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Laurie Penny: What the Ian Tomlinson case tells us about the police

When it comes to the relationship between law enforcement and citizens, it’s still a one-way street.

While we're on the subject of Britishness, here's something we can all feel proud of: cops without guns. That we don't yet live in a police state where officers of the law can shoot first and ask questions later, or where innocent people can be killed at random for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because that would be awful, wouldn't it? That would change the entire nature of the contract between state and citizen. Nobody would want that.

By the way, it has just been announced that the police officer responsible for the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests last year will not face any criminal charges. The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, announced this morning that the Metropolitan Police officer who was caught on video attacking the 47-year-old father-of-nine with a baton, and shoving him to the ground, will not face criminal charges, because of conflicting evidence in the post-mortem reports.

You know, those post-mortem reports, the first of which seemed to confirm that Tomlinson had died of a heart attack, as per the initial police account, an allegation that was undermined by the second report, conducted on behalf of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which found that Tomlinson died from internal bleeding.

Tomlinson's family wanted a charge of manslaughter brought against the officer in question, but the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is adamant that there is not sufficient evidence to conclusively prove

a causal link between the assault on Mr Tomlinson and his death. On that issue, there is disagreement between the medical experts.

Hypothetically speaking, one might imagine that a disagreement between medical experts would be easy to engineer on any matter, given a compliant coroner or two -- even if there were video, CCTV and post-mortem evidence suggesting that, contrary to police reports, a certain innocent bystander was knocked violently to the ground and prevented from receiving proper medical assistance as he collapsed and died of his injuries.

Hypothetically speaking, one might imagine that it would be simple to get your tame experts to disagree about absolutely anything, especially if that disagreement were likely to impede embarrassing and uncomfortable further inquiry, of the sort that might challenge the gradual erosion of innocent citizens' right to feel safe when the police are out on the streets.

The announcement comes five years to the day after the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube station, south London, on 22 July 2005. Again, in that case, nobody was charged in connection with the death of the innocent Brazilian.

The Tomlinson and de Menezes families are currently gathered outside Scotland Yard -- a building with more CCTV cameras than the whole of Finland -- to stage a protest, along with concerned members of the public. Last night, I spoke to some of the protesters as they were preparing for their demonstration. Even before the announcement had been made, the organisers were firmly convinced that the CPS would "find some technicality or other to make sure that no charges are brought".

No officer of the law has ever been charged in connection with the death in of a civilian in police custody or at a protest in Britain or Ireland. And clearly, even in the digital age, when the public can use technology to hold wrongdoers to account, like the state, there is no reason to interrupt that pattern.

The message is clear: video evidence is the prerogative of the state alone. The police watch us, and our attempts to watch them back are fundamentally suspect, especially when we happen to catch them doing something a bit naughty, like, just by way of example, pummelling an innocent newspaper salesman to death. Let's not rock the boat, eh?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.