Archive for category Crime

Worst Motion of the Week – MP fights the blues

There is no doubt what the worst motion in Scottish politics was this week, it was the headbutting motion that Eric Joyce (allegedly) made in Strangers Bar at Westminster (*boom boom*). It’s a rather spectacularly public fall from an already rather graceless position for the MP and, despite the unavoidable, scabby mirth behind headlines such as ‘Labour MP hit 5 Tories in brawl’, this could be the final nail in the Falkirk MP’s political coffin after a recent charge sheet that includes failing to provide a drink-drive breath test and expenses scandals.

We largely enjoy an appropriate approach of innocent until proven guilty in this country, and so we should, but that nonetheless won’t, nor shouldn’t, prevent speculation surrounding this situation. One could argue that it is for constituents to decide if their MP is fit for purpose, and with a 7,843 majority in 2010, despite the expenses controversy, who outside of Falkirk should say that Eric should step aside, whatever happens here? Nonetheless, if, and it is a big if, this legal process results in a criminal conviction, it is difficult to see how a by-election can be avoided. Denis Canavan is already calling for one to be held.

A by-election in Falkirk would, of course, be a two-horse race with the SNP, who won the equivalent Holyrood seat(s) in 2011, going up against Labour. It could prove to be a mini dress rehearsal for the independence referendum at large and could be an opportunity for Salmond to start building some momentum, not dissimilar to the ‘political earthquake’ in Glasgow East all those years ago. For that reason, one would expect that the Nats’ campaign warchest would be deeply delved into, and with Labour’s coffers being fuller than only that of Rangers FC, the contest could well be closer than it otherwise would be in a Westminster contest.

There is a risk of getting too far ahead of one’s self here of course, it is not after all in Labour’s interests for a by-election to be held at this stage of the political cycle with so little to gain from one, so efforts behind the scenes to prevent one would no doubt take place.

For now, it is sufficient to only regret that the old Scottish leftie metaphorical rhetoric of going down to London to knock lumps out of Tories has been regrettably taken literally in this instance and that politics in general is the main loser here, apart from Eric Joyce of course.

A short sharp smack

Sometimes I like to kid myself that I live in a civilised country, where people of any shape or size can co-exist and be protected by law. Then I see the debate on smacking – revived at the weekend by former Education Minister David Lammy – and I’m reminded with a jolt that it’s still deemed a parent’s right to physically punish the smallest, most vulnerable people in society. And that society seems okay with that.

According to David Lammy MP, in an interview with LBC Radio, Labour’s decision in 2004 to tighten the smacking law was a factor in last summer’s riots. He argues working-class parents should be able to physically discipline their children to prevent them from joining gangs and getting involved in knife crime.

I think smacking children to discipline them for bad behaviour is wrong. I think physically snatching a child away from a hot oven or a road busy with traffic isn’t.

In England and Wales, the Children Act 2004 says parents can mildly smack their children as long as their action does not cause “reddening of the skin”. Any punishment which causes harm like bruising or cuts can face legal action, with adults facing up to five years in jail.

This legislation on smacking is stricter than in Scotland. Back in 2003, the Scottish Executive intended to make it an offence to smack children under the age of three, or hit those of any age with an “implement” such as a belt, slipper or cane. The latter proposals were adopted, but the ban on smacking toddlers was dropped after the measure was rejected at committee stage.

Lammy’s notion that rebellion in young people and children will be quelled, and not generated, by fear of physical chastisement is ridiculous. The proposal that last summer’s civic unrest, as well as ongoing antisocial and violent behaviour, stems from too few unruly kids getting a clip around the ear is the kind of patronising nonsense which I expect to spew from out-of-touch politicians with no real care or concern as to why some of Britain’s youth are rioting. The notion that smacking should be okay for working class parents in particular is disgusting. Are we okay with men from working class backgrounds hitting their wives and girlfriends?

I think children who are hurt become angry and humiliated, and less likely to behave in a way that meets society’s expectations. Children who are told at school to talk about their fallings outs and find ways to be kind to their playmates, but who then go home and get hit because someone can’t be bothered to explain to them why their behaviour is wrong are well aware of the hypocrisy. I think unemployment, lack of aspiration and cuts to public services will do far, far more damage to good parenting and well-behaved teenagers than whether or not you’re permitted to smack your children.

Lammy’s comments are absurd: being able to physically punish children will do nothing to resolve antisocial behaviour, and probably only encourages it. But what I find almost worse is that this is a debate which is still acceptable today. It’s amazing that society at large seems okay with a violent act by an adult inflicted on a child in a way which would be unacceptable between adults – partners, colleagues, strangers.

Sweden was the first country in the world to ban the physical punishment of children in 1979. Since then, reports of neglect and child abuse have risen. According to Louise Sylwander, Sweden’s first Children’s Ombudsman, there’s no evidence this is because of a corresponding rise in actual cases of abuse in Sweden: instead, it seems the ban has led society to become less tolerant of violence against children, and more confident in reporting children at risk.

Young adults who rioted, who are violent, who carry knives do so for a myriad of complex social and economic reasons, which a decent society should endeavour to resolve. They don’t do it because they’re bad, and because that badness wasn’t beaten out of them at an early enough age. Poverty and poor parenting are issues within this myriad web of causes, but so too is a society that doesn’t care enough, where politicians can lazily pontificate and legislation can fall far too short to protect the vulnerable. Simply, having to resort to smacking is a failure, on every possible level.


Freeing Scotland’s Slaves

A key feature of the Scottish Enlightenment was the critique and opposition to the practice of slavery.  While in the eighteenth century many Scottish emigrants to the Caribbean and West Indies found themselves exposed to the realities of slave labour on plantations, back home an intellectual movement grew and developed and campaigned until slavery was abolished.

Or so they thought. Modern day slavery in the form of human trafficking is still there on Scottish doorsteps. But just as in the eighteenth century, it should be Scotland’s mission again to rid our country and then the world of this heinous violation of human rights.

An Inquiry into Human Trafficking in Scotland, headed by leading QC Baroness Helena Kennedy and carried out by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was published in Edinburgh this week. Kennedy makes 10 recommendations for Scotland to pioneer a new approach to the problem, and to introduce these measures prior to the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Kennedy’s calls comes on the back of Scotland’s first successful prosecution under the UK’s new anti-trafficking laws, with two sex traffickers jailed for a total of almost five years in November for arranging travel, accommodation and advertising for 14 women who worked as prostitutes.  However, this compares with almost 150 similar prosecutions in England and Wales. Phil Taylor, head of the UK Border Agency in Scotland, conceded in June that the length of time taken to investigate cases means too few are brought to court.

The main call in Kennedy’s inquiry is for a victim centred approach, with better systematic sharing of information and intelligence about cases, as well as a new Scottish act specifically to target the crime.

While any human who is trafficked and forced to labour undergoes a horrendous experience, Kennedy notes especially that women trafficked into the sex trade undergo “the most prevalent and pernicious manifestation of human enslavement”.

The estimate, widely reported in the UK press, that 40,000 women were sex trafficked into Germany for the 2006 World Cup seems to have no reliable source; nonetheless such sporting events are paramount to raising awareness and ensuring prevention of the prostitution of vulnerable women.

In London, anti-trafficking charities, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Met and the GLA  are working together to combat trafficking prior to the 2012 Olympics. If Scotland is going to be the leader in ridding the world of human trafficking, it is critical that the 10 recommendations in Kennedy’s inquiry are implemented prior to 2014.  Not just because of a fear, like in the 2006 World Cup case, that trafficking only becomes a problem because of sporting events, but because this a heinous crime which is all around us, at all times.

We should use the celebration of nationhood and sport and togetherness that the Commonwealth Games brings to recognise our essential humanity, and to find ways to treat human beings as that, not as chattels to be traded and used.

Will the National Transitional Council hand Megrahi over to the USA?

A guest post from Stuart MacLennan. Stu is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Law at Trinity College, University of Dublin. He is a former adviser to the Scottish Parliament Labour Group on External Affairs, which is why he wrote us a piece about Megrahi. He was also a Parliamentary Candidate – but the less said about that, the better.

Scotland may well find itself facing another diplomatic row with the United States of America. New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg have called on the Libyan National Transitional Council to hand Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi over to the United States. Until yesterday it was easy to dismiss this call as just another stunt by vote-hungry US Senators, but with the National Transitional Council (NTC) on the cusp of full control of Tripoli it has become a question that warrants some consideration.

Of course, legally and politically the situation is far more complex than Lautenberg and Menendez would have us believe. Leaving aside the dubiousness of the original conviction there are questions as to jurisdiction, international law, United States law, as well as the diplomatic, political and practical considerations.

At first glance jurisdiction seems simple. The flight blew up shortly after crossing the corner of the Solway Firth into Scotland and fell out of the sky towards Lockerbie and Langholm. Ergo, the bombing of flight Pan Am 103 is subject to the criminal law of Scotland, right? Well, things are slightly different where aircraft are concerned. The United States has never been shy about extending its jurisdiction extra-territorially, and the Tokyo Convention on Offences and Certain other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft 1963 creates the so-called “Aircraft Jurisdiction”. The Convention provides that the Country in which an aircraft is registered has jurisdiction over criminal acts while the aircraft is in flight or on the surface of the high seas. The United States has therefore always claimed jurisdiction over the bombing of flight Pan Am 103.

However public international law also comes into play where the Lockerbie trial is concerned. The United States along with the United Kingdom jointly sponsored Security Council Resolution 1192, binding members to accept the jurisdiction of a Scottish Court constituted in Camp Zeist in the Netherlands as the trial venue for Megrahi and his co-accused Lamin Khalifah Fhimah. The United States cannot unilaterally ignore this resolution, though as a permanent member of the Security Council it could propose a resolution overturning it. Without a further resolution, as Professor Robert Black points out, the Federal Government would not only be in breach of International Law but also of Art. VI, Clause II of their own Constitution.

But wait! “What about double jeopardy?” I hear you ask…

The famous double jeopardy rule contained within the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution is not as airtight as it first appears. The dual sovereignty exception, which was developed by the Supreme Court in order to protect the rights of the federal government and the states to prosecute crimes independently of each other, appears to have been extended to foreign prosecutions [U.S. v. Richardson 580 F.2d 946 (9th Circuit 1978)]. Therefore provided the United States remains in compliance with its international obligations there is no bar on Megrahi standing trial again in the U.S.

So handing Megrahi over to the U.S. to stand trial is, theoretically speaking, possible in law however the politics make things even more difficult. The Obama administration is understandably keen to avoid being seen to be flouting Security Council Resolutions, so if they wanted Megrahi back they would have to have the acquiescence of fellow permanent member, the United Kingdom – but would they receive it?

In both Government and Opposition David Cameron has been clear about his objections to the release of the Lockerbie bomber. He has continued to maintain that he felt it was wrong that Megrahi was released though has never stated that he believes he should be returned to prison (despite what his spokesperson seemed to think today). The political row that returning Megrahi to the United States would create would be one that I believe David Cameron would wish to avoid.

Alex Salmond appears to relish in the controversy his Government has created. He has succeeded in putting successive UK Governments in a tricky spot over Megrahi, and in attracting the ire of Hillary Clinton has been elevated to the status of a world statesman. I do not believe David Cameron would put Whitehall on yet another collision course with Holyrood, particularly given the concessions the UK Government has already made to the Nationalists. Nor would Cameron wish to further enhance Alex Salmond’s quasi-Presidential status in the run-up to a referendum on Scottish Independence.

From a practical perspective – at present we do not know where Megrahi is. Megrahi was released on license and returned to a Government which for the most part doesn’t exist any more. East Renfrewshire Council, the local authority responsible for monitoring Megrahi’s release on license, admits it is in “uncharted territory” in monitoring his license and is urgently trying to make contact with him. Furthermore Tripoli could remain in turmoil for some time to come and Megrahi may well slip through the net.

Finally, given the uncertainty as to what kind of state may emerge in Libya, there’s no guarantee that the new regime will be any more acquiescent with the United States than its predecessor. Even if they manage to find Megrahi they may not hand him over. And given that it took the joint efforts of the United Kingdom, the United States, the United Nations Security Council and the passage of more that ten years to extradite him the first time around – Senators Lautenberg and Menendez may have to accept that Megrahi will never see the inside of a prison cell again. To paraphrase Kenny McAskill: the next judgment Megrahi faces will almost certainly be that of a higher power.

I Vote Life – The complicated e-petition of Britain and Capital Punishment

Another guest post, this one from Alex MacDonald who is a social entrepreneur, political activist and university student.  He loves following current affairs and in particular, to read and write about the controversial issues of the day.  Susceptible to having his opinion swayed, and therefore would welcome your thoughts and views – brave man! allows members of the public to create and sign petitions of their choice. The website is a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness of important and sometimes tender issues that the public want addressed in parliament and when it went live on 4th August, it crashed later that day due to overwhelming demand. Petitions need over 100,000 signatures to be passed into the House of Commons for debate and for parliamentary procedures to begin.  So far, the site’s first and second most popular petitions relate to Britain’s stance on the death penalty, with one calling for the restoration of capital punishment:

“We petition the government to review all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment. Following this review, the Ministry of Justice should map out the necessary legislative steps which will be required to restore the death penalty for the murder of children and police officers when killed in the line of duty. The findings of the review and the necessary substantive legislation to be presented to House of Commons for debate no later than 12 months after this petition passes the acceptance threshold.” 

According to this petition, should an offender murder a child then the offender would be sentenced to death but should an offender commit serial murder on people over the age of 21, the offender would receive a life sentence.  This policy does not address murder as an entity but as two separate entities, murder that is not acceptable and murder that is more acceptable. It also promotes the understanding of hate crimes across the United Kingdom as it is a policy that protects a collective body of people. When in reality murder should be addressed as murder and not divided between social groups, gender and other variables.

The murder of a child is a devastating incident that  affects the whole country. However, another problem with this category is that it may be difficult to classify an individual as a ‘child’. Who exactly is a child, and by definition when is a child no longer a child? Parents  are able to claim child benefit until their children reach the age of 20, yet it may be hard to justify describing a 20 year old  as a ‘child’. As individuals, we can marry at 16, and we can drink, smoke and vote at 18. However, these milestones show how difficult it is to define the point when an individual is considered mature enough to take responsibility for their own decisions, which is an integral part of adulthood. So how can an arbitrary reference to age adopted in legislation be justified?

According to this petition, the intentional killing of a child is one of the more serious forms of murder. It could be argued that children are defenceless and particularly vulnerable victims. This acts as an aggravating factor, which makes the offence more serious. So from a legal perspective it can be argued that a separate sentencing may be appropriate for child murder.

This leaves many questions left unanswered as children are not the only defenceless and vulnerable group in society. Other vulnerable groups such as the elderly and the disabled should therefore be considered to be included in this petition. Yet further questions surround this issue, how old would one have to be to be considered elderly, and how disabled would one have to be to be considered handicapped? This new law on many occasions would fall into a grey area. Age is not a defining factor for the elderly, as people grow and die at different ages. Nor does disability necessarily inhibit a person’s understanding of certain situations and scenarios to make them more of a vulnerable victim.

Emotionally I feel that child murder is worse than any other murder, to lose a life that young is a devastating tragedy. However, logically it should not be the case that the law is based around emotional perspectives. If the law is written around emotional perspectives then that will counter balance a fair system.

The new law would promote one life over another and set up divisions between groups of people. One niche group would be protected by the death penalty where as other groups would not be. The law would be found asking itself which group is more important to society. If a crime is illegal then why is there the need of mixed sentencing? Murder is murder, regardless of the age, race, sexuality and etc of its victims. With this petition we question who is vulnerable and who is not. Minority groups and the homosexuals and lesbians are all examples of vulnerable people, so should the law protect them differently? Or as I previously mentioned, does this just needlessly group people?

The murder of police officers acting in the course of duty often provokes a public outcry. The police do a vital job in keeping Britain safe, and so when the death of a police officer hits the headlines, it is always difficult and upsetting to see.

However the idea of a law that solely protects the police promotes inequality amongst the British public, which further adds to bias crime acknowledgement. According to this policy the murder of an on duty policeman is worse than the murder of any other professional in any other job. What about when that policeman goes off duty? Is it still bias motivated crime? Or is it then a personal attack?

What about the murder of on duty doctors, firemen and the Prime Minister? Further to this, what about receptionists, jockeys and bankers? Surely all people should be protected equally by the law?

Such a distinction can be justified; children are vulnerable and need to be protected, and the police risk their lives on a daily basis to keep the public safe.  However, in conclusion , this petition fails to protect other vulnerable groups such as the disabled and the elderly.  The law should not draw an arbitrary distinction between different groups.

I am against capital punishment. If the state sentences a murderer to death, then the state is stepping on common ground with that murderer, regardless of the atrocities of the crime.

However, from a hypothetical perspective, if capital punishment is to be introduced back into the UK, then the law should protect all groups of people, regardless of age, career and other variables, as the law should be set to protect everyone in society.

But what do you think?