The ‘Bedroom Tax’: The case for reform

Bedroom tax stock photoThe Lib Dems are today proposing reforms to the Spare Room Subsidy – more commonly known on the street and in the tabloids as the ‘Bedroom Tax’. It might be a good sound bite but in reality we’re talking about a reduction in Housing Benefit, not a levy.

But that argument aside, let’s discuss what the Lib Dems are and are not proposing:

What the party is not proposing is scrapping the policy as some early media outlets erroneously claimed.

What the Lib Dems are proposing are two very simple reforms.

First. That no disabled person with a genuine medical need will see a reduction in Housing Benefit if they have a spare room – this group of people will be exempt.

Second. Whilst new social tenants will still be subject to the current rules on spare bedrooms as soon as they take up the contract. Existing Social tenants should, the party believes, be offered the choice of a suitable alternative before any reduction in Housing Benefit occurs.

The Government should not pay for spare bedrooms to remain empty, as Labour want, nor should the damaging implementation of the policy remain unreformed as Tories desire.

You might not have seen in the midst of the Reshuffle and the Data Retention bill that the first report on the impact of this policy dropped earlier this week and it doesn’t make great reading. More than half a million tenants are now in arrears despite the increase from the Government in Discretionary Housing Allowance and only 5% have been able to downsize to avoid paying for the spare room.

The policy objective, to ensure every room is used or paid for, is sound, the damage poor implementation of that policy has caused cannot now be ignored in light of that review.

Social Tenants in existing contracts should never have been asked to take a hit in Housing Benefit without also first being offered a suitable smaller choice and that is what the Lib Dems will now demand of its Coalition partner, the status quo is simply socially unjust.

No, when there is a housing shortage, when young people can’t afford to buy and struggle to make the rent and when hundreds of thousands of Families are in cramped and overcrowded homes the Government should not pay to keep spare bedrooms spare.

Labour are, let’s not forget, the party which changed the rules for those getting Housing Benefit in the Private sector in 2008 so that they could not claim for spare bedrooms. Before we hear shouts of hypocrisy from them let them first answer if the ‘Bedroom tax’ is not, in principal simply levelling the playing field for private and social tenants.

Labour also need to answer if they think the taxpayer should pay to keep vacant rooms empty. Why should home owners & private renters pay for spare bedrooms for social tenants they can’t themselves afford nor claim for?

Then there is a moral question. When there is a shortage of housing for people to move to is it right to reduce housing benefit without helping people find an alternative which avoids that first?

This is where the Lib Dems and the Tories now divide. The Conservatives were keen that this should be an immediate cost saving measure. Liberal Democrats have always been uneasy about that and are right to be so – there are nearly one million spare bedrooms which need to be filled, not paid for. This should never have been about cost savings.

People will point out there is a shortage of housing to move to. This is true, but there are plenty of people in overcrowded properties who could make use of those empty spare bedrooms which would then free up smaller properties and we cannot continue to ignore the pressing need to build more houses.

It is safe to expect to hear more from the Liberal Democrats about that in the near future.

It is nothing short of a scandal that we have allowed a social housing regime which lacks capacity yet allows spare bedrooms to go fallow as overcrowded families sleep 4 to a room.

It cannot be socially just to pay for rooms to be empty nor is it fair to fail to put in the effort to match families and individuals to suitable accommodation in swaps or fail to do what we can to promote new builds.

The Lib Dem proposals announced today will ensure that the Government spends taxpayers money wisely whilst offering people the choice to stay and pay or make way for those more in need of more room.

Frankly it’s long overdue.

Its our communication, not the leader, which has to change

TV_CameraLet’s not pretend the Lib Dems aren’t in troubled waters. Over the Coalition the party has lost activists, councillors and voters as it has struggled to deal with the twin terrors of the fall out of the greatest economic depression since the war and the 6 fold larger Conservative Party suffocating its appeal and message.

Yet the Liberal Democrats had little choice but to enter Coalition, there was no majority for a Lib-Lab pact and a minority Tory Government would have fallen at the first budget bringing economic ruin for which the Lib Dems would inevitably foot the blame.

Four years of stoicism later the party is widely credited with two things; having the courage to enter government despite the immense difficulties and dangers and being disciplined enough to stick together in the face of those pressures where lesser Parties would have been crushed.

Sadly, this latter credit was discharged this week with the demise and duplicitous behaviour of Lord Oakeshott.

Oakeshott’s remedy to tackle the parties increasing electoral challenges, however is simply wrong. Eleven months out from a general election no party of Government has the time or political capital to knife their leader, spend months bickering about who should take the reins whilst failing to govern and then spend the few months left before polls open rejigging policy and introducing the leader to a sceptical press and an apathetic public.

Nick Clegg may be painted by his opponents as a shrinking man being bullied by Tory Cabinet ministers or even the devil himself for his supposed betrayals but he is the man who took Liberals into Government for the first time in 90 years, righted the economy, created jobs and fought 300 Tories for more school funding, a cut in income tax which directly benefits 24 million of the lower paid and restoring the link between pensions and earnings.

He’s also the man who stopped those same Tories from allowing workers to be fired at will, schools to make profits, weakening the equalities act or cutting the ‘Green Crap’ which will provide jobs and clean energy for future generations.

There is a story the party can tell but they are doing a poor job of doing it so far. If the Lib Dems have to change something it’s how they communicate that story to the public.

When you talk to members of the public about the party you hear the same sort of detractions. “You sold out your principles for power” says someone who doesn’t understand the rock and hard place the party found itself in. “You gave a tax cut to millionaires” says someone who has neither heard that the top rate of tax is higher now than under Labour or that the Party has taken 3 million basic rate payers out of income tax.

“You’re not standing up to the Tories” Says someone who doesn’t know of repeated Tory frustration at Lib Dem roadblocks to their damaging policies. “You break your promises!” says someone angry that the Lib Dems broke one major commitment to ensure deliverance of many others.

The party needs a communications strategy that cuts through to voters to help them understand why it went into government, what good it’s done in government, and what bad policy it’s stopped from happening without getting drowned out by Labour spin and Magpie Tory Policy theft.

I don’t know if that’s a question of resources or messaging but it is the single biggest thing killing the party and the one thing the leadership should address to help the Liberal Democrats recover.

A new leader might get a honeymoon, although I suspect the problem is the brand not the messenger, but only the current leader can explain the journey from opposition, to government, to Liberals having, for the first time in generations, a raft of policies they’ve actually implemented which has strengthened the economy and helped millions of people ,because he’s the one who walked it.

Never waste a good crisis and if this mini one has just one positive impact it has to be a good hard look at how the Liberal Democrats are selling their time in government. A failure to do so will mean it will be the history books, not election returns, which will credit the party’s stint in power.

Now is not the time for introspection

Liberal-Democrat-badge-Some-rights-reserved-by-Paul-Walter-Newbury-UKIt’s the Sunday after the elections before. When I hung up my trainers for this election cycle I was hoping for  a bit of a break. Fortuitously it’s also a bank Holiday, better yet, recess. MPs are away until a week on Wednesday. Wonderful.

Sadly however, it seems some party members thought otherwise.

Those behind ‘Lib Dems for Change’ – and that is specifically a change of leadership – presumably a vehicle for Vince Cable, have concerns about Nick Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Now, I don’t think a change of leadership is even slightly a good idea, even if I fully understand where these people, many of them friends I respect, are coming from but that’s not to say I don’t have concerns.

Lets say Nick isn’t the most popular person, he didn’t do very well against Nigel Farage in the European Debates, much of the electorate don’t have time for him and voting for an increase in Tuition Fees was a mistake.

But that said, he does deserve some respect…

Yes, he wasn’t able to win the debates on Europe in the face of decades of tabloid myth making but he was the only party leader to take on UKIP on Europe, and is ahead of the pack.

Yes much of the electorate don’t have time for the leader of the Liberal Democrats but seeing as this has always been the case it’s not something which should shock anybody or can be fixed by a new leader, it comes with the job.

Yes, Nick Clegg signed a pledge on fees. He voted contrary to that pledge, he apologised for breaking that pledge and he has been the subject of mockery and venom ever since;

But if you think replacing a man who broke his word on fees with, say, Vince Cable, the Minister who introduced the bill which raised fees will fix the Liberal Democrats image problem as a party you can’t trust to keep to its pledges you probably do need that Bank Holiday rest you’ve denied yourself.

And this goes to the heart of why ‘Lib Dems for Change’ is a spectacularly bad idea.

First, if Nick goes, who replaces him? Vince Cable? The man who didn’t just break his fees policy but wrote the betrayal? I hear if Lembit Opik was asked he’d consider it.

Everyone else is either a minister as knee deep in the Coalition as Clegg, or utterly unknown to the wider population. The idea that there’s a King or Queen across the water untarnished by coalition, who the public are dying to hear talk about the merits of Land Value Tax is as fanciful as it is indulgent.

Second, Time. We don’t have any. The most important and least predictable General Election in generations is a mere 11 months away. Lets say Clegg goes tonight and 250 odd letter signers out of 45,000 Lib Dems rejoice. The leadership election will be finished by August, a month before Conference. We then have 7 Months until the General Election.

7 months to write a manifesto, 7 months to re-tweak our election strategy, 7 months to heal the divisions of the previous 3, 7 months to try to get the public and press to recognises our new leader, 7 months to refute accusations from the Tories that we can’t hack it and from Labour that the new leader’s just the same as the old.

That’s an impossible task, and it won’t be made any easier by:

Third, appearance. Sure, I don’t underestimate those behind this effort at all. They’ve chosen a time of acute distress for the party straight after bad election results, they’ve co-ordinated their media appearances and are building up momentum.

But to those outside the Westminster bubble this is all too clever by half. What the outside world sees is rats fighting in a sack, or porters rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship, or snout in the trough politicians worried about losing their seats, whichever tired cliché works really.

The timing is good for a coup attempt – it is simply terrible for public perception for one simple reason. This looks like MPs seeing bad results and trying to save their own skins from a wipe out that is not likely but is desired by many of detractors and it’s the last thing the party will get credit for.

Divided Parties don’t win elections, and Parties too indulgent to fight each other instead of for their supporters, talking to themselves not about their actions, won’t win votes.

Finally, there’s the wildcard elements at play. I’ve heard from more than one Journo and a well-placed Tory that if Clegg goes, so does the Coalition.

The fixed terms Parliament act sets in stone the date of the next general election but it does have a wrecking ball clause. If a motion of no confidence in the Government is passed in the Commons, or two – thirds of MPs resolve to dissolve Parliament, an election is scheduled for 25 days times.

I’m told that if the Tories can’t have plan A, seeing the Coalition out until the economic recovery is confirmed and firmly in voters’ minds, they quite like plan B. A snap general election.

The reasoning is simple. Miliband is weak, Labour are not trusted on the economy. A snap poll would shock UKIP and swing voters into either maintaining the economic recovery with the Tories or taking a gamble on Labour. If the Lib Dems are rudderless and in the throes of a leadership battle and can’t put up much of a fight under untested leadership, all the better for finishing us off.

Its what Gordon Brown should have done.

I’ve admired my party throughout this parliament. The situation is not fair. Coalition to rescue the UK from dire economic circumstance was the only credible option. We were never going to be able to implement all of our manifesto, 57 Lib Dem MP’s coming to compromise agreements with 306 Tories was always going to be called betrayal. We were never going to get everything right having spent generations out of government and we were always going to get disproportionate blame for what the government either has to do, or has got wrong and an equal amount of pain because of it.

But because of Liberal Democrats in Government we’ve provided stable government, avoided an economic crash, we’ve increased funding for schools, we’ve abolished ID cards, we’ve ended Child detention of Asylum Seekers, we’ve lowered Crime, we’ve established an economic recovery, we’ve cut the deficit, we’ve kept borrowing costs low, we’ve taken 3 million of the lowest paid out of income tax, we’ve set up a green investment bank, legislated for High Speed rail, invested in renewable clean energy, we’ve linked pensions to earnings, given young people help with hundreds of thousands of new apprenticeships and created 1.3 million Jobs.

But most importantly we’ve done what we came into politics to do. To enact our priorities in Government and leave the country in better shape at the end of this parliament than we found it in.

All of that narrative, all of that good work, all of the credit we should hope to claim for doing the right thing by the country and growing the economy could now be lost in the din of a leadership battle.

If we spend the limited time available to us between now and May 2015 fighting a civil war, not the battle to explain our record and win people back, we frankly deserve wipe out.

The dead lay no blame

Or, an essay on why 2014 should be a year of Remembrance, not scoring points

How best to teach of the Great War?

I am a graduate of history, not to say that my perspective on the terrible events of 1914 to 1918 hold more or less merit than another’s, but if you were to ask me how best to teach how an assassination of an Arch Duke in Sarajevo led to a war which tore the world order apart, unleashed the forces of Communism and Fascism in some countries and propelled the march of Democracy in others, led to class struggle and establishment resistance, drove the acceleration of technology, rewrote maps and the book on the conduct of nations, encouraged civil and human rights and led to Great Nations embarking on the folly of total war, I would suggest that you look at it from every perspective you could without dismissal of those opposed to your own.

Germany was no Evil Empire

The causes which led to the war are many, varied, interwoven and complicated.

It has been claimed by some that Britain waged war for freedom, and that Germany was not only to blame for the war, but was barbaric and autocratic in a way which offended Britain’s world view at the time as much as today.

The truth is marred by the black propaganda of the time and rose tinted insight into Britain’s supposed, superior, past. Some have claimed for instance, that the German Kaiser was all but a dictator, that Germany lacked a Parliament, that the German people and leader were barbaric and desired only to annex its neighbours.

It depresses me that the Germany of 1914 and 1939 are so confused, or seen in the same prism. The German Reichstag had free and fair elections, last held before the war in 1914. Suffrage in Germany was universal for men over the age of 25 – the widest and most progressive franchise in Europe at the time. Trade unions operated freely and a multi party system existed.

The Bundesrat – upper house – whose members were elected as part of the Reichstag had the power to restrict the Kaiser’s ability to declare war – not that it was used, but it stands against the powers of the parliament of the UK at the time, or even today, which cannot prevent the executive from making war and did not vote to declare war.

By contrast the UK House of Commons had only just achieved supremacy over the Unelected Lords in 1911, only 60% or so of men in the UK could vote and only if they owned property, land or paid a land rent, to say nothing of the lack of female suffrage or a representative political establishment.

Freedom, and democracy in Britain, let alone her colonial possessions, was embryonic compared to what it would later become. Whilst Germany was far from perfect, to discount it as uncivilised or lacking the freedoms of other European Countries is to buy into the anti German Sentiment of the time and discredit a nation more comparable to Britain in 1914 than most are willing to consider. The Germans were as proud of their society and civilization as the British and enjoyed comparable freedom and democracy.

To say that the Germans were in some way barbaric or morally inferior to the British is to pander to the cheap racism of the time, to say their tactics or honour was lacking is to employ a double standard.

For every use of German chemical weapons, it is forgotten that the French deployed them first and the British used them as well, for anecdotes of German Brutality there are examples of British, the sinking and summary execution of the crew of U-27 was hushed up, for example. German unrestricted Submarine Warfare was itself a response to the British blockade of Germany which caused as many as 500,000 German civilian deaths through starvation.

It is a common thought that the Germany army was particularly harsh, but little thought is given to the British Army’s attitude toward the 306 British Personal executed by their commanders, some as young as 16, for crimes such as sheltering outside of the trenches or who suffered from ‘cowardice’ in the face of shell shock. The brutal reality is that all sides have questions to answer.

Nor is it fair to suggest that Germany’s militarism or desire for Great Power status or territory was unique or even remarkable. Germany sought to obtain the same status, through the same means as any of her rivals in Europe and the Pre War years were marked by the Scramble for Africa, the Dreadnought Battleship Arms race and a half dozen crises  around the world which could have led to war.

It is quite something for the descendants of the British Empire, which had the greatest Navy by far, standing armies on five continents, the greatest extent of territory of any power, the greatest number of people under one banner and territorial ambitions from the Sudan to Afghanistan and China to point at Germany and call it out for its militarism, desire for territory or imperial pretensions.

France desired the return of Alsace-Lorraine, Austria-Hungary desired the Balkans, Russia desired expansion to the Mediterranean. Britain sought in its foreign policy to contain Germany and ensure the status quo in order that her own power was maintained.

Had it not been for the invasion of neutral Belgium, Britain would still have intervened to ensure France did not fall. Asquith, in his statement to the Commons on the 6th August spent as much time outlining the threat to France and her colonies and the fear of German domination of Europe for Britain’s position as he did the violation of Belgian Territory, war would still have come and it was in Britain’s self interest to fight it.

All of these competing interests were reasons the war came about as important as Germany’s motivations, which stemmed as much from fear of the other powers as her desires to extend her own power.

Moreover, to suggest that a German Infantryman and a British Infantryman were fundamentally different is fundamentally wrong. Men on the front lines had families, jobs and the same motivating desires, to fight for Flag, King and Country, nationalism and pride. The absence of competing political ideology as a driver for war is what sets the First World War apart from the Second.

A German soldiers’ desire to fight, in defence of their country and their way of life, was no different from a British or French Soldiers’ motivation and no less keenly felt, The Germans fought for ‘freedom’ too. These were people, and I place an emphasis on ‘people’ who, in the first Christmas of the war, put down their rifles and played football in no man’s land. The Germans were no more or less evil, barbaric or civilised than anyone else who fought.

‘Necessity’ and Realpolitiks

This is not to say there is moral equivalence between all acts by all sides of the war. The Invasion of Belgium at the outbreak of hostilities by Germany violated all international norms for the respect of neutrality – something the German Chanceller, Bethman-Hollweg, told the Reichstag at the time – and gave a just casus belli for Britain to enter the war – but at the same time his government saw it as a necessary evil to avoid Germany’s defeat in a two fronted war.

The Schlieffen Plan, which had origins ten years before the war, was not a plan for conquest and territorial expansion, as most claim it to be, but a desperate and flawed defensive contingency on the basis that offense is the best defence and that conflict was now inevitable.

This confusion between defensive contingency and expansionist design in contemporary British views of Germany’s offensive leads politicians like Boris Johnson to ask “Why was it necessary to follow up some rumpus in Sarajevo by invading France?”

I find it hard to understand Boris’s seeming inability to comprehend what led up to that decision, something most learn during their GCSE’s. By August 1914 Germany faced a war on two fronts between Russia and France on account of Germany’s alliance with Austria-Hungary, Russia’s decision to mobilise against Austria following Austria’s declaration of war against Serbia and France’s assumed and promised military support for Russia in the event of war with Germany.

Germany faced a choice, to take the initiative to avoid a war on two fronts which might meet some success, or delay, and succumb to a defensive war against two or three powers it could not possibly win.

You can disagree that the means justified Germany’s ends, and I do, but I’m not sure Britain could say that, in the same situation, it wouldn’t have prioritised expedience over defeat.

Indeed, as Field Marshall, Sir Douglas Haig put it, explaining why the British ‘Attacked Whenever Possible’ at the wars conclusion:

“the object of all war is victory, and a purely defensive attitude can never bring about a successful decision, either in a battle or in a campaign. The idea that a war can be won by standing on the defensive and waiting for the enemy to attack is a dangerous fallacy, which owes its inception to the desire to evade the price of victory”

For the Germans, knocking out one of her two enemies early and avoiding defeat was a matter of survival not of design, the common myth is that Germany thought a war against France would be ‘easy’ If that were true Germany would not have considered the need for an elaborate pincher movement to defeat France early on, and if it was a matter of design, you’d have to believe that the most professional and best trained Army in Europe would go against 2000 years of military wisdom and deliberately plan a war on two fronts they knew they would lose.

This idea Germany wanted a war of conquest further disregards the Kaiser’s appeal to Russia to demobilise which was eventually ignored, his appeal to France to abandon its alliance with Russia which was rebuffed, his well know views that he was outplayed by his cousins, the Tsar of Russia and King of Britain, his fear for Germany’s survival, German Frustration that Austria-Hungary overplayed her hand, and her campaign aims to militarily defeat France, not occupy her (the Schlieffen Plan specifically forbade the taking of Paris, for instance) and then defend herself against a Slow to mobilise Russia.

For those who think Germany ‘war mongered’ by standing by and giving her full support to her Ally, Austria–Hungary over Serbia after the assassination of a member of the Austrian Heir, even in the face of war with Russia, might reflect what Business was the Balkans of Russia, what role France’s commitment to her treaty partner in Russia and motivation to regain territory lost in 1871 had on escalating tensions, or why the only possible response to a violation of Belgium’s neutrality by Germany for the British was war?

That is not to say that Germany’s Belgian folly, borne of the desperation to avoid the encirclement and slow death on two fronts she eventually suffered should be disregarded or downplayed, but it is to appeal for thought on the whole circumstances of a war fought across an entire continent, not just on the Western Front.

All must share some blame

To lay the blame solely and squarely at Germany’s door for the folly of a 6 strong great power conflict, to pretend that German Militarism, Imperialism or desire for expansion and great power status was exceptional or unique in the company of the Great, Military, Colonial and Imperial powers of Russia, France, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and yes, the leading Naval power of the day, the largest Empire of all time and the originator of modern imperialism itself, Great Britain, her empire and dominions, is to ignore both the context of the period and to continue the great folly of Versailles, that there were good empires and bad ones.

France wished to settle accounts over Alsace-Lorraine, Britain had been motivated for decades to maintain her power and contain Germany as her rival, Austria-Hungary saw an opportunity to extend her influence in the Balkans and failed to show restraint, Serbia failed to show some contrition and Russia wished to expand her own influence in the Balkans and deny it to others.

The circumstances of the outbreak of the First World War are complicated and must be understood through the power plays of all its protagonists. Germany, as Much as France and Britain found herself entangled in a web of their own making perched on a brink no one would back away from.

The general feeling in London, Paris and Berlin was some relief that war was underway and would be over soon and in the main, a great desire for war and for a decision on the battlefield.

From Germany’s point of view, there was no alternative. Her decisions and presumptions, led by a fear of the consequence of delay which would lose her her advantage, inflamed the situation, but Germany did not cause a war which, by the time the first German troops marched into Luxembourg on the morning of the 2nd August 1914 was already underway in the east and inevitable in the west.

To seek to blame just one country for the outbreak of war is to avoid scrutinising the shortcomings of others, a general failure to draw back, the circumstances which led to the assumptions which led so disastrously to war and to display not just an anglo-centric view of events, but a partial one at that.

It is to peddle the great myth, that there is an easy answer to a very complex and complicated question.

The truth is, all must share some blame, to some degree or other, for the outbreak of World War in August 2014, be it through paranoid assumption, reckless desire, nationalistic fervour, or a desire to settle scores of blood repaid.

And that terrible price was paid, in blood, by men the world over, by men from Lancashire, and Baden, Burgundy and Galicia, Delhi, Gondar, Wellington, Darwin, Moscow, Turkey, Iowa and Belgrade and a thousand other places, nations, towns and villages. All blood ran red.

You can pontificate about who was to blame the most, whose generals were quickest or careless to grasp the terrible tempo of modern warfare and the Orchestra of new weapons available, who suffered the most, and pivot about for party political or national pride if you wish but it will never change the fact that those men who fought for King and Country, or mere Survival, are united in death and mud thanks to the follies of leaders the world over.

It would be to our political class’s credit if they were to mark the centenary of the Bloodiest Conflict the world had yet seen with dispassionate sober reflection, and not chest thumping pride. The men who fought on Flanders field, who died in trenches east and west, who landed on Gallipolis’s shore and fought on sea and in air are all but gone, their memory deserves better than a blame game.

And we are skipping the key point. That we should make sure it never ever happens again. This centenary is not about national pride, but humanity itself squandered for the sake of national pride. There is an important difference.

A forced Caesarean? Concerns still linger

The story of an Italian mother who was sectioned under the mental health act, forced to undergo a Caesarean Section and who had her child taken from her to be put into care and then put up for adoption is a harrowing one.

I will say from the outset that I do not assert  that Childrens Services applied for the Court order granting an enforced Caesarean under general anesthetic and with force, as per the Judgment by Justice Mostyn

Paradoxically, considering my blogs title, I rarely do diary write ups on stuff I’ve been working on but, declaring my employment interests, neither does John Hemming make the above assertion, His initial write up  asserts that the story starts with:

“a pregnant mother visiting the UK for a training course lasting only two weeks’ and ends with ‘her baby being taken through a forcible caesarean and then placed for adoption for the usual spurious reasons that are used”

Nor is it fair, to say John has an axe to grind against Childrens Services. Most care and social workers do extraordinary work in very trying  circumstances, but it is quite right to criticise where there is failure, especially in gathering evidence to inform decision making as heart breaking, long lasting and grave of consequence as adoption or invasive surgery.

I quite agree when the current head of the Family Court, Sir James Munby states that “since the abolition of the death penalty the family courts hold the most drastic powers of any tribunal – the power to take a baby away from a mother for life” 

Mr Hemming is primarily concerned that the law is followed, that those arguing that a Judge should authorise drastic powers provide evidence of the highest standard and that Justice is seen to be done, family law and the court of protection has to be subject to scrutiny and transparency.

And it is not as though Local Authorities are without their faults - this case from 2012 is an appeal Judgement in the case of two Slovakian Children who had been put up for adoption in the UK. Mr Hemming, myself and Julie Haines, who acts as a Lay Advisor for Mr Hemmings advocacy group Justice for Families assisted the Maternal Grandmother and the Slovak Government in appealing the adoption order and having the Children placed with the Maternal Grandmother.

As you can read, the local authority in this case comes in for a lot of flak in terms of failing to follow the directions of the Appeal Court and general intransigence.

The performance of the local authority since seems to me, albeit without the fullest investigation, lamentable. We have not had any evidence from officers of the county council, which might of course explain or justify what on the correspondence seems to have been almost a conscious endeavour to defy the direction and pace for transition clearly set out in the judgment of the majority on 16 November”

Its worth noting that the Slovak Authorities in this case were not properly informed or consulted on the future of their citizens and that it was found that the Grandmother had been unduly discarded as an option for custody of the Children.

The children are now under Grandmothers custody in Slovakia instead of adopted in the UK. These points are both important in the case of Ms Pacchieri and I’ll come to that later.

Nor should we absolve the Local Authoritiey of their attitude toward this case, they may not have been party to the Mostyn ruling authorising the Casearean, but they were, according to Queens Counsel, planning to have the baby removed using police powers, against the advice of Doctors that the child and mother should be together in a mother and baby unit,

In fact the order states: “I offered advice to the local authority (which were not a party to or represented in the proceedings, or present at the hearing) that it would be heavy-handed to invite the police to take the baby following the birth using powers under section 46 of the Children Act 1989.”

Whilst I would personally hesitate to use language to suggest that Childrens Services ‘snatch’ Babies for Adoption, one does have to wonder where the Local Authority was coming from and, in the absence of the transcript or Judgement for an interim care order I can only speculate about their intentions, which I shall avoid doing.

The Mostyn Judgement does, however raise a number of concerns – also raised by Birthrights and Dr Nell Munro of Mental Health and Capacity law blog, regarding the accuracy of the evidence presented to the Judge, whether the test for Mental Incapacity met both section 2 and section 3 of the Mental Health Act and the absence of Ms Pacchieri’s views from the case, both that she wished for a natural birth before she lost capacity in the legal sense, and her desire to be with the baby as well as a lack of consideration as to whether the doctors advice regarding risk justified the procedure.

Both the blogs I cite raise grave concerns on all those points better than I could. Chiefly as regards to whether it was properly tested as to whether Ms Pacchieri did or did not have capacity and whether or not Ms Pacchieri was consulted, at all, let alone sufficiently.

As Dr Nell Munro discuss’ in his thoughts on whether Ms Pacchieri did meet the section 3 test of the Mental Health Act, to quote:

“the judgment does not tell us why she met the further requirements of being unable to make a decision under s.3 MCA. To be unable to make a decision a person must be unable to understand, retain, use or weigh or communicate their decision even after all necessary practical assistance has been provided to them. The judgement contains no discussion of what efforts have been made to discuss birth planning with AA, nor of whether she understands the consequences of refusing a caesarean section

This does not mean AA had capacity at the time. Only that the judgement does not communicate that she did not.”

The application was very last minute and rushed needlessly when there had been up to as many as 10 weeks (June 13th – August 23rd) to prepare, it is also evident from the transcript that no one was well briefed – Counsel for the NHS mention a rush leading to one document being printed with missing alternate pages, the QC instructed for the mother, appears to have neither spoken with nor met her and is given documents to read at the hearing itself.

The nature of the late in the day application meant that any delay might increase the risk to the mother and child and would, in my opinion, put undue pressure on a Judge to rush a judgement.

If a birth plan had been initiated before hand and an order sought earlier this could have been handled in such a better way. They had 10 weeks to plan a better course of action and ended up traumatizing the very person they considered so vulnerable, to say nothing of the mental health implications of someone not being told they are about to give birth through an invasive surgery waking up in an unfamiliar place after surgery.

It is also my concern that the NHS diagnosed and were treating Ms Pacchieri for the wrong condition whilst she was in the UK and this may have contributed to her lengthy period, 10 weeks, of illness.

Some have suggested this is based on ‘under-informed speculation’ but it is not. It is based on a reading of both the transcript of the hearing of the 23rd August 2013 and the Judgement of the hearing of the 1st February under Judge Newton regarding adoption.

In Justice Mostyn’s hearing Counsel for the Applicant, Mid-Essex NHS Trust, Miss Burnham, stated:

“My Lord, it is said that she suffers from a schizophrenic disorder, which is psychotic in nature and she is currently under section 3. My Lord, that is as detailed as the identification of the disorder goes. It is in the report of Dr. Adimulam, which is at your clip 4. It is the second document entitled “private and confidential”

Dr Adimulam is the treating consultant psychiatrist in the UK who produced two reports on Ms Pacchieri in August 2012.

It is, however, well established that Ms Pacchieri suffers from a Bipolar Disorder, and, in Judge Newton’s Judgement of 1st February 2013 – with the benefit of 6 months further consideration as well as the fact that Ms Pacchieri has recovered following treatment in Italy – he states 3 times that she suffers from Bipolar and has done so since 2007 and been treated for it since 2008.

Newton does not mention schizophrenia or psychosis and if the medical evidence supported that Ms Pacchieri suffers from this condition, he would have mentioned it.

I am happy to admit I am not a medical expert, but Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia are not the same condition. Don’t take my word for it Bipolar UK stressed in a press release on mental health awareness in the workplace that “mental health advocates need to be more specific about different conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder”

They are definitely two separate disorders which differ enough to warrant the NHS giving different sets of treatment advice for Schizophrenia  and Bipolar so it is of some concern that the NHS told the Judge Ms Pacchieri suffered (and presumably was treated for) a different disorder from the one Judge Newton states she has had since 2007.

It would also explain why Ms Pacchieri was so Ill whilst under treatment in the UK for 5 months between June and November, but made a rapid recovery between November and February 1st, in time for the Adoption hearing after returning to Italy.

Leaving for Italy may have damaged her case in Judge Newtons eyes, but staying in the UK wasn’t helping her either.

Moreover If Ms Pacchieri was being treated for the wrong condition for the 10 weeks leading up to the Birth, and the Judge relied on an inaccurate diagnosis of “a schizophrenic disorder, which is psychotic in nature” in order to be satisfied that she lacked capacity, then there is the potential she did have capacity or that had she been correctly treated she would have had capacity returned.

I also suspect that this diagnosis would have affected the thinking of the Local Authority when it came to requesting a police presence to remove the child, or when they proceeded to an interim care order and in deciding if the mother was fit to care for the child with help from the family.

There is also the concern that the Italian Authorities, both the Consulate General in London and the Central Authority in Rome (Our equivalent of the Official Solicitor) is entirely absent from consideration in both of the published Judgements.

Ms Pacchieri is an Italian Citizen, habitually resident in Italy and was only here for a two week training course at Stansted with Ryanair. She had either completed or was close to completion of that course and planned to leave the UK shortly.

One has to wonder at what point between June and August it might have occurred to the NHS trust or the Local Authority that it would have been in the mothers best interests if she was repatriated to Italy to give birth, surrounded by her family, friends and doctors and social workers who were familiar with her condition and would have been caring for her during her pregnancy before she arrived in the UK.

One also has to wonder what implications for Human Rights violations under European Treaties this throws up.

Here Essex County Council come in for some flak, their timeline of events includes a comment that “Mother applied to Italian Courts for order to return the child to Italy in May 2013. Those courts ruled that child should remain in England”

In actual fact Essex have omitted the fact that the lower court in Florence, to which that refers, found itself incapable of making a judgement and passed the case to a Tribunal in Rome, which ruled, either in September or October, we are still having the full Judgement translated into English and I will endeavor to link to it, but it appeared in the Italian press some days ago (I will not link to that report because it names the child)  “that it cannot recognise the ruling of the English court because it is contrary to Italian and international norms of public order”

I can understand spin, but leaving out that the Italian Courts consider this case against international law, and leaving the impression that the Italian Courts think that the child should ‘remain in England’ serves only to give a false impression, whether that is intended or not.

Ms Pacchieri had rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to have consular support. This Convention allows someone detained by another country to have access rights to Consular support. The Courts in England also had a responsibility under Brussels II BIS Council Regulation (EC) No 2201/2003 to consider “Transfer to a court better placed to hear the case” under article 15, Under Article 55 UK Central Authorities and Courts are required to co-operate with other Central Authorities and Under Article 56

“Where a court having jurisdiction under Articles 8 to 15 contemplates the placement of a child in institutional care or with a foster family and where such placement is to take place in another Member State, it shall first consult the central authority or other authority having jurisdiction in the latter State where public authority intervention in that Member State is required for domestic cases of child placement.”

There is some confusion as to when the UK Local Authorities contacted the Italian Consulate General or the Italian Central Authority, we have had contact with the Italian Central Authority (and that is not the same as the Court in Florence) this week who were not aware of the case, and given there is no record of the Italian Consulate General visiting or attempting to intervene in the case from June 2012 until she returned to Italy in October or November under guard there is a real concern as to whether international law has been respected.

I have been in touch with the Italian Consulate and made an FOI request to Esssex County Council to establish the facts, but, going back to the Slovakian case I highlighted above, one of the reasons that appeal was won was due to a lack of contact between Surrey County Council and the Slovakian Central Authority, which led to the Slovakian Government intervening in the case.

It is also probable that this, together with the Rome Tribunal Judgement, is why the Italian Government has been reported as having hired solicitors with the intention of intervening in this case.

Like the Slovakian example, we could see another European Country go to court over UK adoptions policy and the actions of Social Services.

To add to the concern on this point is a 2011 FOI response from Essex County Council regarding non UK children in care  (Ref ECC-015030-11) I’ll add the questions and response to Essex’s policy toward notifying countries of non UK national children in care verbatim but the essential answer is We do not have any contact with High Commissions or Embassies

1. What is the Local Authorities policy for notifying High Commissions and Embassies (their Consular Welfare Sections) regarding non-UK national children that are? 
A. Taken in to Care 
B. Being Adopted

2. What is the Local Authorities policy for enabling High Commissions and Embassies Consular Welfare access visits to non-UK children in its care and prior to adoption?

3. Has the Local Authority sought any legal or other advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office regarding High Commissions and/or Embassies Consular Welfare visits to non UK children in its care?

4. Has the Local Authority refused any High Commission or Embassy Consular Welfare visits to non UK children in it’s care and if so how many?

We do not have any contact with High Commissions or Embassies.

6. How many High Commissions and Embassies Consular Welfare Sections 

in these cases as in 5. A. & B. above were:
A. Notified
B. Were not notified To High Commissions and Embassies Consular
Welfare Sections

We do not have any contact with High Commissions or Embassies.”

These are non UK national Children being put into care and adopted in England. As far back as 2011 Essex has not been notifying those countries High Commissions or Embassies of what they are doing to non UK national Children.

This case is, on a human level, tragic, terrifying and worrying. It also draws up concerns on a procedural and legal level. It is also, worryingly, not a one off.

Was it right to publish? Regardless of the accuracy of the initial reports about who obtained the initial order allowing the Caesarean this case throws up a multitude of issues, from how we treat people Judged without capacity to how court hearings held in secret operate, to the rights and wrongs of a care and adoption system which needs to treat the people involved with the utmost sensitivity.

This story is not about press accuracy, its about how we treat our fellow human beings.

Justice should be seen to be done, and it should be open to scrutiny, yet the Court of Protection and the family courts often operate in the dark. Another recent example is the case of Wanda Maddicks in the court of protection, imprisoned for contempt of court without a public judgement or even her name being published, quite wrong to jail someone in secret, one might consider.

The evidence presented to Justice Mostyn urging a Caesarean and authorising force was presented last minute, hours before the Caesarean was due to take place, despite there being 10 weeks to consider what course of action was best for the mother or child, leaving no time to properly consider what must be considered an extremely grave and harrowing decision.

Asking Mostyn to Judge the day before the operation, allowing no time for scrutiny, looks like the UK institutions trying to bounce a decision. The NHS and Childrens services had June till August to get it right.

This would appear to be evidence of the ““recurrent inadequacy” and “sloppy practice” Justice Munby, the current head of the family division said in September this year, is all to common in the family courts and court of protection.

“We have real concerns, shared by other judges, about the recurrent inadequacy of the analysis and reasoning put forward in support of the case for adoption, both in the materials put before the court by local authorities and guardians and also in too many judgments.” - Munby

This is not a one off. Judge’s make these decisions of utmost consequence all the time, I’ve been involved in a handful of them personally and seen Local Authorities introduce evidence at the last minute, refuse to co-operate with orders, mangle the facts and, in the Slovakian case, the Local Authority even confused a family friend acting as a translator, of being the mother in the case when asserting that she had broken a court order regarding contact.

These are decisions of a matter akin to life and death, publishing the Judgements, anonymised, in this case was important to allow public discussion of the rights and wrongs of our Social and Adoption systems, and how we treat those with mental health problems judged unable to decide for themselves.

In broad policy and human terms this case has worried me greatly since I learnt of it last week. It is, perhaps, time to open up the system and take a good look at whats going wrong.

*This article is my personal view and does not necessarily reflect the view of my employer

It’s all Nick Clegg’s Fault

Responsible for all the Worlds Ills

Responsible for all the Worlds ills

Nick Clegg has never heard of Owen Jones

Oh for such a life of pure, unadulterated bliss.

Mr Jones, however, has heard of Nick Clegg, which is reassuring for Liberal Democrats everywhere that the party is no longer being ignored by the media.

Owen is of the opinion that Clegg is guilty of “unforgivable Tory collaboration”  like he was a Nazi guard at a concentration camp or something.

Owen is pretty annoyed that Nick Clegg might question why Economic Immigrants should automatically get benefits, which Ed Miliband questioned back in January.

Mr Miliband said immigrants’ rights to benefits in the UK “should be looked at” in the future.

“Yes, that is an issue that should be looked at,” Mr Miliband said. “Of course that’s an issue that should be looked at, the length of entitlement to benefits and how quickly people can get them.

“All of these issues would be on the table as we seek to manage our relationship with the European Union, and as we seek to manage migration. I actually think that diversity helps our country. But it can’t just work for some and not for all.”

I suppose that makes Ed Miliband guilty of “unforgivable Tory collaboration” as well then, for shame

That said, given that the party Owen Jones wants in government locked up children of those claiming Asylum and Nick Clegg ended that he can shut the hell up about who scapegoats immigrants as far as I’m concerned.

Still, according to his mate, Rufus Hound, whom Owen has RT’d, Clegg’s list of unforgivable transgressions includes U-turns on Education, Trident and Iraq

Wait, Iraq? We’re blaming Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems for u-turning on Iraq now? Well I say we, I mean Labour voting leftie luvviees with about as much political memory as a 5 year old Goldfish.

Its popular for Labour types to have a pop at Nick Clegg. He broke his promise on Fees, Labour never ceases to remind people. 

As if Labour didn’t promise not to introduce fees in 1997, and break that promise, as if Labour didn’t promise not to introduce top-up fees in 2001, and break that promise

And as if the Browne review was not introduced by Labour Business Secretary Lord Mandelson and as if, had Gordon Brown somehow managed to remain in power in 2010,  Labour would have ignored the recommendations of their own review, which called for unlimited fees, and cut tuition fees. 

Of course, in Owen Jones’ world the left have never, ever, broken a promise or done anything remotely wrong.

They didn’t trial the under occupation pilot ‘hated’ bedroom tax in 2001, they definitely built enough houses to prevent a housing crisis between 1997 and 2010 (Building 130 council houses in 2004 did met supply) regulation of the city was brilliant, the government did not run a deficit ever year from 2004 onwards, youth unemployment did not go up to a million, there was no debt crisis.

Labour estimates for immigration were always 100% accurate, they did not call for the NHS budget to be cut in 2010, they did not trial NHS privatisation, they didn’t rack up huge Private Finance Initiative debt, they scrapped Trident, they didn’t overspend on IT projects or Military Procurement, Armed Forces Personnel always had the best equipment.

Labour were always the Party of civil Liberties, they campaigned against ID Cards, they fought against 90 days detention without charge, they didn’t try to deport gay and Lesbian people like Pegah Emambakhsh, to Iran facing the death penalty, they didn’t lock up child asylum seekers and they would never extraordinary rendition anyone to a country where they could be tortured.

And they definitely, did not, would never have taken part in an Invasion of Iraq which cost at least 100,000 lives

And if any of that did happen, its Nick Cleggs Fault.

Why Labour is wrong about the Bedroom tax – and so is the Coalition

Ok, so this makes no statistical sense, yet is nonetheless statistically accurate...

Not an accurate Venn Diagram, more a parody of the Joke of Britain’s housing policy

Last night the Labour Party valiantly fought for opposition without alternatives by calling a vote on the ‘bedroom tax’ which is not a tax, it’s a reduction in Housing Benefit for someone of working age if they have a spare bedroom in Council Housing, with exemptions.

Labour would have you believe that People with a spare bedroom in subsidised homes for the needy should keep them whilst hundreds of thousands of needy families remain in overcrowded accommodation, 3 or 4 to a room in the private sector with no entitlement to claim for a spare room.

Labour are also, let’s not forget, the party which changed the rules for those getting Housing Benefit in the Private sector in 2008 so that they could not claim for spare bedrooms and were considering doing the same in the Social Sector, which is what gives the Coalition covering fire today. The only rationale in this debate, bitterly disappointingly, is to save money.

Either Housing Benefit should pay for need, or it should pay to cover a whole home, but different rules for people in equal need, but in different forms of housing, is neither fair nor equitable. Especially when those in private houses are just as in need and paying far higher rents.

So no, scrapping the ‘bedroom tax’ in principal wouldn’t be fair, Labour, you guys changed the rules in the private sector, there is a huge government deficit and damned if Labour could come up with an alternative proposal.

Of course this doesn’t mean the Coalition have it right either. This policy has the right goal with a piss poor clapped out, immobile vehicle for delivery.

There are hundreds of thousands of families in overcrowded accommodation, or in private housing with sky high rents who would do pretty much anything to get that 3 bedroom council house a Hypothetical Granny – which everyone with a ‘what about the old people’ scarcity of argument pulls out in any debate like this – has been occupying alone for 50 years because she is entitled to stay there for life, but she isn’t moving.

First, there is nowhere for her to go, there are few places she could downsize to, second, it’s her house for life and she don’t want to go, third, she’s exempt from the ‘bedroom tax’ because she’s a voting pensioner no one wants to piss off.

So she stays, those spare bedrooms go unused and the cut in housing benefit doesn’t change a thing except make it harder for thousands of families in overcrowded accommodation.

Congratulations Iain Duncan-Smith. In a market rigged in favour of those who brought property cheap before most people unable to buy today were born, where there has been next to no extra supply and which affords older people every advantage to win their vote, you’ve managed to make pensioners as a group even better off. Well Done.

The coalition did change the rules to end the ‘House for life’ entitlement of anyone who gets a council house tenancy in the 2011 Localism Act – now there are 5 year rolling review periods available and anyone who can fend for themselves or has more space than they need is told to leave and make way for someone in need – this is good, a social policy based on need, not entitlement, is indispensable.

The problem is the coalition didn’t make this change to existing tenants, instead hoping to nudge people out with a 14% reduction in their housing benefit.

This cop-out means anyone who had a council house before 2011 doesn’t get reviewed. So council tenants with a lot of spare bedrooms like RMT boss Bob Crow, who pays £150 a week rent and earns £115,000 a year gets to keep their cheap as chips rent house paying just 14% a month more, others get to stay in much needed large houses with lots of empty bedrooms at marginal, and less than market, extra cost whilst those who need those empty bedrooms pay far more for less.

And that’s not to mention the total screw up over those who have spare bedrooms but need them for genuine purposes or those whose income and outgoings are so borderline they can’t pay – such as disabled people who can’t share their room with their partner, or a disabled couple who can’t work, for instance, especially if they have adaptations which make moving expensive and exacting.

There could have been a better way

It would have been far better if the Coalition hadn’t decided to tidy around the edges and just went in and cleaned up the mess: Housing supply, changing entitlements for pre-existing council tenants and only then spare rooms.

The ‘Bedroom tax’ should still exist, but reductions to Housing Benefit should apply only after existing tenants have been offered a viable opportunity to downsize, taking into account the local community and their lives around work, schools, family and friends and chosen to stay in the bigger property.

Council Housing should be based on need, and housing is scarce, the 5 year reviews should be extended to everyone in Social Housing and those who don’t need the support should make way for those who do. If it’s good for new tenancies, it’s good for old.

We need more houses overall. Easing planning restrictions in London to build one mile out toward the M25 would provide enough space for 1 million new houses, easing planning restrictions in zones 2-5 could provide another million and rejuvenating the economies of cities like Liverpool and Stoke, with spare housing, would help to relieve the demand on overburdened areas. Any party which makes building more houses a priority has a good shout on, and deserves to win, the next general election.

The Venn Diagram at top was a satirical take on This report from Shelter, but any country which puts room for housing on a par with room for one sport should look at itself and despair. We’re bankrupting ourselves, impoverishing our young people and leaving families in desperate, overpriced accommodation for the sake of not building on 1-2% of the UKs available space.

We use as much land for golf courses in England as we do for homes? We set aside as much land for a few thousand to wander around with small balls and large pieces of Steel at the weekends as we do to house 63 Million People? Shameful.

Whilst ministers are too timid to ask a Granny in a council house to downsize and content to see 250,000 people in overcrowded homes, whilst the opposition would rather make partisan points than come up with a credible plan to tackle our housing shortage and whilst successive governments fail to build housing to meet demand, use as many spare bedrooms as they can or fail to make it easier for house builders to build houses, we’re stuck, in our parents basement, blinking in the dark.

Here’s a gauntlet, Russell Brand. Put up or shut up.

Britain loves an enthusiastic amateur. 

Does anyone know what 'Anonymous' is meant to look like?

SMS out “Does anyone know what ‘be anonymous’ is meant to look like?”

If Russell Brand is so adamant that it is capitalism that is the malaise at the centre of our society, he might do well to reflect on where he got his shoes, how he made his millions, where he got the shirt on his back or where the components of his phone where welded together – because the capitalist, democratic system he had the good fortune to be born into is a damn sight better than much of the rest of the world.

Not Croyden

Not Croydon

The Guy Fawkes Mask Russell Brand wore on Bonfire Night wasn’t made in Croydon. It was produced in a factory somewhere in the developing world, a chunk of its cost went to Time Warner who own the trademark and the fiver or so he paid kept someone, somewhere in a job, promoted the peaceful trade of goods and protected intellectual copyright.

Its a better system than the slave Labour of much of the world which had communism thrust upon it by unthinking violent revolutionaries overthrowing less free and fair systems than our own – capitalism, pure, unbridled, is not without its ill’s, but that’s why society has developed Democratic Societies which regulate that economic system.

Capitalism and Democracy is not perfect, but it’s better than the gulags and forced labour of Nazism or Communism which have been tried and found badly wanting.

If Russell believes the only things keeping Capitalism in business is lies, the military, the police and fear, he could well compare what happens in the UK, where he can get away with making that accusation and turn up to a protest which jams up the heart of one of the world’s busiest cities unrestrained by arrest, persecution or censor the next day and what would happen where he to criticise the system in North Korea, China, Russia or Cuba.

Capitalism Could learn a thing or two about using the Military to keep itself going from North Korea

Capitalism Could learn a thing or two about using the Military to keep itself going from North Korea

He would do well to educate himself on how the military is used to keep up to a quarter of the North Korean people in gulags, how the police is used to silence LGBT rights in Russia, or how fear is used in China to supress dissent.

Russia use police to beat people up a lot better than Capitalism ever did

Russia use police to beat people up a lot better than Capitalism ever did

He could also ponder what the effect the censor and lies have in much of the un-free world in keeping the population in check in those countries.

The Chinese are not allowed to talk about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests put down under the tread of tanks, we are free to remember and challenge our own societies mistakes and repressions.

Strange, I thought Capitalism was better than China at using fear, strange...

I thought Capitalism was better than China at using lies and fear to keep the system in place, strange…

Unlike much of the world where rebellion is met with the bullet, Britain is a democracy. We had our revolution and destroyed our tyrant centuries ago in the English Civil War and we ushered in the rule of a crowned republic over divine right or dictatorship in the Glorious Revolution

Unlike Tibet, Scotland joined the union of its own volition, differences, of culture, thought and opinion is not just tolerated but freely expressed and openly debated. Rational debate is voiced and heard. If Scotland wants to leave the union, it gets to vote on it, if Tibet wants to leave China, it gets occupied.

Unlike the people of the People’s Republic of China, Brand doesn’t just have a vote, and a voice he is free to express without fear or repression but also the right to participate in our Democracy.

If he thinks the system is broken he has not just the right, but the ability and crucially, freedom, to do something about it without taking to the barricades. It’s what sets Britain and other Democracies apart from the barbarism of much of the world.

And our Democracy is not perfect. It never has been and it never will be, but it is always changing, evolving and becoming more perfect.

Parliament existed in a time before it was Sovereign over the Monarch, When Charles I lost his head so did that concept. Through the Putney debates and the Levellers Movement elitism began to break down.

The poor laws were a response to the plight of those unable to help themselves, their rationale was swept away by the welfare reforms ushered in by Liberals at the start of the 20th Century. The Chartists made the argument for more equal suffrage, the Suffragette Movement extended that suffrage to women and equalised suffrage has seen Parliament become ever more responsive to the needs of the people;

Rights are fought for and won through the ballot box, be that the LGBT movements rights, abortion rights, equality of pay between the sexes or a better informed and more socially liberal societies instincts overcoming the conservatism and dogma of religious susceptibilities which came before.

Society, morals, sensibilities, the sense of justice and the standards of the age are always in flux, so too has Parliament and Politics changed with them.

We are no different now than the society of 100 years ago. Some were content, others wanted change, and the equilibrium was managed in a way which minimised chaos and harm. The dynamics of the disenfranchised and the gratified have not changed, just the time and the arguments.

British History is littered with examples of how democratic movements forced change. The point is we don’t need a revolution of bloodied martyrs in the fashion of the French Revolution, or the nonviolent resistance of Ghandi or Rosa Parks to make our point. The system we have, whilst far from perfect, allows for change without the death or disruption necessary to end the rule of the Communist Party of China, the Kim regime in North Korea or the various tyrants of the Middle East.

This Iranian Voter against  Ahmadinejad and member of the Iranian Pro -Democracy campaign has more coherence and courage in two fingers than Brand has shown in 3 interviews

This is what Democracy looks like: This Iranian Voter against Ahmadinejad and member of the Pro -Democracy campaign has more coherence and courage in two fingers than Brand has shown in 3 interviews

That’s not to say there isn’t a hell of a lot wrong with British Politics:

The head of state is unelected and rich from the public purse, women and ethnic minorities are not on an equal footing to rich, white, men, economically, socially or electorally, sexism, prejudice and racism have not been eliminated, the rich do get richer and the poor stay poor.

We trade short term gain for long term pain, passing off the environmental damage of fossil fuels, the economic restraints of debt and the problems we’re too frightened to deal with today to the agonised screams of our yet unborn children.

The voting system does not reflect the will of the people, no government has won a majority of votes since 1931 – Brand can call out the Lib Dems for not being able to scrap tuition fees, but he should also point out they got a quarter of the vote and a tenth of the seats, and limited ability to implement their promises.

He should, by the same token point out that the Tories and Labour have power wholly un-proportional to the votes they actually got, and that neither of those parties wanted to get rid of fees at all.

Instead of suggesting the young are impotent to change their lot and to not vote, perhaps he should encourage them to do so. Old people vote and they get TV licences, bus passes, help with fuel bills, more support when they get ill, housing wealth, benefit’s denied to under 25’s protected against the ravages of recession and inflation, pay less as a proportionate of their income in tax, and pensions those in their 20’s will never be able to get at ages they’ll never be able to retire at — all gratis.

Perhaps if more young people voted, more politicians, those elected to represent their electors, would give a damn about them or be of them?

As long as Politicians can ignore young people, and encouraging young people not to vote allows them to be ignored, the reason my generation and the next will be subject to back breaking debt racked up by our elders is because they choose not to get engaged with the electoral and democratic system and so get screwed by it.

But let’s not pretend it was the coalition who broke politics.

Blair was elected with a majority on a minority of the vote, so was Thatcher, the gap between rich and poor has been getting bigger since the sixties, the concept that some could live their lives on welfare is recent, housing has been getting more expensive for 40 years, as more people with power and money get older they have broken the unwritten but deeply held contract that parents pass on a better world to their children.

But if Russell Brand truly wants shake things up, do something about the problems we face, break up the big three and change things for the better then he should adopt the logic of the Capitalist Free Market system he hates and fails to understand the freedoms of; enter the market and provide competition.

Or in other words, he should put up or shut up.

If he wants to make Britain a place fairer and to his liking, if he thinks no Party represents his beliefs, or those of the majority of the British people, then he should energise the 40% of British non-voters, set up a party with ideas to make things better and run in the next election.

He’s free to do it, no one can stop him, he’ll find the police and the military respond to will of the people not the markets and, if he does get people turned off by our current politics engaged, then he’ll make our democracy a more perfect thing.

I challenge him, Mr Revolutionary without a plan, to use the freedoms hard fought for by our forbearers and emulate their example.

If he thinks that he, or someone else, could do a better job then provide the alternative women, men, ideas and values he thinks are lacking.

Should he take up that Gauntlet he should be aware that a lot of people, most, in fact, probably won’t vote for him or his ideas, nor will his efforts be easy or without opposition, that is part of the freedom of choice and thought which allows him to seize the right to make his case.

Only some of the people in this photo want to be stuck in Parliament Square

Only some of the people in this photo want to be stuck in Parliament Square

Whilst he engrossed himself amongst some face wearing protestors tonight, I hope his ego allows him to see beyond that mask and into the buses full of the commuters he held up tonight who had places to be, friends and family to see and bonfires and fireworks of their own to witness who I imagine fundamentally disagree with his world view.

Because up until now, he has not made any case, let alone a convincing case, for an alternative to our Democracy, our economic system and our social system. No politics, market or system of representation can ever represent the views of all, all of the time.

But elected representatives represent a huge range of people as diverse as they are individual. Our markets allow for the peaceful and free flow of ideas, goods and labour limited only by what society, through our parliament, deems immoral or unfair.

Our justice system provides redress where it is requested or needed, those with power and influence, be they moneyed, politicians, press barons or anyone else with disproportionate power are kept in check and challenged by the balances of a free media and press, freedom of thought, expression and speech and where one balance or check fail, they fall back on each other in contingency.

It’s not perfect, but no system ever can be and ours does better than most.

Russell Brand can either decide to become someone who contributes in a meaningful way to that system, or he can come up with one of his own he can convince a majority of people to accept. In the expectation that he’ll fail in the latter, he should put in some hard graft in the former and provide the alternative he thinks is lacking.

Once he wakes up tomorrow the MP’s Brand chides will be doing the jobs they were elected to do and making Britain the place they think it should be.

Either he gets stuck in or he becomes irrelevant, anything else is just self-gratifying, grandiose, bluster massaging his already engorged ego.

Fuel for the Future

 

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Fracking for Shale Gas could fuel our homes for ten years, but it could also provide the impetus for a
shift in culture from overspend buoyed up by unsustainable deficit and debt to saving for the future if we were to use the profits to set up a long term Sovereign Wealth Fund.

It’s not a process that’s popular with the public –at least those local to a drill, after all, we’re talking about an extraction process which, it is feared, pollutes the water shelf, creates water shortages and might, (might) cause earthquakes. A deeply unsettling prospect for Brits used to a life of unencumbered serine monotony.

It could, however, bring in an enormous amount of petrol dollars, relive oil shortages, lower energy and fuel costs and generally act as a much welcome boost to an economy still scraping in the doldrums of the bust half of the economic cycle. It will cut the cost of petrol and boost growth just before the next election with a manageable impact on the environment.

Great. I hear you cry if you’re not currently protesting at a drill site. The problem with this however, is that we have been here before.

North Sea Oil was the future once – Billions upon Billions of proven reserves of Oil and Gas have been extracted which has kept the UK wonderfully supplied and unforgivably complacent – homes were converted to Gas – Gas Hobs, Gas Heating, Gas electricity generation, some oil and gas were sold to other countries but the rest went to record profits for the energy companies and a short term, and short sighted, boost to growth allowing governments to get themselves re-elected.

But nothing has been gained which would be of long term benefit to the UK – as Gas and Oil prices have increased, so too has our dependence on a dwindling supply of domestic energy and our appetite for expensive foreign oil and gas. We haven’t made our homes or our economy more energy efficient in the face of a cliff face in domestic production, we’ve barely begun to invest and innovate in sustainable alternatives. We’ve just burnt the oil lamp hoping if we rub harder another Genie will appear.

We did find some more, mercifully – which is why Shale Gas, and Fracking is important even if you find it unpalatable.

There is an estimated 26 trillion cubic feet of shale gas and 0.7 billion barrels of oil under the nations collective feet – enough, some reckon, to power the UK for another decade. This is why, despite concerns about the environment, Fracking has to go ahead – otherwise we will face a consumption and a fuel crisis, crippling high prices at the Pump, an increase in fuel poverty, possibly even blackouts.

Better to drill than freeze or stagnate.

The problem, just as with the North Sea, is that it too will run out, sooner than is comfortable and we can’t just hope to be lucky thrice. The UK squandered the wealth North Sea Oil gave us, we can’t afford to do it again.

So the question arises, what should we do? It’s a question which was posed to myself and other bag carrying colleagues at a policy workshop in Westminster a few months ago, and the answers deserve an airing:

The benefit gained from Shale Gas can’t just be short sighted – we need to use this additional grace period to aggressively invest in renewables and energy sustainability – 83% of homes are heated by Gas and only 9% by electricity – yet in a decades time North Sea Oil and Gas production will be in terminal decline, Shale Gas reserves will have all but been used up and energy demand will have increased – either we make sensible contingencies to switch and more urgently pursue micro generation, such as solar panels on homes, we pray for a new gas miracle, or we import hugely expensive gas and oil to the detriment of the economy.

The more interesting idea which came to me in that meeting, however, speaks more of my own hopes for what coalition can allow; a rejection of short term thinking. Use what remains of our Oil and Gas wealth to create a Sovereign Wealth Fund to guard the UKs long term interests.

Norway had an oil boon at exactly the same time as the UK, from exactly the same source but unlike the UK, Norway has used its resources to think Long term. The Norwegian Sovereign Wealth fund model is worth some $729.2 billion – by comparison – UK Debt was in the region of $1859 billion in May 2013.

Not that I would suggest the UK use oil wealth to pay down our past debts. The next generation needs to adopt a different tone from the generations which preceded it and look to the future, not just our current circumstances. It’s not just the environment and climate change it’s our provision for a growing and ageing population’s health, care and pension needs. It’s how we make education affordable and accessible, it’s how we interact with other nations and how we keep the lights on. We can’t afford to look at an enormous and time 0limited amount of potential wealth and divide it up for today’s benefit alone, we have to plan ahead.

A Sovereign Wealth Fund screams sustainability. Its mere existence alone would demonstrate a change in attitude we need from governments deficit planning to governments planning ahead, taking responsibility for the future and mature enough to live within its means.

Diverting, or increasing, taxes on Oil and Gas profits in order to invest in and fund a wealth fund – able to operate autonomously from the Treasury with a remit to invest in profitable investments around the world and increase its wealth would not create an immediate benefit to the economy. It would not boost growth in the short term, or help reduce the cost of living in the immediate future. It would probably not have any impact on unemployment, but it would be a strong statement of intent about what sort of government and fiscal policy we want to see in future and it would help protect us from economic, and indeed energy, shocks.

Running parallel to efforts to eliminate the deficit and then reduce debt, a government body tasked with using set aside wealth to accumulate wealth would be a powerful contrast to decades of overspend and disregard for future generations. Instead of mortgaging the countries tomorrow on future generations this fund could, in decades to come, fund infrastructure projects alone freeing the government from the need to borrow or its profits could be given over to the exchequer to help boost state income and fund day to expenditure.

It could act not just to improve the state’s balance sheet, it would act to diversity its income and also  invest in regions of the world which are fast growing, improve our ties with the capitals, cultures and peoples of a world fast changing to keep Britain at the centre of world commerce.

It’s always seemed idiosyncratic and an ugly symptom of our democracy and culture that the government is always looking to the short term to minimise short term pain, and get elected, than do what’s right for the long term. Unlike individuals, the government can afford to take the long view. Shale Gas might be the economic golden bullet we need right now to get the economy moving but it is no long term solution.

There is a need in politics to not just talk about today, but demonstrate vision for the future. At the next election it is the party which breaks the short termism of the past which will best articulate its fitness to govern in the long term interest of the country.

Shale Gas might only fuel our homes for ten years, but it could provide the initial fuel our future needs, that spark which fires our future growth. I can’t think of a better way for this coalition to make its mark, to not just break the mould of one party government, but to be the government which planned ahead.  

Joan Edwards – a Social Commentary

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The two things we know about Joan Edwards is that she was an intensely private person and that she is in the news today for having a Half million estate with no inheritors which she wanted to give to ‘whichever government was in office on the date of my death’

GRASPING POLITICIANS POCKET A SPINSTERS £1/2 MILLION LEGACY‘ The Mail splashed this morning – after the donations appeared in the Electoral Commissions accounts for the last quarter showed that the two coalition parties received £420,000 and the £100,000 a piece – ‘The Tories and Lib Dems stood accused of ‘robbery’ The Mail thundered.

One of Ms Edwards neighbours interviewed today says that he thought her estate went to a local Church. Another pointed out that, having been a Nurse; she thought it would go to a local hospital or the NHS. Yet another suggested giving it to the Political Parties was the last thing she would have wanted.

The Guardian ran a comment piece asking its readers what they thought the money should be spent on. The Mail said it was intended for the State and should go to the Treasury. Michael Crick thought the money could go on a new hospital ward. John Prescott asked what you would do with #joanshalfmillion, some said food banks, some said the NHS, some said Housing, and others wondered if the money couldn’t be used in a better way by the Parties themselves than going into their general finances.

But Ms Edwards was an intensively private person and told none of these people what she wanted to do with her money.

Her executors and her solicitors – the only other people apart from Ms Edwards to have known her intentions at the time she made them, however, say that Ms Edwards unusual instructions where to give it to the governing party of the day, and her executors, after checking with Treasury Solicitors and the Parties, carried out those wishes

At the time of the instructions received from the late Miss Edwards, the solicitor specifically checked with Miss Edwards about the unusual nature of her proposed bequest and it was confirmed by Miss Edwards at the time of her instructions that her estate was to be left to whichever political party formed the Government at the date of her death. 

It seems the only person who didn’t get to have a say where the money went in the end was Ms Edwards herself.

Sure, the wording of the will is ambiguous ‘whichever government was in office on the date of my death’ could indeed mean HM Government- separate from the governing parties. It could mean the Party making up the Government. You could argue the Government of the day is colloquial for A Conservative Government, A Labour Government or indeed a Coalition – it could have meant Her Majesties Government, as Opposed to His Majesties Government or indeed a Republic. It could have meant the Government of England had she lived to see the dread possible future of a dis-united Kingdom.

The will does not mention the word ‘Party’ nor is it specific in saying the money should go to the Treasury or should be bequeathed to the Nation for the benefit of the nation. It does say ‘whichever government was in office on the date of my death’

The wording is poor, and Davis Wood Solicitors should be looking very sheepish but the Executors and the Solicitors are adamant that the wording and the result, was that the money should go to the Governing Parties.

Provided, and unless, and until, there is a proof that anyone else had an input into this decision which was inappropriate, denied her true wishes or was illegal in some other way, it was the Executors final decision to make, not that of either beneficiary Party, and its not up to anyone to ‘shame’ others into giving things up.

But the Mail had none of that, in language designed to cause moral outrage  these ‘grasping politicians’ ‘carved up the money’ of an ‘elderly spinster’ They ‘stole’ this money the Mail assured its readers. Other Journalists branded the parties ‘Callous Bastards’ for accepting the money, others theorised that it must be ‘common sense’ that she wanted it bequeathed to the nation, Labour activists poked that the Coalition Parties should be reported for handling stolen goods.

Polly Toynbee automatically assumed that Ms Edwards, an ex Nurse, must be a Labour Party Supporter, or at the least, a socialist like her. Her ‘true act of generosity’ was ‘sullied by political party interests’ – ‘Carve Joan Edwards’ name in pride – and shame upon the parties who filched her cash’ she announces, as if Polly, and Polly Alone knew her intentions and wishes and that they had been overturned by evil money grabbing politicians.

Politicians, the Mail insisted, – ‘were left struggling to explain how a gift intended for the public good’ ended up with the Parties - because in the Mail’s world no political party can ever do good. They were ‘shamed’ into ‘giving back’ money, which, let’s not forget; her solicitors say she explicitly wanted to go to them.

Not that the Mail bothered to check with the solicitors about it before going to print. This was, after all, an outrage, evidence of a grubby political class and fuel to whip up the mob rather than the rather plausible possibility that this was a last, albeit eccentric, wish, badly phrased in a will.

Of Course, we live in a country cynical about its politics, cynical about people in public life and cynical about what they do. We have a media more interested in generating gossip first than report with accuracy, more invested in scandal than reporting good.

Do I think the money would have been better spent on a hospital? Perhaps; Do I think it is a strange wish? Certainly; but that was never my call to make nor my role to assume the mantel of a deceased person’s autonomy nor was it the beneficiaries, or the pundits, or people on twitter, or Labour MPs and Peers.

It was Joan Edwards’ decision to make and her executers duty to carry it out.

Ms Edwards was a private person, her last will and testament was raked over publicly in a way I suspect she would have found deeply troubling, her private request used as click bait, her memory abused by the opposition for political capital and her last wishes, it seems, denied.

It’s not just the Political Parties which are poorer for it.

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