Binge lawmaking

We don’t need new terror laws
The Independent, 2 November 2005
By Heather Brooke

Politicians are stumbling around Parliament, giddy from binge lawmaking. Each week, another new law is introduced to give the police state more power, and the public even less. Today the House of Commons debates the Government’s new terror laws. But what is the point of creating new laws when old ones are not enforced? The rise of Islamic terrorism in Britain did not happen overnight nor did animal rights activists or binge-drinking yobs appear from out of the blue. In each case, there was a litany of illegal activity taking place and in every instance the phrases that spring from news reports are ‘case dropped’ or ‘no charges filed’.

Trustees at Stockwell mosque in south London have said they tried getting police help two years ago when an extremist group that included London bombing suspect Hussein Osman, tried to take over. The police did nothing.

The closure of a guinea pig farm in Newchurch came after years of sustained harassment. Between 2003 and 2004, more than 400 incidents including hoax bomb attacks were reported. The family who owned the farm received no police protection and no justice.

Many complain the police do too little too late, if they even show up at all. A damning report on police services by the think-tank Politeia released this week states that, given the ‘sheer difficulty of cutting through bureaucracy and getting the police quickly to the scene,’ many people have given up reporting crimes.

Politeia’s director Sheila Lawlor said: “Policing suffers from low-quality recruits, poor leadership and a structure of divided authority. Both training and employment lack direction, and even a sense of fundamental purpose, with confusion about what the police are employed to do and how well they do it. As a result, the system is failing.” Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair would do well to tackle these problems before he demands further powers.

It must be said, however, that final responsibility for the decision to prosecute rests with the Crown Prosecution Service, and so it must be the CPS who shoulders blame for the general feeling that there has been a breakdown in justice, particularly from the victim’s viewpoint. It could even be argued that the CPS’ feather-soft approach to prosecution has led to the rise in direct action and violence in the UK, particularly among religious and protest groups whom prosecutors fear offending.

Are there other mosques trying to have hate clerics prosecuted and not succeeding? Do we know if there are other protestors getting away with violent intimidation? The CPS recently announced it was dropping all charges against Abdul Muhid, an imam accused of using a loudspeaker in a London shopping center to urge the slaughter of British troops and for all homosexuals to be thrown from clifftops. Despite witnesses being prepared to give evidence, the CPS said magistrates or a jury would not be sure it was he and not his associates shouting the abuse.

It wasn’t a lack of laws that led to his case being dropped. The more likely culprit was the Code for Crown Prosecutors, a document weighted heavily against the victims of crime. It makes clear that Crown Prosecutors do not work for the victims, many of whom are lucky if they even get a meeting with the prosecutor when the decision is made to drop all charges against the accused.

Exactly how many cases are being dropped? Here’s the real travesty of justice – no one knows! Not even the Crown Prosecution Service. And even worse, they are not interested in finding out.

“We don’t keep any of those statistics,” said a CPS spokeswoman. “And in any case there’s no particular reason we would want to know, for example, how many burglaries are coming to us each year.”

She did add that ‘if it’s something in the public eye then we can monitor it.’ Racial and religiously aggravated crimes are monitored, yet rape, violent assault and violent intimidation are not. There is no excuse for this omission. Detailed figures would reveal where things go wrong in the trial process such as witnesses not turning up, mistakes in police statements or a lack of evidence.

The CPS states such statistics ‘may’ be kept by the Home Office. But they can’t say for sure, and if they are kept, the Home Office figures may ‘differ considerably’ from figures held by CPS. So what we have is two organizations duplicating their efforts and coming up with different answers. Here’s a suggestion: why not fund the CPS to collect and make public all prosecution statistics, which can they be used by the Home Office, campaign groups or other government departments.

The raw data is particularly useful because it gets behind the spin of government performance targets. CPS has a remarkably high success rate in court – 89% plead guilty or are found guilty in Crown Court and 98% in magistrates’ courts. But there is a danger that in chasing high conviction rates, prosecutors will only take forward the cases most likely to win.

When CPS drops charges it means the public are not protected from criminal activity. It means others are encouraged to commit similar crimes knowing they will most likely get away with it. And the message trickles down to police who will not want to waste their time on crimes they predict will be thrown out.

This is where we are now, and tough action is needed in the courts and CPS to make the system work – not just for defendants but for victims, too. The alternative is more attempts to bypass the judicial system entirely.

This is the full version of the article in Wednesday’s Independent.

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One Response to “Binge lawmaking”

  1. Flotsam says:

    I wonder whether there are any numbers available on the ratio of new laws made compared to old laws repealed. Even if the figures aren’t there I think I can have a good guess. Politicians love making laws. It combines all their pet obsessions such as being in the limelight, accruing power, inflating their sense of self-importance and all the other traits that should keep them out of professional politics for ever.

    Talking of accruing power, I notice of late that the government is getting very fond of asking the Police what extra powers they want. The government approach is rather like asking a child if they’d like any more sweets. What ever happened to asking the public what powers they think the Police should have?

    Lastly, you also mentioned that the CPS don’t keep data about dropped cases. It’s rather like the coalition in Iraq. They can offer no clue as to how many Iraqis they’ve killed but can give us exact data on the amount of deaths caused by the insurgents. Embarrassing data either never gets collected or is filed in the “keep this quiet” section of the archives.

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