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24 July 2000

Victims of zero tolerance

A bitterly fought case in Cambridge highlights how, in the war against drugs, even middle-class char

By Nick Cohen

Cambridge has inspired a superfluity of similes, but, to the best of my knowledge, no one praising the charms of its quads and backs has added that it nevertheless resembles a corrupt small town in the Mississippi delta. The duck was broken by a solicitor who wishes to remain anonymous. Zero tolerance of the poor and their helpers in Cambridge has made him wary.

He went to a party in December thrown by a good friend, Gareth Hawkesworth, a barrister who was celebrating his promotion to the rank of judge. Another member of the bench was in the throng. Judge Jonathan Haworth was taking a break from a sensational case that would fill the papers, lead to a national campaign and, this month, provoke the intervention of the Court of Appeal. He betrayed no premonition of the coming storm.

Ruth Wyner and John Brock were before him for not taking “reasonable steps” to prevent the sale of drugs at the Wintercomfort day centre. They had taken the homeless from the streets into a shelter that kept an open door for the hardest cases. Their charity did not save them. The salient points for their friends at the barrister’s party were: the accused hadn’t taken drugs; they hadn’t sold or otherwise benefited from the sale of drugs; they hadn’t refused to ban anyone they caught selling drugs; and, in 300 hours of undercover surveillance recorded on videotape, the Cambridgeshire constabulary hadn’t captured one shot of the centre staff smiling in complicity as a slither of heroin was exchanged.

Judges are meant to be discreet, as well as learned. Their minds should be open until the evidence and pleas of mitigation have been delivered. Guests collared Haworth. Surely, asked one, he wasn’t thinking of treating them as dangerous villains? “He said he was going to lock them up,” the solicitor reported. “He went on and on about how they had to be punished.”

The solicitor knew Wyner and was going to meet her for lunch. Modern etiquette guides could not teach him how to handle the spoutings of garrulous judges – I guess their authors assume that members of the judiciary will know how to hold their tongues – so he was faced with the problem of what to do. Should he breeze into the restaurant, and reassure Wyner that in England you don’t get sent down for helping the destitute? Or should he advise her to grasp what moments she had left with her husband and children because the judge had told him she would be in the van to Holloway?

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He succumbed to the pressure to close ranks and obey the omerta of the Bar and Chatham House rules of the soiree. He later regretted his choice and told me his story in January. “I know the judge, the prosecutors and the police and am ashamed for them,” he said. “Cambridge has become like a rotten town in the Deep South. Perhaps we should get John Grisham over to write about us.”

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I reported his comments, which were substantiated by an affidavit to the Court of Appeal from Karim Khalil, Wyner’s barrister. (Khalil described how he was putting on his robes before going in to hear what sentence Haworth would impose, when a colleague said that the judge had told his fellow dry-sherry sippers that he would be handing out prison terms.)

The solicitor now sounds unhappy about speaking out, or is at least wary of the results. “I had to choose between my loyalties to the profession and loyalties to a friend,” he sighed. Standing by one friend meant losing a second, Gareth Hawkesworth, who has never spoken to him since. “This is what happens in these situations; friendships get broken. You get sucked in.”

Polarisation has afflicted Cambridge: the consequences of choices made have resulted in more than lost friendships. The most severe were suffered by Wyner and Brock. Haworth gave them five and four years apiece – longer terms than many drug-dealers receive.

To the thousands who were prepared to support the campaign to release them, the punishments were not only extreme, but a penal manifestation of where the squawks of gesture politicians and millionaire pundits have brought us. Zero tolerance meant that those who tried to clear up society’s messes were potential criminals. Charities across Britain panicked. Open doors closed. Hostels turned away homeless addicts because their managers realised they would carry on shooting up for months until a scarce place on a rehabilitation programme could be secured.

MPs called on the Home Office to change the law. A fightback by Wintercomfort’s opponents was necessary.

The cant of our times lies in the confusion between the elite and the popular. Modern elites in politics, business, the media and culture are remarkable for their ability to accuse their powerless critics of being elitist, while making populist bows to a public they would frankly be horrified to mix with. In social policy, the elite-populist muddle is refined to the question: who is the victim? You might say that the poor are victims. But this simple response denies the comfortably off the satisfaction of feeling afflicted. Their righteous victimhood is the best prophylactic against compelling reasons to redistribute wealth.

Cambridge lawyers and police officers who supported the prosecution and their followers in the press began by saying, in good faith, that the pair had been lawfully convicted by a jury, which had been told of drugs use in and around the centre.

The judge’s summing up and sentencing remarks will be examined by the Court of Appeal – which gave a strong hint about the direction of its thinking when it released Wyner and Brock in advance of a full hearing in the autumn. The pair’s lawyers will say that Haworth failed to understand the difficulties of dealing with the homeless and that a legal manoeuvre prevented the defendants calling witnesses who might have helped them.

Haworth acknowledged, for example, that Wintercomfort had a policy of banning drug-dealers, but claimed they had barred a mere handful. Wintercomfort says that 162 residents were thrown out in 1997 not only for dealing, but also for suspected dealing. (The stern line was taken because it is incredibly difficult to prove dealing, to spot a fiver and a foil-wrapped nugget being exchanged in a fleeting handshake.) The judge complained that a known dealer kept returning through the open door. The staff say that they called the police to get rid of him, but the cops couldn’t be bothered to come round.

Above all, Haworth was impressed with the evidence of a petty crook, with the appropriately Dickensian name of Timmy Pocket, who said he made £1,000 a day at Wintercomfort. Pocket had 20 previous convictions for dishonesty, and had reason to tell the police what they wanted to hear because he was heading to jail again.

The appeal will look at the demand from the police that Wintercomfort disclose the names of all those suspected of drug use. Is this a request to uphold the law or to sabotage a centre by deterring dozens of clients from going through its doors?

Beyond the legal argument lies a simple question.

Why, when there was no suggestion of a staff conspiracy to profit from drugs, didn’t the police warn the charity that an open-door policy could lead to prosecution under an obscure law? Wyner’s and Brock’s supporters invoke the Deep South again. They talk of the dislike of a pushy woman advocate for the homeless and of a lawless macho culture in the Cambridgeshire force that led recently to a sergeant being imprisoned for raping suspects with, he thought, impunity.

For if Wyner was admired by Cambridge liberals, she was loathed by conservatives. Some had good grounds for protest. Even Anne Campbell, the Labour MP for Cambridge who bravely supported the defendants, believed that conditions around the hostel were becoming intolerable. Orhan Ugar, the manager of a local launderette, described them.

“If someone comes round and urinates in your lounge and shoots himself up with drugs, lays down and falls asleep on your floor, you wouldn’t like it,” she said. “But that’s what was happening in my launderette.”

Other complainants were more peculiar. Wintercomfort had plans to open a night shelter in a bourgeois suburb. Don Keiller, an academic, led the local Nimbies. The proposed hostel was killed by the prosecution, but Keiller has haunted Wyner, appearing at her trial and Appeal Court hearing. The papers quote his ally, Eamon Burgess, a city councillor in Norwich, who says, quite rightly, that Wyner was dismissed from a shelter in the city, and implies that her sacking, which was upheld by an industrial tribunal, was connected to tolerance of joint smoking. Burgess seems to hate her. “She’s grasping,” he told me, “and exploits the vulnerable to increase her power.” He is obsessed about the tiniest details in the press coverage of a woman he hasn’t seen for years. “There’s a well-orchestrated media campaign behind this,” he called me back to mutter. “They say she was 50 when she went to prison when, in fact, she was 49. That’s a very important difference. If you’re 50, you’re old and deserving of sympathy. If you’re 49, you’re still young.” I invented a pressing deadline and put the phone down with relief.

When Burgess is quoted attacking Wyner’s character, nobody mentions that he has a conviction for going wild with an axe and smashing the windscreens of five police cars. This news came to me from Wintercomfort supporters. This is a rough fight.

But perhaps a leaven of malice will be “helpful”, as the politicians say. What the Wintercomfort affair shows is the unreality of the hard-headed realists who lead the unwinnable war on drugs.

Modest estimates say that about half the people in shelters use drugs. They seek oblivion for obvious reasons, and occasionally sell some of their stash for a few pounds’ profit. They run a mile from blanket prohibition and charities that will grass them up to the police. While the Wyner and Brock verdict stands, those who must coax the homeless into rehabilitation run the risk of imprisonment.

The Home Office has, inevitably, refused to change the law, but sooner or later the politicians who boast of their willingness to make hard choices are going to have to confront the dilemmas of the slums they preside over with such insouciance.