Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Column, May 29, 2007

I WAS never that impressed with Dixon of Dock Green.
He might well have been the avuncular beat bobby we all wanted on our street corner keeping a watchful eye on the local villains who could be relied on to declare it a fair cop whenever he felt their collars, while also keeping the local yoyth in line with a loving clip on the ear when necessary.
But he had also been brought back from the dead having died at the hands of a young thug played by Dirk Bogarde in ‘The Blue Lamp’.
So policing by chumminess didn’t work and Dixon for all his‘Evenin’ All’ community spirit was not much of a match for a tooled-up criminal.
Give me The Sweeney any day of the week, if I dialled 999, I didn’t want Jack Warner pootling along on his bike to have a stern word with the miscreants. I wanted Regan and Carter barrelling round in a Ford Consul five seconds after I put down the receiver to give the slaaaags a good kicking before hauling them off to a well-deserved stretch.
And this sums up our somewhat odd attitude to the police. When all we need is reassurance from them, then we want them to be all cuddly Dixon figures, ever-present, but not too intrusive. But if you’re actually a victim of crime then you want Robocop and a full armed response if someone’s nicked the milk off our doorstep.
The police will be forgiven for thinking they can’t win and that they are always going to be seen as friendly but ineffective, or else a ruthless tool of the police state.
Indeed the unfortunate office in the court presided over by Judge John Rogers must have been a little non-plussed to be ordered from court because he was wearing the full kit required of officers by the North Wales force now.
Judge Rogers inquired of the officer what he was doing in body armour, with CS spray, baton and handcuffs to boot. “It’s my work dress your honour,” was the not unreasonable reply. Nonetheless the officer was ordered from court.
I don’t dispute the judge’s efforts to preserve the dignity of the court. A dignity which has been assailed from many quarters in recent years.
However, sadly, body armour, CS spray and baton are the tools of the job for officers across the UK nowadays and the courts must surely be aware of this having heard testimony from so many officers who have had recourse to use these tools to arrest someone.
The alternative to going to court kitted up is to go in dress uniform. Now consider this scenario: a North Wales officer on the way to court in dress uniform stops to intervene in a robbery and is stabbed to death because he was not wearing his standard body armour, or is unable to prevent an attack on a member of the public because he is not carrying baton or CS spray.
I would think that of this happened then the senior management of North Wales Police would be hung out to dry by the media who would demand to know why officers were being sent out without the equipment to do the job.
A far more mundane occurrence would be for a criminal in the court complex, and I believe there may be one or two of them to be found there on an average working day, to take a dislike to the way his case is proceeding and to create a disturbance or even try to escape.
In such circumstances the staff and public in the court complex might be reassured to know that there are officers around in full kit capable of dealing with the situation.
Officers in body armour may not be what we like to see in our courts, but officers in body armour are a sign of what a violent society we have become and the courts themselves have played a part in creating that society.

LAST week I wrote about two MPs Mark Tami and Martyn Jones supporting an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act which would have excluded MPs from its provisions.
Opponents to the amendment, mainly Lib Dems and some Plaid portrayed this as an attempt to prevent scrutiny of such matters as MPs expenses.
Since then I’ve heard back from both Mr Jones and Mr Tami to explain the stance they took.
Mr Jones said: “My prime concern in supporting the Freedom of Information Amendment Bill, was simply maintaining the principle of complete confidentiality when corresponding with, and representing my constituents.
“I have been an MP for nearly twenty years, and throughout that time, I have defended this principle ‘tooth and nail’, and I will continue to do so.
“The last thing anyone wants is for confidentiality between an MP and his or her constituents to be undermined, and that is why I voted for the Amendments.
“My relationship and the service I give to my constituents has always been, and will remain of paramount importance.
“I am certain that the majority of my constituents would support how I voted.
“Only 22 MPs voted against preserving confidentiality - most of whom were Lib Dems and the odd Nationalist. They were cynically attempting to make political capital out of this issue.
“Given the fact that the Lib Dems has made so much political ‘noise’ on this subject, one would be forgiven for believing that they were there in great numbers to vote against this Bill.
“The reality is very different. Only 16 out of 63 Lib Dem MPs could be bothered to be at the debate. The absentees even included their Party leader, Menzies Campbell.
“Their claims in the debate, about the Amendments somehow concealing information about MP expenses, is complete nonsense.
“All our expenses and allowances are already in the public domain, and will remain so.
“As for this Bill, guarantees have been sought from The Speaker, the he will ensure that MPs’ expenses will continue to be made public in the future. I wholeheartedly support that.
“People come to me for assistance on a range of matters – some relating to deeply personal and sensitive issues. These matters must remain private between me and the constituent. They are no one else’s business.”
Mr Tami said: “If you or a member of your family suffers a gross injustice, or rape, or abuse, or homelessness then I am sure you would expect complete and utter confidentiality from those you go to for help.
“There have been many cases of sensitive information being passed to third parties, including harassment cases, details about bogus arranged marriages and destitute families. In some cases the consequences have been devastating.
“The amendment is aimed at preventing this. Your assertion that Data Protection laws prevent the release of information is wrong and it’s a little late to complain to the Information Commissioner once correspondence has been released.
“Moreover, exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act are already in place for MP’s private correspondence and all Ministerial correspondence, so is it not right to extend that protection to all members of the public who wish to approach their MP in confidence?
“Clearly, many journalists would rather focus on the implications this amendment has for MP’s expenses, but the fact is that no changes to the current transparency will be introduced. Picking on this issue makes easy for cheap and easy news articles, but it shamefully ignores the need to protect the most vulnerable in society.
“Here we have an example of conflicting interests. Journalists wish to know every aspect of every person’s life because to reporters, we are all fair game for newsprint.
“But when your readers suffer at the hands of more powerful individuals or organisations, they must know their MPs can help without the risk of sensitive information being shared with anyone else.”
I don’t doubt for a moment the sincerity of the two MPs, however, at a time when their constituents are coming under ever more scrutiny and surveillance – be it by CCTV which has spread unchecked under their party’s government, or by the introduction of the ruinously expensive ID cards which everyone knows will do not a jot in the fight against terrorism – perhaps they ought to have thought through the impression this vote gives.
The Freedom of Information Act is already full of hole which allow public authorities to avoid giving out information. On top of that the government is also talking about changing the way in which it calculates the cost of requests so even more can be refused.
And now MPs vote to make yet another aspect of public life exempt.
While the tales of abuse and homelessness they use to illustrate their objections are persuasive, perhaps they can explain one thing.
If MPs’ correspondence was being obtained in such a way, exposing such sensitive matters, why is it then that the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, the watchdog set up to oversee the Act, has not received a single solitary complaint about the Act being used in such a way?

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