Posts Tagged ‘The Independent’

Article: Publish Sex Offenders Register

Monday, January 16th, 2006

The sex offenders register should be made public
The Independent, 16 January 2006
By Heather Brooke

After a week of sustained pressure, ministers have finally admitted that politicians may not be the best authority for deciding inclusion on the List 99 register of those banned from working in education. They concede that an outside body should make such decisions. I have just the thing and it won’t cost a penny. The outside body is already in existence – it is the general public.

Revelations that Ruth Kelly’s department cleared the Norfolk PE teacher Paul Reeve and William Gibson, 59, to work as teachers even though they were on the sex offender registry has once again laid bare the inadequacies of criminal records checks. What is most frightening is that Ms Kelly cannot provide an account of how many known sex offenders are working in schools. This is because the system, like so much of current policy, is chaotic, arbitrary and controlled by the patronage of politicians.

Firstly, there is the chaos of the register itself. Individual police forces maintain and feed information into the main sex offenders’ registry, while List 99 is a blacklist, drawn up by politicians at the Department for Education and Skills. Ms Kelly revealed last week that there are currently seven such blacklists barring people from working with children and vulnerable adults. Surely these lists would be more effective (both in terms of cost and operational effectiveness) if they were unified. If the lists were public then such needless duplication and cost-wasting would have been exposed years ago.

Keeping the lists secret from the public makes them less effective in other ways. The public are prevented from having a rational and informed discussion on the structure and composition of the sex offender register because we have no way of knowing who is on the list or why. Secrecy has created a register that has no consistency and is open to abuse by those who control the list, namely the police and politicians.

Reeve was put on the sex offender register after police cautioned him for accessing child pornography over the Internet. Gibson had a relationship with a 15-year-old pupil in 1980 and as a result was convicted of indecent assault of a minor. Many people, such as Reeves, are on the list even though they have not been charged or found guilty of any crime. Should this be so? It’s true that sexual crimes are difficult to prosecute, evidenced by the fact that Soham murderer Ian Huntley did not have criminal convictions although police were aware he was a danger to young girls. But this points out the desperate need to reform the criminal justice system in favour of the victims of sexual crime, not an opportunity to blacklist people who are innocent in law. Currently, we have no idea what sort of information leads to being placed on the sex offender register.

The sad demise of the public convenience

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

The sad demise of the public convenience
The Independent, 2 January 2006
By Heather Brooke

So farewell then, public conveniences. It seems you are no longer convenient either to the general public in need of relief or local councils charged with your erection and maintenance. The Victorians made Britain the envy of the world for public toilets. Ever since, we’ve been sitting on our laurels.

This New Year I’ve become acutely aware of the lack of public toilets as I trawl department stores, supermarkets and high streets. It’s bad enough in London, but nationwide the situation is even worse. When John Prescott threatened councils with council tax cuts, Torbay and Shepway responded by shutting all their public toilets, to the outrage of their citizens.

A night out in London, and the abiding memory is of streets paved with golden showers. Yet even this is tame to what I’ve seen in some public parks and East London side streets. It can’t be long before this slide back to medieval hygiene culminates with us all throwing our waste out the window. Is this really acceptable in 21st century Britain?

The Greater London Authority has received so many complaints about the state of the capital’s public toilets it launched a study in October to assess the situation and makes its first report at a public meeting January 16th. The public is invited to submit comments, suggestions and complaints until January 31st. Comments on London’s public toilets can be sent to: Anna Malos, PP10, London Assembly, City Hall, The Queen’s Walk, London SE1 2AA or email: [email protected]

This consultation comes not before time, yet there is no such initiative coming from central government. While the Chinese are busy spending £25 million installing 5-star toilets in Beijing, Britain’s interest in crap is confined solely to the scatological titles available in bookshops. Discussion of the real thing is strangely muted.

The last survey of public toilets done by the Audit Commission for 1999/2000 showed a dramatic decline in the nation’s public toilets. Instead of taking action on the Commission’s results, the government ended the official audits. Since then, the number of public loos has dropped a further 40 per cent, according to Richard Chisnell, director of the British Toilet Association and Loo of the Year award.

This decline is a direct result of the current trend for viewing public services as money-making ventures. True, in the short-term, toilets don’t make money and the costs (such as attendants and cleaners) can only be recovered by charging. Some councils are doing just that. Westminster now leases three of its public loos to private company Carlisile Cleansing who charge 50p to use their ‘superloos’.

But to view the usefulness of public services only in terms of cash flow is wrong. (more…)

Binge lawmaking

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

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.

Let them read Heat

Thursday, October 13th, 2005

Has anybody in Britain actually read ‘1984’
The Independent, 13 October 2005
By Heather Brooke

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.” George Orwell, 1984

It seems appropriate that the author of ‘1984’ was a British citizen. George Orwell must have seen how easily the great British public’s lamb-like disposition toward its leaders could be exploited to create a police state.

Say what you will about Americans, but one thing they are not is passive. The Bush administration may have pushed through the Patriot Act weeks after September 11th, but as the American public got to grips with how the law was affecting their individual rights, their protests grew loud and angry.

Yesterday saw the publication of the Government’s latest Anti-Terror Bill that would give police even more power. The House of Lords, meanwhile, is debating the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and Whitehall is investigating ways to ban former civil servants from publishing their accounts of what happens inside the corridors of power.

There are already nearly 200 pieces of anti-terrorism legislation. What else can be left except thought-crime? The police and politicians have scented power and they want to run it to ground. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair shamelessly demands more laws even while his department is under investigation for shooting dead an innocent Brazilian and covering up the extent of the botched operation

But never underestimate the British public’s lack of interest in serious issues. They may moan and gripe but the most they are likely to do is write a letter to the editor ‘Yours outraged, Tunbridge Wells’. Soon enough they will be back gobbling up their junk diet of celebrity piffle. One can almost here the powers-that-be issuing their proclamation to the masses: ‘Let them read Heat.’

The Government’s right to keep us in the dark

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

The Government’s right to keep us in the dark
The Independent, 23 March 2005
By Heather Brooke

In a modern democracy we should not have to go begging for scraps of information

Yesterday’s publication of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farm subsidies in England marks one of the first major successes for freedom of information. The public pays £4billion toward this system, so it might seem obvious that the public have an interest in knowing how this money is spent.

I campaigned for the release of these figures in my book Your Right to Know, but it wasn’t until formal requests were filed under Freedom of Information Act and the new Environmental Information Regulations that government departments took seriously the public’s right to this information.

The Rural Payments Agency, responsible for doling out cash to farmers in England, is releasing the names of subsidy recipients and the annual amount paid to them in the last two years. It will be supplemented in a few weeks time with information broken down by region.

This is admirable but the Scottish and Welsh agricultural departments are refusing to release even these basic details, citing the privacy rights of individual farmers. Without names, the subsidy information is neutered. Names are essential for gauging the fairness of the system. Are the richest landowners getting the biggest handouts? In England at least, the answer is ‘yes’. Is this the way we want our tax money spent?

Independent follow-up

Thursday, February 3rd, 2005

The Independent newspaper published a follow-up 3 February to its FOI package after hearing from several campaigners.

Whitehall still mired in ‘culture of secrecy’
By Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent
3 February 2005

Campaigners have accused the Government of deliberately “dragging its feet” and failing to crack Whitehall’s culture of secrecy after scores of requests made under the Freedom of Information Act were rejected.

…Heather Brooke, a Freedom of Information campaigner, said the UK authorities were being far less open than in America. Ms Brooke, author of a guide to using the Act, Your Right to Know, said she was disappointed by the lack of openness in Whitehall although there were signs quangos and the police were responding more positively.

The Metropolitan Police had told her the number of attacks in her local London parks. But the Government had refused to tell her how many issues the Attorney General had been consulted about. She said: “There is continuous talk about getting citizens active but they refuse to give out the main tool – information. How can I challenge a hospital closure if I don’t have the information about why it is being closed?”

Independent’s shredding repeat

Thursday, December 23rd, 2004

The Independent has carbon copied the shredding investigation that Ben Fenton and I published in the Daily Telegraph Novermber 29, 2004. See the original story here. The Independent took their figures from a series of written questions asked by MP Julian Lewis rather than filing an Open Government request.

Hundreds of thousands of government documents are destroyed in the great Freedom of Information Act scandal
By Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent
23 December 2004
Sweeping powers that promise to open up government are highly vulnerable
Fear of information stalks corridors of Whitehall
By Robert Hazell
Leader: Access to information is welcome, but the Government will still keep too many secrets

BBC News is also following up the story:
Whitehall ‘shredding more files’
BBC Political Correspondent James Hardy says in this story that the prospect of outsiders poking their noses into the inner workings of Whitehall appeared to be causing jitters among the mandarins.

From a series of parliamentary answers Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative spokesman for the Cabinet Office, says he has discovered a huge acceleration in shredding.