Tag: Democracy

The impact of government policy on free speech in universities: Once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late

protest pic

Freedom of speech is generally considered an integral part of a functioning democracy. In 2014, I wrote about how the process of dismantling democracy started in earnest from May 2010 here in the UK, and has been advancing by almost inscrutable degrees ever since, because of pervasive government secrecy and a partly complicit, dominant right wing media.

In order to “protect democracy” governments are subverting the law. This is a fundamental paradox, of course and Edward Snowden saw this could lead to the collapse of democracy and critically endanger our freedom of speech. Snowden reminded us that what no individual conscience can change, a free press can. It has to be one that is free enough to allow a diverse range of political commentaries, rather than a stranglehold of right wing propaganda from the Murdoch empire and its ideological stablemates.

Between July and August 2013, The Guardian newspaper was subject to prior restraint as well as property destruction by members of GCHQ following its publication of documents relating to PRISM, the NSA and the disclosures of Edward Snowden. Jackbooted officials arrived at the Guardian office and smashed up hard drives containing the information. It hit the news surprisingly quietly, when Snowden exposed a gross abuse of political power and revealed mass surveillance programmes by American and British secret policing agencies. (More detailed information here).

David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, Guardian interviewer of the whistleblower Edward Snowden, was held for 9 hours at Heathrow Airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act. Officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles. 

This was a profound attack on press freedoms and the news gathering process, and as Greenwald said: “To detain my partner for a full nine hours while denying him a lawyer, and then seize large amounts of his possessions, is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation.”

Even the Telegraph columnist Janet Daley remarked that these events were like something out of East Germany in the 1970s.

This certainly raised critically important legal and ethical issues, for those involved in journalism, especially if some kinds of journalism can be so easily placed at risk of being politically conflated with terrorism. (See also Once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late).

Freedom of expression is enshrined and protected in UK law by the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. The most important of the convention’s protections in this context is Article 10.

Article 10 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

Freedom of expression, as outlined in Article 10, is a qualified right, meaning the right must be balanced against certain other rights. Nevertheless, several judgments by the European Court of Human Rights have held that “Freedom of expression…is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”.

Since the Human Rights Act (1998) came into force, UK laws are required to be compliant with the rights guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights, including that of free speech and freedom of association and assembly. Under the act, Higher Education Institutions, for example, are under a statutory duty to protect the free speech of staff and students, as well as protecting them from discrimination.

However, the Conservatives have a long history of censorship. During The Troubles in Northern Ireland the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 regularly stopped or postponed the broadcast of documentaries relating to Ireland. A Real Lives documentary for the BBC, “At the Edge of the Union” was temporarily blocked in August 1985 by direct government intervention from the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan which led to a one-day strike by the National Union of Journalists to defend the independence of the BBC. Those were the days. And of course, under the same regime, Spycatcher, written by Peter Wright, former MI5 officer and Assistant Director, and co-author Paul Greengrass  was also banned.

We are prevented by parliamentary rules from broadcasting parliamentary proceedings in a comedic or satrical context. Proceedings of the House of Lords, House of Commons, and various Parliamentary Committees are broadcast on BBC Parliament and Parliament’s website. The Rules of Coverage released by the House of Commons Broadcasting Committee place severe limitations on the use of this footage, including a prohibition of its use in the context of political satire. For this reason, rebroadcasts of foreign comedy shows containing Parliamentary footage are restricted from broadcast in the UK, or the footage removed or replaced, often to rather comic effect.

There are many more historic examples of censorship in the UK of course.

The impact of Conservative policy on free speech in universities

Free speech on campus is under threat – and the Government’s Prevent scheme poses one of the greatest risks.

The question of free speech on campus has dominated headlines, student unions, and social media for a few years. However, the emphasis has tended to be on no-platforming, and safe spaces with countless right wing commentators pieces whingeing about the so-called ‘student snowflake’ psyche. The Universities Minister even threatened to fine institutions that ban speakers.

However, the government’s Prevent strategy in the UK is the biggest threat to free speech at universities rather than media caricatures of “snowflake” students, according to a director of Liberty, among others.

Farcically, ‘extremism’ is broadly defined as ‘opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance’: in other words, opposition to a particular script of ideals clad in the language of national-discursive cohesion.

However, this approach has consistently failed to engage critically with students’ attempts to challenge the encroachment of fascism, for example, by conflating top-down attempts to stifle expression through Prevent, with bottom-up efforts to protest and challenge far right or very controversial speakers.

Furthermore, the listing of non-violent climate activists Extinction Rebellion (XR) as a ‘terrorist-type’ group under Prevent guidelines in a leaked document that also outlined how concern for Muslims around the world and “criticism of British military involvements are signs of “extremism”, have accelerated calls for Prevent to be abolished and for the formulation of a new way forward. This is definitely an attack on free speech, which is aimed at stifling any form of dissent, upholding  the dominance and normalisation of a right wing, neoliberal ideology. 

The climate emergency campaign group was included in a 12-page guide produced by counter-terrorism police in the south-east titled Safeguarding young people and adults from ideological extremism, which is marked as “official”.

The document says that ‘issues to look out’ for include people who speak in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution”. 

The document also flags young people taking part in non-violent direct action, such as sit-down protests, banner drops or “writing environmentally themed graffiti”.

The guide, bearing the counter-terrorism policing logo, urges those in “regular, direct contact with young people or members of the public” to look out for various warning signs and consider a referral to Prevent if they believe someone is falling prey to “ideological extremism” – which has a broad scope for interpretation. The Conservatives consider those even slightly left of centre to be ‘extreme’. 

Left wing terrorist

Some of the left wing groups on the leaked document, clearly indicating the UK government’s McCarthyist turn.

718 XR leaked doc

Part of the leaked document.

The disclosure that XR has been listed alongside proscribed groups such as National Action and Al-Muhajiroun is likely to be deeply embarrassing for counter-terror chiefs. They have for years faced claims that Prevent can cross the line to stifle legitimate free speech, thought and dissent.

XR and other left-wing and environmental groups listed include Greenpeace, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), Stop the War, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which featured alongside threats to national security such as neo-Nazi terrorism and a pro-terrorist Islamist group. The leaked guide, aimed at police officers, government organisations and teachers who by law have to report concerns about radicalisation, was dated last November. 

It’s clear that that Prevent and counter-extremism policy in general is being used to police the fallout from failing neoliberal government policies. For a party  that has loudly claimed to despise the so-called nanny state, this document indicates a massive state overreach which seriously threatens our right to political engagement, democratic participation and peaceful protest. (See footnote)

Corey Stoughton, director of advocacy at the human rights organisation, said the tactics of the strategy for monitoring campus activism had a “chilling effect” on black and Muslim students, provoking self censorship for fear of being labelled extremist.

“There is a substantial irony in the government spuriously accusing today’s students of threatening free speech [for example, no platforming of far right and other controversial speakers] when, in fact, the true threat to free speech on campus is the government’s own policies,” Stoughton said, a former civil rights lawyer at the US department of justice during the Obama administration. 

In January 2017 King’s College, London, told students that their email could be retained and monitored as part of the college’s Prevent obligations. It is believed other universities also monitor emails. Critics, including human rights lawyers, have said the policy is a catch-all for many types of political dissent and free speech, and that it also encourages the demonisation of Muslims.

More recently, campaigners and experts are warning again that free speech is being stifled in universities because of the Conservative’s “overzealous” anti-terrorist Prevent programme, with students and lecturers being regarded as “suspects and informants”

Prevent’s stated aim is to curb ‘home-grown’ terrorism. The Prevent policy applies across schools, further education colleges and universities to deny a platform to those who might promote terrorism unless the risks can be mitigated. The strategy has been interpreted as encouraging teachers and lecturers to report those who might have been radicalised or might radicalise others – although Counter terrorism security advisers  (CTSA) also require institutions to have “particular regard to the duty to ensure free speech” and to “the importance of academic freedom” when carrying out the Prevent duty. But clearly there is a strong tension arising between the Prevent strategy aim and upholding academic freedoms.

Freedom of expression at higher education institutions has a specific protection under the Education (No 2) Act 1986. The act states that everyone involved with the governance of an HEI must take such steps as are “reasonably practicable” to ensure freedom of speech is secured for members, students, employees and visiting speakers.

This means that universities have an explicit duty to protect freedom of expression in their institutions. Notably it requires universities to keep up to date a code of practice that sets out what procedures it expects from staff and students regarding freedom of expression. Furthermore, it further includes student union premises as being part of the “university establishment” even if not owned by the university, which is significant when considering the degree to which student groups might be able to argue they are not party to the requirements of the act as regards freedom of expression.

Furthermore, The Equality Act 2010 brings together more than 116 pieces of legislation covering anti-discrimination law in the UK. Chapter 2 of Part 6 of the Equality Act (the Higher Education Chapter) applies, in conjunction with Part 2 of the Equality Act, to Higher Education Institutions, and specifically protects students and prospective students from discrimination, harassment or victimisation from the institution’s governing body.

However, recently, students have even had their university essays investigated by police and faced questioning by staff under government counter-terror measures. The Independent reports that a Freedom of Information requests reveal that academic materials have been flagged in response to the government’s anti-radicalisation strategy – but it is understood that no action has been taken against students. So far.

At De Montfort University in Leicester, three students’ essays were flagged to university security before their work was assessed by police. Meanwhile, at the University of Wolverhampton, a student’s piece of work prompted staff to question the student.  

Alison Scott-Baumann, a professor of society and belief at Soas, University of London, found in her research that many academics and students connect “inhibition of free speech” with Prevent. 

On the findings showing that students’ work is being investigated by the government, she said: “It completely destroys trust between the staff and the students and it also distorts the subject matter that staff feel they can teach.”

Scott-Baumann, a senior academic whose work involves researching free speech, added: “It suggests to me that because other means of uncovering radicalisation are not working – because there is no radicalisation on campus of a dangerous kind in my view – then if you can’t find what you are looking for you go into essay surveillance having failed to find anything on campus.”

Prevent is being used as a front for the government’s new McCarthyism

Waqas Tufail, a senior lecturer in criminology at Leeds Beckett University, called the figures “shocking” and added the new data shows how Prevent has encouraged a “McCarthyite culture” on campus.

 He said: “You would not think students’ essays were being policed in a democratic state. In what way can the police be arbiters when it comes to an essay?”

While the flagging of academic texts to Prevent has been previously documented, experts say this is the first time they have heard of universities reporting students for their essays.

Post compulsory education (from degree level education and above) – and particularly concerning the social sciences and humanities – requires students to think critically, often exploring very contentious issues. It is expected as standard that students will explore and present in their work a summary of all of the key positions within any area of controversy, reflect and evaluate each perspective fairly, and present a balanced and reasoned conclusion. You don’t have to agree with a proposition to present it fairly, consider and evaluate it and set it into a context. 

The University of Reading faced criticism for flagging an essay by a prominent left-wing academic, which examines the ethics of socialist revolution, as “sensitive” under the Prevent duty. 

The new data reveals that some universities also require students and academics to fill out forms before they can access material related to certain topics for their studies.

On the latest data, Dr Tufail, who has carried out research on the Prevent Programme, added: “It is just perhaps more evidence that Prevent is not working. And despite what the government has said for a long time, it does discernible harm. It really hits home when you think about the impact on academic freedom and general freedom of speech. There hasn’t been quick enough action from the government.

“I think the government has a lot to answer for. But we shouldn’t let individual universities off the hook.”

The government launched a review of the Prevent programme scheme last January, after years of allegations that it discriminated against Muslims and violated freedom of speech and religion. However,  the investigation has been beset by controversy, with Lord Carlile leave his post as ‘independent reviewer’ after a legal challenge accused him of bias.

Fope Olaleye, black students’ officer at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “The level of surveillance being experienced by students, especially vulnerable students, is already having a censorious and chilling effect on who can engage in educational spaces.”

He added: “There is no doubt that the relationship between lecturers and students has changed, from one of partners in learning to that of suspects and informants, and this must change. 

“Universities and colleges should be spaces of critical thinking, not sites of surveillance.” 

Evidence provided by academics and students to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, as well as interviews conducted with students and other organisations by Index on Censorship suggests that the Prevent duty is having a chilling effect on freedom of expression in British universities.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) think tank, said: “While everyone must be live to the dangers posed by extremism, I do worry about the potential chilling effect of Prevent on free speech at universities. The complaints are too loud and come too often to ignore.

“It is ironic that so many academics feel the real threat to free speech comes from the government, when the last Conservative manifesto said free speech needed strengthening in universities.” 

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “The Prevent programme threatens freedom of speech and stifles debate and open discussion. Staff and students must be free to discuss and debate controversial issues without fear of being referred to the authorities. Prevent does more harm than good if it closes down debate on contentious topics or makes people less likely to speak up.”

A UK Universities spokesperson said: “Universities continue to work hard to implement effective approaches to Prevent that are supported by students and staff, that protect freedom of expression while complying with their wider duties.

“Institutions are committed to promoting and protecting free speech, provided it is done within the law and balanced with safeguarding responsibilities to all students.”

Free speech is vital to the free flow of thoughts and ideas. Nowhere is this perhaps more important than in universities, which are crucibles for new thought and academic discovery, and whose remit is to encourage and foster critical thinking.

We should be very concerned that Prevent legislation in particular – which compels universities to refer students who “seem at risk of being drawn into terrorism” – is at odds with the statutory duty on universities to protect free speech and I echo the call by the Joint Committee on Human Rights for a full, independent review of the Prevent policy. Freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination are intertwined fundamental human rights. 

An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and press. These traditional safeguards of liberal democracy, along with equal access to justice and government accountability via legal aid, have been systematically eroded by the Conservatives. 

The Department for Education has been approached for comment.

Footnote

Back in 2013, I wrote an article – JP Morgan wants Europe to be rid of social rights, democracy, employee rights and the right to protest – about JP Morgan’s chilling, extremely partisan review of what they saw as the ‘state of progress’ on ‘tackling’ the Eurozone crisis. It was the political reform part of the review that particularly worried me. 

The review says: “At the start of the crisis, it was generally assumed that the national legacy problems were economic in nature. But, as the crisis has evolved, it has become apparent that there are deep seated political problems in the periphery, which, in our view, need to change if economic and monetary union (EMU) is going to function properly in the long run. The political systems in the periphery were established in the aftermath of dictatorship, and were defined by that experience.

“Constitutions tend to show a strong socialist influence, reflecting the political strength that left wing parties gained after the defeat of fascism. Political systems around the periphery typically display several of the following features: weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labor rights; consensus building systems which foster political clientalism; and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo. The shortcomings of this political legacy have been revealed by the crisis.”

“There is a growing recognition of the extent of this problem, both in the core and in the periphery. Change is beginning to take place. Spain took steps to address some of the contradictions of the post-Franco settlement with last year’s legislation enabling closer fiscal oversight of the regions. But, outside Spain little has happened thus far. The key test in the coming year will be in Italy, where the new government clearly has an opportunity to engage in meaningful political reform. But, in terms of the idea of a journey, the process of political reform has barely begun.” 

What the review is making clear is that ‘socialist’ and democratic  inclinations  must be removed from political structures; localism must be replaced with strong, central, authority; labour rights must be removed, consensus (call it democracy if you will) must cease to be of concern and the right to protest must be curtailed.

This is an agenda for hard right, corporatist, centrist government. There’s another word for that, and it’s what the bankers seem to want. 

JP Morgan’s proto-fascist document can be accessed here: The Euro Area Adjustment—About Half-Way There. Firstly, they say that harsh financial measures are ‘necessary’ to ensure that major investment houses such as JP Morgan can continue to reap huge profits from their speculative activities in Europe. Secondly, the authors maintain, it is necessary to impose ‘political reforms’ aimed at suppressing opposition to the massively unpopular austerity measures being imposed at the behest of the banks. 

Whatever the historical inaccuracies in their analysis, there can not be the slightest doubt that the authors of the JP Morgan report are arguing for governments to adopt strong authoritarianism to complete the process of social counterrevolution to austerity that was, at the time, already well underway across Europe.

In short, JP Morgan are calling for extremely authoritarian measures to suppress dissent, impoverish the working class and wipe out its social gains since the post-war settlement. This is proto-fascism and reflects the unadulterated anti-philanthropic voice of  neoliberalism, which is incompatible with freedom of speech, human rights, social liberalism and democracy.

They got their own way.

In 2019, JP Morgan Chase reported record $36.4B profit for 2019 .

Chomsky’s concept of Necessary Illusions in Manufacturing Consent is linked to powerful elites dominating how life happens – shaping human experiences – and most people, some 90% of the population, are marginalised, diverted from political awareness, participation in self-governing, and reduced to apathy so they don’t vote or take responsibility for the quality of our lives, as a social collective. Media are a tool of society’s elites and owned and controlled by them and are used to impose those illusions – propaganda tools – that are necessary to keep people diverted from participation, empowerment, and the political process.

Chomsky said that the major form of authority that really needs challenging is the system of private control over public resources. Such privatisation (and economic enclosure) is something our own government is galloping along with at full tilt. It’s a system that entails the dispossession of the majority of citizens (the 99%) by a wealthy and powerful minority (the 1%).

Seumus Milne has said: “The real corruption that has eaten into the heart of British public life is the tightening corporate grip on government and public institutions – not just by lobbyists, but by the politicians, civil servants, bankers and corporate advisers who increasingly swap jobs, favours and insider information, and inevitably come to see their interests as mutual and interchangeable… Corporate and financial power have merged into the state.” From: Corporate power has turned Britain into a corrupt state.

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The ‘revolving door refers to the interchange of personnel, usually between businesss and government, but also between lobby groupsmanagement consultantsthink tanks and government, as well as between the media, public relations firms and government. 


 

More people, like you, are reading and supporting independent, investigative and in particular, public interest journalism, than ever before.

I don’t make any money from my research and writing, and want to ensure my work remains accessible to all.

I have engaged with the most critical issues of our time – from the often devastating impact of almost a decade of Conservative policies and growing, widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. At a time when factual information is a necessity, I believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity and the norms of democracy at its heart.

My work is absolutely free from commercial and political interference and not influenced one iota by billionaire media barons.  I have worked hard to give a voice to those less heard, I have explored where others turn away, and always rigorously challenge those in power, holding them to account. 

I hope you will consider supporting me today, or whenever you can. As independent writers, we will all need your support to keep delivering quality research and journalism that’s open and independent.

Every reader’s contribution, however big or small, is so valuable and helps keep me going.  Thanks.

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The election in the media: against evasion and lies, good journalism is all we [don’t] have – Alan Rusbridger

This post is by Alan Rusbridger, chair of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

In his first 1,000 days in office Donald Trump made 13,435 false or misleading claims, according to the good folk at the Washington Post who painstakingly monitor the president’s habit of bending the truth. How we Brits have smiled at this con man’s Teflon gift. Could never happen here.

But consider the lessons political managers around the world might have learned about our election and how we struggled to negotiate the increasingly blurred lines between truth and falsehood; facts and propaganda; openness and stealth; accountability and impunity; clarity and confusion; news and opinion.

 It rather looks as if one or two skilled backroom manipulators (we can guess) studied Trump’s ability to persuade enough people that black is white and, rather than recoil in disgust, came to the opposite conclusion: it works.

One far off day we will discover whether 40 new hospitals will be built, and whether 20,000 new police officers will materialise along with 50,000 “new” nurses. It won’t be long before we learn whether we’ve now finally got Brexit “done” or whether this is just the start of a long and painful process of negotiating our future trading relationships with a greatly weakened hand.

We’ll learn the reality of whether there is to be frictionless trade between the mainland of Britain and the island of Ireland. We will read the truth about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum … and much more. But by then life will have moved on, and maybe many of us will have forgotten the promises, evasions and outright lies of late 2019.

Lessons learned? That, in an age of information chaos, you can get away with almost any amount of misleading. You can doctor videossuppress informationavoid challenging interviews – but only after your opponents have been thoroughly grilled. You can expel dissenting journalists from the press pack or hide in a fridge. You can rebrand a fake “fact-checking” website. In the end, none of it matters.

Coin one unforgettable message and stick to it. “Get Brexit done” was brilliant, never mind that the meaning of “Brexit” and “done” was far from clear: this is an age of simplicity, not complexity. Even the so-called mainstream media will do far more to amplify that slogan rather than question it. Try this stunt: slap the words on a JCB digger and drive it through a pile of polystyrene bricks … and watch as news editors obligingly clear their front pages for the image.

They are making posters, not doing journalism.

And remember that in most countries, governments have unusual power over public service broadcasters. So, in the event that television journalists seem to be getting too big for their boots, it is often useful to drop a heavy hint there will be a price to pay. Maybe Channel 4 has outlived its usefulness? Possibly it’s time to privatise the BBC? That should do the trick.

rees mogg 2

 Jacob Rees-Mogg was conspicuously missing from the Conservatives election campaign. Photograph: Ian Walton/Reuters

Old-fashioned press conferences should be kept to the minimum. A manifesto should say almost nothing. Gaffe-prone colleagues should be “disappeared”. If in real trouble, make things up. You’ll be amazed how readily even the best journalists will repeat unattributable fictions (see the “row” over the four-year-old boy in Leeds General Infirmary and what “happened” during the subsequent visit of health secretary Matt Hancock). By the time the journalists have corrected themselves and Twitter has spent 24 hours arguing about the truth, the world will have moved on.

So, as Trump has discovered, the liars, myth-makers and manipulators are in the ascendancy – and however valiantly individual journalists attempt to hold them to account (and many, especially at a local level, have tried magnificently) the dice are loaded against them.

The one over-riding thought is that for many years I looked at US newspapers and pitied colleagues there who “just” ran the newsroom, leaving comment pages to others. Pity has turned to envy. I now think it would be cleansing for all British national newspapers to split the responsibility for news and comment. It’s simply too hard for the average reader – especially, but not only online – to tell the difference.

And a hero? After the Yorkshire Evening Post‘s reporting of the Leeds story was questioned, its editor in chief, James Mitchinson, wrote a long and considered reply to a reader who, on the basis of something she read on social media, thought the story was fake. Mitchinson’s reply courteously asks the reader why she would believe the word of a total stranger (who might not even exist) over a newspaper she had read for many years in good faith.

The fact the paper knew the story to be true was, said Mitchinson, down to “bog-standard journalism”. It was a powerful statement of why good journalism – independent and decently crafted – should matter.

So let’s hear it for bog-standard journalism. There’s too little of it. It may not be enough, but it’s all we have.

——-

Related

The government’s disinformation campaign has been facilitated by a complicit, biased, undemocratic media

Journalism in the UK is under threat from a repressive, authoritarian government

BBC’s ‘churnalism’ and the government’s PR and ‘strategic communications’ crib sheet

Leaked document reveals how government are micromanaging public perceptions of the government’s austerity programme

The problem with Jeremy Corbyn? The ranting incoherence of the mass media

Defending disinformation against democracy: the Integrity Initiative

Research finds ‘inaccuracies and distortions’ in media coverage of antisemitism and the Labour Party

The interdependence of the PR industry and neoliberal Conservative governments

Journalism in the UK is under threat from a repressive, authoritarian government

From Spycatcher and GBH to the Zinoviev letter – an emergent pattern and the real enemy within

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Politics and Insight’s independent, measured, authoritative reporting has never been so vital, or in the public interest. These are turbulent, decade-defining times. Whatever lies ahead for us all, I will be with you – investigating, disentangling, analysing and scrutinising, as I have done for the last 9 years. 

More people, like you, are reading and supporting independent, investigative and in particular, public interest journalism, than ever before.

I don’t make any money from my research and writing, and want to ensure my work remains accessible to all.

I have engaged with the most critical issues of our time – the often devastating impact of almost a decade of Conservative policies, widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. At a time when factual information is a necessity, I believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity and the norms of democracy at its heart. 

My editorial independence means I set my own agenda and present my own research and analyisis.  My work is absolutely free from commercial and political interference and not influenced one iota by billionaire media barons.  I have worked hard to give a voice to those less heard, I have explored where others turn away, and always rigorously challenge those in power.

This morning I came across this on Twitter:

Independent journalists are now facing a threat from an authoritarian government, who have successfully managed to distort our mainstream media.

I did expect this promise of a purge on left leaning sites if Boris Johnson was returned to office, but not quite so soon after the event. It’s a case of vote Tory on Thursday, get fascism by Saturday. 

John Mann isn’t by a long stretch the only so-called moderate ex-Labour neoliberal  extremist whipping up McCarthyist hysteria and hate. But he has been strategically placed for a while by the Conservatives to destroy independent sites like mine. He’s a particularly nasty individual.

My first step to fight back in the coming year is to join the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). It is an essential protection, now.

It’s not cheap, especially for someone like me, as I’ve no income from my work. I pay WordPress to keep adverts off my site, too. But I am one of those people who often has to make daily choices about whether to eat or keep warm. I am disabled because of an illness called lupus. Like many others in similar circumstances, I am now living in fear for our future under a government that has already systematically and gravely violated the human rights of disabled people, which has resulted in fear, suffering, harm and all too often, premature death.

I hope you will consider supporting me today, or whenever you can. As independent writers, we will all need your support to keep delivering quality research and journalism that’s open and independent.

Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable and helps keep me going. 

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Rabbinical Executive of United European Jews write to Jeremy Corbyn dismissing UK media commentary as ‘propaganda’

Corbyn

Yesterday a Director of the UK Rabbinical Executive Board wrote a letter to Jeremy Corbyn which, it said, represented the views of the United European Jews organisation (UEJ). The letter said that the organisation “reject and condemn in no uncertain terms” the recent comments in the media, claiming that the “majority of British Jews are gripped by anxiety” at the prospect of a Labour government. The letter states that the media commentary does not represent the views of mainstream Chareidi  Jews who live in the UK.

The letter continues: “We believe that such assertions are due to propaganda with a political and ideological agenda”, which, the group add, “is an agenda diametrically opposed to fundamental  Jewish values, as well as the opinions of tens of thousands of Jews in our community”.

The Rabbinical Executive’s letter goes on to thank the Labour party leader for his “numerous acts of solidarity with the Jewish community over many years”.

A press released by UEJ describes the organisation:

United European Jews is a pan-European organisation that performs research and advocacy concerning topics of Judaism, Jewish identity, and antisemitism. The institute was founded by Rabbi Mayer Weinberger of Belgium in conjunction with Jewish faith leaders throughout Europe.

We engage in educational activities which spread information and catalyze action. UEJ offers a view of Jewish identity that at its core is representative of the mainstream 70,000 chareidi Jews that live in the UK, who do not identify with Israeli nationalism or politics as elemental to their Jewish identity.

We advocate the traditional Orthodox Jewish idea that Jewish identity is defined only by Jewish religious doctrine and is independent of foreign nationalist components. As British Jews, our home and country is the United Kingdom, and our religion is Judaism.

Here is the letter in full:

Letter corbyn

It will be very interesting to see if the media in the UK report on this letter, rather than continuing the concerted attempts to stage manage our democracy.

I would personally like to thank the Rabbinical Executive Board for such a candid, kindly and hope-inspiring letter to a candid, kindly and hope-inspiring politician.

Earlier this year, a similar letter was sent that condemned attempts to report that a  meeting between Corbyn and representatives of London’s Charedi Jewish community had been abandoned because of ‘outrage’ among the community.

The letter also records “our gratitude for your numerous acts of solidarity with the Jewish Community over many years” and thanked Corbyn for his support with recent concerns regarding a coroner who was unsympathetic and unaccommodating to Jewish faith and burial custom

Corbyn’s letter seen by the Gazette, said: “Coroner Hassell’s approach goes against our Jewish and Muslim residents’ faith and is preventing them from grieving for their lost loved ones.”

The letter, co-signed by Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South & Finsbury, and Islington councillor Richard Watts, notes that other coroner services, including Salford and Bolton’s Coroner Services, use magnetic resonance imaging scans in autopsies, removing the need for “invasive post-mortem techniques that go against a number of religious practices”.

“We regret that Coroner Hassell’s conduct … to date has caused significant upset and undue trauma for people who are already suffering so much and simply want to grieve,’ it states. 

Corbyn said: ‘I have been approached by the Jewish and Muslim communities in Islington and I’m very concerned about the stress families are going through in not being able to complete burials in line with their faiths. I fully support their efforts to ensure public services respect their religious beliefs and traditions – and the coroner service should be no exception.”

2nd letter Jewish

Related

Letter endorsing Jeremy Corbyn signed by key Jewish public figures and  academics

Marginalisation of left leaning Jewish groups demonstrates political exploitation of the antisemitism controversy by the right wing

Over 200 Jewish Labour supporters say: Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is a Crucial Ally in the Fight against Antisemitism

34 Orthodox Rabbis reject allegations against ‘respected leader’ Jeremy Corbyn

Joseph Finlay, Jeremy Corbyn is an Anti-Racist, Not an Anti-Semite

 Fifty Times Jeremy Corbyn Stood with Jewish People

Anna Boyle, 40 Examples of Corbyn Opposing Antisemitism

 



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The Peterloo Massacre

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The Manchester Observer was a short-lived non-conformist Radical newspaper based in Manchester, England. Its radical agenda led to an invitation to Henry “Orator” Hunt to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The Peterloo massacre and the shutdown of the newspaper resulted from that Public Meeting.

By 1819, the allocation of Parliamentary constituencies did not reflect population distribution. The major urban centres of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Stockport, had a combined population of almost one million. They were represented only by their county MPs. Lancashire was represented by two members of parliament: John Blackburne of Hale Hall and Edward Smith Stanley, (Lord Stanley). Lord Stanley was a Conservative Whig and member of the “Derby Dilly” – a breakaway group of Conservative Whigs. The name derives from the family title “Earl of Derby” and the name of a stagecoach: the “Diligence” or “Dilly”; The title was bestowed on the Group by Irish Nationalist Leader Daniel O’Connell in a scathing reference to an erratic coach, with Stanley driving the horses.

It was quickly picked up by others, and the name stuck. Stanley’s reputation was as the “Prince Rupert of Debate”: leading his followers to attack but unable to rally them afterwards. As a result, it was difficult to estimate the number of MPs who were actually part of the ‘Dilly’. But the name did highlight the turmoil of the Ruling Classes. Change was very much in the air. 

Both Blackburne and Stanley were Oxford educated Landowners whose families had “been in politics” for some time and were not liking the change. Not the Cooperativism and Utopian Socialism of one time Manchester resident Robert Owen – Pioneer of the Cooperative Movement and member of the Manchester Board of Health. As Whigs they were aware of the rising demands of the emerging Working Class. There was something in the air.

Indeed, in 1820, The Radical War burst out in Scotland when A Committee of Organisation for Forming a Provisional Government put placards around the streets of Glasgow late on Saturday the first of April, calling for an immediate national strike. By the third of April there was a strike.

Work stopped over a wide area of central Scotland including Stirlingshire, Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, with an estimated total of around 60,000 stopping work, particularly in weaving communities. Eighty eight men were charged with treason. The leaders – Andrew Hardie and John Baird – were hanged and beheaded. The last beheadings in the British Isles. 

The 1819 Peterloo Massacre was normal, not exceptional.

Voting, in 1819, was restricted to the adult male owners of freehold land with a rateable value greater than forty shillings. The equivalent of a rateable value of about £172 as of 2018, which equates, approximately, to owning a Freehold property worth £172,000. The amounts are approximations as the Rateable Value was largely abolished with the introduction of the Poll Tax of 1990. This property qualification resulted in very few people having the Vote. Those who did have the vote numbered around two percent of the population, and, in Lancashire the number was even lower. When 60,000 people turned out to hear Orator Hunt talk, they outnumbered the voting population for the whole of Lancashire. 

The imbalance of power was not simply between Men and Women but between Rich and Poor. Indeed, Radicals were demanding that Women get the Vote. Which “moderates” saw as a step too far. Indeed Women – over thirty, of a certain class – only got the Vote after violent confrontation with the Liberals – under Asquith – and Moderates in 1918: almost a century after Orator Hunt stated that Women, who were single, tax paying and of sufficient property should be permitted to vote.

Equality of voting rights only really came about with the 1928 Representation of the People Act. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 only allowed propertied women to vote and almost all men. The Franchise for all Working Class Adults has only really existed for about ninety years. The Electoral Register for Local and National Elections only became the same register in 1949 and the voting age fixed at 18 in 1969. Every step of the way was fought for. 

In 1819 votes in Lancashire could only be cast at the county town of Lancaster, by a public spoken declaration at the hustings. There was no Secret Ballot. Britain’s first secret ballot box, which was used in Pontefract in 1872, was mandated by the Ballot Act of 1872. The Liberal candidate, H.C. Childers was elected MP for the town and the Returning Officer announced the result of the secret ballot in the Town Hall after the votes had been counted.

In 1819, the vote was cast by standing up in public and announcing for whom you cast your vote. The Returning Officer would then record the cast vote. This was of much concern to Chartists who saw the affront to democracy in people being influenced – by drunkenness or threats – at the hustings. Indeed, the specific Electoral Offence of “treating” derives from the practice of candidates providing food and drink at the hustings to induce a favourable vote.

The first automatic secret ballot box was built and patented in Merthyr Tydfil by a former iron puddler, turned grocer, William Gould. Gould was disparaged as a “Chartist Lip” – who served as a Poor Law Guardian – but understood secret ballots prevented industrialists and landowners having influence at the ballot box. The principle behind his ballot box was that each voter had a token and each candidate a ballot box. The voter inserted the token into the box of their choice and the vote was registered onto a clock face on the box. This would reduce the potential for intimidation. Despite campaigning, his idea was not adopted. In terms of secrecy of the vote, it was a huge step up from the spoken declaration at the hustings. 

The problem of getting to Lancaster is that most working people would need to walk. Using modern roads, the hike would be about seventeen hours each way at a brisk pace. In addition, time would be needed to be taken away from working; food would need to be carried and accommodation organised. The large scale movement of people was a terrifying prospect for Justices and Politicians and Landowners. An election in which there was Universal Adult Suffrage would have been revolutionary with hundreds of thousands of people moving to Lancaster to cast a vote.

The logistics of voting, alone, would have extended the ballot to weeks if not months. Which would increase the time away from work and the food required and, in no uncertain terms, disrupt the entire economy. The Rotten Boroughs were not simply a symptom of corruption but of the collapse of the practical political and economic life of the Country. 

Stockport fell within the county constituency of Cheshire, with the same franchise, but with the hustings held at Chester. This would have complicated the matter further. Both Chester and Lancaster Returning Officers would be obliged to confer and coordinate. Many MPs were returned by Rotten Boroughs such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter who elected two MPs. Dunwich in Suffolk had almost completely disappeared into the sea yet returned Members of Parliament. Closed Boroughs with more voters, dependent on a local magnate meant that more than half of all MPs were elected by boroughs under the control of a total of just 154 proprietors. This hugely disproportionate influence on Parliament of the United Kingdom drove calls for reform.

The Manchester Observer was formed by a group of radicals that included John Knight. John Saxton and James Wroe. The popularist form of articles aimed at the growing literate working-class meant that, within twelve months, it was selling 4,000 copies per week to its local audience and more further afield. By late 1819 it was being sold in most of the booming industrialised cities – Birmingham, Leeds, London, Salford – all calling for non-conformist reform of the Houses of Parliament. It was a powerful demand for Democracy to be part of life for everyone and not just the few. 

Orator Hunt stated: 

“The Manchester Observer is the only newspaper in England that I know, fairly and honestly devoted to such reform as would give the people their whole rights.”

The non-conformist articles, combined with a popularist style, often resulted in the main journalists of T. J. Evans, John Saxton and James Wroe constantly being sued for libel. Being found guilty, particularly for articles critical of Parliament’s structure, resulted in jail which then raised circulation. Despite its popularity, the radical agenda was seen as bad for sales by traditionalist conformist-Whig businesses. Advertising revenue remained low with only one of its 24 columns being filled by adverts. The lack of advertising meant the Observer was always in financial difficulties.

In Early 1819, Johnson, Knight and Wroe of the Manchester Observer formed the Patriotic Union Society. Leading radicals and reformists in Manchester joined the organisation, including members of the First Little Circle. The First Little Circle had formed in 1815, influenced by the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and Joseph Priestley. While the members were Unitarians, the political ideas were practical, utilitarian and resolutely reforming. Members went on to become Editors and Members of Parliament and to be involved in the Businesses of Manchester whose emerging Municipal Socialist, Cooperativist and Feminist movements would have a lasting impact on Britain.

The objective of the Patriotic Union Society was parliamentary reform both locally and, in the longer term, nationally. The Patriotic Union Society invited Henry “Orator” Hunt and Major John Cartwright to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The national agenda of Parliamentary reform, and the local agenda to gain two Parliamentary Members for Manchester and one for Salford, were to be the subject of the speech but, to avoid the police or courts banning the meeting, the Patriotic Union Society and the Observer advertised only, “a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone.” 

On August 19th 1819, at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000-80,000 Men, Women and Children. As the meeting began, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest Orator Hunt and those on the hustings with him. A Yeomanry charge into the crowd, knocked down a woman and killed a child before detaining Hunt. The 15th Hussars were then summoned by the Chairman of the Lancashire and Cheshire Magistrates, William Hulton. They charged with sabres drawn, killing 18 people and injuring 700 more. The Hussars had been ordered to Manchester by a panicked government who believed an insurrection was being planned on the basis of an intercepted message between the Manchester Observer’s founder – Joseph Johnson – and Orator Hunt: 

“Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face in the streets of Manchester and the surrounding towns, the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it.” 

The Local Magistrate, William Hulton, had the meeting declared illegal as the intention of choosing representatives without the Monarch’s Permission was seditious and a serious misdemeanour. This began a series of planned meetings and cancellations with the terms of the meeting being constantly changed to conform to the desire for Members Of Parliament and the repeated escalation of the State against the Radicals. Eventually, the Meeting was policed by six hundred of the 15th Hussars; the 88th Regiment of Foot Cavalry; two six-pounder guns from the Royal Horse Artillery unit; four hundred men of the Cheshire Yeomanry; four hundred special constables; and one hundred and twenty cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry.

The Yeomanry were described by the Manchester Observer as being, “generally speaking, the fawning dependents of the great, with a few fools and a greater proportion of coxcombs, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals”.

Subsequent descriptions include, “younger members of the Tory party in arms”, and, by later historians, “the local business mafia on horseback”.

Field Marshal John Byng, 1st Earl of Strafford, rather than supervising events as he had indicated he would, spent the day at York Races – where he had two entries – and left the matter of Manchester in the hands of Guy L’Estrange.

HC Deb 24 November 1819 vol 41 cc228-301

No. 36. REPORT from Lieutenant Colonel l’Estrange, inclosed in the foregoing.

Dated Manchester, August 16, 1819, eight o’clock, P. M. 

...I have, however, great regret in stating, that some of the unfortunate people who attended this meeting have suffered from sabre wounds, and many from the pressure of the crowd…

Geo. L’Estrange,
Lieut. Col. 31st regiment.

The Military rioted and massacred the Civilians; many, of whom, were wearing their Sunday Best Clothes and had marched from all around Manchester. Carrying banners and organised for a picnic. The imbalance of power was not simply political but of brute force. There were banners for Manchester Female Reform Society – Votes for Women! – “No Corn Laws”, “Annual Parliaments”, “Universal suffrage” and “Vote By Ballot”. Nothing really radical. Mary Fildes (born Pritchard) a political activist and an early suffragette was on the platform with Orator Hunt.

Mary remained a radical and was later arrested, in 1833, as a member of The Female Political Union of the Working Classes. She was arrested for distributing “pornography” – in fact contraceptive advice. The only banner to survive has the words “Liberty and and Fraternity” and “Unity and Strength” carried by Thomas Redford – who was cut down by cavalry. The crowd was dispersed in about ten minutes; but rioting was sparked as far away as Macclesfield and Oldham.

Field Marshal Byng was promoted to lieutenant general in 1825; then advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1828; advancing, again, to Commander-in-Chief of Ireland and then to the Privy Council of Ireland. He was elected as a Whig Member of Parliament for Poole in Dorset in October 1831. One of the few military men to supported the 1832 Reform Bill. His role in Peterloo never once prevented him from enjoying political power. 

Wroe, as then editor of the Observer, described the incident at the Peterloo massacre. He took his headline from the Battle of Waterloo four years previously. Subsequently, Wroe wrote pamphlets entitled, “The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events”. They sold out each print run for 14 weeks with national circulation. Saxton, having been on the hustings with Hunt, was arrested and imprisoned. He stood trial with Hunt at York Assizes.

His defence that he was present as a reporter, not participant in the hustings party, was successful. The success of his defence did not sit well with the Government. Hunt was sentenced to five years at Ilchester Jail, fined one thousand pounds and made to find two sureties of five hundred pounds having escaped the charge of High Treason.

The Observer printed an article claiming that, “something was previously arranged”, as Manchester Royal Infirmary had been emptied of patients, on the 15th of August, anticipating the massacre. That all the surgeons had been summoned to attend on 16th. The Board of the infirmary vigorously denied this. The Liverpool Government then instigated repeated prosecutions of the Manchester Observer and those associated with it. Vendors were prosecuted for seditious libel. Fifteen charges of seditious libel were brought against Wroe, his wife and his two brothers resulting in the temporarily suspension of publication. Wroe relinquished ownership of the copyright and resumed under the last proprietor of the Manchester Observer (Thomas John Evans). At trial Wroe was found guilty on two specimen charges.

The other charges against him, his wife and his brothers being given “to lie”. The charges would only lie provided the publication of “libels” ceased. Wroe was sentenced to six months imprisonment and fined £100 with a further six months, and being bound over to keep the peace for two years, to give a surety of £200 and to find two other sureties of £50 each.

The prosecuted charges related not to anything in the Manchester Observer, but to articles in Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register, which Wroe had previously sold. It was clear that the Liverpool Government wished to silence Wroe and took the most certain way of doing so. Prosecuting Richard Carlile, who had been present at Peterloo enabled prosecution on the coat tails of conviction. Carlile wrote an article on the “Horrid Massacres At Manchester”. The Government responded by closing Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register. Carlile responded by changing the name to The Republican and writing: 

“The massacre… should be the daily theme of the Press until the murderers are brought to justice…. Every man in Manchester who avows his opinions on the necessity of reform, should never go unarmed – retaliation has become a duty, and revenge an act of justice.”

Carlile was then prosecuted for blasphemy, blasphemous libel and sedition and publishing material that might encourage people to hate the government; for publishing Tom Paine’s Common Sense, The Rights of Man and the Age of Reason. In October 1819 he was found guilty of the blasphemy and seditious libel and sentenced to three years which enabled Wroe to be caught up in the moral panic of atheist Republicanism and prosecuted with impunity.

The sentences were said to have been reduced because of the distressed state of the Wroes. A distress brought about by the Government but which cast the Government in a poor light. It was a delicate balance to secure an effective remedy to the power of Wroes publications. Wroes successor, Evans, was subsequently (June 1821) convicted on one charge of a seditious libel another of libelling a private individual and imprisoned for eighteen months and bound over for three years in the sum of £400 with two other sureties of £200. By then the 11 members of the first Little Circle excluding William Cowdroy Jnr. of the Manchester Gazette had helped cotton merchant John Edward Taylor found The Manchester Guardian.

The Manchester Observer had ceased publication. The Government had driven it into silence by repeated prosecution. The final editorial recommending:

“I would respectfully suggest that the Manchester Guardian, combining principles of complete independence, and zealous attachment to the cause of reform, with active and spirited management, is a journal in every way worthy of your confidence and support.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley was in Italy at the time of Peterloo. In response, Shelley wrote “The Masque of Anarchy: written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester“. Because of radical press restrictions, it was not published until 1832 – the same year as The Representation of the People Act (1832).

The Act introduced a system of voter registration, to be administered by the Overseers of the Poor; and instituted a system of courts to review disputes relating to “voter qualification”. The Act limited the duration of polling to two days – formerly forty days. The reform act increased the number of people able to vote, across the country, to about 650,000 – about ten times the largest estimate of the number of people attending Peterloo.

When Shelley wrote:

“Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.”

He was writing lyrics for punk bands like The Mekons, Scritti Politti and Strike Anywhere. The radical sentiments of Peterloo never vanished regardless of how submerged they were. Indeed Shelley is claimed to be part of the inspiration for the Arab Spring, Ghandi and numerous other radical causes. The truth is closer: “A spectre is haunting Manchester – the spectre of Peterloo. All the powers of old England have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Liberal and Tory, Johnson and Swinson, European Research Group and Big Data-spies.” To paraphrase those later journalists of the Manchester Guardian: Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.

For a few months following Peterloo it seemed England shook, towards an armed rebellion. Abortive uprisings took place in Huddersfield and Burnley, the Yorkshire West Riding Revolt, the Cato Street conspiracy, the Cinderloo Uprising in the Coalbrookdale Coalfield, the Pentrich rising, the March of the Blanketeers, the Spa Fields, and the Radical War ll made the end of Regency Civilisation more and more vivid. The Government introduced the Six Acts, to suppress radical meetings and publications. By the end of 1820 every significant working-class radical reformer was in jail. Civil liberties were largely gone.

Two hundred years later, the Tories are again splitting and civil liberties are again being rolled back.

 

Picture: The Skelmanthorpe Flag. Anonymous.

Image © Kirklees Museums & Galleries

Theresa May considering scrapping Human Rights Act following Brexit

humanrights

The prime minister is to consider repealing the Human Rights Act after Brexit, despite promising she is “committed” to its protections, a minister has revealed. This is, after all, a government that has always tended to regard the human rights of some social groups as nothing more than a bureaucratic inconvenience. Many of us have been very concerned about the implications of Brexit for human rights in the UK.

The House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee has exchanged correspondence with the Government about clarifying the wording of the Political Declaration regarding the European Convention on Human Rights. 

There is no justification for editing or repealing the Human Rights Act itself, that would make Britain the first European country to regress in the level and degree of our human rights protection. It is through times of recession and times of affluence alike that our rights ought to be the foundation of our society, upon which the Magna Carta, the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act were built – protecting the most vulnerable citizens from the powerful and ensuring those who govern are accountable to the rule of law.

Observation of human rights distinguishes democratic leaders from dictators and despots. Human Rights are the bedrock of our democracy, they are universal, and are a reflection of a society’s and a governments’ recognition of the equal worth of every citizens’ life.

Nonetheless, the government will decide on the future of the landmark legislation once “the process of leaving the EU concludes”, according to a letter submitted to a parliamentary inquiry.

This disclosure comes despite the Brexit white paper stating last year that the UK would remain in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), after  following a warning from the European Union (EU) that pulling out would jeopardise a future security deal. However, the prime minister has previously pledged to leave the ECHR, expressing frustration because there was no Commons majority for doing so. 

It is in this context of previous statements of intent that the wording of the letter was described as “troubling” by the Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, which has warned that the letter casts doubt on more recent, repeated pledges from the government to protect the ECHR.

“Is the government sincere in its commitment to the ECHR?”, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, the committee’s chair, asked.

“If so, why has it failed to give assurances that it will not repeal or reform the Human Rights Act, which in essence incorporates the rights set out in the ECHR into domestic British law?”

The committee wrote to the Ministry of Justice after the alarm was raised by the wording of the political declaration, which was agreed with the EU in December alongside the legally binding divorce deal.

The declaration said the UK would merely agree “to respect the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights” – dropping the previous pledge of being “committed” to it. Previous plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a ‘British Bill of Rights’ appeared in the 2010 Programme for Government, and in the Conservative manifesto in 2015. included an emphasis on interpreting rights more subjectively, rather than regarding them as ‘absolute’. 

In response, Edward Argar, a junior justice minister, wrote: “The difference in wording does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the ECHR

A central tenet of our future relationship with the EU is our mutual belief in the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

But he went on to suggest that the Human Rights Act may be scrapped when Brexit is concluded.

He wrote: “Our manifesto committed to not repealing or replacing the Human Rights Act while the process of EU exit is underway.” 

“It is right that we wait until the process of leaving the EU concludes before considering the matter further in the full knowledge of the new constitutional landscape.

Many Conservatives are critical of Labour’s Human Rights Act, claiming it gives “too many rights to criminals” and some have even claimed it undermines “personal responsibility.”

However, in 2015 Amnesty UK commissioned a poll that indicated the British public are not particularly willing to see any change to existing Human Rights legislation, with only one in 10 people in the UK (11%) believing that scrapping the Human Rights Act should be a government aim.

It’s extremely worrying that a government thinks it should pick and choose which rights we are entitled to and select who they deem worthy of them. The whole point of rights and protections is that they are universal: they must apply to everyone equally in order to work at all.

It took people in the UK a very long time to claim the rights we have and we mustn’t let the Conservatives take them away with the stroke of a pen.

The peers said it would imperil human rights if the government “intend to break the formal link” between the UK courts and the EHCR.

Baroness Kennedy said: “Again and again we are told that the government is committed to the European Convention on Human Rights, but without a concrete commitment, and with messaging that is changing and becoming diluted.”

The government have played a long game, however, and have almost certainly always intended to repeal the Human Rights Act. One issue that prevented that happening over the last few years is the Good Friday Agreement, as the Labour government also committed to incorporate the European Convention of Human ECHR into the law of Northern Ireland and to the establishment of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. 

The politics of regression

In 2015, wrote about how the government has quietly edited the ministerial code, which was updated on October 15  without any announcement at all. The code sets out the standard of conduct expected of ministers. The latest version of the code is missing a key element regarding complicity with international law.

The previous code, issued in 2010, said there was an “overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations and to uphold the administration of justice and to protect the integrity of public life”.

The new version of the code has been edited to say only that there is an“overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life”.

Conservative party policy document had revealed that the ministerial code will be rewritten in the context of the UK withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. In order to help achieve these aims the document says: “We will amend the ministerial code to remove any ambiguity in the current rules about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament in the UK.”

In the original Conservative proposals to scrap our existing human rights framework, and replace it with their own, one sentence from the misleadingly titled document –Protecting Human Rights in the UK, (found on page 6 ) – is particularly chilling: “There will be a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged.”

Basically this means that human rights will no longer be absolute or universally applied – they will be subject to state stipulations and caveats. And discrimination. The government will establish a threshold below which Convention rights will not be engaged, allowing UK courts to strike out what are deemed trivial cases.

The Conservatives’ motivation for changing our human rights legislation is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Conservatives have always seen as being open to interpretation will become considerably prone to ideological bias, prejudice and open to subjective challenge.

Breaking the formal link between the European Court of Human Rights and British law would mean any judgement from Europe would be treated as “advisory” only, rather than legally binding, and would need to be “approved” by parliament. Such a Bill would profoundly disempower citizens because it will shift the balance of democracy completely, placing power almost entirely in the hands of the state.

Whatever constitutional or political configurations emerge following Brexit, the present threat to rights and equality is a major threat to citizens’ liberties and freedoms. It demands coherent and collective action in the public interest.  

 

Related

Concerns about the impact of Brexit on the human rights of disabled people in update report to UNCRPD

A strong case for the Human Rights Act

 


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Antisemitism and the growth of prejudice and oppression in the UK

Image result for Labour's equality and diversity

Political context

The Labour party’s strong inclusion, equality and diversity principles are being used to undermine the party by the neoliberal right, as part of an ongoing propaganda war. Jeremy Corbyn throughout his leadership – and particularly before elections – has been accused of “siding” with variety of state constructed and reconstucted ‘enemies’. However, every Labour leader with the exception of Tony Blair, who was conveniently neoliberal, has been accused of having some kind of ‘sympathy’ with Russia.

It’s a Conservative idée fixe that began with the fake Zinoviev letter and should have ended with Ben Bradley’s libellous attempt at combining Conservative malice with bon mot. The Conservatives are creatures of  tradition and habit, no matter how much the world moves on, they try to pull it back to where they stand. 

The Conservatives’ McCarthyist leitmotif of ‘enemies and the traitor’ reveals a lot about their own operant bullying, emphasises their divisive and hierarchical perspective of societies and their outdated colonialism, ethnocentrism and nationalist understanding of the world.

One of Corbyn’s finest qualities is his mature internationalism, and his inclusive and respectful vision of the world. Corbyn sees people first, and does not differentiate their human worth and value on the basis of their group identities and individual characteristics. This is why he is an outstanding diplomat, and champion of social justice.

In an era of nuclear first strike posturing, which indicates the international breakdown of the principle of nuclear deterrence, I’d personally prefer a leader who has such skills and qualities, rather than someone who has no regard for the lives and safety of citizens.

The Conservatives have said that they wouldn’t hesitate in some circumstances to launch a nuclear attack, even if we weren’t under threat.” The government throw scorn at Corbyn for his reluctance to incinerate populations, and some of the UK public don’t seem to realise that they too face the same fate due to the mutually assured destruction which comes free with the nuclear retaliation principle.

Corbyn has publicly condemned the vilification and abuse of Labour MPs who attended Monday night’s demonstration against antisemitism in the party.

Leaders of the Jewish organisations that staged the protest told him that they would not meet him until he intervened to halt the attacks on social media, Corbyn said he was profoundly concerned by any abuse. It’s difficult to know who is making the attacks on social media, since many fake accounts exist for the purpose of creating disruptions, discrediting political opponents, and harassing them. Furthermore, it would be impossible for the Labour leader to monitor social media, given his work load. No-one expects the Conservative government to end the abusive trolling of Conservative supporters, yet I have encountered MANY of them.

People have the right to speak out and the right to demonstrate,” Corbyn told the Jewish News in an interview. “I will not tolerate abuse of people for their beliefs.”

“Any abuse that’s done is not done in my name,” he added.

He also rejected the idea – put forward by a rival demonstration by the Jewish Voice for Labour on Monday – that the reason for the main protest was to smear Corbyn himself.

“Of course it’s not a smear, it’s perfectly reasonable to raise any question about one’s public profile activities,” he went on. “I don’t see that as a smear.”

He is right of course. However that doesn’t quite explain the vitiolic and often irrational comments from some of the right wing pundits over the last few weeks. As a person who has written extensively about prejudice, I won’t ever claim that antisemitism is eradicated or negligible. It isn’t either, unfortunately. There are two issues here. One is absolutely genuine concern about antisemitism. The other is how that concern is being used politically, outside of the Jewish community. 

Yesterday, Corbyn condemned Israel’s killing of at least 27 Palestinians on the Gaza border as an “outrage” and attacked Western silence about the deaths. In a message read out at a demonstration outside Downing Street, the Labour leader quite reasonably demanded that Theresa May support the United Nation’s call for an independent international inquiry. He also said that Britain should also consider stopping the sale of arms to Israel that “could be used in violation of international law”. Israel has faced very little criticism over the killing of civilian Palestinians. 

The latest deaths came a week after 18 Palestinians lost their lives when Israeli soldiers opened fire at similar demonstrations in support of a “right to return” to land lost to Israel in 1948. The UN human rights spokeswoman, Elizabeth Throssell, has suggested the shootings could amount to wilful killing of civilians – a breach of the fourth Geneva Convention.

Corbyn spoke out after at least nine more Palestinians were killed, and hundreds more injured, by Israeli gunfire, some reportedly shot in the head or upper body.

He said “The majority of the people of the Gaza Strip are stateless refugees, subject to a decade-long blockade and the denial of basic human and political rights.

“More than two thirds are reliant on humanitarian assistance, with limited access to the most basic amenities, such as water and electricity.

“They have a right to protest against their appalling conditions and the continuing blockade and occupation of Palestinian land, and in support of their right to return to their homes and their right to self-determination.” 

“The silence from international powers with the responsibility of bringing a just settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict must end,” he added.

The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has said nothing since the first killings on 30 March, although his deputy, Alistair Burt, issued a statement saying he was “appalled by the deaths and injuries”. Burt said: “There is an urgent need to establish the facts, including why such a volume of live fire was used and what role Hamas played in the violence.”

Israel came under pressure after a video was released which showed a protester being shot in the back by an Israeli soldier as he walked away from the fence separating Gaza from Israel. In other footage, Palestinians were shown being killed or wounded as they prayed, walked empty-handed towards the border fence, or simply held up a Palestinian flag.

According to reports in the Israeli media, the Israel Defence Forces’ rules of engagement allow live fire to be used against anyone who approaches the fence. Justifying its response, the Israeli military said: “Several attempts have been made to damage and cross the security fence under the cover of the smokescreen created by the burning tyres that the rioters ignited.”

Corbyn has been loudly condemned previously by the Conservatives because he wanted to include all parties in discussions to bring about a peace process in the region. However, it is worth noting that Corbyn has never made any demands that Jewish communities publicly repudiate the actions of  Israeli settlers and extremists. People who make this demand are assuming that Jewish people more generally are undeserving of being heard out unless they “prove” themselves acceptable by non-Jewish’ standards.

Nor is it acceptable to demand that Palestinians publicly repudiate the actions of Hamas in order to be accepted or trusted, either.

It’s also worth noting that although people in power in Israel are Jews, not all Jews are Israelis (let alone Israeli leaders). There are many people left and right who don’t understand what Zionism is, and it has frequently been used as a derogatory label. However, Zionism is simply the belief that Jewish people should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the antisemitism and persecution they face elsewhere.

It does not, however, mean a belief that Jews have a right to take land from others, or a belief that Jews are superior to non-Jews. Using the word “Zionists” in place of “Israelis” is inaccurate and harmful. “Zionists” includes Diasporan Jews as well (most of whom support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pretty much none of whom have any influence on Israel’s policies).

Misunderstanding of Zionism is used to justify antisemitic attacks outside of Israel.  Many of the Jews in Israel who are violent against Palestinians are actually anti-Zionist – they believe that the modern state of Israel is an offense against God because it isn’t governed by halakha (traditional Jewish religious law). We must be very careful with the labels we use. The problem with labelling is that it is often used to create negative stereotypes, denying us our complexity and diversity. Labelling creates stigma and prejudice.

Now, with this clarified, I am not going to claim there hasn’t ever been antisemitic Labour party members or that no problem has ever occurred. Antisemitism is a prejudice arising in wider society. Few people would deny that some people joining the Labour Party may harbour antisemitic prejudices. It’s not possible to know in advance if a person joining the party is prejudiced, however, until that prejudice has been revealed in some way. It’s also important to keep in mind that condemning the murder of Palestinians is not antisemitic.

I want to make this clear: I absolutely condemn any form of prejudice, including antisemitism, regardless of where it arises. 

The party has taken action in addressing these arising issues by vowing to implement all of the recommendations in Shami Chakrabarti’s 2016 report (PDF) into alleged antisemitism in the party. Corbyn has also told the party’s newly appointed general secretary Jennie Formby “that her first priority has to be the full implementation of the Chakrabarti Report and there has to be an appointment of an in-house lawyer, a legal team, to ensure that there is a proper approach to these cases.”  

Corbyn has always been a consistent and reliable opponent of racism in all of its forms and he has committed Labour to dealing robustly with the allegations of antisemitism.

Antisemitism is profoundly disturbing, as is any other kind of prejudice and discrimination in democratic, civilised societies. If it is happening, I want to see it addressed just as I want to see prejudice and discrimination against disabled people and other socal groups in the UK addressed. People seem to forget that disabled people were the first social group to be murdered by the Nazis – the Aktion T4 “euthanasia” programme. 

Perhaps at this point it’s worth reflecting on the many deaths and suicides among the disabled community over recent years, and that a correlation with the Conservative welfare “reforms” has been established several times over. The government have persistently denied that there is any “causal relationship” between their policies and the distress, harm and fear experienced by disabled citizens, and furthermore, have refused to investigate this issue any further. There has been relatively little media attention concerning this issue and no public outcry. Yet disabled people are living in fear for their future.

Each case of premature mortality or suicide linked with welfare policy that has been presented to the government has been disregarded, described with contempt as “anecdotal evidence”. Each academic study that shows a clear correlation between policy and harm has been dismissed. The complicit media are by and large far more interested in anything that may be used to smear and criticise Corbyn than in holding the government to account for the terrible consequences of their draconian policies. 

Framing and entrapment 

The allegations regarding Labour’s “problem with antisemitism” are framed using the same kind of psycholinguistic entrapment tactics that we have seen deployed in trying to frame Corbyn as a “Russian dupe”, and by implication, a “threat” to UK security.  This propaganda process was projected onto a basic McCarthy-styled, over-simplistic and  false dichotomy frame: “You either agree with our very narrow terms, or you’re ‘siding with the enemy'”.

As it turns out, Corbyn was absolutely right to exercise caution in stating that Russia was “irrefutably” behind the attack. It would have been more appropriate to claim “on balance of probability” it is likely to be a Russian attack – because of the context and history. However, it now emerges that Boris Johnson lied about the information Porton Down provided the government. Regardless of whether or not Russia were actually behind the poisoning of the Skripals, the UK has lost its international credibility.   

Armin Laschet, the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia and a deputy chairman of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), took to Twitter after the UK’s Porton Down government laboratory announced on Tuesday that it could not link nerve agent samples it had collected to Russia.

“If you force almost all NATO countries to show solidarity, shouldn’t you have sound evidence?” Laschet said. “You can think of Russia what you want, but I have learned a different way of dealing with states from studying international law.” 

The international law framework is designed, after all, to ensure that inadequately evidenced allegations and knee jerk political responses don’t lead to the collapse of diplomatic relations and a descent into a catastrophic, escalating war among nuclear states. As a citizen, I’d prefer a leader who is skilled in diplomacy and international law,  who regards the safety of the world’s citizens as a key priority. Instead we have a group of blundering elitist authoritarians in office who, not content with creating monstrous social and economic divisions in the UK, want to extend their dystopic neoliberal vision on a global scale.

It is the same kind of simplistic false dichotomy frame regarding the Labour party’s alleged antisemitism, which the media have also rolled out. It runs like this: If the Labour party confirm that they are “addressing” an antisemitism problem, regardless of whether that problem is real – then it is read as an admission of guilt. However, if the party says there is no problem – regardless of whether there is or isn’t – that will simply be read as a denial of “guilt” and the action of a party that “doesn’t care” about antisemitism more generally.

It’s an accusation designed to make the party and members look bad either way. Note that word – designed. However, as a person who has written extensively about prejudice, Again, I won’t ever claim that antisemitism is eradicated or negligible. It isn’t either, unfortunately. There are two issues here, which I hope I have made clear. One is the justified concern regarding antisemitism, the other is how that is being politically exploited.

The accusations of antisemitism have been redesigned for use as a political stick with which to beat Corbyn. Again, I would not claim there is no antisemitism within the party. If there is, it must be addressed. However, mine is a question of proportionality, and whether the media focus and comments of right wing commentators are reasonable and justified. This is the same media that displayed no qualms in systematically dehumanising migrants and asylum seekers in their drive to force the EU referendum.

There is an element of irrationality and unreasonableness in trying to blame Corbyn for every allegation made of party members, since any member of the public is free to join the party of their choice. Political parties have no way of knowing of the prejudices of each new member in advance. There has also been a surge in membership over the past couple of years. The Labour party has put in place measures to deal with allegations of antisemitism among members. Nor can party leaders be omnipresent in social media groups to monitor offensive antisemitic comments made. The important issue is that it is addressed when it does arise and is brought to party leader’s attention.

In my own experience of Facebook political groups, there are recognisably active trolls and shills who are present simply to discredit Labour activists and derail discussion. There is always a marked increase in their activity prior to elections.

Unfortunately, even vetting people who wish to join groups doesn’t seem to stop this happening, as some of the profiles are very credible, with no indication they are fakes. If this sounds too “conspiracy theory” for you, perhaps it’s worth considering the implications of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the uncovered psychological profiling and “strategic communications” element that was revealed in its’ wake. The Snowden leaks before that also revealed that a variety of covert actors, including the state, infiltate groups to manipulate and derail discussions, and to discredit critics and opposition.

I am not, once again, arguing that no Labour party member or supporter holds antisemitic views. And again that must be addressed. However, there is an intense focus and constant, irrational and negative commentary aimed at Corbyn in particular, which is also based on orchestrated and purely politically motivated attacks. There is a lack of openness and reasonableness on behalf of some of the more aggressive critics as to how the party have been permitted to respond by the government, the media and by some of the centrist neoliberals within the party to an array of issues, including the allegations of antisemitism. 

Corbyn and Labour party members have been the target of severe criticism, with allegations being made that left wing members are more prone to antisemitic opinions and behaviour – and of course that Corbyn has “not done enough to prevent this.” 

However data commissioned by a leading antisemitism charity strongly suggest that this narrative is not only inaccurate but counter-factual. YouGov carried out two surveys which may be compared, and the findings are that since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, the party and its supporters have become significantly less antisemitic on every metric used in the survey. (YouGov’s full datasets: 2015 and 2017.)

Concerns among Jewish communities about antisemitism are absolutely valid and absolutely must not be minimised or dismissed. However, it does no-one any favours when those concerns have also been distorted by the media, misused as a propaganda tool and weaponised for political gain. 

Antisemitism quite rightly draws horror from the public because of the terrible atrocity of the Holocaust, the process that led to it, and the historical consequences. It was founded in part on social Darwinist and eugenic ideas.

Those same ideas also underpinned the ideology of competitive individualism in the US and UK. Whenever we have socioeconomic systems that create hierarchies of human worth (based on meritocratic notions of ‘deserving’ or ‘talent’), we also have social prejudice and that is perpetuated by the use of political justification narratives regarding inequality. 

These usually place responsibility on individuals for their low socioeconomic status, rather than the system, which inevitably creates a few ‘winners’ and many ‘losers’ – because that is the nature of any system based on competition. However, inequality is a fundamental feature of the neoliberal system of organisation. Justifying inequality creates stigma, outgrouping and hierarchies of worth.

Prejudice and oppression

Prejudice is a form of oppression which operates to establish a “defined norm” or standard of “rightness” under which everyone is judged. This defined norm is enforced with individual and institutional violence which makes and sustains the oppression.

Oppression may be defined as a pervasive system of supremacy and discrimination that perpetuates itself through differential treatment, ideological domination, and institutional control. At an individual level, oppression is expressed through beliefs (stereotypes), attitudes, values (prejudice), and actions (discrimination) used to justify unfair treatment based on distinct characteristics of one’s identity, real or perceived. These can be internalised and directed towards the self or externalised and directed towards those we interact with on a day-to-day basis. 

Oppression expresses itself through default positions of power within an organised group, both formal and informal. Specifically, it is the denial of accessing and holding positions of power based on the belief that one lacks experience in and/or is incapable of fulfilling (or learning how to fulfill) certain roles and responsibilities based on assumptions related to identity. This also includes the assumption that someone sharing identity with a dominant group is automatically capable, regardless of experience, skills  or talent.

On an institutional level, oppression expresses itself through the denial and limitation of resources, agency and dignity based on one’s social identity. This includes policies, laws, and practices that are enforced in and by an institution, such as governments, made for the benefit of the dominant group with little to no consideration for the longer term harm inflicted on marginalised individuals and groups. In turn, institutions have the power to shape and control cultural narratives that reach individuals on a global scale, regardless of whether they directly interact with such institutions. Narratives are used to normalise oppression, which are shaped by the ruling class. 

Antisemitism is not the only form of oppression. Saying that does not minimise it, however. We currently live in a society where prejudices more generally has been politically encouraged and permitted to flourish. Prejudice tends to multitask. I have written a lot about this over the last few years, as a witness. 

We live in a society where racism has grown over the last few years. We have witnessed profoundly socially divisive rhetoric from an authoritarian government and that has been amplified by a largely right wing, compliant media. As a consequence of that, the far right was given a public platform. The same thing happened under the Thatcher administration, we saw parties like the National Front and the British National Party flourish. This is because the context provided by a such socioeconomically divisive governments leads to the creation of political scapegoats to justify their own prejudices and authoritarianism, draconian policies and wider inequality –  this always leads to racism, as well as other forms of prejudice, too.

The scale of social prejudice

Various forms and systems of oppression are not separate, and can’t be isolated into distinct categories, to be addressed on their own. Oppression is a network of intersecting and related forms of domination and the oppression of one group must be resisted alongside the oppression of others. We must stand side by side to address oppression in solidarity.

Image result for allports ladder of prejudice

Jo Cox was murdered by a far-right supporting individual who gave gardening tips and services to his neighbours, with a secret festering hatred of some groups of citizens. No-one knew about his monstrous prejudice and intention until he murdered a British MP, who staunchly opposed racism.

This is what political propaganda and scapegoating does to susceptible individuals – it shapes their perception of others and permits them to hate. Some social groups have been marginalised and dehumanised by the government, including disabled people and those needing social security support. It’s no coincidence that hate crime directed at these groups has risen in the UK.

The government have violated the human rights of disabled people, and such acts serve as a role model of behaviours that indicate prejudice and discrimination is publicly acceptable. It also sends out a message that emphasises the differential status and implied devaluation of social groups.

This is how moral and rational boundaries are being pushed: casual comments from more than one Conservative minister about disabled people, who are not “worth the minimum wage”, from a chancellor who claims that national productivity is reduced because more disabled people are in work; a Conservative councillor who called for the extermination of gypsies, and a Conservative deputy mayor said, unforgivably, that the “best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.

These weren’t “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Conservatives believe these comments are acceptable, and we need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” anresearch the consequences of austerity for the most economically vulnerable citizens – those with the “least broad shoulders” –  to understand that these comments reflect how Conservatives think. It is only when such comments conflict with our collective moral norms that we see the process for what it is, and wonder how such comments could ever be deemed acceptable. However, those moral norms are being intentionally transformed. 

This is a government that is creating and using public prejudice to justify massive socioeconomic inequalities and their own policies that are creating a steeply hierarchical society based on social Darwinism and neoliberal “small state” principles. We have already seen the introduction of a clear eugenic welfare policy – only the first two children in families needing social security support will be provided with any support. Aside from the frightful human rights implications of this, the fact that it was announced and introduced to “change the behaviours” of the poorest citizens – regardless of whether they work – indicates a political prejudice and active discrimination regarding poor citizens, and a political intention to limit the number of children they have. 

The political creation of socioeconomic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of previously protected social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision. It also indirectly justifies low and exploitative wages and insecure employment, since these issues are no longer considered to be part of the problem of poverty. Instead the poverty debate is reduced to a political narrative of “incentives” and individual behaviours.

The state is informing the public that poor people can simply be punished out of their poverty. Regardless of the incoherence of that narrative, the media have been complicit in amplifying this dogma. The pathological socioeconomic structure of our society, the market place Darwinism and the growing imbalances of power relationships remain hidden in plain view, obscurred by linguistic behaviourism and normative manipulation.

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism) all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision, which is being steadily dismantled. The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing deviant welfare stereotypes and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public:

If working people ever get to discover where their tax money really ends up, at a time when they find it tough enough to feed their own families, let alone those of workshy scroungers, then that’ll be the end of the line for our welfare state gravy train.” James Delingpole 2014

Those the government perceives to be the weakest are carrying the burden of austerity to cover the tracks and guilt of the wealthy and powerful people, who are actually responsible for the global recession. Scapegoats. If you read any social psychology, you will know that this is how social prejudice grows. It’s an incremental process, where normative boundaries are pushed until what was once perceived as unacceptable suddenly becomes a reality. 

Gordon Allport wrote about the advancement of that process – by almost inscrutable degrees – in Nazi Germany. It starts with dehumanising language and scapegoating, it progresses to open prejudice and political discrimination, violations of human rights, social and economic isolation, hate crime, murders then, if left unchecked, it results, ultimately, in genocide.

Antisemitism exists in our society. It isn’t a “Labour” problem, it is a SOCIAL problem. It flourishes in a context of extremely divisive political rhetoric. That rhetoric is in part to justify a socioeconomic system that leads to massive social inequality. That inequality is being politically justified by the creation of political scapegoats and the Othering of already marginalised groups. Neoliberalism is a system that leads to the growth of wealth and power for those who already have wealth and power – it sustains an elite.

For citizens, it results in a decline in our standard of living, disempowerment, growing poverty and because it requires an authoritarian regime to impose it – see the history of Pinochet’s neoliberal experiment in Chile, for example – it also profoundly erodes our democracy. The media and right wing ideologues are now simply the PR agents for more neoliberalism. The answer to the disastrous socioeconomic problems created by neoliberalism is apparently, to apply more aggressive neoliberalism. That also means the steady erosion of human rights, citizen freedoms, massive inequality and the removal of any democratic alternative. That is where we are at, as a society. This is happening, and we are the witnesses.

When Corbyn met with a Jewish group recently, commentators on the right – Andrew Neil and  Fraser Nelson, for example – ranted about how this left leaning Jewish group weren’t “representative of Jews”. Fraser Nelson dismissed anyone who disagreed with his views as members of a left wing “cult”. This displays a kind of totalitarian thinking, in that it portrays Her Majesty’s opposition as somehow non-legitimate, and emphasises the sole legitimacy and hegemony of neoliberalism. It also undermines the very notion of democracy. 

It’s reasonable that a left leaning leader would meet a left leaning group. The right leaning Jewish groups have not exactly been particularly accommodating in meeting with Corbyn. However, Andrew Neil actually commented on Jewdas: “who are all these ‘nutters'”. Now THAT is antisemitism. Neil was implying that some groups are “acceptably Jewish” and some are not, defining by his own prejudiced criteria which are “acceptable”. 

These mainstream media commentators on the right are so caught up in a clear ideological crusade and propaganda war that they really don’t see their own prejudices. And furthermore they are furious that Corbyn has allies in the Jewish community. Hence the irrational and diversity-blind rage. And there is this to consider: the criticisms of Corbyn and allegations of antisemitism being rife in the party because of him are coming almost exclusively from the right. 

andrew neil antisemitic

This tweet is so offensive and displays prejudice on more than one level. 

Of course Jewish people reflect a variety of political preferences. Political debate is an essential Jewish tradition that allows no section of opinion to set itself up as the only acceptable one. But the UK right wing don’t particularly value democratic principles, and treat every opposition leader with an outrageous loathing and sneering contempt. They oppose antisemitism only on condition that Jewish groups do not show any support towards the left, and in particular, for Corbyn. 

Image result for daily mail support for nazi germany

Yesterday I saw a comment from Dan Hodges –  who writes for the Daily Mail, that Labour are “irredeemably racist”. This is simply untrue. He never responded to the comment I left him, reminding him of the Daily Mail‘s constant anti-immigration rants, in a series of shots of toxic Daily Mail headlines.  I explained that most Labour supporters were not up for taking lectures on the value of inclusion and diversity from Daily Mail journalists. 

Dan Hodges

I posted this to remind him of the significant contribution the Mail has made to the growth of racism in the UK. 

Image result for daily mail immigration front pages

And this was very offensive, antisemitic, irrational and dangerous comment:

The right have manipulated a concern for social justice on the left – and particularly that concern regarding the murder of Palestinian civilians – and have intentionally pathologised it, weaponising it as a propaganda tool. This has been going on for a long time. 

Jon woodcock judas

Which “mainstream Jewish community” is that, John? How does a meeting with a Jewish community “bait” the Jewish Community? Why are Corbyn’s critics okay with marginalising a Jewish group and deliberately attempting to discredit them when it suits them to? This is absolutely atrocious hypocrisy and completely unacceptable antisemitic behaviour. 

It is telling that some of the Labour “moderates” used right wing gossip-mongers and bloggers – Paul Staines and Alex Whickam – to criticise their own leader. These people should be ejected from the party, since all they do is damage it and support another Conservative term. They don’t care about the misery and despair of citizens living in escalating poverty because of Tory policies, the suicides and deaths of disabled people, or those children living in poverty with their futures and human potential stolen from them, by an authoritarian government.

Shame on them. This is not what the Labour party are about, and until Blair, it never was. The neoliberals’ time has been and gone, the party has moved on and realigned itself to the majority of its members demands for a democratic agenda that reflects their values of inclusion, equality and diversity. That’s how it should be.

Corbyn is one of the leading anti-racists in parliament – one of the very least racist MPs we have. So naturally Corbyn signed numerous Early Day motions in Parliament condemning antisemitism, years before he became leader and backed the campaign to stop Neo-Nazis from meeting in Golders Green in 2015.

Before being elected as Labour party leader, Corbyn chaired Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom) in succession to Stan Newens, who is the President of , Liberation. Liberation, founded in 1954 on the initiative of Fenner Brockway, was in the forefront of the struggle against all forms of racism.

When Jeremy took the chair it was accepted that one of our continuing fundamental purposes was opposition to racism – including antisemitism. Liberation has been critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – and often had Israeli or Jewish speakers at meetings arguing the case.

Newens says “It is patently obvious that criticism of Corbyn and the Labour party on grounds of antisemitism is being encouraged by individuals who – unlike the Labour leader himself – have rarely participated in the general struggle against racism. Most are motivated by opposition to Labour under Corbyn and any excuse to harass him will be taken.”

Joseph Finlay, writing for the Jewish News online, says: “The Labour party has thousands of Jewish members, many Jewish councillors, a number of prominent Jewish MPs and several Jewish members of it’s ruling council. Many people at the heart of the Corbyn team, such as Jon Lansman, James Schneider and Rhea Wolfson are also Jewish. Ed Miliband, the previous party leader, was Jewish (and suffered antisemitism at the hands of the press and the Conservatives). I have been a member for five years and, as a Jew, have had only positive experiences.

Jeremy Corbyn has been MP for Islington North since 1983 – a constituency with a significant Jewish population. Given that he has regularly polled over 60% of the vote (73% in 2017) it seems likely that a sizeable number of Jewish constituents voted for him,  As a constituency MP he regularly visited synagogues and has appeared at many Jewish religious and cultural events. He is close friends with the leaders of the Jewish Socialist Group, from whom he has gained a rich knowledge of the history of the Jewish Labour Bund, and he has named the defeat of Mosley’s Fascists at the Battle of Cable as a key historical moment for him. His 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day statement talked about Shmuel Zygielboym, the Polish Bund leader exiled to London who committed suicide in an attempt to awaken the world to the Nazi genocide. How many British politicians have that level of knowledge of modern Jewish history?”

He goes on to say: “Because all racisms are interlinked it is worth examining Corbyn’s wider anti-racist record. Corbyn was being arrested for protesting against apartheid while the Thatcher government defended white majority rule and branded Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Corbyn was a strong supporter of Labour Black Sections – championing the right of Black and Asian people to organise independently in the Labour party while the Press demonised them as extremists.

“He has long been one of the leaders of the campaign to allow the indigenous people of the Chagos Islands to return after they were forcibly evicted by Britain in the 1960s to make way for an American military base. Whenever there has been a protest against racism, the two people you can always guarantee will be there are Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Who do you put your trust in — the people who hate antisemitism because they hate all racism or the people (be they in the Conservative party or the press) who praise Jews whilst engaging in Islamophobia and anti-black racism? The right-wing proponents of the Labour antisemitism narrative seek to divide us into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ minorities — they do not have the well-being of Jews at heart.

“Let’s return the story to the facts. Antisemitism is always beyond the pale. Labour, now a party of over half a million members, has a small minority of antisemites in its ranks, and it suspends them whenever it discovers them. I expect nothing less from an anti-racist party and an anti-racist leader. If the Conservatives took the same approach to racism they would have to suspend their own foreign secretary, who has described Africans as ‘Picanninies’ and described Barack Obama as ‘The part-Kenyan President [with an] ancestral dislike of the British Empire’. 

“From the Monday club, linked to the National Front, to MP Aidan Burley dressing up a  Nazi, to Lynton Crosby’s dogwhistle portrayal of Ed Miliband as a nasal North London intellectual it is the Conservative Party that is deeply tainted by racism and antisemitism.

“There are many threats to Jews – and we are right to be vigilant. These threats come primarily from resurgent nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and a Brexit narrative that seeks to restore Britain to a mythical age of ethnic purity. The idea that Britain’s leading anti-racist politician is the key problem the Jewish community faces is an absurdity, a distraction, and a massive error. Worst of all, it’s a bad story that we’ve been telling for far too long. Let’s start to tell a better one.”

The Labour party has prided itself on its inclusion, equality and diversity principles since its inception. Corbyn has always been one of the most inclusive MPs and this is being used to undermine him. His idea of a “broad church” Labour party was based on an assumption that the neoliberals within the party shared the same equality, diversity and inclusion values, and supported a social justice agenda.  It was assumed that they had principles in common with the wider Labour party.  They don’t.

These are MPs that would prefer another Conservative term, further damage to our society, and more suffering of poor and disabled citizens than see a party they consider ideologically “inpure” take office. Their comments and actions are vile. The implications are vile. They are contributing to the sabotage of our party just in time for the local elections. Again. 

I have thought carefully these past months about these issues, and explored the evidence. I haven’t commented on it all until now because I needed to see evidence, analyse and evaluate. The hypocritical outrage from the likes of Hodges, Nelson, Neil and Lord Sugar, along with the sheer rage, incoherence and unreasonableness of their attacks has convinced me that this is a serious strategic propaganda war, nothing more or less.

However, I also agree with Jonathan Freedland, who says “Yes, you can make a strong case that plenty are acting in bad faith, trying to use this issue as a stick to beat Labour – but if you do that, you need to exempt Jews themselves from that charge.” I absolutely agree, and for many of the reasons he has laid out. 

I don’t, however, agree with his assessment that Corbyn represents the “hard left”.

He goes on to say, however, “Less tangibly, it’s the cast of mind, the way of thinking, that antisemitism represents that we should fear. Conspiracy theory, fake news, demonisation of an unpopular group: what happens to our politics if all these become the norm? This is why Jews have often functioned as a canary in the coalmine: when a society turns on its Jews, it is usually a sign of wider ill health.

“Put another way, hasn’t history shown us that racism never stays confined to mere “pockets”? Once the virus is inside, it does not rest until it has infected the entire body.”

As I discussed earlier in this article, the symptoms of an increase in social prejudice have been there for some years, he seems to have overlooked the fact that it has been the disabled community who were the “canary in the coalmine”, and still are.

I agree that prejudice multitasks and grows. Freedland has overlooked that racism has already become the norm, not least because the oppression of others has remained invisible and unacknowledged by the media. In fact the media has tended to amplify it. Furthermore, political prejudice and legislative discrimination directed at already marginalised social groups is causing absolute poverty, harm, distress, death and suicide. Those are visible, real consequences of political prejudice which the media have chosen to ignore. It seems that some prejudices are considered more important than others, even when outright political discrimination and its tragic consequences are evident for all to see. You see, this is how the Holocaust began. 

This poster (from around 1938) reads: “60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering from a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen, that is your money too. Read ‘[A] New People‘, the monthly magazine of the Bureau for Race Politics of the NSDAP.” 

Here the political portrayal of German disabled people as a “socioeconomic burden” is being used to justify the AktionT4 extermination programme. 

The UK government prefers a wall of private bureacracy that extends a system on their behalf, which simply leaves many disabled people without the means to meet their basic living requirements, while making a profit at the expense of those people in doing so.

This said, Pfannmüller also advocated killing disabled people by a gradual decrease of food, which he believed was more merciful than poison injections. Most of the Nazis were eugenicists, nationalists and antisemites. Carbon monoxide gas was first used to kill disabled people, then its use was extended to other groups of people. The methods used initially at German hospitals such as lethal injections and bottled gas poisoning were expanded to form the basis for the creation of extermination camps where the gas chambers were built from scratch to conduct the extermination of the Jews, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Spanish Republicans, Romani and political dissidents, including many leftists, socialists and communists. 

The Nazis promoted xenophobia and racism against all “non-Aryan” races. African (black sub-Saharan or North African) and Asian (East and South Asian) residents of Germany and black prisoners of war, such as French colonial troops and African Americans, were also victims of Nazi racial policy.  In Germany, gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians, were two of the numerous groups targeted by the Nazis and were also, ultimately, among the millions of Holocaust victims.

The role of propaganda and the media

Propaganda can be defined as biased information or misinformation designed to shape public perception, opinion, decision-making and behaviour. It simplifies complicated issues or ideology for popular consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end. Propaganda is often transmitted to the public through various media, drawing upon techniques and strategies used in advertising, public relations, communications, and mass psychology.

The real danger of propaganda lies when competing voices are silenced. When democratic dialogue, legitimate criticism and valid opposition is systematically pathologised and dismissed as a “cult”, “the loony left”, “Marxists” “leftards”, “virtue signalers” and so forth. Using the internet as well as mainstream media outlets, propagandists have been able to transmit their messages to a wide audience. 

Propaganda served as an important tool to win over the majority of the German public who had not supported Adolf Hitler and to push forward the Nazis’ radical program, which required the acquiescence, support, or participation of broad sectors of the population.

In 2016, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) took aim at some British media outlets, particularly tabloid newspapers, for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”.

The  report said hate speech was a serious problem, including against Roma, gypsies and travellers, as well as “unscrupulous press reporting” targeting the LGBT community. The ECRI’s report also concluded that some reporting on immigration, terrorism and the refugee crisis was “contributing to creating an atmosphere of hostility and rejection”.

It cited Katie Hopkins’ infamous column in The Sun, where she likened refugees to “cockroaches” and sparked a blistering response from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the same newspaper’s debunked claim over “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”

“ECRI urges the media to take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups,” the report concluded. Yet this international condemnation has not encouraged more journalistic responsibility in the UK.

The Nazis used propaganda successfully to increase their public support and appeal. They spent huge sums of money on newspapers, leaflets and poster campaigns with simple slogans encouraging people to support the party. The military style of the Nazis also involved using large political rallies to gain support. Joseph Goebbels began to build an image of Hitler as a great leader. Goebbels manipulated people’s fear of uncertainty and instability to portray Hitler as a man with a great vision for “prosperity and stability.” Germany’s economy was in such a poor state that Hitler’s promise of “strong government” and stability was widely supported.  

I do maintain that our own media are being controlled by the government, and are being used to stage-manage our democracy. The recent history of sustained and vile smear campaigns, lies and unchecked fury directed at the last two labour leaders is pretty clear evidence of that, as is the blatant scapegoating project dressed up as the divisive stigmatising rhetorics of xenophobia, bigotry, prejudice and open discrimination directed at disabled people and other groups who need social security support.

Prejudice multitasks. This is a point made very well by Martin Niemöller, who was a Lutheran minister and early Nazi supporter who was later imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) emerged as an outspoken public critic and foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The quotation stems from Niemöller’s lectures during the early postwar period. Different versions of the quotation exist. These can be attributed to the fact that Niemöller spoke extemporaneously and in a number of settings. Some controversy surrounds the content of the poem as it has been printed in varying forms, referring to diverse groups such as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Trade Unionists,  disabled people or Communists depending upon the version. Nonetheless his point was that there had been what he saw as a cowardly complicity through the silence of the church the media, academic institutions and citizens regarding the Nazi imprisonment, persecution and murder of millions of people.

The UK media are at best compliant, paralysed by bystander apathy, and at worst, directly complicit in extending political prejudice, justifying discimination and manipulating social divisions. Unless we actually want to live with an authoritarian one-party state, it’s time to research, think and analyse these issues for ourselves, and quickly.

If not for ourselves, then for our friends, neighbours and loved ones. And especially, for our children.

May there be peace, justice and unity in our days.

 


 

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Government criticised for lack of diversity, lack of transparency and poor fiscal management

Image result for scrutiny of government

The Institute For Government (IFG) published their annual Whitehall Monitor Report on Thursday, presenting an insight and analysis of the size, shape and performance of government and the civil service.

In the opening paragraph, the IFG say: “The Prime Minister Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority in a snap general election. Revelations about ministers’ inappropriate conduct resulted in three Cabinet resignations. Preparations for Brexit have been disrupted by the snap election, by turnover in personnel and by difficulties in parliamentary management. The Government faces challenges in key public services, notably hospitals, prisons and adult social care.

It was noted in the report that preparations for Brexit have been disrupted by “difficulties in parliamentary management”. The Government has introduced only five of the nine new bills it says are needed for Brexit, and a third of the Government’s major projects worth over £1bn are at risk of not being delivered on time and on budget.

This Whitehall Monitor annual report – which is the fifth – summarises:

  • The political situation following the early election constrained the Prime Minister’s political authority and created challenges for the Government’s legislative programme and management of public services, major projects and Brexit.
  • The civil service is growing, in terms of size, but should be more diverse.
  • Government is less open than it was after 2010, and is not using data as effectively as it should.

I’ve used the summary to shape my analysis.

Fiscal management

The forecasts for tax revenues have been downgraded, the Government also forgoes billions of pounds through tax expenditures that are not subject to rigorous value-for-money assessments.

Since 2010, the value of liabilities on the government’s balance sheet has grown more quickly than the value of assets, increasing net liabilities. Furthermore, “revenue is not likely to overtake spending, in the foreseeable future”. 

Despite the promises from George Osborne of a budget surplus by 2020, and his fiscal straitjacket – the imposed, rigid programme of spending cuts and austerity for the majority of citizens, and tax cuts to the wealthiest ones. 

In real terms, revenues from taxes have grown 7% since 2010/11. This is largely the result of:

  • VAT receipts increasing by 22% (partly due to the standard VAT rate increasing from 17.5% to 20% in 2011)
  • National Insurance contributions increasing by 11%
  • Some increases in income tax collected following a stabilisation following the global crash

Council tax is also included in Treasury revenue, and that will have risen, since many low paid or out of work people now pay a contribution, whereas previously, they were exempt. Despite the increases in VAT, revenue from the sale of goods and services has fallen 34% since 2010/11. 

For the 2017 Autumn Budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) downgraded its forecasts for productivity growth. This, in turn, has resulted in the outlook for Government revenue being revised downwards.

Tax expenditures cost £135bn per year. Tax expenditures are tax discounts or exemptions that “further the policy aims of government”. The total sum of all forgone revenue from tax expenditures across income tax, National Insurance contributions, VAT, corporation tax, excise duties, capital gains tax and inheritance tax was £135bn in 2015/16. This is equal to a quarter of the total central government tax revenue in that year, and is larger than the total budgets of all but two departments (Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health).

For capital gains tax, the cost of tax expenditures was more than four times the amount of revenue collected

This certainly provides a strong indication of the government’s policy and budget priorities, making a mockery of trite sloganised claims of “a country that works for everyone”. Some social groups clearly raise rather more hidden political costs than others, but it is only disadvantaged and marginalised groups that tend to be negatively ideologically portrayed as a “burden” on the state by Conservatives and the media. 

In the 2017 Autumn Budget, the Chancellor announced new stamp duty reliefs for first time buyers purchasing properties worth under £500,000. Due to the policy being specifically targeted at first time buyers, this policy resembles a tax expenditure, and in 2018/19 (its first full year) is expected to cost £560m.

Furthermore, the National Audit Office has reported that the Treasury does not monitor tax expenditures and assess the value for money they offer with the same rigour as it does general expenditure. The Institute for Government, along with the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has called for the tax reliefs that most closely resemble spending measures to be treated as spending for accountability and scrutiny purposes.

Net government liabilities are now over £2 trillion. The Whitehall Monitor report says: “The Government’s net liability has implications for future generations of taxpayers, who will bear the costs of meeting these obligations, but the long-term nature of such obligations can make discussions around the government balance sheet seem more remote than the immediate choices about how much departments should spend each year.

“Nonetheless, policy choices have important implications for the Government’s liabilities – for example, the decisions taken by the Coalition Government to increase the state pension age, and to set a triple lock that guarantees annual increases of at least 2.5% in the state pension, are likely to have contrasting effects on the size of the state pension liability.”

The report goes on to say: “But the Government has made commitments to voters on public services, productivity, social mobility and major projects. If it fails to meet their expectations, it risks further undermining confidence in government.”

The government is still not transparent about its spending plans. The report says that “Better data is needed to understand the benefits – and risks – of outsourced public services”. 

“Wider government contracting includes back-office outsourcing by departments and the purchase of goods they use in the delivery of public services (e.g. paper, energy), as well as privately run public services. In 2015/16, £192bn was spent by government on goods and services, of which £70bn was spent by local government, £65bn by the NHS and £9bn by public corporations, with central government departments and other public bodies accounting for the remaining £49bn. 

“While some contract data is published, the Institute for Government and Spend Network have previously highlighted gaps in transparency – including on contractual terms, performance and the supply chains of third-party service providers.

“The Information Commissioner has said that the public should have the same right to know about public services whether the service is provided directly by government or by an outsourced provider”. [My emphasis]

The IFG also say in their report: “In 2016, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that the outsourcing of health disability assessments at DWP had resulted in claimants ‘not receiving an acceptable level of service from contractors’, while costs per assessment had increased significantly. [My emphasis. Some 10% of the budget for the Department for Work and Pensions goes to private contractors.]

“Similarly, in 2013 MoJ [Ministry of Justice] found that it had been overbilled in relation to contracts worth £722m.”

There have been numerous high-profile failings in government outsourcing. The recent collapse of Carillion highlights many of the longstanding and existing issues, and should encourage a political focus on solving them.

The report continues: “There is no centrally collected data outlining the scope, cost and quality of contracted public services across government. Nonetheless, we know that Whitehall departments account for only a portion of outsourced service delivery, which can also happen further downstream after departments have provided funds to public bodies (for example, the purchasing of services from GPs by the NHS) or local authorities.”

The next section of the report outlines the 2016–17 parliamentary session, in which 24 government bills were passed – fewer than in any session under the 2010–15 Coalition Government. In part, this reflects the curtailed session, which ended with the dissolution of Parliament on 3 May ahead of the election in early June. The report goes on to say that 1,097 pages of legislation – 38% of all pages passed in the session – were dealt with at speed, raising questions about the adequacy of the scrutiny these bills received.

There were also concerns raised about the scope of the powers the government has sought regarding the EU Withdrawal Bill, which has proven controversial. In particular, the inclusion of so-called ‘Henry VIII’ powers, allowing the Government to amend or repeal existing primary legislation without the scrutiny normally afforded to bills. This has quite properly provoked concern among parliamentarians.

Curiously, the report says that the use of statutory instruments (SIs) – previously used only to pass non-controversial policies and amendments – has dropped. However, this flies in the face of existing evidence, which is sourced from the government’s own site. If there has been a drop since 2014, it certainly contradicts the trend set since 2010. Furthermore, the Government has been criticised for using SIs to pass controversial policies, such as welfare cuts.

It seems that IFG counted the number of SIs by parliamentary session (the parliamentary year which tends to run from Spring to Spring) rather than by calendar year.

Scrutiny of SIs is rather less intensive than scrutiny of primary legislation. They are subject to two main procedures, neither of which allows Parliament to make any amendments:

  • negative procedure, in which an SI is laid before Parliament and incorporated into law unless either House objects within 40 days
  • affirmative procedure, in which both Houses must approve a draft SI when it is laid before them.

It’s also worth reading: Conservative Government accused of ‘waging war’ on Parliament by forcing through key law changes without debate.

The lack of progress on inclusion and diversity

The IFG says there has been “little recent progress” in numbers of senior civil servants with disabilities or ethnic minority backgrounds, while the percentage of women  also decreases proportionally with ascending Whitehall pay scales. .

They report: “The civil service needs to fulfil the promise of its diversity and inclusion strategy, especially in improving the representation of ethnic minority and disabled staff at senior levels.”  

Of those appointed to the highest departmental rank of permanent secretary in 2017, “as many were men with the surname Rycroft as were women – two in each case”. The report notes also “there has never been a female cabinet secretary for the UK”.

Despite the much-trumpeted launch of the Disability Confident employment scheme, aimed at “helping to positively change attitudes, behaviours and cultures,” and “making the most of the talents that disabled people can bring to the workplace”, sadly there is no evidence that the Government intends role-modeling positive behaviours or putting into practice what it preaches.

The representation of disabled civil servants at senior level has improved only very slightly: 5.3%, up from 4.7% in 2016. Across the UK population as a whole, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 21% of people are estimated to have a disability (some 18% of the working-age population). 

Lack of openness, transparency and accountability

In the UK, the idea that government should be open to public scrutiny and policies congruent with public opinion is central to our notion of democracy. Government openness and transparency also tends to be linked with citizen inclusion, democratic participation and a higher degree of collaboration between citizens and government on public policy decisions. It also ensures that corruption and the misuse of political  t power for other purposes, such as forms repression of political opponents is less likely.

Information and data deficits are more likely to lead to political corruption and a reduction in democratic accountability.

The IFG report says that in 2016–17, more ministerial correspondence was answered in time, which were thanks to more generous targets, while fewer parliamentary questions were answered on time and information was withheld in response to more Freedom of Information requests.

Parliament has other mechanisms to hold government to account, including urgent questions (which have most tellingly increased significantly in recent years) or select committee inquiries (which have also increased in number, with the election delaying government responses). The Government has established a track record of withholding details of planned legislation from the opposition. (See for example: PIP and the Tory Monologue).

According to Democracy Audit UK  an independent research organisation, established as a not-for-profit company, and based at the Public Policy Group in the LSE’s Government Department – the lack of transparency has been fuelled by the coalition period, and now, the Conservative’s’ narrow majority,  as the amount of secondary legislation is growing, and primary legislation is drafted in ways that increasingly leave its consequences obscure, to be filled in later via statutory instruments or regulation. Commons scrutiny of such “delegated legislation” is subsequently reduced, and likely to be very weak and ineffective.

Meanwhile, departments’ publication of mandated data releases, including spending over £25,000, organograms and ministerial hospitality, is patchy. Departments also proactively publish on GOV.UK, though supply and demand differs by department

The IFG says that many departments are not publishing their data as frequently as they should and this, coupled with the difficulty of measuring government performance, suggests that the government is becoming less transparent and accountable.

A rise in the numbers of Freedom of Information requests that are being refused

Since 2010, government departments have become rather less open in response to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests. In 2010, 39% of requests were fully or partially withheld; this had increased to 52% by 2017. 

Departments are able to refuse requests on a number of grounds: if the request falls under one of the 23 exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (such as national security or personal information) or those in the Environmental Information Regulations; if it breaches the limit for the cost involved in responding (£600 for central departments and Parliament); if the request is repeated; or if the request is ‘vexatious’ (meaning it is likely ‘to cause a disproportionate or unjustifiable level of distress, disruption or irritation’). 

Of the 2,342 requests withheld in full in 2017, 50% were held to be due to FoI Act exemptions, 47% to cost, 2% to repetition and 1% to vexatiousness.

Of course exemptions may also be used as “good reasons” – excuses – to withhold inconveniently controversial information that is likely to bring valid criticism and cause scandal.

Mike Sivier‘s request for information about how many people have died after going through the Work Capability Assessment, which had resulted in a decision that they were fit for work, was originally refused. The figures were only released after the Information Commission overruled a Government decision to block the statistics being made public, through Mike’s Freedom of Information request.

After the request, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), an independent authority set up to uphold public information rights, agreed that there was no reason not to publish the figures, despite the Department for Work and Pensions variously claiming the request was “vexatious”, and that it “could impose a burden in terms of time and resources, distracting the DWP from its main functions”.

However, clearly the real reason for the original refusal of this request is that the information was highly controversial and contradicted political claims regarding the completely unacceptable level of harm that has been caused to citizens by the damaging impact of the Conservative’s draconian welfare policies. 

The ICO said: “Given the passage of time and level of interest in the information, it is difficult to understand how the DWP could reasonably withhold the requested information.”

More recently, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has continued to try to block John Slater’s FoI request which is likely to expose the widespread failings of two of its Personal Independent Payment (PIP) disability assessment contractors, initially claiming that it did not hold the information he had requested, before arguing that releasing the monthly reports would prejudice the “commercial interests” of Atos and Capita.

The DWP later told the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that releasing the information “will give rise to items being taken out of context… [and] will be misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers”, and would “prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs” by DWP.

It also warned the ICO that the information could be “maliciously misinterpreted to feed the narrative that the Department imposes ‘targets’ for the outcomes of assessments”.

However, that comment alone indicates the highly controversial nature of the information being withheld, and thus also betrays the real motive. Information is being restricted to stifle legitimate criticism of Government policy and to hide from public view the empirical evidence of its consequences.

The ICO has nonetheless ordered the release of the information requested. A DWP spokeswoman said: “We have received the ICO judgement and we are currently considering our position.” 

If the DWP disagree with the decision and wish to appeal, it must lodge an appeal with the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) within 28 calendar days. The requester also has a right of appeal.

The ICO say: Failure to comply with a decision notice is contempt of court, punishable by a fine.

It’s also worth noting that the DWP are obliged to inform any contractors of how the Freedom of Information Act may affect them, making it clear that no guarantee of complete confidentiality of information may be made and that, as a public body, it must consider for release any information it holds if it is requested. 

The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) overtakes the DWP to become the most opaque department. This is one example of a wider lack of transparency around Brexit and reflects the wider reluctance of the Government to share assessments of the anticipated impact of Brexit on different parts of the UK economy. Publication of spending and organisational data remains patchy, suggesting departments are not using the data themselves. 

The Scotland Office, Wales Office and Department for Transport tend to grant more requests in full, and in a timely manner. Among the more opaque are several departments regularly granting fewer than 30% of requests, particularly since 2015, including the Cabinet Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Treasury, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and Minstry of Justice (MoJ).

None of the departments created in July 2016 – DExEU, DIT and BEIS – has ever granted even half of its total requests in full. In the three-quarters leading up to Q3 2017, DExEU was the least likely of all departments to comply with FoI requests, respectively answering 18%, 10% and 15% in full. It also refused a higher percentage because they were considered “vexatious” than any other department in 2017; 14% of requests.

The IFG report says “DExEU’s lack of transparency here, and its tardy responses to other requests for information (though not on FoI, where it is the sixth most responsive department), are consistent with its wider reluctance to release information, including the Government’s assessments of the anticipated impact of Brexit on different parts of the UK economy.”

Chart percentage of Freedom of Information requests withheld by government departments

You can read the full IFG Whitehall Monitor Report here


 

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