From the Primrose Hill Times

Neighbours reported a disturbance yesterday at the residence of local family the Milibands. A source close to the family said that things had finally come to a head following the tensions which had been evident since Christmas Day 2010 when younger brother Ed was given the train set which his brother David had long coveted. Ever since then five year old David has been sulking in his room and refusing to take part in popular family games such as “shadow cabinet”, but when this failed to have the desired effect he announced that he had finally had enough and flounced out of the house saying, “I’m off to my mate Barak’s house, they’ll appreciate me there”. The source said “I guess the family will probably miss him, but to be honest they had kind of forgotten about him anyway”.

Labour in the dock (again)

Even in its (probable) dying days of power Labour is still being taken to task by the courts for railroading civil liberties under the pretence of protecting national security.

As the Guardian reports

The court of appeal has dismissed an attempt by MI5 and MI6 to suppress evidence of their alleged complicity in the torture and secret transfer of British residents to Guantánamo Bay.
In a devastating judgment, it ruled that the unprecedented attempt by the security and intelligence agencies, backed by the attorney general and senior Whitehall officials, to suppress evidence in a civil trial undermined deep-seated principles of common law and open justice.

MI5 and MI6 said evidence in the case, in which the Guardian, the Times and the BBC intervened, should be kept secret from everyone except the judges and specially appointed and vetted counsel.

The case concerns six Guantanamo detainees, including Binyam Mohamed, who has already won a separate case to make public information regarding his mistreatment. They have taken out a civil action against the government in respect of various abuses including torture and false imprisonment. The government was attempting to have the entire case heard in secret with evidence used in the government’s defence withheld from the claimants, a flagrant breach of natural justice. One of the judges who made the ruling, Lord Neuberger, put it perfectly –

The principle that a litigant should be able to see and hear all the evidence which is seen and heard by a court determining his case is so fundamental, so embedded in the common law, that, in the absence of parliamentary authority, no judge should override it … [it] represents an irreducible minimum requirement of an ordinary civil trial,

This follows a ruling last week by the European Court of Justice that restrictions on the payment of benefits to the wives of individuals who have had their assets frozen due to suspected terrorist activity are illegal. The restrictions included only being allowed to withdraw £10 a week in cash for each member of the household and having to regularly submit detailed reports of their finances to the Treasury. Right to the very end Labour has refused to learn that these kind of spiteful and vindictive measures do nothing to combat terrorism and do everything to undermine public support for the fight against it.

Taking Brown to task on child detention

An excellent piece at OurKingdom by Clare Sambrook, who takes apart Gordon Brown’s defence of the detention of the children of asylum seekers.

We believe that history will judge the administrative detention of children to be a moral stain on the reputation of this country, akin to slavery and child labour. One day we will look back in horror at the fact that innocent children, no different from our own, and capable of experiencing the same joy and wonder at the world and feeling the same anxiety, fear and pain were imprisoned in our name.

This issue, and the treatment of asylum seekers in general, is the great unsung scandal in this country. Meanwhile the leaders of our political parties bicker over who can be “toughest” on immigration.

H/T Justin @ Chicken Yoghurt

Gordon’s revenge

It’s good to see that Labour has taken such quick and decisive action against the former ministers caught up in the lobbying sting. It would be nice to think that this is a purely principled reaction and the start of a crackdown on political lobbying and on former ministers filling their boots by taking lucrative jobs either with lobbying firms or companies which had dealings with their departments while they were ministers (see here for example).
Or just possibly it has someting to do with the fact that two of the ministers, Hewitt and Hoon, were involved in the abortive coup against Brown earlier this year.
Either way, given the sheer useless they displayed during their ministerial careers it is difficult to have any sympathy for Hoon and Hewitt.

When Straw did show mercy to an old and frail man

I can’t say I have any strong views on whether Ronnie Biggs should be released from prison. Yes it may seem harsh to refuse him parole given the parlous state of his health, but he refuses to show any remorse for his crime, a normal condition for parole, and if he had stayed and served his time to start with instead of doing a runner to Brazil he would be free by now anyway.
So one can understand to an extent why Jack Straw was not inclined to be lenient towards an old man with failing health. However, as Duncan Campbell points out in today’s Guardian, he hasn’t always been so unsympathetic

A frail old man, barely able to communicate, guilty of a crime committed many decades earlier, but unrepentant about his past, wants only to be released so that he can spend his final days with his family. Some people object, saying that the nature of the crime is such that the old man deserves to die in custody. Enter Jack Straw, the member of the government who must make the onerous decision on the old man’s future. He realises that the old man is barely able to walk and is in a confused state of mind. He allows him to return home.

The old man was General Pinochet. In 2000, the then home secretary Jack Straw declined requests from Spain for Pinochet to stand trial for gross human rights violations and sent him back to Chile. Pinochet was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people, the torture of many thousands more, the removal of a democratically elected president and the looting of the national coffers. Straw still felt that mercy was appropriate.

Standing in the way of control orders

Of the various illiberal and authoritarian measures introduced by Labour in the last few years one of the most pernicious is the use of control orders against people who are suspected of terrorist activity. People subjected to control orders are effectively under house arrest – they have a curfew of up to 16 hours a day and there are strict restrictions on where they can go and who they can meet, access to telephones and the internet is strictly limited, any vistors have to be notified to the authorities and approved in advanced. Worst of all, control orders are imposed in a way which breaches two of the most fundamental principles of justice – that people suspected of criminal activity should not be subjected to punishment without a fair trial and that they should be allowed to see and contest the evidence against them. They do have legal representation from”special advocates” but although the advocates are allowed to see the supposed evidence against their client they are not allowed to discuss it with them to establish grounds to challenge it.

The government claims that control orders are an essential element of the fight against terrorism, but it is hard to judge how true this is when we do not know what the people concerned are accused of or the evidence against them, and we are entitled to be skeptical when we hear of cases such as this, as described in an excellent article by Gareth Pierce (I would recommend anyone to read the whole piece)

On trial just before Christmas was a young Essex Muslim, Ceri Bullivant, who had been placed under a Control Order and then charged with a criminal offence when he absconded, unable to cope with the restrictions of that order. In his case the jury magnificently acquitted him on the basis that he had a reasonable excuse to breach his order. It was only later, however, in the High Court, that what lay behind the secrecy became suddenly clearer. Mr Justice Collins quashed the order itself; before he did so, an Intelligence agent giving evidence from behind a screen admitted that the tip-off which had led to the decision that Bullivant was a risk to national security and ‘associated with links to terrorists’ had come from a friend of Ceri’s mother who, after drinking heavily, had phoned Scotland Yard, which failed ever to contact the caller to ask for further explanation.

That is why we should welcome yesterdays ruling by the law lords that the use of secret evidence was a breach of the right to a fair trial under section six of the ECHR. One of the law lords, Lord Hope of Craighead summed it up perfectly -

If the rule of law is to mean anything, it is in cases such as these that the case must stand by principle. It must insist that the person affected be told what is alleged against him.

This doesn’t mean the end of control orders but if the government is now forced to release evidence which it would have previously been able to keep secret then hopefully this will be the first step to them finding a way to use such evidence, assuming it is sufficient to make a decent case, in a proper criminal trial so those people subject to control orders can have their rightful day in court. And if it is not sufficient, well it’s a pretty basic principle that in a liberal democracy if you don’t have enough evidence to convict someone of a crime thay have to be released.

The government is predictably bleating about the outcome and resorting to scare tactics

the new home secretary, Alan Johnson, called it “an extremely disappointing judgment” and said it would make it much harder to protect the public.

This of course the same Alan Johnson who many of us were talking up as our preferred successor to Gordon Brown. Well as a member of the public all I can say is that yes, I expect the government to try to protect me but I also accept that it can be very difficult, that they won’t always be successful and that there should be limits to the methods they can use.

Sort out MPs’ expenses once and for all

In the least surprising development since Allen Stanford turned out to be a bit dodgy, it seems that Gordon Brown’s plan to reform MPs’ expenses has backfired on him. One really has to wonder what he was thinking of – the weird Max Headroom style video was a bad enough start, then he failed to consult the leaders of the other major parties which was both wrong both in principle as this really is a matter on which there should be cross party agreement and tactically as it made it much more unlikely that his plans would be voted through by MPs. Maybe this was part of his plan, to get the Tories to oppose him so that he could accuse them of being on the side of those MPs who were abusing the system. Unfortunately for him he obviously didn’t bank on the fact that his own MPs would be equally unimpressed by his proposals. And then there was the proposal for a £150 attendance allowance, the idea which received the most ridicule of all. This was an idea copied from, of all places, the European Parliament which is the TGV of gravy trains whereas by comparison the Commons is the DLR. All in all it’s another cock up and another nail in his coffin.

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I won’t be beating my wife (well at least until 2012)

Justin at Chicken Yoghurt points out that Labour MP Tom Harris is compaining about the blogosphere not taking notice of the government’s decision to deny bailiffs the right to break into people’s homes and use force against them in order to recover debts.

Presumably it doesn’t occur to Harris that the reasons for this are
1. The people who proposed giving bailiffs these powers were his own government and since when should people get credit for deciding not to do things which are stupid and unprincipled? They deserve stick for proposing these measures in the first place not credit for changing their minds.
2. It is only postponed until 2012 when regulation of bailiffs will come in to force.

Still, I would like to inform Tom Harris that henceforth I will not be beating my wife (well at least until 2012) and I await his acclaim for my good character.

Where is the “freedom” in “Freedom of Information”?

So Jack Straw has vetoed the publication of minutes of cabinet meetings leading up to the Iraq war, after the Information Tribuneral ruled that they should be released.

Now I have to say I don’t have any strong opinion about whether it is desirable for these minutes to be released. I don’t think they are likely to contain anything we don’t know already know and we can piece together a good idea what went on from memoirs published by the likes of Robin Cook, Alastair Campbell and David Blunkett. As for the argument that cabinet meetings should remain secret otherwise it will prevent full and frank discussions, I can accept that argument up to a point but the Information Commissioner did make it clear that this was an exceptional case, due to the overwhelming public interest. I would also question, apropos the point I made above, whether someone will be prepared to speak frankly if they know that the person sitting next to them is going to reveal all in their memoirs in a couple of years time.

However, I have to ask what is the point of having a Freedom of Information Act at all if ministers are simply able to veto rulings that go against them? It simply undermines the entire principle behind the legislation. If ministers are able to decide when or not to comply with orders to release information then where is the “freedom” for the public? All the government has effectively done is to create a mechanism to request information when we should be able to demand it.

Meanwhile on the domestic front…

…Labour shows no sign of losing its enthusiasm for knee-jerk illiberal legislation. Thanks to Section 76 of the Counterterrorism Act 2008 it is now illegal to take a photograph of a police officer ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’, a condition so ill-defined that it is bound to lead to abuse and prevent people from taking photos for perfectly legitimate purposes.

The Coroners and Justice Bill allows government ministers to share personal information (including our medical records) held by any government department, overriding existing laws restricting the use of that information, and allow inquests to be held in secret.

It seems therefore to be an appropriate moment to give a plug to the Convention on Modern Liberty being held in London on 28th February (there are also events in Manchester, Bristol, Belfast, Cambridge and Glasgow). It will give those of us concerned about the erosion of civil liberties in this country an opportunity to come together, discuss our concerns and hopefuly come up with ways to halt and even start to reverse the relentless salami slicing of our liberties. There are numerous speakers, debates on a variety of subjects and a bloggers’ summit.