The problem with politics and journalism and life in general, I often think, is our tendency to jump from one outrage to the next, demanding the exact opposite of whatever action or legislation we hold responsible.

Thus, policy swings between poles - left/right, conservative/progressive, recovery/harm reduction, punishment/rehabilitation - without any real attempt to grapple with the knotty dilemmas that got us to the place in which those outrages happen.

This occurred to me again as I picked up my laptop to write about Sean Hogg, who was last week given a 270-hour community sentence for raping a 13-year-old. This decision is so clearly egregious, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to rattle off a column which took potshots at the criminal justice system/the Scottish Government, and called for the scrapping of the under-25 Scottish Sentencing Council guidelines, which informed his decision. That is, after all, the stance the Scottish Tories took.

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No sooner had the Daily Mail run its obligatory, but misleading: “Fury over rapist, 21, too young to be sent to prison” headline, than the party was tweeting: “SNP soft touch justice is letting victims down”, wrongly implying both that the guidelines were introduced by the party (rather than an independent statutory body) and that the judge’s hands were tied. Right on cue, shadow justice secretary Jamie Greene was writing to newly-appointed justice secretary Angela Constance asking her to review them.

But the judge, Lord Lake’s hands weren’t tied. The guidelines offered him the latitude to impose a jail sentence, albeit a shorter one than a man four years Hogg’s senior would have received. He chose not to. In this, he appears to have been influenced by Hogg’s troubled upbringing, his belief that prison would be unlikely to help with Hogg’s rehabilitation, and the four years it had taken for the case to come to court, which meant Hogg had been 17, not 21, at the time of the offence.

In common with most people, I believe he got it wrong. The guidelines say sentences should be “fair and proportionate” and take into account “the level of culpability and harm”.  Lord Lake failed to balance his justified concern for the offender’s best interests with those of his victim, a much younger child, who has to go on living with the consequences of Hogg’s attack. His decision to hand Hogg a non-custodial sentence sent out a dire message about how the state views violence against women and girls.

It could expose other girls to risk, and discourage other victims from coming forward. While community sentences may prove an effective form of restorative justice for crimes such as vandalism or shoplifting, it is difficult to see how they help address sexual offending, and, in any case, four years is too long to wait for justice or rehabilitation. If Hogg’s a danger now, then he’s been a danger all that time.

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Having said that, the broader impulse to keep young people out of jail is a positive one both for the individual offender and society at large. It was born out of a succession of suicides in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution, and research that showed prison sentences were more likely to compound criminality in the under-25s than to prevent it.

The reasons for this are obvious. Most under-25s who offend are victims as well as perpetrators; and their characters are still malleable. Or, as the Scottish Sentencing Council puts it, “a young person will generally have a lower level of maturity and a greater capacity for change”. Scottish prisons are already overcrowded, and the higher the population, the less opportunity there is for effective rehabilitation programmes within their walls.

So, I hope the Crown Office will challenge the leniency of this particular sentence (and thereby set a template for future judges). But it would be a shame if the positive direction of travel on the sentencing of young people was reversed on the back of one hard case, especially if that case was being weaponised for political purposes.

Because this is the question we have to ask ourselves, isn’t it? Are the likes of the Daily Mail and the Scottish Conservatives incandescent about Sean Hogg because they have a  monopoly on caring about child sex abuse victims? Or do they just see this girl’s plight as an opportunity to stick the boot into their rivals, while peddling their tired old Party of Law and Order schtick?

If it seems unlikely anyone would stoop low enough as to hijack a rape case, then just look around you. It’s been quite the week for using child sex abuse victims (and indeed ethnic minorities) as pawns in insidious political brinkmanship. 

On Monday, Rishi Sunak was busy dog-whistling his way through an announcement of new measures to tackle “grooming gangs”. “Political correctness” would not get in the way of his crackdown, he said - no way, no how -  which was code for “most perpetrators are British-Pakistani men and Labour are too ‘right-on’ to call them out”.

This ethnic stereotyping, otherwise known as racism, was given the lie the very next day when 13 members of a child sex ring in Wolverhampton were jailed for a total of 145 years for sex attacks spanning more than a decade. Some of those offenders were women, and all of them were white.

But instead of calling Sunak out, Labour rose to his bait. As it so often does these days. Instead of capitalising on its poll lead, sticking to its convictions and carving out its own identity, it tries to out-Tory the Tories. “How dare you suggest we are ‘right-on?’” it says, “when we are every bit as capable of scraping the bottom of the barrel as you are.” 

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And so, on Thursday, it posted a Tweet which read: “Labour is the Party of Law and Order.” Below, sat a photograph of Rishi Sunak, and beside him the words: “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak Doesn’t. Under the Tories, 4,500 adults convicted of sexually assaulting children under 16 served no prison time. Labour will lock up dangerous child abusers.”


This was a low blow; every bit as low as when Boris Johnson falsely claimed Keir Starmer, as Director of Public Prosecutions, failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile. No-one ever thought Johnson had the welfare of Savile’s victims at heart. What, the man who described investigating cases of historic child abuse as “spaffing money up the wall”?  But perhaps we’d hoped for more from Starmer’s Opposition.

As a former DPP, he knows Sunak is no more responsible for sentencing those perpetrators than the SNP was for sentencing Hogg. Yet while a number of MPs and MSPs  - including John McDonnell, Richard Leonard and Diane Abbott - called for the tweet to be deleted, others, including Jess Phillips, retweeted it, and it stayed up. What are we to read from this: that Labour is just as willing as the Conservatives to exploit children who have been violated for their own ends?

Those who are genuinely concerned about the victims of sexual offending might spend less time using them for political point-scoring, and more thinking about why the rape conviction rate is so low, and what can be done to improve it. In Scotland, we are about to see the publication of the Criminal Justice Reform Bill (or whatever name it is eventually given) which is rumoured to include the introduction of a pilot of judge-led trials and specialist courts for sexual offences.

These are huge changes, which are already proving controversial, and which will, quite rightly, be subject to heated debate. But is it too much to hope that debate might be conducted in good faith, with a focus on the needs of victims, and not as one more means by which politicians of different hues can knock lumps out of one another?