Mark Thomas

Cost of Innocence
by Mark Thomas

When it comes to creative writing you'd be hard pushed to find better exponents than the British police. Since the Birmingham 6 and numerous other miscarriages of justice, where people were framed for crimes they didn't commit, it is sometimes difficult to know if a "confession" made to the police is testimony for the courts or a bid for the Booker prize. With this pool of talent it can only be a matter of time before the new Terry Pratchett emerges from the thin blue line. Though personally I am hoping the Home Office will produce a new Franz Kafka and publish the story of how a normal young beetle wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant David Blunkett.

Now before the New Labour acolytes and ideological catamites have time to bleat "This is just so 1990's!" let me just point out this is all far from over. For victims of miscarriages of justice the ordeal is still very much alive and come the 16th of March it is back in the courts.

When the Birmingham 6 were compensated for wrongful imprisonment the details of their awards were worked out by the government appointed independent assessor Lord Calcutt, now replaced by Lord Brennan. Calcutt insisted on two significant factors for the calculation. Firstly that a sliding scale of compensation should be introduced as according to Calcutt the first year in prison was the worst and the subsequent time became easier to bear. Strangely enough none of the victims of miscarriages of justice have ever said, "Once I knew where the showers were life inside was a piece of piss." Neither have they said "The eighteenth year of my wrongful imprisonment was such a breeze I'll settle for a couple of book tokens and some bonus points on the Nectar card."

The second part of Calcutt's calculations was that the innocent men should have deducted from their compensation the costs incurred by the government for their food, clothes and lodgings, under the catchy title of Saved Living Expenses. To bill these men with these charges is spiteful, ridiculous, unjust and entirely in keeping with Blunkett's behaviour, who in an uncharacteristic bout of liberalness has waived the huge cost of police time, deliberately wasted with the mens intransigent and wilful innocence.

Vincent Hickey and his cousin Michael Hickey served 18 years after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of newspaper delivery boy Carl Bridgewater. They were both sent a bill for �60,000 for food and lodgings by the Home office, which would have taken about a quarter of their compensation. Vincent Hickey went on hunger strike before his release and said, "I should have gone on huger strike for longer than 44 days then the bill would have been less."

The Hickey cousins and Michael O Brien, who served 11 years for a murder he did not commit and was billed �38,000 for his B and B, successfully challenged the Home Office. In March last year they won a ruling that stated the Home Office were wrong to try and deduct this money from them.

The Home Office ever mindful of the cost to the public purse have decided waste even more money by appealing the decision and the case arrives at the High Court on London on the 16th. If successful the Home Office will have the right to charge wrongfully convicted people for their incarceration. They must therefore either make a concerted effort to jail the guilty or start arresting people on their ability to pay. If they do take the latter option they could make a populist start by locking up Dame Shirley Porter.

Once this is adopted Blunkett can move swiftly to modernise prisons by introducing the right for prisoners to buy their own cells, something that would cheer up Shirley, who would no doubt be eagerly campaigning for prisoners rights to vote. In a short time Pentonville would be awash with Foxtons minis, as estate agents eagerly advertise " Bijou studio cells, sleeps six, panoramic views of the exercise yard and close to the table tennis area." Ford Open would become an "up and coming area", with white collar criminals proclaiming loudly that "You won't believe what the cell is worth now. We were very lucky and bought just before the prisons reached capacity."

Blunkett has a problem with people being "innocent" so he has introduced internment, prison without trial, and is seeking to lower the burden of proof to get a conviction in terrorist cases (a practice that the Birmingham 6 and many others would argue has been in operation for some time). It is depressingly predictable that in 18 years time we will be reading of Muslim men and women wrongfully held under anti terrorism legislation and I wonder what the government will attempt to bill them for?

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