So wrote David in Psalm 25, reflecting the idea that when we are young we all may do stuff that we shouldn’t, and would rather not have held against us for the rest of our lives (and beyond). While the scripture is focussing on God’s forgiveness, we have a secular analogue with things like the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, and the varying treatment of offenders by youth and adult courts. We demand that children are 10 before being held criminally responsible, and we even phase in that. We have seeming endless methods of avoiding treating offending with court, particularly for young people, anxious that they should be able to settle down and move on.
But none of this was at the forefront of parliamentarians’ minds when they passed the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. As Ros Baston has diligently dug out today, and which you really MUST read, they clearly were pitching for a whiter-than-white figure who never had done all that much wrong, or at least not very seriously wrong, or at least not got caught. Indeed, Policing Minister Nick Herbert had explicitly introduced the current disqualifications on certain convictions as an amendment, explaining that they would cover convictions incurred whilst a juvenile (and if you look closely, it was ACPO’s idea and welcomed by Labour).
So Michael Crick’s blog today suggesting that the Attorney General thinks Simon Weston might be able to ignore his juvenile conviction is a bit suspect. As Ros points out, if what Crick says the Attorney General thinks is right, then the Policing Minister misled Parliament, and I would add that Humpty Dumpty is clearly signing off our laws now. If it’s wrong, then the Government’s most senior law officer is no match for Ros Baston, any of Crick’s lawyer friends or, er, little old me. The only other options are that Crick got the AG wrong (which none of us seem to think) or that there’s a magic unknown last piece of the puzzle that makes everything OK, (which no-one seems to be able to produce).
Let me be clear, Simon Weston is a war hero, and I feel for him. He has exposed himself to some risk here to become one of the ‘big independents’ that have allegedly been in such short supply. He had his punishment nearly 40 years ago. Why must he be punished again now?
However, I am worried that we might lose the fact that Nick Herbert was on to something when he proposed that amendment. PCCs should be squeaky-clean. Being able to be a PCC from the age of 18 suggests that forgetting everything before that birthday may be a step too far. It ignores the fact that juveniles can be serious offenders, either because of one dreadful crime, or because of the prolific accumulation of smaller ones. Do we want ‘rat boy’ putting himself forward for this job? Do we want the murderers of James Bulger to feel free to stand in their new identities? Patently Parliament did not.
We should also remember that the test could be stricter still. Cautions, reprimands, final warnings, fixed penalty notices for disorder and everything else that isn’t a conviction does not disqualify, and for some individuals a single conviction for an imprisonable offence may be only the culmination of a period of criminal activity.
There may be a debate to be had on whether Parliament set the barrier too high, but how can there sensibly be any doubt as to the fact a fairly high barrier was set and was intended? I still suspect that the Human Rights Act will raise its ugly head in this case, and I hope ministers remember that it is imperative this issue should be resolved some time in advance of the election itself.
Hard cases make bad law, and all that.
Just one further thought inspired from my days at the Criminal Cases Review Commission – Am I going to need to call my next blog on this subject “Pardon me”? Possibly not, as a pardon forgives, yet leaves the fact of the conviction intact, or so I’m told.