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Thursday, 6 January 2011

Simon Ford, 41, Gold Award for Bravery and 14 years in prison

I admire people who are physically brave, especially when they take risks to help others. I also realise that bravery does not mean all-round goodness. A few years ago a young man who just happened to be there received a bravery award for helping passengers during the fire at King's Cross underground station. Some time later he turned up in court for some criminal offence. He was an ordinary working class white Londoner. He got a reduced sentence in recognition of his bravery - and I thought, Quite Right too.

Now Simon Ford, 41, a London firefighter who got a Gold Award for Bravery during operations after the 7 / 7 bombings has been sent down for 14 years for conspiracy to supply cocaine.

I'm not happy with that. But as I read through the long Guardian report on the case - basically, as is usual in drug cases, the detailed police press release - I begin to wonder, Should drug dealers go to prison at all?

I think the police have sometimes wondered that too. Commenting on the whole operation - which involved 520 police officers and jailed 33 people - they say, "the link between drugs and violence has been well made ... Operation Eaglewood has prevented these men contributing to that" by reducing the supply of cocaine in South East England. At the same time, the police comment that the gangs involved in the busted racket avoided violence and none of the convictions are for violence, but simply for conspiracy, supply and money laundering.

So we are talking about end-user violence - and in that case, the link between drugs and violence has been most clearly made in relation to alcohol. Every weekend night here in Brighton, police have to patrol and sit in vans to deal with alcohol-fuelled violence. Recently I observed a nasty incident, inevitably involving young men, and I am glad the police were there to deal with it, with the help of bouncers and more sober clubbers.

I am not aware that the police have to sit in vans at weekends waiting to deal with cocaine-fuelled violence.

In reality, these 33 men have gone to prison - for a total of 200 years and with one individual tariff of 30 years - for economic crimes, for dealing in a drug which - unlike alcohol - is not legal and dealing in which therefore gives rise to the need for money laundering. You can't pay taxes on these earnings even if you want to.

The right approach, in my view, would be to look at the profits of the huge business busted by Operation Eaglewood and extract the taxes which would have been paid had this been a legal business. Plus interest for backpayments and so on. But even though the men involved may not have been very nice people and probably not people I would want to have a meal with, on balance I would still rather that Simon Ford was out there on the streets ready to help me the next time a bomb goes off.

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