Tag: Raquel Rolnik

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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Prime minister dismisses UN inquiry into government’s discriminatory treatment of disabled people

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has asked David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions today to publish the details of the Government’s response to the United Nations inquiry into the allegations that Conservative policies are breaching the rights of disabled people in the UK. He also asked if the government intended to co-operate with the inquiry.

Such UN investigations are conducted confidentially by the UN and officials will not confirm or deny whether the UK is currently being put under scrutiny.

However, the ongoing inquiry been widely reported by disability rights groups and campaigners. The Department for Work and Pensions has previously declined to comment on the possibility of an investigation.

Mr Corbyn used his final question to ask about the United Nations inquiry into alleged “grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people in the UK. The PM gave a dismissive response, saying the inquiry may not be “all it’s cracked up to be” and said that disabled people in other countries do not have the rights and support that “they” [disabled people] in the UK are offered. Cameron also implied that Labour’s “strong” equality legislation was a Conservative policy. However, the Equality Act was drafted under the guidance of Harriet Harman.

Jeremy Corbyn asks about David Cameron about his response to the UN inquiry at Prime Minister’s Questions

The United Nations team of investigators are expecting to meet with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, members of parliament, individual campaigners and disabled people’s organisations, representatives from local authorities and academics.

The team will be gathering direct evidence from individuals about the impact of government austerity measures, with a focus on benefit cuts and sanctions; cuts to social care; cuts to legal aid; the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF); the adverse impact of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA); the shortage of accessible and affordable housing; the impact of the bedroom tax on disabled people, and also the rise in disability hate crime.

Mr Corbyn said:

“This is deeply embarrassing to all of us in this house and indeed to the country as a whole. It’s very sad news.”

The Government’s approach to people with disabilities had been extremely controversial and been met with criticism from campaign groups. Disabled people have borne the brunt of austerity cuts, losing more income and support than any other social group, and this is despite the fact that Cameron promised in 2010 to protect the poorest, sick and disabled people and the most vulnerable.

In 2013, Dr Simon Duffy at the Centre for Welfare Reform published a briefing outlining how the austerity cuts are targeted. The report says:

The cuts are not fair.

They target the very groups that a decent society would protect:

  • People in poverty (1 in 5 of us) bear 39% of all the cuts
  • Disabled people (1 in 13 of us) bear 29% of all the cuts
  • People with severe disabilities (1 in 50 of us) bear 15% of all the cuts

The report outlines further discrimination in how the austerity cuts have been targeted. The report says:

The unfairness of this policy is seen even more clearly when we look at the difference between the burden of cuts that falls on most citizens and the burdens that fall on minority groups. By 2015 the annual average loss in income or services will be:

  • People who are not in poverty or have no disability will lose £467 per year
  • People who are in poverty will lose £2,195 per year
  • Disabled people will lose £4,410 per year
  • Disabled people needing social care will lose £8,832 per year

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said at the  Conservative party conference speech in Manchester that disabled people “should work their way out of poverty.”

The Work and Pensions Secretary has been widely criticised for removing support for disabled people who want to work: by closing Remploy factories, scrapping the Independent Living Fund, cuts to payments for a disability Access To Work scheme and cuts to Employment and Support Allowance.

The reformed Work Capability Assessment has been very controversial, with critics labeling them unfair, arbitrary, and heavily bureaucratic, weighted towards unfairly removing people’s sickness and disability benefit and forcing them to look for work.

The bedroom tax also hits disabled people disproportionately, with around two thirds of those affected by the under-occupancy penalty being disabled.

The United Nations have already deemed that the bedroom tax constitutes a violation of the human right to adequate housing in several ways. If, for example, the extra payments force tenants to cut down on their spending on food or heating their home. There are already a number of legal challenges to the bedroom tax under way in British courts. In principle the judiciary here takes into account the international human rights legislation because the UK has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The right to adequate housing is recognised in a number of international human rights instruments that the UK has signed up to.

UN rapporteur Raquel Rolnik called for the UK government last year to scrap its controversial bedroom tax policy. Rolnik’s report was dismissed as a “misleading Marxist diatribe” by Tory ministers, and she had been subject to a “blizzard of misinformation” and xenophobic tabloid reports.

The DWP’s sanctions regime has also been widely discredited, and there has been controvery over death statistics, eventually released by the Department after a long-running refusal to release the information under freedom of information law.

The Daily Mail has already preempted the visit from the special rapporteur, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, who is spearheading the ongoing inquiry into many claims that Britain is guilty of grave or systematic violations of the rights of sick and disabled people, by using racist stereotypes, and claiming that the UN are “meddling”. The Mail blatantly attempted to discredit this important UN intervention and the UN rapporteur before the visit.

Meanwhile, Cameron seems very keen to play the investigation down, and dismiss the impact of his government’s “reforms” on the lives of sick and disabled people.

We are a very wealthy, so-called first-world liberal democracy, the fact that such an inquiry has been deemed necessary at all ought to be a source of great shame for this government.

 

What will the Tories suggest next. “Compassionate” genocide?

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The Tory parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, Chamali Fernando sparked outrage and horror after saying mental health patients should wear wristbands to identify their conditions. Fernando was speaking at a hustings event hosted by the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public when she made the comment.

Andy Burnham, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said:

“There has been an enormous amount of work in Parliament to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health. But comments like this are so disappointing – they set us back and remind us how far we have to go. Jeremy Hunt must disown these comments, instruct his candidate to apologise and make it clear that they form no part of Conservative Party policy.”

“This proposal shows the candidate’s harmful views on mental health.

Disability and Mental Health Adviser at University of the Arts, London Annabel Crowley said.

“Research carried out by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London shows personal contact with mentally ill people is the most effective way to reduce discrimination.”

Crowley says Fernando’s proposals would only alienate the mentally ill and “further curtail their freedom,” which would encourage further stigmatization.

We need to provide adequate care and support, not blame the victims of a failing health service,” she added.

Mental Health Services are in crisis because of Coalition cuts to funding. The Government has been criticised for allowing mental health services to be cut disproportionately, as the NHS as a whole undergoes the most severe budget cut in its history. And let’s not forget that under the guise of a “policy of deinstitutionalisation,” Thatcher’s “Care in the Community” Bill was about anything but care: it was all about cutting costs, as reflected in the experiences of many people leaving long term institutional care and being left to fend for themselves in the community. “Compassionate Tories”: there is no such thing.

Dr. Pooky Kingsmith, a mental health specialist, said that she [Fernando] “fails to understand” what the wristbands would achieve “beyond increasing the stigma and prejudice already experience by mentally ill people.”

A petition has since been set up calling for Fernando to stand down in the election. The description on the petition read:

“This kind of thinking has no place in modern society and especially not in someone who is hoping to be elected as an MP.

I can’t see any possible justification in allowing Ms Fernando to continue to stand for election after showing such prejudice against the mentally ill, and if allowed to do so, shows a total disregard to the people in this country, who already have to battle against the misunderstanding and ignorance of their mental illness.”

Chamali Fernando was asked how the authorities could help the police better deal with people with mental health issues.

Fernando responded that wristbands which disclose a person’s illness could help barristers, such as herself, to better aid the public.

She said wearing colour-coded wristbands indicating the nature of the person’s condition would be helpful to professionals as “they often could not explain themselves.”

Perhaps Fernando had designs that are something like this in mind:


1936 illustration of Nazi camp ID-emblems.

The red triangle was used by the Nazis to identify social democrats, socialists, trade unionists, Freemasons and communists, for example. The pink triangle was primarily used for identifying homosexual men, and the black triangle was used to identify “asocial elements” (asozial) and “work shy” (arbeitsscheu) including those who were mentally ill, pacifists, vagrants and the Roma.

And for anyone itching to invoke Godwin’s law at this point, I suggest you hang fire and read about Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice. Whilst I am very aware that we need take care not to trivialise the terrible events of Nazi Germany by making casual comparisons, there are some clear and important parallels on a socio-political level and a psycho-social one, that I feel are crucially important to recognise.

Gordon Allport studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. In his research of how the Holocaust happened, he describes socio-political processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes acceptable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards “others” that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

The process always begins with political scapegoating of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, genocide.

As I have discussed elsewhere on this site, we have a government that uses words like workshy to describe vulnerable groups. This is a government that is intentionally scapegoating poor, unemployed, disabled people and migrants. One Tory councillor called for the extermination of gypsies, more than one Tory MP has called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people. (See also David Freud was made to apologise for being a true Tory in public.)

David Freud’s comment that disabled people are not worth the minimum wage was not a momentary lapse, nor was it unrepresentative of Tory views more generally. He is the contemptuous architect of the grossly punitive Tory Bedroom Tax that disproportionately affects households of disabled people. The Tories endorsed Freud’s discriminatory policy proposal, and savagely ridiculed the UN rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik, when she pointed out, very professionally and reasonably, that the policy contravenes human rights.

He is the same government minister that rejected suggestions that austerity policies have led to an increase in food bank use – making the jaw-droppingly astonishing suggestion that food bank charities are somehow to blame. This former investment banker and peer told the Lords that the increase in the usage of food banks was “supply led”. He said:

“If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly, food from the food banks is a free good and by definition with a free good there’s almost infinite demand.”

Poverty reduced to blame-the-individual neoliberal motivational formulae. Yet it is the government that are responsible for policies that create and sustain inequality and poverty.

We need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” and research the consequences of austerity for the vulnerable – those with the  “least broad shoulders” –  to understand that these comments reflect how conservatives think.

This is a government that is using public prejudice to justify massive socio-economic inequalities and their own policies that are creating a steeply hierarchical, society based on social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” libertarian, minarchist principles.

The Tory creation of socio-economic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of vulnerable 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 Tories’ welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision.

Let’s not forget that we were recently informed that the Tories plan to limit child benefit to the first two children because it would save money. The idea is being examined by the Conservatives, despite previously being vetoed by Downing Street because of fears that it could “alienate” parents.

Asked about the idea on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Duncan Smith said:

“I think it’s well worth looking at. It’s something if we decide to do it we’ll announce out. But it does save significant money and also it helps behavioural change.”

This is a clear indication of the Tories’ underpinning eugenicist designs – exercising control over the reproduction of the poor, albeit by stealth. It also reflects the underpinning belief that poverty somehow arises because of faulty individual choices, (as opposed to faulty political decision-making and ideologically-driven socio-economic policies), that those choices are non-rational, stereotypical, and that reducing cost to the State involves making people change their “faulty,” stereotypical behaviours.

This government’s policies are contibuting significantly to mental illness: Suicides have reached a ten year high and are linked with welfare “reforms”.

And Osborne announced in the budget that the government will be funding a “package of measures” to improve “employment outcomes” which will entail putting Cognitive Behaviour therapists in more than 350 job centres to provide “support” to those with “common mental health conditions” who are claiming employment support allowance (ESA) and job seekers allowance (JSA).

As I have written elsewhere, the government have put up an online contract notice which specifically states:

“This provision is designed to support people with common mental health conditions to prepare for and move into work, with intervention at the earliest possible point in a claim to benefit or access to the Fit for Work service.”

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is used to change how you think (“Cognitive”) and what you do (“Behaviour”). It bypasses emotions, personal history and narrative, to a large extent, and tends to focus on the “here and now.” In this case, the here and now consists of taking any job available, regardless of its suitability, or face being sanctioned.

CBT is an approach that facilitates the identification of “negative thinking patterns” and associated “problematic behaviours” and challenges them. This approach is at first glance a problem-solving approach, however, it is of course premised on the assumption that interpreting situations “negatively” is a bad thing, and that thinking positively about bad events is beneficial.

The onus is on the individual to adapt by perceiving their circumstances in a stoical and purely rational way.

So we need to ask what are the circumstances that the government are expecting people claiming benefits to accept stoically. Sanctions? Work fare? Being forced to accept very poorly paid work, abysmal working conditions and no security? The loss of social support, public services and essential safety nets ? Starvation and destitution?

The political vilification of sick and disabled people and the poor, amplified in the media, has preceded policies particularly aimed at the steady removal of State support, indicating a clear scapegoating process, and this isn’t indicative of a government that is “neglectful”- it is patently intentional, hence the pre-emptive “justification” narratives to garner public support and acceptance towards such punitive and harsh policies.

As Frances Ryan says:

“The ideology of a small state or the belief that benefits build dependency are crass, irrelevant details to what at its core is simply a decision about how to treat a human being. This is particularly damning when one person has all the power and the other is forced through economic necessity to take whatever humiliation or pain they are given. To do that to someone – let alone hundreds of thousands – is no accident. It is a conscious decision, that has been made over and over again by this government.”

I’ve consistently expressed my own well-founded, carefully considered, evidenced view that the Tories are authoritarians,  social Dawinists, and their social policies are founded on a creeping and implicit eugenics by stealth, fueled by their preference for a steeply hierarchical, unequal society, anachronistic ideas about “deserving” and “undeserving”, which belong to the 1834 Poor Law era, and a behaviourist approach to socio-economic circumstances .

In Edgbaston, Keith Joseph, (1974) announced to the world that:

“The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened … a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment.”

And in 2010, the former deputy chairman of Conservative Party, Lord Howard Flight, told the London Evening Standard:

“We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.”

These comments are not momentary lapses, nor are they unrepresentative of Tory views more generally. They reflect the true colours of the nazi nasty party.

demcracy

Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone


My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. I am disabled because of illness and struggle to get by. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others.  DonatenowButton