelings and of course more calls for technology to replace human frailty.

A week earlier, the traditional institution of the Boat Race was wrecked by a self-centred publicity seeker swimming towards and then in between the two boats and nearly getting clobbered by the oars, just to promote his opposition to..............whatever. (The effects of swimming underwater in the Thames will likely cause him more punishment than the court will impose.) The race was restarted but the faces of the losing university team reflected only unfairness, particularly on the rower who collapsed but thankfully is not in any danger now.

Four weeks ago the country was in a state of national anxiety over a professional footballer who suffered a cardiac arrest during a match but, against the odds, survived and is recovering, partly owing to the incredible facilities at the home club and the fact that two leading cardiologists just happened to be at the game. No such luck though, and much less publicity in this country, for an Italian footballer who suffered the same just the other day but sadly did not survive.

Rugby players risk serious injury all the time, in cricket being hit by the ball travelling at 90mph is not exactly safe, and cyclists in the Tour de France demonstrate bravery bordering on insanity.

But should we allow horses to take serious risk without their approval. Trainers always tell us that horses wouldn't run over 4 miles and jump large fences unless they wanted to and they love racing, so in a way they choose to be professional sports beings and are not forced to do it to make people money. Certainly, as I know to my cost having once foolishly been the less than proud owner of one twelfth of a very unsuccessful racehorse, they are treated well, fed exceptionally well, beautifully groomed and pampered. A better life than the thousands of dogs and cats each year that are beaten, abused, neglected and, if lucky, dumped at rescue centres throughout the country. Where is the annual public clamour for their welfare ? They would swop lives with a racehorse any day, Bechers or no Bechers. The National is safer than it used to be and we should let it continue, aware of the risks and the injustice that it can bring. What we don’t need is the prolonged stress that the horses are put under prior to the race, almost certainly contributing to the fall and tragic outcome of the favourite. Why the organisers cannot start the race in a sensible way, without false starts and a lot of screaming at the jockeys and horses who are made to pace around in circles for ages, is a mystery.

Sport has risks attached. Risk of injury, even death, and risk of injustice are intrinsic. Eliminate the risks and you eliminate much of the excitement, drama and enjoyment. We tolerate the risks brought by violent people, cars, high speed trains, air travel, poor housing, inequalities in society, and the much less than perfect criminal justice system. We accept the seemingly infinite dangers of alcohol with only token attempts to control its excessive consumption, epidemic in the UK, though its risk of harm to people and animals is colossal compared to sport. We put up with the risks to health that we are all subject to and yet don’t receive national concern when we tragically fall to them. Many suffer cardiac arrests and, if surviving, don’t have the wealth of a professional footballer to live on. We must accept the risks in a well-intentioned and well-managed sport too.

Sport is not immune to terrible incident, nor to unfairness and inconsistency of justice. Just as nobody is immune to the chance of injustice in life. Perfect justice and perfect safety are a long way off.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

off your bike

Phillip Mead is a much nicer person than me. He has found a way of forgiving the moronic and callous bus driver who deliberately and with vindictiveness drove his bus into Phillip as he cycled along a road in Bristol. I could never forgive him. Nor should I. Nor should anybody.

The bus driver pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and GBH and must have chuckled to himself when handed a wholly inadequate 17 months custodial sentence. Out in 9 months, piece of cake. He knows very well what his bus could have done to the cyclist and how miraculous it is that it didn’t. A charge of attempted murder would have been justified. The judge said the driver used the bus as a weapon to bully and intimidate; no he didn’t; he used it to try to kill, or at least severely injure.

Whether or not they had an argument before the attack does not matter. Nor does it matter, with respect to determining the correct charge and sentence, that the driver has a family. We can at least be consoled that his right to family life under Article 8 of the you-know-what didn’t allow him to walk out of court with a conditional discharge and a stern reprimand.

This is not a vote for stiffer sentences or more prisons and I certainly don't subscribe to the throw-away-the-key mentality; quite the opposite. But sentences must fit the crime and the intent.

Cycling should be encouraged and cyclists must be protected from acts of malicious violence on the roads. This sentence comes nowhere near to helping the cause.

The Times Cities fit for cycling


Thursday, February 02, 2012

so sorry

It was totally out of character and I won’t do it again. I am really very sorry. ….
….. Well, no, of course I’m not but I am saying the right things and, who knows, it may pay off. Throw in a pained expression and moistening eyes and even the best of the judiciary can be fooled.

As a mitigating factor, remorse is a difficult one. Easy to express but much harder to feel, it must count very little towards consideration of any reduction in sentence. The more serious the crime the less weight should be given to any expression of remorse. If the remorse is relayed to the court through a legal representative, rather than directly from the offender’s mouth, then very little weight, bordering on none, should be attached; this is a convenient mechanism to bypass the accompanying body language which is often so revealing. Some defence advocates help by voicing in thin disguise their own doubts: “my client instructs me that he is very sorry for what happened etc”, interpreted by the court as “well he would wouldn’t he”.

The tabloids rightly went wild about the case of Chrapkowski, who, having been asked by a passer-by why he was tipping rubbish from wheelie bins all over the street, repeatedly punched and kicked him causing terrible injuries that he is likely to suffer from for a very long time, if not ever. The puncher and kicker, along with his two accomplices, ran off leaving the victim unconscious and bleeding. Yes of course he deserved immediate custody for a lengthy period; this is just the kind of gratuitously violent crime that a civilised society builds prisons for. No of course he didn’t get it.

His lawyer told the court how sorry he was. It is virtually impossible to be sorry for the commission of such a violent offence, in that if you were able to feel regret for it then you wouldn't do it, and, even in the extremely unlikely event that he was sorry, so what ! The crime was the crime, the culpability was the culpability and the harm caused was the harm caused. Saying sorry, especially through a lawyer, is hardly the point. But, surprisingly, the judge accepted the remorse and suspended the 12-month prison sentence.

But the remorse seemed to have evaporated by the time the offender left the courthouse, when he celebrated by dancing on the steps and punching the air in goal-scoring fashion. So much for his feelings of compassion towards the victim. If the sentenced celebrates a comprehensive victory then the sentence was probably wrong. Relief at a lenient sentence is one thing, but overt and cynical exuberance and ecstasy is another.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

kettle on

The police tactic of kettling people who are, at the point of captivity, not breaking any law still sits very uncomfortably alongside the fundamental tenet of freedom to protest peaceably. The majority of victims of kettling are innocent and not suspected of criminal action or intent. It is detention without conviction, charge, or arrest and caution.

Disappointing then that the police have won their appeal against a High Court ruling made last April that it was unlawful for them to kettle several thousand Climate Camp protesters in London who were not causing any trouble. The concern was that less well behaved (in fact violent and destructive) protesters at a nearby demonstration, aimed mostly at banks, would infiltrate the Climate Campers and extend the battle to their group. The key question for the police when considering taking action against a protest is whether there is imminent danger of a breach of the peace. In April the High Court said that there wasn’t and that the containment of the innocent protesters was wrong.

But the Appeal Court says the thinking of the High Court was wrong. Apparently it wasn’t for them to judge whether a breach of the peace was imminent but whether it was reasonable for the police to think that it was imminent. A subtle distinction; a semantic argument; a great game for judges and lawyers to play; but it means little to the public and misses the whole point about the unfairness of kettling innocent people.

The Appeal Court even acknowledged that kettling is lawful only if police had taken all other possible steps to prevent the imminent breach of the peace. But one step is to arrest those who are breaking the law rather than stand back and allow them to continue or to spread their criminality to a different but peaceful group. If this requires more resource then more resource must be acquired and applied.

Other legal cases on kettling are still in progress and the wigs and gowns are loving it. The innocent victims of kettling are not.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

off the rails

The Government of the UK is supposed to represent the people. Naïve maybe, but true none the less. It is hard to imagine a Government action, even one from the current bunch of detached, self-centred, let-them-eat-cake multi-millionaires, that flies so hard in the face of the wishes of the people. There is no prejudice here for or against any political party; Labour announced it and ToryLib have progressed it; they are all much the same and all to blame.

Overwhelmingly, the public has said that a high speed railway, known as HS2, from London to Birmingham, and later beyond, is not only unwanted but will be literally disastrous for quality of life, for the countryside and for historic buildings. It is a nonsense, a pointlessness, a fatuity, a mindlessness, an inanity and a bad dream come true. An expensive disaster too, currently predicted by the government to cost £32 billion but we all know it will be in excess of £50 billion and I would bet it will be over £60 billion. Nearly a billion has already been spent on public relations and other forms of fluffiness, a lot of it entirely needlessly because it was always the plan to ignore the outcome of the so-called 'consultation'.

This colossal folly isn’t about business people desperately needing to arrive in another city a little earlier or about the creation of jobs (in fact many will be lost as a result). No business has offered to play any part in the funding of the HS2 white elephant, partly because most businesses know there is no economic benefit to be gained from it for them or for the country. Any attempt by the government, particularly by the poor excuse for a Transport Minister, the hypocritical Justine Greening, to detail any benefit of HS2 is rightly greeted by those without a political motivation with closing of eyes and shaking of head in disbelief at its lack of substance, reality and vision.

Apart from enabling bankers and their like in Birmingham to join their London colleagues for a three hour lunch and get back in time for their 5pm finish and trip to the local wine bar, HS2 will do nothing for the less rich and more human members of society who will pay for it but be priced out of ever using it. HS2 is purely and simply about posturing, bravado, affectation and self-importance.

It’s about a show-off prime minister and his show-off cabinet showing off to France and Germany that the Brits can install a high-tech piece of transport infrastructure, regardless of its lack of merit. But this country is a fraction of the size of those countries, with our major cities relatively easily and quickly accessible without having to ruin lives, nature and architecture.

Of course there is room for huge improvement but that can be achieved through other less draconian measures, as the government knows very well and was so embarrassed to reveal that it concealed the report they commissioned which shows that the alternative 51m proposal offers greater benefit than HS2 at much lower cost.

In a time of austerity when important public services are being starved of money, HS2 is such a monstrous, irrational and destructive waste that it would sit more comfortably as a scene in Gormenghast than as a part of a rational transport policy. Meanwhile our roads will remain pot-holed and our local, rural train services the shambles that they are now.

What happened to the ‘green’ strategy that encouraged people to travel less frequently and promoted the use of technology like video-conferencing to conduct business meetings, many of which are not worth the cost and time to travel to anyway. It has been derailed by MPs who make so many journeys between their second and third homes and on unnecessary foreign trips that their carbon footprints nearly match their oversized egos.

Daft, destructive and divisive, HS2 takes profligacy and recklessness to a new dimension. The battle to stop it must continue.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

twitter ye not

The Lord Chief Justice, Judge Judge, may have opened a Pandora’s Box with his guidance on the use of text based communications in court. Basically he says that a member of the public has to seek permission from the judge or magistrates whereas a representative of the media or a legal commentator can twitter away without needing any kind of approval.

It is unclear what is encompassed in the word media and who can rightly claim to be its representatives. What kind of legal commentary is being sanctioned. It is surprising that the senior judiciary is giving this power to such a legally ill-defined group of people. Could frequent tweeters or bloggers assume they fit into one of the privileged categories and so have the authority to publish directly and instantaneously from the courtroom.

The guidance naively states that “the most obvious purpose of permitting the use of live, text-based communications would be to enable the media to produce fair and accurate reports of the proceedings.” Ah bless ! The assumption that the objective of the whole of the media is to produce fair and accurate reports of anything at all is touching, but wrong. Perhaps the LCJ should ask his colleague Lord Leveson if his current enquiry has demonstrated to him such high honour amongst the press.

There is already a growing and worrying problem of jurors and witnesses accessing the internet to discover ‘information’ about defendants during a case. (There is nothing to stop judges and magistrates doing so, other than their integrity and professionalism.) The consent to texting of news and opinion from court sits uneasily with the existing prohibitions which are so necessary for the fairness of trials, and creates a dangerous dichotomy.

I am all in favour of embracing technology, and am doing so in writing this blog, but there is a time and place, and a court, particularly a criminal court, is not a place to be included unless the precise use of the technology throughout the hearing can be monitored by the judge.

The guidance concludes that “the use of an unobtrusive, hand held, silent piece of modern equipment for the purposes of simultaneous reporting of proceedings to the outside world as they unfold in court is generally unlikely to interfere with the proper administration of justice”. Generally maybe not, but the administration of justice is far from perfect now and there will be many occasions when justice will be compromised by inappropriate texts and tweets. There is no point in setting up those situations. This guidance does just that.


Sunday, December 04, 2011

unfair cop

It is a year since Mr Justice Bean made the judgement that a policeman, who dragged an innocent woman to a cell and then threw her down on to the floor causing her a cut eye and other facial injuries that needed hospital treatment, ..... didn't.

This despite the evidence of CCTV clearly showing him dragging her to a cell and throwing her down, but the appeal court decided that she just let go of a door frame and the force of the letting go sent her to the floor. Well of course it can't, can it. The laws of physics tell us that there must have been a force pushing on her equal to the one she hypothetically might have been applying to the door frame. And I don't mean gravity. The CCTV shows that the door frame is an innocent bystander and the force came from Sergeant Andrews. Why was the 57 year old woman, against whom no charge was sustained, being pushed at all ? For a fellow police officer to have reported the incident (he was her supervisor), it must have been a serious lapse in the proper treatment of a person in custody.

Anyway, Andrews was released from his 6 month sentence for ABH after a few days, long before the date of appeal. Well alright, we can live with that even though some might get the impression that an injustice was done and that the appeal court wouldn’t have been so accommodating to a civilian. No jury, having seen the CCTV, would have acquitted, even though Andrews said in court that he didn't think he had done anything wrong.

But the natural consequence is that Andrews is innocent (loosely speaking) and so the Independent (sic) Police Appeals Tribunal ordered that he gets his job back despite agreeing that the officer's conduct was "intolerant and discreditable". Much more creditable is the Wiltshire Police Authority which has deplored the sergeant's behaviour and confirmed that his intolerance cannot be tolerated. They will challenge the decision. That in itself tells a story. Meanwhile Andrews will get back all the pay that he didn't receive whilst he was being rested. It's all worked out rather well for him. So far.


Friday, December 02, 2011

proceed without caution

Now then, now then, what’s going on here ? The number of cautions given by police is running at about 645 per day, a fair reduction from the 715 per day handed out in the year to June 2010. That’s good news because from 2002 to 2007 police abused their power to caution, rather than take offenders to court, by steadily racking up the number to a peak of 1000 per day.

In a lot of cases a caution can make good sense, for example low value shoplifting by a first time offender. But for some offences it can never make sense and the only proper and just way to deal with those offences is by a court sentence. The Ministry of Justice seems to be pleased that cautions for burglary have halved since 2007 but they still run at 10 per day and that’s 10 too many. As I have written before, burglary (of a home) is a vile crime, more akin to violent assault, or even further along the scale towards rape, as it can cause the victims great harm and suffering for the rest of their lives. There is never an excuse for it and it is always intentional. It warrants more, much more, than a gentle finger wagging and a brief ‘buck your ideas up’ reproach.

At the moment you can park your car on a double yellow line outside a house, get out and burgle the house. You can get a fine for the illegal parking but just a ticking off for the burglary. About 1 in 7 burglars get away with no more than that.

Discouraging the police from cautioning burglars is not the right policy. As the administration of a caution is much less work than all that a court appearance entails, the use of them will continue. What is required is a change to the law which rules out the use of cautions for such serious offences. Sentencing should be left to the courts, who can apply consistency and punishments to fit the crime, and not dabbled in by police whose forte is elsewhere.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

divide by four

In July, Charlie Gilmour, the adopted son of a member of Pink Floyd, pleaded guilty to a charge of violent disorder at a protest about student fees a year or so ago. Fuelled by drink and drugs, he kicked hard at a shop window and helped break it. He stole the leg of a mannequin (as you do) and chanted some anarchistic slogans that threatened further serious crime (as you don’t). He was part of a mob that caused a lot of damage to a convoy of royal cars, one of them carrying another Charlie and his wife Camilla who were clearly alarmed and distressed by what was going on. Charlie G denied throwing a bin at one of the cars, smashing its window, but the judge found that he did so and imposed a 16 month custodial sentence. Harsh perhaps, and a shock to Charlie who may well have thought that his wealth and privilege would protect him. Everyone knows that you divide most prison sentences by two, and he would be out in 8 months at the very latest.

Even so, compared to many crimes that receive far less, it was a heavy sentence and Charlie rightly appealed. The hearing was expedited and went to court in October, three months after the start of the prison sentence. The appeal judges backed the sentencing judge and refused the appeal on the 28th October. So Charlie had another four and a half months to serve inside.

Ah no. Just 18 days after the appeal court judgement Charlie is released, on a tagged curfew. It is good that he is out of prison after just 4 months because his crimes did not warrant more, but why doesn’t the right hand of the criminal justice system know what the left hand is doing. What was the point of the time, trouble and cost of the appeal if its outcome was to be of such little significance. Yes, it contributes to the case law library but offers little to add to what is already there for this offence. In fact, the appeal judgement was delayed to see whether the Appeal Court rulings for the August rioters had any influence on Charlie’s case. He might as well have been released on the 28th October.

It was pretty much known at the time of sentencing that Charlie would be out in 4 months so that is the sentence that should have been given. If the judge wanted to tack a curfew on to the end of it, for specific reasons, then fine. But the public would know exactly how long the offender will stay in prison and, importantly, so would anyone thinking about committing that offence. The courts should dictate how long a prison term should be, not the prison authorities. Prison terms would probably shorten and the use of expensive appeal courts might diminish.


Tuesday, October 04, 2011

swing low

Laddish behaviour, pub crawling, binge drinking, intimidation, sexual harassment. A typical scene on a Friday or Saturday night in a British town centre. Could be, but not this time. This is the England Rugby team at the World Cup in New Zealand; the ambassadors of the sport behaving like the crude, stupid, arrogant, overpaid, mentally-still-at-school untouchables that they really are.

Haskell, Ashton and Hartley (anyone who follows rugby could have come up with those names before the news was released) took out their puerility on an employee of their hotel. They stole her walkie-talkie, taunted her, videoed her, made crass insinuations and humiliated her. Better than having to earn your money by training, isn’t it boys, ha ha. Even when they were asked to apologise, that naughty Haskell, the terror of the lower sixth, the one with the big silly grin, got it wrong again by handing her a bunch of flowers (which I bet he didn’t pay for) and saying “they don’t smell as good as you”. What a charmer you are, James. What a klutz.

Former captain, Tindall, who recently married into the royal family, seems hell bent on breaking the world record at finding his way out of it. Having been captured by CCTV in scrum-like positions with a girl at one bar he strenuously denied the accusation that he then took her to a second bar and groped again. But they did go and he did grope and that too was captured on CCTV. Well, who’d have thought. Considering that he has been in front of TV cameras countless times, his inability to imagine that there might be a camera at the bar is mind-blowing. His manager, the big, strong, tough, serious, puzzled Martin Johnson explained Tindall’s denial as simply an error, adding that “his recollection is wrong of where he’s been and the order he’s in there and that is what it is.” Thank you so much for clearing that up, Martin.

And that is perhaps why Johnno is usually referred to as the England boss rather than manager, because management there is not. Is it too much to ask that English sportsmen abroad behave professionally for just a few weeks and leave aside the antics and the alcohol. Can they not even pretend to be grown up. In their eyes there’s no point, as they know they won’t be sent home; they will still be selected for the team and still be paid. They love the limelight, the publicity, good or bad. They may even win the cup (doubtful), so there is no deterrent whatsoever, except perhaps for an awkward conversation with the lady thirteenth in line to the throne. And if they do win it (actually, very doubtful) then the lack of responsibility will be forgotten. So it’s almost tempting to wish that they lose, just to attach some lasting blame to the players whose behaviour lets down their country. I said almost.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

don't hold your breath

It is very revealing that it required an expensive and long awaited report from the Independent Commission on Banking (ICB) to point out that banks were failing to carry out the basic elements of what is a fairly simple job, banking. You don’t have to read far into the 360 page document (in which the word failure is mentioned over 90 times) to find it plainly spelt out that banks were incompetent at measuring the risks they took and provided incentives to their employees to take excessive risks with money deposited into their safe-keeping by their customers.

The bankers who are paid in hundreds of thousands, and often millions, of pounds per annum, with the addition of ludicrous, obscene bonuses, proved themselves to be hopelessly incapable of providing sufficient capital to support the risks they took with our money and our economy, and failed to structure their business to cope with losses that anybody with moderate financial skills and common sense could see would inevitably result. Successive governments were too cosy with the banks to try and prevent the disasters that they caused and, needless to say, put the burden of bail-out on to the taxpayer, just to compound our suffering. The ordinary household continues to suffer now as a result of the bankers’ ineptitude whilst their high salaries and bonuses continue unabated. It’s a funny old game.

Has the ICB report come up with radical and clever solutions to prevent and offset future offending by the banks. Not really. Same old same old. Ring-fence the retail operations (domestic deposits and loans) from the ‘investment’ banking (gambling on money markets, equities and funds), and beef up the capital base to afford a bigger cushion against bad-judgement lending. We’ve been there before, and surely the banks should have been capable of reaching these obvious conclusions without the need for the ICB to lay it on the line.

The causes of the banking crisis weren’t really the lack of separation of operations or the thinness of the capital base. They just exacerbated the outcomes. The causes were greed, arrogance, stupidity and egos to match the size of their bonuses. Structural ring-fencing would have played only a small part in containing them. You can warn a child not to risk all his pocket money playing poker but the problems come when he is stupid enough and cocky enough to believe he will always win. The banks became too big and too arrogant and that is a danger whatever the business but more so in banking.

Hopefully the bankers will learn some humility from the critical tone of the ICB’s report but don’t hold your breath. And don’t expect a rapid change as the banks have been given seven years to implement the proposals. Yes, seven years. And don’t expect much change at all anyway. Loopholes will be found and cracks in the ring-fence will be exploited. Bonuses for messing up a straightforward job will remain colossal. Meanwhile banks provide virtually nothing to depositors with tiny interest rates on savings and they refuse loans to good businesses needing funds to grow. They will continue to hold a privileged position because of their necessity to provide the fluidity in an economy.

The rules of banking may change but the culture and ethos may well not.


Friday, August 26, 2011

a sense of proportion

Those who choose to take part in activities of this type must understand that they do so at their peril. These are the words of Judge Gilbart when sentencing four defendants who had taken part in the riots in Manchester earlier this month. They stole from shops. They didn’t smash the windows, break in, set fire or attack police; the door was open, the goods were there, they took some. In themselves, relatively low category offences of theft and non-dwelling burglary that might normally be dealt with in a magistrates court where a maximum of 6 months custody can be given for each offence. But they were committed as part of the general disorder that we saw in cities across the country, and that’s why the sentences handed out have been surprisingly high.

Effectively, the looters and thieves have been treated as if they were part of the group action that committed the more violent and destructive crimes, and it’s a fair though unprecedented argument. Judge Gilbart went on to say I have no doubt at all that the principal purpose is that the Courts should show that outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be and must be met with sentences longer than they would be if the offences had been committed in isolation. In other words, do anything criminal related to a riot and you are a rioter. A message that could not be clearer, not only to his four defendants that day who received prison sentences of 16 months, 18 months, 24 months and 10 months (suspended), but to the public, including those who think a first time offender in a riot won’t get a prison sentence; they will now. And yet in 2009 the police gave 4,400 cautions for burglary, completely at odds with the sentencing approach now being taken. Maybe the riots have given the police a message about sentencing too; leave it to the courts.

Judge Gilbart’s remarks were later endorsed by Judge Atherton and Judge Henshell when they came to sentence rioters in in much the same vein. Each of them paid respect to the sentencing guidelines and then explained why they would go above them. But tough sentencing is one thing, irrational is another, and there have been many examples of unreasonable and unjustified heavy sentences.

One example is Ursula Nevin who accepted looted shorts from a friend but had herself been asleep at home during the riots. District Judge Qureshi sentenced her to 5 months custody. Although the media reports the sentences being imposed in magistrates courts, nearly all the riots cases have been dealt with by district judges, who are highly paid whereas magistrates are voluntary. It is doubtful that any magistrate would impose such a high sentence on Ms Nevin or would have imposed a custodial sentence on her at all. The district judges, some say, have been politically influenced (though they would refute that) and have departed wildly from sentencing guidelines in many cases, also denying bail (contrary to the Bail Act) in order to enhance the punishment. The appeal court judge was the very same Judge Gilbart and he not only discharged the custodial sentence but gave Ms Nevin a very low level of unpaid work, just 75 hours, under a community order. This was a huge reduction on the original sentence and gave a very clear message to the district judge which hopefully was gratefully received.

There will be many more appeals and it won't be until they have been processed that we will know whether or not the general levels of sentences will be raised in the future, particularly for offences related to rioting and disorder. In the meantime the riots have stopped (for now) and those who claim that prison is not a deterrent to crime must review their argument. Prison is a deterrent and always has been.

And so it is back in vogue. Is the era of decrying imprisonment as costly, purposeless, offering little in the way of rehabilitation, reparation and discouragement from further offending at an end ? Temporarily maybe but the pendulum will swing again. Meanwhile, the public is demanding and rejoicing in harsher sentences, supported by politicians, eager to jump on any winning bandwagon. Community orders are, with some exceptions, not regarded by the public as a true punishment and are roundly criticised. There is no doubt that they can be a soft touch, and the actions of the deplorable former home secretary in using two prisoners on day release to decorate her home hasn’t helped the cause of non-custodial sentences. (As a misdemeanour it pales into insignificance compared to her very suspect expenses claims to the tune of £116,000, and we won’t mention her husband.)

But many community orders are worthwhile and are effective as punishment, reduction in crime, and deterrent. They need to be improved not abandoned, and lengthening the daily tagged curfew hours available to the courts, as an alternative to prison, from 12 to 16 would be a good start.

The public wants not only tougher sentences but more clarity and consistency and at lower cost. Right, let’s do it. Stop prison sentences being cut in half; nobody likes it; sentences will be shorter but fully served. Stop the police giving cautions for burglary and other very serious offences. Stop the election of crown court trial by defendants, wasting millions each year and prolonging the time to verdict considerably, even in some fairly trivial cases. Increase magistrates’ maximum sentencing powers to 12 or even 24 months custody, cutting down the number of cases going to expensive crown courts where the sentence would be just the same. And here’s one: Stop the use of district judges; they cost a fortune and are the only part of the criminal justice system where one person is judge and jury.

The fallout from the riots will continue for some time yet; potentially thousands of cases to be heard. When the dust has settled, we need to think carefully about what kind of justice we want and keep a cool head. We must treat every case on its merits, not always just as a part of a deepening criminality in society. The more serious offenders (those who commit arson, violence, burglary, robbery, incitement to riot etc) must get very heavy sentences but over-punishing the peripheral perpetrators will not help in the end. Keep a sense of proportion.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

eight again

When is a judge not a judge ? When he trespasses heavy-footed into areas that he has no right to be in. Judge Farooq Ahmed told the convicted fraudster, illegal immigrant and previously class A drug dealer, who had been deported from the UK twice before, that the appropriate sentence for his crimes was 12 months custody. Leaving aside the fact that it was already a lenient sentence, according to sentencing guidelines, for seven counts of identity fraud, deception and false representation, the judge then did Vincent Miller a second, and even bigger, favour, by reducing it to 11 months to avoid automatic deportation proceedings.

He told Miller that “it isn’t necessary for me to pass a sentence of 12 months because a sentence of 11 months will have the same effect.” If that astounding remark were true then a 12 month sentence would never be imposed. Why not go further and argue that a 10 months sentence is much the same as 11 months, or maybe 9 months.

The judge was thinking about the fraudster’s three children (there is no wife or partner) and the ubiquitous Article 8 of the Human Rights Act which says that "everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life". Fine, respect it but don’t distort criminal justice by giving it greater weight than it merits. Leave the deportation decision to the UK Border Agency whose job it is to carry out the deportation proceedings, which do not necessarily lead to deportation. They will have the children uppermost in their minds too.

Article 8 is only 5 lines long. But it is curious how judges never seem to get as far as line 4 which says that the right does not have to be applied if not applying it would serve the prevention of crime or disorder. So people who are judged likely to re-offend should not be protected by Article 8. With Miller’s record of convictions and his persistent (and successful) attempts to enter this country illegally he has clearly waived his right.

The sentencing of any criminal can have great effect on his or her family and that should be taken into account but not to the extent of discriminating against those without families and destroying the crucial elements of the sentence i.e. punishment, deterrence, and protection of the public. Children can be disadvantaged in many ways, not just by having their dad sentenced, for example disadvantaged by unemployment in the family or by bullying at school, but those children don’t get the preferential treatment afforded to the families of offenders under the over-exposed Article 8.

And Vincent Miller knew he was putting his children at risk by repeated criminal offending, but didn’t seem to care much about them, so is he a good father anyway ? Is it so essential that he is around to bring them up, or would they be better off under alternative care ? Or was he the clever one, knowing that no matter what he does, good old Article 8 will always protect him and his children from having to leave the country they want to stay in.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

cry havoc

As the rioting subsides, for the moment anyway, the analysis of society gathers pace with a debate of largely polarised viewpoints. The leading question seems to be what has happened to the children, when did they become so lawless, how did they get to this terrible state where they smash, steal, destroy and injure without a care about authority, police, parents, or their own futures. Good question; but surely horses and stable doors ! Such concern is admirable but so late in coming. This isn’t a Summer of 2011 problem; it’s been around and growing for years.

Anyway not all the rioters, looters, arsonists, robbers, burglars and fighters that we have seen on tv over the last week are children, or youths (to give them their correct legal label), in fact the majority are not. Nevertheless there was participation of a large number of very young people and their involvement cannot always be traced to any one simplistic cause; it is more complex and the root causes of what has so unsurprisingly happened this week could be numerous and often deep seated, at least for some of them. In most cases there is no cause other than a joy of recklessness, the gain of power (however briefly), the mentality of ‘I do because I can’ and the absence of any fear of being caught, arrested, convicted, punished or even told off by a disinterested parent. If the future holds nothing to look forward to then why bother to look at all.

In a blog that is subtitled where we go wrong, there is so much material in these riots that there is a danger of overload; it is harder to write about anything we have done right. So shall we just blame everybody and everything we can think of. Let’s blame government, politicians, police, parents, schools, courts, immigration, alcohol, drugs, banks, the welfare society, human rights, cuts in public spending, the worship of celebrity, the huge gap between rich and poor, consumerism, flms and tv programmes that glamourise crime and violence, the focus on olympic games rather than on our own citizens, gang culture, racism, lack of role models, lack of discipline at home and school, liberalism, community leaders (whatever that means), mismanagement in the criminal justice system, political interference in the judiciary, the breakdown of respect for others, and (last but in no way least) selfishness and greed in their most gross and dangerous forms.

So pick a cause, any cause. Talk about it, write about it, shout about it, join an e-petition about it. You may well be right and the cause you pick is almost certainly a contributory factor, but that is the easy part; the hard part is tackling any cause and changing a society that has gone badly wrong. We cannot go back in time; what has become established behaviour, whether acceptable or not to the more traditional, has changed and the new world is an immensely challenging one and, in some ways, a very scary one. The criminality we now witness, particularly amongst youths, is here to stay unless there are changes in our society so major that it is almost impossible to imagine them happening. It is more likely we will have to adapt to a more dangerous, selfish and violent world and learn how to live with it.

We waste so much time deciding which politicians we elect, only to find there is not much difference between them. Rhetoric is their specialist subject and they can be very good at it. We have a PM who tells us that punishments for disorder will be more severe, in contradiction of the changes in sentencing that his government is now enacting. He knows that punishments for youths, under current legislation, cannot be more severe (except possibly for the current batch being processed in the light of exceptional publicity), and they probably won’t be in the future, but it is a good vote catcher. We have a Home Secretary who promised us that cuts in the police budget would never lead to violent unrest. Nice one. We have a leader of the opposition who takes every opportunity to be bland, boring and banal. They don’t know the solutions; they are so detached in their multi-millionaire world that they don’t even know the problems to solve until they are manifested explosively on the streets, and even then they don’t really know. They don’t see the reality because they are not part of it. They don’t even see the irony of stiffer sentences for looters being demanded by MPs who did not hesitate to loot from taxpayers by way of false expenses claims. As for bankers getting huge bonuses for losing the country’s money, well that would be worth a street protest in itself, peaceful of course.

In the aftermath, our political leaders are generally dismissing any link between sociological problems in our society and the riots, describing the offences committed as arising purely from criminality, which is certainly innate in our very aggressive nation and increasingly apparent amongst the young. So the argument goes that there must be severe punishment and deterrent rather than a search for, and a resolution of, other causes. It is an attractive argument because of its simplicity, not to mention the relinquishing of any blame on its advocates, but I am not entirely convinced; I think the search for other factors is worthwhile even if it ends by disproving them.

But if they are right then why didn’t they put the appropriate deterrents and resources in place. They must have known, as many did, that the inherent criminality was there, unless they admit they are out of touch. In fact they have done the opposite. We have police who give cautions for serious crimes, providing no deterrent at all, but the paperwork is a lot easier than with a court appearance.

The sight of police standing in a line and watching very serious crimes take place, with no intervention, was alarming and unbelievable and must be the wrong tactic, if tactical it was. Fire officers refusing to go to a burning building because they did not feel they were adequately protected by police was no more palatable or credible. We need a greater, not smaller, police resource and better operational leadership. We need all offenders, apart from the most minor, taken to court and dealt with under proper judicial sentencing rules, not given a ticking off by a police officer they don’t respect. The criminal justice system is not just a government department that should cut costs like any other; it is a prerequisite to be able to live in a civilised way and must be given a very high priority. Otherwise the riots will be back, sometime and somewhere, again and again. The public should be properly protected and this time that just didn’t happen.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

cyber killers

The tragic death of the talented Amy Winehouse is, justifiably, taking up much space in the media and has elicited a public sadness and regret for the premature ending of a life. At much the same time, the horrific, brutal ending of tens of innocent and mostly young lives by a crazed killer in Norway has naturally provoked a public revulsion and a deep empathy with the families and friends of the victims.

But comparing tragedies and their emotional effect on us is very difficult in that the quality and quantity of our reactions are not always rational or proportionate to the depth and awfulness of the loss. The word disaster has become so widely and mistakenly used that it has lost much of its original meaning, and we become desensitised to it.

The media ensures that disasters involving celebrities and other famous public figures are kept in our minds for a long time and continue to stimulate our feelings that they shouldn’t happen and our questions as to why they did happen and how we prevent them happening again. But there are many tragedies to those beyond the periphery of the public eye that do deserve our attention, abhorrence and anguish.

One such tragedy is the killing of Natasha MacBryde, and I use the word killing carefully. At the age of 15 she threw herself in front of a train because she was cyberbullied by a group of evil beings at her school. As if that was not vile enough they then posted nasty comments and videos about her on the internet after her death. This story has had its brief allocated time slot in the media and probably will not be put in front of us again, but it deserves at least as much coverage as the fate of Amy Winehouse and we should mourn for Natasha just as much, if not a great deal more. Her death was entirely the fault of others.

Bullies, as I have written before, come in all shapes and sizes and are a virus that attacks any school, from the best to the worst. They care nothing about the hurt and fear suffered by their victims and care nothing about the tragic consequences of their actions. In Natasha’s case they were killers and should be prosecuted as such. The headteacher and staff of the Royal Grammar School in Worcester must take some blame too for allowing this to happen on their watch and should consider whether they can be trusted to hold such responsible positions.

Tributes to Amy Winehouse will continue to be paid and that is fine, but mine is to Natasha.


Monday, June 27, 2011

no dope

A good education is such a worthwhile thing; it broadens the mind, develops the intellect, increases knowledge and skills, provides opportunities for better jobs, and prevents you from going to prison when you set up a sideline of supplying class A and B drugs.

Doctor’s son Edward Holland, BSc MSc and PhD to be, had been a cannabis user since the age of 16, and now at 24 he diversified into supplying it and offering to supply cocaine too, in fairly small amounts, making up to £200 per week for four months. Described in court by his barrister as a “high flyer” (please tell me he did see the joke in that), the judge suspended a 12 month custodial sentence because, as he put it, You are clearly a highly intelligent young man and you have a choice about the direction your life may take. You can choose to become a successful scientist with all the rewards that may bring. Or you can become a drug dealer and serve increasingly long sentences in jail.

All drug suppliers have choices so that itself doesn’t make his case any different. The difference must be that the judge thought Holland was clever enough to make the correct choice whereas other suppliers, who may be less intelligent and not as well educated, would make the wrong choice. But a spell in prison for them would increase the chances that they make the wrong choice when they are released.

The decision doesn’t stand up to logical analysis and, whilst I have no wish to see the biochemistry star go to prison, high education and intelligence cannot be a mitigation of the offence; if anything it makes it worse.

New guidelines on sentencing for drug crime have been produced by the Sentencing Council and are under consultation. The proposed new starting point for supply of even a very small quantity of cocaine is a lengthy spell in prison, even when taking into account the early guilty plea and no previous convictions. The Sentencing Council does not mention education or intelligence as reason for suspending a sentence, but it was a reasonable judgement to do so.

The unfairness is on those who will not be given that privilege but, despite not having a degree or two, might also have taken positive advantage of a second chance and changed their lives. We will never know. Suspending prison sentences is more an art than a science and needs a more consistent basis of application. Meanwhile, Edward is a very lucky young man indeed.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

wrong type of hair

A High Court judge has ruled that a school that refused to admit a boy who had a cornrow hairstyle had implemented a policy that was indirectly an act of racial discrimination because the school did not allow any exceptions, even for a family’s cultural background.

As in many legal rulings, the words (over 10,000 of them in this case) have to be read very carefully. Mr Justice Collins did not say that it was unlawful to refuse admission to the boy; just that the policy was wrong. It is hard to understand how the judge has seen it as racial discrimination, direct or indirect. By making exceptions, the school would leave itself open to accusation of discrimination, but it applied its uniform policy, that included hairstyle, to all pupils irrespective of racial origin, skin colour, creed or culture.

And it is that nebulous word ‘culture’ that is at the heart of this dispute. It can take on a variety of meanings from an established and historic national or racial tradition to a newly created practice or belief. The boy’s mum said that his hairstyle was of great importance to his cultural and racial identity. Really ? Whereas the school sees a cornrow as a badge of a gang culture that it is anxious to exclude from the school to maintain a high standard of behaviour. It also bans white boys from having skinhead cuts. No objections there, interestingly.

So what’s the problem here ? The school has a right to have a uniform policy and apply it rigorously, making it known to current and prospective parents and pupils. Those who don’t like it can go to another school. But a policy should be sensible and pragmatic; it can still try to prevent gang cultures in the school without outlawing a particular hairstyle.

The boy and his parents should have been pragmatic too; adapt to the school rule; it’s only for a few years. Claiming a cultural reason for nonconformity opens the doors to all kinds of idiosyncratic clothing and adornments that would quickly ruin the ethos of the school and its behaviour strategy. And the judge, wearing his bright red robe and long (completely unnecessary) white wig should understand that uniforms can reflect a culture too. What exceptions to their uniform do High Court judges allow ?

To escalate this trivial matter to the High Court, and possibly to a further appeal, is where we go wrong. What a waste of court time. Not every argument should become a question of human rights to be judged by expert legal minds who feel obliged to rule between standpoints that are both valid but inherently subjective. Whether or not a haircut is appropriate in a school is a matter of opinion not law, and there is where it should remain.


Friday, June 17, 2011

no room for chat

Sentencing is very simple. To all those who don’t do it. The case of Joanne Fraill is bound to elicit disparate and dogmatic views on whether a prison sentence is appropriate for inappropriate chatting. At a time when the government wants to reduce our prison population, reduce sentences for those giving early guilty pleas, and make more use of curfews and rehabilitating community orders, it may seem incongruous to send a 40 year old mum to prison for typing “dont worry about that chge no way it can stay hung for me - this is 2nd tim init - at least then yer home n dry”.

Sounds innocent enough, if you can interpret it, except that Joanne was sitting on a jury at the time and was chatting over the internet to Jamie Stewart who had just been acquitted of conspiracy to supply class A, but leaving the fate of her co-defendants in a £6million drugs trial still to be decided by Joanne and her co-jurors. During a crown court trial jurors are repeatedly warned by the judge not to dicuss the trial with anyone at all, not even family, and not to carry out internet searches on anything relating to the individuals or matters involved.

But Joanne searched for and found Jamie. When their online chat was exposed the following day, the trial had to be stopped and a potential miscarriage of justice was the outcome. The guilty chatter knew what she was doing was wrong, as evidenced by one of her remarks to Jamie: “cant get anywaone to go either no one budging pleeeeeese dont say anyhting cause Jamie they could call mmiss trial and i will get 4cked to0”.

And 4cked she was. Sentencing Joanne to 8 months immediate custody for contempt of court, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said that “jailing jurors who abuse the process was the only way to ensure the ‘continuing integrity’ of trials in the 21st century”. But is he right ?

Her offence wasn’t violent, she didn’t break in to someone’s home, she hasn’t stolen, kidnapped, committed fraud or sexual offences, nor even carried a knife. She has no previous convictions. The Lord Chancellor, aka Ken Clarke, says in his major proposals for reform of sentencing, titled Breaking the Cycle, that prison will always be the right sentence for serious and dangerous offenders. Does that include Joanne ?

Well yes it does. Not that she is a dangerous offender nor, in the round, a serious one. But this offence was serious. Very serious in its consequences. And the prison sentence is right because it is the only viable deterrent to an explosion in the criminal abuse of internet based facilities that will occur if the deterrent isn’t used. Internet chatters have to understand that they are accountable for what they do and say on the effortless global medium, just as if they were writing a letter and signing it. The protection assumed until now by the detachment afforded by the internet from the spoken, printed or handwritten word is disappearing. The internet isn’t the escape from reality that it once was.

Although she won't serve eight months, probably (and hopefully) not more than two, Joanne is a little unfortunate to have been made the example and been imprisoned to establish a precedent and a principle. Arguments over whether prison acts as a deterrent are numerous and often based on flawed studies. To a career criminal maybe it doesn't but to the ordinary and generally law abiding person, like Joanne and other chatters, it certainly does. The flouting of court orders, even on the internet, will, if it goes unchecked, bring criminal justice into suspicion, cynicism and disrepute. Judge Judge is right. It must be deterred.


Tuesday, June 07, 2011

false start

Responding to the disclosure that 55% of people who entered the first ballot for Olympics 2012 tickets didn’t get any at all, the chief executive of London 2012 looked forward to the second ballot and said with a broad and nauseating smile on his wide-eyed face "we want to make sure that people who were disappointed first time around have the best chance of getting tickets."

But he didn’t finish the sentence. The missing words at the end are “.... for events they don’t wish to see at a price they don’t wish to pay”. His evangelical expression deepened when he proudly boasted that 1 in 8 children at London schools will be given a free ticket. He really knows how to rub it in. Those children will be alive the next time the Olympics circus comes to town in this country; most of those who entered the lucky dip, with a commitment to pay hundreds or thousands of pounds to the cause, probably won’t.

The fact is the Olympics bosses have made a hash of it, and though it will never be admitted, they know it and it is written all over their faces. They set up a ticket allocation system so flawed that it beggars belief. Instead of having a mechanism by which each applicant gets tickets in proportion to the total number available and to the amount of money each was prepared to spend, they have enabled 810,000 lucky applicants to share 6,600,000 tickets, that is on average over 8 tickets per person. An average of 4 tickets for all applicants would have been much fairer.

Too many tickets have been set aside for wealthy sponsoring corporations whose suited executives won’t know too much about where they are, what sport it is or which countries are competing; talking business deals and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, savouring the atmosphere and the status of just ‘being there’. While the trusting British public were spending hours planning their applications and filling out the online forms, having been told that this was the only way to obtain tickets, websites in Germany and Denmark were selling them to anyone who asked.

The ballot winners woke up one morning to find that an arbitrary sum had been deducted from their credit or debit cards, without knowing whether it had gone to buy tickets for the 100 metres final, the handball heats, or to a fraudster who had managed to hack into their account. At a time when we are continually warned to take the utmost care over online transactions, the Olympics authorities had the bizarre idea of just taking the money without even a mention to the account holder.

So the numerous ballot losers will miss out on the crush at the Olympic Park, the smell of expensive ‘gourmet’ fast food, the tedious security checks, the long queue for a train home and the people directly in front blocking their view by standing up to get another beer just as Jessica Ennis crosses the finishing line. They will console themselves by spending the money they have saved on a new, large screen, high definition TV that will provide them with the best seat in the house, and still have change. Don’t worry we’ll get the World Cup in we won’t.

Sebastian Coe frequently reminds us that the organisation of the Games is a marathon and not a sprint but for nearly 1 million empty-handed, ticketless sports lovers, it’s a false start and they have been disqualified.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

licence to steal

The human rights card is becoming torn and tattered by frequent use and yet again it has been played in a case where it has no right to take part.

A single parent of five children received 4 months custody for burglary and another 4 months for dangerous driving. After serving 1 month in prison he has been released on appeal because the judges reckoned that his kids had been deprived of family life under Article 8 of you know what, and the criminal should go home and look after them. The judges have again got it wrong and Article 8 does not apply when someone has been sentenced in accordance with the law. But, leaving that aside, common sense tells us that the children would not have been worse off without him for a while longer.

Burglary is a vile crime, particularly when it is of a home. Though treated as a mixture of trespass and theft, it is more akin to violent assault, or even further along the scale towards rape, as it can cause the victims great harm and suffering for the rest of their lives. In this case it was an almost comic burglary of a rugby club, stealing only some chocolate, then driving off, clipping a police car, driving through red lights, and ending up down a cul de sac where dad of the year was arrested. Not showing much promise for a new career in crime. But the intent was there and the sentence was by no means excessive, to deter him and others from further attempts. Once the propensity to burgle is established, the target soon changes to homes where the crime becomes so much more serious.

Those who want to adopt or foster children undergo stringent examination to assess their suitability. But a criminal is taken out of prison so that he can care for children that he has already shown he does not care enough about, leaving them whilst he went off for the night to steal. He didn’t have much regard for their welfare or safety and he knew the risk he was taking if he got caught.

His children have the right not to be influenced by a criminal and would have managed without him while he served his full, but brief, prison sentence. A lot of children suffer much worse things as a result of what their parents do. Children can't choose their parents or their parents' behaviour. They play the cards they are dealt and we can't keep excusing the parents because of what might happen to the children as a result of their actions.

His mitigation for the crime was a low income, which would not have been given much weight by the sentencing judge, and yet he fathered five children, showing that his paucity of planning capability was not restricted to his criminal activities.

The absurdity of this case was compounded when the appeal judges ordered the sentence to be suspended. Oh right. So now if he commits another offence he will go to prison. Wait a moment; he's got children; so he won't. As he well knows. What, Justices, was the point of that ?

Finally, they told the court that criminals should not think that children can provide some sort of licence to commit offences with impunity.

Children don’t provide that licence. The appeal court just did.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

publish and be damned

Crime will increase as police numbers fall, unemployment rises, drug addiction climbs, courts close, and the government meddles without clear rationale in the criminal justice system to the confusion of lawyers, magistrates, judges and court users. Prison numbers will be forcibly reduced to be replaced by community sentences that are not adequately funded, resourced or managed. Grossly overpaid judges and barristers will waste their time and taxpayers' money interpreting, often erroneously, the semantics of human rights legislation with the outcome of preventing the deportation of foreign national criminals under the guise of protecting their hastily contrived relationships, rather than dealing speedily and justly with the enforcement of criminal law. To make things even worse the wigs and gowns have infected us with an epidemic of super-injunctions.

The ludicrously wealthy perpetrators of whatever titillating but ultimately oh so tedious misdemeanours they are guilty of, run with their cheque books to judges to grant them injunctions that will protect their names from being mentioned by newspapers that will print almost anything to generate greater readership. Their reason is to protect their families, showing a barely noticed touch of irony in that it is their actions that may have harmed their loved ones in the first place.

But the result is self-defeating because, when a scandalous story does then get into the public domain, it will now be assumed to be more plausible in the aftermath of a judge removing or not granting an injunction, deciding that the private life of the celebrity is in the public interest (often confused with being of interest to the public). Meanwhile the online scavengers will have disseminated their judgement of the identity of the guilty party, sometimes getting the name right and sometimes wrong, but they don’t care. Morality and the internet are by and large mutually exclusive. Politeness and integrity don't get a look in.

And so are created the victims of this ridiculous process, who have to fight to repair their reputations that have become damaged by false accusation. They will recover of course; but whilst they have been under the media microscope the attention has been diverted away from real victims.

Victims of crime, victims of poor health, victims of the economic collapse, victims of the incompetence and greed of bankers, and victims of nature’s disasters are ignored whilst the chit chat is all about super-injunctions to protect the super-egos of the super-rich.

So bring down the wall. Let the newspapers publish and let the public become bored senseless with the genre of celebrity relationships, as each story blows hot for a few days and then cold forever, whilst more and more real crimes of real public interest go undetected and unpunished. Let the media suffer the financial losses from the legal action taken by those they have wrongly accused until they get the message that they should be presenting us with news of a much more important and much more frightening kind. Let them all grow up.


Thursday, May 05, 2011

no AV no vote

I almost smiled at the irony that my vote for a change in the voting system was very likely my last ever vote. Of course the Alternative Vote won’t happen because the majority of the electorate have not heard the overwhelmingly powerful arguments for it. A vacuous debate dominated by personality politics, gross lies from cabinet members and passionless, ineffectual rhetoric from an ineffectual Labour leader who could not bring his party to a united voice.

Many have voted NO for irrelevant and superficial reasons, the chief of which is to punish the Liberal Democrats and, in particular, Nick Clegg for their failure to implement some of the policies of their 2010 manifesto. You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things. As a junior coalition partner they never stood a chance of doing so. Their mistake was not to make that clear.

So, in the referendum and the local elections, they will take a bullet for what the Conservatives have done. What a nonsense. A much superior voting system has been sacrificed to give a few Libdems a really lousy few days. The long running, honourable campaign to improve our elections and give more voters some little power over those who want to govern, whether by way of PR or AV, has ended; not with a bang but a whimper. Democracy has scored an own goal and lost.

FPTP will be with us for the rest of our lives. As will safe seats, minority governments, arrogant and lazy MPs, pointless childish exchanges in parliament and the restriction of meaningful and significant votes to a tiny minority of the electorate. No change.

Why bother to vote under such a primitive system ? More and more, the refusal to add to the turnout percentage or to mark frustration with an intelligently spoilt ballot paper look like the stronger statements.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

truth or dave

Nick Clegg has come out. Tired of taking the punches that should have been aimed elsewhere, angry at the manipulative and false behaviour of his PM, he has declared himself no longer a puppet of the conservative government but the leader of their coalition partners, and a leader to be reckoned with. It’s about time. His credibility was almost at rock bottom and his party facing relegation to the league of minority no-hopers.

Reminiscent of Popeye the Sailor Man opening a can of spinach and affirming “That's all I can stands because I can't stands no more", he has flexed his political muscle and stood up to the intimidation that he has been subjected to by just about everyone in the blue corner.

Finally he has lost patience with the myths, deceit and lies about AV that are being peddled by the Prime Minister and some of the members of what Clegg decribes as a 'right-wing clique' that includes Baroness Warsi, the unelected pseudo-minister for nothing much who said that AV rewards extremism. She knows it doesn’t. So the party which incomprehensibly she chairs is sharing the NO platform with the only other parties opposed to the change, namely the extremist BNP and Communist Party. Great choice, Baroness.

Cameron himself has said that AV will demand expensive voting machines; a deliberate pretence to an electorate he knows wants visible signs of reduction in unnecessary public spending. But surely we are not as stupid as he thinks. AV is the system that elected Cameron to lead the conservative party; it worked well for him but he thinks our collective intellect is not high enough to use it wisely.

I listed in my previous post some of the other myths about AV and ways in which the NO campaign is based on untruths that are angering not only Nick Clegg but also all those who know that AV is a better and fairer electoral system that will make politicians work harder and be more reasonable and truthful. It is badly needed.

Nick Clegg is doing the right thing at the right time. Maybe this Easter weekend aptly marks the beginnings of the resurrection of the Liberal Democrat Party.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

just say yes

If the election of the leader of the Conservative party in 2005 had been on a First Past the Post system then it would have been won by David Davis with Cameron coming in second. But the party realised that it was simply wrong that someone should be elected with support from only 31% of the voters, so they used the AV system and after the second round our current PM was in the lead with 46%. The third and final round pushed him to 68% with Davis still claiming only just over 30% of the votes.

In other words Davis had virtually no support at all from anyone who preferred another candidate whereas Cameron had the secondary support of the fans of the eliminated candidates, namely Liam Fox and Ken Clarke. The majority of voters said they were happy to have Cameron elected (albeit not for all of them as their first choice) but, apart from a small minority, certainly did not want Davis to become their leader.

The Labour party also uses the Alternative Vote system to elect its leader, allowing Ed Miliband to be in charge even though his brother whatshisname was in the lead after the first round and so would have won under FPTP.

So it’s a good system for the parties, who seem to understand it perfectly well and like it, but many of their MPs don’t think it’s right for inferior people like us to use when we elect them to parliament. Why ? Because it will make them work harder to gain our support. Because their safe seats may become more contested and they will have to invest time and effort in defending them. Because they don’t want to change a system that provided them with a gateway to their high salaries, privileges, incredibly generous pensions and dubious expense claims. Because they are scared of AV. Because they know it will give voters more choice and more power.

They know it is a better system than the one we have but the majority of MPs will never miss an opportunity for demonstrating hypocrisy and this is a golden one. At the last election, only a third of them had the support of the majority of their electorate; only 1.6% of voters played a decisive part in the election.

There are many myths about Alternative Vote which are dispelled by the YES to AV Campaign.

The No Campaign headlines its case with flawed arguments.

They claim that FPTP delivers clear outcomes. Really ? In 2010 for example ?

They say AV is complicated. It isn't. The No Campaign insults our intelligence. The mechanism for counting votes is simple and easily understandable. But those not interested don’t need to know how it works; they just need to know that they can (if they want to) mark one candidate as their first choice, another as second choice and so on. Or just put a cross against one candidate as they do now. Nobody has to use the extra flexibility that AV offers. It’s a choice.

They say AV is expensive. Of course it isn’t. It requires paper, pencils, and people counting. Just the same resources as our current system.

They say AV is unfair. A laughable accusation. It’s a lot fairer than FPTP. The leaders of the two main parties thought it was perfectly fair when it was used to elect them, though Cameron is now firmly against it and Miliband is keeping cowardly quiet.

They say AV gives some people more votes than others. That's the daftest of all the feeble criticisms made by the FPTP supporters. If it were true then when they count the votes the total cast would be more than the number of people in the electorate. It won't be. Under AV, everyone will have one vote but with more choice. It is the current system that is unfair, giving voters in marginal constituencies much greater power than those in safe seats.

The hollow No Campaign is based on their slogan that “It should be voters that decide who the best candidate is, not the voting system.” Absurd, meaningless, inane nonsense. A vote of No to AV is a vote for No to Common Sense.

AV will give us all more power to make MPs work harder to gain our support and to maintain it. AV will enable Strong Voters, Accountable Politicians, Popular Government and Mature Politics.

Everybody should take this opportunity to vote for AV. Make the change. For the vast majority of us it really is the chance of a lifetime.