The Lockerbie bomber? A likely story . . .

In all the furore over Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, we have lost sight of one important fact.

So, the British ambassador to the US says that the government "deeply regrets" the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie atrocity. Meanwhile, US senators are calling for an inquiry into allegations that BP lobbied the British government to let Megrahi go in order to protect their interests in Libya.

News of his release on compassionate grounds a year ago prompted a similar wave of indignation. The papers bleated about Megrahi showing no compassion to his victims, that this was not "justice", and that the government was ignoring the victims of the bombing. This post from the Telegraph's Con Coughlin was fairly typical.

What is rarely mentioned amid all the outrage is that there is considerable doubt over Megrahi's guilt.

As the late Paul Foot pointed out, having sat through the whole of Megrahi's trial in the Netherlands in 2001, the prosecution's case was farcical.

That Megrahi felt the need to write 300 pages about his innocence is odd -- one ought to have sufficed.

To summarise, Megrahi is meant to have planted a bomb on a plane in Malta, which then travelled on to Frankfurt, and then on again to Heathrow, before finally exploding on Pan Am Flight 103 in the sky above Lockerbie. We are supposed to believe, then, that the bomb got on to three planes in a row without being detected. It seems a lot more likely that the bomb was planted at London than anywhere else.

In their judgment, the three judges at the trial also pointed out that there was nothing that proved Megrahi had put a bomb on the plane in Malta. They noted: "The absence of any explanation of the method by which the primary suitcase might have been placed on board KM180 [Air Malta] is a major difficulty for the Crown case."

What's more, Megrahi was apparently aided by a conspirator, yet his co-accused at the trial was unanimously acquitted.

The prosecution's star witness was Tony Gauci, a Maltese shopkeeper, who claimed to remember Megrahi buying clothes from his shop. These same clothes apparently found their way into the case in which the bomb was concealed.

Gauci also said, however, that he remembered it raining on the day Megrahi came in, yet meteorological records show this was not the case. This alone does not discount his testimony, but it must give pause for thought.

His claim to be able to identify a particular customer many months after he came into his shop is much more difficult to sustain. Again, the court expressed its reservations, saying that "Mr Gauci's initial description to DCI Bell would not in a number of respects fit the first accused" (Megrahi).

Perhaps those calling for an inquiry into the circumstances of this man's release should dig a little deeper into how he was convicted in the first place.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.