Last week I heard a fellow Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) call for the police to be more ‘culturally informed and sensitive’ if trust and confidence in them is to be maintained among ethnic minorities. I couldn’t disagree; but I wonder whether by itself that way of putting things is quite enough. I thought about this the other weekend when I attended the wedding of a young relative in Newcastle. His bride was Iranian, and the ceremony, in a hotel near the Tyne Bridge, was based around the traditions of the Zoroastrian faith.
At this point I should pause and give you the opportunity to write down on a postcard everything you know about Zoroastrianism and the customs and traditions of those whose lives have been fashioned by it. I suspect you wouldn’t get too far.
The wedding was fascinating. The young couple sat in front of a table on which a number of traditional symbolic objects were placed. In the centre was a triptych of mirrors. Traditionally, marriages would have been arranged by the families and the couple would first see one another’s reflection in a mirror. Much of the symbolism was about how sweet the married state should be – so there was fruit and sweetmeats on the table. A canopy was held over the heads of the couple while above that female guests rubbed two cones of sugar together, catching the grains on the cloth. Then the groom dipped a teaspoon in honey and popped this in his bride’s mouth, and she did the same in return.
The bride’s father read a poem by the 13th century Iranian poet Rumi in Farsi, the language of Iran. Rumi taught that love is the bridge between all things and the essential route to God.
The marriage was solemnised by a local registrar who was at great pains to explain that this was a non-religious and secular wedding. I wouldn’t want to get the registrar into trouble, but that could only have been true if your definition of religion was rather more cerebral than the powerful Zoroastrian symbolism enacted all around us, not least the burning flame that was alight throughout the ceremony – reminding us of the Manichean binary of light and darkness, good and evil.
Leaving that aside, the point I am making is that the United Kingdom is now the home to almost every religion on earth and the cultural practices and traditions that they give rise to. This is what makes our multiculturalism so interesting as well as providing occasion for misunderstanding and tension. And more and more families are, like mine, finding that they are part of that wider world where the separation of ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ makes little sense.
So yes, I agree with that other PCC that we want the police to be sensitive to cultural and religious differences, though we should not underestimate what that might entail in practice. But in return, we should expect our different communities to be tolerant and understanding if the police don’t always get things right.
This is what the Iranians in my family recognised as they helped us to understand better and as they forgave some of our unintended mistakes.
The voice of the victim is very powerful. And rightly so. We are all moved by those who have been the victims of crime, especially some of the more heinous crimes. And in recent times there have been a number of high-profile victims – from the mother of Olivia Pratt Korbel, whose daughter was murdered by Thomas Cashman, to the parents of the babies killed by Lucy Letby, their nurse at the Countess of Chester Hospital.
As we draw nearer to a general election, those voices are especially influential over politicians. For obvious reasons, MPs will want to pay particular attention to those who command widespread public sympathy and support.
Last week we saw this result in the government promising to make changes to the law so that a judge can require a convicted criminal to attend court for their sentencing, something that both Cashman and Letby had refused to do. A level of ‘reasonable’ force could be used to effect this.
I understand why the parents felt angry that those who murdered their loves ones refused to come to court for the sentencing. They wanted to look those convicted in the face for the last time. They wanted them to hear how their crime had impacted on them and their lives. They wanted them to hear the judge sum up the horror of what they had done and express something of their and the public’s revulsion and condemnation. They wanted the convicted to feel something of the pain that they felt. And for this not to happen seemed to leave a just outcome somehow incomplete – a further source of pain.
So the government has decided to give judges the power to compel convicted criminals to come to court to hear the victim impact statements and to receive their sentence.
But did the MPs – from all parties – get this right? Many have commented subsequently on the difficulty of having to force the unwilling into the dock.
These particular victim voices, powerful as they were, and as fully deserving sympathy as they were, were not the only ones. There was another victim last week who spoke, but urged caution – Bryn Hughes. His thoughts deserved a hearing as well, for not only was he the father of a murdered woman, he was also a former prison officer.
Commenting on the proposal to allow the use of force to bring those convicted into court for sentencing, Bryn Hughes said, ‘I have seen it from both sides of the courtroom.’
His daughter, PC Nicola Hughes together with PC Fiona Bone, two Manchester police officers, were ambushed and killed in a gun and grenade attack in 2012. He understands the pain of the victim. But he was also a prison officer who sometimes had to bring prisoners to court. He knows only too well how some of them might behave if they really were resisting being brought back for sentencing. Trying to force them up the narrow staircase into the dock would not be easy. They could kick and bite prison officers. Once in court they could be disrespectful to the victims and the court, making comments or gestures, spitting, or just turning their backs. They could become the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons, leaving the grieving families with more pain to have to deal with.
It did occur to me that if there was a real risk that something like this might happen, a judge might take the opposite course of action to the one ministers are contemplating and decide not to have someone brought to court – for the sake of the victims and to maintain the dignity of the court.
I found Mr Hughes reflections very compelling. But I don’t think he was listened to or consulted.
These powers will be granted to judges, though they seem to have them already. They will have the final decision on whether a convicted murderer should be compelled to come for sentencing.
At that moment the decision has to be whether justice is served by this or not.