It’s a pity Gordon Brown has tarnished his escutcheon by trying to show he is tough on terror through doubling the pre-charge detention period from 28 to 56 days – particularly since he is also ignoring the second half of the couplet: tough on the causes of terror.
There are several strong reasons why 56 days (or anything over 28) would be ill-advised and counter-productive. Above all, the case for it has simply not been made out. Even John Reid when Home Secretary admitted that the police had not produced any evidence to warrant it. On 11 June I put down a PQ asking “on how many occasions since 25 July 2006 (when the 28-day period was introduced) have the police been obliged by the 28-day pre-charge detention period to release terrorist suspects whom they still wished to detain beyond that period; and what the date and circumstances were of each case? In answer the Home Secretary said: “The police do not centrally hold information on the circumstances of each terrorist case where a suspect is not charged within the 28 day pre-charge detention period”. A blatantly evasive reply. I therefore put down a further PQ on 12 July asking if the Home Secretary will seek the information requested from each police force. It was answered on 23 July as follows: “As part of the consultation on forthcoming counter-terrorism legislation, we are looking, in conjunction with the police, at how the existing maximum period of pre-charge detention has operated in practice and whether there are any lessons to be learnt from that”. It could not say it more clearly: we don’t know, and have no intention of finding out because we fear there is no such evidence.
That is the really essential point: it is wrong to introduce any punitive legislation when there is no evidence-based case to warrant it – and when there is a strong case against it. Internment has never worked, in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, and since the flow of intelligence from the Muslim community to the police is far and away the most most effective means of countering terrorist activity, to shut it down (which detaining people for nearly 2 months without trial is very likely to do in its impact on Muslim opinion) is utterly counter-productive.
But there are other arguments too. 28 days already exceeds the pre-charge detention period in most other democracies, so why do we need twice that period here? And why aren’t other anti-terrorist measures now proposed – particularly post-charge questioning and the use of intelligence intercepts in court – perfectly adequate for the purpose without gratuitously undermining Habeas Corpus even further?
And if the hard-line Right, in whichever party, are still not satisfied, maybe they should take a lesson from Winston Churchill who said in 1943 at the height of the Second World War: “The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law…is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government”.
And while we’re on our quotes from Conservative grandees, this (surprising) one deserves to be noted: “The failure of Messrs Bush and Blair and tghe neo-cons to understand Arab grievances has been translated into a ‘clash of civilizations’ and a threat to Western values ‘by people determined to destroy our way of life’, as the Prime Minister put it. But there is no clash of civilizations unless we are determined to create one. We are not going to live under a universal caliphate. Osama bin Laden and his gangsters have not the faintest chance of destroying our way of life, unless we do so ourselves….The misconceived ‘war on terror’ has made the world a much more dangerous place…America and Britain should leave Iraq as soon as possible. There are no other options…it is the American occupation of Iraq, like the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, that hs become the magnet for the international jihadis”. Who said that? No other than Norman Lamont, former Tory Chancellor, in the Daily Telegraph on 10 November 2006. Gordon Brown, please note.
It’s a pity Gordon Brown has tarnished his escutcheon by trying to show he is tough on terror through doubling the pre-charge detention period from 28 to 56 days – particularly since he is also ignoring the second half of the couplet: tough on the causes of terror.
Yes, the new Housing Green Paper does promise 70,000 affordable houses a year to be built by 2010-11, including 45,000 social homes, and that is more than double the (very low) number built in 2004. But that still leaves a lot of key questions still unanswered:
How many of these will be Council houses, under the democratic control of local authorities? The Government won’t say. Yvette Cooper, the Housing Minister, made clear they still hanker after other forms of tenure – RSLs (housing associations), ALMOs (arms length management organisations), shared equity ownership – anything but local authority housing. In recent years a miniscule 100 houses have been built a year by local authorities because of central government cold-shouldering the idea, despite the fact that homelessness and Council waiting lists have doubled.
There is still no commitment to the Fourth Option (i.e. that Council tenants will not be blackmailed into agreeing to transfer to a private landlord or an RSL or an ALMO under the threat that otherwise repairs and improvements to their Council houses will not be carried out).
There is real doubt whether the Government’s figures stack up. They’ve promised £8bn for investment in more affordable housing by 2016, but the Local Government Association thinks half as much again will be needed.
Making new homes from 2016 all zero-carbon and setting out bids for 5 new eco-homes of up to 20,000 homes each is good. But these 100,000 homes are less than 0.5% of the housing stock. What plans for reducing carbon emissions and radically improving energy efficiency in the other 99.5%?
The naivety of the private equity industry is breathtaking. With the continuing political furore still in full swing about the Babylonian excesses of this latest capitalist symbol of greed incorporated, the industry set up its own review chaired by City banker Sir David Walker. It’s just reported, so what do they think needs to be done? What a surprise! Nothing, except set up a code of conduct to increase the supply of information. And yes, you’ve guessed it – it’s voluntary, so nobody has to do anything. Everything in the garden’s lovely. What a monumental whitewash.
First, do they really believe that setting up their own inquiry, led by a City banker who has done 12 years at Morgan Stanley and who heartily approves of the buyout business, is going to carry one scintilla of credibility? It’s obviously just a cover-up to try to pre-empt real action by the authorities. It will be blown away with contempt for the chaff it is.
Second, it completely ignores the really big issues which are far more important than simply greater transparency. The taper relief tax loophole which enables private equity partners to plunder their victims, under the deceptive title of ‘carried interest’ (an annual 20% rake-off of profits running into gains of millions per partner), and then pay tax at a lower rate (somtimes 5%) than the cleaners of their offices, needs to be stopped immediately.
Then there’s the tax fiddle which powers the whole private equity engine. The tax relief which permits large-scale leveraging of some of the biggest companies in the country, buying them by raising enormous sums of debt which are greatly reduced by tax deductions, should be ended. This tax concession was originally aimed at helping small venture capital businesses which need early assistance to survive in the market, but it has now been purloined by the asset-stripping sharks to oil their predatory excesses. It should be stopped in the next Budget.
There is another very good reason too for reining in private equity. The sheer scale of recent multi-billion private equity deals is now exposing banks to a default risk on a scale not seen since the stock market crash of the late 1980s. Ironically, this very realrisk is driven by the banks’ perception that they can’t afford not to participate because the potential rewards of some of the biggest deals are so enormous, yet if they do take part and the firm fails as the easy-come credit bubble collapses as interest rates continue to rise, their exposure could bring them down. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
The Metronet fiasco raises several very important issues. First, who is going to cough up for this enormous financial black hole? Metronet, which ran three-quarters of the PPP London Underground refurbishment programme, had grossly incompetent management which racked up a projected overspend of £2bn by 2010 plus £2bn in debts. Now they’re bankrupt, who pays? As it stands, it will be Ken Livingstone and Transport for London, in other words the taxpayer. That is utterly unacceptable. It should be Metronet’s banks and shareholders exclusively who carry the loss – lock, stock and barrel.
Second, why didn’t the original contracts spell this out? Some £500m was spent drawing up the contracts, yet they failed to spell out the one single most important point: who pays if one of the contractors goes bust? The contracts were largely the work of consultants on whom the Government spends some £2bn a year, according to the 2005-6 figures just unearthed by the PAC Select Committee. It is a scandal that sums of this order are wasted each year on consultants whose overall net value to the Government and taxpayers, as the Metronet disaster amply demonstrates, is a huge negative.
Third, this is massive warning shot across the bows to Gordon Brown. It was he and the Treasury who went out of their way to ram this PPP through in the face of bitter resistance, even to the point of a High Court action, from the London Mayor. The Treasury paid £860m a year of taxpayers’ money to install new tracks, bring in better trains, refit run-down stations, and replace old signalling systems. So who now should carry the can?
Fourth, this should be the writing on the wall for PPPs as a whole. Of course, the argument is that the fault lies with the lax and incompetent Metronet management, not with the PPP system itself. But the whole point is that PPPs are always inherently at risk of collapse like this – the claimed transfer of risk to the private sector is a charade, and in the end the public sector always has to stump up. So after a catastrophe like this, why do we continue with the flawed PPP/PFI system at all?
And fifthly, this sorry saga raises in stark relief yet again the whole antiquated system of company limited liability. A crassly incapable management can bring a huge company to its knees and then walk away with impunity. This exemption arose under the format of the nineteenth century joint stock companies as a way of increasing the power of companies and their managers over their investors. But doesn’t the Metronet debacle manifestly make clear that this system of immunity should be drastically revised? A radical overhaul of company law should now be the consequence of this monumental Metronet failure.
(Photo: Labour Behind The Label)
The news that three major discount clothing retailers – Asda, Tesco and Primark – import clothes from factories in Bangladesh where workers are forced to work up to 80 hours a week for only 4p an hour in some cases has made the supermarket chains launch an investigation into press reports about conditions in these factories. As though they didn’t know!
Bully for the investigative media – what’s left of it – but the point is it shouldn’t have to depend on such freelance initiatives. The big private companies are major players in the UK and international economy, and the way they operate have huge ramifications – for consumers, suppliers, workers, job opportunities and job losses, labour standards and workplace rights, the environment and climate impacts, resource and energy use, waste generation and pollution, as well as for competitiveness and more generally for the country’s social/economic image.
So as in this particular case involving gross exploitation of workers in Bangladesh, the public is entitled to know the facts, the economic realities, and the shameful treatment that lies behind cheap merchandise in our shops. The lesson of this episode is that the scope of the Freedom of Information Act should be extended to, say, the top 1,000 biggest private companies whose influence on our society and way of life equals, if not surpasses, the impact of the public sector. This must be one of our demands on the new Brown Government which has made such a point about strengthening accountability.
The carefully choreographed distancing of UK foreign policy from the US – first announced, then denied, coded message now clearly received – will be received with palpable relief by the Labour Party and the overwhelming majority of British people. The umbilical cord by which Blair insisted on embedding himself in Bush was humiliating, demeaning and ultimately fruitless because it never produced a shred of reciprocity.
However, once again we should look very carefully at what actually happens, not just at a gesture waved in our direction. Two issues immediately stand out.
One is, what would happen if, in the 18 months left to Bush, the neocons in a last fling launched their long-planned strike against Iran, almost certainly bombing raids whether by the US itself or possibly Israel? Would Gordon Brown the next morning come down in favour of Bush or would he repudiate such madness and back the British people? At the one leadership hustings that took place in May, I asked him this question. He evaded it with several minutes of waffle – it won’t happen, diplomacy is winning through, multilateral alliance are being forged, etc. etc. Since he hadn’t answered the question, I immediately asked it again. I was treated to a repetition of the same waffle. It’s worrying he won’t tell us.
The second key issue is, will Brown withdraw British troops from Iraq when the British commander on the spot, Sir Richard Dannatt, says, as he has, that the presence of occupation troops is actually exacerbating, not helping, the security situation, or will he keep them there as long as the Americans insist on having a diplomatic fig-leaf to cover their own occupation? Clearly Bush, success or no success with his surge, is not intending any significant reduction in US forces in the year and a half before the end of his Presidency. It is all too likely that American troops will remain in Iraq, albeit with some limited cuts in numbers, far beyond that. After all, the reason they invaded Iraq has nothing to do with stopping Saddam’s brutalities or replacing him with democracy; they’re there because of the oil. As peak oil rapidly approaches and competition with China intensifies over the remaining repositories of oil left in the world, the US is not going to give up any time soon its priceless economic, political and military prize astride the three countries – Saudi, Iran and Iraq – with far and away the biggest global concentration of oilfields left.
So if Bush clicks his fingers and says No to a full British withdrawal within a 6-12 month period at most, will Gordon Brown defy him, or will our poodledom continue? We are entitled to know.
Once again, at least at the outset, the new Brown regime has made a significant and very welcome shift in policy in deciding (what was blindingly and painfully obvious to everyone for the last 10 years) that we desperately need a massive boost to the housebuilding programme, particularly council housing.
Blair would have none of it because ideologically he was wholly opposed to Council housing, even using blackmail to force people out of it – either you transfer to a private landlord or a housing association or an ALMO, or you can rot in your Council house because the Government won’t pay for any repairs or improvements if you stay with the Council. A scorched earth policy otherwise known as blocking the housing fourth option.
The result has been one of the biggest scandals of the Blair era. Homelessness doubled, household on waiting lists rose from 1 million in 1999 to 1.7 million in 2006. Incredibly, this is far worse than under Thatcher.
At the end of the Thatcher period in 1990, the Tories were still building just over 14,000 Council houses a year. By 2000 Council house building had fallen to – just 87 a year.
In 10 years under Thatcher 400,000 Council houses were built. In 10 years under Blair it was down to just 4,000 – 1% of the Tory total.
Gordon Brown’s commitment to raise the overall level of house-building by 40,000 a year by 2016 is therefore very welcome. But there are caveats, and we should look at the small print. 2016 is nine years away, which could mean an increase of only 4-5,000 houses per year through that period – hardly an adequate answer to today’s cry of anguish and despair over housing deprivation.
And exactly how many of the 240,000 houses now planned to be built per year by 2016 will be for Council housing? At least a quarter of the population simply cannot afford home ownership, and up to a quarter therefore of all new house-build should be low-cost rent-affordable housing for them. It’s a little too early to cheer yet.
Cash for peerages, dropping the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into BAE-Al Yamamah, and the sacking of the parliamentary ethics watchdog because he had the audacity to criticise senior ministers’ conduct, says it all. When the interests of those with power are threatened, the upholders of justice are themselves attacked.
So who in future will have the independence and protected authority to speak out in defence of the nation’s integrity? I have a proposal to make to Gordon Brown.
The Lord Chancellor is widely seen as an anachronism who combines into one person executive, legislative and judicial power.
However, the original function of the office, a thousand or more years ago, is strikingly up-to-date and remarkably necessary: keeper of the Sovereign’s conscience. The Chancellor was there to prevent the abuse of power by the King (or more commonly, on the King’s behalf, to cut down over-mighty barons) and to provide an independent source of justice – through the Court of Chancery – for people who could not get it through the cumbersome and expensive common law.
Could we not restore the office to its traditional and resonant role? The Chancellor would cease to be a Minister and a member of the Upper House – after all, Thomas More was never a peer. He or she would be appointed by the Sovereign – and for once, this means by the Sovereign without advice from the Government of the day. He or she would serve for a fixed term, longer than a single Parliament, and would be removable only by a two-thirds majority of both Houses.
On leaving office, the Chancellor would be forbidden from taking up any paid appointment, as a guarantee of his or her integrity.
The Chancellor would be responsible for all judicial appointments, including the magistracy, but he or she personally would not act as a judge. That would mean that all judicial appointments were made by a totally independent person responsible only to the Head of State, not by a quango appointed by Government.
The Chancellor could also serve as the Sovereign’s legal adviser on matters of State – and Parliament’s adviser too. For example, the Chancellor, rather than Ministers, might make the declaration that Parliamentary Bills do or do not comply with the Human Rights Act. The Chancellor might advise the Sovereign and Parliament on fundamental questions arising from devolution or the EU, including interpretation of the EU constitution (if it ever arrives).
The Chancellor would advise the Sovereign and Parliament at their request on the legality of any act of State, including war. How much might we have been saved if that had happened before the Iraqi disaster!
This would also end the double anomaly of the Attorney General. He advises the Sovereign, but if the Sovereign wants alternative advice, he or she cannot seek it except on the advice of the Attorney General. He is accountable to Parliament, but denies Parliament the legal advice they need to hold him to account.
But most creatively, the Chancellor would re-invent the role of keeper of the country’s conscience. As such, he or she would take general responsibility for all the mechanisms in the British State which are intended to safeguard the people against wrongdoing or injustice – not only the courts and tribunals, but all the regulatory agencies, all complaints authorities, all forms of Ombudsman, all investigatory bodies, all Commissioners for special groups such as children.
He or she would not appoint all their members, but would have a power to intervene if their appointments systems, procedures or indeed outcomes were defective.
It would also be an excellent idea if the Chancellor could take final responsibility for the accuracy of all official information and statistics, to prevent manipulation to suit the powers-that-be.
He or she should also take charge of the Honours system, apart from political honours (though perhaps the latter should be scrapped). There would then be no cash for peerages scandal in future.
As the Sovereign’s official conscience, the Chancellor would act as a universal clearing-house for whistleblowers. Anyone at all who wished to report any ‘unconscionable’ act or abuse of power – whether in the public or private sector – could do so to the Chancellor. All such reports would be investigated under his or her ultimate supervision. They would also enjoy absolute legal privilege and the whistleblower would have immunity against any kind of penalty, unless the reports were frivolous, malicious or dishonest.
This office would have immense responsibility and authority. Totally independent of any vested interest, including government, the Chancellor could be a powerful protector of the law and good conduct when there is so much concern today about sleaze and cynicism about politics.
Why then end the Lord Chancellorship, as the Government is pledged to do, just when we need it most in modernised form?
(Originally published in Tribune)
The inestimable Ann Black has thoughtfully provided a guide (see below) for members wanting to respond to the current proposals for the reorganisation of annual conference and policy making. It’s not as straightforward as you might expect. For a start, submissions are to come from individuals, not branches, CLPs or affiliated societies, as they are to be sent via individual members’ MpURLs – which party units do not have. Presumably they can stilll write directly to Peter Watt, Labour Party General Secretary (39 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0HA) but the consultation document does not make that clear. The second issue is that of internet access. It’s about 60%, as the ONS report from last year shows – but it is not universal and it is heavily weighted away from areas and incomes where one might expect Labour members and support to reside.
[A motion proposing a contemporary resolution on] this will not be accepted as a contemporary motion because it does not relate to events after 1 August, and the subject will be covered in the NEC report to conference. So it will not be printed and no-one will see it.
Can I suggest that branches collectively and members individually make these points in the response form on the party website on their MpURLs? – see sequence below. I will of course ask for what responses have been received, and if possible read them, and if the majority think that abolishing conference, or for that matter the NEC, it will be hard to oppose.
I also understand that the unions – though not constituency representatives – had sight of the proposals some time in advance of the NEC, and removing contemporary resolutions was not a deal-breaker for them. So there are questions to be asked there as well.
Go to http://www.labour.org.uk/labour_membersnet
and click where it says “if you are already a member of the Labour Party etc”
If you have already used your MpURL this will take you to
If not, it may ask you for a username and password. Some people have had problems getting in – if so, or for any other problems with access), ring Computing for Labour on 0207-783-1291 If OK so far, scroll down to Gordon Brown, leader of the Labour Party under this, click where it says “to read Gordon Brown’s message etc”, which takes you to
from where you can see the document and also complete a response form.
What a week! First we have Gordon Brown’s constitutional reforms strengthening Parliament’s powers to hold the Executive to account – though we have yet to see the small print about how they would operate and there are several important gaps which need to be plugged in the consultation period and many new powers added. Now we have the DCLG proposals to give local people power to determine, or at least influence, how some of their tax revenues are spent – to enforce their own priorities, not the Council’s. There’s also talk of giving people the right to petition Councils, which Councillors would then be obliged to consider. Excellent, and it should be piloted quickly.
But why limit it to Councils? Why shouldn’t both these proposals be considered for application to Parliament as well? The Treasury always wisely keeps a precautionary contingency fund in reserve of about 10%, amounting to some £50bn a year. If as little as 5% of this were set aside for allocation by the citizenry in accordance with their own priorities, it would allow some £2.5bn a year to be devoted to national projects which the people themselves wanted, not just a tiny conclave of Departmental negotiators carving up the national cake in secret discussions with the Treasury. It would revive interest in national politics more than any number of Ministerial press notices spinning the good news about their latest expenditure plans.
And if Councils can be petitioned, why not Parliament too? In fact there’s already of course a precedent via the No.10 website. When 1.8million people recently supported a call opposing road pricing on this website, the cognoscenti thought this was an own goal by giving the opposition a platform to have a go at the government on a very sensitive and difficult issue (on which the Government are obviously right). Of course there are always plenty within the Westminster –Whitehall bubble who want to keep out the people at all costs and get on with governing as only they know best, but they never believed in democracy in the first place.
MPs should set up our own Parliamentary website, and where petitions or proposals attracted overwhelming interest and support, Parliament should consider, perhaps via its Liaison Committee composed of all its Select Committee chairs, whether some might be tabled for debate and vote on the floor of the House. That might at last inject some real excitement into the parliamentary process which is now largely moribund.
However, despite all these plaudits, I have one major criticism. If the Government is opening up the channels of democracy at last which have been so long blocked, why is the Party leadership going in the opposite direction when it comes to Party Conference? The latter has already been largely neutered by the leadership’s refusal to acknowledge or accept any resolution where it is defeated. Now it is being proposed that there won’t even be a vote at all at the end of debates, in other words Conference is treated as a glorified talkshop around the only event in the week that matters – the Leader’s speech. And maybe this is the precursor to getting rid of Conference altogether, as we are moved steadily down the road towards American-style rallies without the inconvenience of a Party impertinent enough to want to have a say.
When it’s the electorate, some attempt is being made at last to give them a teeny-weeny taste of power, but when it comes to the Party, even that tiny pretence of influence that the Party liked to think it might have is now, it seems, to be flattened.
You can see the other speeches from virtual marchers at: The Big Ask
It’s excellent news that Gordon Brown has so quickly put up-front his proposed constitutional reforms to end the antiquated and anti-democratic so-called royal prerogative powers – though we do need to look at the small print of exactly what is the detail of the changes to be made.
Having US Congressional-style confirmation hearings by appropriate Select Committees for key public positions is something I have long advocated. It should apply to Cabinet Ministers as well as key appointments outside Parliament. It should also include the power of recall by Parliament where appropriate for a further hearing where events justified it.
Requiring explicit Parliamentary approval before the country is committed to war is clearly right. But it does also mean that Parliament must be given, well in advance of the point where the advance to war becomes virtually unstoppable, the full evidence – not selective, not spun, not manipulated – on which the decision to go to war is based. That is what I proposed in my Private Member’s Bill on this issue earlier this year.
It is also sensible that MPs should be able to scrutinise the working of the honours system. But better still would be to abolish the whole system.
Drawing up a Bill of Rights is also clearly desirable, but everything depends on what is included in it – and what not. And since Blair-Brown have just gone out of their way to reject the Charter of Fundamental Rights which was supported by every one of the other 26 EU Member States, it is important to insist that basic rights must include collective rights, not just individual rights.
But if Parliament is genuinely to hold the Executive to account, what is so far missing from Gordon Brown’s proposals is the right for Parliament to set up its own Parliamentary Commission to investigate issues which may go beyond the scope or resources of a normal Select Committee inquiry, and where the Executive may be unwilling to initiate action itself. Obvious recent examples are an inquiry into the Iraq War and the whole question of extraordinary rendition. That is the real test of how meaningful these reforms are going to be.