Nothing to see here…

It not often you come across a gilt-edged opportunity to reflect on a too often unregarded aspect of the ‘black art’ of political spin – the one that holds that its not just what you say that’s important but also what you don’t say.

Let’s wind back in time a little, to last November in fact and to a story that broke pretty much in the middle of the big furore over government departments losing important data, starting with coverage in the Daily Telegraph, who broke the story:

Hundreds of criminals, including those accused of sexual offences, have avoided prosecution after a “cover-up” in magistrates’ courts, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, is to admit that over a period of “many years” hundreds of cases never came to court because warrants were not issued for the arrests of defendants when they failed to show up at court.
It means that the offenders got away with their crimes. Mr Straw has known about the cases, which initially involved Leeds magistrates’ court but are suspected could go much wider, for some weeks.

He has ordered an urgent inquiry because he is unsure whether the failures have been caused by gross incompetence, negligence or foul play.

The cases at Leeds involve defendants “failing to appear” at court when they should. That should automatically trigger an arrest warrant. Court officials should have informed the police so the case could still be completed and the defendant tried. But in these cases the police were not informed.<

The police were therefore unable to chase down the criminals and instead, in many instances, the cases were simply written off. One fear is that corruption may be involved.

It is thought that hundreds of criminals have simply walked away and got away with their crimes. Sources revealed last night that there were sex offenders among them.

Naturally, both Tory Home and Iain Dale got on to this story fairly quickly…

Another Day, Another Government Incompetence

Just when Gordon Brown thought it couldn’t get any worse, it has. It’s just been announced that Leeds Magistrates Court has let hundreds of criminals get away with their crimes by not passing on the details of people who haven’t turned up when their cases have been brought before the court. These offenders include sex offenders. Because the details were’nt routinely handed to the Police, they haven’t been chasing up the missing criminals. You couldn’t make it up! It all dates back to 2005 when the government hanged the remit of Magistrates Courts, so their is clear political culpability, it would seem. More details will be emerging soon, I gather. – Iain Dale

Another day, another Labour scandal?

This txt msg arrived a little while ago at my Washington breakfast table. No time to blog on it (off to Arlington Cemetery for David Cameron’s first public call) but The Telegraph has the full story. It appears that Straw knew about the issue for weeks, not years – Conservative Home (quotes start of Telegraph article for rest of post)

Last week – March 11th to be precise – The Ministry of Justice issued a written ministerial statement on the outcome of the inspection of Leeds Magistrate’s court by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Courts Administration (HMICA):

On 29 November, I informed the House (29 Nov 2007: Column WS172) that I had formally commissioned Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Courts Administration (HMICA) to lead a thorough inspection and prepare a report to Ministers into the ‘resulting’ and warrant processes at Leeds Magistrates’ Court.

I have today placed a copy of that report in the Library of the House and published it on the Ministry of Justice website.

The concerns about Leeds Magistrates’ Court relate to two issues: recording the results of cases within the courts system and subsequently, in the case of recordable offences, updating the Police National Computer (PNC). ‘Resulting’ is the term used for this within the courts system. The second related issue centres on a process used for withdrawing warrants issued by the court for the arrest of defendants who failed to appear in court, which were identified during investigations into court resulting in Leeds.

I accept all of the findings and recommendations of the Inspectorates’ report. The government is already acting upon them.

The full report (pdf) is linked from the bottom of the MoJ’s announcement.

Straw’s statement and the contents of the HMICA report were reported by several newspapers, the local press up in Yorkshire picked it up as you might well expect, as did the BBC, The Times, The Guardian, the ‘This is London’ website – which suggests that it may have made the Evening Standard – it even made ‘Personnel Today’, which picked up on the staff facing disciplinary action angle and, for the Lib Dems,  Chris Huhne chipped in with a brief statement on their official website and Greg Mulholland tossed Straw a very reasonable question in the House, which he more than adequately fielded

And from the Tory side of the fence?

Bugger all.

The Telegraph had nothing all to say on the subject and gave no coverage to either Straw’s statement or to the HMICA report, and their chosen quiescence appears to have a Bagpuss-like soporific effect on the Tory blogosphere, which has neglected to cover the outcome of this story entirely, despite the fact the inspection report did uncover some particularly serious failures:

These failures led to:

  • A large number of adjudications not being recorded accurately at the time, or at all, meaning that the results for these cases may now have been lost;
  • the creation and use of a disk to store cases with missing adjudications (following the introduction of a new computer system);
  • the creation of artificial court registers on four occasions in 2002.  This meant inputting in respect of large batches of cases as: ‘entered in error’ – or ‘audit cleardown’ as an ‘administrative solution to remove unresulted cases from the court computer system’ (page 16 of the inspectorates’ report);
  • the manufacturing of fabricated court adjudications on at least one occasion in 2004 involving 12 defendants and 27 offences where legal advisers made up the results by ‘guessing the result of the case where the true court adjudication could not be traced’ (page 17 of the Inspectorates’ report);
  • A situation where a prolific offender could have been sentenced to imprisonment twice for the same offence. Investigations are continuing into whether this meant the offender served additional time in prison. If there has been an error the defendant will be informed.

The Inspectorates conclude that there are now 2,206 defendants currently missing an adjudication, covering 3,260 offences of which 1,568 were recordable on the PNC. The report itself sets out the full number and nature of cases involved and describes a systematic covering up of errors.

Why is that, do you think?

Well, if you compare the inspection report to what was claimed by the Telegraph back in November, then you’ll find a couple of somewhat embarrassing discrepancies, which found their way from the Telegraph into Iain Dale’s commentary. For one thing, the ‘offenders include sex offenders’ line, which the Telegraph got from the usual anonymous ‘sources’ turned out to be one case of indecent exposure and one case of unspecified gross indecency – so that’s, at worst, a flasher and some poor sod who got caught cottaging.

Similarly, Iain’s assertion (also sourced from the Telegraph) that:

It all dates back to 2005 when the government hanged [I think he means ‘changed’ the remit of Magistrates Courts, so their is clear political culpability, it would seem.

… turn out to have been completely wrong as these problems arose from the period of 1997-2003/4 and the ‘political culpability’ in this case is that the government are culpable for making changes in the running of magistrate’s courts which uncovered the problem, and the cover up surrounding it.

To be fair, here, one cannot really blame Iain in for being in error on this occasion as his only real fault was his credulity in the face of what is a pretty transparent effort by the Telegraph to spin this as another ‘government cock-up story’ when no such assertion was warranted:

The problems stem from when the Magistrates’ Courts Committee that oversaw those courts was scrapped in 2005. The new body, HM Courts Service, was set up and reported directly to the Home Office, and now the Ministry of Justice.

New officials at the HMCS carried out a “review of processes” and found that over a period of years there had been prolonged failure in issuing arrest warrants.

Had the Telegraph stated that the problems were uncovered after the Magistrates’ Courts Committee that oversaw those courts was scrapped in 2005 then they would have reporting the story correctly, but as things stood they tried to tack this on as an additional to the ‘government incompetence’ line which was running at the time only to come up short when it emerged that they’d made some very basic errors in their attempt to spin the story.

  • Did the incompetence magically stop in 2005, or has it continued to this day ?

  • The terms of reference of this Inspection report are strictly limited only to Leeds Magistrates’ Court.

    If that Court was such a shambles, for so many years, then what assurance is there that other busy Magistrates’ Courts are not just as bad ?

    There is nothing in Jack Straw’s statement about any review of other Magistrates’ Courts, neither alluding to other possible problems, nor claiming that Leeds was an exceptional, isolated case.

    Surely that is a prime example of political spin ?

  • Not really. There are some valid questions to be asked about Straw’s rather ambiguous comments about the role of the previous magistrate’s committee.

    Since writing this, I’ve come a response from a former chair which asserts that during the period in which these failures occurred they we’re being told to see their role as ‘strategic’ rather than operational, which does suggest that there is scope for questioning whether government policy between 1997 and 2003 contributed the very obvious lack of adequate oversight of the administration of the court.

    But otherwise, things appear to be what they are – a new inspection regime found a problem, reported it, investigated it and has found serious administrative failures which are being addressed seemingly appropriately – there are not only recommendations for improvements in process but also the clearest possible signs that heads will be rolling, which is no more than you’d expect.

    The are no assurances that this hasn’t happened in other courts but there is an inspection regime that has done its job and I think it fair to take the view that having done its job on this occasion, it should be permitted to carry on doing its job and we’ll see if anything else shakes loose.

    If there were no such regime then, yes, a broader inquiry would be justified but as things stand, even if one is not inclined to trust the government, this case does provide cause for placing a little trust in the diligence of HMICA and we should perhaps be crediting them for a job well done.

  • Cosmiczebra

    As a point of fact, Her Majesty’s Court Service (HMCS) has never (as claimed in one of the quotes)been part of the Home Office. It was simply a merger of the existing Court Service (which administered County, Crown and High courts)and Magistrates’ Courts Service, both of which were agencies of the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA), formerly the Lord Chancellor’s Department. The DCA, in turn, was renamed the Ministry of Justice last year after several Home Office agencies were transferred to it. The creation of HMCS has meant that the previously semi-autonomous Magistrates’ courts are now subjected to the same standardised and independent inspection procudures as other courts.

  • Well that’s another error to chalk up to the Telegraph…