Saturday, 3 July 2010

Police and watchdog clash over "gangster gossip"

In a drive to disrupt organised crime, Strathclyde Police has been feeding information on suspect businesses to local authorities so that they can avoid doing business with private sector firms used to launder money and linked to drug-dealing, extortion and prostitution. The force intends extending this approach to legitimate private businesses which may be unwittingly assisting in illegal activity by engaging with fronts for organised crime.

Naturally, the human rights lawyers are licking their lips over the police's extra-judicial approach to the problem and, although broadly supportive of the move, the Herald warns of a "nod-and-a-wink culture in which individuals are blacklisted with no right of reply" and cautions that, "the possibility of a mistaken identity, a vexatious motive or someone with a criminal past who is a reformed character being unjustly accused raises a nagging doubt."

However, help has perhaps come from an unexpected source. Today the Herald reports on an unusual move by Joan Aitken, Scotland's traffic commissioner, who acts acts as regulator to the bus industry. Sandy Easdale, who operates McGill's buses from Greenock and taxis in Renfrewshire, was recently the subject of an inquiry conducted by Ms Aitken. He is apparently the object of much conjecture concerning the legitimacy of his operations, no doubt stemming from a jail sentence served in the 1990s for VAT fraud.

In her findings Ms Aitken criticised "gossip-mongers and those who expect me to act on their chit-chat” regarding the allegations against Mr Easdale, and said: “I have no evidence that any of the Easdales are engaged in any criminal activities; no evidence of money laundering; no evidence of drug dealing, or of harassment, or of threatening public officials.” She added: “No officer of Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, or Strathclyde Police, or HM Revenue and Customs, or Crown Office, or other public or private agency or corporate body or private citizen has brought me evidence (as distinct from supposition) of any wrongdoing."

However, police deny making representations to Ms Aitken in relation to Mr Easdale, and the public inquiry involved the failure of McGill's to run its buses to the published timetables, thus making the traffic commissioner's statements seem unusual indeed.

Thus both Strathclyde Police and the Scottish Traffic Commissioner seem to be engaged in what appears to be slightly dubious activity, with both acting as judge and jury without necessarily proffering evidence that would be permissible in a court of law. Of course, the two arms of the state are at odds here, because the former is doing the accusing, while the latter is in this particular case proffering a defence, but without the apparent need to do so.

If this sets a precedent then it could all get very messy.

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