Thursday, 6 September 2018

Boiling blood is not enough!

Every so often, like most people, I sit down to have a quiet read of my newspaper and, having scanned a court report on the prosecution of a serious crime, suddenly find myself outraged by what appears to be a let-off for the criminal. ‘Litter-picking’ instead of ‘locked-up’. ‘Fine’ instead of ‘fixed-term prison sentence’.
Somewhat surprisingly, it is now 30 years since the law was changed to allow the Attorney-General (the government’s chief legal adviser) to refer a case to the Court of Appeal if she or he thinks the criminal has been given an ‘unduly lenient sentence’. Less surprisingly, “it has made my blood boil” is not one of the legal reasons for referral, although it might provide the initiative to do something about it rather than just explode with exasperation.
There was considerable opposition to this legal change, mainly because the procedure offends against the principle of double jeopardy, the legal principle which says a person cannot be tried for the same crime twice.
It’s a widely adopted principle – for example, in the USA it is written into the Constitution as the Fifth Amendment - designed to protect against judicial tyranny in which citizens could be repeatedly prosecuted for the same offence however often a jury had found them innocent. But, as with many such principles, it is the ‘exceptions that prove the rule’.
There were clearly cases where "new, compelling, reliable and substantial evidence" had come to light and it would be outrageous for individuals to remain unprosecuted of very serious criminal offences just because they had been acquitted at a previous trial when that evidence had not been available.
I’m pleased to say that, in 2005, the Labour government – with prominent leadership of the initiative by my good friend David Blunkett – changed the law to allow the possibility of a second prosecution. Despite all the loud opposition, the sky has not fallen down and the sun has not stopped shining. I would be very surprised, if now, anyone would want to reverse the changes.
The highest profile example of the new law in practice was the renewed prosecution and successful conviction of two of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, an innocent young man, with his whole life ahead of him, who was brutally attacked and stabbed to death just because he was black. There could have been no better example to illustrate why the change in the law was right.
When considering sentences after convictions for serious criminal offences, judges are required to pay regard to sentencing guidelines, determined by a Sentencing Council. Of course, there are many factors to be taken in to account in determining the proper sentence in respect of a particular crime and a particular criminal and, for the most part, the judges get it right.
But, it’s when they don’t that our hackles rise.
Only certain types of cases can be reviewed – they are ones like convictions for murder, rape, robbery, serious fraud or drugs-related, child cruelty, hate and terror crimes.
But, you may be surprised to learn that anyone can ask for a sentence to be reviewed. You don’t have to be involved in the case. Only one person needs to ask for the Attorney-General to act. But you have just 28 days after sentencing to make your complaint. [You can find out more at]
In fact, more people are making challenges under the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme than ever before. Last year, 943 referrals were made to the Attorney-General’s Office, compared with 837 the year before. Just to put this in context, there were more than 80,000 cases in the Crown Courts last year.
Of these, the Attorney-General referred 173 cases to the Court of Appeal, compared with 190 in 2016. Of those, 137 sentences (79%) were increased compared with 141 (74%) the year before. A record number (58) of sentences for rape and sexual offences were increased by senior judges last year because they were too lenient.
The Court of Appeal will only act in relation to a sentence only where it is unduly lenient (not simply lenient), because it falls outside the range of the sentencing guidelines.
So, next time you find your hackles rising and your blood boiling because you think a criminal has got off far too easily, and with a sentence less than the guidelines suggest, don’t just explode in exasperation, write straightaway to the Attorney-General. You might make history.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Crime busting

In his latest book Fear: Trump in the White House, the veteran journalist and author Bob Woodward who, with Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post, exposed the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of US President Richard Nixon before he was impeached, reports that his lawyers warned President Trump that he might end up in prison if he testified to the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the US elections.
Lawyer John Dowd is reported to have told Mr Trump: “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit.” Apparently, he told Mr Trump: “You are not a good witness. Mr President, I’m afraid I just can’t help you.”
Woodward then reports Dowd as saying of Trump “He just made something up. That’s his nature.” Unsurprisingly, Mr Dowd resigned from the White House team in March.
Today, Prime Minister Theresa May told us that two Russian men, officers in the GRU – the Russian military intelligence service – were prime suspects in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with Novichok in Salisbury, the subsequent death of Dawn Sturgess and the serious illness of her partner Charlie Rowley.
At one level, this story seems quite astounding, a work of fantasy fiction. You couldn’t make it up. But, without reservation, I’m prepared to say that I believe that what Mrs May has told us is true.
However, I am absolutely clear that President Trump is the pre-eminent purveyor of fake facts and that, in accordance with the statement of his lawyer John Dowd, what we perennially hear from President Trump is something that “He just made something up. That’s his nature.” Leaving aside his misogyny, Trump is a walking disaster for truth and democracy.
But, as Theresa May gave her statement to the House of Commons, a number of other things came to mind.
First, she told us that, because the Russian government had never responded positively to a request to extradite Russian nationals to stand trial for serious crimes committed in the UK, there was little point in making a request.
Wrong. If there is the evidence to make an extradition request, it should be made. If President Putin and the Russian government decide to say ‘No’, they should then be held to account for their actions for their decision. What sort of morality is it that puts ‘nationality’ above ‘justice’?
Secondly, Mrs May told us that a European Arrest Warrant had been issued for the arrest if the two suspects. It took years of negotiations before there was agreement on a European Arrest Warrant in 2004.
Since then, more than 8,000 people have been extradited from the UK to face trial or serve a sentence abroad; it has also resulted in many more than 1,000 people being returned to the UK to face justice. This includes Sheffield criminal Craig Allen, who was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in 2014 for supplying Class A drugs in the UK – bringing death and destruction to many local communities – but orchestrating the criminality from Thailand and Holland. Allen was the first fugitive to be captured abroad after the launch of the National Crime Agency.
But, is there any deal on a European Arrest Warrant post-Brexit? No, of course not. More worryingly, many arch-Brexiteers are so anti-Europe that they don’t see the need for a deal. No wonder that international criminals look happier and rub their hands with glee each time that William Rees-Mogg pontificates on the TV.
The third thing that got me thinking was the report that, in trying to investigate the Novichok poisoning, police officers had viewed more than 11,000 hours of CCTV and taken more than 1,400 statements. It stands in dramatic contrast to other recent reports on policing in the UK.
  • More than 800 police stations closed since 2010.
  • There are 20,000 fewer police officers in England and Wales since 2010.
  • According to the National Audit Office, police funding increased by 31% in real terms between 2000/01 and 2010/11 and has been cut by 18% since then. The cut would have been even bigger if the government hadn’t forced extra increases in council tax.
  • Last year, there was a 22% increase in knife crime and an 11% rise in gun crime, according to the government’s own figures, and the increase hasn’t relented this year.
  • Two-thirds of burglaries are not being properly investigated because of police shortages. Last year, 130,000 burglary investigations across England and Wales were closed by police without identifying any victims. That was a 40% increase on 2014.
I make no complaint about the resources that have been invested in trying to solve the Novichok poisoning case.
But, along with most constituents, and particularly those who have been the victims of serious crimes, I ask
How many more serious crimes would have been solved and criminals brought to book if the Coalition and Conservative governments hadn’t slashed the resources for local policing?”

Monday, 3 September 2018

Lack of discretion

The government published its long-promised Green Paper on Social Housing in August to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.
What had been promised to “be the most substantial report of its kind for a generation” was best described by independent commentators as “underwhelming” and “pitiful”.
It’s perhaps worth recounting some key information about the scale of our housing challenge. The contrast between the first part of the last two decades and the second is dramatic.
Between 1997 and 2010, we built two million more homes, another million families became home-owners, and we saw the biggest investment in social housing in a generation, together with massive falls in rough sleeping.
And I had consistently called for an increase in new affordable house-building to buy and to rent throughout that period.
Since 2010, we have seen new-housebuilding figures still well below those achieved before the global financial crisis – whilst developers sit on record levels of land with planning permission for housing, and make record profits, home ownership for the under-45s fallen by more than one million and home ownership fallen for all to the lowest level in 30 years, seen the number of new social rented homes fallen to the lowest number since records began, and had a huge rise in homelessness and rough-sleeping.
And I have consistently called for an increase in new affordable house-building to buy and to rent throughout this period as well.
Despite new house-building being at record lows, this government has also managed to cut the number of shared ownership and other low-cost home ownership homes being built each year by half since 2010 to just 10,870 homes in 2017/18, whilst giving away millions of pounds to subsidise existing homeowners earning more than £100,000 a year to buy another house under Help-to-Buy, and almost doubling the amount of green-belt land being built on, from 290 hectares in 2013/14, to 565 hectares in 2016/17.
In real terms, Government funding for new affordable homes fell from over £4bn in 2009/10 to less than £500m last year. And this government now defines ‘affordable’ as ‘up to £450,000’. What world are these Conservatives living in?
It is a catalogue of shame, shambles and ideologically-driven incompetence, with every new-house-building promise made since 2010 being broken. And, I stand by my statement that there is more chance of Sheffield Wednesday winning the European Cup by 2022 than there is of the government keeping its latest promise.
The Conservative claim to be the ‘party of the family’ is just a sick joke.
Over 120,000 children are now living without a home in temporary accommodation in England, an increase of 65% since 2010. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of children each year who are now living in insecure tenancies and losing that home at the end of each short-term tenancy, not because the rent hasn’t been paid or tenancy agreements broken but just because the landlord thinks he can achieve another rent hike in this housing crisis.
This week, all these children will be starting the new term at school not knowing whether they will get to the end of this term or this school-year in the same home or at the same school. What sort of family life is this? What are the prospects for children to reach their real educational potential if they are continually moving home and school?
Having shifted the private rented-sector to insecure short-term tenancies, the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition government started to do the same thing to social housing, that is council and housing association tenancies.
Historically, council and housing association tenancies (with a few exceptions) were ‘life-time tenancies’. Housing associations were required to offer tenants the “most secure” form of tenancy, meaning the majority of tenants were offered ‘lifetime’ assured tenancies.
In other words, if you complied with your tenancy agreement (paying the rent on time, not harassing the neighbours, not keeping pets in forbidden tenancies etc), it could be your home for life. This meant that people could invest in their new homes – carpets, fitted furniture, decoration, their gardens – knowing that it wouldn’t be wasted. [Some 35 years ago, I implemented a policy, going well beyond the statutory position, which enabled Sheffield council tenants to be reimbursed for investing in new kitchens, bathrooms or conservatories if they subsequently decided to move.]
Life-time tenancies provided stability to families, and especially to children, and to communities. All the research shows the big negative impact on communities and on community safety where there is high mobility, and there is a significant correlation between high mobility and lower performance in schools.
In 2011, the Coalition Government introduced a power for councils to offer ‘flexible tenancies’ - secure fixed-term tenancies with a minimum term of two years - to new social tenants. It also allowed housing associations to offer fixed-term tenancies to all new tenants after 1 April 2012.
Ministers said the changes were intended to give local authorities and housing associations greater freedom to manage their housing stock, ensure that social housing is allocated to those who need it most, and that lifetime tenancies are not given to tenants irrespective of how their circumstances might change in the future.
Nonsense. This was all about an ideological commitment to the highest level of owner-occupation (however poor some of that accommodation might be), to the demise of social housing, and to a thriving, highly profitable private-rented sector for everyone who was not a home-owner.
Everyone knew that what was being sold to the media and to the public as ‘increasing discretion and choice’ was nothing of the sort. Rather like Henry Ford – “you can have any colour you like, as long as it is black.” – the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were committed to non-owner-occupiers being private insecure tenants. This introduction was just the softening-up process.
There was limited take-up of fixed-term and flexible tenancies by councils and housing associations. By 2014/15, only 15% of social housing tenancies were being let on a fixed-term basis.
And, so it was that, in 2015, the Conservative Government announced that it would “review the use of lifetime tenancies in social housing to limit their use…and ensure the best use is made of the social housing stock.” This meant “doing away with lifetime tenancies”.
The Minister, Marcus Jones, introduced new clauses to the Housing and Planning Act 2016, explaining that “the new provisions would prevent local authorities in England from offering secure tenancies for life in most circumstances.” He noted that “social landlords had not taken advantage of the discretionary powers introduced by the Localism Act 2011” and that “continuing to offer social tenancies on a lifetime basis did not represent an efficient use of scarce social housing.
What discretion? What choice? What localism? What devolution?
New regulations were promised…and promised…and, like all housing promises of this government, were never delivered.
But, on publication of the Green Paper on 14 August 2018, A new deal for social housing, the Housing Minister announced that the government “will not implement these provisions at this time”.
There’s certainly a lack of discretion, but what the future holds is anyone’s guess.