Friday, 12 August 2011

Just when they thought it was safe to go back into the water!

MPs must have begun to think they were safe. They would have thinking that the expenses scandal was starting to be replaced with other things. Yes a few of their number had been sent to prison, and perhaps one or two were yet to end up in court. But by and large, things like wars in Afghanistan and Libya, hacking scandals and riots on the streets of Britain, were now the subjects in the headlines.

It seems that they were wrong, as news of the severe sentences being handed out to participators in the riots leaked out, people began to remember the behaviour of MPs, and what had happened to them.

Theft is theft, and regardless of whether it is a bottle of water, or a flat screen television, the principle is the same. That at least is what many would argue, but judges do have a lot of discretion in the sentences they hand out. It seems that the word has gone out to them that those before them must be made an example of.

I study and teach history, and is apparent over the centuries, is that justice for the have and have nots has always been starkly different. Even when it came to executions, the rich and the nobles were beheaded, whilst the poor were sentenced to a slow death at the end of a hangman's rope.

In the modern world, people see the members of the House of Commons as the modern nobility. I know we have the Lords, and the royals etc, but in the overall scheme of things to the majority of us, MPs live in a world completely detached from what we experience.

When the expenses scandal broke, the public were astonished at what had been going on. Members had been claiming for televisions (Michael Gove and Gerald Kaufman as examples), moats, duck houses and all sorts of things the ordinary man or woman in the street would only see on programmes like 'relocation, relocation, relocation.'

On programmes like that, these people are using their own money (I presume), but MPs were trying to live the high life at the taxpayer's expense. The stories of 'house flipping' and the ludicrous claims left many of us aghast. And it wasn't just that they did it, politicians have been very low down the public's respect ladder for a long time, it was that they just seemed to get away with it.

Education Secretary Michael Gove was featured today, having been able to repay some £8,000 in expenses for a claim, and Gerald Kaufman a similar amount for a Bang & Olufsen television. These men have both resumed their careers uninterrupted, one a senior member of the government, the other the chair of a committee, and one of the most respected voices in the House.

Yet, we know that if most of us had been in the same position, we would have ended up in court, probably a criminal record, which would have had a serious effect on our future career prospects. There are many other senior politicians; Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, David Cameron, Francis Maude, Gordon Brown who have all repaid sums, or had to admit mistakes. But as I understand it, in law, 'ignorance is no defence.'

Now Wandsworth Council is seeking to evict the family of a man charged in connection with the riots. It is his parents who are being served with the order, and if he's convicted they will seek to throw them out. This is a measure which is just going to cause problems for the council (and Manchester and Salford have similar plans), because not only will the family have to be housed somewhere, they will be given leave to appeal and I don't see it being allowed by the courts.

Ravi Govindia, the leader of Wandsworth Council, was saying this evening that tenants had contracts which stated conditions of residence. This is, of course, true, but evicting someone because their son has been convicted of a crime, sounds retrospective action to me. This is without them trying to explain what is so different about this crime to others of vandalism or robbery. Will the council be changing the terms to include all those convicted of crimes, and evicting them in the future, and the past?

David Cameron has jumped on the bandwagon, and saying they should have thought of this before commiting the crime. Now the mother of Daniel Sartain-Clarke faces an uncertain future, and many will say she should have been controlling him. He's 18, and therefore legally an adult, so what do they expect her to do about him?

Mr. Cameron was saying that those evicted would have to move into the private sector. Apart from the shortage of private rented accomodation anyway, the cost os prohibitive. especially in London. The Prime Minister has made yet another statement without having grasp of the facts, and this will come back to haunt him. As the leader of this country, he should not be making kneejerk statements, but taking the time to think this through properly.

I don't recall a single MP who flipped a house, being threatened with eviction (these houses were in the main being paid for by us, so a form of social housing), yet people who are innocent of any wrong doing are going to find themselves not only homeless, but stigmatised, and that never goes away.

So, our Members of Parliament, our Prime Minister and other public figures need to be very careful how they approach the aftermath of these events. Although a ComRes poll tonight shows strong support for punishing rioters, the same poll also said the sentences being handed out were too harsh in many cases.

Our MPs and their past are, therefore, once more in the spotlight, as Nick Clegg has discovered as his previous indiscretion of arson was raised again. He says he was drunk, and they ran away, and anyway it was only cactus.

Yet, will any of the people appearing before magistrates this week be allowed to just repay the value of goods they stole. Will they be allowed to laugh off vandalism as 'youthful indiscretions' which will not impact their future careers? As most of them are poor, it would not seem so. Now as it always was, justice will depend on who you know, and whehter you have the money to defend yourself.

So, having thought that their recent crimes were being forgotten, MPs now find them thrust back into the spotlight. Every member that talks about how examples must be made of those caught will find their past raked over, and anyone who has hoped that their 'errors' have been forgotten will find they are very much mistaken. The defence of many was that 'everyone else was doing it,' and if that's not going to work for the rioters, then it shouldn't do so for those that lead us.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

What Yvette could say!

Yvette Cooper will have a difficult job on Thursday morning, as she makes her statements, and asks a number of questions of the Home Secretary, as parliament is recalled to debate the events in London over the last three nights. It seems David Cameron may employ the same tactic he has in debates on the hacking scandal, and have a separate Q & A before the main debate.

Indeed, by the time they meet, more occurrences may have taken place, and a young man from Croydon died today, having been shot on Monday night. There will also be discussion on the current financial crisis, though I expect Osborne and Balls to be leading the debate on this.

If I was in Yvette's position this is what I would say (though after reading it, you may well be grateful I'm not):

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, and for the advance copy she sent to me. I join her in paying tribute to the police and emergency services for the courage they have shown, putting themselves on the line to protect people and property.

The Prime Minister was right to return home at this time, and to recall parliament, so we have the opportunity to debate before the people what we believe is the way forward.

However, I would like to take this opportunity to also pay tribute to the Home Secretary, her immediate return, and the calm and assured way she has dealt with events to date. She has not panicked, and has resisted calls for water cannon, rubber bullets or the army to take to the streets of London.

As we have seen unfolding, dreadful things have happened in the last few days, but it is essential that government and police remain calm in the face of such provocation. There can be no excuse for the lootings and violence that occurred over the weekend and into this week, and the police must be enabled to take any necessary measures to restore order. As my Right Honourable friend said on Tuesday afternoon, there must be no no-go areas.

As we know, there was a peaceful protest in Tottenham on Saturday afternoon, by members of the community against the shooting on Thursday of Mark Duggan, as part of an 'Operation Trident' initiative.

There are reports that initial trouble started when a sixteen year old girl was assaulted by police officers. So my first question is, what does the Home Secretary know about this, and can she confirm whether it is true or not?

Even if true, that does not of course excuse what followed, as a crowd went on a rampage through the streets of Tottenham, destroying property, putting innocent people at risk, and making many others homeless.

As we seen since, this has spread to other parts of London, and subsequently to Birmingham and Liverpool amongst others.

There have been many arrests sebsequently, with no doubt, many more to follow. The courts must be enabled to carry through due process, and the perpetrators severely punished.

These people seem to have no other motive than destruction, violence and theft. Many businesses have been destroyed, and people have lost their jobs, and untold damage has been done to the local economies.

What plans does the government have in place to help those businesses, and individuals affected by these events? Can the Prime Minister urge insurance companies to make quick payouts, so businesses can get up and running as quickly as possible.

As a sad consequence of the economic crisis, there are many properties lying empty, and therefore, could the government talk to local authorities allowing rapid relocation of businesses, and giving holidays on council taxes so they can get up and running?

There can be no justification for the events of the last few days, and if any police officers need to be brought to book over actions either in Tottenham, then the Independent Police Complaints Commission, must investigate, and act if fault is found.

We have debated in the past our different views of the impact of government cuts and policies, and we will do so again. However, this is not the time for that. Now we are fully behind the government, and police as they seek to deal with this crisis, for as long as the response stays proportionate.

Therefore, I just ask the Home Secretary these questions before I close:

What plans do the government have to help businesses ruined by the events of the last few days?

Will the government be setting up a fund to help those businesses and individuals who aren't adequately insured?

The police and other emergency services have done a magnificent job dealing with the violence and destruction, and it would be sensible to put cuts on hold, whilst a review is carried out in light of events. Does the Home Secretary agree?

Finally, there will be a number of inquiries initiated to investigate causes and effects of the riots, as well as what changes should come in. Whilst I do not expect the Home Secretary to preempt the outcomes of those inquiries, could she please let us know if there will be a separate government inquiry, with the remit to gather information from the others, so we can get a clear overall picture of events, to avoid repeating the errors?

As I said a short while ago, the government, and police, have our full support as they seek to deal with these events in a responsible and proportionate way.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Let the real voices of Tottenham speak!

The police in Britain are under a great deal of scrutiny, as is the body that oversees it the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The hacking scandal, and allegations that police officers took payments for information has led to a greater public distrust of the force, especially the Metropolitan Police.

On Thursday night in Tottenham, a young man named Mark Duggan was shot dead by police, in an operation carried out under 'Operation Trident' which was set up in 1998, to investigate issues of gun crime in the black community. This followed on from an initiative originally established by members of the black community.

Information is too confused to be able to say exactly what happened, other than Mr. Duggan was killed in a minicab on Thursday night. Therefore it is the aftermath, and how we on the left should react that I intend to deal with.

On Friday there was a peaceful protest outside the police station in Tottenham against the shooting of Mark Duggan. The march started at Broadwater Farm (which has historical significance as in 1985 PC Keith Blakelock was murdered there, perhaps as an indication that the protesters were not intent on trouble.

Tottenham is a deprived area of North London, but relations between police and community had been better, especially since further riots in 1995. But on Friday night things got out of hand, as rioting broke out following the march, and a number of buildings were attacked, and police cars and a bus set alight.

Some twenty-six officers have been treated in hospital, some quite badly hurt, and a lot of damage done. However, unlike incidents in the past, there seems to be more of an element of criminality over the rioting, than a statement against alleged police violence. As I watched the riot unfold last night, one thing that struck me was, that despite Mark Duggan being black, and his killing being a part of 'Operation trident,' the perpetrators of the violence were from all backgrounds. Young, mainly, men who were intent just on destruction and robbery. Although more details will emerge over the next few days, this wasn't 1985 or 1995, this wasn't about race.

Many people have been made homeless, and shops and businesses have been destroyed, which will inevitably cost people, perhaps already suffering, their jobs. Looting of many well known chains occurred, with names such as Comet, B & Q and McDonalds affected. However, there are reports of cash machines also having been ripped out, and these would take some specialist equipment to do. Even if they turn out to be free standing ones in shops, it would indicate planning and not random events.

Reports of further looting in Enfield tonight, would seem to confirm this. It would appear that groups from outside the area, are coming in, and using the tensions as an excuse to cause criminal damage and attack the police. These are the same sort of people who jumped on peaceful protests last year and this, against rises in university tuition fees, and government cuts to create havoc.

Whilst it may not be the same people involved, it is the same mentality, as they take the legitimate protests of people, in order to advance their own agendas. Previously it was against government property, but this is just the right of ordinary people to make a living, and live peaceful lives.

It must be clearly understood these people are criminals, not protesters. The protesters on Friday were peaceful, and making a statement against the killing of one of their community by the police. Mark Duggan's family and friends have themselves condemned the violence, and Tottenham MP David Lammy said:

“The vast majority of people in Tottenham reject what has happened here last night. A community that was already hurting has now had the heart ripped out of it…by mindless, mindless people.

“What happened here on Thursday night raised huge questions and we need answers. But the response to that is not to loot, to rob. This is a disgrace… this must stop. And this is nothing like the sorts of scenes we saw in Tottenham 25 years ago. Then, there was a particular relationship with the police. This is an attack on Tottenham, on people, ordinary people, shopkeepers, women, children who are now standing on the streets homeless as a consequence…

“I’m concerned that what was a peaceful protest escalated. It seemed to go on for many hours before we saw the kind of policing that was appropriate. What were small skirmishes initially should have been stopped far quicker…

“The IPCC need to be in close contact with the family of Mark Duggan, who felt totally isolated in the initial stages after Thurs night…We don’t want 25 years of rebuilding community and trust destroyed because of mindless nonsense on the streets of London.”

That is why it has pained me to hear some prominent spokespeople on the left have taken the opportunity to make political points. Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London and candidate for 2012, used the riots as an opportunity to blame the rioting on the government's cuts, and to take forward his election campaign.

There will be ample opportunity over the next year for him to make political points, and legitimate statements about government policy, and the performance of Boris Johnson as Mayor. But now is not the time, the Labour leadership have hitherto let David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham do the speaking on this, and they are right to do so. No doubt Ed Miliband will say something in the next day or so, but for now, it is the voices of the real people of Tottenham that need to be heard.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Petty Petitions

Petitions have played an important role in our Parliament for the best part of a millennium. Petitions have two main uses, firstly for people to show they support a particular view on an issue, and secondly to let those in power know they feel strongly about an issue, they feel isn't being addressed.

That, at least is how most people to view them, but they are much more far reaching than that. Take for example the Petition of Right which was enacted in 1628. This wasn't a document in which the public lobbied parliament for something, this was parliament stating to the King, Charles I, what they believed they were entitled to. It was, in fact, a declaration that there was to be no taxation without representation, or to quote:

"(T)hat no tallage or aid shall be laid or levied by the King or his heirs in this realm, without the goodwill and assent of the Archbishops, Bishops, Earls, Barons, Knights, Burgesses, and other freemen of the commonalty of this realm: and by authority of Parliament"

Charles, of course, although assenting at first, because he wanted money, had his own solution, and dissolved Parliament the following year, and ruled on his own for twelve years.

However, petitions have a long and noble history, from the Barons forcing John to the table at Runnymede, William Wilberforce's petition signed by over 100,000 people, to those presented most evening in the House by MPs on behalf of constituents.

The petition therefore, has a place of pride in our society, as a way of getting issues aired. The last government made it a lot easier for ordinary members of the public to create petitions, and get them to the countries leaders, in 2006 with the creation of the Number Ten site. Those that gained over 500 signatures would then receive a response.

As long ago as 2007 David Cameron had said:

"I would like to see a system whereby, if enough people sign an online petition in favour of a particular motion, then a debate is held in Parliament, followed by a vote - so that the public know what their elected representatives actually think about the issues that matter to them,"

So he is consistent, and in February last year had first mentioned the 100,000 figure, and that those gaining a million, would give the petitioners the right to actually put forward legislation on it, which MPs had to vote on.

In that light, it did seem odd when the Coalition originally took office, they said they would not be carrying forward those on the site that had not received a response. However, by the middle of June they'd changed their mind, and reverted, at least partly to the original position, so managed two u-turns in the first month. Obviously they liked it so much, they thought they'd carry on turning, but that's another issue.

So when the new e-petitions site was launched today, the government are in fact just carrying on with the system the Labour government started, with a couple of tweaks. Indeed, if you look at the site, the list of petitions is just a continuation.

The publicity today surrounded Paul Staines, otherwise known as Guido Fawkes the right wing blogger, and his one (of many) to seek a return of the death penalty. He is confident that he'll gain the 100,000 signatures required to get it debated, though we'll have to see.

Sir George Young has said that the government will monitor the situation, and see if the number of signatories needs to be lowered or raised. The issue I have is not that it is easier for the public to make their concerns known, and although I would never support the return of the death penalty, it's a subject many feel strongly about. Mine is whether a government should guarantee the subject is debated, as this could lead to some very strange debates. Remember, it was only in 2001 that an online campaign was successful in getting Jedi put by a large number of people as a religion, thereby somewhat skewing the figures.

The big problem is that this is yet another ill-thought through idea by this government. They take an idea that already existed (I'm sure it would have been tweaked over time), and not only tried to claim it as their own, but turned it into a publicity stunt. The committee that will decide which ones get debated, so that already means many will feel disappointment as they believe the 100,000 will lead to automatic debate, will only meet for 35 days a year, and will easily get sidelined by other, more pressing matters.

As Natasha Engel said in today's Financial Times:

“This isn’t as well thought through as it could have been, and my concern is that the government is raising demand and expectations they may not be able to deliver on...there’s so much other business parked up for debate – the operations in Libya, huge defence issues..It’s in danger of becoming a bit gimmicky.”

The government is yet again making a rod for its own back by making such a big thing out of this. The likes of Staines will use it for their own agenda, but also the public will quickly become disenchanted with yet another government idea (this one or the last) which fails to do what it said it would.

A good idea, which has been in existence for five years to enable the public to make its concerns known, is in danger of being thrown into disrepute by spurious petitions. The government might think it has covered itself by creating the committee, but it won't be long before people start grumbling that their petition is being suppressed, and that debate is being avoided.

So, I am not going to criticise the government for trying, but once again they haven't really thought an idea through, because they went for the one that looked good on a press release.