Monday, December 30, 2002

Civil asset forfeiture in the UK

The Proceeds of Crime Act came into force on 30th December 2002, giving police and customs officers powers to confiscate property permanently on mere suspicion that it was gained illegally.

The new powers include the right to confiscate property where no criminal prosecution is possible, for example due to lack of evidence. Confiscation proceedings would be made permanent through a trial in the civil courts, in order to use the lower standard of proof there.

Civil courts use the test of "the balance of probabilities". This is appropriate in the usual types of cases in civil disputes such as debt: where the property in dispute belongs to either one party or the other, the court awards it to the one who, on balance, is probably in the right. Criminal cases, where defendants stand to be penalised by the state as punishment, are traditionally tested to be proved "beyond reasonable doubt". The essence of the government's case is that it is too difficult to prove a case "beyond reasonable doubt" when dealing with organised crime, so the standard of proof should be lower.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Police demand drug-tests on pub-goers and publicans

Police in South Staffordshire are demanding on-the-spot drug tests from pub-goers and clubbers, using new technology. As results are now obtainable in seconds, everyone entering a pub is asked for a sample swab, and refuseniks fall under immediate suspicion. Refusal to comply by publicans will be held against them when they apply for renewal of their license.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Burglars won't be jailed

Burglars will no longer normally receive jail sentences under new guidelines set down by Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice. Ignoring recommendations from the Sentencing Advisory Panel of 9-12 months for most non-violent burglaries, the Lord Chief Justice said the usual punishment should be community service.

Lord Woolf gave prison overcrowding as one reason for letting burglars roam free, and also expressed the opinion that for most first-time convicts prison doesn't work.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

RBS fined £750,000

Royal Bank of Scotland has been fined £750,000 for failing to get full ID verification when opening 100 new bank accounts. The Financial Services Authority imposed the fine after the bank reported itself, and co-operated fully withan FSA investigation. There was no suggestion that the account-holders did anything wrong.

Banks require detailed proof of both indentity and address to prevent money laundering and tax evasion. Failure to comply is treated extremely seriously by organs of the State, because control of money is the heart of the power in most areas. And there's nothing the State hates more than losing out on a bit of tax.

Employers liable for Xmas parties

The Trade Union Congress warned employers that they are liable for "sexually inappropriate comments or advances between colleagues" at Xmas parties, or even in informal drinks after work. Sexual harassment at work is a serious matter, but where does the employer's responsibility end? And what is the inevitable effect of such nannying: the gradual death of the Xmas party, just as we've seen the gradual extinction of school bonfire and firework parties?

"Compensation culture gone mad" is an expression that shouldn't be applied to the size of awards: the pitiful awards in the UK for serious injuries are terrible. Instead, use it when people seek compensation for whatever minor or major ill from whoever happens to have money, regardless of their real culpability.

Monday, December 16, 2002

ISPs swamped by censorship demands

Internet Service Providers have been inundated with "notice and take-down orders" served under the European E-commerce directive.

Reuters covers the full story.

Friday, December 13, 2002

War heroes taxation was theft: official

Thousands of war veterans who should have received armed forces pensions tax-free were wrongly taxed because civil servants disagreed with the law. The investigation ordered by the Ministry of Defence has found the wrong-doing extended over many decades.

In the 1950s civil servants declined to alert Navy veterans to the tax-free status of their pensions because plans were in train to change the law and remove the privilege: consequently, tax was wrongly deducted for years. As late as the 1990s, there was a "deep-rooted culture" in which it was thought it "did not matter" if pensioners were robbed of their entitlements.

Malpractice by the War Department in this respect went back as far as 1919, the report found. Tax repayments were continually withheld from many legitimate claimants, and in any case were wholly inadequate. A tax refund would pay no more than the rate in a National Savings Account, and could amount to a multi-decade interest-free loan to the government.

Smacking illegal

A group of private Christian schools lost its appeal asking for the right to use corporal punishment with parental consent. The upheld government claims that it was illegal in all schools, even inpendent schools, under the 1996 Education Act. Previously the group had one a case in the European Court of Human Rights declaring that smacking was not in breach of the Human Rights Act.

Judges in the Court of Appeal said that children could be sent home from school for reasonable physical chastisement by their parents. The appelants had claimed that swiftness was important in constructive discipline.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Parents to be fined for truancy

Education Minister Charles Clarke announced today that Head Teachers will be given the power to fine parents whose children fail to attend school.

Questionned on the Today programme about the effect on parents who take children on holiday during term time, the Minister said that schools had the power to give parents permission to remove their children for up to 10 days per year. He indicated that any parent who had the temerity to keep their children away from school for longer would deserve a fine.

No comment has yet been heard from the teachers' unions. However, a Head Teacher who was suddenly required to act as prosecutor, judge and jury imposing penal sanctions over parents might reasonably expect an inflation-busting pay-rise in recompense for their three new jobs.

Update [2002-12-13]: The National Union of Teachers has said this "would create animosity and conflict, undermining the partnership between school and home which is essential", and the National Association of Head Teachers said "such a role could undermine the need to establish a constructive relationship with parents". However the Secondary Heads Association called it "a useful reserve power".

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Attack on Low-tar cigarette brands

British Secretary of State for Health Alan Milburn hit out at "misleading" low-tar cigarette brands, while announcing a general ban on tobacco advertising. He said "misleading doublespeak" over low-tar and mild brands "will go".

If smokers really are irrevocably addicted to cigarettes, as the government claims, one wonders how attacking their ability to switch to less harmful cigarette brands will help.

Advertising hoardings and all published media adverts will be banned from next spring, as part of a government effort to reduce smoking "for our own good". The government doesn't believe that advertising tobacco helps inform the public or maintain product quality through market competition: according to Mr Milburn "tobacco advertising is the recruiting sergeant, in particular for young people, to begin the tobacco habit".

Mr Milburn disregarded the results of an 80-year controlled experiment in which tobacco advertising was banned, leading to low product quality, high rates of smoking, and much greater health problems. The Soviet experiment is generally considered a failure.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

How serious is cannabis?

Andrew Marr, chief political correspondent to the BBC, announced his confusion about government drugs policy on the BBC News at Ten. On the one hand, the government has scrapped targets for reduction in drug use and downgraded cannabis to "Class C" (the least heavily penalised class of prohibited drug). On the other hand, possession of cannabis has been made for the first time a "serious arrestable offence", carrying with it a panoply of intrusive police powers. How, he asks, are parents to interpret these apparently conflicting policies?

Andrew Marr need not be so confused: the policies are entirely consistent with government practice and each other. The government has recognised medical advice that cannabis is far less medically damaging than hard drugs by reducing its classification level, while continuing its policy of creating draconian police powers to act against even relatively trivial transgressions.