Thursday, 26 September 2013

Customs officers

There maybe a border control or customs officer reading this blog, who knows.  I have to ask, why are UK borders and customs officers always so bloody miserable?

I went to France last weekend - FRANCE reputed to be the rudest country in Europe by some - and yet the customs officer bade my family and I a happy "bon jour" and cheerfully wished us a pleasant stay in his country.  I've been to France a few times and mostly they are always reasonably cheerful.

I was in Germany a year or so back and despite my stupidly buying a novel to take with a big swastika on the cover the border man was pleasant, albeit a little surprised.

I've visited Slovenia, Austria, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia, Spain and Poland where everybody we met was pleasant.

In the USA even the stern border control officer managed a smile when he realised I wasn't a terrorist merely English.

Yet no matter how many times I go away I always have to come back and every time I do I'm met with a difficult unpleasant and occasionally rude customs officer.  On one occasion while travelling with friends I met the rudest official I've ever come across.  He actually shouted threats at my friend as my friend walked away and offered to fight him after work!!  My friend is the least offensive man you could ever meet - and at the time was a senior executive at the airport!

Honestly, the most pleasant experience I've ever had at passport control in the UK was at Heathrow when I found a machine that could check my passport for me.  No messing about demanding I remove my passport from its wallet (I only ever have the front cover slipped into the wallet so it can be read by the machine and every country I've ever been to manages to read it without a surly demand that the passport be removed from the wallet). The machine didn't ask any stupid questions about where I'd been, what I'd been doing, who I was travelling with, etc.  It just checked my passport, had a look at me and showed me a little green light to tell me to carry on.

When a machine is the most friendly border control officer in the UK something is clearly wrong.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Drunk tanks

Tank driving on US freeway
Drunk tank

When I heard on the radio yesterday that Adrian Lee (who he? - he a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers) had called for drunk tanks to be established in rowdy city centres I initially wondered where they would find all these tanks for drunks to drive and whether that would be such a good idea anyway.

In the event, I realised that Mr Lee had only a slightly worse idea.

What this chap actually wants is slightly unclear if I'm honest.  Sounds simple at first: cells are not the place for drunks so we'll set up some cells to put drunks in and then charge them for the stay.  But when you think for a minute what he's actually proposing is slightly harder to implement.

Mr Lee said, "I do not see why the police service or the health service should pick up the duty of care for someone who has chosen to go out and get so drunk that they cannot look after themselves."  My answer to that is, "well because that is one of the reasons they both exist" but we'll go along with Mr Lee's plan for the moment anyway.

Let's just start by thinking about that statement.  People get drunk.  We know that.  Bad things happen when you are drunk.  A lot of people on Twitter don't like to admit that women are more vulnerable to attack when drunk but we all are, men and women.  Is Mr Lee seriously suggesting that if a woman is raped while too drunk to look after herself the police should ignore her?  What if a man gets drunk and stumbles into the road and is run over.  Should the NHS refuse to treat him because he was drunk?  Even on the face of it his statement is nonsense.

Now, according to that statement police officers shouldn't be getting involved with drunks and assuming a duty of care.  Well, once you nick 'em you got that duty of care so presumably Mr Lee's well thought out plan involves somebody else doing the nicking.  This would require civilian, i.e. non-police officers who are employed by such trustworthy companies as Serco & G4S to be given powers to arrest and imprison people, so a bit of primary legislation required there... should take a couple of years that one.  

Since we can't use police cells now, we'll have to build some local holding facilities, we'll call them "Jails".  They'll need staff who will need to be trained up to care for the prisoners - incidentally, a job which the private sector already does quite badly, e.g. Thameside prison in east London.

Essentially what Mr Lee appears to be saying is that he wants civilians to be able to single out a member of the public, tie them up, drag them off somewhere and hold them prisoner for a night.  Can't imagine what the police would say if I decided to head out and do that to some passing drunk woman tonight.. oh wait yes I can think what they'd say.

I'm not aware of any legislation that would allow any old Tom, Dick of Harry to hold un-convicted members of the public prisoner without falling foul of these tiresome laws we have here, such as false imprisonment and kidnapping.  So, we will need more legislation to allow the jails to operate.  I would hope that the British public would be totally against the introduction of a new, barely trained mob of non-police being given powers to nap people off the street almost at will.  I hope the public would be against it but I won't hold my breath.

Now, how about charging the prisoners for their stay and what happens if they refuse to pay up or can't pay up?  You have three options: 1. don't charge people; 2. don't release them until they pay; or 3. give these non-police officers powers similar to those held by judges to conduct means enquiries to determine ability to pay.

If we don't charge then these jails will be horribly expensive to run.  If you don't release until the bill is paid then you could see people imprisoned for ever if they simply can't pay and the fee increases by £400 per night.  If you give this barely trained (and they will  be barely trained at best) bunch the powers currently only held by a court then fuck the lot of you, I'm moving abroad.

Of course, the companies could release people after their night's stay and sue them for the cost... except that there's no basis in law to claim such a fee.  Guess what.. this means more primary legislation.

I don't doubt that dealing with drunk people is a pain in the arse for police officers and those in the NHS, but it is part of the job.  If you can't accept that then get a job somewhere you won't meet the drunks.  You could, for example, become an MP and introduce some sort of considered, reasoned change to society that cuts down on binge drinking and drunken violence.  Admittedly, drunk tanks are easier to implement than societal changes but they are not nearly as effective.

It's just a thought, but how about state funded burger and kebab vans?  Lots of trouble seems to kick off when people are leaving pubs, bars and clubs.  Give them some hot food to concentrate their minds and they'll probably calm down... if they don't they'll be so busy wiping chilli sauce from their clothes that they still won't be a problem.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Let's make Parliament more like us

I have occasionally ranted about MP’s in this blog and today will be no different.

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament - where the lizards live
A part of me thinks that anybody who actively wishes to enter politics should be excluded from entering politics, although I also appreciate that this is probably unlikely to happen.

One of my big problems with politics is the lack of real-world experience enjoyed by many MP’s these days whose career seems to involve a politics degree, followed by a few years as a researcher for an MP or working at party HQ followed by standing for election themselves.  These people have absolutely no idea how their policies work in the real, everyday world that the rest of us inhabit.

I’m sure that most of them aren’t the evil world-domination lizard types dressed in human skin that they often appear to be… although I am sure some are actual lizards in human skin.  I’m sure some go  into politics because they want to better the world and help people.  Most seem to regard the political fight portrayed in shows like The Thick of It as their job, rather than their job being to make the lives of ordinary people better.

At the moment Ed Milliband is embroiled in a tedious battle with his own party over funding of the Labour party.  I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs of it and I care even less.  Many people couldn’t give a monkey’s whatsit about this battle between Ed and the unions.  Why is he fighting it?  Why doesn’t he tell Dave to sod off and mind his own business about how the Labour party is funded and produce some actual policies to fight the Tory’s with?  I can only imagine that he and the rest of the party leadership are so caught up in the act of politics that they have forgotten the point of politics.

How can we put the idea of career politicians to sleep and bring back representation by people with actual experience of living in the world?  I have a couple of ideas.

First, MPs would not be allowed to serve more than two-consecutive terms as MPs unless they reach cabinet level and were in cabinet at the end of their second-term.  Cabinet members would be allowed a maximum of three consecutive terms on the basis that they may have developed some expertise.  There would be a mandatory five-year break after any MP left Parliament before they could stand for election again.

Secondly, I would  require the party machines to be run more like the civil service with career politicos working to provide a support system for MPs rather than being MPs themselves.  Anybody employed by political parties (and subsidiaries of parties) would be banned from standing for Parliament for five-years from the date they left that employment (and of course while employed).

I think that this would  force political parties to select candidates from people outside the Westminster bubble and thus increase the skill set of those sitting in Parliament.

Incidentally, I’d also scrap the reforms of the House of Lords and keep the upper chamber as a reviewing body filled with appointees.  Again, nobody employed by a political party or a former MP would be eligible to sit in the Lords for five-years after leaving their employment/the Commons.  I don’t see how electing even more politicians is going to increase accountability when a) the Lords isn’t really that powerful; and b) only a tiny number of votes actually make a difference in General Elections anyway – if you don’t live in a marginal constituency your vote counts for nothing.

Monday, 9 September 2013

It's just a little miscarriage of justice so who really cares?

Miscarriage of Justice

Miscarriages of justice aren’t always big news involving somebody spending years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. Often they are the minor cases that nobody but the people involved care about.

I'll let you into a secret... there's almost certainly a good few miscarriages of justice every single day in the English courts.  They are usually for relatively "minor" offences and happen to people who either don't care because of they have drink, drug or psychiatric problems.  The other big group are those who cannot afford to fight - the justice lacuna.

Most solicitors will have come across the defendant who pleads guilty while maintaining their innocence.  The reasons for pleading guilty are as diverse as the people who make “false” guilty pleas.  I’ve seen everyone from drug-addicts clucking so badly that all they can think about is getting out of the cells to get another hit and very highly educated professionals pleading guilty simply because they are scared of the court process.  I also spent many years dealing with a man for whom making false confessions was practically a hobby – he confessed to arson, well known murders, acts of terrorism and many other things.  Worryingly he is still in prison having served 29-years of a life sentence (that was imposed with a 4-year tariff) for arson.  He confessed to police and entered a guilty plea in the early 1980s.

I am currently instructed in a case that comes to trial later this week.  The defendant is accused of a drink driving offence, in this case failing to provide a specimen of breath for analysis.  She insists that she followed the instructions and did her best to provide the breath specimen.  I’ve watched the video a number of times and she certainly appears to be co-operating properly, albeit I’m neither a medical nor intoximeter expert.

Because I am not an expert, I advised the client to obtain evidence from expert as to whether there is a medical reason for her failure to provide or a fault with the intoximeter or by the police officers. 

Sadly this individual falls into the ever increasing bracket of people – often middle-income families and young-professionals – who do not qualify for legal aid (which will also pay for the expert reports, if you can find an expert for the very low rates paid by the Legal Aid Agency) but who cannot afford to pay the relatively high costs charged by experts.  She is only represented at all because I was happy to trust her to pay me by instalment.

There is a rule that if an expert witness is relied upon at trial then the witness becomes the court’s witnesses for the purposes of costs and thus the defendant is able to be reimbursed for the costs of instructing the expert.  This still requires the expert’s full fees to be paid up-front, which is where many people have a problem.

This client therefore is about to go to trial lacking vital evidence, which she simply has no way of obtaining.

To give you an idea of this lady’s position, imagine being told that you could take three luxury holidays and all for free… except you have to book and pay for the holidays then claim back the costs later.  Best of all it’s not a scam; you’re pretty much guaranteed your money back.  You’d be champing at the bit to take those free holidays wouldn’t you?  But, if you don’t have the money to put down at the start then it doesn’t matter how badly you want or need the holiday you’re not going to get it.

Is this person innocent or guilty of a crime?  I don’t know.  I will make sure that she receives the strongest possible defence at the trial but ultimately, she is going to be hamstrung by the lack of evidence supporting her case.  There is nothing any solicitor can do about that.