Posted April 16, 2014
‘In the little world in which children have their existence’, according to Pip in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, ‘there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt, as injustice.’
None but the most hard-hearted among us could fail to be moved by the accounts that have recently been published concerning the conduct of Cyril Smith, a politician for many years, who is now deceased.
The allegations are that Smith abused children in care in Rochdale, where he was a councillor and later a Member of Parliament, and that he escaped justice while he was alive.
Why he was not brought to account has been subject to much speculation. In 2012, the Crown Prosecution Service formally admitted that Smith should have been charged with the sexual abuse of boys, and the police agreed that the evidence was overwhelming. But by then Smith was dead and beyond prosecution.
What neither the police or CPS told us was precisely why Smith was never charged. It is this lack of an explanation that has fuelled suggestions of a ‘cover up’. It has also done nothing to deal with the sense of injustice felt by those who reported the allegations and watched as nothing was done.
In a world where injustice is all too prevalent, it is easy to believe that there is little more we can do but condemn it when it comes to our attention. However, I believe that where an injustice is redressable we should do all in our power to make it happen.
Smith, like his contemporary Savile, may have avoided his day in court, but the victims deserve a hearing and an explanation of what happened all those years ago. For them, apologies for what should have happened are not enough. The system that let them down should ensure that an enquiry is held to establish the facts and reveal exactly who made the decisions in each case.
As another, long dead writer once said, ‘let justice be done though the heavens fall.’
Posted April 5, 2014
The current row over the expenses claims of Culture Secretary Maria Miller, and calls for the police to investigate after a committee of MP’s watered down recommendations that she repay £45,000, is just the latest example of behaviour by those in authority that appears to be judged differently from the norm. Whatever the rights or wrongs of this particular case, it serves as a reminder that there is an issue we urgently need to address; the threat that the principle of equality under the law is being eroded, at our expense. This principle, which is vital to the maintenance of our civil rights, is endangered by a specific Government policy that, intentional or not, will make it harder to challenge misconduct by those in power. This article argues that Liberal Democrats must address this issue now if we are serious about the issue of equality under the law and human progress.
The coalition government has made deep cuts to the policing budget as part of its deficit reduction strategy. As we approach the date of the next general election the Conservative element of the Coalition are proposing further, deep cuts to policing, cuts that informed sources suggest will threaten to have a significant impact on its ability to provide the type of service we demand of it, and eventually undermine the independence that allows it to thoroughly investigate allegations against the “high and mighty” (i.e. cabinet ministers who may have made false claims on their expenses).
The current controversy surrounding policing might make it an inopportune time to call for an end to further cuts to the police budget. However, I believe in the rule that one should never make an important decision when one is angry, and whether we should continue to downsize the police is one of the most important decisions we face today.
It is an important decision because of the role the police play in maintaining, or restricting, our liberty and civil rights. In my view, it would be a mistake to use allegations of police misconduct as a sound reason to cut the size of our police service. Evidence of one does not justify the other. My argument is that the emasculation of our police service threatens its long established independence from political control, and opening the police to such control threatens to undermine its role as a guardian of the principle of equality under the law. I and others have a growing concern that this principle is being eroded, and we are sleepwalking into a situation where it may be lost. Only an impartial and independent judiciary and police service can preserve the equality guaranteed by law that is the keystone of our civil rights.
If we are to understand fully how important is the principle of equality under the law, it is necessary to appreciate the history of that principles development here in Britain.
Over the thousands of years of recorded human history, one factor was ever present; that small, powerful elites dominated the majority of their fellow citizens.
They imposed their will in many ways; through violence, persecution, starvation, genocide, slavery and the control of knowledge. Having imposed mastery over the population they retained it by amassing wealth and even declaring themselves to be gods, or descended from gods, or having the support of gods with all the power and privilege that this suggests.
The Romans followed the doctrine of Quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem or “That which pleases the prince has the strength of law”. Here was a clear example of the principle that those in power make the law to suit their own needs. To those who believe that this was an ancient, primitive doctrine, long passed into history, there is a school of opinion that suggests that this same doctrine in uncannily similar to that developed by the US and UK since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
These historic elites did not feel constrained by the rules they applied to their subjects. Unchecked, there was no crime they were incapable of, and no behaviour they were not prepared to condone, among their own circle.
The challenge to this orthodoxy is relatively recent in terms of human history and remains a work in progress. The key elements of liberalism, such as civil, personal and social liberty, and economic, domestic and racial freedom are recent advances. It is only in living memory that most adult men and women were granted the vote; that homosexuality was legalized and the rape of women by their husbands deemed to be criminal. It is only in recent months that equal marriage was recognized by the state, and still faces resistance by the hierarchies of many churches. It is perhaps a sobering thought that, after thousands of human generations, many of the advances in liberalism we recognize today have only come about during our lifetime and could hardly be dreamed of by our ancestors. Worryingly, many of those advances have yet to be recognized in many countries across the globe. Most concerning of all should be the fact that, in some countries, progress that had been made in civil and human rights is in active retreat.
These advances have not been made without sacrifice and long years of struggle. The key event in the development of British liberalism was the 17th century English civil war, when parliament asserted itself over the absolutist rule of the Stuart monarchy. The defeat of the royalists and execution of King Charles I marked the beginnings of a new concept in relations between the elites and the citizenry; that the rule of law applied to all.
Parliament used this newly acquired power to make a number of incremental improvements in the years that followed. A new political party drove these progressive changes, the Whigs, later to become the Liberal party. This is essentially the same Liberal Party that subsequently merged with a breakaway group from the Labour party (the Social Democrats) to form the modern Liberal Democrat party.
These early liberals championed political and social reform, including the abolition of slavery, the extension of the franchise and the recognition of Trade Unions and workers rights. These were certainly revolutionary concepts; that a slave had the same fundamental rights as their master, and the worker was as entitled to the protection of the law as their employer. That equality under the law was guaranteed, regardless of how much money or power the contesting parties possessed, and that an independent judiciary would ensure that such a guarantee remained valid. As Liberals fought to establish the principle of equality under the law, they confronted opposition from the ruling elites and their vested interests at every step.
Liberals do not believe that everyone is equal in the accepted sense of the word. Insofar as there will always be those who are brighter, more talented, more capable, more driven and luckier than others then equality between them will remain elusive. Where the inequalities are contrived, such as access to a good education or healthcare, or a decent standard of housing, governments can play a role in ameliorating the differences. Governments may even increase the buying power of the less fortunate through the redistribution of wealth, but they cannot make the dull bright or the incompetent gifted. What governments can do is ensure that the brightest and best, or the most cunning, do not use their abilities to exploit and oppress those who cannot compete with them. Liberals believe that this is achieved by establishing equality under the law, and guaranteeing that the lowest in the land may sue the highest if they are wronged. This one guarantee, overseen by an independent and impartial judiciary and police, ensures, more than any other, the principle of equality, the progress of humanity and the liberty and free expression of all.
The most telling achievement of the early liberals was to bring the law within the reach of the common people, the prevention of arbitrary law making by non-parliamentary entities, and improved appeals procedures. By 1885, the academic Albert Venn Dicey was able to claim that the law had achieved a formal equality but at the expense of a substantive quality. He stated that the law was blind to the differences of wealth or power and assumed all possessed abstract rights and duties. Although there remained much more to do, this was a progressive advance by any measure.
In 1911, the Social Liberal philosopher Leonard Hobhouse published ‘Liberalism’, where he attempted to sketch the historical development of the Liberalizing movement. His observations on civil liberty are worth reading;
Both logically and historically the first point of attack is arbitrary government, and the first liberty to be secured is the right to be dealt with in accordance with law. A man who has no legal rights against another, but stands entirely at his disposal, to be treated according to his caprice, is a slave to that other. He is “rightless,” devoid of rights. Now, in some barbaric monarchies the system of rightlessness has at times been consistently carried through in the relations of subjects to the king. Here men and women, though enjoying customary rights of person and property as against one another, have no rights at all as against the king’s pleasure. No European monarch or seignior has ever admittedly enjoyed power of this kind*, but European governments have at various times and in various directions exercised or claimed powers no less arbitrary in principle. Thus, by the side of the regular courts of law which prescribe specific penalties for defined offences proved against a man by a regular form of trial, arbitrary governments resort to various extrajudicial forms of arrest, detention, and punishment, depending on their own will and pleasure.
Of such a character is punishment by “administrative” process in Russia at the present day; imprisonment by letter de cachet in France under the ancient regime; all executions by so-called martial law in times of rebellion, and the suspension of various ordinary guarantees of immediate and fair trial in Ireland. Arbitrary government in this form was one of the first objects of attack by the English Parliament in the seventeenth century, and this first liberty of the subject was vindicated by the Petition of Right, and again by the Habeas Corpus Act. It is significant of much that this first step in liberty should be in reality nothing more nor less than a demand for law. “Freedom of men under government,” says Locke, summing up one whole chapter of seventeenth-century controversy, “is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society and made by the legislative power erected in it.”
The first condition of universal freedom, that is to say, is a measure of universal restraint. Without such restraint some men may be free but others will be unfree. One man may be able to do all his will, but the rest will have no will except that which he sees fit to allow them. To put the same point from another side, the first condition of free government is government not by the arbitrary determination of the ruler, but by fixed rules of law, to which the ruler himself is subject.
We draw the important inference that there is no essential antithesis between liberty and law. On the contrary, law is essential to liberty. Law, of course, restrains the individual; it is therefore opposed to his liberty at a given moment and in a given direction. But, equally, law restrains others from doing with him as they will. It liberates him from the fear of arbitrary aggression or coercion, and this is the only way, indeed, the only sense, in which liberty for an entire community is attainable.
There is one point tacitly postulated in this argument, which should not be overlooked. In assuming that the reign of law guarantees liberty to the whole community, we are assuming that it is impartial. If there is one law for the Government and another for its subjects, one for noble and another for commoner, one for rich and another for poor, the law does not guarantee liberty for all. Liberty in this respect implies equality. Hence the demand for Liberalism for such a procedure as will ensure the impartial application of law.
Hence the demand for the independence of the judiciary to secure equality as between the Government and its subjects. Hence the demand for cheap procedure and accessible courts. Hence the abolition of privileges of class. Hence will come in time the demand for the abolition of the power of money to purchase skilled advocacy.
*Hobhouse was writing before the rise of 20th century fascism.
Hobhouse was warning us that our freedoms were dependent on the application of the law to all sections of society and the establishment and maintenance of channels to achieve equality under the law. It should be a cause of concern to liberals that the progress made since Hobhouse published his book appears to be under determined attack. Granted, the attack has been evolving for several decades, but that should not excuse the fact that a government that includes Liberal Democrats appears to be a party to this continuing onslaught. Left unchallenged, there is a real danger that the liberty we currently take largely for granted will eventually be curtailed by a small, politically powerful and incredibly wealthy elite bent on unchecked control and domination of society, and its key institutions.
This is a serious charge. Where is the evidence to support it? Sadly, the well of evidence is growing, and most interested observers will already have identified much of it. However, having made the charge it falls to me to present the evidence in its support.
The component elements of the charge are;
The political and financial elite are not constrained by the same laws as the rest of us.
There are concerted efforts to curtail the independence of the judiciary and police.
Access to justice, as envisaged by Hobhouse, is becoming increasingly inaccessible,
The political and financial elite are not constrained by the same laws as the rest of us.
Let us look first at how the elites avoid punishment for conduct that would see most ordinary citizens prosecuted and punished with imprisonment or fines.
It is of paramount importance to the elites that they draw up, craft, interpret and enforce the laws we are governed by. As Stalin is reported to have said, “Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote decide everything.” A variation of the same rule might apply to those who draft our laws, set the sentences and regulate the court process. It should be obvious that complex financial fraud cannot be challenged with relatively simplistic legislation, under-resourced investigators and unskilled jurors, and the inexplicable failure of the political establishment to address this is a key reason why the financial elites consistently evade culpability for their criminal behaviour.
Contrast, if you will, this loose approach to lawbreaking by the elites, with the increasingly draconian treatment of the wider citizenry. During the period of the last Labour Government, the number of criminal offences on the statute book increased by over 3,600. More innovative means were introduced to net a greater number of people than ever before, from GATSO cameras to legislation that saw people prosecuted for putting the wrong rubbish in the wrong bin. The prison population increased under New Labour from 43,000 to over 85,000, despite growing evidence that increased use of shorter prison terms merely created a revolving-door of repeat offending. Before losing power Labour had planned to increase the prison population to 96,000 with a £4.2 billion programme of new prisons. It was argued that this use of the criminal justice system to control and regulate the behaviour of the general population was demanded by the general population itself, and furthermore, it was working. And yet, when it is argued that the law might be just as effective in curbing criminal behaviour by the financial and political elite, we are told that alternative means, such as regulators or “watchdogs” would be more effective.
The political and financial elites have a number of ways of evading the criminal courts. An effective method is to ensure that they influence the effectiveness, or ineffectiveness of legislation. They do this by moving between and among the elite groups. It has become depressingly familiar to see politicians take up positions within large corporations, not always after leaving office. Less obvious is the increasing tendency of people in large financial institutions to take up a role in Government where they clearly have an influence in drafting policy and legislation. This influence goes right to the top. Recently journalists revealed that members of the financial elite have been visiting Chequers, the Prime Ministers country bolt-hole. Usually, details of guests are published, but in the case of these bankers the information was withheld. Apparently, if their visit is paid for by the Conservative Party, the ‘rules’ say there is no requirement to tell anyone, and what is discussed at these meetings remains secret.
The ploy of establishing notoriously weak regulatory bodies to oversee the powerful is another way to affect the outcome of investigations into the criminal behaviour of those in positions of power. Even the most disinterested member of the public will have some knowledge of the failings of regulators to get to grips with the excesses of those in positions of power in the financial, media and business community.
The elites have also benefited from a close relationship with one particular police force; the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). For many years, the “Met” was the only force controlled directly by the Home Secretary. The MPS was the first port of call whenever a major enquiry was called for, and investigations into alleged wrongdoing by any of the elites was usually referred to this one police force. The key investigators became household names, and were wheeled out time and again when a sensitive investigation was called for. Police forces outside London are rarely asked to examine allegations against the Government, and why has never been adequately explained. The kinder might argue that the MPS has the experience and resources for this kind of investigation. Less than kind might be the suggestion that an outside force may take a less subtle approach to government misdeeds, creating political problems for the ruling regime. Whatever the explanation, it cannot be argued that when it comes to the investigation of misdeeds by the political and financial elites, and those of the public at large, two differing standards apply.
Consider these two cases. In November last year (2013) two men, one from Hebden Bridge and one from Nelson in East Lancashire, were arrested in Todmorden after conning a number of people into believing that they needed roofing work done. The prosecution’s case was that the work was unnecessary and that the men were perpetrating a fraud. They were charged and remanded in custody, to appear before Bradford Crown Court. The accusation was that they got money off people by offering or providing a service they knew was unnecessary, and that is a crime according to the law. The police make arrests and mount prosecutions such as this every week. Even where the police have strict time limits, measured in hours, to complete their investigation, there appears to be little difficulty in making such a case quickly and making it stick.
But what happens when a group of bankers, educated, intelligent people, sit down and decide to swindle people by persuading their customers to sign up to a service they do not need? Nothing; nothing by way of the criminal law that is. Indeed, it is not even termed as fraud. They sanitize it by calling it ‘mis-selling’ and they are not even required to pay back their victims unless the victim is prepared to go to the trouble of applying for their money back, and jump numerous administrative hurdles to get it.
What, you might ask, is the difference between a roofer who persuades a pensioner to have work done they do not need, and a banker persuading a pensioner to part with their money for a banking product that the bank knows they don’t need or is not right for them? These words, from a former NatWest private banker commenting on the ‘mis-selling’ scandal, speak volumes; “People were so trusting of us, and many of the older people loved the idea of having their own private banker who they believed was offering them a ‘Rolls-Royce service”.
The bankers, who were offering bonuses of anything up to £10,000 to bank staff to push these ‘products’, pleaded ignorance and promised it wouldn’t happen again. In return for this assurance not one of those who dreamed up and drove this scheme will ever see the inside of a police station, never mind a prison cell. Yet most of us would see little moral difference between those bankers and the two luckless roofers from Yorkshire.
This is just one example to illustrate how those in the financial or business elites are treated differently from “ordinary” citizens. There are many more I could cite, and these are not historic cases from the dim and distant past. Just recently, G4S and Serco were found to have defrauded the taxpayer of tens of millions of pounds by claiming for non-existent “customers” they tagged on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. Was anyone charged? Was anyone even arrested? Of course not! If you pay back the money, we will say no more, seems to be as far as it went. That we have sunk so low, it is now possible to swindle the Ministry of Justice and get away with it seems hardly to register on any scale of public outrage.
The Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the Terrorism Act 2000 and the 2007 Money Laundering Regulations allow the authorities to seize the ‘ill-gotten gains’ of criminals, drug dealers and those involved in aiding terrorism. The punishments are severe (the maximum prison sentence for money laundering in the UK is 14 years), and the police and customs make thousands of seizures each year.
By way of example, in November last year a gang of drug dealers operating in Luton were sentenced to a total of 217 years in prison, had £1.4 million in cash seized, and are now subject to being stripped of their remaining assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act. The general public would no doubt see such punishment as deserved. And yet, in December 2012, HSBC, a British bank, paid a record £1.2 billion to US authorities to get them to drop criminal allegations that they were involved in money laundering on a massive scale.
The bank, which allowed Mexican drug traffickers to deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars each day, laundered at least $881 million dollars through its accounts in what was described as a “blatant failure” to implement anti-money laundering controls. The banks Chief Executive, Stuart Gulliver, expressed “regret” and promised it wouldn’t happen again.
The people of New York benefitted from the £1.2 billion that HSBC paid for no other reason than that it was the Manhattan District Attorney who brought the case. In Britain, the response from the government was muted, almost sullen. In a brief statement, they baldly pointed out that HSBC had already expressed “regret”. That’s as maybe, but as with the “mis-selling” scandal, no banker will find himself or herself being deposited in the prison where the Luton money-launderers are contemplating, no doubt with regret, the long years ahead.
The government’s statement is worth examining for one other point;
“The report by the US Senate sub-committee sets out in detail the evidence submitted to it and the action taken by HSBC to ensure compliance with US regulations at the time that Lord Green was group chairman. At the time of the report’s publication HSBC expressed its regret that there were failures of implementation and Lord Green has said that he shares that regret.”
This statement was released by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Lord Green it mentions was one of its ministers, having quit as boss at HSBC two years earlier, handing over power to Gulliver. Here, mentioned almost in passing, is just one example of a member of the financial elite flitting to the political elite, and as such being in a position to influence government policy.
To my knowledge there has been no criminal investigation in the UK. Indeed, it appears that we don’t have a law against such conduct by a British bank, while the Americans do, even when the transactions involve a third country, in this case Mexico. Confronted with the evidence HSBC was able to write a cheque and promise “not to do it again” for the US authorities to drop the charges. Imagine for one moment that the Luton money launderers had been able to hand over their £1.2 million to the Bedfordshire police in return for their looking the other way? There would be, and quite rightly, public outrage; and yet laundering hundreds of millions of pounds on behalf of one of the world’s largest criminal organizations seems to have been regarded as “lax banking” resolved with a cash payment and an “expression of regret”. Anyone who has ever exceeded their overdraft limit by as little as £1 will tell you that banks don’t do “lax”.
When the government decides that the law can be circumvented for political reasons the rule of law itself is in danger. Recently it emerged that government officials, for political reasons, provided letters to a number of Irish Republicans telling them that they were no longer being sought by the police for serious crimes, including murder. The government officials who sanctioned the letters argue that it was a political necessity.
When the political elite decide that absolving crimes, including murder, is a necessity, they grant themselves powers that threaten everyone who relies on the protection of the law. They may argue that it is “for the greater good”, but in a society where the rule of law is the preeminent factor in maintaining our civil rights and freedoms, giving such authority to political operatives is to make our rights a hostage to fortune and the prevailing political power.
Let us be clear about what we are talking about here. A political party with seats in the House of Commons had links to, and negotiated on behalf of a paramilitary group with an agenda that involved the murder of hundreds of British citizens. When their campaign failed to achieve its objective, another political party in the same House of Commons gave out letters seemingly protecting the suspects from prosecution. There was no involvement by the courts, no legislation that allowed any government official to do such a thing, and there was a singular lack of transparency during the entire process. If politicians can grant immunity to others whose “political” strategy includes murder, then there is no rule of law. If the police can be required to accept such a political decision, and be ordered to draft and send the letters, then their role as independent enforcers of the law must also be in question.
If I were to list the many other examples where the political and financial elite manage to avoid prosecution for offences that the rest of us would do time for, or control the investigative process to their benefit, this article would become a book. Heroic journalists, such as those who work for the magazine Private Eye, have been publishing the details of such conduct for years, almost to the point where their readers have become desensitized. The endless revelations of misconduct have helped create a climate of despair and disaffection with politics in general that, ironically, benefits the elite. As more people become switched off from politics, the more it will become a limited field populated by specialists and special interests. Excluding the general public from politics suits the political establishment down to the ground.
There is a mass of evidence to support the charge that the elites are granting themselves immunity from the laws that apply to the rest of us, arguing, if challenged, that their lawbreaking is for the public good, that the elites are too big or too important to the country to be troubled by prosecution, or that it won’t happen again. There is almost a sense of entitlement amongst powerful people that their power makes them special, and being special they can do more or less what they want without consequences. If they are challenged, there is a repertoire of options available to keep prosecutors at arm’s length. At worst, a long-drawn out enquiry may censure them, or they may end up paying out a sum of money that never actually comes near to troubling them. If there is little danger that the elites will ever suffer a significant penalty, such as criminal conviction and imprisonment, then there no deterrence; indeed there is considerable encouragement to continue.
The question is, “how did we arrive at this situation?” The reality is that for decades Governments have developed a growing influence in the decision making process when it comes to who is or isn’t prosecuted. Often those who challenge Government decisions lack the power to force a change of mind. Governments have developed a series of techniques to avoid difficult or troublesome questions. In 1972, the Government ordered shock troops from the Parachute Regiment to confront Civil Rights demonstrators who defied a ban on demonstrations in Derry. At least thirty unarmed civilians were shot; fourteen fatally, in an incident that fast became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The Government ordered an enquiry led by a judge, who quickly exonerated the soldiers, and many of the commanders were promoted or decorated by The Queen. However, on this occasion, those challenging the Government’s version of events finally forced them to carry out another enquiry. The second was agonizingly protracted, cost over £200 million, and there remains doubt over whether anyone will ever stand trial for the shooting of all those protestors over forty-two years ago.
Contrast this to the government response to the Amritsar Massacre in India in 1919. Here, as later in Derry, British soldiers fired on unarmed demonstrators who were in breach of a ban on demonstrations, killing at least 379. The Commanding Officer, General Dyer, was relieved of his command and ordered to resign. He was castigated following an official enquiry and Winston Churchill at the time Secretary of State for War, described the massacre as “an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation… the crowd was neither armed nor attacking.” This response by the political elite of the day could not be more different to that of those who followed them, and clearly demonstrates just how far standards of morality have fallen among the elites.
The Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq War was set up in 2009 by the Prime Minister of the day, Gordon Brown, and is still sitting. Many believe that the war was illegal and involved aggression, which is specifically forbidden by international Conventions and was the principle charge leveled against the main Nazi leaders at Nuremberg (where; incidentally, the key players had been tried and convicted within 18 months of the war ending). The Iraq war, which left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, was not authorized by the UN but went ahead regardless. There is compelling evidence that it was not a response to the 9/11 atrocity, as many members of the public were led to believe, but a “regime change” planned as early as 1997 by key members of the subsequent Bush administration, including Vice president Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Making war, regardless of how well intentioned, to force a change of government in another country, is illegal under international law. However, the doctrine of “a just war” expounded by Tony Blair in a speech given in Chicago, in 1999, is believed to have encouraged the Bush administration to think that an aggressive attack on Iraq could be justified.
And yet, cynics already believe that Gordon Brown’s parting gift to his nemesis Tony Blair is unlikely to lead to a troubling conclusion for any of the players involved. This may be because the enquiry is being carried out by members of the political elite, the Privy Council, and its terms of reference do not include apportioning blame but in “learning lessons” so the “mistakes” made “do not happen again”, a tiresomely familiar echo. The enquiry is already tainted by the suggestion, confirmed by documents published by Wikileaks, that officials from the Bush administration will be protected from “embarrassment”. The tactic of dragging out an enquiry for years until it has been overtaken by newer scandals remains a tried and tested success.
The idea that those with power are not, in terms of observance of the civil and criminal law, the equal of those without it, is as great a threat to our civil liberties as could be imagined. And yet, the general public seems not to have recognized the danger they face. The importance of equality under the law has been recognized for a long time. In his 1795 essay Dissertations on First Principles of Government, Thomas Paine stated that “the true and only true basis of representative government” is equal application of the law to all citizens: rich and poor, strong and weak, powerful and powerless, landowner and tenant. Paine warned that the establishment of what he called ‘counterfeit nobles’ would see injustice promoted in order to protect privilege and wealth, at the expense of the promotion of justice in order to protect civil rights and improve society.
The assumption by Governments and the financial elite (the counterfeit nobles of Paine’s counsel?) that they may break the law as and when they see fit is now so well established that the idea that they may be prosecuted in the “common” courts could nowadays be described as ‘unprecedented’. However, from a legal standpoint, there is little reason why these elites couldn’t be prosecuted. An independent police service, acting in accordance with properly drafted laws and impervious to attempts at political interference, could restore the rule of law for all and public confidence in the security of their civil rights.
An interesting example of an effort by the police to challenge the political elite occurred in 2007 when then Prime Minister Tony Blair was interviewed, twice, by police investigating the so-called ‘cash for honours’ scandal. Labour party fundraiser Lord Levy was arrested and accused of offering honours in return for cash loans to the party, an offence he denied. During the investigation, the police interviewed Blair, the first time in British history that a sitting Prime Minister was questioned by the police on a criminal matter. Greatly embarrassed, Blair admitted that he would have resigned had the interviews been under caution. The humiliation was compounded when it was revealed that Blair’s Attorney General tried to gag the BBC from reporting on the matter, arguing that it was sub judice.
The incident shook Blair, and the establishment elite. That a sitting PM, and by implication, the Government, could have been brought down by a mere police officer making enquiries, must have sent alarm bells ringing throughout the proverbial corridors of power. The police were not playing the game, and were out of control, a view that was possibly confirmed when Scotland Yard raided the parliamentary offices and homes of Tory Shadow Immigration minister Damien Green, in 2009, and briefly arrested the politician. The police were searching for evidence that Green was leaking information that was embarrassing to the state, although charges were never brought.
It is tempting to conclude that these incidents prompted the elites to take a very different view of the police. If the police were no longer a reliable pillar of the Government, but a clear threat to the hegemony of the political establishment, the service would have to be brought under control. The hostility of the rulers to the police was noticeable after the questioning of Blair. Within months, Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith sparked a bitter dispute with the police by delaying a 2.5% pay increase that had been recommended by an independent panel. The delay made the rise effectively 1.9%. To some, it was petty, a spiteful shot across the bows. In hindsight, it seems to have been the opening salvo.
Certainly, since then, Labour and the Conservatives, the two main parties of the establishment, have shown no love for the police service, and both are resolved to reduce its size and privatize many of its responsibilities. The recession has been a convenient excuse for what would be, in other circumstances, barely disguised savaging of an essential emergency service. The danger is that a weakened police service will never again be in a position to challenge wrongdoing by the elites, and it is this possibility that the Liberal Democrats should oppose by all available means.
For those who believe that this is scaremongering, and the political elite are not immune from prosecution, it is worth mentioning another, very different, very current instance. Once again, the police became involved in investigating conduct by politicians that seemed reprehensible, but in this case they found that the state has arranged matters so as to evade legal liability.
In March 2004, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a Libyan citizen and militant opponent of General Gaddafi’s regime, was abducted, together with his pregnant wife, Fatima Bouchar, from Bangkok airport. The CIA was behind the kidnapping, and the couple ‘rendered’ to Libya where it is alleged Belhadj was tortured.
A few days after Belhadj’s abduction, a second man, Sami al-Saadi, was seized and flown to Libya, together with his wife and four children.
In 2005, as concerns grew about the scale of the CIA’s rendition programme and the UK’s involvement in it, the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, dismissed them as “conspiracy theories”. When the concerns were raised by MP’s on the Commons foreign affairs committee, Straw said, for the record, “unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that, behind this, there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States… there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition.”
And there it might have ended, except in 2011, when Straw was no longer Foreign Secretary, and the Labour Government had been voted out of office, Gaddafi was overthrown and his regime collapsed. In the abandoned office of Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, the organization Human Rights Watch recovered damning evidence of Britain’s involvement in rendition. It was clear that British Intelligence and the CIA had a relationship with Gaddafi’s intelligence service and had been complicit in rendering Belhadj, pointing out in correspondence that it “was the least we could do for you and for Libya.”
The day after the documents came into the public domain, Straw told the BBC that he was not complicit in unlawful rendition and torture, and did not turn a blind eye to it. He did all he could to distance himself from involvement.
The Times later reported that this statement had so enraged officers from MI6 that they had confronted Straw and reminded him that he had actually signed off on the rendition of Belhadj. When shown the evidence he then admitted that this was indeed the case.
As more evidence emerged of Britain’s involvement in rendition, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that Straw faced being questioned by Scotland Yard. Belhadj and Saadi declared that they would be seeking damages from Straw, citing complicity in torture, and misfeasance in public office.
Again, there was a state of shock among the political elite. Once again there was an important first to note; this was the first time that proceedings of this kind had been launched against a former foreign secretary. Here was an example, as Hobhouse had outlined a century earlier, of equality under the law in action. Here, a citizen was planning to sue one of the elite because he had been wronged. The concept that nobody was above the law, that members of the elite or establishment could not break the law as and when they felt like it, or that they were excused from observing the law because they were important people, was about to be challenged.
This was a fundamental question that, worryingly, our media seemed uninterested in. If politicians could break the law to harm a citizen and not be held accountable, the same politicians could break the law to kill citizens. Indeed, they could do very much as they pleased to deal with those they saw as enemies. Political opponents, protesters, activists, even those frustrating their plans or undermining the good works of the governing elite would be vulnerable. To those seeking unfettered power there will always be arguments in support of their need to break the law “for our benefit”, or to abandon as unrealistic or inconvenient the principle of equality under the law.
In Straw’s case, he argued that the evidence against him was protected by The Official Secrets Act and couldn’t be used against him. Indeed, he argued that the law made it a criminal offence for him even to mention his or MI6’s involvement in the matter. In what is surely the most bizarre defence offered yet by the political elite, it was argued that the law that definitely couldn’t be broken was the law preventing discussion of their alleged offending!
In the most recent judgement on the case, commented on by Rosa English, writing in UK Human Rights blog, it is reported that the High Court has struck out claims against British establishment defendants for “unlawful rendition”. The doctrine of immunity attaching to an act of state is apparently a total bar to such claims and is not limited by the gravity of the alleged violation of rights.
State, or sovereign, immunity is grounded in a rule of International law and governed in domestic law by the State Immunity Act 1978. This immunity attaches to the actor. The doctrine of “act of state”, on the other hand, applies to the subject matter of the act itself – in this case, the executive acts of foreign states. Behind this particular pillar of “act of state” immunity lies the more general principle that the courts will not adjudicate upon the transactions of foreign states. Invoking this legislation has severely restricted the ability of those who suffered as a result of rendition to obtain legal redress in our courts.
It seems ironic that the political elite, who ignored international law to invade Iraq, and ignored international law when they became complicit in rendition and torture, should resort to international law to protect themselves from prosecution, while denying the remedy of law to the victims of its conduct. Whether those who drafted the State Immunity Act envisaged that it would be used to protect the powerful from prosecution for complicity in torture and kidnapping is a moot point. It has been, and this should be a cause of national shame.
It is also worth considering that the same people who apparently find it difficult to draft legislation that is capable of cutting through the complexities of fraud, thus enabling the police to bring rogue bankers and financiers to justice, seemingly had little difficulty in drawing up legislation to protect themselves from the significant complexities of international law.
The efforts by the Metropolitan Police to prosecute high ranking members of the political elite may have finally come to nothing, but they at least served notice to the establishment parties that they should not take it for granted that they can control the actions of the police when it comes to scrutiny of their own conduct or behaviour.
This lack of control over the police was also to come as a shock to the media barons who had exercised considerable influence over the Government and viewed themselves as part of the same establishment elite, in sharp contrast to their perceived role as the guardians of freedom and watchdogs against wrongdoing by the rich and powerful.
When the Metropolitan Police began an enquiry into allegations of phone hacking by journalists, the extent of the relationship between the press and the Government was unclear. At first, as happened in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, there was a “quick investigation” which appeared to exonerate the newspapers concerned. But, once again, a determined group of people refused to accept the findings and further investigations revealed apparent law-breaking on an industrial scale, and relationships between the media and ruling elite that could easily be described as ‘intimate’.
Once again, Downing Street found itself drawn into the scandal, this time with Tory PM David Cameron facing questions about his relationship with some of those who had been arrested and charged.
It would be fair to say that this level of police attention must be extremely uncomfortable for an establishment that sees the law as a nuisance to be got around, or so riddled by “loopholes” that it can be easily confounded. The establishment view is almost certainly that Prime Ministers shouldn’t be interviewed by ‘common police officers’ (I deliberately avoided the word plebs), and neither should their aides and friends be arrested or charged. The view seems to be that these are important, well-connected people doing useful work for other important people and they shouldn’t be embarrassed or inconvenienced in this way when breaking the law on behalf of their masters. The argument seems to be that these “offences” are politically grounded and the Government can easily take care of them, leaving the police to concentrate on “real” criminals.
There are concerted efforts to curtail the independence of the judiciary and police.
Bringing the police to heal will be no easy task. Any attempt to curb their powers to investigate elite wrongdoing is likely to be controversial, and could backfire. More subtle means will have to be found. Cutting their budget until they can no longer carry out key functions, then sub-contracting these functions to private businesses, is one option that would be effective in diluting police authority and the weight they currently hold in the executive of our constitution. Another option known to be under consideration by the Government is to place its “own people” in senior positions within the police. This too may not be easy, though the Government can argue that it is necessary for purposes of “efficiency” or “quality” of management, and this is likely to be more persuasive. Certainly, it is more difficult to challenge a reforming government when it uses words like “value for money” or “improvement” and dismisses opposition as reactionary or protectionist.
The Government is all too well aware that the police are jealous guardians of their independence and suspicious of efforts to divest powers to bodies that might not be as autonomous; where key operatives are political appointees or subject to contractual obligations imposed by politicians. They are particularly suspicious of attempts by politicians to place their chosen people into key management roles within the police. The traditional route to the top in the British police is to start at the very bottom and work ones way up the career ladder. This may seem unnecessarily arduous for those with obvious talent, but it has the important function of keeping those destined for key roles free from undue political influence or control. Selecting and nurturing its own future managers from within the ranks minimises political contact and maximises independence and impartiality. However, in recent years, Governments have skilfully challenged this approach, arguing that it identifies managers rather than leaders and that poor leadership is responsible for the various failings of the police as an organisation that needs to be receptive to public need.
This is a difficult argument to counter, and the Government has continued to develop it. In 2012, they appointed Tom Winsor, a former Railway Regulator, as the first ever Inspector of Constabulary with no policing experience or background. They also plan to bring in police chiefs from other countries and place them in charge of police forces in this country, and are examining the direct entry of civilians into senior policing roles. The obvious concern here is that these appointees may be less scrupulous about preserving the independence of the police, and more conscious of the debt they owe the Government that selected them.
The Government may argue that their appointees will be chosen on merit, but there is a long-established and understandable tradition of not placing people in positions of power if there is any doubt that they may not do as you want. In 1162, King Henry II appointed his good friend Thomas Becket to the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. The King saw an opportunity to curb the rights and privileges of an independent church and thought that, by placing Becket in the top job, he could leverage the changes he wanted. However, once sworn in, Becket took the side of the church and refused to give in to the king. An exasperated Henry made it clear to his followers that Becket was a problem and is alleged to have said “who shall rid me of this turbulent priest?” A group of knights obliged and murdered Becket at the altar of his cathedral. Ever since, the establishment have been very careful whom they appoint to do their bidding. Merit isn’t always the most desirable quality!
An enfeebled police service run by placemen may be less of a threat to the conduct of the elites, but the powerful will not feel completely secure until they have limited the power of the judiciary to challenge them.
Tensions between the political elite and the courts have been growing for a number of years. Incredibly, successive Labour Home Secretaries turned out to be no respecters of human rights, making clear their antipathy to the judges and their interference in some of Labours more authoritarian proposals.
When Home Secretary David Blunkett tried to introduce legislation that was ruled in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, he was outraged. While admitting that it was the role of the judiciary to protect the interests of individuals when threatened by the state, Blunkett said, “If public policy can always be overridden by individual challenge through the courts, then democracy itself is under threat.”
In a clear message to the judiciary Blunkett continued, “I want the judges to reflect on this. We’ve got to be careful that it doesn’t snowball out of hand, because if it does, the people will believe that they turn to the courts for satisfaction – not MPs and democracy.”
It was a clear statement that the government ought to be able to break the law because they were elected and in power, and a warning to the judiciary that they shouldn’t challenge the actions of the Government for this reason. Blunkett was telling everyone prepared to listen that the rule of equality under the law was flawed. He argued that Governments should not be bound by the principle that a powerless person could sue the powerful when they broke the law, claiming, rather lamely, that everyone might do it.
It was an extraordinary outburst, dismissing at a stroke the opinions of Paine, Locke, Hobhouse and almost every liberal commentator of the last century. No clearer challenge to the principle of equality under the law could possibly be envisaged. A senior member of the Government, presiding over one of the great offices of state, was making the case that elected officials were more powerful than individuals, and this gave the officials the right to harm the individual if circumstances demanded it.
As Hobhouse said in his commentary on equality, “A man who has no legal rights against another, but stands entirely at his disposal, to be treated according to his caprice, is a slave to that other. He is “rightless.” It is astonishing that a Labour politician could argue for placing another in a position where they would have no more rights than a slave. That a party that once fought for workers rights should be so cavalier with citizen’s rights is just another example of how our political elite have mislaid their moral compass, and how, in the end, this puts us all in jeopardy.
In May 2007, Home Secretary John Reid became so exasperated by the courts rulings on the shortcomings of Labours terrorism legislation that he threatened to declare a state of emergency and suspend key parts of the human rights convention. Such a ‘nuclear option’ is justified only in times of war or national emergency, and the proposal was rightly denounced by the Liberal Democrats at the time as threatening to turn Britain into a ‘renegade state’.
The various attempts by an authoritarian-inclined Labour party to sideline civil rights during their time in office were largely unsuccessful, provoking increasingly bizarre whines of frustration from the bemused politicians. In 2003, Mr Justice Collins, president of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal, made a ruling which threatened to undermine the Government’s asylum policy.
An angry David Blunkett refused to accept the judgement, telling the judiciary; “I don’t want any mixed messages going out, so I’m making it absolutely clear that we don’t accept what Mr Justice Collins has said. We’ll seek to overturn it. We’ll continue operating a policy that we think is perfectly reasonable and fair.”
Here was a politician unashamedly insisting that the judge was wrong because, in his opinion, the policy being criticised was “reasonable and fair”. In other words, the judge’s ruling was just another opinion, carrying less weight than Blunketts. Totally absent was any respect for the role of the judiciary and their duty to conduct proceedings in a fair and legal way.
These and other pronouncements, highlight the growing schism between the political establishment and the judiciary, and the frustration felt by those who cannot accept the concept of judicial independence as a check on Government illegality. Successive Home Secretaries have found that when they have tried to introduce legislation that breaches human and civil rights an independent judiciary has blocked them. When the Government has then tried to circumvent or overturn the UK Courts decisions they have run afoul of the European Court, the ultimate guardian of our freedom from slavery.
A significant means of limiting the ability of the judiciary to challenge the Governments patchy human rights performance and the misconduct of the elites is to extricate Britain from European Court oversight and the limits imposed by the Human Rights Act. The Tories long to dump the Human Rights Act and have said so openly. At the last Conservative party conference, Home Secretary Teresa May announced; “The next Conservative manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act. It’s why Chris Grayling is leading a review of our relationship with the European court [of human rights],” she told the party’s conference. “And it’s why the Conservative position is clear – if leaving the European convention is what it takes to fix our human rights laws, that is what we should do,” she said to applause.
The threat by the Tories to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the European Courts is being sold on the basis of a miniscule number of “high profile” cases where rulings have appeared to run counter to public expectations, particularly where foreign-born defendants are involved. Rightwing newspapers have helped whip up public concern about the operation of the courts and helped create a climate where withdrawal from the convention can be contemplated.
If the Tories were to succeed in their plan there would be a significant threat to many of our human rights. To place our trust in an alternative body of rights composed by those who have hitherto shown little regard for them would be to throw away a jewel of jurisprudence in return for a promise. Given the public’s antipathy towards the promises of politicians it is amazing that this proposal has any traction, and yet one of our main political parties intends to make it a manifesto commitment. The Tories ambitions and Labour’s track record do not inspire confidence that our rights will be safe in the hands of either party. The Liberal Democrats must not be put in a position where their stance on human rights is unclear. There can be no compromise on this fundamental principle of liberalism. Opposition to the watering down of or withdrawal from, the European Convention, must be clear and absolute.
I hope that I have shown that without an independent and impartial police and judiciary, the principle of equality under the law is under grave threat. To counter this possibility, Liberal Democrats must oppose any further cuts to the policing budget or the handing over of key police responsibilities to private companies that are subject to Government influence, and campaign against any attempt to remove the UK from the protections of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Access to justice, as envisaged by Hobhouse, is becoming increasingly inaccessible.
As Hobhouse demanded in his treatise, the preservation of our rights depends on “cheap procedure and accessible courts, and the abolition of the power of money to purchase skilled advocacy.” This was a clear call for legal aid to support the citizen in obtaining the same level of justice as that available to the rich and powerful.
British courts are rightly viewed around the world as having the highest standards of excellence, and the reputation of British justice is something that our citizens can rightly be proud of. Great pains are taken to ensure that our courts are fair and consistent, but this comes at a cost. The annual legal aid bill is currently £2 billion, a figure the Minister for Justice plans to slash by at least 30%. This comes on top of cuts of 40% imposed by the previous Labour Government since coming to power in 1997, and despite the fact that costs have been falling.
Had there been a 70% cut to the NHS budget over the same period there would be riots in the streets, and yet people seem not to realise that being the victim of a miscarriage of justice through lack of legal representation, or to lose everything to a powerful and better represented opponent, can be as personally damaging or debilitating as poor medical treatment. Most of us believe that we will never have the need of legal help during our lifetime, or that it will be readily available if we do. Ironically, as more of our human and civil rights are eroded, that likelihood increases.
What would you do, for instance, if banks, eager to get hold of your equity, foreclosed on your mortgage even though your payments were up to date, and you had a good credit history? Couldn’t happen? It has, in the US, where some unscrupulous lenders “manufactured” documentation and forged signatures in order to obtain Court orders to seize homes. Many of their victims didn’t have access to legal funding, and found they were unable to challenge this “theft” of the equity they had built up in their homes. They were made homeless and destitute and were left without the protection of the courts because they didn’t have the resources to fight their case against well-funded banks. Of those who did manage to fight and win back possession, many found that the cost outweighed the value of the equity and they were left out of pocket.
Think of the rights you currently enjoy, and how many of them depend on the body of law, or on large, powerful organisations or institutions as guarantor. Your right to healthcare is guaranteed by the NHS, one of the biggest organisations in the world, an organisation whose actions can make the difference between whether you live or die. Your right to credit or a mortgage is controlled by large financial institutions that can deprive you of that facility at the touch of a button. Your freedom depends on an honest police service and just courts that are painstaking in their search for the truth. Your livelihood depends on the being paid for the work you do by those who employ you, and your job security is protected by laws that mean you cannot be fired at will. Your right to privacy is protected and the State cannot intercept your phone calls and e-mails without cause and judicial oversight, and your welfare benefits are dispensed by a Government agency bound by rules and regulations that require them to treat you with promptness, integrity and fairness.
Now think of what you might do if these organisations knew that they could treat you with contempt, safe in the knowledge that there was little chance of your being able to challenge them in the courts (some believe that this is already the reality). Like the hapless character played by Dan Ackroyd in the film Trading Places, you could find yourself very quickly in a hopeless situation, reliant on your wits and the generosity of friends. You would find out very quickly just how important was access to legal aid and affordable professional advice.
At a time when the elites are growing more powerful and lawless, when political parties threaten to withdraw from the conventions that are the best guarantor of our rights and replace them with a version of their own, the public pressure should be for greater investment in our legal aid system to safeguard our rights, not cuts to areas of coverage.
Politicians often forget that our ancestors introduced courts to bring law and order to what had hitherto been a barely governable, violent and factional realm that represented as great a threat to their rule as any foreign invader or ambitious usurper. Allowing ordinary people to settle disputes or wrongs within a framework of laws and sanctions gave them a course of action that was preferable to lynching, blood-feuds and violent retaliation that could unsettle a kingdom. To that end, providing access to courts is as much in the interests of the rulers as the ruled. If there is anyone who doubts this they only have to look at a relatively recent example. Between 1969 and 1972 a large area of Derry, a city in the UK, was beyond police control and the jurisdiction of the courts. It was known, ironically, as “Free Derry”. Criminal behaviour and civil disputes were “dealt with” by paramilitaries, whose decisions were quick and punishments harsh, including execution, tarring and feathering and kneecapping, either by bullet or (incredibly, for health and safety reasons) by use of an electric drill. In Derry, people living within the area controlled by these groups, many of whom were little more than armed teenagers, had little option but to turn to them when they were wronged, and little choice but to abide by their decisions. We should be wary of creating a situation where people are unable to access justice through the courts, because, inevitably, there will be criminal gangs waiting in the wings, keen to offer their version of justice for money, or to gain control of parts of our cities. If that were to happen, the cost to our country would dwarf any savings made in the legal aid budget. It is a safe bet that if the elites themselves felt threatened, the amount of Government spending wouldn’t be an issue.
But cutting legal aid is not the only means by which justice is becoming increasingly inaccessible. The current chaos in the courts caused by cuts to the interpreter service is leading to delay, costly postponements, the disillusionment of witnesses, the expense, and more importantly, the injustice of the prolonged detention of defendants who are technically, and often are actually innocent, with the possibility that this will eventually lead to massive compensation claims at a future date. Making small savings in one budget, only to cause massive expenditure elsewhere, is simply inept, narrow-minded thinking at its worst. To Liberal Democrats it also hits at the principle of accessibility to justice that Hobhouse argued was the key to maintaining equality under the law. Being subjected to court proceedings can be daunting at the best of times. How much more intimidating must be proceedings that the defendant cannot understand because of the poor standard of some interpreters, or where there is improvised interpretation of those proceedings. We in this country have a poor opinion of foreign police forces and courts who fail to provide interpreters when dealing with British citizens, and are sympathetic when we hear of miscarriages of justice involving foreign prosecutors and erring tourists. And yet, we are fast gaining an international reputation for being little better. Such a reputation may be undeserved, yet it threatens to damage the good standing in which our justice system is held, and which helps generate billions of pounds of inward investment by those seeking an advanced country with a reliable legal system and sound laws.
Our legal system is as important to our economy as our financial institutions. Indeed, the financial institutions couldn’t function efficiently without it. It must be in our national interest to ensure that it remains highly regarded and respected as an effective institution for everyone.
I opened this article by arguing that Liberal Democrats should oppose any further cuts in the policing budget as this threatened the independence of the police service from Government interference, and an independent police is crucial to maintaining the equality under the law that protects our most fundamental freedoms.
I hope I have shown just how tenuous is our hold on the liberties we currently take for granted. The threat we face if the rich and powerful succeed in establishing a two-tier rule of law is real. We are already at a place where they can commit offences as and when it suits their interests, while we are increasingly bound by its controls and are less able to challenge injustice or malpractice. The observations of Leonard Hobhouse on our civil rights are as relevant now as they were when he wrote them just over a century ago, but even he could not have foreseen how much the political and financial elite have removed themselves from legal restraint and punishment.
The only official body in a position to investigate, arrest and prosecute criminality at the highest levels is the police. To defenestrate the police, claiming economic difficulties as its justification, is to undermine the last significant institution that can hold the elites to account. There is much about current policing that needs reform, and its leadership in recent years is rightly under scrutiny, but we must not let our concerns about this be used by the rich and powerful to undermine the only real threat to their conduct; an independent, honest and scrupulous police service putting the law first and foremost.
With the determination of the Tory party to continue cutting the police down to size, and Labours authoritarian inclinations showing little sign of abating, it is for the Liberal Democrats to show that their historic concern for human and civil rights remains as strong as ever. I call on the party to make clear its opposition to any further reduction in the strength and capacity of our police service, before it is too late.
Posted December 8, 2013
Many members of the Asian community traditionally like to own gold jewellery, or give gold jewellery as gifts. As a result, they have been targeted by thieves who are all too well aware that Asian gold tends to be of great purity (22-24 carats) and that world gold prices are at the highest level in history.
As a police inspector I became aware of the extent of the problem as far back as 2005. I also learned of the limited response that the police could provide at a local level. As reports of attacks came in from every part of the country it became clear to me that some form of national strategy was required; a strategy that put communication, reassurance and coordinated action at its forefront. However, back in 2005, the Home Office had other pressing concerns, and the problem remained ostensively a local one.
By the time I retired from the police in 2008 little had changed. Police advice on improving security, reporting suspicious activity and marking or photographing ones jewellery remained pertinent, but didn’t really address the fears of the community that the police were always one step behind the offenders.
This is not to say that the police are doing nothing about the problem. Far from it. Different police forces are putting what resources they can into tackling these crimes in their own force areas. The Metropolitan Police found that Asian homes account for nearly a quarter of all burglaries where jewellery is stolen, that the offences peak between October and January, when family celebrations tend to take place, and that Asian homes accounted for 16% of all repeated burglaries. They have formed a specialist unit to deal with the problem.
Other police forces have recognized the problem, and each has devised their own local approach to tackle it. But what is lacking is a national plan to link all of these operations under an umbrella strategy that can share and respond to intelligence, scrutinize the industry that deals in gold, particularly those who invite any Tom, Dick or Harry to post gold to them for cash, and use legislation such as the Proceeds of Crime Act to deter those who deal with gold in significant quantities, and keep inadequate records.
This week I attended a meeting at the Didsbury Mosque, chaired by local MP John Leech and attended by the police. Over one hundred concerned members of the local Asian community were there, and many told heartbreaking stories of how they had been the victims of burglary.
As the police responded to their questions it became clear to me that the problem was still viewed largely as a local one. When I asked if there had been any moves to coordinate between forces and make the issue a national one the police had to admit that they didn’t know, but offered to get back to me. I suspect that the answer will be no as it would undoubtedly have been announced publicly if such a strategy was even being considered.
What the Asian community need now is not political point-scoring, but national recognition that there is a problem that is being dealt with inadequately by local police forces and downplayed by local politicians and some media. This is a time for leadership and positive steps to get to grips with a deeply worrying issue for the Asian community.
I call on our Police Commissioners and Chief Officers to get together and come up with a holistic national strategy to deal with these crimes more effectively, and reassure the Asian community that their concerns are recognized at a national level.
Posted October 19, 2013
In October last year, three police officers representing rank-and-file members of the Police Federation, the police union, met with then Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell in his constituency office. The meeting came at the height of the so-called ‘Plebgate’ affair, where Mitchell had been accused of using the word ‘Plebs’ to describe officers who refused to open the main gates of Downing Street for him.
Mitchell denied using the word, but wouldn’t accuse the officers of lying, suggesting instead that they had misheard him. What he might have said that they so egregiously misconstrued was not made clear. However, Mitchell was determined that he wouldn’t be ‘misunderstood’ again; he covertly recorded the meeting.
The three Federation representatives left Mitchell’s office and spoke to reporters waiting outside. What they said is currently the subject of a row that has drawn in the Prime Minister, Home Secretery, three Chief Constables, Police and Crime Commissioners, the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee, the IPCC, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
I have since read the transcript of the interview between Mitchell and the Federation reps, and viewed the tape of the ensuing press meeting. I believe any fair-minded person would agree that the comments made by the officers did not represent an accurate account of what was said in the meeting. In my view, those officers owe Mitchell an apology.
However, in the midst of all the hysteria being whipped up by this particular incident there are certain factors that should be kept in focus. The three Federation reps were not acting as police officers but as ‘shop stewards’. There was no question of them arresting or prosecuting Mitchell for anything. They were representing their members when they met with the hapless politician, and they were heavily involved in furthering a political agenda aimed at countering what they view as hostility towards their members by a Tory party with its own agenda of cuts and privatisation.
This was very much a ‘political’ meeting and not a misuse by police officers of their powers of arrest. The Federation reps would not be the first to leave an acrimonious meeting with a politician and give a misleading account to a reporter. Should they be held to a higher standard because they are also police officers? Yes, IF they were acting in the execution of their duty. But if, as some are demanding, they should be prosecuted because, as ‘union’ reps, they misled the press about a meeting with a politician, then I suspect there are going to be a lot of prosecutions pending.
Are the PM and Home Secretery really saying that anyone misleading the press or the public about a conversation with a politician should be prosecuted? If that is so, will we soon see the handcuffs snapping on the wrists of Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, or anyone else connected with dodgy dossiers? Will we see TV archive and YouTube being trawled for examples of politicians being ‘economical with the truth’ that can now be used to prosecute them? Will Damien McBride and Gordon Brown be thrown into the back of a van and dragged in for questioning about the McPoison years?
There is plenty of ‘evidence’ out there of politicians deliberately misleading the press, and by implication, us, on issues more important than what words might have been exchanged in a hissy fit at a gate. If the politicians are serious about prosecuting those in the public eye that mislead the media and the public, then three cheers for them and their reforming zeal. However, I have a sneaking feeling that, once again, they are misleading us. There seems to be a lot of it about.
Posted September 18, 2013
Today, we have been marking the first anniversary of the dreadful killing of two brave women, Fiona Hughes and Nicola Bone, police officers who died doing their duty on our behalf.
Our thoughts will always be with the families, friends and loved ones of Nicola and Fiona, and their sacrifice will be remembered and recognised in the years yet to come.
At times like these, it is often difficult to find words that incapsulate what one feel’s one ought to say to those left behind, and yet the urge to say something is innate, part of our human need to console those in pain. This is made all the more difficult when one recalls the tragic circumstances of their passing.
What happened to Fiona and Nicola cannot be erased from our memory, nor should it. But the passage of time can bring it’s own form of comfort, expressed, at least in some small way, by the following observation;
“The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”
― Gabriel García Márquez
We will always remember them.
Posted July 28, 2013
During the PCC election last November I nominated Dr Jackie Pearcey to be Deputy PCC if I was elected. There was an all-male list of candidates for the post and I felt that Doctor Pearcey brought a balance and insight that would be lacking if the only perspective on offer was a male-dominated one.
The decision was made after much consideration of the pros and cons, and was put to the electorate from the outset. Tony Lloyd dismissed my proposal and argued publicly against the need for a Deputy PCC, stating “I don’t need a deputy, I will be the commissioner for everyone.”
This week we learn that Tony has appointed an old mate of his as Deputy PCC, on a salary of 55k a year. Jim Battle may be a pal of long standing, and loyal to his good friend, but I wonder what balance he brings to the role, and whether he could put the duties and responsibilities of the office before personal loyalties?
I also argued during the election that too much money was being diverted into bureaucracy and away from frontline policing, a critical issue when the police were facing cuts to their budgets. Tony Lloyd didn’t argue with me on this issue, but then again he didn’t tell the electorate that he planned to establish the largest back room team of any Police and Crime Commissioner in Britain. So much for cutting bureaucracy.
Tony Lloyd didn’t tell the electorate of his plans to raise the Council Tax across Greater Manchester either. The long-suffering taxpayers might have accepted such a rise if it was intended to spend it on policing, but I suspect they are less happy to see their contribution diverted to paying for jobs for old friends with no policing experience or background, or a bloated admin. staff.
Many will recall that during the election I said that the job of PCC was overpaid. Tony famously argued that he wouldn’t take a penny less than the 100k salary, and didn’t think the level of pay was ‘relevant’. I still think the salary is too high, particularly during these austere times. Tony must think himself very fortunate to have turned his back on being an MP. After all, the furore surrounding the suggestion that MP’s should be paid £75k has probably scuppered that idea for some time.
During a hustings organised by the Manchester Evening News, Tony said that his priority was to fight the Government cuts to the police budget. I pointed out that his own Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, had announced publicly that Labour wouldn’t oppose the cuts. Tony announced to the audience that he has spoken to Balls by phone that very morning and that this was untrue. Nine months later I have yet to hear what Tony has done to fight the cuts, which was the main platform of his manifesto. Certainly Balls hasn’t publicly backed this pledge.
Many people, including me, had their doubts about the role of Police and Crime Commissioners. I eventually took the view that they were here to stay and the best thing to do was to shape the office so that it offered the broadest mechanism for holding the police to account , and developing a police service that met the expectations of the people, while cutting bureaucracy and unnecessary administration, in favour of frontline policing.
We could have had a Commissioner’s Office that involved the people, and which we could be proud of. I still believe that this is possible, some day, but it won’t be achieved by the current Commissioner and the regime he has established in Greater Manchester. Perhaps it was too much to ask for, but it shouldn’t be too much to hope for.
Posted May 23, 2013
The BBC has carried out an investigation into the cost of Police and Crime Commissioners, with findings that come as no surprise. BBC
The investigation, by BBC Home Affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani, was frustrated by the lack of a central register of information. Ed Brown, of the BBC political research unit, also found difficulty in obtaining data. “There were huge variations in the levels of transparency on this data from PCC to PCC,” he reported. He went on to say, “Some of them were helpful; but the vast majority had labyrinthine websites, many had failed to publish much of the information they were required to under statute and press officers were sometimes difficult to get hold of.
“It is difficult to see how an interested member of the public would be able to get hold of this information, which is meant to be freely available.”
The BBC investigation revealed that the Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner employ’s 40 staff, far and away the most of any PCC. The investigator’s also published the salary of many of the Chief Executives employed by the PCC’s, however the Greater Manchester Chief Executive’s salary was not included.
The public cost of Police and Crime Commissioner’s is a particularly sensitive issue in Greater Manchester, where the PCC’s first major decision was to increase the Council Tax police precept. With public mistrust of this new office still high, it is important that PCC’s are as open and transparent as possible.
Greater Manchester’s PCC, Tony Lloyd, may have good reason for employing almost twice as many staff as the next largest force in Britain, but this information isn’t easy to find. In his recently published Policing Plan, the Commissioner calls on the police to be more open. A good start might be to lead by example.
Posted April 24, 2013
For over ten years, successive Home Secretary’s have wrestled with the problem of how to deport Abu Qatada, an Al Qaeda-linked Palestinian who was initially granted political asylum in the UK in 1994.
The crux of the problem is that the Jordanian Government wishes to try Qatada, using evidence that may have been obtained through torture. Britain is a signatory of the United Nations Convention against torture and is bound not to deport people to states that practice or permit it. Indeed, we cannot deport anyone to a state that may be complicit in the use of torture.
Which makes the suggestion by Home Secretary Teresa May, (that the Tories will work to scrap the European Human Rights Act because it has prevented Qatada’s deportation), somewhat puzzling. The UN is not the EU. If the Tories did manage to dump the Human Rights Act, we would still be signatories to the UN Convention against torture. Is anyone honestly arguing that the UK should withdraw from the UN because of its stance on torture?
When Governments toy with the idea of withdrawing from international obligations, or dumping long-established legislation, we need to be very clear about the implications. We need to ask the question, “Who stands to gain or lose most?”
Laws exist to protect ordinary people, to help level the playing field between the rich and powerful and the vast majority of citizens who cannot match them in resources and influence. When I hear people talk of cutting laws in order to get around a legal problem I am put in mind of a scene from that memorable play, “A Man For All Seasons”, by Robert Bolt.
In the play Thomas More (another troublesome cleric), argued that laws were so important to the welfare of ordinary people that they should protect even Satan, surely the epitome of evil in that age. In a famous exchange with his prospective son-in-law, More said:… “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down…d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”
More had a point that is as relevant now as it was five and a half centuries ago. The way to deal with Qatada is to use the law. Ironically, around the world, our difficulties in deporting Qatada are being viewed by many as proof that Britain is a law-abiding, advanced civilization, determined that even someone as repugnant as Qatada receives the benefit of British jurisprudence. If Qatada is finally dealt with through the law, it will only reflect well on Britain, its people and institutions.
I do not profess to be as legally astute as the silks advising the Government, but one thing about this case has puzzled me. In 1999, Qatada was sentenced to life in his absence by a Jordanian court, and in 2000 received another 15 years. Qatada has fought deportation by arguing that he may be put on trial using tainted evidence. If a Jordanian Court were to dismiss the outstanding charges against Qatada on the basis that the evidence may be unsafe, his main grounds for appeal would be lost. He might then be deported to Jordan to complete the prison sentence he received in 1999, a sentence he apparently didn’t appeal.
Perhaps the Home Office should pay a Jordanian lawyer to get the charges there dropped, something Qatada would not be in a position to prevent. Then, (if we can get around our UN commitment), he could be packed off back to Jordan post haste, legally. The Jordanians would get Brownie Points by proving to the world that they don’t prosecute using evidence obtained under torture, and we would be rid of Qatada for once and for all.
Now, how British is that!
Posted April 11, 2013
When I was a serving Police Officer I, and my colleagues recognized the value of co-operation with other European police services. The exchange of information saw many serious crimes solved and prevented, and allowed various countries, including our own, to extradite each other’s wanted suspects.
That any Government would want to turn the clock back to the bad old days of the ‘Costa Del Crime’ seems incredible, and yet this is what the Tory-dominated Home Office are considering.
The plan, to withdraw co-operation between police forces, will turn Britain into a safe haven for foreign criminals and terrorists fleeing justice in their own countries. It will also make Britain a target for foreign criminals keen to commit crime in a country they cannot be extradited to, and re-establish the continental ‘bolt holes’ that British criminals could escape to when the heat was on.
Chris Davies, Manchester’s campaigning Liberal Democrat MEP has said “All politicians should be able to agree that allowing Police Officers to talk to each other across national borders is a good idea – after all, criminals do.”
This blatantly political move seems intended to placate the Tory right while putting people at risk. It threatens to reverse the many positive developments in police cooperation over the last twenty years and will benefit nobody but organized and professional criminals. Liberal Democrats are opposed to this proposal, and have promised to work hard to block it, but it will need goodwill and common sense from other parties to ensure that it fails to get off the ground.
Whatever your political persuasion, or your views on the EU, this is one area where public safety should come first.
You know it makes sense.
Posted March 22, 2013
On 24 October last year, on this blog, I talked about how to put more police officers on the beat by changing the way we manage those with mental health problems. For too long, police custody suites have been used as ‘dumping grounds’ for people who, to all intends and purposes, are ill. For too long, the NHS has failed in its responsibility towards these most vulnerable of people, leaving frontline police staff to do their best, with limited powers and diminishing resources.
I understand that the Home Secretary, Theresa May has written to Police and Crime Commissioners to encourage them to work more closely with NHS Commissioners to address problems associated with the management of mental health issues. This is a step in the right direction, but in my experience the NHS has been the problem, not the Home Office.
The Police and Crime Commissioner must insist that the NHS assume greater responsibility for the provision of more mental health assessment centres while the police work on improved training for staff in recognizing and dealing effectively with those experiencing mental health issues.
Reducing police involvement in the management of those brought to crisis through their ill health is not just a better use of scarce police resources, it is a more humane policy. I would hope that we will begin to see a significant reduction in the involvement of frontline police in the treatment of those with mental health issues. This is a problem that can no longer be ignored.