Sunday, 29 May 2011

Huhne - the car's the key

Let's take a hypothetical situation and see how we should go about solving a mystery. The situation is this. A man has been in in France for a few days and flies back to England, landing at Stansted airport at about 10.23pm. The same evening his wife is at a function at the London School of Economics, the function commenced at 6.30pm and she is believed to have left by 10pm at the latest. At 11.23 the same evening a motor car registered to the man is photographed speeding on a road between Stansted and London. Either the man or his wife was driving the car at the time the speeding offence was committed. The mystery is to identify which of them was driving.

How do we solve the mystery? I know how I would go about it, I would not look at the people first but at the car.

Where was the car while the man was in France? On the face of it there are two relevant possibilities, either it was parked at the airport awaiting his return or it was not. Is there a record of cars parked at the airport during the period he was abroad and, if so, was his car parked there throughout or was it removed at some point? If it was there all the time the only chance of the wife driving it back to town from the airport would be by her taking the train to Stansted (say 20 minutes to get to Liverpool Street station and at least a further 45 minutes to Stansted). Quite why she would do so rather than let him drive back is unclear, because the time it would take her to get there is as long as the flight from France so it would have to have been arranged before he left the continent.

If there is no evidence of the car being at Stansted throughout I would investigate whether the London congestion charge was levied against the car during the period he was abroad, if it was we know the car was within central London and not at Stansted. Was the congestion charge levied on the day in question? The London School of Economics is within the congestion charge zone, so the charge will have been triggered if the wife had it with her while she was at the college, though her options for parking would have been severely limited unless she was given a spot by the college itself - was she?

I would then ask whether the wife had her own car at the time. If she did, it would seem more natural for her to use her own vehicle to collect her husband. Wives often, but not invaiably, use their husband's cars to collect their worse half only when he wants to drive back - men being so much more fussy than women about what they drive.

Trying to solve the mystery by reference to where the wife was at various points of time on a date more than eight years ago is fraught with difficulties because of the need to rely on personal recollections. The car is the key.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Raping common sense

Rape is a subject only the bravest or most foolhardy politician deals with because you can be sure that anything you advocate, short of castration of all male babies at birth, will result in a torrent of high-volume but low-quality nonsense from a whole raft of attention seeking morons.

Ken Clarke proclaimed, to universal outrage from the non-thinking, that some rapes are worse than others (summarised here). He was, of course, absolutely correct. Some murders are worse than others, some armed robberies are worse than others, some speeding offences are worse than others and some rapes are worse than others.

It should be observed at the start that there are two broad categories of rape, reflected in the American distinction between "statutory rape" and "rape". Statutory rape is, in broad summary, consensual sexual intercourse where the law deems one or both of the participants to be incapable of giving consent even though they do actually give consent. In this country the age of consent is sixteen, so every time a girl or boy under the age of sixteen has sexual intercourse the other person involved commits rape according to English law and it is fair and sensible to call it "statutory rape" even if both parties consent. It is not rape according to the law that applies to adults because adult consent is recognised as being of value in the eyes of the law, but consent under the age of sixteen is deemed impossible. It takes a staggering degree of blind ignorance to be unaware that girls and boys of fourteen and fifteen have been rutting for generations, they certainly did when I was at school. Nonetheless, the law is as it is and it has to draw a line somewhere, however imperfect or unreasonable that line might be in particular cases.

"Statutory rape" itself comes in many shapes and forms. You can have two fifteen year-olds "doing it", in which case each is raping the other according to the law. You can have one under-sixteen and one of sixteen; one of fourteen and one of nineteen; one of fifteen and one of forty and so on and so forth. According to the law, each of these instances involves exactly the same offence but only a fool would suggest they are all the same. As a matter of everyday experience we might like to presume that the older person always holds sway and, as a general rule that might well be true, but it is far from always the case.

"Rape" as opposed to "statutory rape" arises where one party does not consent to intercourse. It might be the male or it might be the female. Is it not obvious that a difference exists between every "rape" and every "statutory rape"? In the former one party does not consent, in the latter both parties consent but the law does not recognise the consent of at least one. In the former it is necessarily the case that one person is forcing themselves on another in the most intimate way possible whereas in the latter no one is necessarily being forced to do anything.

So what of "non-statutory rape", is it a single black-and-white offence without shades of grey? Of course not. Some rapes involve the minimum possible amount of violence for the perpetrator to get his or her way while others include threats of violence from the mild to the utterly terrifying or violence itself of every conceivable degree. None of this dilutes the fact that the act of rape itself is a serious violation of one human being by another, and Mr Clarke was not suggesting otherwise. He was pointing out nothing more than that some rapes are more serious offences and, therefore, deserving of harsher sentences than others.

I first learned of this episode when listening to a radio news broadcast while driving back home after collecting a pile of manure. As soon as the BBC's summary of Mr Clarke's comments was given I said to myself "it's Wednesday, Milliband will have called for Clarke's dismissal at Prime Minister's Questions". Lo and behold, Miliband called for Clarke's dismissal at PMQs. Pure student union politics - naive, unrealistic and failing to address the point that was made. It was like having Gordon Brown back but with a fake mockney-estuary accent rather than a dribbling, bitter Scottish brogue.

The absurdity of Miliband's position is that he had an open goal and chose to kick his opponent rather than the ball. Ken Clarke did not just offer opinions about rape out of the blue, he did so in the context of a proposal to reduce the length of time some rapists spend in prison after conviction. Perhaps Miliband was mindful of his own party's failings during their thirteen years in government, during which sentences for serious offences got shorter and shorter and punishments for petty regulatory infringements got harsher and harsher. The standard three years' imprisonment for a first domestic burglary has become a caution or written warning or a few hours of community service. The standard seven years for rape without extrinsic violence has fallen to between two and three. Armed robbery now gets six years rather than twelve. Defrauding the taxpayer of tens of thousands of pounds earns only eighteen months when four years would have been unappealable twenty years ago. All this happened during the previous government's time in office, sadly it is continuing now.

Rape is a nasty offence. Forcing someone into the most intimate possible act against their will, with possible consequences of unwanted pregnancy or sexually-transmitted diseases, is barbaric to my simple mind. I doubt that many would disagree with the sentiment "no, you just don't do that to someone else, not ever". Few crimes get or deserve that reaction. Statutory rape in which consent is genuine does not get or deserve that reaction. Current sentences for non-statutory rape are derisory because Parliament has decreed that they should be. It is for that serious dereliction of duty that politicians should be held to account, not for pointing out the blindingly obvious.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Let's get this David Laws issue right

David Laws is a highly intelligent and articulate man who has enjoyed great success in business and is now a Member of Parliament. For seventeen days last year he was a member of the Cabinet - appointed to the Privy Council and entitled to be known as "Right Honourable". In the fortnight between his appointment and his resignation he made a good impression on a lot of people, me included. The message he put forward was restricted to his ministerial duties at the Treasury and was as clear a statement as you could have of the necessary consequences of the previous government having spent far too much money that it didn't have. Then it was disclosed that he had claimed £40,000-odd in expenses to which he was not entitled and he left office (but did not resign from the Privy Council).

The essential circumstances of this wrongful receipt of money are important. Mr Law was a secret homosexual and shared a home with a gentleman friend. Beause he did not wish to disclose his proclivity to his family or to the world in general he pretended that he was renting a room in his friend's home and claimed that rent as expenses. The reality was that he was living with the man rather than renting a room from him. No doubt he made a financial contribution to the running of their joint household and, had matters been declared openly, at least some of that could have been reclaimed as expenses. I have read suggestions that he could have claimed more than he actually claimed and am happy to accept that as true.

Two matters that frequently crop up in discussions about Mr Laws must be discarded immediately because they are not relevant to the crucial point.

First, that he is independently wealthy as a result of his previous work did not disqualify him from claiming legitimate expenses. A system existed for compensating Members of Parliament for constituencies outside London for costs they incurred by reason of having to run two homes rather than one. We can quibble about the details of the scheme but there was a scheme and an MP who incurred additional living costs was entitled to claim at least some of them. Mr Laws could afford not to claim anything but it would be absurd to argue that his private wealth should exclude him from having additional costs reimbursed - that would amount to requiring him to make a substantial additional contribution of tax.

Secondly, that he could have claimed the same sums or more had he arranged matters differently is neither here nor there. He did not arrange matters differently, he arranged them as he arranged them for reasons of his own. A footballer who hacks an opponent's ankle to prevent him making a pass cannot avoid a yellow card by claiming that he could have used a lawful shoulder charge instead. What matters is what happened not what might have happened had you not chosen to do what you actually did.

The crucial point is very very simple. He told deliberate lies in order to expropriate money. Had he been paying rent to his friend he would not have been entitled to reclaim that rent because of the nature of their relationship (namely that they co-habited in a single household regardless of bedroom preferences). It seems unlikely to me that he did pay rent, but anything is possible. If we assume he did pay rent he was not entitled to reimbursement and he knew it. He lied about the nature of the relationship in order to get the money. It is blatant fraud. If, as I suspect is more likely, he contributed financially to the household and those contributions are not properly defined as rent, he lied about the nature of the payments he made in order to be repaid out of public funds. That is also blatant fraud.

It is a matter of the simplest and most basic test of honesty. Spinning a policy so fast that a politician appears to be saying something factually inaccurate will be defined as lying by his political opponents when it is possible (sometimes only by being incredibly generous) to describe it as ambitious advocacy. Some might consider it dishonest or even fraudulent to act in this way but there is room for debate on the issue. There is no room for debate when it comes to making deliberate false statements in order to claim money you could not obtain if you told the truth.

Some might suggest that Mr Laws should have special dispensation because he was merely trying to keep his private life private. That just doesn't wash with me. He told deliberate lies in order to get money from the public purse. Whatever the circumstances and however strong the mitigation might be, the underlying dishonesty remains and that dishonesty is what is relevant first last and all the time in this tale.

Now suggestions are being made that Mr Laws might return to the cabinet. I am not concerned about the "signal" this sends to anyone, because that looks at it from the wrong angle. I am concerned that someone who thought it appropriate to lie in order to obtain money he could not have obtained by telling the truth should be in Parliament at all let alone in the uppermost layer of government. No matter how able he might be and no matter how strongly he wanted to keep his sexuality secret, his chosen method of protecting himself was to act in a way wholly inconsistent with the responsibilities of ministerial office.

It was not so long ago that dishonesty caused resignation as a matter of course, not just resignation from ministerial office but from Parliament, and banishment to the history books as a former politician with no hope of recovery. Ability was irrelevant because the right to represent others and to hold power over others required probity. The country might lose the services of someone with much to offer but that was of no consequence when the politician in question had failed to conduct himself in a way Parliament and the law requires the little people to behave. You can call it a betrayal of trust if you want, I believe it is something more general and, perhaps, more fundamental. If you are to have power over others you can only justify your position if you live by the standards the law requires of those under your power.

Mr Laws chose to act dishonestly and in doing so he forfeited any right to have power over others. He should not still be in Parliament, for him to return to the cabinet would cast a serious blow against the fragile legitimacy of the current coalition government.