Tuesday, November 30, 2010

funny old game

In just a couple of days from now, the executive committee of football’s world governing body, FIFA, will decide whether or not England will host the 2018 world cup. A BBC Panorama programme, shown yesterday, accused three members of that committee of taking very large bribes some years ago. It also showed further evidence supporting their allegations that corruption, deceit and cover-up spread deeper than just those three men and landed on several others, including former and current presidents of the organisation.

The BBC have naturally been criticised for the timing of the programme in that the critics say it might have an adverse effect on England’s bid because, despite its technical merit, some of the FIFA power players will vote against it as a protest against themselves and their colleagues being caught out. The critics' flawed logic then is that we should not expose corruption in the fear that it might encourage others to act corruptly.

So should the programme have been postponed until after the hosting decision has been made ? That would be worse. If England win it then the BBC would be accused of concealing the truth; if England lose then it will be accused of ‘sour grapes’ and the strength of its allegations would be diluted.

The English FA eagerly joined the critics, stating that the BBC was 'raking over historical allegations which are not relevant to the current bidding process'. That’s fine then; if the allegations are not relevant to our bid then they should not prejudice it. Or perhaps the FA has a nasty feeling that they will prejudice it and, if so, the FA should clearly explain why. Which members of FIFA does the FA think will vote against our bid solely because they don’t like the accusations ?

If we are selected as 2018 hosts then we will be subject to FIFA stipulations that we change our immigration visa rules and give tax exemptions to FIFA and their chosen sponsors; laws that apply to the rest of us will be waived for individuals and organisations named by FIFA. The Dutch (who are also co-bidding with Belgium though without much hope) think that, far from being a money spinner, hosting the tournament would lose the country about €150m.

So the England bid remains in place, awaiting judgement, whilst the bid team, the FA, the government and all other critics of the BBC turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the highly suspect behaviour of FIFA and its individual executive members. Do we see the success of our bid as more important than the integrity of the way world football is run ? Are we putting self-interest before responsibility, honesty and accountability ? Isn’t that what the FIFA hierarchy is accused of doing?

The final result is that, as long as we don’t want to offend FIFA by voicing concerns over the substantial evidence of corruption in their organisation and demanding an independent enquiry, then they will do exactly what they like and how they like because no country that craves their favour will challenge them. The upside is that we will host the world cup every 50 years or so. Maybe.


Monday, November 29, 2010

away from home

Next year, a pilot scheme will start that will give police the power to ban a person suspected of domestic violence (DV) from their home for 48 hours, which can be extended later by a court for up to 28 days. Many will say “quite right too” but note the word ‘suspected’. No conviction, and not even enough evidence to lay a charge, will be required. Police could be sentencing, albeit temporarily, on the basis of nothing more than an accusation.

DV takes many forms, including verbal as well as physical abuse, and threatening behaviour. It is a terrible breach of trust and, although possibly decreasing in numbers of incidents, is widespread in our society, very often fuelled by alcohol. We need to act to curb it and act quickly, efficiently and fairly. But giving police the authority to make judgements as to guilt, without the full evidence that would be presented to a court, is deeply flawed and potentially very dangerous. Not all accusers are honest and there are many motives for making false accusations. Even when an incident has occurred, the new measures could exacerbate a situation that could readily have been calmed.

The courts see many DV cases, of which not all are men accused of assaulting a woman. The Mankind Initiative states that a third of all victims of domestic abuse are male. Other organisations say that often men who claim to be victims are in fact perpetrators; certainly the typical assault by a woman on a man is much less severe than vice versa. Many cases involve a son accused of assault on his mother; in many there is a parent accused of violence on a son or daughter. Victims are often grandfathers, grandmothers, brothers and sisters; in fact anybody who shares a home.

Many cases collapse because the victim is too frightened to give evidence. The decisions the court has to make are difficult and far reaching, sometimes determined by only the relative credibility of the witnesses. A mistake can be very destructive, which is why cases must be proved to a very high standard, considering all evidence. The police can't do that.

Yes, of course, preventing further harm to a victim must be paramount but the police making on the spot and ill considered judgements too early in the legal process is a thin end of an alarming wedge.


Friday, November 19, 2010

could do better

In July 2008, a police sergeant was caught on CCTV dragging a 59 year old woman across the floor before literally throwing her into a cell. She tried to walk out of it but was picked up and thrown back in. She suffered cuts and bruises to her face and says her vision is impaired, probably requiring an operation.

At the trial, he was convicted of ABH and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment. The district judge said 'right-thinking members of the public will be appalled and totally saddened by your actions as a police officer' .

The Assistant Chief Constable said ‘the force has formally apologised to the injured lady for the assault she suffered while in our care.’ He added 'there is no place in Wiltshire Police for an officer like this. I fully support the comments of the judge and the sentence that he has handed down today. The officer let the public down, he let his colleagues down and he has let himself down. He was a disgrace.'

The officer, who also apologised for his actions, was released after 6 days, pending appeal.

Despite the apologies from the police, recognising the sergeant’s guilt, the crown court judge, Mr Bean (it really is his name), presiding with 2 magistrates, proved he is not one of the DJ’s 'right-thinking people', by quashing the conviction.

The CCTV evidence was the same, and identity of the offender was not in dispute, so what could have been the basis for the reversal of the judicial decision ? The police effectively admitted that the force used by the sergeant was not reasonable and proportionate, a view endorsed by the DJ, but the appeal court clearly thought it was. Mr Bean said the officer “could have done things better”. Well, that’s true.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

a hoax IEDiot

Early one morning in October, a Ministry of Justice employee made 2 hoax phone calls at work claiming there was a bomb in the building. His reason for doing so was that he wanted a day off work and had run out of holiday entitlement. He was easily identified because he used his security swipe card to enter the areas where the calls were made, and was the only one doing so around the times of the calls. If there had been CCTV he would probably have waved to it. Hardly the high quality of intellect that we would like to see working at the MOJ. I assume he is looking for a new job, but it clearly won’t be at MI5.

The judge imposed a community order with supervision and unpaid work and spared him custody because he was detected so quickly and nobody in the building was placed in fear. Fair enough. At least it would be if he had not been under a 9 month suspended prison sentence for burglary committed in August 2009. MOJ must have known about that when they employed him.

The law says the suspended sentence should be activated, i.e. prison, unless it would be unjust to do so. I can’t see the injustice although I have no strong feeling that custody was right for him or in the public interest. But it doesn’t send out a very clear message to other would-be hoaxers or those on suspended sentences.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

not just a protest

On Armistice day, 11 November, as the country was starting its 2 minute silence in memory of those who died in wars, a group called Muslims Against Crusades chanted ‘British soldiers burn in hell’, burned a large poppy, shouted ‘British troops are murderers', and held banners which read ‘Islam will dominate’ and ‘Our dead are in paradise, your dead are in hell’.

Their actions have been termed a protest, but against what exactly? They are closer to the broad definition of treason, which though an outdated law in need of updating, is still in existence.

Two members of the group of about 30 have been arrested on public order charges. Depending on which section of the law they are charged with, the sentence could be very minor.

Contrast this with the case of the man who jokingly and foolishly made a threat on Twitter about blowing up an airport. Everybody knows it was just hyperbole but he now has a criminal conviction which has already disadvantaged him.

Laws are made and upheld in the public interest. Which of these two behaviours, the tweeter or the protesters, will invoke the greater disgust amongst most people ?


Friday, November 12, 2010

is that a joke

There is an already huge and still growing noise and fury amongst twitter users about one of their soul mates who has lost his appeal against a conviction he received in May for sending a menacing electronic communication, which was a tweet threatening “to blow the airport sky high”. He was upset that Doncaster airport had closed because of bad weather.

It was just a flippant and pretty stupid remark that he says was meant as a joke (did anyone actually laugh at it?) and of course we all know (including police, CPS and courts) that he had no plan to do anything to the Robin Hood airport or any other. There have before been numerous tweets of similar content and style about all sorts of things that have upset the authors.

Now of course there are thousands of tweeters repeating the airport threat, and similar ones, to demonstrate their view that the law is foolish and inapplicable to internet based humour, and the legal authorities neither understand nor concede the right to make a joke on this modern medium. Predictably, some have quoted the enduring Dickens line “the law is an ass”, others have made much stronger and generally abusive or obscene statements. An understandable but not very helpful reaction. The tweeters cannot of course all be arrested and prosecuted; though some might. A number of famous people have rallied to the support of the guilty party and master tweeter Stephen Fry has offered to pay the fine of about £3,000.

So was the appeal court right ? Well, actually (at the risk of being seen as a traitor to all tweeters and bloggers) technically yes it was, but only because the legal process had got that far. Under the law, a threat is a threat, however unlikely it is to be actioned. There was no good reason offered by the defence as to why the verdict should be overturned. Does anyone think that defending a threat by saying it was a joke is new to the courts ? I assure you it isn’t.

The ramifications of a successful appeal would be hundreds of thousands of threats made on various phone and internet based communications mechanisms, some of which would be real and yet submerged under a sea of daft, supercilious and unfunny jokes. That can’t be allowed to happen, although if there is a High Court appeal then there is a fair chance of success, but it would have to be followed by a change in the law to prevent the problem of mass threats made over the internet (however humourous they are intended to be.

The focus on the appeal court decision is misplaced and the twittering has made its point and should now stop. The mistake was made at the trial when it became clear there was no 'mens rea' or intent. A further mistake was to have a district judge preside at the trial rather than a tribunal of magistrates who are more a part of the modern internet community and would have looked beyond the narrow semantics of the law and applied common sense. The words were certainly threatening but, importantly, in its context, the message was not. It could have been that simple, and should have been.

Alternatively, the perpetrator might have been advised to plead guilty and would probably have got away with a conditional discharge.

The final outcome may be a good, serious and even menacing message for the future : tweeters and bloggers need to be more careful.


pitch punch

In a match against Blackburn on Wednesday, the Newcastle United player Joey Barton suddenly punched Blackburn’s Pedersen hard in the midriff without any significant provocation. He then tried to fool the referee that he was only giving a friendly pat. Barton, who is a serial offender both on and off the pitch, later apologised and was banned for 3 matches. He said he has been working hard to keep that side of his game under control. If punching is a part of his game as a professional footballer then the football authorities should be wondering if Joey is entitled to play at all. In 2008 he was sent to prison for 6 months for assault. Imagine that he had thrown a punch during a game whilst on licence from prison; would he have been recalled to custody?


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

no hiding place

The Supreme Court has ruled that 3 former MPs, who are accused of dishonestly claiming expenses that they were not entitled to, should face criminal charges at a Crown Court and not be allowed the much cosier option they wanted, which was to have their cases judged by their mates in Parliament.

If they are innocent, why would they be so against appearing at a proper criminal court? Do they not trust the country's criminal justice system? Did they say so when they were MPs? I don't think so.

Could it be that they think that by hiding under Parliamentary Privilege (which the Supreme court decided does not extend to criminal dishonesty) they would get a happy ending irrespective of their guilt or otherwise?

They shouldn't be too worried; convictions in high profile cases of theft by false accounting are not always achieved by the CPS. But we shall see. In the meantime, they are on unconditional bail; although one condition may have been considered i.e. not to continue to live the good life at the taxpayer's expense.


waving goodbye to books

The juxtaposition of two newspaper articles on the same page today left me with a slightly disconcerting feeling.
One was the story of people queuing for 24 hours to buy a new computer games controller which has no console and works by the players waving their arms around. Current stocks of the gadget are expected to be sold out by the end of the week.
The second article was the forecast that the promised cuts in public expenditure will lead to the closure of several hundred libraries throughout the country, over 100 of them in London alone.


Tuesday, November 09, 2010

voice is off

A teacher has been given £156,000 by the London Borough of Hillingdon in compensation for damage to her vocal chords caused by having to raise her voice. Noisy class of children ? Not unusual. But it wasn’t the class she was teaching that was the problem; Mrs W worked at an Adult Education Centre. The noise came from a playground nearby (yes with children in it) but only at playtimes. She took a year off to receive treatment but then went back to teach the same class in the same room near the same playground. Was that not a little foolish? Three months later her voice worsened again and she had to stop, which is very sad. She deserves sympathy for the problems with her voice, but not much for returning to where she knew the problems would be exacerbated. There must be other places she could have taught. Hopefully the council's gift of £150k will ease the discomfort.


Monday, November 08, 2010

dissed honourable

Phil Woolas was an immigration minister in the last Labour government (don’t worry if you hadn’t heard of him, it doesn't matter now). At the general election in May he beat the Liberal Democrat candidate by 103 votes. But in his election campaign he told a number of lies about his rival; nothing new there – politicians throughout history have thrived on being economic with the truth about each other, and generally just laugh it off (usually thinking that well it could have been worse).

Not when you lose by just 103 votes. The vanquished libdem had no intention of playing the grin-and-bear-it game, so he took Mr W to an election court (the first for 99 years) where he got his revenge with the judicial ruling that the former minister of state had indeed told lies. So he is out of parliament, cannot stand for election for 3 years and the May result is declared void leaving the constituency without an MP. Who can possibly say that justice has not been done?

Even Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman condemned the guilty man, saying that it was unacceptable to tell lies during an election campaign (stop laughing), and promising that he would have no future in the party even if he wins his appeal against the court’s decision.

And suddenly there is a backlash. Politicians love a backlash and being branded by a court a liar and a deceiver has given the disgraced ex-MP a street cred beyond his dreams. Labour MPs have turned on their deputy leader, calling her a disgrace (but not him), suggesting she resigns and saying she “has gone too far”. Pots calling the kettle black. Meanwhile Mr W has become a kind of anti-hero amongst his former honourable friends, and they are queuing up to pledge him money to fund his appeal. If he were also wearing a tag around his ankle and was under an ASBO, he would probably have received a rousing chorus of "for he’s a jolly good fellow".


Sunday, November 07, 2010

health care less

The fifth enquiry into what happened at Stafford Hospital between 2005 and 2008 starts tomorrow. The previous four achieved very little and, even though this one is at last public, nobody is raising hopes too high that it will be much different, apart from pointing some blame at former management and concluding that the NHS must do better in the future. It is being led by the man who chaired the first and fourth inquiries, which immediately begs the question as to whether a completely new face would be better.

It has taken too long to get to this stage, mainly because the Labour government refused to have a public inquiry, and good advice would be not to hold your breath for a just outcome. Nobody disputes that there were hundreds of avoidable deaths and that patients were left lying dirty, untreated and uncared for. Others were mis-diagnosed and discharged with fatal consequences.

Everybody who uses the NHS should be alarmed and demand that the truth is finally told. It will be unsatisfactory if the fingers are pointed at just a few people, probably managers and administrators. Every member of staff who dealt with patients must have seen and contributed to what was going on and all of them, including the most senior doctors, consultants, and nurses share the guilt.

One of the excuses already stated, and there will be more, is that they were too focused on reaching their targets and so ignored other duties. What perversity is it that results in the setting of targets for a hospital that are mutually exclusive to basic patient care and proper medical treatment? Keep an eye on this inquiry; a whitewash would be bad news for all of us.


Saturday, November 06, 2010

off the hook

Abu Hamza (usually subtitled Radical Muslim Cleric) has won his appeal against the government’s attempt to take away his British passport. The process to relieve him of Britishness started in 2003, but then later Egypt sneakily said they would remove his Egyptian nationality too. Even though there is no substantial evidence that Egypt have yet done that, our Special Immigration Appeals Commission felt it would be unfair to leave Hamza ‘stateless’.
So Hamza, who is serving a prison sentence for inciting murder and racial hatred (including encouraging terrorist bombers) remains British. In 2008 the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith ratified a court’s decision to allow his extradition to the US, which of course hasn’t happened yet and probably won’t. The current Home Sec and the PM are said to be extremely disappointed by the appeal decision, but will do nothing about it.


Friday, November 05, 2010

released into custody

A man aged 20 is in court because he has breached a condition of his bail. He is accused of a serious assault, whilst extremely drunk of course, on his ex-girlfriend and is awaiting trial at crown court. He was arrested and taken into custody because he defied the court’s orders by continuing to send her text messages using two mobile phones. Seemingly intelligent, he was this year offered a place on a university course, but he clearly has mental health issues, worsened by the suicide of his father.

He is escorted by security officers into court from the cells, his mother very tearful in the public gallery, and fears he will be kept in custody until his trial. But the magistrates judge that he is not a danger to the alleged victim and, mindful of the principles of the Bail Act, decide to release him on bail to his mother’s home but with stringent conditions.

His and his mother’s relief is cut short when the crown prosecutor, as is his right, lodges an appeal against bail. This means that the young man must remain in custody for 2 days before appearing in front of a crown court judge. He is not a convicted criminal and even a short while in prison may be very damaging to him. But 2 days, whilst disappointing, is maybe not so terrible; he did after all breach his bail conditions.

However, there is a snag; today is Friday and so the 2 days becomes 4 days because, unlike legal professionals in the private sector, a judge would not be available to work at the weekend for the half an hour or so that it would take to hear the case. When a person’s liberty is at stake, and in a climate of high prison numbers and reductions in the criminal justice budget, is such inflexibility any longer acceptable ?


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

voting with conviction

It is some years since the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that we should allow prisoners to vote.  The killer who played a major part in it is here.

Our government has tried to fight the ruling but it now seems it will give in, at least partly, not least to save having to award compensation to those in prison at the time of elections; those who must have suffered terribly from the loss of their basic human right of putting a cross against the name of a politician about whom they probably knew nothing  and cared even less.

It is slightly ironic that we have to worry so much about the human rights of a person who did not consider the human rights of the victims at the time of the crime and indeed may have committed inhuman acts, but then some rights are wrong.  It is likely that restrictions will be imposed, so that inmates who have committed the most serious crimes will still be denied their vote.

Is Britain the only guilty party ?  Well, no. There are plenty of European countries that don't allow prisoners to vote, some continuing the ban even after they have left prison; others that have such severe restrictions that in practice most prisoners are unable to vote.  And they will most likely continue as they are now. But when ECHR says jump we jump, eventually.  And jump we will.  Some politicians will be delighted; those who are prone to fiddling their expenses will be confident of gaining the support of their fellow criminals.