Monthly Archives: February 2010
I blogged last month about John Hemming’s run in with Withers LLP. It also came up during the Charon QC podcast I did with Mike Semple Piggot: we talked about how an apology might well solve Withers’ problem, and about the difficulties which could exist if an MP sued for libel could settle his dispute (to avoid litigation), repeat the allegation in Parliament, and avoid liability by claiming parliamentary privilege.
The Commons Standards and Priviliges Committee has now reported, and concluded that Withers LLP was in contempt of Parliament. However – as an apology has been given – no further action is to be taken.
I think it’s worth quoting from the President of the Law Society’s evidence to the Committee:
It is I believe very important to note that in this case the parties concerned were in the process of considering a settlement which quite normally would include a withdrawal of the comments that were considered defamatory and an undertaking not to repeat such statements. Subject to parliamentary privilege, it would be perfectly normal—and indeed necessary to protect a client—for solicitors to advise that an undertaking of that sort was necessary to protect the client’s position. Not to do so could expose such solicitors to allegations of breach of duty to client.
It is not for the Law Society to opine on whether seeking such an undertaking from a Member breaches Parliamentary Privilege. If it does then solicitors will need to advise clients accordingly. It may be that in those (hopefully) few cases where the issue arises, actions which otherwise could be settled will need to go to Court as clients may feel that course represents the only way to secure public vindication of their position. A regrettable outcome but one that seems probable.
If solicitors cannot seek an undertaking as described, it would be useful to know the Committee’s view on a voluntary undertaking, although perhaps the better view is that the answer to the overall issue lies in the Committee’s general view on the use made of the right of privilege.
Given the current debate on the defamation laws and the wide-ranging review announced by the Lord Chancellor last December, the time may now be right to review these issues in the round, especially when the last comprehensive review of parliamentary privilege was over ten years ago.
The Committee failed to address these perfectly reasonable – and very real – concerns:
Both Mr Hemming and the Law Society have invited us to range more widely than the narrow matter referred to us by the House. The Standing Order under which this Committee is constituted precludes that. But even were this not the case, it would be wrong in the light of proceedings now pending in the courts for us to comment on wider aspects of privilege. We wish to emphasise, therefore, that the conclusion below relates solely to the matter referred to us.
There is an important point of legal practice here: Leading Counsel appears to have advised Withers LLP that it is not possible to restrain an MP from making statement in Parliament, and that even requesting an undertaking to that effect from an MP will be a contempt of Parliament. In a previous post, I noted that Parliament is has been held by the Courts to have the final say in the determination of its privilege.
Ironically, this situation may adversely affect the position of individual MPs: unable to secure a binding undertaking not to repeat the allegations, someone finding themselves libelled by an MP will have an incentive to gain the vindication of a judgement in their favour.
I’ve written a piece for TheLawyer.com about bullying, duties of confidence, and the National Bullying Helpline:
Political cowardice is not a pleasant thing to see, and the Mother of Parliaments has been displaying hers for some years now. In the debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia, those who arrogantly flatter themselves our political leaders have stayed silent, and instead we have heard from the judges, we have heard from the public, and we have now heard from the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The guidelines issued by Keir Stammer today are a welcome step, but only a tiny one. They do not properly address the question which prompted the Debbie Purdy case: the situation of individuals who are physically incapable of ending their own lives. Such a person – who wants to die, but can no longer take active steps to do this – will find little comfort in the guidance.
Appallingly, these guidelines, set in a framework of laws which criminalise assisted suicide, will still hasten death. People will be obliged to take decisions to end their lives at an earlier stage, when they are still capable of taking an active part. They are an improvement upon the existing position, but only a minor one.
To that moralistic minority who continue to oppose assisted suicide, this is your morality: Your vaunted concern for life hastens death.
There aren’t many political issues about which I get genuinely angry. Some do prompt a rhetorical head of steam, but there’s usually a wry smile lurking underneath, appreciating an absurdity of the situation. But assisted suicide and euthanasia are different. Questions of fundamental moral and philosophical belief are engaged, and those I find myself in opposition to generally represent positions that I do not so much oppose as actively despise.
And here is exhibit A: Gordon Brown. In a article in the Telegraph today he trots out the usual platitudes about dying well in hospices, the importance of not undermining the “caring professions”, and the usual paranoia about grasping relatives hastening death.
Following this clarification, and because of some important developments in care over recent decades, the case for a change in the law is now weaker.
The law – together with the values and standards of our caring professions – supports good care, including palliative care for the most difficult of conditions; and also protects the most vulnerable in our society. For let us be clear: death as an option and an entitlement, via whatever bureaucratic processes a change in the law might devise, would fundamentally change the way we think about mortality.
The risk of pressures – however subtle – on the frail and the vulnerable, who may feel their existences burdensome to others, cannot ever be entirely excluded. And the inevitable erosion of trust in the caring professions – if they were in a position to end life – would be to lose something very precious. For when I think of the kind of care Sarah and I saw in our local hospice, where we worked as volunteers, I know in my heart that there is such a thing as a good death.
And I believe it is our duty as a society to provide the skilled and loving care that makes it possible; and to use the laws we have well, rather than rush to change them.
Should Brown get credit for at least speaking on the issue? Perhaps, but his position is such that he might have been better staying silent.
I’ve posted before about the absurdity of a legal regime which means that a woman left dependent on artificial respiration has more personal autonomy than someone rendered merely quadriplegic. Ultimately that is, for me, the direct and damning indictment of Gordon Brown’s attempts to justify his repugnant and inhumane position.
I suspect that on a deep level, Brown and his kind – of every political persuasion – fear this personal autonomy because it is shows how hollow their legitimacy as “democratic politicians” really is. They have no legitimacy, not when they seek to deprive us of the core of what it is to be a sentient being: the right to personal autonomy.
This is not a party political question. There are many within the Conservative Party whose views on this subject I find equally repugnant. I will say this, however: I can at least respect those who found their opposition to assisted suicide or euthanasia upon expressions of their own personal beliefs. There is an honesty there which requires respect, even if the views themselves do not.
What I find most chilling about the article Gordon Brown wrote for the Telegraph is the absence of any personal philosophy. There’s no god in his defence of his position, neither as deity or belief. The best he can offer are facile appeals to practicalities.
Each of us should perform, for our personal philosophy, a kind of zero based budgeting. We may not be able to achieve a resulting mathematical consistency in every position we hold, but we can at least ensure we each understand the foundations of our own positions. Whatever lies at the core of Gordon Brown’s position, I doubt it owes much to respect for personal autonomy.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Rod “The Bod” Liddle, winner of the Independent Readers’ “Least Popular Journalist” Poll for 2010, and all round waste of tobacco.
Quite what his journalistic credentials are I’ve never been clear. Other people who were good journalists seem to have worked at Today while he was editing it, but then the same is probably true of Piers Morgan and the Daily Mirror. Liddle’s latest column for the Spectator certainly doesn’t suggest any significant political nous.
Anyway, I’ll be doing a few constituency profiles here alongside the usual blog. These won’t be forensic analyses of crucial marginal seats, however. They will instead be bile-flecked assaults on seats in which utter scumbags are standing, and how we can work together to beat them, and uplifting support for independent-minded individuals standing elsewhere. I think we should start with Southend West and the urgent need not merely to prevent Will Straw winning, which he won’t, but to prevent him getting a single vote, somehow. I would appreciate your advice on other constituencies to examine under the Prejudice Microscope.
Too early to panic at Tory HQ
Poor Rod: the stress of being hated by Independent readers must be getting to him.
Not only is Southend West not a marginal…
…its current MP has 8,000 majority
and not a Labour seat
…its current MP is the Conservative David Amess
but the Labour PPC is Thomas Flynn.
Will Straw isn’t (yet) standing anywhere.
Anyway, it’s only the Spectator, so at least nobody was expecting much accuracy or insight.
One of the grave difficulties when a long serving government faces reelection is finding a slogan and a message. It’s difficult to claim that “Things can only get better” if you’ve been in power for thirteen years.
As slogans go, “A future fair for all” is pretty vacuous. It has the same effect on me that poorly thought out advertising does: I start reading between the words.
For claiming that you will provide a future fair for all has so many meanings, most of which I doubt are intended. Naturally, the idea of a fair to come springs to mind: as Caron Lindsay asked, “Will there be candy floss?”. Perhaps, but I doubt it would be pink. Any fair arranged by the current government would surely be a dark, sinister affair, more Papa Lazarou than Harpos…
At the gate, Jack Straw would extol the virtues of the attractions even as his eyes told of the human suffering within. Unsuspecting families would be marshalled into queues by the terrifying figures of Ed Balls and Alan Johnson, faces twisted into forced grins, hands tightly clenched to fists. Once formed, each queue would slowly snake past the macabre spectacles: Alistair Darling’s amazing eyebrows; Hazel Blears, the world’s tallest Borrower; and the gruesomely realistic waxworks of Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt.
Past the freak show, the patrons come to the rides. The ruined high-speed ghost train, echoing to Lord Adonis’s cries of “Precious…”, the petting zoo, where an unsmiling Hilary Benn butchers gambolling lambs, Bob Ainsworth’s rifle range (closed due to lack of equipment, try the log flume instead).
Finally, we reach the big top itself, where the immaculate figure of the Ring Master, Baron Mandelson stands in a circle of darkness amidst the bright spotlights. At his softly spoken command, the Brothers Miliband demonstrate their amazing high wire act, crossing the ring to warm applause even as Gordon Brown, the glowering circus clown, sets perils in their path. For the clown’s own brutal act, assaulting his loyal sidekicks Liam Byrne and Nick Brown with empty metal pie tins and comedy planks, there is only the soft sobbing of frightened children, and the murmured discontent of their parents. As the circus fades to black, solitary applause can be heard from the VIP seats, where a grinning Tony Blair watches the death of the Party.
If, like me, you find the idea of Labour crowing about “A Future Fair for all” a little silly, you should have a look at Future fair for all, a new site which catalogues some examples of how Labour’s failed to achieve anything like their slogan in the time they’ve been in power. Asking, “A future fair for who?”, Future fair for all gets off to a good start by highlighting reports that hospital malnutrition rose 43% between 1997 and 2007.
One to watch.
It’s always funny to see people charged with enforcing the law fall foul of it, all the more so when it’s in a silly way. I certainly wasn’t alone in having a wry smile about the news that Merseyside Police had failed to obtain a Civil Aviation Authority licence for their new AirRobot UAV. The story even found its way onto the first episode of David Mitchell’s new series, The Bubble.
In confused article in today’s Guardian, Anna Minton picks up the story, but in place of wry amusement she adopts the a viewpoint of anti-surveillance. Minton’s argument – in so far as it is possible to discern one beyond “Surveillance is bad!” – appears to be that the use of drones will allow the police to conduct aerial surveillance, and this is Not A Good Thing.
This argument makes no sense, not least because it flies in the face of current reality. For there’s one word Minton doesn’t use in her piece: helicopters.
Merseyside police already have a rotary wing surveillance platform. It’s a Eurocopter EC135, a popular choice with police forces. At £2,000,000 per unit, and requiring a crew of at least two, the EC135 is not a cheap option. Where it excels is high speed pursuits, with a top speed of almost 180 mph, but it lacks flexibility: with just one aircraft, Merseyside Police are obliged to prioritise its use.
By contrast, the AirRobot UAV has a unit cost of just £25,000, and requires none of the expensive ground support infrastructure associated with helicopter operations. It cannot match the helicopter’s speed, or its endurance (it can manage only about 30 minutes), but neither is a particular limitation when deploying from the back of a police van at the scene of an incident.
By inference, I suspect Minton’s argument is really against making aerial surveillance cheaper and easier, fearing that, as with CCTV, there will be an explosion in its use.
Britain is by far and away the world leader in CCTV with 4.2m cameras, which is more than the rest of Europe put together. There is no evidence that CCTV reduces crime, but there is research, including a study commissioned by the government, which reveals that it increases distrust between people and promotes fear of crime.
In the ongoing debate about CCTV, the question often asked is where did it come from and why did we introduce it? If, as seems depressingly likely, drones are to go the way of CCTV in Britain, the least we can do is make sure we properly tackle those questions.
The analogy is not well chosen. While CCTV cameras could in theory be hung from every lamppost, there’s limit to how many drone aircraft could realistically be deployed. The conversation Minton wants should also be directed at police helicopters, noisily disrupting the sleep of residents as they hover at 50ft over people’s houses, shining down searchlights while looking for car thieves. Yet Anna Minton makes no mention of this.
Should we expect the police to foresake new technology for this kind of unspecified concern? Should we slow its introduction, retard its development, avoid its use?
No. Drone aircraft offer significant cost-savings and additional capability for the police. Ultimately, the issues they raise under “privacy” and “surveillance” are no different from those posed by the police aircraft which have been in use since the 1930s, and I hear no siren calls for those to be abandoned.
Saying the wheels have come off the National Bullying Helpline is a bit of an understatement.
Following the two resignations mentioned below, both Sarah Cawood and Anne Widdecombe have now resigned. Channel 4 News have claimed that Ms Bratt, who would have been the fifth Patron, has never actually taken up that role.
The charity, which was already more than 6 months late with its return to the Charity Commission, is now facing a barrage of complaints to the charities regulator.
Although it predates the bizarre turn things took today, Caron Lindsay’s blog post, entitled “Gordon Brown, Bullying, and the Suicide of a National Charity” is well worth a look.
I was going to blog about this yesterday afternoon, after the National Bullying Helpline made their allegations, but a little research stopped me.
There were various oddities: late filing of returns for the charity itself, the shoddy website it uses, and the strange terms and conditions on the site (see Conflict of Interest on this page – which makes it clear that the charity has an interesting relationship with a commercial entity run by its Chief Executive and one of its trustees).
There was also this rather alarming blog which raised questions about the charity.
Between those issues, and the public links to various Conservative politicians, I decided to leave well enough alone.
The Labour response has been odd. Before the NBH allegations, they initially struggled to find a line to take. Peter Mandelson settled for “playing the man” when interviewed by Andrew Marr, casting doubt in Andrew Rawnsley’s veracity.
By this morning, a new line was emerging, taken up by Labour outriders John Prescott and Alistair Campbell. On Twitter, Prescott repeatedly broadcast links to a Guardian article about an Employment Tribunal case brought against the News of the World, in which the ET concluded that Andy Coulson (at the time Deputy Editor and latterly Editor) had bullied a member of staff he was seeking to exit from the paper. By mid-afternoon, Alistair Campbell took up the theme, offering a blog post on the subject.
Beating me to the punch, Mark Reckons has pointed up the problems with Labour’s approach on his blog.
Ultimately, the conduct of Andy Coulson is no answer to allegations against Gordon Brown, and reliance on references to Coulson smacks of desperation. Coming from John Prescott, there’s a slight tinge of hypocrisy.
Worse than this, the Labour response leaves the allegations against Brown wholly unanswered.
If these allegations are untrue, Brown should threaten to sue – or better yet, get and publish affidavits from those members of his staff he is specifically alleged to have assaulted. If – as Peter Mandelson implicitly claimed yesterday – Andrew Rawnsley is lying, how long could he maintain this the lie following a sworn statement from Gavin Kelly that the Prime Minister did not “Grab[ him]by the lapels of his jacket”?
Another major response has been to say that the allegations are unsubstantiated, and so should be ignored. That’s a double standard: Labour’s allegations against Lord Ashcroft are also unsubstantiated, but that hasn’t stopped Labour crowing about them. As between Ashcroft and Brown, there’s a clear difference: Ashcroft is accused of giving money to a political party when he wasn’t allowed to; Brown is accused of repeatedly assaulting members of his staff. Moreover, the allegations against Ashcroft are now being investigated by the Electoral Commission. Labour is doing all it can to avoid investigating the claims in Rawnsley’s book.
No doubt the comparison with Ashcroft will be decried by Labourites, but there’s an unfortunate truth about politics in this: you can’t pick and choose when to apply your standards. Either all unsubstantiated allegations are dismissed, or none are.
Any resemblance between the below comic and recent UK political events is purely coincidental:
BBC North West’s Political Editor, Arif Ansari, tweeted this earlier today:
I gather “Ricky Tomlinson selection” vote for Liverpool Wavertree has been put back again to first week of March. Soc Lab in no hurry!
It’s looking more and more likely that Ricky Tomlinson isn’t going to be standing in Wavertree.
Earlier in the week I was reviewing the saga of Luciana Berger, Ricky Tomlinson, and Labour’s campaign in Liverpool Wavertree.
At the time, I speculated that Tomlinson might not be so keen as he seemed at first:
Ricky Tomlinson’s own statements seem to have cooled a little… Why would any political party…turn down the opportunity to field a candidate with Tomlinson’s name recognition? You have to wonder whether this is false modesty or preparing the ground for the selection of someone else.
Interestingly, it now transpires that Tomlinson has a prior engagement: he’s filming a movie with Billy Zane for the next six weeks. With a general election expected to be called within weeks, and only 10 weeks till the most likely polling day, a PPC who can’t effectively campaign until mid-April would be a problem.
If this does rule Ricky Tomlinson out of the Socialist Labour Party nomination, it will be welcome news for Luciana Berger and Liverpool Labour.
There are words for statements like this.
Words like craven. Deceitful. Dishonest.
No doubt the Germans have a elegant single word which captures this perfectly. Possibly it resembles “EdBallsMPedUp”, but with more ‘g’s and ‘h’s.
For Ball has form. So much form. The Indepedent Safeguard Authority, anyone? Screening of parents giving lifts to school? Friends being forbidden from entering into reciprocal childcare arrangements? But that legislating in haste were an Olympic sport.
The man is a walking, talking, smugly-smiling-in-interviews advertisement for the need for a new government, practically any new government, which does not include him, or any person who thinks he is capable of holding high office. I’m looking at you, Gordon Brown.
Now, just when it seemed that Ball might finally manage to accomplish something of lasting value, he’s has unflinchingly snatched a defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Children, Schools and Families Bill which is currently before Parliament will, for the first time, remove the ability of parents to prevent their children receiving sex education. It’s a small step – the classes can still be opted out of until GCSE – but none the less significant for that.
Suggesting that PSHE classes are a cure for teenage pregnancy or STDs is silly, but we already know – thanks to George Bush’s monumental cohort study – that not getting proper PSHE appears to adversely affect the rates of both. In the UK, the rate of teenage pregnancies under 16 is just a fifth of the rate of teenage pregnancies under 18. Providing 15 and 16 year olds with PSHE has a clear potential to make a difference.
Moreover, what’s the downside? The cost is minimal, and there’s no impact on teaching time (schools already have to teach the government’s citizenship nonsense).
Unless you’re a faith organisation, of course. Then you might be rightly concerned about the impact of having to teach your
future funding base students things that might contradict your faith’s beliefs.
Not to worry, Father/Imam/Rabbi/Reverend (and let’s not forget His Holiness), Ed Balls MP is your friend:
Subsections (4) to (7) are not to be read as preventing the governing body or head teacher of a school within subsection (7B) from causing or allowing PSHE to be
taught in a way that reflects the school’s religious character.
Proposed Amendment 70 to the Children, Schools and Families Bill
This amendment is necessary because of fears that the language of the bill will prevent faith schools from teaching in accordance with their faith. They’re particularly concerned about Clause 11, ss. 7, which reads:
The third principle is that PSHE should be taught in a way that
- endeavours to promote equality,
- encourages acceptance of diversity, and
- emphasises the importance of both rights and responsibilities.
You can see why. Quite difficult to promote equality and encourage acceptance of diversity when you’re simultaneously preaching that mankind needs to be save from homosexual and transgender people.
Ironically, the relief column is led not Richard Dawkins, but by Rabbi Jonathan Romain, Chairman of the Accord Coalition. Accord campaigns against religious discrimination in schools, and Rabbi Romain didn’t mince his words:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered, contraception a grave sin and relationships outside of marriage fornication, but we don’t think those views should be presented as fact in PSHE lessons. This is a recipe for a return to the bad old days of ignorance and bigotry
By taking this position, Ed Balls is implicitly condoning homophobia in schools and undermining attempts to tackle homophobic bullying. After Labour has done so much for equality, this looks like a 21st century Section 28.
This accusation is nonsense. It is a complete misrepresentation of the Bill to say that it effectively reintroduces Section 28.
Let’s be absolutely clear, faith schools cannot opt out of statutory PSHE and SRE (sex and relationships education) lessons when it comes into effect in September 2011.
All maintained schools and academies will be required to teach the full programmes of study in line with the principles outlined in the Bill including promoting equality and encouraging acceptance of diversity.
Schools with a religious character will be free, as they are now, to express the views of their faith and reflect the ethos of their school, but what they cannot do is suggest that their views are the only ones.
The bottom line is that all young people must by law receive accurate and balanced information so that they can make informed, positive choices.
A lot people, myself included, wonder what the DCSF spokesman was smoking when he wrote that. Rabbi Romain’s response sums up my view:
Ed Balls’ claims about the impact of his amendment are untrue – either he and his department have misunderstood their own amendment or they are misrepresenting it.
The drafting of the amendment is clear: the religious character of faith schools will trump all of the other principles by which PSHE should be taught, even if this means condoning homophobia or giving pupils inaccurate information. If Ed Balls agrees that this would be unacceptable then it is up to him to withdraw the amendment.
Labour are horrified that anyone should besmirch the repeal of Section 28, one of their legislative sacred cows, especially as they attempt to appeal to gay voters.
Ironically, the drafters of Section 28 may have been bigots, but they had the courage of their convictions. They didn’t hide behind weasely press statements which misrepresent the effect of their own legislation. Ed Balls and the DCSF know they’ve been found out, and they know their account of the amendments effect is, well, balls.
Take one of the Q&As on DCSF’s own press statement:
Q By allowing this amendment, shouldn’t the Government now seek a more rigorous criteria with regular monitoring and inspection of PSHE as taught in faith schools?
We have accepted the recommendation in Sir Alasdair Macdonald’s independent report on PSHE that the existing accountability framework and planned well-being indicators provide sufficient monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of a school’s PSHE education programme and that no additional requirements should be placed on schools in terms of inspection. We are therefore not proposing any changes to the current arrangements for inspecting PSHE when it becomes statutory in September 2011, as this subject is already covered within Ofsted’s existing statutory inspection framework.
Schools Governors have a duty to ensure these principles act as safeguards against inappropriate teaching.
As with other aspects of a school’s work, self-evaluation, including lesson observation, is already taking place in many schools about PSHE education. Good schools will be undertaking this self-evaluation because PSHE education makes such a huge contribution to pupils’ well-being. Ofsted use these criteria for its subject inspection and a good PSHE lesson has the same characteristics as any other lesson.
In other words, there will be no independent monitoring of how schools comply with the law on PSHE. Having provided a legal figleaf to help faith schools subvert the intention of the legislation, DCSF would rather not find out precisely how they go about it.
Discussing this earlier today with someone, I noted that this amendment really isn’t like Section 28. It’s more like mandating schools to teach evolution, but allowing them to give equal weight to intelligent design.
It may seem odd that an anarcho-capitalist is arguing for greater government regulation of the syllabus. Actually, it’s perfectly simple: I paid for the education the government is dolling out, and accordingly I want it to reflect my personal norms. I’m damned the Government is going to use my money to subsidise teaching homophobia and bigotry under the banner of “religious sensitivity”.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s not have the usual nonsense about religious freedom. If you want freedom to teach as you like, fund it yourself. All of it. If you take money from the government in support for your school, you lose the right to complain when those of us who pay for that support demand a say in how you behave.