This isn’t the first time in recent years that the police have probed Downing Street

25 Jan

In another dramatic day for the Government, the Metropolitan police has said it will be investigating the allegations around Downing Street and Whitehall parties. Cressida Dick explained that the force had launched a criminal investigation, following information coming in from the Cabinet Office.

Clearly this is an extraordinary event, as evidenced by the media, many of whom point out how “damaging” and “extraordinary” this is for the Prime Minister, already under huge pressure as a result of the rest of “partygate”. Speaking of the update, Angela Rayner, Deputy Labour Leader, said: “With Boris Johnson’s Downing Street now under police investigation, how on earth can he think he can stay on as prime minister?”

Even for something so drastic, it is interesting to note that this is not the first time the police have investigated Downing Street, having previously looked into the-cash-for-honours scandal under the last Labour Government. To give a brief summary of events: this debacle began in 2006 when Angus MacNeil, of the SNP, complained that four wealthy businessmen had been nominated for peerages by Tony Blair, after they had lent the Labour Party £5 million.

Although the peerages were blocked by the House of Lords appointments commission, it wasn’t long before the police launched an investigation into whether laws banning the sale of honours had been broken. A total of 136 people were interviewed. Blair himself was questioned by the police, albeit not under caution (for which he would have probably had to resign) and instead as a “witness”. Labour’s chief fundraiser was arrested twice on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. More on the timeline of events here.

Eventually the police, which compiled a 216-page report on the cash-for-honours scandal for the Crown Prosecution Service, said it had insufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone. But people have pointed out just how destabilising it was for Blair’s government. Perhaps Iain Dale put it best today, when he tweeted: “When it happened to Blair, his government was thrown off course by it. It’s a terrible indictment of the whole No 10 operation.”

Blair, of course, stepped down the following year. Who knows what Johnson’s fate will be through the next few weeks, but it looks like deja vu in one sense.

The fall in rape prosecutions. What’s behind the statistics?

22 Jul

Out of every Prime Minister’s Questions this year, perhaps the one Boris Johnson most wishes he could “turn back time” on and do again is the session of June 23.

During the course, Keir Starmer pushed the Prime Minister on a matter that – unlike most of the Government’s lockdown policies – he found hard to respond to. “On the prime minister’s watch, rape prosecutions and convictions are at a record low”, Starmer warned.

While Johnson apologised for the “trauma” victims and survivors have gone through “because of inadequacies of the criminal justice system”, his pay off line appeared to trivialise the subject.

“We’re getting on with the job – they jabber, we jab. They dither and we deliver. They vacillate and we vaccinate”, he said of Labour – a remark for which he received huge criticism.

It’s no wonder that the topic flummoxed the Prime Minister, due to the gravity of the situation. In the year ending March 2020, police recorded 58,856 cases of rape in England and Wales, yet this led to just 2,102 prosecutions – a decrease from the year before, in which 3,043 prosecutions took place.

So serious are the statistics that Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, apologised to rape victims, and Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, said in her 2019/2020 report that “In effect, what we are witnessing is the de-criminalisation of rape.”

How have prosecutions become so low? Although no one factor can be blamed for the record low rates, several broad explanations have been put forward for the decrease in cases reaching court.

The first is that a secret target set by the CPS in 2016 – to ensure convictions in 60 per cent of rape cases – backfired. The suggestion is that it led prosecutors to drop more difficult and/ or “weaker” cases, in order to hit the goal. In 2018, the CPS u-turned on its benchmark, but its effects are still likely to percolate.

The second factor that has been blamed is funding cuts to the CPS – while demand for its services increased. The Institute of Government estimates that funding was reduced by 28 per cent between 2009-10 and 2018-19 (after adjusting for inflation), with the number of staff at the CPS dropping by 2,410 between 2010/11 and 2018/19. 

In 2019, the Government put forward £85 million in extra funding for the CPS. However, this may take a while to have an impact on prosecution rates.

The third factor, which is part of the reason services are so stretched, is the amount of evidence the police and prosecutors now have to deal with. 

Technology, especially, has transformed the justice system, giving legal teams greater evidence to look over. But it means that more resources are needed – at the same time they have been depleting.

Furthermore, it can be worrying for victims to have to hand over their phone/ technological records. As Baird warned in her report, some victims “cannot face the unwarranted and unacceptable intrusion into their privacy.”

She added that: “In some cases, their assailant is completely unknown to them, making it impossible to understand why examining the data on their phone is considered to be a reasonable line of enquiry.”

Since 2020, the CPS and police have stopped using a digital consent form that people alleging rape had been asked to sign, which gave full access to their mobile data. 

Baird’s report highlights other reasons why the system is struggling. One is that there are still unsympathetic attitudes to victims in 2021. 

“[M]any myths about rape still persist, with victims being unfairly blamed due to what they were wearing at the time or whether they were under the influence of alcohol”, Baird wrote. So we need an attitudinal shift too.

Buckland has been deeply apologetic about the lack of convictions – promising to “do a lot better” in the future and blaming budget cuts for the fall in conviction rates.

A recent government review set out measures to improve the system. These include reducing the time victims are without their phones (to have them returned within 24 hours), and to change the way in which cross-examinations take place (videoing them earlier and away from the courtroom).

It also wants the amount of cases going to court to return to “at least 2016 levels”, and there will be scorecards in order to monitor this.

Even so, Baird and other campaigners are concerned the proposals don’t go far enough, and will take too long. In reversing the statistics, the Government has its work cut out.

Gareth Johnson: We must overhaul the way animal cruelty is investigated and prosecuted

20 May

Gareth Johnson is the MP for Dartford.

We have all seen our way of life change over the past 12 months, and many people have been able to own the pet they have always wanted. Estimates suggest 3.2 million households have purchased a pet in the last year, with puppy sales increasing by over 100 per cent.

As demand has soared, so have the opportunities for criminals who have long sought to profit from the possessions that society most demands. It is with this rise in mind that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, announced in April a taskforce to combat increasing rates of dog theft, recognising this is no longer a crime of opportunity, but one often carefully planned by organised criminal gangs.

Whilst many dogs are stolen to be sold, a large number are stolen specifically to be bred in puppy farms, often in the most appalling of conditions. It is here that the link between dog theft and animal cruelty is so apparent. Reports of illegal puppy farming have risen five-fold in England in the last ten years, and the RSPCA report they have uncovered large criminal gangs making millions of pounds from puppy farming.

I have campaigned for many years for tougher sentencing for dog theft. At present, the guidelines that courts follow when sentencing people for dog theft require them to consider the financial value of the ‘item’ stolen; if the item is of low value, custody is not within the consideration of the court. This part of the problem can be easily solved through the Sentencing Guidelines Council reviewing the guidelines to ensure that where the theft of a family pet is involved, its monetary value is irrelevant to the sentence.

Whilst we need to ensure those that steal dogs are sent to prison, we need to ensure that the link between dog theft and animal cruelty is not only properly investigated, but also prosecuted.

As with any offence of theft, offences of dog theft are investigated by the police and then taken to court and prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). However, offences of animal cruelty are currently investigated and prosecuted by the RSPCA.

The RSPCA have indicated that they are exploring transferring prosecutions to the CPS and I believe this would be a very welcome move.

The role of the RSPCA presently is both one of investigator and prosecutor. Whilst the relationship between the CPS and the Police can at times be difficult, the separation of the two means that there is more scope for review and oversight as to the type of cases being prosecuted.

Prior to becoming an MP, I worked in the Court Service for many years. It was routine for the RSPCA to instruct local solicitors to prosecute cases for them. Not only is this expensive, but the majority of cases, whilst wholly worthwhile, tended to focus on isolated cases of mistreatment or neglect rather than looking at the more sophisticated organised networks of criminals that we know commit these offences.

With the Government committed to increasing prison sentences for serious perpetrators of animal cruelty from six months to five years, we have a real opportunity to get to grips with those who routinely farm pets for profit.

Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive of the RSPCA, has spoken of the huge responsibility the change in the law places on the charity’s shoulders. The route the RSPCA wish to take is that the CPS will deal with the legal processes and the RSPCA, with their knowledge of animals, will be responsible for the investigative work. This is the relationship the CPS currently have with the police and it would be the best option to ensure a less fragmented approach and fewer missed opportunities to stop these criminal gangs.

Philip Booth: Ordinary people have suffered under our hate crime rules. Patel is right to change the system.

26 Apr

Philip Booth is Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University.

The Times reports today that Priti Patel is to stop police from recording so-called hate incidents that are not crimes over fears that the policy is harming people’s employment prospects and infringing on free speech.

Currently the police are allowed to keep records on those accused of non-criminal incidents. However, Patel has “expressed concern” that these “can ruin lives when they are disclosed as part of vetting processes such as the Home Office’s disclosure and barring service.”

Some of the problems with hate crime legislation do not just arise from the potential disclosure of incidents in vetting, nor prosecution under the Equality Act 2010, but from police investigations which can easily be triggered. Three cases illustrate the problem.

In the first, a Baptist Church in Norfolk displayed a poster suggesting that, if you did not believe in God, you would go to hell. The bottom of the poster depicted flames. Amusingly, adjacent to the poster was a notice offering people a very warm welcome in the church. 

This is standard Christian teaching for some (though not for all) Christian denominations. Nevertheless, a 20-year-old complained to the police stating that the poster of hell was offensive to non-Christians, and that it was his “understanding that Christianity is inclusive and loving in nature.” The police registered the poster as a “hate incident”. 

The police stated: “National guidance required us to investigate the circumstances and the matter has been recorded as a hate incident. Having spoken to the pastor of the church, it has been agreed the poster will be taken down.”

There seems to be no doubt that the police believed that they were required to register the poster as a hate incident, that they visited the pastor and that the visit caused the poster to be removed.

In the second case, Oluwole Ilesanmi was arrested and questioned by the Metropolitan Police for alleged hate speech crimes while street preaching. He was then released and awarded £2,500 compensation for wrongful arrest and humiliating and distressing treatment.

The third example involves Sarah Phillimore, a barrister, who was reported to the police for a hate incident after she made comments on social media that referred to male offenders who claimed to be transgender and who were housed in women’s prisons as “men”.

In addition to the direct impact of police involvement on free speech in these cases, there will be an indirect effect. Few people wish to go through a police investigation, and citizens will be put off from speaking freely because they are worried about the consequences.

It is interesting to ponder how that doyen of modern-day social liberalism J S Mill would have determined when free speech was legitimate or had to be constrained. He would have said that it was unacceptable for the law to prevent any individual or religious group talking publicly about “eternal damnation” except in very limited circumstances, such as when the term is used as a deliberate part of a process of mental intimidation of an individual. The limited circumstances are an important exception and a legitimate target of the law. And, indeed, the prosecution of hate speech seems to be determined by the right principles.

A hate crime is defined by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in the following way:

“The term ‘hate crime’ can be used to describe a range of criminal behaviour where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity…A hate crime can include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying, as well as damage to property.”

This is a reasonable definition. The CPS advice also sets a high hurdle for a successful prosecution.

The problem is not with the concept of hate crimes as such but, as Patel has noted, the recording of hate incidents. Incidents are recorded as hate incidents by the police, and have to be investigated as such, if, in the opinion of the alleged victim or any other person, an incident was motivated by hatred or prejudice based on one of the stated characteristics in the Equality Act. 

This can lead to controversial but reasonable opinions being the basis of a visit from the police or even arrest. Quite ordinary people have suffered from such visits and the recording of hate incidents intimidates citizens into not expressing reasonable views. 

It is easy to see how the threat of the reporting of a hate incident may stifle free speech and debate. Indeed, in two of the aforementioned cases, such action led to the cessation of the activity. 

This was despite the fact that the complainant in the first case was an atheist and was surely not intimidated by the poster. Many people will simply not wish to encounter the police in the course of their daily lives and they should not feel inhibited from speaking freely for fear that they might do so. Patel is right to take action.

Matt Vickers: The killing of Andrew Harper. Why I, alongside 22 other MPs, wrote to the Attorney General last Friday.

5 Aug

Matt Vickers is the MP for Stockton South.

The images of Henry Long, Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole laughing during their trial for the killing of PC Andrew Harper truly pierced the public consciousness. Their sniggering and pride in the devastation they caused has desperately angered the British people, and last week’s manslaughter verdict feels out of step with such a brutal crime.

On August 15, 2019, PC Harper was called to the scene of the attempted theft of a quad bike. The three teenage boys involved sped away in their car, PC Harper became tangled and was dragged for over a mile, before dying on the road. His killers swerved time and time again, violently trying to shake him off, yet they claim they were unaware he was even stuck to the car.

Such a crime against one of our brave police officers must surely be met with only the strongest and toughest of sentences. Anything less beggars’ belief and flies in the face of justice.

It is for this reason I, alongside 22 other MPs, wrote to the Attorney General last Friday. We are urging her to refer the case to the Court of Appeal and recommend that a full life-term should be served. Faith in public order is integral; for our justice system to work we must protect those who work to uphold and defend it.

Just take a few moments to read Lissie Harper’s open letter, published on Facebook. PC Harper’s wife’s letter is both eloquent and direct, devastated yet composed:

“I implore you to hear my words, see the facts that are laid out before us, and I ask with no expectations other than hope that you might help me to make these changes be considered, to ensure that Andrew is given the retrial that he unquestionably deserves and to see that the justice system in our country is the solid ethical foundation that it rightly should be. Not the joke that so many of us now view it to be.”

His innocent loved ones have been left without closure; a common-sense approach to justice is needed. Unfortunately, many would say the ultimate aim of securing a retrial is unlikely, and I would be choosing to overlook significant legal precedents if I was to say otherwise.

It is very rare for “not guilty” verdicts to be overturned, regardless of how intense external pressures and public demand may be. In this instance, there is a potential road to a retrial, but it is uphill and scattered with obstacles. The High Court would be able to order a retrial if one of the defendants was acquitted because of “intimidation of, or interference with, a witness or juror”.

From the very beginning of the trial, there were allegations of attempts by supporters of the accused to distort the trial. At one stage, the presiding judge ordered extra security measures to protect the jury, following information from the police thatan attempt is being considered by associates of the defendants to intimidate the jury”. This alone creates the space for an investigation into the conduct of the trial from the Crown Prosecution Service. It could potentially be crucial.

It is obvious that PC Harper was a wonderful man. He had the sense of public duty to serve, even when his shift was up and he was due to head home.

We must stand alongside those who run towards danger to protect us at times like this. The intuitive recognition of what is right and what is wrong is something the people of this country have at their core; it is this very spirit and hunger for justice that must now be harnessed.