Comment – Criminal injustice…

A digger driver has just been jailed for five years and four months after he went on a rampage through the reception of a newly-built hotel. According to the prosecution, John Manley caused more than £440,000 worth of damage when he drove a mini excavator through the hotel in Liverpool.

If that was the full story, that would be the end of it; even if a five-year sentence does feel just a little excessive.

But that isn’t the full story. In fact, this story extends beyond this story. And when you hear the full story, I think you’ll agree that John Manley and his family have every right to feel aggrieved at the severity of the sentence handed down. I think you’ll also agree that there is an imbalance in the legal system that penalises criminal damage with a hefty custodial sentence but which penalises the death of a site worker with a financial slap on the wrist. And I think you’ll agree that for all our talk of mental health awareness, we continue to marginalise, demonise, penalise and victimise those with mental health issues.

Let’s take those one at a time.

I have previously spouted forth about the half a million pound fine handed down to McGee Group after a demolition worker was killed in a wholly avoidable incident. Literally everyone in the industry I have spoken to agrees that McGee Group got off lightly. That is not McGee Group’s fault. That is the fault of a legal system that has valued the life of a man at half a million pounds plus court costs; the same legal system that now believes £400,000 worth of damage to a Travelodge is worth five years of a man’s life.

What bothers me more about this case is that the sentencing appears to have failed to take into account the reasons for John Manley’s actions; and his mental state when he drove his digger through a partially built hotel.

At the time of the incident, John Manley was owed money. He was owed money at a time when he could not afford electricity or food, which meant he was unable to have his children stay with him.

This, let us not forget, is not an isolated incident. The non-payment of companies and workers remains commonplace in the UK demolition and construction industry, even though the same sector has fair pay schemes up the wazoo.

Now before I go on, let me tell you a story. It’s a story that I have never shared outside my family; but it’s a story that – I think – speaks to how John Manley was probably feeling on that fateful day.

Way back in 2006 – a full two years before the recession hit officially – my previous business folded. I won’t bore you with the details but, to cut a long story short, the business had grown too fast too quickly and it eventually collapsed under its own weight. In the midst of all this, my former business partner took his own life, which gives you some indication of the effect that spiralling debt can have upon a person’s mental state.

That is not the story I want to share. I can only imagine what was going on in my business partner’s mind when he took his own life. But I can remember a time – a specific incident – in which the wider impact of my failed business really hit home.

I came downstairs one morning to find my youngest daughter making herself a sandwich to take to school. This was odd. She was being very secretive about it; and she generally ate school dinners. So I asked her why she was making lunch for herself.

“You haven’t paid for my school dinners. I know you’re struggling with money and I didn’t like to ask.”

I share that story not as a belated request for sympathy. My business has been rebuilt from the ground up and is bigger and stronger today than it was back then. I share it because some 14 years later, that brief conversation still haunts me.

Now imagine John Manley. Unable to have his children stay with him because he is unable to buy food or pay his electricity bill. He was unable because someone had not paid him what he was owed.

Now he could have done what so many others do – He could have sat on his arse and claimed unemployment benefit. But he didn’t. He went to work in the pissing rain and the freezing cold and he grafted; only for some jobsworth to withhold his hard-earned wages.

I do not condone Manley’s actions. But I sure as Hell understand them. And where is the penalty for the company or the individual that drove him to such drastic action? If they had forced him into a position in which his physical health had been at risk, they would have been penalised. Instead, they put him in a position in which his mental health was at risk and they walk away with their heads held high.

One of the worst things about all this is its timing. The awareness of and sympathy towards mental health issues is supposedly at an all-time high.
Demolition companies are now enrolling in mental health awareness courses; they’re adjusting working practices to minimise the stress and anxiety suffered by their workers. And with each passing celebrity suicide, the issue of mental health is thrown back into the media spotlight. We like to believe that we live in an enlightened age in which empathy is the order of the day.

Yet here is a man who clearly had mental health issues; a desperate man who had the good sense to admit himself to a mental health hospital in the immediate aftermath of the incident for which he has been jailed.

This, surely, is a man that should have been helped; not thrown under a legal bus to make a point about criminal damage.

Assuming that John Manley is on his best behaviour, the chances are that he will serve around two years rather than the full five. But the law still isn’t done with him.

In a prime example of kicking a man while he’s down, the courts have seen fit to disqualify him from driving (a car) for four years. Even if a future employer is willing to overlook the findings of a Google search that shows this misdemeanour, his ability to work will be greatly lessened by his inability to drive.

What John Manley did was wrong and he should be punished. But he has been made a scapegoat by an industry that continues to pay its bills when it feels like it; by a legal system that values a hotel reception more highly than a human life; and by a society that claims to have empathy for those with mental health issues but which – in reality – would rather see them locked up.