Sunday, March 26, 2006

Deborah Coddington: Fare play left standing at rank

Bad things happen late at night when Parliament is in urgency. Last week the Government passed an amendment to the law covering the licensing of taxi and bus drivers who have criminal convictions.

A brouhaha had previously surfaced when it was discovered that a law change last year which sought to purge the taxi industry, in particular, of sex offenders and paedophiles, had inadvertently caught drivers with decades-old convictions for having sex with their girlfriends just before they turned 16.

All agreed these people were not a threat and should be allowed to apply for passenger-carrying licences.

Transport Safety Minister Harry Duynhoven introduced an amendment to this effect, which all parties supported. But at the last minute, Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton introduced another amendment which broadened the category of those allowed to apply for licences to include anyone convicted of any sex offence which carried a sentence of less than 12 months' imprisonment. National was the sole opponent to this.

So the public can now look forward to being driven around by the following examples:

* An Upper Hutt taxi driver who indecently assaulted a 13-year-old girl; sentenced to 200 hours community service.

* Tauranga taxi driver who offered a 20-year-old woman a free ride in return for sex and was fined $200.

* A Christchurch taxi driver who indecently assaulted a 17-year-old he drove home from a nightclub, and an 18-year-old he drove home from the city, sentenced to eight months' imprisonment.

* A Tauranga driver sentenced to six months' jail when convicted for the 12th time for an indecent act.

* An Auckland taxi driver who deliberately intercepted a call from a young woman, requesting a female taxi driver, and indecently assaulted her, sentenced to a suspended six-month jail term.

* A Rotorua tour driver convicted of indecently assaulting two young boys he coerced into his van, sentenced to nine months' jail.

* A Lower Hutt taxi driver found guilty of two indecent assaults against young female passengers travelling his taxi, sentenced to five months' periodic detention.

Heard enough? I haven't even started on sex offenders convicted of serious sexual assaults, who nonetheless received less than 12 months' imprisonment, weren't taxi drivers when they were convicted but could well choose to take up driving now.

What about the growing number of perverts fined for trading, downloading, and storing child pornography? Would you like them to be driving you or your children around in a taxi?

I was on the transport select committee last year which worked hard on the original legislation. The paying public should be assured, we said, the person driving their bus or taxi had not been convicted of a serious offence.

We later conceded we'd not meant to include the few convicted under old laws. But the spirit of the legislation never intended that a vast number of offenders, convicted of serious sex crimes, be entitled to apply for a licence.

How ironic Transport Minister David Parker resigned his portfolio because he filed a false return to the Companies Office, yet no one except Wayne Mapp bothered challenging him on this u-turn allowing sex offenders to drive taxis. Such is politics today.

There are many advantages in no longer being an MP, not the least being free to criticise the judiciary. So I join those pouring scorn on Judge Spear of the Wellington District Court for awarding convicted paedophile Barry Grant Brown $25,000 because his privacy had been breached.

When did common sense die and appoint Judge Spear in its place? Why should the so-called privacy of a serious sex offender override the rights of the public to be protected?

Judge Spear might well be correct in finding that two police officers, in circulating Brown's photograph, criminal record and street address, had breached internal police guidelines. But that doesn't mean Brown's privacy was compromised, nor does it automatically entitle this recidivist child molester to walk off with $25,000 of taxpayers' money.

Brown's lawyer claimed "to this day [Brown] is recognised and abused on the street by strangers". If that is true - and I doubt it - then Brown only has himself to blame because he courted media attention back in 2001 when police, worried this paedophile would re-offend, circulated their leaflets.

Barry Brown liked to snatch little children off the street. It's Inspector Peter Cowan, Wellington city area commander, who should be given the $25,000 - as an annual pay rise for taking the initiative and possibly avoiding another Jules Mikus/Teresa Cormack tragedy. Paedophiles like Brown, thankfully, are rare, but they epitomise every parent's nightmare.

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