UK Politics

Criminal Justice

Last night, with all attention on Blair regenerating into Brown, a new criminal justice bill was announced, which contains this little gem.

Other measures include: stopping "plainly guilty" offenders having their convictions quashed as a result of procedural irregularities;

How exactly does one determine who is 'plainly guilty' unless some procedure of due process is followed... or are we to take a leaf from Gene Hunt and adopt the policy 'He's a wrong 'un, let's lock 'im up!'

As always, please do comment if you get the urge.

Update: Tim Worstall has also spotted this

Blair Begone!

The seemingly unending 'fairwell tour' is coming to an end, and our 'Glorious Leader' is walking away from Number 10 at a time of his choosing. Whilst it would have been nice to see Blair lose an election, the important thing is that he's going. This was a PM that's reigned over a constitutional settlement that has unbalanced the UK (Scottish Parliament with no balance in England) - and leaving us a Scottish PM who will make laws in some areas which will affect England but not his own constituency. This was a PM who caused passport prices to soar in advance of the ID card scheme , which itself is an expensive white elephant which would not provide the security it claims without massively changing our relationship with the state. (Though Brown reportedly is a convert to ID cards).

This was the PM who wanted the ability to put people in prison for 90 days without charge (equivalent to a six month sentence). This was sold as 'better safe than sorry', but on that reasoning one had better lock up the whole population.

This was the PM who promised electoral reform in 1997, but broke that manifesto promise when in became clear that the distortions introduced by the first past the post system gave labour a representation far in excess of the vote received. In the last election, labour came second in the popular vote in England, but still won more English seats. For the record, I'm not in favour of list based PR, but would like to see a transferable vote system. Harriet 'what anomalies' Harman (2) was elected to the deputy leadership using just such a system - but she's opposed to using that system to elect her to parliament itself.

This was the PM of 45 minutes, of dodgy dossiers.

This was the PM who prohibited free speech near parliament causing people such as Maya Evans to be 'convicted for reading out names of 97 British soldiers killed in Iraq at unauthorised protest. ' Similarly, an 82 year old, Walter Wolfgang was manhandled during a speech for shouting 'Nonsense'. (Would this have been news had he been a 20-something?). The terrorism act was cited. At the same event an MP had his camera seized (though, he helps to vote for the laws, so....)

The new PM may be a new PM, but he was also a member of the cabinet through all of the above - and despite the presidential style of Blair we have collective cabinet responsibility (which is why Robin Cook resigned over Iraq). Brown was Blair's right hand man, and he held the purse-strings throughout. One of his first actions was to change the tax regime for share dividends in pension funds - not tremendously or exciting, but it did have the effect of making pensions grow less quickly, and helped to provoke a pensions crisis.

Boris on Tony's Feral Beasts

... now how's that for a mental image in a post title? Boris Johnson, both an MP and a journalist, writes on Blair's recent 'Feral Beasts' speech on the state of the media.

He wrote that:

It wasn't the press that undermined confidence in government: it was the horror of discovering that the Prime Minister's spokesman - Alastair Campbell - could in effect order the intelligence services to buff up the evidence, to change the mood of verbs from the conditional to the indicative, in order to make Saddam's weaponry sound more scary and the case for war more convincing.

It is the government deceit that is resented - at least by most people - and not the "feral beasts" of the media who uncovered it.

That is why Blair's speech to the Reuters Institute was so hypocritical; and it was insulting to the intelligence of the public because he really seems to believe that everybody reads the press in the way that politicians read the press.

and he wrote:

Our judgments are mocked, our non sequiturs are skewered. Journalists - these feral characters that Blair claims to fear - are increasingly accountable, increasingly vulnerable to the pithy rejoinders of the man or woman on the net.

And this is the key point: it is not so much that politics and journalism are increasingly tawdry or despised. It is the growing media literacy of the public - the understanding of soundbites and vox pops and two-ways and blogs - that allows everyone to participate in activities once reserved for the journalistico-political complex.

That is a wonderful thing, and I would much rather have cyberspace regulated by public scorn than by Tony Blair, who should depart as soon as possible to complete his farewell tour in an open-top submarine.

A good article, one point: An open topped submarine? isn't that otherwise known as a 'boat', Boris?

Feral Beasts

So, Tony Blair likens the media to a feral beast, for reporting views as facts. Whilst I have some sympathy here, the gutter press are not whiter than white, coming from Blair's llips the words are hollow and pleading. This is the man of 45 minutes, of spin, of media management.

The Independent seemed to his the right note with this morning's headlines:

Would you be saying this, Mr Blair, if we supported your war in Iraq?

Today's paper is true to those ideals. So how come we now exemplify everything that's wrong with the public discourse? We don't trawl through people's dustbins. We respect the privacy of those in public life. We strive to abide by the PCC code. But, after 10 years of the Blair administration, a decade of spin and counter-spin, of dodgy dossiers, of 45-minute warnings, of burying bad news, of manipulation and misinformation, we feel that the need to interpret and comment upon the official version of events is more important than ever. And we are confident that our readers can differentiate between news and opinion. We can also be sure that our readers will make up their own minds, and with this in mind we are printing the full text of Mr Blair's speech (there we go again, offering another viewpoint).

What clearly rankles with Mr Blair is not that we campaign vociferously on certain issues, but that he doesn't agree with our stance. What if we had backed the invasion of Iraq (like, for example, we supported the interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone)? Would he then be attacking our style of journalism? Of course not. We are unapologetic about our opposition to Iraq, the biggest foreign policy folly of our age, and we shall continue to hold him and his government to account.

I think that hits the nail on the head completely, Blair doesn't mind opinions if they agree with his - but otherwise insists on 'facts' (which happen to be whatever we're being told at the time).

Personally, I don't like too much 'opinion' in newspapers, and to that extend I agree with some of what Blair said. I like a plainer form of reporting and as such papers such as The Sun, Mirror, Express, News of the World and (shudder) The Daily Mail leave me cold.

I tend to browse the broadsheets, picking and mixing from the Telegraph, Grauniad, Independent and so forth. I can recognise the difference between opinion and fact - and though it's not totally separated (opinion can be expressed in what you choose to cover), the broadsheets tend to be clearer than the tabloids. I've a lot of time for The Independent. They regularly devote their whole front page (and several pages inside) to an important topic which isn't 'news'. They look at things in a bit of depth. Yes, it's a liberal paper, and no, they don't report things uncritically - but their readers don't take things at face value either.

The editors have been commenting on this speech.

Given his own history, Blair's attack seems little more than a child throwing his toys from a pram.

In Blair's defence, he does acknowledge his own part:

We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media. In our own defence, after 18 years of opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative. But such an attitude ran the risk of fuelling the trends in communications that I am about to question.

He talks of the Hutton Enquiry:

The verdict was disparaged because it was not the one the critics wanted. But it was an example of being held to account, not avoiding it. But leave that to one side.

(If memory serves, people were questioning the terms of reference of the enquiry from the start)

What concerns me about the press these days isn't so much that opinion is mixed with news (as long as opinion remains recognisable as such - and it helps to view a wide range of sources), is what passes for news. Big Brother, TomKat, Posh and Becks... this is not news. If it must be discussed, put it in the TV pages, or in a gossip section. Please.

I look forward to any comments which you may have.

Menzies Campbell on Civil Liberties

The LibDem reader has written today on the future of civil liberties in the UK

Civil liberties are not an indulgence or an affectation: they act as guarantors for the personal freedoms that we enjoy and often take for granted. That is why many of them are also enshrined in internationally recognised human rights and national constitutions.

Labour's assault on civil liberties has been comprehensive and determined.

The Blair years have been marked by a fevered desire to appear "tough" rather than to make good and necessary laws. The right to protest, the presumption of innocence, and the principle of no detention without charge have all been undermined.

Two years ago, Tony Blair said that the world's most powerful countries "will not allow violence to change our societies or our values". In truth, he has done exactly that. Too many of our hard won freedoms have been lost. They will not be easy to recover: the challenge is Mr Brown's.

The film Menzies Campbell refers to is reviewed here, and its site is here, with a trailer here, and cinema listing here. I've emailed my local cinema and asked that they carry it.

Go. Read.. Come Back. Comment.

Have Your Say: Almost Universal Common Sense about 28 days

A rare thing has happened, in that Common Sense seems to have prevailed on the BBC 'Have Your Say' board about some of John Reid's recent 'bright ideas'. - which are actually rehashes of Clarke and Blunkett eroding the protections we have against being falsely accused by the state. It's rare when this happens....

Jason Jones said:

ID cards, Tracking devices in cars, reduced civil liberties, phone tapping and 90 days.

Once we agree to these, even with the best of intentions, we cannot cry foul when they are used against us instead of for us.

and an ex-policeman said:

As an ex police officer serving in London when PIRA was active on the mainland and when the genuine level of terrorist threat was at least the equal of that today.I seem to recall that we managed with legislation that permitted a maximum of 7 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects. If there was credible evidence subsequent detention could be authorised via a Magistrates Court.

Don said:

Historically the greatest threat to the population of a country has always been their own government and fellow citizens. Look at the abuses committed by the european dictatorships in the last century against their own populations.

Sure, 9/11 was nothing to be sniffed at. But compared to what can be done by an abusive government with the wrong powers, it's a teddy bear's picnic.

"Only those with something to hide need fear". What chilling words.

Reply from the Office of Gordon Brown

I've received the typical non-reply reply from the office of Gordon Brown on the Freedom of Information Act:

I have noted the comments you make on the Freedom of Information Act, and will ensure they are raised with Gordon. As he travels around the country over the coming days and weeks, these are the kinds of issues he wants to hear about, and we thank you for your contribution.

Yeah, right.

Interestingly, the email came from 'gordon@gordonbrownforbritan.com' - I find it slightly offputting that they can't even spell the name of the country correctly. Of course, I did the decent thing and pointed this out to them, noting at the same time the distinct lack of substance in the response....

Michael Gove strangely quiet on Open Government

My MP, Michael Gove, is strangely quiet on the issue of Open parliament and the Freedom in information amendment recently being debated. Here is his voting record to date, and here is the summary. As of today he 'Has never voted on a transparent Parliament.' (i.e. he was absent on the 20th April and 18th May).

You can find out more about how your MP voted by typing your postcode into they work for you - you can also email your MP directly from this site.

Freedom of Information

For more, click hereI note that Boris is commenting that the proposed amendment to the Freedom of Information bill is unneccesary. Shame he didn't vote against it.

Well done to Clappison, Redwood and Shepherd (Conservative), to Corbyn, Cousins, Fisher, Jackson, Linton, Mactaggart, Sheerman, Soulsby, Winnick (Lab), Baker, Burstow, Burt, Cable, Farron, Goldsworthy, Harris, Heath, Howart, Hughes, Öpik, Reid, Sanders, Swinson, R. Williams, S. Williams (Lib Dem) for voting against it. By far and away the biggest section of the commons voting for it were labour MPs. Actually, the vast majority never even showed up.

Quite frankly, shame on the rest of the MPs and double shame on the people voting FOR it.

... this is a very unpopular (and unnecessary) amendment. To not oppose it seems self serving.

I have had a reply from my MP, Michael Gove. he said that

I have not voted to support the Bill at any stage but should point out that the issues that it deals with are more complex than it would appear from some reporting.

There have, since the formation of the Freedom of Information Act, been some legitimate concerns about constituents" correspondence becoming public through FOI requests. While this should not be possible under the Act if requests are made directly to the MPs, the situation when requests are made to the bodies to which the MP has written is not as clear.

I am pleased that Mr Speaker has written confirming that, should the Bill pass, the level and detail of Member of Parliaments" expenses reported to the public would remain unchanged. It is right that scrutiny of how public money is being spent should remain rigorous which is why I strongly support the publication of my own spending, including that which goes on my staff and travel.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact me.

So... what aspect of the law needs changing again to prevent personal details being obtained? These are covered under data protection, as Boris points out. To me, this read as 'I'm not going to stick my head above the parapet and vote for it, but I'm quite happy for it to pass....'

The simplest thing is for MPs to stick in their letters a sentence which says 'I must remind you that my constituents details are protected from disclosure under the freedom of information act'.

The Lib Dems have a campaign page for this issue

Update: Cameron will campaign to block the bill 'in it's current form'.... that's a bit open ended, isn't it boys and girls?

Update: Martin Rosenbaum on Falconer's position (who seems to have thought this one through, unlike some other cases I could mention)

Message to our New PM

Almost immediately after receiving his party nomination as our new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown would said that he rejected calls to block a controversial move by MPs to get out of freedom of information laws. He said that "If MPs have voted this measure through then that is a matter for them" In real-politik this comes across as code for 'I support this bill, but don't want to be associated with it if it goes wrong'. Via Brown's now slightly redundant campaign website I sent the following message:

Why, just hours after talking about the need to restore trust in parliament, did Brown give tacit support to restrictions on the Freedom of Information act as it applied to that body?

He could have spoken out on this issue, but chose to say nothing, and the vote passed (with the vast majority of MPs absent)

Private correspondence with MPs wasn't at risk - and in any event, protecting this doesn't imply that MPs information about expenses should be restricted.

Hours after the nomination, this leaves a sour taste. I'm forced to recycle the argument that we sometimes hear in favour of ID cards.... why oppose Freedom of Information if you've nothing to hide?

I look forward to a convincing reply.

I expect that the reply will talk vaguely about respecting the sovereignty of parliament, letting parliament have it's say and so on. I doubt if there'll be anything which reveals what Brown's opinion might be. Seeing the trouble that Blair got into trying to get people to follow him, after 'successful' years of following opinion polls, could Brown be planning to lead from the rear?

See Also the Freedom of Information Blog by Martin Rosenbaum.

Someone calling themselves Erwin Schrodinger posted on the BBC 'have your say' on this topic, summing up the whole thing rather nicely:

Over the years we have seen many private members bills with important popular support fall by the wayside by being "talked out". This one was talked out, but surprise, surprise makes a reappearance. Can the fact it gives MPs privileges the rest of government doesn't have be a coincidence?

Michael Salter's arguments on Ch4 last night were abysmal - I trust the voters of Reading West will kick him out.

ID card: "nothing to hide, nothing to fear"

MPs FOI: "trust us, we are hiding nothing"

Erwin Schrodinger, Hampshire

I have written to my MP, first of all commending that he did not vote in favour, saying that I trusted that he was one of the few who voted against and not one of the vast majority of MPs who did not show up (who I presume were either apathetic, or tacitly supporting the bill without wishing to be associated with it). I've asked him for his opinion, whilst pointing out that protecting the correspondence of constituents was, by my understanding, already covered by the Freedom of Information act - and in any event, should extra protection be needed then it could be done without restricted information on expense claims. I made explicit that correspondence should not be considered confidential and so I look forward to his reply.

All Hail the new Leader!

Without a ballot being cast(*), we effectively have a new PM today. Gordon Brown now has the support of enough MPs who can tell which way the wind is blowing and don't wish to upset the future boss by supporting the other guy that there is no way that an alternative challenger can be nominated. Now... how long do you think we have until an election?

(*) (yes, I know we vote for the party not the man)

Never a Frown, With Gordon Brown

Golden Brown formally announced his intention to stand for the labour leadership today, meeting 'faithful Labour supporters'(source). I appreciate that at the moment he is trying to appeal to the Labour Party member, but surely he must also recognise that he must not fall into the trap of only appealing to them. Blair hardly ever gave interviews, and press conferences were often tightly controlled. This meant that he was rarely caught out. This also meant that every time he spoke, the impression was of a staged event. Compare the BBC 'have your say' discussing Blair's legacy with the audience Blair has been seeing recently. It could be a different country. Blair no longer has to worry about this disconnect, if he ever did, but Brown should. After all, it's only a couple of years until a general election.

His second engagement today was also a managed event in front of the faithful.

If Brown is to connect with the non-labour member, then he must be sure to talk to real people, take some of the curve balls thrown his way, and show that he can address those issues. To do otherwise is to ignore what is concerning the people who will ultimately decide his fate. If he spends the next 7 weeks, and then the next two years, only publicly meeting people who, presumably, would vote for a turnip if you put a red rosette on it, then there is no way at all he will win the confidence of a public upset with spin.

It was a good sign today that when Jack Straw intervened to end press questions, Brown indicated that he wanted to carry on... however, after so many years of spin there is the thought that even that may have been thought through in advance.

The prime minister is the UK is not voted for by the people. We vote for our representative, and the leader of the parliamentary group able to do so forms a government. That parliamentary group can decide to change their leader should they wish to. To the surprise of people outside the UK (and some within) a general election is not necessary. We didn't have an election when John major became Prime Minister, for example. Regardless of that, there is a feeling that a change of PM without a confirmation from the populace would cause resentment, and many feel that Brown should go to the country should he become PM. A failure to do so could well come back to bite Brown in a couple of years. However, an election called in seven weeks would be just as bad for him as people wouldn't have had the chance to warm to Golden Brown (despite his being one of the most powerful politicians in the UK for around for a decade).

Brown must call an election by 2010. Elections are usually called after four years, i.e. 2009, however, by this time speculation would be growing and there is an element of time pressure and being forced to set a date.

So, assuming that he doesn't decide that an election is unwinnable, and that he wants to be seen to gain a mandate in his own right, 2008 may be an election year. I'd be amazed (and, to be honest, impressed) with 2007.

Personally, I'd be surprised if we saw an election before 2009, for me, this'd confirm the 'hanging on for as long as possible' opinion.

I wouldn't be surprised by 2010.

Voting in the UK

I've just been to vote in the local elections. We have three major parties in the UK, plus some others - and I had a choice of two parties (each fielding several candidates, it was a 'pick four' for one ballot and 'pick two' for the other).

What annoyed me was that at the door of the building there were two campaigners, who, in quite a forthright way, asked for my voter registration number. This presumably allows them to hassle people later on. It was actually quite offputting, and if I was a floating voter could have made me swing the other way - the last thing I wanted was politicos at the last minute.

Apparently the rules have just changed so they can do this on the way in (it used to be just on the way out).

In my opinion, no campaigner should be allowed to be within 100yds of the building if they've anything visible which identifies them as such, or if they behave in a way that makes their affiliations clear. It just wasn't too comfortable.

My attitude is 'Sorry, I'm off to vote now.... I don't want people hassling me as I go'

Income Tax reduced

It's Budget day, and Brown has announced that the basic rate of income tax to fall from 22p to 20p from April next year. April next year.... now... 'Tony' should be out of office by then, and someone else should be PM....

Or is it too cynical of me to even think such thoughts?

Additional: Reading the other articles, it looks like the lower rate band is vanishing (if memory serves there is a band in the 10s of percent, before you get to the basic rate). This could mean people on lower incomes have to pay more. The thresholds are increasing in line with inflation. The net effect is something that increases the tax paid by people on low income reducing tax for many basic rate taxpayers.

It seems that Brown has sussed that he needs to woo middle England as, roughly speaking, the poor aren't going to vote Tory, and he can rely on their vote if he puts a red rosette on the nearest inanimate object.

Jury Trials Preserved (thanks to the House of Lords)

The government has been seeking to end Trial by Jury in Fraud cases, as they're 'too complex' for jurors (to my mind, that's a problem of jury selection, not of juries per se). Quite rightly the Lords have blocked this move, again defending the role of due process and law in the UK. Not bad for an 'undemocratic' body.

No wonder that the government want to reform it.

The majority think Blair should go now

56% of the British public said in a recent poll that Blair should resign without delay, 43% of Labour supporters feel that way. His Chief whip, echoing what Blair said on Today said that:

She added that it would be "undemocratic" to be driven from office by an inquiry, adding: "He will choose the right time for the country, and for him, to go."

If they're concerned about democracy, then perhaps he should call a referendum on the issue? I think it's fairly clear that this will not happen.

Cash For Honours

It must be serious, Tony is giving an interview to the 'Today' programme tomorrow at 8:10am.. It's rare enough that he gives interviews, even rarer that it's 'Today'. They're asking for questions which can be put to Mr. Blair.

I submitted several, including 'Do you still enjoy the confidence of the public, Prime Minister?' and 'Is it important that an honours system is not only fair, but is seen to be fair?'. I also asked about electoral reform (as promised in 1997, and forgotten when Labour found that a majority of seats was rather nice) and about the inbalance in the Union due to the West Lothian question. I expect that these will not be addressed, although I can only hope. I also would like to know why it seems so much rarer for a PM to give an interview these days as compared to previous PMs....

The interview should be downloadable for about a week after the event.

My local radio station was doing a 'Cash for Honours' quiz yesterday. The idea is that you'd phone in and get a fiver for every honour you could list. People were citing GCSEs in woodwork and 100m swimming badges from scouts. Quite amusing, in it's way.

Peers protest the anti protest laws

Peers are to protest the laws which restrict protest within 1km of parliament. These laws are incredibly restrictive, and have caused the arrest of someone reading the names of war dead at the cenotaph, the arrest of someone for sitting on parliament square drinking tea and eating cake, and they prevent someone holding a placard outside parliament. Except for Brian Haw, who the law was designed to target, but is exempt from the law as his protest predates it.

The exclusion zone is not only problematic, but wide, maps are available here. One can be fined up to £1000 for being in the exclusion zone whilst a police officer thinks you're protesting - and the exclusion zone isn't marked at street level. Added to that the fact that people have been hassled in other parts of the UK, outside the exclusion zone, for wearing a T Shirt and it should be obvious that essentially a citizen can be arrested at will near parliament, as essentially anything could be an act of protest.

Such nonsense isn't restricted to the UK.

Good luck to the Lib-Dem peers, who are protesting having done the paperwork required by law.