Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: January, 2018

We need more people with cool heads like Nick Hardwick

It was the fiftieth anniversary of the Parole Board last November. Set up by a  reforming Home Secretary in 1968, the Parole Board has made a consistent contribution to rehabilitating offenders and helped reduce overcrowding in prison as well.

The Parole Board is independent of government. Its sole criteria for deciding whether to release a prisoner on parole is whether the offender is a risk to the public. The Parole Board comes to decisions after a thorough review of the evidence and has a reputation for being cautious, some would say too cautious. Nick Hardwick, who chairs the Parole Board, says that less than 1% of prisoners released on parole reoffend in any serious way.

You may never have heard of the Parole Board until it recommended the release of John Warboys, known as ‘the black cab rapist’, three weeks ago. All of a sudden, the Parole Board is castigated for coming to a reckless and inexplicable decision. Did Professor Hardwick have a rush of blood to the head? What could have happened?

John Warboys had led a sleazy life before  becoming  a London taxi driver in 2000 where  he picked up women late at night, told them he had come into money  and offered them champagne which was laced with sleeping pills.  Most of the victims have no recollection of what happened next.

The Metropolitan Police does not come out of this case well. Black cab drivers were held in such esteem that the women who made complaints  were not believed. The police failed to link similar incidents together.  It was only in 2008 that the Police realised they were dealing with a serial rapist and tracked down Warboys.

The Independent Police Complaint Commission concluded that some of the attacks could have been prevented if the Police had acted more quickly. Two of Warboys victims subsequently received damages for the way their complaints had been handled.

John Worboys was convicted at Croydon Crown Court in March 2009 of one count of rape, five sexual assaults, one attempted assault and 12 drugging charges.  He received an indeterminate sentence requiring he serve at least eight years.  Mr Justice Penry-Davey said he would not be released until the Parole Board decided he no longer presented a threat to women.

Further allegations came to light after the trial and the Police now believe  Warboys assaulted over 100 women  over a 13 year period. Other charges may still be pending which leaves a simmering dissatisfaction that his sentence does not meet the scale of misdemeanours.  Given the  premeditated attacks that Warboys made over a prolonged period it is extremely surprising that he has been  granted parole  at the first time of asking. The Parole Board must believe he is a reformed character.

The decision was instantly controversial. Some of the victims complained they had not been informed and Nick Hardwick immediately apologised, though it seems the failing may have been from the hard pressed National Probation Service.

The reasons for releasing Warboys are confidential to protect the offender but this appears  to embarrass  Hardwick who is working towards a more open accountable system as already operates in Canada.

The Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has decided that he cannot instigate a judicial review  but some of the  victims plan to challenge the decision.  Hardwick says he would welcome a review to ensure that the rules have been followed.

Brandon Lewis, the new  Chairman of the Conservative Party goes further. He says the government must do everything it can to make sure Warboys stays behind bars.  Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan says Warboys should not be allowed to set foot back in London. There was a general furore over the weekend that the decision must be changed and the law reviewed.

Hardwick may have underestimated the political implication of the decisions but I think he has played a blinder.  He says “It would be a bad day for us all if people’s rightful abhorrence of Worboys’ crimes or concern about a Parole Board decision allowed these basic principles of justice to be overturned.”

I am dismayed at the way experts are derided these days.   It is a sad state of affairs if we cannot appoint well qualified, experienced and clever people to make difficult decisions where expert judgement is required. The Daily Mail and Joe Public does not know best.

We are shocked by the extent of depravity perpetrated in our midst for generations. We have to deal with our feelings of  disbelief, disgust and revulsion and must not over react or take the law into our own hands.

In Bristol, an Iranian refugee called Bijan Ebrahimi was beaten to death by his neighbours and then his body set alight, because Ebrahrimi was mistakenly suspected of being a paedophile. The police and the local authority did not deal with the complaints made by Ebrahimi  and have deemed found guilty of institutional racism.

It is one of the greatest breakthroughs  in society that sex offenders and paedophiles are now coming to justice in huge numbers thanks to the bravery of their victims in speaking out. The days are gone when we unquestionably trust black cab drivers, football coaches and priests.

It also means that people who have committed repugnant crimes against women and children will come back into the community under supervision after serving their sentence  and that we will have to learn to live with them again.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 23rd January 2018









Mick Cash and I agree about the East Coast bail out: it stinks

I agree with Mick Cash when he says it stinks. The rail union leader was referring to the government’s extraordinary bail out of Virgin Trains franchise for the east coast main line.
I am travelling south on a Virgin train as I write with a complimentary glass of wine waiting for my free lunch to arrive. If you can book well enough in advance, and take advantage of a senior railcard, the first class ticket is very good value. I am not defending the pricing policy. If you have to go to London unexpectedly, the cost of a walk on ticket is extortionate. Fares are much cheaper on the continent.
I have rearranged my journey to take account of the strike on Northern Trains called by the aforementioned Mr Cash, and the disruption to local services as the part of so called Great North Rail Project of major investments in rail infrastructure. There are grand schemes in the Leeds and Manchester areas but all we seem to get is 10 days of disruption to replace warn out points installed 30 years ago which failed 15 times last year.
I enjoy the train ride to London. The trains are usually on time and exciting new trains are promised. The staff are always helpful and smiling. Their uniform changes each time the franchise is passed like a baton in a relay race. I wish I had a business painting railway coaches in the latest livery.
The annual indignation over fare increases took place last week, with protests at Newcastle and a visiting shadow minister handing out leaflets. The Minister of Transport flew off to the sun to drum up trade and avoid answering the criticisms of a 3.4% fare increase on east coast and more elsewhere.
Virgin Trains East Coast is also in trouble for returning the worst punctuality of any train operator at 3.6m hours lost and for sexist behaviour in calling a customer honey, love and pet. It apologised straightaway. But all this pales into insignificance compared to their failure to finish the franchise. Virgin is the third private operator to come off the rails on the east coast route.
You could not make it up. The first franchise was awarded to GNER. The Hatfield crash, caused by Railtrack’s poor maintenance, happened on its watch. I liked GNER’s nod to tradition by adapting the names of the original founding companies and using a traditional livery. The line overbid for the franchise and when the parent company got into financial difficulties in 2006, GNER was stripped of the franchise.
National Express took over in 2007 but in 2009 also admitted defeat which lead the then Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis, to put the line in public ownership as East Coast Main Line. It returned a £1bn to the Exchequer over the following 6 years and achieved 91% customer satisfaction though critics said it did not invest in new rolling stock.
Einstein said it was madness to repeat the same experiment and expect a different result but nevertheless David Cameron’s government put the line out to tender again and awarded the franchise to a partnership between Stagecoach and Virgin Trains in 2015. ( Stagecoach is the major player by the way not Virgin.)
Last November the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, agreed to terminate the franchise in 2020, three years early. The line had been losing money but payments are loaded heavily into the final supposedly profitable years so this let Virgin and Stagecoach off £2bn. Stagecoach shares leapt 12% on the news.
Personally, I am not convinced by Richard Branson’s protests at the weekend that this would never have happened if the infrastructure had been improved as promised and the economy had remained buoyant. There are always ‘leaves on the line’ when it comes to railways.
Tom Watson called on Chris Grayling to resign; Andrew Adonis resigned in protest from a committee most of us had never of whilst skiing in Austria and Mick Cash said that “the government was rigging the market again in favour of the private sector.”
What happens now to the lacklustre line? Chris Grayling calls for a partnership to run the east coast line that will somehow bring the train and rail operators together but the details are desperately vague. It may be a step forward, but Grayling has already made it clear that his friends at Stagecoach will be invited to bid again under the new arrangements.
Just consider the implications for other train franchise holders of the Stagecoach deal. Silly money can be offered to win rail franchises in the certain knowledge that the payments need never be made. There is virtually no risk to the private operator. What a way to run a railway.
Time for full disclosure. My father used to run Mick Cash’s union so I would dearly love to see railways restored to public ownership in my lifetime. But I despair at the way railways have become a political football between competing ideologies. Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to renationalise as the franchises expire is not thought through. The railway insiders call for a more pragmatic middle way.
In the meantime, Chris Grayling can expect a hard time when his plans are scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee. If you want to add your voice, sign the petition at for East Coast to be run for public good rather than for private profit.

published in Newcastle Journal on 9th January