The story of the Philpott children, killed by their parents in a deliberate house fire, is appalling. Kids who were born to a chaotic household, whose father and mother reportedly showed no remorse after burning them to death.
It’s right, therefore, that we should look for ways in which this might have been prevented. While the Mail’s assertion that Mick Philpott was made into the monster he is by the welfare state goes too far, Guido is right to point out the uncomfortable truth that the benefits system coddled him, funded his abusive lifestyle and ultimately played a motivating part in his sickening decision to start the fire.
But to focus on the distortions and failings of the welfare system is to miss other, crucial points. How does this case reflect on our social care and criminal justice systems?
By all accounts, Mick Philpott had a decades-long history of predating upon, taking advantage of and violently abusing vulnerable young women. It is hard to imagine his repeated abusive relationships with teenage girls over the course of the last 30 years had gone unnoticed – and impossible to believe the relevant authorities still didn’t pick it up when he became a minor celebrity in the papers and on the Jeremy Kyle Show. With catastrophic results, they were aware and they decided it was not important enough to address.
Even worse, this case reveals an obvious and disastrous failure in our criminal justice system. In 1978, Philpott’s fiancée dumped him. In response, he broke into her house at night and stabbed her 27 times, slitting open her stomach and telling her: “If I can’t have you, no one will”. He then turned the knife on her mother and left the two of them for dead.
He was caught and convicted – and sentenced to seven years in jail. It is hard to think of a more comprehensive demonstration of wickedness and willingness to act upon it than what he did in 1978, and yet he was released a few years later, giving him decades to build up to the atrocity daubed over today’s newspapers.
This is a simple fact in a complex mess: if Mick Philpott had been sentenced to life (real life) in prison, he would not have committed his later crimes. Our criminal justice system could and should have stopped him – it did not.
Yesterday’s news from Manchester was monstrous – two police officers, Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, were apparently lured to a house by a false 999 call, and then brutally murdered in a gun and grenade attack.
Any decent person would be horrified at this crime. These were two officers who worked to protect people, were not carrying any weapons with which to shoot back and were, it seems, killed in cold blood.
Inevitably, a debate has started about whether it could have been prevented. Just as inevitably, there are now calls for all police officers to be armed as a matter of course. This has been a perennial topic for debate throughout the history of the British police, which remains one of the few forces in the world whose officers do not routinely carry guns.
It’s understandable why such proposals are being put forward. Civilised people will always feel revulsion at the idea of people being shot without the ability to shoot back. However, giving the police guns would be a terrible mistake.
For a start, we should consider the Manchester case that reignited the debate. The full facts are not yet known – indeed we may well not know more until (or unless) more is reported at a trial or an inquest. There is no guarantee whatsoever, though, that had PCs Hughes and Bone been carrying guns the outcome would have been any different. In the United States, where law enforcement officers carry guns every day, there have been 33 fatalities this year already.
What we do know is that the alleged killer, Dale Cregan, was out on bail at the time, having been questioned on suspicion of involvement in at least one previous murder. It seems the system lost track of him and he disappeared, only to resurface in this horrific way.
There is always an emotional challenge in cases like this. The heartbreaking detail and personal photographs that are spread across the newspapers make us want to do something to prevent it happening again. The photos we don’t see, though, are those of the people who would die accidentally if the police were armed. We should force ourselves to remember them – those who are alive today precisely because the police don’t have guns – when making any decision.
This is not a flight of fancy, or a supposition based on guesswork. Where police forces arm all their officers, innocent people get shot.
Take, for example, the Empire State Building shooting last month. A gunman murdered a former colleague in the street, and when police in turn shot him they also wounded nine passers-by who were caught in the crossfire.
Or consider the case of Renaldo Cuevas, a shop worker who was accidentally shot by a police officer two weeks ago while trying to escape from a robbery at the bodega in the Bronx where he worked.
These cases weren’t down to malice, and I’m not spinning any conspiracy theories – but through pure accident, confusion or other factors, innocent civilians were wounded or killed.
The killings of Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone were a disgusting crime, and we should look at how they could have been avoided (by asking how Cregan was able to go on the run while on bail over an extremely serious crime, perhaps) – but if we rush into arming the police, other innocents will die as a result. That would not be a fitting memorial.
So the European Court of Human Rights has once more trampled over our sovereign right to set our own laws – this time ruling to outlaw the extremely popular ban on convicts being able to vote.
Technically, the ECHR has not said that we must allow all criminals to vote, though there are certainly some who think that they should. What the Court ruled is that a blanket ban is supposedly illegal.
Plenty of people would be delighted if the British Government simply ignored the ruling, and refused to pay any fines it might levy as a result. However, if the Government is really keen to ensure we obey the rule of law – even absurd Strasbourg law – then there is another solution.
Why not do as the ECHR asks, and abolish our blanket ban by allowing some prisoners to vote – but only those convicted of one very specific and very obscure crime which is unlikely to be committed and even more unlikely to be prosecuted?
A good example would be the offence of “Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner” – a historic crime for which no-one is currently in jail. We would technically be ticking the box for Strasbourg, while in reality thumbing our nose at them.
If they can act ridiculously to thwart our intentions, then surely we can do the same in return.
Further to my post yesterday, Anders Breivik’s crimes have another relatively new feature – the way he interacted with the internet and social media first to propagandise for his views and then as part of the way to spread his message of terror.
Following the initial publication of his manifesto, the media (and presumably the police) have been quick to start tracking his history through his online presence. The Standard today reports new evidence of his interaction with the EDL through online forums, and it seems the trail is yet to be followed all the way.
Now that the EDL postings have revealed his online pseudonym as Sigurd Jorsalfare (after a crusading Viking king), it’s possible to follow his tracks even further. I’ve been hunting around to see whether he used it elsewhere and it seems that he may have. For example, no one seems to have so far drawn attention to this Twitter account under the same pseudonym (with the same variation of the spelling of Jorsalfare), or this article which it publicises – a piece posted only a couple of weeks ago on a site which Breivik used regularly which from its tone and topic may well be another of Breivik’s own tracts.
The impression that this is the first time these have been noticed is further reinforced by the fact that at the time of writing the Twitter account is still being followed by a Progress Party councillor, who presumably would have distanced himself had it come to his attention.
Sir Dennis O’Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, has been getting a lot of media attention today for his broadside against the failings of modern policing. The main focus has been on his call for the police to “reclaim the streets” from yobs and to take low-level continuous offending more seriously.
It turns out – surprise, surprise – that we need police on the streets arresting criminals, backed up by courts that actually hand out tough punishments. That’s a view you could hear in any pub in the land, but is all too rarely espoused by anyone with any power.
What everyone seems to have missed so far, though, is his thinly veiled attack on PCSOs.
In his interview on the Today Programme this morning he emphasised a key theme – that to beat crime and take back the streets “it’s not just about [police] presence, it’s the presence of control”.
In the world of policing theory and policy, this is a direct attack on the thinking that lay behind the creation of PCSOs. Full police officers – the argument went – with a warrant card, training and full pension, are too expensive. Supposedly the job could be done just as well by creating a job that didn’t hold the same powers or cost as much but would be a visible presence. In short, the idea behind PCSOs was explicitly that presence alone was the most important thing.
It’s pretty clear now that that was a mistake. It is the warrant card in the officer’s pocket that actually arrests criminals, not the dayglo jacket – and PCSOs had the latter but not the former. If Sir Dennis’s thinking is spreading among senior police officers, the days of the PCSO could be numbered.
The developing story of the murder of Gareth Williams, the GCHQ staffer who was on loan to MI6, has all the elements necessary to run and run. For a start, it allows headline writers to use the word “SPY” a lot, which is both exciting and conveniently short.
Then there is the awful way in which he died and was discovered, stuffed into a holdall. Add to that the competing theories and allegations about possible terrorism or foreign espionage, and the scrutiny of his private life, and you have a really big story.
What has truly gasted my flabber about this case, though, is that MI6, MI5 and GCHQ combined don’t seem to have noticed that he was missing – never mind dead – for around two weeks. My colleagues would probably notice a (sizeable) Wallace-shaped gap in the room if I didn’t show up for a day, never mind a fortnight – and I’m not in possession of facts pertaining to national security.
Spying (and spying on other spies, and so on and so on) is, I appreciate, a difficult business – but can it really be so hard to notice the disappearance of one of your own men? If it takes two weeks to notice one of your operatives or analysts has vanished from the radar, what is to stop them defecting to a hostile power or – like the unfortunate Gareth Williams – being murdered?