Chris Arnot

A few samples of my work

Fear of the truth

A contract has been taken out to kill a public servant. His crime? Persuading key witnesses to give evidence that helped convict a gang of thugs who beat a teenage boy to death. But this is not Sicily or the Bronx – it’s Bermondsey, south London. Chris Arnot meets up with Simon Hughes, the Lib – Dem MP who has been targeted by local gangsters

Simon Hughes arrives alone and on foot. For the first time in over three months, the MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey, in south-east London, is not being ferried around in a bullet-proof car by officers from the Special Branch. This is the kind of protection normally afforded to past and present prime ministers and secretaries of state for Northern Ireland (Mo Mowlam apart) rather than Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesmen. But since the end of October, Hughes has had to live with the knowledge that a pounds 10,000 contract has been taken out on his life.

‘One of my friends said he thought it was offensively cheap,’ he says as we settle down in a coffee shop near Westminster Abbey. But his levity can’t quite play down the shocking nature of this case. A democratically elected member of the British parliament is still under threat of being killed – not by political terrorists or religious fanatics, but by gangsters within his own constituency.

His ‘crime’, in their eyes, was to persuade key witnesses to give evidence in the case of 17-year-old Jamie Robe, who was beaten to death by a gang from the Osprey estate, Rotherhithe, in August 1997. Three of Robe’s assailants were jailed for life in November 1999.

The intervening two years provided a chilling example of wide-scale witness intimidation and the cost to the public purse of ensuring that the criminal justice system is allowed to take its course. About 20 people had to be moved away from their homes by the Metropolitan police’s witness protection unit – one of eight nationwide with powers to provide new homes, new identities, new jobs and, in some cases, new schools for witnesses’ children.

Hughes refused to move away from his constituency, but he did accept police advice on other matters. ‘Instead of holding my surgeries in the main thoroughfare of a shopping centre, we had to move inside a shop so the entrance can be watched,’ he says. ‘And I could no longer go to meetings in crowded bars.’

The coffee shop in Westminster is comparatively quiet on this Saturday morning and we have been able to walk here apparently unobserved. ‘They let me out on my own now,’ Hughes cheerfully proclaims. But the police still take the threat seriously enough to maintain a round-the-clock guard on his office and the home he shares with his girlfriend. ‘We’re dealing with the sort of people who wouldn’t find it difficult to get someone to do a shooting or a stabbing for them,’ Hughes concedes, ruefully.

Indeed, it was the knowledge that he has lived for 15 years in a part of London where a high number of attacks are never resolved that persuaded him to use his influence to try to break through the enforced silence on the Osprey estate and surrounding area. ‘A friend’s son was killed and nobody was charged,’ he says. ‘I saw the trauma that that caused and it made me determined that, if it happened again, we would do better. We must make sure that people are brought to book. Otherwise we’re just going to have anarchy.’

Ironically, it was two days after he had been appointed his party’s spokesman on home affairs that his all-too-personal lesson in witness intimidation came home to roost. ‘I’d just gone to bed, absolutely knackered, when my pager went off at about 2.15,’ he recalls. ‘It was the parliamentary security service telling me they’d received a threat to me and regarded it as serious. They told me they’d be with me as soon as they could. It turned out to be about 20 minutes, although it seemed longer. I was on my own that night, so I got up, made a cup of tea and hoped to goodness that if the people who were after me got here before the police, I’d be more quick-witted than they were.’

The court case had finished the previous day. But only on the eve of the trial did the judge confirm that witnesses would be able to give evidence from behind a screen while wearing balaclavas and boiler suits. Had this proviso been made known earlier, it might have eased the anguish of the key witnesses. One of them, 19-year-old Traci Broughton, had lost two stone through sheer terror.

‘There’s no reason why some procedural guarantees about the provision of screens in court shouldn’t be agreed some time before the case is heard,’ says Hughes, who persuaded Traci to speak out. ‘Also, when there’s so much jury nobbling going on, why does the jury have to sit directly in the view of the public gallery?’

As for witness protection, Hughes believes there should be a nationwide scheme ready to offer alternative housing and employment to key witnesses. ‘Also business relocation costs,’ he adds, conscious that the other two key witnesses in the Jamie Robe case were Turks running a kebab shop. ‘As it is,’ he says, `it’s taking a lot of police time and they’re dependent on the good offices of local authorities. With private sector help, a few million could be made available to get the job done quickly and efficiently. I’m working up some proposals to put to Jack Straw. We’ve already had a preliminary meeting. Hopefully, there’s going to be another this side of Easter.’

The home secretary apparently has been very sympathetic to the plight of his opposite number on the Lib-Dem benches. Whether he’ll be sympathetic to funding a national scheme for witness protection and changing the lay-out of court rooms remains to be seen.

One thing’s for sure: Simon Hughes has more reason than most for being aware of the cost to society of the alternative – a steady increase in the number of court cases that collapse because witnesses to violent crime are too frightened to stand up and say publicly what they saw.

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