Opinion: which is the biggest disgrace – the marriages or the sentence?

St Leonards on Sea has had its share of the national news recently – Banksy has been to visit and has left his moniker on our seafront; and in the last few days we have had a local vicar sentenced to four years in prison for his part in a sham weddings scam which has broken immigration law and also, it seems, a Marriage Act from the 1940s.

In case you missed it, the Independent has covered the case of Revd Alex Brown in detail. It transpires that no-one has been able to identify the motive of this errant cleric for performing nearly 400 bogus marriages between (mostly) African men at the end of their leave to remain, and Eastern European women wanting to make some extra cash.

But if you type ‘jailed for four years’ into your favourite search engine, along with the story of Alex Brown, you will come up with a host of other stories about stabbings, granny-robbing, paedophilia and the like.

Now don’t get me wrong, Brown is guilty. He has been incredibly stupid. And the jobs that may have been available to local people instead of ‘illegals’ but for the actions of Brown should not be sneezed at in the tough economic times we face. But it seems to me that his sentence was disproportionate in relation to the other offences that I could read about at the browse of an internet page or two.

Of course reparation should be made. But if sentencing policy is the shorthand for the kind of society that we are trying to create, then after this one handed down at Lewes Crown Court, Ken Clarke really does have his work cut out. Reforming sentencing culture and the prison system so that it is fit for purpose, appears no small feat.

In times which are so difficult, and where unpopular cuts to public services lurk behind every newspaper page-turn, surely there are better ways to spend the hundreds of thousands of pounds that it will cost the taxpayer to keep this vicar locked up for four years?

We Liberal Democrats must have our influence on issues such as these for the benefit of the Coalition. We need a more intelligent approach to sentencing and prisons. And one that, as under the previous Government, is not so easily buffeted by the political whim of the day – whether it be to look tough on immigration, terrorism, or anything else…

I never thought I’d say this, but more power to Mr Clarke’s elbow.

Nick Perry is the Lib Dem parliamentary spokesperson for Hastings & Rye

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12 Comments

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th Sep '10 - 1:47pm

    “… the jobs that may have been available to local people instead of ‘illegals’ but for the actions of Brown should not be sneezed at in the tough economic times we face.”

    I have to say that’s the kind of simplistic blanket argument against immigration that I’d expect from the right-wing tabloids.

  • The biggest disgrace of all is that the world has created a scenario where people are willing to get married to gain citizenship.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th Sep '10 - 5:33pm

    Nick

    Are you really trying to tell me that “intergenerational poverty” is the fault of immigrants?

    Please, somebody tell me the party hasn’t changed as much as that!

  • On the one hand, 4 years seems a bit much. On the other hand, he systematically abused a position of trust over a period of 4 years, so at the very least it’s poetically appropriate.
    Considering that it seems that the Church raked in the earnings and not him personally, couldn’t we simply have levied a massive fine on them?

  • I guess it is akin to pervading justice?

  • Nick seems rather naive here. Father Brown married nearly 400 couples for money. They paid the gang “up to £15,000” a time. This crime, obviously, raked in more than £5 Million. The fact that the money has yet to be located does not detract from the serious nature of this crime. Obviously the cash has been well hidden, we must not be fooled into thinking that this trio did not have victims who will continue to suffer as a result of this crime.

    Brown and the others seem to have got a very light sentance when compared with similar, “people smuggling ” type offences.

    What makes this crime worse is the fact that Father Brown has played the “Christian” trump card to reduce his sentence and convince some folk that he had intentions beyond personal greed. Another Gang-member used a religious charity to hide behind. The use of religions for personal profit and greed should be opposed ba all right minded people. This abuse of trust is quite shocking.

  • Terry Gilbert 14th Sep '10 - 5:28pm

    As a former Probation Officer, I agree that we should reserve long custodial sentences to violent and dangerous offenders. Unfortunately, my experience is that you will always go to prison for longer if you cock a snook at the Rules Established by the Great and the Good for the Benefit of Us All, (Undermining the Sanctity of the Institution of Marriage! Gadzooks! I hear them cry from the bench…) as opposed to offending against the less powerful. Theft from an employer, for example is always treated more harshly because it undermines the interests of the Powerful. For once I disagree with Nich Starling. A four year sentence is harsh for any non violent offence; and (btw) it does last for four years from the date of first incarceration, even if part of the sentence is served in the community ‘on probation’. Reoffend before the sentence is finished, and you risk the activation of the remainder of the sentence in addition to any sentence for the new offence. And I’m not sure where Nich got 27 months from? Perhaps it has now changed, but it was goverened by CJA’91 – i.e. for a four year sentence, it would be release at the 2/3 point, or 32 months in this case. (Maybe he has already served 5 awaiting trial?) Even that is not wholly a formality – it is possible for Governors to punish errant prisoners by rescinding all or part of early release, though perhaps it is unlikely in the case of a vicar.

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