Tag: Ministerial code

Esther McVey keeps telling lies because no one but the Tories supports universal credit roll out

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On Monday, the  work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey, announced some changes to the plans to manage the transfer of 3 million people on to universal credit following stark warnings from its own expert advisers that ithe government was not doing enough to stop thousands of vulnerable claimants being put at risk of hardship. 

McVey’s announcement followed a report by the government’s social security advisory committee (SSAC) that warned of “significant concerns” that the universal credit plans were rushed, too complex and placed too much risk on claimants. MPs will debate the ‘migration’ regulations over the next few weeks.

The government’s original plans have been widely criticised by front-line charities and others, with predictions that vulnerable people could be plunged deeper into poverty and that some people entitled to benefits could be left with no income whatsoever. The rules have been subject to a review by the SSAC, who presented their report to Department for Work and Pensions earlier in the autumn. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has now said it will look again at 11 of the report’s 12 recommendations for change. McVey told the Commons on Monday: “We will take a measured approach to delivering managed migration, taking our time to get it right and working with claimants to co-design it.”

It’s rather late in the day for a democratic consultation with claimants, and it’s not as if the Conservatives have ever included ordinary citizens in the design of their policies, they tend to reserve that level of inclusion only for the very wealthy. 

The DWP has announced a number of measures as part of £1bn package announced in the budget to help claimants’ ‘transition’ to universal credit, including providing two weeks’ additional benefit to unemployed claimants to help them manage the five-week wait for a first UC payment. That isn’t enough. Leaving people – including families with children, and disabled people – without any money to meet their basic needs for at least 3 weeks is completely unacceptable. 

The SSAC report followed a consultation in which it received a record 455 responses, including more than 300 from individual claimants or their carers. It noted that it had been “particularly struck by the degree of anxiety” about managed migration expressed by this group.

Sir Ian Diamond, the SSAC chair, said he was pleased that the government had largely accepted the committee’s advice, but said much detail still had to be worked out. He said he was disappointed that the DWP had rejected a key recommendation to abandon plans to force all existing benefit claimants to make a claim for universal credit before they could be migrated to it. 

The DWP said making a new claim was essential to ensure all data was up to date. If that were the only reason, then why make people wait 5 weeks before their first payment? A government reform should not result in people – disabled people, lone parents, families – having no income for any length of time, let alone 3 weeks.

Frank Field, who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, said: ”[McVey] could not ignore the swell of expert voices warning that the government’s approach to moving vulnerable people to universal credit could end in disaster and destitution. The department deserves credit for listening, but its response fails to provide in full the necessary safeguards for claimants.”

Shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood called on the government to pause the rollout of universal credit.

She said: “The Budget last week did little to address the very long wait for payments which is causing significant hardship.”  

“Despite this the government is now planning to start the next phase of introduction of universal credit which it calls managed migration which will involve the transfer of £2.87m onto it.

“Universal credit is failing, the opposition has consistently called on the government to stop the rollout but this government is pressing ahead despite the terrible hardship it is causing.”

Mental health charity, Mind spokeswoman Vicky Nash said: “These regulations have confirmed what we have long feared and argued against – that in the move over to Universal Credit (UC) three million people, including hundreds of thousands of people with mental health problems, will be forced to make a new claim.

This risks many being left without income and pushed into poverty.”

Yesterday, Mind called out the Conservative Party Work and Pensions Secretary , accusing her of lying about them in Parliament. McVey implied in Parliament that the charity supports the government’s new regulations for Universal Credit. In her statement to the Commons, McVey said:

“Other charities have been saying this Department now is listening to what claimants are saying, charities are saying and MPs are saying. 

“Trussell Trust has said that. Gingerbread have said that. Mind have said that.”

Mind released a statement on Twitter as they felt “it was important to set the record straight.” 

Gingerbread have also denounced McVey’s claims:

McVey has been caught out ‘misleading’ Parliament before. In June she was criticised by Sir Amyas Morse, of the National Audit Office (NAO), after she made false claims to parliament following a highly critical report by the government watchdog.

McVey was forced to present a humiliating apology following the rebuke by the NAO for falsely claiming the government spending watchdog had asked for an ‘accelerated’ rollout of universal credit. 

Furthermore, McVey’s assurance, in response to the NAO report, that Universal Credit was working was also “not proven”, Morse said. 

The NAO report concluded that the new system – being gradually introduced to replace a number of benefits – was “not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven”.

The report also accused the government of not showing sufficient sensitivity towards some claimants and failing to monitor how many are having problems with the programme, or have suffered hardship.

In its report, released in June, the NAO highlighted the hardship caused to claimants by delays in receiving payments under universal credit.

Paragraph 1.3c of the Ministerial code says: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”

Telling lies about other people is particularly despicable, especially from a position of power. But that is how Conservatives have traditionally justified their exceptionally draconian policies.

 


 

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The Tory British Bill of Rights: ‘be the short change you want to see’

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The politics of regression

The UK has passed a lot of posts over the last five years. We are now a post-European, post-welfare, post-consensus, post-progressive, post-rational, post-democratic, post-first world, post-liberal, post-inclusive, post-diverse, post-equality, post-freedom, post-rights, post-protest, post-truth society. We managed all of this by travelling backwards as a society, not forwards.

The clocks stopped when the Conservatives took office in 2010. Now we are losing a decade a day.

This week, the government have confirmed they still plan to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a so-called British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between the European Court of Human Rights and British law. 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 definitely short change UK citizens in terms of balancing responsibilities, obligations and rights. It would profoundly disempower citizens because it will shift the balance of democracy, placing power almost entirely in the hands of the state.

The citizen rights protected by Labour’s flagship Human Rights Act are quite basic. They include the right to life, liberty and the right to a fair trial; protection from torture and ill-treatment; freedom of speech, thought, religion, conscience and assembly; the right to free elections; the right to fair access to the country’s education system; the right NOT to be given the death penalty; the right to marry and an overarching right not to be discriminated against.

Over their time in office, the Tories have systematically contravened the Human Rights of disabled people, women and children. It’s clear that we have a government that regards the rights of most of the population as a mere bureaucratic inconvenience, to be simply brushed aside. In October 2014, I was one of the very first independent writers to report the United Nations’ inquiry into the government’s gross breaches of the rights of disabled people. Writers and researchers like me and organised groups such as Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) have been submitting evidence regarding the dehumanising impacts of the Conservative welfare “reforms” to the UN since 2012.

Theresa May has previously expressed strong support for controversial constitutional change. She stated in 2014, that she would like to see the UK withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, echoing David Cameron.

In a speech earlier this year, she said: “This is Great Britain, the country of Magna Carta, parliamentary democracy and the fairest courts in the world.

And we can protect human rights ourselves in a way that doesn’t jeopardise national security or bind the hands of parliament.

A true British bill of rights, decided by parliament and amended by parliament, would protect not only the rights set out in the convention, but could include traditional British rights not protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) such as the right to trial by jury.”

However, May’s comment about the need for a Bill of rights that doesn’t “bind the hands of parliament” is worrying, since human rights were designed originally to protect citizens from despotic states and authoritarian governments like this one.

Her comment that the ECHR does not provide for the right to trial by jury is also misleading. Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights is a provision  which protects the right to a fair trial and access to justice. In criminal law cases and cases to determine civil rights, it protects the right to a public hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal within reasonable time, the presumption of innocence, and other basic rights for those charged in a criminal case (such as adequate time and facilities to prepare their defence, access to legal representation, the right to examine witnesses against them or have them examined, the right to the free assistance of an interpreter).

The Effective Criminal Defence in Europe report identified that the UK already needs to address issues regarding inadequate disclosure to suspects during investigation stage and that a more effective judicial oversight of bail and arrest are needed. Cuts to legal aid are also problematic in terms of ensuring the right of equal access to justice. Chris Grayling has already tried to take legal aid from the poorest citizens, in a move that is so clearly contrary to the very principle of equality under the law. He turned legal aid into an instrument of discrimination. He has also tried to dismantle another vital legal protection  – judicial review – which has been used to stop him abusing political power on several occasions. I don’t think this is a government that has indicated so far that it has the needs and wellbeing of citizens as a main priority.

Liz Truss, the justice secretary, dismissed reports that that the Government was abandoning the policy, which was included in the Conservative manifesto in 2015, to avoid a conflict with the Scottish Government 

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning: “We are committed to that. That is a manifesto commitment. 

I’m looking very closely at the details but we have a manifesto commitment to deliver that.”

However, last year, 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 priority.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International (UK) director, said:

“The British people clearly want the Government to get on with their proper business of the day-to-day running of the country, and abandon these destructive plans.

“It’s quite right that it shouldn’t be up to governments to pick and choose which rights we are entitled to and select who they deem worthy of them. It took ordinary people a very long time to claim these rights and we mustn’t let politicians take them away with the stroke of a pen.

“It’s great to have it confirmed that British people think that rights and protections must apply to everyone equally in order to work at all.”

David Cameron pledged to explore ways to leave the ECHR in the wake of the departure of his most senior legal advisor, Dominic Grieve. 

Ken Clarke said: “It is unthinkable for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights,” he was also a departing cabinet minister. Cameron is believed to have wanted rid of the Attorney General Grieve because he was supportive of Britain’s continued ECHR membership.

Labour dubbed the cabinet reshuffle “the massacre of the moderates”, pointing to the departure of pro-Europe and “one nation” Tories such as David Willetts, Nick Hurd and Oliver Heald.

It’s long been the case that the Tories and the right wing press have deliberately blurred the boundaries between the European Union and the European Council of Human Rights, which are of course completely different organisations. This was a misdirection ploy.

However it is the case that the member states of the EU agreed that no state would be admitted to membership of the EU unless it accepted the fundamental principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and agreed to declare itself bound by it. I also think that conservatives, who regard both institutions as “interfering”, do see the Union and the Council as the same in terms of both being international frameworks requiring the British government to have a degree of democratic accountability at an international level.

In his parting interview, Clarke, who has held office in every Conservative government since 1972 and is also the party’s most prominent Europhile, said the debate was “absurd”.

“I personally think it’s unthinkable we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights; it was drafted by British lawyers after the Second World War in order to protect the values for which we fought the War for.” He’s right, of course.

The years immediately after the second world war marked a turning point in the history of human rights, as the world reeled in horror at the rise of fascism and the Nazi concentration camps, there came an important realisation that although fundamental rights should be respected as a matter of course, without formal protection, human rights concepts are of little use and consolation to those facing persecution.

So in response to the atrocities committed during the war, the international community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each individual. In 1948 the newly formed United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), one of the most important agreements in world history.

Shortly afterwards another newly formed international body, the Council of Europe, set about giving effect to the UDHR in a European context. The resulting European Convention on Human Rights was signed in 1950 and ratified by the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to do so, in 1951. At the time there were only ten members of the Council of Europe. Now 47 member countries subscribe to the European Convention, and in 1998 the Human Rights Act was passed by the Labour Party in order to “give further effect” to the European Convention in British law.

Previously, along with the Liberal Democrats, Grieve was able to thwart attempts to reform the ECHR, and opposed pulling out altogether. The plan to reform it is being led by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling but Grieve has pledged to continue to fight for Britain’s membership from the backbenchers. Though Clegg had agreed to a British Bill of Rights, he was strongly opposed to withdrawing from the ECHR.

Grieve understood that ECHR is about the fundamental rights of the citizen and ought to be cherished in the same way as the Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus are. But as we know, this is not a typical view amongst Conservatives, who frequently cite the same examples of “foreign criminals” being allowed to stay in the country as evidence it is “not working”.

The prime minister’s spokesman said that the sacking of Grieve had not led to a change in government’s policy. However he pledged action if the Conservatives are elected next year without the Liberal Democrats: “If you are asking me about party manifestos, the prime minister has previously said that he wants to look at all the ways that we can ensure we are able to deport those who have committed criminal offences.”

Grieve said he would defend human rights legislation from the back benches to “contribute to rationality and discourse”.

“If we send out a sign that human rights don’t matter, that is likely to be picked up in other countries which are also signatory states such as Russia.”

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The marked loss of transparency and democratic accountability

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 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 Tories’ motivation for changing our human rights is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Tories have always seen as being open to interpretation will become much more parochial and open to subjective challenge.

Many people have said that the Conservatives won’t escape accountability if they repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with something less comprehensive, because we are still signatories to a number of broader international treaties on human rights. 

However, last year I 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.”

Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch, an organisation which works to hold the government to account, said:

“This amendment to the ministerial code is deeply concerning. It shows a marked shift in the attitude and commitment of the UK government towards its international legal obligations.”

Any precedent that allows a government room for manoeuvre around basic and fundamental human rights is incredibly dangerous. Especially such an authoritarian government.

Implications for democracy

Democracy is one of the universal core values and principles of the United Nations. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further developed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies.

The Rule of Law and Democracy Unit stands as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) focal point for democracy activities. The Unit works to develop concepts and operational strategies to enhance democracy and provide guidance and support to democratic institutions through technical cooperation activities and partnership with the relevant parts of the UN, notably the UN Democracy Fund, the Department of Political Affairs and the newly established UN Working Group on Democracy. Legal and expert advice are provided as required to OHCHR field operations on relevant issues such as respect for participatory rights in the context of free and fair elections, draft legislation on national referenda and training activities.

The strong link between democracy and human rights is captured in article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” 

The link is further developed in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies. The rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and subsequent human rights instruments covering group rights (e.g. indigenous peoples, minorities, people with disabilities) are equally essential for democracy as they ensure inclusivity for all groups, including equality and equity in respect of access to civil and political rights.

More recently, in March 2012, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution titled “Human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” which reaffirmed that democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms were interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

The Council called upon States to make continuous efforts to strengthen the rule of law and promote democracy through a wide range of measures. It also requested the OHCHR, in consultation with states, national human rights institutions, civil society, relevant inter-governmental bodies and international organizations, to draft a study on challenges, lessons learned and best practices in securing democracy and the rule of law from a human rights perspective.

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are core values of the European Union, too. Embedded in its founding treaty, they were reinforced when the EU adopted the Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2000, and strengthened still further when the Charter became legally binding with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.

A legally binding human rights framework must be applied universally, and implemented without the “interpretation” and interference from individual governments. Furthermore, the State must fund the means of contract enforcement and free and fair trial legal costs, for those who cannot afford it. If the State fails to fulfil this contingent function, then citizens simply cease to be free.

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I wrote another in-depth analysis of the implications of a British Bill of Rights earlier this year, which includes some of the constitutional implications – The British Bill Of Frights: We Need To Ask What Could Possibly Go Right?

 

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A Tory Bill of Rights? We should be asking what could possibly go right

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Ministerial code amendment indicates a government that doesn’t like international transparency, accountability and scrutiny

Last year I 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.”

Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch, an organisation which works to hold the government to account, said:

“This amendment to the ministerial code is deeply concerning. It shows a marked shift in the attitude and commitment of the UK government towards its international legal obligations.”

The Conservatives have planned since 2010 to scrap the Human Rights Act (HRA), which was the previous Labour governments’ legislation, designed to supplement the European Convention on Human Rights. It came into effect in 2000. The Act makes available a remedy for breach of Convention right without the need to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The citizen rights protected by the Act are quite basic. They include the right to life, liberty and the right to a fair trial; protection from torture and ill-treatment; freedom of speech, thought, religion, conscience and assembly; the right to free elections; the right to fair access to the country’s education system; the right NOT to be given the death penalty; the right to marry and an overarching right not to be discriminated against.

Cameron has argued that it should be repealed just 15 years after its implementation … so that he can pass another unspecified Act – a British Bill of Rights. Why would any government object to citizens being afforded such established, basic protections, which are, after all, very simple internationally shared expectations of any first world liberal democracy?

In the 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 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 Tories’ motivation for changing our human rights is to allow reinterpretations to work around the new legislation when they deem it necessary. The internationally agreed rights that the Tories have always seen as being open to interpretation will become much more parochial and open to subjective challenge.

Any precedent that allows a government room for manoeuvre around basic and fundamental human rights is incredibly dangerous.

No other country has proposed de-incorporating a human rights treaty from its law so that it can introduce a Bill of Rights. The truly disturbing aspect of Cameron’s Bill of Rights pledge is that rather than manifestly building on the HRA, it’s predicated on its denigration and repeal. One has to wonder what his discomfort with the HRA is. The Act, after all, goes towards protecting the vulnerable from neglect of duty and abuse of power of the State. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an International response to the atrocities of World War Two and the rise of fascism and totalitarianism.

During their last term, the Tories contravened the Human Rights of disabled people, women and children. It’s clear that we have a government that regards the rights of most of the population as a mere bureaucratic inconvenience, to be simply brushed aside. 

The abolition of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: some implications

Last year I also wrote about the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was originally established for the duration of the 2010 parliament and was very quietly scrapped following a meeting of party whips.

The cross-party Committee was primarily established to scrutinise the plans of the Coalition government, such as the House of Lords Reform and the Alternative Vote – many of which never made it onto the statute books.

The parliamentary Committee’s main role was to scrutinise proposed major constitutional changes. This undemocratic development is especially worrying given the likelihood of significant constitutional changes in this parliament, with the referendum on membership of the European Union set to be held.

There are further plans for devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, as well as to cities, and it is expected that these will be delivered at the same time as the government repeals the Human Rights Act, and finalises drawing up a bill of rights to replace it.

Considerable doubt exists among experts that the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog responsible for ensuring the Convention is upheld, will accept the Tories’ proposals. In fact the plans are highly unlikely to be accepted. As a result, it is quite widely believed Britain will disengage from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and undermine Europe’s’ civil liberties framework in the process.

Cameron has previously pledged to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, indicating plainly that he is indifferent to the fact that such a withdrawal would very likely spark a complex constitutional crisis in the UK.

If the Human Rights Act is repealed in its entirety, the repeal will apply to the whole of the UK. The Scotland Act gives powers to the Scottish Parliament, provided that they comply with the ECHR (among other things). This would not change with repeal of the Human Rights Act alone.

However, human rights are also partially devolved (the Scottish Parliament, for example, has set up a Scottish Human Rights Commission), and so any unilateral repeal of the Human Rights Act by Westminster would violate the Sewell Convention, which outlines that the Westminster government will: “not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.” Nicola Sturgeon has stated clearly that the Scottish National Party oppose the repeal of the Human Rights Act.

And similar principles apply through the memoranda of understandings with each of the devolved legislatures in the UK.

In Northern Ireland, human rights are even further devolved than in Scotland, and the Human Rights Act (HRA) is explicitly mentioned in the Good Friday Act in 1998. To repeal the HRA would violate an international treaty as the Agreement was also an accord between two sovereign states – the UK and the Irish Republic.

Repealing the HRA unilaterally would put the UK in violation of the Good Friday Agreement, and its international treaty obligations to Ireland.  This would certainly damage our international reputation, as well as having consequences for the reciprocity on which the Treaty depends.

It’s quite possible that it would also be understood within Northern Ireland as a violation of both letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, signalling that the UK government were no longer committed to the Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement was also subject to a referendum in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both having to consent for the Agreement to be implemented.  The referendum enabled the Agreement to have widespread legitimacy, but importantly, because it took place in both parts of Ireland, it answered historic Republican claims to be using violence to secure the “right to self-determination” of the Irish people.

It was also necessary to changing the Irish Constitution. So a unilateral move away from UK commitments carries serious bad faith and democratic legitimacy implications, potentially with deeply problematic historical consequences.

The Conservatives also have plans to reintroduce the redefining of parliamentary constituency boundaries in a way that will be advantageous to the Conservative party. It is estimated that the planned changes will help the Tories to win up to 20 extra seats at a future election.

It was during the last term that the proposals were originally put forward. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs were joined by those of smaller parties – including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP,  the Greens and Respect – to defeat the proposals, giving them majority in voting down the Tory plans for boundary changes.

The Tories had also committed to implementing a form of “English vote for English” laws – a move which will further undermine ties within the UK. But this pre-election pledge placed an emphasis upon English voting rights to undermine the nationalist appeal of UKIP south of the Border, whilst spotlighting the constitution to bolster the Scottish National Party in Scotland, again using nationalism tactically to disadvantage the Labour Party.

At a time when the government is planning potentially turbulent constitutional changes in the forthcoming parliament, the move to abolish the watchdog – the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee – will serve to insulate the Tories from democratic accountability and scrutiny.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee had instigated an inquiry in 2013 regarding increasingly inconsistent standards in the quality of legislation, which resulted in several key recommedations, one of which was the development of a Code of Legislative Standards, and another was the creation of a Legislative Standards Committee.

The government response  at the time was little more than an extravagant linguistic exercise in avoiding accountability, transparency and scrutiny. Having waded through the wordy Etonian etiquette of paragraph after paragraph in the formal responses to each recommendation, the meaning of each may be translated easily enough into just one word: no.

For example: “A bill when it is published is the collectively agreed view of the whole Government on how it wishes to proceed. The process by which it has arrived at that view is a matter for the Government, not for Parliament.”

“The Government does not believe that a Code of Legislative Standards is necessary or would be effective in ensuring quality legislation. It is the responsibility of government to bring forward legislation of a high standard and it has comprehensive and regularly updated guidance to meet this objective. … Ultimately, it is for Ministers to defend both the quality of the legislation they introduce and the supporting material provided to Parliament to aid scrutiny.”

It’s troubling that the House of Lords Constitution Committee raised concerns during the inquiry that there is currently no acceptable watertight definition of what constitutional legislation actually is. The current ad hoc process of identifying which bills to take on the Floor of the House of Commons in a Committee of the whole House lacks transparency: it is clear that differentiation is taking place in order to decide which bills are to be considered by a Committee of the whole House, but the decision-making process is “unclear.” The very worrying response:

“The Government does not accept that it would be helpful to seek to define “constitutional” legislation, nor that it should automatically be subject to a different standard of scrutiny. The tests suggested by Lord Norton and the list of characteristics suggested by Professor Sir John Baker are themselves subjective: whether something raises an important issue of principle, or represents a “substantial” alteration to the liberties of the subject [citizen], for example, are matters more for political rather than technical judgement.

Well no, such matters may be more for legal judgement, given the current framework of Human Rights and Equality legislation. The idea that the law is superior to the megrims of rulers is the cornerstone of English constitutional thought as it developed over the centuries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights both refer to the Rule of Law.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, is the historic international recognition that all human beings have fundamental rights and freedoms, and it recognises that “… it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…”

And of course there are implications for our current understanding of the word “democracy.”

There you have it: the government does seem to regard the liberty of citizens to be enclosed within their own doctrinal boundaries. Those Tory boundaries are entirely defined by partisan dogma and value-judgements, ad hoc justifications, all of which distinctly lack any coherence and rational expertise. Or independence and protection from state intrusion and abuse.

This is a government that has taken legal aid from the poorest and most vulnerable, in a move that is contrary to the very principle of equality under the law. Without access to justice, we simply cease to be free.

The Tories have turned legal aid into an instrument of discriminationThey have tried to dismantle a vital legal protection available to the citizen – judicial review – which has been used to stop the Conservatives abusing their powers again more than once. The Tories have restricted legal aid for domestic abuse victims, welfare claimants seeking redress for wrongful state decisions, victims of medical negligence, for example.

Reflected in many Conservative proposals and actions is the clear intent on continuing to tear up British legal protections for citizens and massively bolstering the powers of the state.

The hypocrisy is evident in that this is a government which claims to pride itself on a dislike for “big state” interventions. But in every meaningful way, the Tories are vastly increasing state powers and an all pervasive, intrusive authoritarian reach.

 

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When the Right don’t know what their right hand is doing: more embarrassment for the PM regarding the impact of austerity cuts on Tory councils

gret deceitDavid Cameron is under investigation for an alleged breach of the ministerial code, (despite the Tories’ recent edit of it.) He’s been accused of not separating his constituency role with his cabinet role, showing his own constituency preferential treatment regarding Tory austerity cuts.

The Labour Party wrote to the Cabinet Secretary to request a ruling on whether the prime minister broke the code of ethics and conduct after inviting Tory councillors into Downing Street for a private meeting to discuss Tory cuts to frontline services in his Witney constituency.

The ministerial code prevents ministers from using government facilities for party or constituency activities, and this is why Labour has written to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, asking for a ruling. 

Leaked letters revealed that Cameron became embroiled in an embarrassing row with Oxfordshire County Council, complaining about the impact of “counter-productive” cuts to essential services in his constituency and offered help from Downing Street advisers. 

Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Office minister, Jon Ashworth, told the Today programme: “What I am concerned about is that the Prime Minister seems to be conflating his ministerial role with his role as the member of parliament for Witney.” 

The Prime Minister had protested to the council: “I was disappointed at the long list of suggestions floated – to make significant cuts to frontline services – from elderly day centres, to libraries, to museums. 

“This is in addition to the unwelcome and counter-productive proposals to close children’s centres across the county. I would have hoped that Oxfordshire would instead be following the best practice of Conservative councils from across the country in making back-office savings and protecting the front line.”

He invited Ian Hudspeth, the Oxfordshire county council leader, to Downing Street to discuss the county’s financial situation.

The council leader, who reminded Mr Cameron that he “worked hard to assist you in achieving a Conservative majority”, responded that government funding had almost halved since 2010 and that the council had taken as much out of the back office as possible.

Now another Tory council has written to the PM and to the chancellor, complaining bitterly about the Conservative austerity cuts.

The Conservative leader of Somerset County Council, John Osman, has said in his two letters that it was with “profound sadness” he was writing to object to the proposed reductions to local government budgets:

“The continuing impacts of austerity will affect Somerset County Council’s ability to deliver key services such as:

Children’s social care
Adults social care
Learning disabilities
Special Educational Needs Students
Concessionary fares travel”

He also said in both letters that the public would not “accept a 30 per cent reduction in NHS or education funding” and “Therefore we should not have to accept these damaging reductions to these key services.”

It’s quite remarkable that Conservative councillors don’t seem to grasp what austerity – which is a prop for Conservative small state ideology – actually means to public services and people. They seem to think that the cuts only ought to apply to Labour councils, who already face disproportionately larger cuts to their budgets than Tory councils, in some of the UK’s most deprived areas.

Local authorities controlled by Labour in the north have been the  hardest hit by central government cuts over the past five years, whilst Conservative town halls escaped the lightest, a study by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) found.

The real “constitutional crisis” is Chris Grayling’s despotic tendencies and his undermining of the Rule of Law

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We have been hearing justifications for grotesquely unfair policies from the Conservatives a lot recently based on a claim that “we have a clear mandate to do this.” The concept of a government having a legitimate mandate to govern via the fair winning of a democratic election is a central component of representative democracy. However, new governments who attempt to introduce policies that they did not make explicit and public during an election campaign are said to not have a legitimate mandate to implement such policies.

Most of you will immediately think of the recent debates regarding the tax credit cuts, and the authoritarian threats to stifle legitimate criticism of government policies, but this is just the tip of a very deeply submerged iceberg.

I am currently researching an article about the hatchet man of justice, Chris Grayling, and his recent signaling of a crackdown on what he calls the “misuse” of freedom of information requests (FOI) as a means of researching “stories” for journalists. I’ll write about that particular symptom of Grayling’s syndrome of totalitarian thinking separately, as I got productively side-tracked.

I recently wrote an article about the government’s secret editing and amendment of the Ministerial Code Government turns its back on international laws, scrutiny and standards: it’s time to be very worried.

It’s not the first time, either: see also – A reminder of the established standards and ethics of Public Office, as the UK Coalition have exempted themselves.

And of course this – Watchdog that scrutinises constitutional reform is quietly abolished and Tory proposals are likely to lead to constitutional crisis, thisThe Coming Tyranny and the Legal Aid Bill and this – Sabotaging judicial review is one of this government’s most vicious acts.

I have had concerns for some time that the Conservatives behave unaccountably, profoundly undemocratically, with a disregard of the obligations of a government to be open and transparent, and often, the Conservatives shield very secretive and damaging long term aims.

During a House of Lords debate on Judicial Review reforms, respected peer and lawyer Lord Pannick QC spoke of the constitutional importance of Judicial Review and the hazards in circumscribing it, personally addressing Mr Grayling on the issue of the Lord Chancellor’s incompetence:

“However inconvenient and embarrassing it is to Mr Grayling to have his decisions repeatedly ruled to be unlawful by our courts, however much he may resent the delays and costs of government illegality being exposed in court and however much he may prefer to focus on the identity of the claimant rather than the substance of their legal complaint, it remains the vital role of judicial review in this country to hold Ministers and civil servants to account in public, not for the merits of their decisions but for their compliance with the law of the land as stated by Parliament.”

Grayling’s time as Justice Secretary has been an unremitting disaster. He has lost seven times so far in the courts and is the least impartial lord chancellor we have known. Rather than accept that he has attempted to legislate illegally, instead we see him trying to dismantle the mechanisms of democracy and law to suit his despotic policy designs, regardless.

I found a letter from earlier this year, by chance, it’s a response from the lord chancellor Chris Grayling to a report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee published last December following its investigation into the office of the legally unqualified but disdainful and arrogant lord chancellor: 

The Rt Hon. the Lord Lang of Monkton DL
The House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution
House of Lords,
London,
SW1A 0PW

The Right Honourable Chris Grayling MP
Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
102 Petty France
London SW 1H 9AJ
T 020 3334 3555
F 020 3334 3669E
general.queries @justice.gsi.gov.uk
http://www.gov.uk/moj
Our Ref: 20211

26 February 2015

Dear Lord Lang,

THE OFFICE OF LORD CHANCELLOR

The Government broadly welcomes the Committee’s Report on The office of Lord Chancellor and makes the following observations in response to a number of the specific recommendations.

The rule of law and judicial independence 

We invite the Government to agree that the rule of law extends beyond judicial independence and compliance with domestic and international law. It includes the tenet that the Government should seek to govern in accordance with constitutional principles, as well as the letter of the law. (Paragraph 25)

RESPONSE
The Government agrees that it should govern in accordance with constitutional principles and endorses the importance of the rule of law. However the Government does not endorse the view put forward in paragraphs 23 to 25 of the Committee’s Report in so far as it suggests that judges have power to insist that primary legislation passed by the UK Parliament “is not law which the courts will recognise”.

The Lord Chancellor’s duty to respect the rule of law extends beyond the policy remit of his or her department; it requires him or her to seek to ensure that the rule of law is upheld within Cabinet and across Government. We recommend that the Ministerial Code and the Cabinet Manual be revised accordingly. (Paragraph 50)

Page 2

To clarify the scope of the Lord Chancellor’s duty in relation to the rule of law, we recommend that the oath to “respect the rule of law” be amended to a promise to “respect and uphold the rule of law.”  (Paragraph 51)

RESPONSE
The Government believes that the Ministerial Code, Cabinet Manual and Oath of Office already accurately reflect ministerial responsibilities in relation to the rule of law. In particular, both the Ministerial Code and the Cabinet Manual note the role of the Law Officers in “helping ministers to act lawfully and in accordance with the rule of law”. The Government does not agree that there should be specific requirement on the Lord Chancellor in this respect, nor that the Code, Manual or Oath require amendment.

The Law Officers’ role in upholding the rule of law has always been important.

The changes to the office of Lord Chancellor over the last decade have made it even more so. As a result, we consider that it is imperative the Attorney General continues to attend all Cabinet meetings, and that they are adequately resourced not only in their role as legal advisers to the Government, but in their capacity as guardians of the rule of law. (Paragraph 79)

RESPONSE
The Government agrees with the Committee on the important role played by the Law Officers in upholding the rule of law. This view has been shared by successive governments. The Law Officers play this role, in particular, by advising on some of the most significant legal issues being dealt with by Government, through their significant public interest functions (for example bringing contempt proceedings) and through participating in the work of government as Ministers of the Crown. This includes the Attorney General participating in Cabinet meetings. Though the expectation is that the Attorney General will continue to attend all Cabinet meetings, this is ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister. The Government considers that the Law Officers are adequately resourced to fulfil their functions as they relate to the rule of law.

We recommend that the Law Officers give due consideration to the more reactive role of modern Lord Chancellors and ensure that the holder of that office is kept informed of potential issues within Government relating to the rule of law. (Paragraph 80)

RESPONSE
An important function of the Law Officers is keeping all Ministerial colleagues informed of significant legal issues. The relationship between the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General is an especially important one. The Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General meet regularly to discuss matters of common concern, including those that relate to the rule of law, and the expectation is that this will continue.

Page 3

A Constitutional Guardian in Government

There is no clear focus within Government for oversight of the constitution. We invite the Government to agree that a senior Cabinet minister should have responsibility for oversight of the constitution as a whole, even if other ministers have responsibility for specific constitutional reforms. In the light of the Lord Chancellor’s existing responsibility for the important constitutional principle of the rule of law, we consider that the Lord Chancellor is best placed to carry out this duty. (Paragraph 101)

RESPONSE
The Deputy Prime Minister is the relevant Secretary of State for constitutional policy and has been so since 2010. Senior ministerial oversight reflects the importance of the constitutional changes outlined in the Programme for Government. This arrangement gives a clear focus for the delivery of reforms including Individual Electoral Registration; the introduction of fixed term parliaments; changes to the laws of succession; regulation of the lobbying industry and proposals for the recall of MPs.

The Deputy Prime Minister works in close collaboration with the Prime Minister and other relevant Cabinet Ministers including the Lord Chancellor and Attorney General and is supported by two ministers, and officials from the Cabinet Office Constitution Group.

The Future of the Office

We recognise the advantages to appointing a Lord Chancellor with a legal or constitutional background. We do not consider that it is essential but, given the importance of the Lord Chancellor’s duties to the rule of law, these benefits should be given due consideration. (Paragraph 109)

RESPONSE
The Government welcomes the Committee’s acknowledgement that it is not essential for the Lord Chancellor to have a legal background.

We recommend that the Government either ensure that the Permanent Secretary supporting the Lord Chancellor at the Ministry of Justice is legally qualified, or appoint the top legal adviser in that department at permanent secretary level. (Paragraph 113)

RESPONSE
The Government does not agree that the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice need be legally qualified, nor that the department’s top legal adviser need be appointed at permanent secretary level. The Lord Chancellor and Permanent Secretary have access to high quality legal services provided by the Treasury Solicitor’s Department including direct access to the Treasury Solicitor and one of his Deputies at Director General level, should it be needed.

Page 4

Given the importance of the Lord Chancellor’s duty to uphold the rule of law, the Lord Chancellor should have a high rank in Cabinet and sufficient authority and seniority amongst his or her ministerial colleagues to carry out this duty effectively and impartially. (Paragraph 117)

RESPONSE
It is for the Prime Minister to determine the order of precedence of Cabinet Ministers.

The Lord Chancellor is currently and traditionally one of the highest officers of state. The Lord Chancellor should be a politician with significant ministerial or other relevant experience to ensure that the rule of law is defended in Cabinet by someone with sufficient authority and seniority. It is not necessary to be prescriptive: more important than age or lack of ambition is that the person appointed has a clear understanding of his or her duties in relation to the rule of law and a willingness to speak up for that principle in dealings with ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister. (Paragraph 125)

We urge Prime Ministers, when appointing Lord Chancellors, to give weight to the need for the qualities we have outlined in this report, and above all to consider the importance of the Lord Chancellor’s duty to uphold the rule of law across Government. (Paragraph 126)

RESPONSE
The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 provides that the Prime Minister may not recommend an individual for appointment as Lord Chancellor unless he or she is satisfied that the individual is qualified by  experience. There is a range of evidence that the Prime Minister can take into account when reaching such a conclusion.

We recognise concerns that the combination of the office of Lord Chancellor with that of the Secretary of State for Justice could create a conflict of interests at the heart of the Ministry of Justice. However, upholding the rule of law remains central to the Lord Chancellor’s role and in practice the office is given additional authority by being combined with a significant department of state. (Paragraph 133)

RESPONSE
The Government welcomes the Committee’s agreement that combining the role of Lord Chancellor with that of Secretary of State for Justice strengthens the office.

 

CHRIS GRAYLING

The boldings are mine, the original copy of the letter may be viewed here.

I’m not a legal expert – nor is the lord chancellor – but I am someone with sufficient expertise to recognise when our long-standing laws and democratic processes are being side-stepped, deceitfully edited, re-written, or deleted to prop up an authoritarian government determined to impose a toxic, socially harmful and ideologically driven policy agenda, regardless of the consequences and public objection.

Government turns its back on international laws, scrutiny and standards: it’s time to be very worried

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Concerns have been raised by lawyers and legal experts that Conservative ministers have quietly abandoned the longstanding principle that members of the government should be bound by international law.

The rewritten ministerial code, which was updated on October 15  without any announcement, sets out the standard of conduct expected of ministers. It has been quietly edited. The latest version of the code is missing a key element regarding the UK’s 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”.

Legal experts say key issues affected by the change could include decisions about “whether to go to war or use military force, such as the use of drones in Syria, any decision made by an international court about the UK and any laws not incorporated into English law, such as human rights legislation and the Geneva conventions.

Ministerial code changes between 2010 and 2015.
Photograph: Government handout – courtesy of the Guardian

This comes as the UK government is facing another United Nations inquiry regarding widespread allegations that the Conservative welfare reforms breach the Human Rights of disabled people. It also comes following the government announcement this week that there are plans to scrap the Human Rights Act by next summer, to replace it with a controversial “British Bill of Rights.”

Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s special rapporteur for housing, found the bedroom tax to contravene human rights and in 2013, she called for the Tory “spare room subsidy” to be suspended immediately. In a wide-ranging report she also calls for the extension of grants to provide more social housing, the release of public land, build-or-lose measures to target landbanks and increased private rented sector regulation. None of these are recommendations which the Conservatives have been remotely willing to entertain, instead they have directed hostility towards the United Nations.

The Conservatives have already taken away access to legal aid from the poorest and most vulnerable citizens, in a move branded contrary to the very principle of equality under the law. Last year, Grayling, then the Justice Secretary, was accused of turning legal aid into an instrument of discrimination by a court, because of his attempt to introduce a residency test to legal aid access, a move which exceeded his statutory powers when he devised it.

He has also tried to dismantle a vital legal protection available to the citizen – judicial review – which has been used to stop him abusing his powers again and again. Judicial review is the mechanism by which citizens can hold the government to its own laws. With the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, the justice secretary tried to put it out of reach.

Grayling, suffered a defeat in the House of Lords vote on his plans to curtail access to judicial review, which would have made it much harder to challenge government decisions in court.

Peers voted by 247 to 181, a majority of 66, to ensure that the judges keep their discretion over whether they can hear judicial review applications after a warning from a former lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, that the alternative amounted to an “elective dictatorship”.

He has tried to restrict legal aid for domestic abuse victims, welfare claimants seeking redress for wrongful state decisions, victims of medical negligence, for example.

It’s very worrying that this is a government that wants to leave Europe behind and sever the connection with the European Convention on Human Rights.  It’s a government that wants to do as it pleases, free from international scrutiny and what it clearly sees as the constraints of international law and the judgments of international courts.

The Conservatives have demonstrated an eagerness to take away citizens’ rights to take their case to the European court, with many of their actions clearly based on an intent on tearing up British legal protections for citizens and massively bolstering the powers of the state.

The Guardian reports that a legal challenge against the change will be lodged on Friday by Rights Watch, an organisation which works to hold the government to account. Yasmine Ahmed, its director, said:

“This amendment to the ministerial code is deeply concerning. It shows a marked shift in the attitude and commitment of the UK government towards its international legal obligations.”

In his preamble to the new ministerial code, David Cameron says: “People want their politicians to uphold the highest standards of propriety. That means being transparent in all we do.”

However, I reported last year that in terms of international standards of conduct, the Conservatives are not doing well. Transparency International flagged up many areas of concern in their report: A mid-term assessment of the UK Coalition Government’s record on tackling corruption

The Cabinet Office has of course denied there was any intention to weaken international law and the administration of justice by omitting the phrases from the new code.

A spokesman said:

“The code is very clear on the duty that it places on ministers to comply with the law. ‘Comply with the law’ includes international law.

The wording was amended to bring the code more in line with the civil service code. The obligations remain unchanged by the simplified wording. The ministerial code is the prime minister’s guidance to his ministers on how they should conduct themselves in public office.”

However, a Conservative party policy document promises 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.”

Lord Falconer, Labour’s shadow lord chancellor, said:

“If this is what ministers are planning to do it is shocking. We are a country that prides itself on operating in accordance with the rule of law. That has always meant both domestic and international law.

This is a message we have sent out both internally and externally. If we are now regarding compliance with international law for ministers as optional that is staggering. If ministers breach international law it will no longer be misconduct.”

The Guardian cites Ken Macdonald QC, the former director of public prosecutions, who said:

“It is difficult to believe that this change is inadvertent. If it’s deliberate, it appears to advocate a conscious loosening of ministerial respect for the rule of law and the UK’s international treaty obligations, including weakening responsibility for the quality of justice here at home.

In a dangerous world, the government should be strengthening its support for the rule of law, not airbrushing it out of the ministerial code. On every level, this sends out a terrible signal.”

Ironically, on the same day that the new code was quietly released, the attorney general, Jeremy Wright, gave a keynote address about the importance of international law to an audience of government lawyers at the Government Legal Service International Law Conference.

Wright said:

“The constitutional principle to respect the rule of law and comply with our international obligations is reflected in the ministerial code – which applies to me as much as to any other minister. The code states that there is 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.”

It is not clear whether or not the attorney general was informed about the changes to the ministerial code at the time of his speech. Both the Cabinet Office and the attorney general’s office have declined to answer this question.

Tory ministers are a major source of national embarrassment when they denounce the European Court of Human Rights whilst instructing the rest of the world, including other European states, to respect our collective international human rights obligations and “the rule of law.” Human Rights legislation exists throughout the free world. Free speech, the right to a fair trial, respect for private life and the prohibition on torture are values which distinguish democratic societies from despotic states.

There is no justification for editing obligations to upholding international laws, human rights or for repealing the Human Rights Act: 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 vulnerable from the powerful and ensuring those who govern are accountable to the rule of law.

Update: Former head of government’s legal service says obligation that ministers must comply with international law – dropped from revised ministerial code – had irritated PM: No 10 ‘showing contempt for international law’


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Techniques of neutralisation: David Cameron’s excuses for Iain Duncan Smith

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I wrote earlier about the way the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) heavily micro-managed the recent Mortality Statistics release, and how the Government are using an excessively bureaucratic approach to ensure that no inferences are drawn from the data published, insisting that it’s “wrong” to link the mortality rates of sick and disabled people with punitive, Conservative austerity policies.

However, the accounts and experiences of sick and disabled people and their families (recorded in the media, in parliamentary inquiries, Commons debates – all preserved on the Hansard record) inform us that there is a clear correlation between the Tory “reforms” and increased distress, a loss of dignity and autonomy, financial insecurity and insolvency, increasing ill health, and sometimes, the death, of disabled people.

When confronted in the Commons, Iain Duncan Smith and other ministers dispensed with civilised debate, and simply blocked any discussion regarding concerns raised by the opposition about the negative impact of the Tory welfare cuts on sick and disabled people.  Values of decency and legitimate concerns about the welfare of sick and disabled citizens were depreciated as mere matters of “subjective interpretation” and not as worthy subjects of political, rational or objective discussion.

The Mortality Statistics release from Department of Work and Pension “provides further commentary on the appropriate use of this information” – in other words, it informs us what we may and may not do with the “data”, and carries this pre-emptive caution:

“Any causal effect between benefits and mortality cannot be assumed from these statistics. Additionally, these isolated figures provide limited scope for analysis and nothing can be gained from this publication that would allow the reader to form any judgement as to the effects or impacts of the Work Capability Assessment.”

Bearing in mind that the information in the release came about because of many Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from many of us, and the rulings of the Information Commissioner and a tribunal (Mike Sivier from Vox Political appealed against the original decision by the Information Commissioner and the DWP to refuse the Freedom of Information requests), it’s difficult to see why the Government have been so determined, firstly, to withhold the information requested, secondly, when forced to make the release, to present the information in a decontextualized way that renders it virtually meaningless, thirdly, to go to such extraordinary lengths to instruct us how we may and may not analyse the data and fourthly, to respond to any interpretive reference to the data as “wrong”, refusing to engage in any further discussion.

Unless of course it’s a Government that doesn’t want open and democratic accountability and public scrutiny of the often devastating impact of its policies.

Debbie Abrahams, the new shadow minister for disabled people, has long been an outstanding campaigner and spokesperson for disabled people. Earlier this month, she asked David Cameron:

“Two weeks ago, the Work and Pensions Secretary’s Department not only admitted to falsifying testimonies in leaflets, but published data on the deaths of people on sickness benefit, which showed that they are four times more likely to die than the general population. That was after the Secretary of State told the House that these data did not exist. Given that, and his offensive remarks earlier this week—referring to people without disabilities as “normal”—when will the Prime Minister take control and respond to my call for the Work and Pensions Secretary to be investigated for breaching the ministerial code?”

Here is the Ministerial code. Ministers are also expected to observe the seven Nolan Principles, which are the basis of the ethical standards of conduct that is expected of all holders of public office. 

Last year, I sent David Cameron a reminder of the established standards and ethics of Public Office, as the Coalition had exempted themselves, but he didn’t respond and it didn’t make any difference.

It’s true that the Department of Work Pensions (DWP) has admitted falsifying testimonies in leaflets. The DWP’s own data does indicate that people on incapacity benefits are four times more likely to die than other people in the general population. Iain Duncan Smith did tell MPs that this data did not even exist. Then he told them it did.

Let’s be frank here, Iain Duncan Smith has established a culture where it’s acceptable to lie, even his Curriculum Vitae is comprised of  Machiavellian, narcissistic-inspired confabulations – he’s qualified only in absolute and utter tosh, he graduated without Honour. Or a degree.

And it’s truly priceless that Iain Duncan Smith or David Cameron can accuse anyone of misrepresenting statistics with a straight face, given the large number of official rebukes the Tories have had from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for manipulating or  misrepresenting statistics and telling lies.

Today, Debbie received the following written response to her question from the Prime sinister Minister:

Cameron letter on claimant deaths

Cameron letter on claimant deaths

I’ve already addressed a lot of the content above, however I couldn’t help but note the apparent “policing” of Debbie’s tweets. The response isn’t a rational or reasonable one, and certainly not of a standard that is expected of a prime minister.

How can the use of fake statements from fake characters about fictitious “benefits” of harsh sanctions – the arbitrary and punitive removal of lifeline income to support people in meeting basic survival needs – ever “help claimants and advisers to understand the benefit system”?

How is telling lies about the impact of policy and constructing fake positive testimonies ever “illustrative”? That was no “error”: it was an intentional, deceitful act designed solely to mislead the public and to justify the Conservative’s crass and primitive behaviourist approach to what was once our social security.

As is the insistence that “the statistics showed it is quite wrong to suggest any causal link between the death of an individual and their benefit claim.” Tosh. The statistics showed no such thing,  they did not demonstrate that there is no existing causal link – but the data was presented in a way that intentionally obscures such a link. That does not mean we can conclude there’s no connection between increased mortality and the Conservative “reforms” at all.

Whilst we are warned not to draw inferences of causal links from the statistics, the prime minister thinks that it’s perfectly appropriate to do just that himself. Yet there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support his denial of a causal link.  The statistical data does not falsify or refute the proposition that such a link exists. We have plenty of recorded evidence, however, to support our proposition that Tory policies are actually harming people.

Tory policies do. Margaret Thatcher’s policies caused premature deaths, too, and her Cabinet were far less harsh towards sick and disabled people than Cameron’s government. A research report which looked at over 70 existing research papers, concludes that as a result of unnecessary unemployment, welfare cuts and damaging housing policies, the former prime minister’s legacy includes the unnecessary and unjust premature death of many British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and loss of well-being.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you inflict stress and harm on people who are already ill, by withholding their lifeline support, by constantly reassessing them and telling them they are fit for work when they clearly are not, by invalidating their experiences, by forcing them to fight for the means of survival – without the means of survival, it will probably exacerbate any illness and quite possibly this will kill them.

As I discussed earlier today, Cameron and his government have consistently displayed an absolute lack of concern for sick and disabled people, who have borne the brunt of Tory austerity cuts. Yet it’s inconceivable that Conservatives don’t grasp the fact that their policies are at least potentially very harmful, and certainly very punitive in nature.

I’ve discussed many times before that Tory ideology is founded on toxic subterranean values and principles, which are anachronistic and incompatible with a society that has evolved to value democracy, human rights and the socio-economic gains from our post-war settlement.

Conservatives have always seen inequality as a necessary and beneficial element to a market driven economy, for example, and their policies tend to assemble a steeply hierarchical society, especially given their small state fetishism, which involves removing socio-economic support services and civilising mechanisms such as welfare, free healthcare and access to legal aid.

Beneath the familiar minarchist, class contingent Conservative policies and neoliberal schema is a tacit acceptance of socioeconomic Darwinism, and a leaning towards eugenicist principles, expressed most clearly recently in the withdrawal of tax credit support for low paid families with more than two children, in order to “change behaviours” as Iain Duncan Smith put it. The reasoning behind this is the government believe they can “nudge” poor people into “breeding” less. Such a class contingent policy reflects a deep prejudice and also demonstrates an authoritarianism that is certainly incompatible with democracy and human rights.

(See also David Freud was made to apologise for being a true Tory in public, Paternalistic Libertarianism and Freud’s comments in context and What will the Tories suggest next. “Compassionate” eugenics?)

The Tories employ techniques of neutralization which are used to rationalise or justify acts that contravene social norms or that are illegal.  There are five basic techniques of neutralization; denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victims, condemnation of the condemners, and an appeal to higher loyalties.

The recognition of techniques of neutralisation by David Matza and Gresham Sykes happened during their work on Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association in the 1950s. Matza and Sykes were working on juvenile delinquency at the time, and they theorised that the same techniques could be found throughout society and published their ideas in Delinquency and Drift, 1964.

It was Alexander Alverez who identified that these techniques were used more broadly at a socio-political level in Nazi Germany to “justify” the Holocaust. He added a sixth technique – Disengagement and Dehumanisation.

Such techniques allow people to neutralise and temporarily suspend their commitment to societal and moral values, and to switch off their own “inner protests”, providing them with the freedom to commit deviant acts. Some people don’t have such inner protests – psychopaths, for example – but they may employ techniques of neutralization to manipulate, and switch off the conscience protests of others.

It’s clear that this is a method frequently employed by the government. The Tories systematically attempt to to distort meanings, to withhold,  or deny any evidence that may expose the impact of their draconian policies on targeted social groups.

For example, when they habitually use the word “reform”, when   referring to is cutting funding or support. and “help” and “support” is Tory-speak that means to coerce and punish. The claim that the bedroom tax ishelping” people into workorhelping child poverty– when empirical research shows that 96% of those affected by the bedroom tax can NOT downsize due to a lack of available homes in their area – is a completely outrageous lie. People can’t move as there is a housing crisis, which is due to a lack of affordable homes and appropriately sized accommodation.

How can policies that further impoverish the poorest ever “help them to into work” or alleviate poverty? It’s glib, irrational tosh from a Government that can’t do coherent, joined up thinking, and even worse, thinks that we can’t either.

Forms of social prejudice are normalised gradually, almost inscrutably and incrementally – in stages. Allport describes the political, social and psychological processes, and how techniques of persuasion – propaganda – are used to facilitate stigmatising and dehumanisation of targeted groups to justify discrimination, until the unthinkable becomes acceptable, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries.

The prejudice happens on a symbolic level first – via language – and it starts with subtlety, such as the use of divisive and stigmatising phrases like “scroungers and strivers” in the media and political rhetoric, referring to people who need support and social security as “stock”, suggesting that disabled people are not worth a minimum wage and so on.

These comments and strategies are not “mistakes”, this is how Conservatives really think. People who are prejudiced very seldom own up, and nor do bullies. They employ linguistic strategies, deceitful, diversionary and irrational responses that makes challenging them very difficult.

But as history has taught us, we really must challenge them.

36626_217452248405831_532419169_nPictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Related reading:

This is an excellent, substantial collection of evidenced lies, deceits and more lies from Ian Duncan Smith, collated by Bob Ellard, researcher for DPAC The IDS Files: the truth is out there