Category Archives: justice
Once regarded as an exemplar of decency and civilised living, parents in suburbs of Britain’s capital now fear for the lives of their children going out to meet their peers or even popping down to the nearest corner shop.
Week after week, the stabbings continue. Violent death stalks the young of our cities like a bacillus ready to strike at random. It is amazing that we have stood back and watched this wretched tide of misery rise with almost a detached equanimity. But something happened a few days ago which seemed to shake us out of our torpor. Last week, in quick succession, two seventeen dear old white children – a girl and a boy – died.
It is a terrible thing to suggest, but I believe society gave every impression of not wanting to over-exercise its concerns because the killings have very largely been confined to the non-white community. It was black on black, and mainly part of a gang culture which had developed. How mortifying that must seem to the families of all those other kids who have died to hear the alarm bells suddenly ring and note the attention which the two recent deaths have attracted. Were their children not as worthy of equal attention?
I do not think it fanciful to suggest that if this epidemic of stabbings were happening to white children, the army would be on the streets by now.
There was an echo in all this of the working class public’s justified rage at the efforts and astronomic sums dedicated to the search for the high profile and professional class’s child, Madeline McCann. Were their children not also going missing? Why was Madeline so special? And where was the fairness in a system that only took notice and opened its purse-strings when it happened to the favoured ones in society.
Now that the wider public have finally woken up to what is happening in its cities, we have to pose the question: what is to be done? First, we have to identify the drivers of knife crime. There is no single cause – there seldom ever is – but in my book, lack of prospects must feature highly. Any youngster not benefiting from a stable family life, a decent education and challenging/enjoyable extracurricular activities is fodder for the gang leaders.
No single factor contributes more to a youngster going off the rails than the lack of a father figure in family life. And no community in the country suffers more from this of this than people of Caribbean ethnicity. Sadly, people in this community are the very ones hardest hit by the killings.
If you do not accept this argument about the importance of a father figure, ask yourself this question: how many Jewish mothers are left to get on with it because papa has done a runner? And when was the last time you heard of a Jewish boy being arraigned in court for a knifing, or indeed for any anti-social activity? That is because family life is so cohesive and all-embracing. You could almost say suffocating. The sheer shame of letting down not just your family but your community is enough.
When there is a father figure, why doesn’t dad do his own Stop and Search before his boy steps out on to the street? I know that if I lived in one of the affected areas, I couldn’t live with the thought that my boy might be armed and dangerous. I would have to satisfy myself.
Then there is the matter of policing the streets. If a cast iron assurance were to be extracted from every one of the forty-three constabularies in England and Wales that those twenty thousand cuts in police numbers would be reinstated on condition that every last one went into front line service, we could expect something quite dramatic. Even the peddling of drugs would take a severe hammering. The new officers swamping the streets would come to be seen as the nation’s protectors. They could be expected in their role to accumulate from a grateful populace veritable mountains of evidence as to where the baddies were hanging out. When arrests came, they should be processed in double quick time instead of the hours each arraignment presently takes. That in itself puts a lot of officers off making arrests.
Then we must reinstate the youth clubs and all the related facilities, which were so ubiquitous in former times. When a young person at a loose end leaves the house knowing that his mates are just down the road at the youth club, rather than hanging about on the street corner, he is much less likely to see someone he can pick a fight with to impress his peers.
Of course, so much of the downward spiral begins with school exclusions. While a disruptive pupil cannot be allowed to erode the life chances of his classmates, equally he must not feel that society has washed its hands of him, like in so many cases the father has. Funds must be made available to schools to manage such pupils in a positive and inclusive way. Being chucked out of school and bumping into classmates on the streets later is almost certain to foster a burning resentment that can only lead to trouble, as well as humiliation, for the one that society regarded as a reject. If he cannot gain acceptance anywhere, he will seek it from the last redoubt of what we unkindly regard as the loser: the gang. There he will set about burnishing his credentials by doing something dramatic. A killing in that world would do very nicely. One way or another, a young person will seek the respect of their peers, even if has to be gained at the point of a knife.
What is needed on the part of society is an intelligent and proactive response to all the issues. Compassion for what has gone wrong in the lives of the perpetrators should lie at the heart of it.
How extraordinary that plod, in pursuit of what he thought was criminality, obtained a search warrant to raid and look for clues in the flat of the grandmother of the littler brain tumour boy who had been carted off to a Spanish hospital where he lay all alone with a policeman at his door.
If there was criminality at work it is that of the British and Spanish states in sanctioning the separation of a desperately ill five-year-old from the only people in a position to provide comfort and love. While his siblings, too, were included in the no contact ban his parents languished in a Spanish gaol three hundred miles away in Madrid whence they were whisked from Malaga at dead of night.
Sounds like a modern day horror story, doesn’t it? But this is the reality when a heavy-handed, insensitive, all-powerful state apparatus gets to work when it believes its aims are being thwarted. Just think for a moment. Here is a five-year-old child in the grip of a life-threatening condition who has never for a moment been without the comfort of his loving family. Suddenly they are ripped apart and he is adrift in a world of foreign voices which he does not understand. What is he to make of it except to feel blind terror and abandonment? This, in my view, is where the true criminality lies.
As for his grandmother’s flat, how very incredible – and stupid, I might add – that plod should think he had a good chance of coming upon incriminating evidence there. What this case illustrates so perfectly is the excessive use of state power and the mindless, blundering way it often goes about exercising that power. We saw it in action with Cliff Richard recently. In the process grieves and sometimes irreparable damage can be done. Which of us can forget that dawn descent on a Scottish island in 1991 when nine children were taken into care on a false abuse premise (satanic rites were mentioned) and kept separated from their parents for years, in one case five?
With regard to today’s Hampshire couple, it looks very much as though no law was broken. The parents had custody of the child and had a perfect right to take him back into their care – just as that daughter recently was minded to remove her father from the unhappiness of a care home. What does come across in all this is the arrogance of a medical profession furious that its judgement should be called into questioned and, even worse, defied. For long years it has enjoyed operating in an unquestioning world of miasma in which the patient often has little understanding of what is going on and feels compelled to bow to their expertise and superior intellect.
But now an enormously valuable communications tool has come to the patient’s rescue – the Internet – and they don’t like it. Patients can now consult world-renowned, leading authorities in the field and often find that they have been misdiagnosed or that there are other solutions to their problems out there. In other words, for the first time in history the patient has been empowered. It is no longer possible to bamboozle him in quite the way they had grown accustomed. Now the frustrated medics, who see themselves as authority figures, turn to another arm of the oppressive state – the police – who are only too respectfully eager to spring into action on their behalf. They, in turn, turn to another arm – the judiciary – who tell them to involve another arm – the town hall who can get a custody order from one of its judges who will then get yet another arm – the Crown Prosecution Service – to issue a European Arrest Warrant.
What chance does the little man have in the face of such an accumulation of state power? Only a free press – which that same power would dearly like to muzzle – can cause an outraged public, whose vote the man at the top will shortly need in the coming election, stand a chance of getting him to call off the hounds.
Thankfully common sense and human kindness have finally prevailed and these terrible events have now been resolved. We must hope now that the little boy wins through and is able once again to regain health and happiness.
As a country which abhors state sponsored killing and the grisly process of snuffing out a human life, I find it perplexing and distressing that the British Government will not lift a finger to save a British grandmother facing death by firing squad in Indonesia. I will not get into the details (she was a drugs mule) of why she finds herself in her present situation. But she acknowledges her foolishness and offered full co-operation to the authorities.
As for the men who put her up to it, they have received light sentences. Many aspects of the trial were deeply flawed so that any examination will show that a death sentence was totally uncalled for. An appeal funded by legal aid would almost certainly highlight this, but our own authorities will not grant this.
They are more than willing to provide legal aid to umpteen tycoons – millionaire Asil Nadir springs to mind, as does that property developer reputably worth £400m who is hiding his money from his ex wife. And, of course, there is unlimited funding at taxpayers’ expense for any number of foreign nationals who wish us harm and for their never ending appeals under the Human Rights Act for permission to stay amongst us.
Ours is a nation they despise, whose culture and laws they wish to overthrow. Yet they are happy to take advantage of its lifestyle and the benefits system which makes that possible. The reason why these expensive appeals by self-proclaimed Jihadists so often succeed is that we are unwilling to send them back to their homeland in case they are mistreated there. Yet here is the ultimate case of mistreatment – death by firing squad – and it is happening to a British born woman who has lived most of her life here.
There may well be millions living in our country who have no legal right to be here. Any one of them, before they could be deported, would be able to throw themselves on the mercy of our courts and run us up huge legal costs before we could send them home. Where, I ask myself, is the logic or consistency which allows us to say no to a British grandmother and yes to one of them?
All this reminds me of the cold-hearted, honourless attitude of the Gordon Brown government when it would not allow Gurkhas, who had frequently put their lives on the line for us, to settle in our country at the end of their service lives. It took the redoubtable Joanna Lumley to help that government change its mind.
But right now there is another ongoing scandal which this time concerns the Cameron government. It relates to interpreters in Afghanistan. Two hundred or so who have risked their lives working for us in that benighted country are to be abandoned as next year begins the drawdown of our presence in that country and thus our need for linguists. They are fearful of what will become of them and their families once we are no longer there to protect them. The answer seems a simple one: let them come back with us. But shamefully that is not the response of our authorities. The interpreters are being told they must remain and take their chances. How truly inhuman is that? When the presently contained Taliban presence in Afghanistan is augmented by floods more coming in from Pakistan, once we are gone these interpreters are dead men walking. The Jihadists will take a terrible revenge. They will not care a hoot that the whole Afghan operation was authorised by the UN. Anyone who assisted, as they see it, the foreign invaders, can expect their special brand of punishment. What is at issue here is not just the saving of lives of people who have risked all for us, but the very honour of our country. The idea that we can happily grant asylum to countless others who have no claim on us is beyond comprehension.
Present day Russia is very much a gangster society led by an authoritarian government claiming to be democratic. But in one important area it puts us to shame. That is where honour is concerned. My Lithuanian wife’s father was a colonel in the Russian military. When the thirteen countries which formed the Russian empire – which it chose to call the USSR – broke away and gained their independence the Russian state could quite easily have washed its hands of obligations to the nationals of those newly independent states who had served it for their pensions and other rights. But it did not. My wife’s father receives a full and generous pension from Moscow.
How did we handle a similar situation when our own legions and public servants came home from our far flung colonies? We abdicated the duty to pay their pensions. We turned to the new rulers of India, Burmah, Ghana, Malaysia and the rest and said to them: “It’s up to you, old boy. You must pay their pensions”. If later they reneged or found they couldn’t afford it or felt they had been blackmailed to get their independence and stopped payments then that was that. Our attitude was tough. “Your quarrel,” we said to the poor man who had sweated all his life under the tropical sun, “is with the new rulers”.
Honour is a noble thing and it grieves me to think that my country has been short on it in so many instances. I hope Cameron will do the right thing where those brave Afghan interpreters are concerned and that he will intervene, before it is too late, over that wretched grandmother.
Today the Leveson Report on press behaviour and ethics is published. Seldom has a particular report – from among the seemingly endless stream which emanate from government these days – been so awaited.
Its commissioning was a knee-jerk response of the PM to admittedly disgusting lawbreaking by certain sections of the press. But that is the point – certain sections and lawbreaking. Apart from the little man who cannot afford, like Lord McAlpine, to sue (and a way for justice for him must be found) the rest are covered by existing law.
It was the duty of the police to act, still less to be found complicit in the whole sorry racket themselves. It didn’t need an inquiry costing millions of pounds – which we can ill afford at this time of austerity – to deal with the matter. And it jarred that it provided a platform for the likes of sad Hugh Grant to strut the stage as though he was whiter than white as well as pretend that all he was interested in was the public good. It is true that many who have reported to Leveson had genuine and sometimes heartbreaking reasons to feel aggrieved, but Grant and his ilk were not among them. Nowadays when some scandal or other is breaking news there is this childish response… ‘we need legislation’.
We have been passing laws for hundreds of years and almost every conceivable thing that human beings can get up to has been provided for. A few have slipped the net and need closing off, like stalking, but by and large, if you look hard enough, there is a law which will cover it. All that is required is that the police stay clean and do their job. Everything that Savile did was against the law, as well as the North Wales children’s home abuses, the sex grooming of underage girls and the sick activities of Cyril Smith. What else is out there that we don’t know about? We have to have authorities in charge who are beholden to no one and will not cover up for the rich and powerful.
So what are we to do about Leveson? There is no God-given law written on tablets of stone saying his wisdom is so great that we must all be bound by his strictures. In fact, there is the understandable fear that the whole Leveson imbroglio is one of simple revenge on the part of the political establishment; payback time, in other words, for the press exposing their own scandalous shenanigans over expenses and the slurry of humiliation that poured over their heads as a consequence.
For my part, I have said it before and I’ll say it again: only a free press stands between us and the rich and powerful doing as they please. Only in the fear of their salacious and corrupt activities being laid open to public view is there a chance of holding them to account. If we are admired around the world for our media being willing and free to speak truth to power that is because for three hundred years – ever since the ‘Glorious Revolution’ when James II, the last of the autocratic Stuart kings, was sent packing – we have insisted on being told the truth.
Just as the current furore over secret trials, which seek to overthrow an even more ancient liberty, open justice, we cannot allow a clique of puffed-up, self-interested individuals to hide their shameful doings from us. That way lies the emasculation of what has been called the Fourth Estate of the Realm.
In the US, freedom of expression has been elevated to an even higher level. It forms the 2nd Amendment of the American Constitution and as such is untouchable. Leveson would not have been possible in that land of the free. So it should be here.
Cameron is now between a rock and a hard place. If he ignores the findings of a report that he himself commissioned and promised to abide by he will be accused of wasting vast amounts of public money in staging a media and celebrity circus as well as breaking his promise. On the other hand, if for the first time in centuries he succeeds in cowing the media by putting a political straitjacket on it, it will be a retrograde step whose end consequences we cannot even begin to imagine. Also, he will have made a bitter enemy of the media and that will not help his re-election chances.
Even under the freedoms we presently enjoy, which have allowed the press to go after wrongdoers fearlessly, dreadful things still happen. Imagine what slime will gather under future stones if you can no longer dislodge them and turn them over because the press is too afraid. Governments are famous for kicking inconvenient reports into the long grass. It should do that in this case.
We are going to have to decide what to do with the remains of Richard III, should they prove genuine as seems likely. Richard was the last truly English king and the skeletal injuries confirm what even the Tudors could not deny: that he died bravely in battle – the last English king to do so.
As the Battle of Bosworth neared its conclusion, with Richard having been betrayed by his leading commander switching sides with his large force, he was now outnumbered. Yet having caught a glimpse of Henry in the distance, he decided on an all or nothing dash to cut him down. Henry was surrounded by his supporters and his chief body guard was a huge man – England’s leading jouster – but Richard, like the Furies, crashed through enemy ranks and unhorsed him. He then cut down Henry’s standard-bearer to bring himself within a sword’s length of Henry, before he himself was cut down. We see the grievous injuries on the skeleton: an arrow in the back and his skull cleft through. The autopsy may reveal more.
Now, I am no apologist for Richard. He may well have murdered his nephews in the tower, but then so equally could others – including the victor of Bosworth whose claim to the throne was extremely weak. Richard’s claim was not, however. He was the last in a 300-year line of Plantagenets. In ordinary circumstances the princes had prior claim over Richard, being sons of the late king. But these were not ordinary circumstances.
The evidence is strong that Richard’s brother, the late king, had made a bigamist marriage. In high circles this was talked about, though never, of course, in the king’s presence. Then the Bishop of Bath & Wells waded in after he had died with an open address, making it public knowledge. The two princes were declared bastards and not entitled to succeed. Parliament and the nobility concurred and Richard was duly crowned. So Richard had no need to kill the princes, his nephews; merely to keep them locked up and out of harm’s way. But potentially they were a rallying point that disaffected opponents of Richard might seek to use.
It is entirely possible that Richard’s dilemma was solved behind his back, unilaterally, by close supporters in the same way that Henry II’s was solved when knights dashed off to Canterbury Cathedral to make an end of Thomas Beckett who had become a thorn in Henry’s side. It is acknowledged that Richard took his catholic faith extremely seriously, and it takes some believing that he would kill the children of the brother he loved so dearly and served so faithfully.
So what about the things Shakespeare had to say about Richard? Well, Shakespeare was a very poor historian. His depiction of Macbeth is very wide of the mark. We Scots have a very good opinion of him, and we should know; he was one of the very few medieval monarchs secure enough in his people’s affections to be able to absent himself for a year on pilgrimage. He had no worries about plotters conniving behind his back. What’s more, he kept his throne for 17 years.
The Tudors knew that they were not legitimate claimants and spent their time trying to boost their credentials in any way they could, discrediting Richard in the process. Possible claimants, however remote, were ruthlessly – some say paranoiacally – murdered.
When Shakespeare came along they had found themselves the world’s greatest propagandist. He truly was manner from heaven. His depiction of Richard is so grotesque that even if his usurper had little right to the throne, history would have endorsed his takeover. In Richard was made manifest the devil himself, Shakespeare implies. He had to be got rid of.
But what does the record show? No foreign ambassador ever reported back home of a hunchback sitting on the English throne with an evil countenance and a withered arm – the same arm that served Richard so well in battle. In fact, they all spoke well of him with some saying he was of fair countenance. Richard, by 30, had had an exemplary career, being utterly loyal to his brother and fighting his battles with great valour. On his estates in the north of England people actually loved him.
In two short years as king he proved himself progressive and an able administrator. To him we owe the Bail system, which continues to this day both here and around the world; the standardisation of weights and measures – an immensely complicated project; the banning of rich people buying public office (in Richard’s world, merit alone counted); the common man being able to understand what was going on in court (he banned Norman French and elevated, after 300 years, our own wonderful language to be supreme in the land). And he was extremely pious, endowing many colleges and monasteries. None of this adds up to a monster. Would that our present Prime Minister had done as much in his two years.
Cruel things were done in the Wars of the Roses (it was a cruel age) and Richard was no crueller than his peers. Even if he was responsible for his nephews’ deaths – and remember, that is a very big if – what about another Richard, the much revered Lionheart, England’s only king with a statue outside Parliament? He killed not two, but perhaps thousands of Muslim children. His legacy is so toxic that even today mothers quieten their small children by whispering to them ‘hush, hush, King Richard is coming’.
‘Crookback Dick’, I pray, will soon get justice. He was a brave, enlightened and legitimate king. The Queen should recognise that and do penance for us all. And congratulations I hope are in order for that dogged society The Friends of Richard III who have sought justice for their hero for so long. I hope your time has come.
So let’s give Richard his due after 527 years of lies and calumnies. Truth matters, and if the big furore of the ‘king under the car park’ making headlines around the world serves no other purpose but to set the record straight then it will have been a worthwhile exercise. The tyrant Tsar, Nicholas II, who did no good and was murdered by the Communists and whose bones were found 20 years, ago was given a decent burial. We can do no less. The Queen should go to Leicester Cathedral – the likely burial place – to pay proper respects to a much maligned ancestor.
Well done Team GB. You have not just chalked up wonderful results, but you have avoided tub-thumping triumphalism and shown the world that there is a facet of Great Britain that is most appealing: our ability to self-deprecate and laugh at ourselves. Would that we could say the same about some ‘gentlemen’ in finance.
As we all know, some disastrous things have been taking place there. It truly makes MPs grubbing around for small change in the expenses scandal look quite inconsequential. These guys can sink us all; they almost did, and might yet do so.
I believe the time has come for drastic action, starting with the criminalisation of excessive and irresponsible risk-taking. Had we done so at an earlier date, ‘Fred the Shred’, and others like him, would almost certainly have thought twice before doing what they did.
Nothing concentrates the mind like a good hanging – only, in this case, we’ll settle for a lengthy prison term. Yet for some reason the powers-that-be are strangely reluctant to come down on white collar crime in anything like the way they do on blue collar. Do I detect privilege looking after its own? Is there an ‘old boys’ network in operation? David Cameron says we should not encourage banker bashing. May it not be that what he is really saying is: “leave my friends alone”? The Americans are far more willing to send financial miscreants to prison than we are. Why is this?
The whole western world is suffering to an extraordinary extent because of the misdeeds of the financiers; likely to be protracted, and life destroying to many millions of people who have done nothing wrong, the Great Recession has already been dragging on for four years now and no end can be discerned. In truth, it is likely to get much worse. Not a pundit on the planet has a clue where it is all going and when it will end.
The people who have done this to us have not only got away with it scot-free, but seem unable to grasp the enormity of what they have done. Nothing better illustrates this than the continuance of the iniquitous bonus culture they have built around their activities. Where else do such incredible sums get thrown at people with such gay abandon? How did it all start? Its insidious effect has even moved over to the public sector, where managers also now look to extra awards for merely doing their job. Getting money from Joe Public has never been easier; plastic cards by the hundred thousand now help grease the wheels.
Almost uniquely, banking is in a position to bring the whole system crashing down. That is why the innocents have been successfully compelled into saving the guilty. Only the stiffest penalties we can devise will do to punish those who have set the financial crisis in train. We must never allow ourselves to be put in a position like this again.
What a scandal that people who saved up all their lives, forgoing foreign holidays and the like, must see their savings decimated to prop up the feckless, as well as profiteering, bankers who were lending – where they care to do so – at sometimes twenty times what they are charged.
It is unfortunate that no economic model other than capitalism has been shown to deliver growth and prosperity, and it will always be down to the cleverest and best educated in our midst to operate it. But that very fact is what makes it so reprehensible that they have done this thing to the trusting billions around the world. Apart from the wicked greed they have displayed, they have provided priceless ammunition to the misguided enemies of capitalism who, even now, would drag us back into discredited and dangerous other models such as communism. (Incidentally, these Occupy protesters are confusing capitalism with corporatism, but that is not the point.)
There are four measures I believe could save us from a re-run of this saga. The first, as I have already detailed, involves banging up bankers. The second is the protection of whistleblowers. Once again here, Uncle Sam leads the way; he does not put his trust so much in setting up expensive regulatory agencies and quangos, staffed, in so many cases, by second-raters who dance to the tune of the Bob Diamonds of this world. Instead, Uncle Sam goes for insider information which makes it all the easier to secure convictions. And he gets it by rewarding the whistleblower with a percentage of any fines levied on the corporation for its misdeeds.
Right across the board, the whistleblower performs a valuable and often courageous service – often without reward. He or she is frequently someone who has witnessed scandalous activities which affront their conscience. In this country, however, whistleblowers are treated like pariahs. The people exposed – be they in the health or civil service – close ranks and sack the whistleblower. Once again the good man or women is made to pay for doing the right thing.
The third suggestion concerns our regulators. Since there will always be a need for close scrutiny of important financial activities, these agencies must be staffed by the very best – people who are cleverer than the people they are scrutinising (and not, as at present, the other way round). To secure these clever clogs, we are going to have to pay them top rates; that way, the dullards will find it next to impossible to bamboozle the cleverer man.
My fourth and final suggestion is a proper clear out of the top echelons of the Civil Service when a new government takes office. Often these civil servants are appointees who, if they disagree with the new government’s policies, will foot-drag as only the Civil Service knows how – ‘Yes Minister’ style. The clear out should take the form of the various head of departments being obliged to offer their resignation; if the incoming government feels they are not ideologically opposed to their manifesto, are on top of their brief and unlikely to be obstructive, then it could choose to keep them in their post.
Everyone will have heaved a sigh of relief that the preacher of death, Abu Hamza, and four of his associates have failed in their bid to avoid extradition to the US.
Of course, the European Court of Human Rights would have caused outrage had they failed to bring in any other verdict. It would have been saying our closest ally was no different than the likes of Jordan, Morocco or Pakistan and that it could not be trusted not to torture or apply inhumane conditions – when in fact the conditions are likely to be even more over the top than our own 3.5-star gaols.
So the result, in truth, was a foregone conclusion and would, had it been otherwise, have represented a gross insult to the world’s greatest democracy.
Interestingly, the extradition is of exactly the kind that the controversial UK-US Extradition Treaty was designed to cover (i.e. terrorism). Had we reminded the US of this in many of the disputed cases where a clear terrorism link could not be established, we could have avoided much of the acrimony that has been thrown up.
But the fact remains that the treaty is flawed: the legal requirements in each case are not the same, making it easier for Uncle Sam to get his hands on our people than for us to get our hands on his. What incompetent treaty drafter thought it was in order to produce a document of this kind? He should be kicked sideways into oblivion as should the several other jobsworths who must have perused it before it was enacted into law.
This refusal to punish people who make monumental cock ups in the public sector is an affront to all of us; I believe it is at the root of so many of the outrages about which we throw up our arms and say ‘never again’ or ‘lessons will be learned’, but where they never seem to be.
In industry or commerce, it is clearly understood that either you do the job for which you are being paid or you will go. Only an equal sanction for those paid from the public purse is likely to do the trick.
Nothing, as they say, concentrates the mind like a good hanging.
What enrages the public so much is that salt is so often rubbed into the wound by either rewarding the miscreant with a promotion or allowing early retirement with the most mouth-watering of financial packages.
Police, for instance, can often avoid investigation into alleged irregularities by the simple expedient of taking early retirement. And that brings me to the ex-policeman, Brian Paddick, the no-hoper would-be mayor of London.
What a lovely set-up – naturally facilitated by money-bags Joe Public – that allows a perfectly fit and able copper to retire at the age of 49 on a pension of £65,000 a year!
This nice little nugget of information was thrown up as a result of the recent live BBC Newsnight debate between the mayoral contestants when, unwittingly, they stumbled into a pledge of total transparency in financial matters.
The issue has snowballed to the point where every senior holder of public office can now expect to be required to come clean. Get ready for more revelations about where all our money is going and how much.
But I started this article on prisons, and it seems right to finish on the same note.
The eleven and a half year sentence meted out to the London riot arsonist may have struck some as a bit over the top. But remember this: it was so very nearly murder and the offender gave not a thought to the fact that there could well have been many people trapped on an upstairs level.
As it was, a woman had to leap for her life to avoid being incinerated.
The law has always taken a very hard line where arson is concerned, and not just because it concerns property. Whole cities have been destroyed by conflagrations, including our own capital and large numbers of lives are lost to this day in fires. It is, perhaps, the most terrible way for a life to end.
Remember also that the authorities felt, rightly or wrongly – and, in this case, I think rightly – that they had to dish our exemplary sentences where the authority of the state was under threat.
For a moment during those terrible scenes of last August there was a widespread feeling that Armageddon had arrived: that if it escalates, the next thing we’ll see is the Prime Minister’s head being paraded down Whitehall on a pike, and that the dark underbelly of the disaffected underclass was taking over and was about to take revenge on the ‘haves’.
A message had to go out that if you indulge in acts of what amounted to insurrection, you can expect to pay a heavy price.
In those particular circumstances it would have seemed nonsensical to apply the normal slap-on-the-wrist for a bit of shoplifting.
And as for the recipient of the eleven and a half year sentence, also remember this: he turned out to be a career criminal with violence a part of his repertoire; and that the eleven and a half years is something of a joke anyway since he will be back on the streets in 2016 having served only half of his sentence.
I was astonished recently to learn that Ken Clarke, the Justice Minister whom I always thought of as something of a libertarian, should seek to clamp on the land of Magna Carta a Bill of wholesale restrictions on open justice.
He wants a special body of lawyers to sit behind closed doors conducting cases in which the accused cannot defend himself in time-honoured fashion. Incredibly, the accused will not even know with what he is charged nor have the right to face his accuser. He will be defended by a government-appointed lawyer he will never meet or speak with. And a Minister of the Crown, who may well be trying to protect himself or his department from well justified exposure, gets to decide whether the case in question merits this very special treatment.
Now, if this isn’t the very purest form of Kafka, then I’d like to know what is. Certainly every tinpot dictator of modern times would love it.
As you may have guessed from previous writings, the preservation of our ancient liberties is something of a hobbyhorse of mine. As I see it, we didn’t create, over centuries, the great edifice of The Common Law – admired around the world and used by over a quarter of it – only to see it dismantled in many of its essentials by a latter day band of political pygmies.
It is not as though I believe that it should be set in aspic, never to be changed. Some years ago I had deep misgivings when New Labour proposed to change the law of Double Jeopardy, whereby an acquitted person could never be tried on the same charge twice.
I came to believe that if science (DNA) could prove incontrovertibly at a later date that a guilty man had been acquitted then it would not be natural justice to let him continue to get away with it. There were, I considered, many good reasons for my earlier misgivings.
If, for instance, an oppressive government or police force were determined on a guilty verdict then it could keep on coming back for another bite of the cherry until it got the result it wanted.
Also, were the police to know that they could always have another try, they would not feel under the same compulsion to go that extra mile to ferret out all the available evidence the first time round. It would also be unfair on the acquitted person – who might believe that the powers-that-be were out to get him – to ask him to live under such a cloud of deferred retribution. But amendments were put in place that held to the double jeopardy principal except in the most serious of cases, so I was satisfied.
I have long felt that New Labour were cavalier in its attitude to the protections which The Common Law bestowed on us. When terrorism reared its ugly head in the aftermath of 9/11 they leaped to panic stations. They seemed to have forgotten that we, as a nation, had long experience of dealing with that particular sick and murderous element in society – thirty years, no less.
The IRA, of whom we are speaking, were, moreover, far more accomplished practitioners of the dark and terrible arts of mass murder than the Johnny-come-lately Jihadists who had grown up in our midst. Sadly, their bombs went off first time on nearly every occasion. The result was that, on a head count of victims, the IRA were light years ahead of their successors.
But New Labour saw it differently. They rushed through a whole range of measures which began the long assault on things we held dear: which had taken centuries of struggle to achieve. Now we have a new government of a different political hue, but it, too – inexplicably – continues the assault and even carries it into realms hitherto unthought-of. It has to be stopped.
Luckily, these new proposals have raised a great hue and cry from almost every quarter, including 57 of the 69 specially appointed lawyers who want nothing to do with it: bless their courage and probity.
Yet Cameron is supportive of the tragically misguided Clarke. No doubt the police and the security services would like – where they chose – to dispense secret ‘justice’ along with the hospital authorities, coroners’ courts, government Ministers and the Ministry of Defence – all of whom, it is proposed, at the minister’s discretion, can impose in camera hearings.
Were they to have had these powers, we would never had learned the truth with regard to the seven shots to the head, underground shooting of poor Charles de Mendez, mistaken for a terrorist; nor the lack of body armour and helicopters and the use of thin skinned vehicles which led to the death of so many of our brave soldiers; nor the lamentable toll of scandalous hospital deaths and shocking mistreatment of our old people; nor the truth about Princess Diana’s death; nor that of Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter; nor even, who knows, of the former Energy Secretary’s alleged wrongdoings. All of them bring acute embarrassment to the people and agencies involved and they would rather we knew nothing of their incompetence or couldn’t-care-less attitude.
Truth and openness, in my view, trumps every other consideration. Only in the most clear-cut threats to national security are we entitled to consider secrecy.
If David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ means a smaller, less intrusive state and more power to the people then I am all for it. Power, inevitably, seeks more power. But I am not concerned how much power accrues to the people; the more the better: they can be trusted. But individuals and agencies must always be constrained, and a free press is there to help us to achieve that.
Servants of the state must also be held to account and answer for serious shortcomings. In industry, commerce and even sport, heads roll regularly: not so in the public sector. This must change. How often is abject failure rewarded not with the sack, but with promotion. This truly incenses the public.
Everybody knows what a failure the head of the Borders Agency has made of her job. And not just that, but the one before. Yet she gets promoted to head up HM Revenue & Customs, an agency failing almost as badly as her own and which desperately needs real and proven talent not failure.
What a way to do business. But that’s big government for you! Spitting in the eye of its paymasters at every turn.
It is unusual for the police to press the Crown Prosecution Service to go ahead and charge a Minister of the Crown. But this is what they have done with the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne. It is encouraging, too, that they insist they have enough evidence also to proceed against his wife who, allegedly, took his speeding points. I have no doubt that were the matter not to concern two high profile figures – Vicky Pryce, Huhne’s estranged wife and a leading media economist – a decision would have been made many months ago.
What the people of our fair-minded country have always insisted on down the centuries is even-handed justice. I venture to suggest that if the CPS do not decide to press charges there will be a storm of protest. In that event David Cameron could expect a very rough ride at Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons.
One could begin to understand the government’s reticence if Chris Huhne were a popular figure, doing a good job at his ministry – as Dr Liam Fox was at Defence – but Huhne is widely despised at Westminster and beyond. He gains no brownie points either by insisting that the country has 3,500 wind turbines foisted on it at huge public expense, in denial in the face of the mountain of evidence which shows that they are not cost effective. Desecrating some of our prettiest landscapes seems of no account to him.
The country has not forgotten, either, that here is a man who spent his life rubbishing nuclear power, only to experience a Damascene conversion all of a sudden when he gets his ministerial chauffeur-driven car and realises that there is no way the country can keep the lights on as well as meet its environmental commitments without it.
As for the police recommending that Huhne be brought to book, the government – which might not wish for a third ministerial resignation since, in Oscar Wilde’s immortal words, it will start to look ‘careless’ – should tread carefully. After all, it certainly did itself no favours by refusing to comply with the law of the land by denying an inquest into the suspicious death of Dr David Kelly, the arms inspector. When 19 eminent medics say that Kelly could not have died in the way the government claims he did, then we should be worried – especially when they point out that the inquiry into his death failed to address a series of important unanswered questions. The public smelled a rat most definitely when it later learned that a 70-year gagging order had been slapped on the proceedings. It was the first time in British jurisprudence that an inquest was refused.
This matter has not gone away, so if the government/CPS thinks it can again, within months, insult the intelligence of the British people by saying that there is not enough evidence to prosecute the Energy Secretary, then it had better think again.
There is a deep public perception that not all is as it should be with the mysterious death of of Dr. David Kelly, the internationally respected arms inspector. The Prime Minister needs to understand that there will be public outrage if his government refuses the inquest that should have been held in the first place.
I am not by nature a conspiracy theorist, believing as I do that most things have a perfectly rational explanation. Yet in this case there are far too many unresolved questions to which the public has a right to seek answers. Three additional factors strenghten me in my belief that the government will do itself no favours by quashing any further investigation: first, no fewer than 19 medical experts have banded together to question the inquiries findings; second, why was a 70-year gagging order placed over the whole affair? And third, if David Cameron wishes us to believe he is sincere in his constant pleas about transparancy, he’d better demonstrate it in this most disturbing of cases.