Last week, almost the entire population of Shetland united in opposition to the compulsory deportation of Sakchai Makao, a young Thai athlete who has lived in Shetland for 13 years. Makao had been arrested by police officers at his home in Lerwick and flown to a detention centre in Durham to await deportation.
Makao works as a lifeguard and is very popular locally, not least because he’s represented Shetland at three International Island Games. However, he was jailed for 15 months in 2004 after he set fire to a porta-cabin and a car in what was described in court as “two moments of madness”.
But the local MP, Alistair Carmichael, the MSP, Tavish Scott, and the convener of Shetland Islands Council, Sandy Cluness, united last week in demanding that Makao should be released. Mr Cluness said he had “paid his debts to society and had become a valuable member of the Shetland community”.
No, you couldn’t make it up. When Tony Blair fulminated against foreign rapists and murderers, and ruled that all foreign prisoners should be deported on release, he didn’t have in mind valuable members of the community. He should have - after all he’s a lawyer himself and his wife remains a partner in Matrix Chambers, a legal firm which specialises in human rights issues. If anyone should have been wary of making law on the hoof, it should have been Tony Blair.
The media tribunes who had been demanding the deportation of all those foreign prisoners, were strangely silent about Makao. They’ve been equally silent about the case of Ernesto Leal, another valuable member of the community who has been caught by the presumption of deportation. The Edinburgh arts and music promoter, came to Britain thirty years ago to escape persecution by the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. He was jailed in 2002 after getting involved in a pub brawl in East London. Now he is languishing in high security prison awaiting deportation to - wherever. Campaigners led by the author, Irvine Welsh, are still trying to get him freed.
These are only two of the many victims of this government’s passion for instant justice. Tony Blairs determination to respond to every media scare by creating a new edict. It’s becoming as regular as clockwork, you could almost set your watch by it. Every week brings another crime panic; another immigration scandal; another case of Home Office incompetence.
We’ve had prisoners walking out of open prisons; murderers being released after five years; foreign felons going
undeported; paedophiles being given derisory sentences; prisoners being released en masse because of over-crowding.
The Home Office has given up on keeping track of illegal immigrants, we’re told, and instead is handing out national insurance numbers so that illegals can take up jobs in the Immigration and Nationality Department.
Sounds appalling. Is it safe to walk the streets with the prisons spewing out murderers and rapists? Are our children safe from paedophile perverts; are our women-folk safe from illegal immigrants? Just what is the government doing about all this lawlessness? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out before this country goes to the dogs...
Such are the kind of anxieties that are likely to afflict anyone who has exposed themselves to the popular press in recent weeks - or listened to government ministers, which nowadays amounts to much the same thing. The Prime Minister has himself adopted the Sun’s super soaraway criminal justice manifesto and intends to implement it this week by introducing tougher rules on minimum sentences. These will be to, er, replace the tougher rules on minimum sentences that the PM introduced in 2003, and in 2001, and in 1999...
Governments used to blame the politicians who were in charge before they came to office; but New Labour blames itself: “This disgraceful regime of lenient sentences and automatic release, which we inherited from ourselves, is irresponsible and constitutes a danger to the public. The immigration policies we have created are a national scandal. It’s about time something was done about us.”
What you don’t hear, of course, is that prisons are already stuffed to breaking point because of the government’s policy of mandatory minimum sentences; that overall levels of crime are substantially down everywhere; that immigrants have been an essential component of the decade-long economic boom; or indeed that prison, very often, just creates more prisoners. Two thirds of those released from jail reoffend within two years - which kind of suggests that prison isn’t working.
Soft sentences? The number of life sentences given out has nearly doubled in the last ten years, according to the Prison Reform Trust, and the sentences actually served by prisoners are fifty percent longer. They did the crime and they are doing the time.
No matter: just have tougher prisons, longer sentences, paedophile registers, compulsory mass deportation of foreign prisoners. Yes, that’s a good idea - send ‘em back where they came from, let someone else put up with their criminal behaviour! Except, er, when they try to send them back here - as was the case recently when Australia deported to Scotland the paedophile William Gallagher, 62, who has a string of sex offences against boys dating back to 1973.
How dare they dump their evil fiends on us after forty years in their country! Send em back to where they didn’t come from! It’s the only language these monsters understand! What is the government doing about this!
Common sense solutions to complex criminal issues generally turn out to be the reverse - particularly stupid. By leaping on every tabloid scare and creating instant policy to deal with it the government is making a nonsense of criminal justice.
Take the deportation of foreign prisoners. The government discovers that hundreds of non-British felons are being released from jail without being assessed for deportation. Shock! Horror! Foreign murderers and rapists being let loose on British streets.
Get rid of ‘em, cry the press. The government agrees, and Tony Blair issues a new legal doctrine: “the presumption of deportation”, meaning that all foreign prisoners who have served prison sentences for serious offences are sent to their countries of origin no matter the particular circumstances of the case. Sun approves. Job done. Except for the unintended consequences. In Shetland.