From the Revd Geoffrey Squire
Sir, — I read with interest (News, 2 May) the comments of the Rector of Whitehaven concerning one of his parishioners who was fined £210 and given a criminal record for leaving the lid of his wheelie-bin slightly open.
As the Rector points out, it is not just the fine, but the fact that his parishioner now has a criminal record, which will stay with him for life, and may impede his future. He is not the only one. Thousands of people, mostly but not exclusively young people, in our country have been given these ticket fines, and in every case they lead to their having a criminal record that will remain on the police national computer for the whole of their life. Once recorded, they may be revealed in any CRB or other check with that computer, and those checks are being increasingly required in relation to a rapidly increasing variety of paid or voluntary positions.
After many years of voluntary work with young people, I have become aware of one young man who, having obtained his degree, wishes to explore a vocation to holy orders; but now he has a problem. During his last year at university, he was walking through a city street with a fellow-student when they noticed some new CCTV cameras. It was a dark and quiet evening, and they noticed that the cameras were moving to follow their movements. When they walked back along the street, the same thing happened again.
As they were simply walking in a quiet and orderly fashion, this annoyed them, and the lad looked up at one camera and stuck two fingers up at it. The camera operator must have contacted the police, as within seconds a police car raced around the corner with blue lights flashing. Two officers got out, and informed him that they were giving him an £80 ticket fine “for obscenity”, i.e. for making an obscene gesture to the CCTV camera, and therefore to the officer who was observing it.
The officer added the comment: “And now you are branded a criminal for life.” When the lad replied, “This country is becoming a bloody police state,” he was told: “Watch what you are saying, lad, or I will give you another two: for swearing and for insult.”
As the young man began the procedure towards possible ordination, he was asked numerous routine questions, including, “Have you ever been in trouble with the police or had any convictions?” When he replied that he had this conviction “for obscenity”, the priest who was conducting the interview told him: “Of course, that may be revealed in your CRB check that will be essential prior to ordination.” He added: “In the present climate, when everyone is going over the top about child-protection matters, a criminal record of any kind, and especially one for obscenity, may well mean that will be the end of the road for your vocation.”
He is not the only one that I know of in a similar situation. One lad has acquired a criminal conviction for throwing a chip tray on to a pile of rubbish at a fairground. He has now been informed that this “will, of course, have to be taken into consideration” if he wishes to follow a career as a schoolteacher after graduation.
Another young man was very single-minded that he wanted to be a police officer, and asked me if he could give my name as a referee. I readily agreed, but now hear that he has abandoned any desire to continue, after being given a ticket fine and criminal record for a similarly trivial offence.
An article in a West Country newspaper speaks of another young lad’s abandoning his university studies and “going to pieces” after being officially listed as a criminal for throwing a sweet wrapper into a litter-strewn London gutter on New Year’s Eve.
I know all except the last young person very well, and they are among the best young people in the land: people who are kind and considerate and honest, and would never commit a real crime of any kind. Now, as “criminals”, their future vocations or careers, and even any voluntary work, are put in jeopardy.
That is not all. They have all turned from seeing the police as their friends to seeing them as “the enemy”, those in positions of power as power-crazed tyrants, and their country as a police state. One is even trying to leave the country “for good” as a direct result, and has sought my help to ascertain whether his criminal record will follow him abroad.
What on earth are we doing in branding so many people as criminals for life for trivial matters? One of the young “criminals” recently helped the police to catch two thieves, but now he says “Never again.” Let all people of good will work together to try to get these ticket fines decriminalised.
Little Cross, Northleigh Hill
Devon EX32 7NR