Ministry of Justice:Flogging prison expertise to Saudi beheaders and floggers

Chris Grayling: Selling British prison expertise to Saudi beheaders and floggers

Chris Grayling: Selling British prison expertise to Saudi beheaders and floggers

The nasty and brutal punishment (1000 lashes) being meted out to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is rightly being condemned by human rights groups across the world.

What may not be so well-known  is that the British government is currently negotiating to sell prison expertise to the  repressive Saudi judicial regime to make money in order to cut the deficit for the taxpayer.

The man championing this move is none other than Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, well-known for wanting to deny prisoners books and an enthusiastic backer of longer prison sentences and tough prison regimes.

Quietly he has set up a commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice called Just Solutions International. You can download a glossy brochure here.

Mr Grayling is passionate about this. At the launch of the social enterprise he said:

“We are leading the world in our management of offenders and the reforms we are introducing will push us even further ahead of the pack. I’m proud that countries look to us when they want to improve and develop their own systems.”

“This social enterprise will build on our global reputation for innovation while getting best value, as any profits made will be put directly back into improving our own justice system, making it a win-win for hardworking taxpayers.”

What we didn’t know then was where Britain was selling this expertise. However just before Christmas the Ministry of Justice released an interim report on its progress.

It revealed as I report in Tribune :

” JSi submitted a £5.9 million proposal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Ministry of Finance to conduct a training needs analysis across all the learning and development programmes within the Saudi Arabian Prison Service.

Also in August, JSi submitted a large-scale bid to the Royal Oman Police (ROP) proposing assistance for the design of a new prison. Discussions are currently taking place with ROP about further learning and development training programmes.”

The document states that Chris Grayling visited Saudi Arabia last September to sign a memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation with the regime and promote British legal services and Doha in Qatar to promote co-operation. A junior justice minister, Lord Faulks, visited Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan during October, both also seen to be repressive regimes, and signed a memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation in Kazakhstan.”

I put this to the Ministry of Justice. This was their reply: ” “It is ridiculous to suggest that providing overseas governments with assistance in the development of their criminal justice systems demonstrates support for such atrocious acts. It has been government policy for many years to work with overseas governments and help them develop their criminal justice systems.”

Really! Some people might think the Saudis will be taking comfort from such British support and personal visits from Chris Grayling while continuing these barbaric acts. Also is there not an ethical matter whether the British taxpayer wants the deficit reduced by making profits from a regime that tortures,  publicly beheads ( some 59 in first nine months of last year) and flogs people? It could be said to amount to blood money.

Frankly it suggests that Mr Grayling’s main aim is making money and he couldn’t care about the regimes who pay us and how they treat their own citizens. It also hypocritical. we are condemning ISIS for the same practices. Would Mr Grayling – if ISIS win – be happy to flog them the same British help for running their justice system in the Islamic state?

Also just how wonderful is the British prison system that we are selling. If you look at reports from the Howard League for Penal Reform we have huge problems with overcrowding, suicides and a repressive attitude by Grayling himself. Do we want to export that?

I am wondering how ridiculous the blogger Raif will think it is that the  system that incarcerates and flogs him benefits from British expertise to make money. I also wonder whether Mr Grayling – a  cold hard right Tory – was or is  a supporter of hanging and flogging himself.

Since this blog was published The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, defended to the BBC the sale of British prisons expertise to Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to Andrew Neil one the Sunday Politics Mr Grayling said: “It is right and proper that we as a nation try to work with other nations to improve their systems.”

 Saudi Arabia has been widely criticised, including by the British Government, for sentencing the blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail.  Mr Grayling said he “completely condemns” the punishment.

He added: “This is something I am looking at very carefully.”

Amnesty International campaign poster for rasif Badawi

Amnesty International campaign poster for Raif Badawi

New law to protect bloggers from defamatory comments on their sites

The government has just tabled draft regulations under the new Defamation Act to protect English and Welsh bloggers from being sued if people put up unwanted libellous comments on their websites.
I am indebted to Rupert Jones,a Birmingham barrister who specialises, among other things, in media law for drawing my attention to draft regulations which have been tabled by the Ministry of Justice. The regulations have to be debated by a committee of MPs and peers before becoming law. As far as I can see these regulations do not apply to Scottish or Northern Ireland websites.
From my reading as a journalist it allows bloggers 48 hours or two working days after a complaint has been received to contact the person who put up the comment and make a decision whether to take down the comment. It also allows – if both sides agree – for the person complaining about the comment to be put in touch with person who posted it.
For WordPress users like myself this is particularly good news. Under present arrangements I can moderate comments from new people who want to debate issues. But I cannot stop existing commentators putting up a new comment which is automatically published at the same time as I am alerted by WordPress.
Luckily all people commenting have to leave an email address – even if they are not using their real name – where they can be contacted.
The regulations also allow a ” get out” clause for websites carrying comments from people who cannot be traced – to remove the comment within 48 hours as a strong defence against anybody suing them for carrying an anonymous comment. There is also a lot of leeway for the courts to extend the 48 hour period to cover disputes.
All this is welcome news given my last report about the mad decision of the European Court of Human Rights to allow people to sue websites for comments from anonymous people even after they had taken them down.
Luckily I am told Britain does not have to follow the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights – unlike – and this has confused some people – the European Court of Justice, which is an EU institution.
These new rules – if followed by a website – will make it much more difficult for an intransigent complainer to win any libel action in the UK. And if they want to take it to the European Court of Human Rights they will have to go through the whole British justice system which will cost them a fortune.
So there is some good news to protect bloggers from comments they have never made.

Revealed: How the explosion in convicted sex offenders has sparked a crisis in our jails

Stuart Hall; One of a growing number of elderly sex offenders now in jail. Pic courtesy: Huffington Post

Stuart Hall; One of a growing number of elderly sex offenders now in jail. Pic courtesy: Huffington Post

An extraordinary report was issued last week by MPs on the Commons Justice committee revealing the impact on prisons of the growing numbers of paedophiles and sex offenders being sent to jail.
The report – virtually unnoticed by the national media ( exceptions BBC and Yorkshire Post) -provides partly an answer to those who say the police aren’t doing their job catching them and the Crown Prosecution Service is not getting enough convictions. It also suggests society failed to acknowledge the scale of sex offences in the past.
What it reveals is that Britain’s jails are being engulfed by a tidal wave of elderly offenders – and a huge proportion are historic child abuse and sex offenders like Stuart Hall.
The figures are in fact staggering. At the end of March 2013 there were 6,639 prisoners in England and Wales who were aged between 50 and 59 and there were 3,381 over the age of 60, counting between them for 12 per cent of the prison population. Custodial Convictions have jumped by 45 per cent for the 50-59 age group and by 46 per cent for those over 60 between 2008 and 2012.
The report highlights historic sex abuse cases as one of the main causes. It says there has been a 45 per cent increase in convicted people sent to jail between 2002 and 2012. They account for a third of the elderly offenders in jail
Indeed the number of infirm elderly mean that two prisons – Dartmoor and the Isle of Wight – are now becoming vulnerable persons units, where prisoners have difficulty climbing stairs,washing, carrying their meal trays and getting into bunk beds.
Nor is this particularly a British phenomenon, American readers of this blog, might be familiar with a recent NBC report revealing a similar crisis in the US.
The British report points out that the problem is likely to grow rather than diminish – particularly given the present drive to prosecute historic child abusers through Operations Yewtree, Fernbridge, Fairbank,Torva and in North Wales and Northern Ireland.
The problem for politicians is that this group are the least loved offenders – some people would want to hang them – and there is little political capital and much outrage to be gained from being even remotely sympathetic.
The one sympathetic statement came from the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Frances Crook, Chief Executive said:
“The select committee is quite right to highlight the growing problem faced by older prisoners in our overcrowded jails. Political leadership is required to address the issue and provide prisons that were never designed to be penal care homes a clear strategy on how best to handle the needs of an increasingly elderly population.
“At the same time the issue of historic sex offences is a real challenge for society. If someone is sentenced many decades after they committed a crime and where they are so infirm as to pose no continuing danger, then the courts should explore other options than simply imprisonment.”
The only danger with this – and I am only taking this from the small number of investigations I have made in this area – is that unfortunately many of the elderly abusers are still sexually active.
But society is going to have to deal with this – or more of our jails will become compulsory old people’s homes at enormous cost to the state and taxpayer.

Government’s barmy and complex plan to tackle defamation on the web

The Ministry of Justice has just excelled itself with a daft plan to try and tackle libellous and abusive comments on websites.
A splendid blog on the Inforrm website by media lawyer Ashley Hurst from Olswang reveals that a so-called simple system to provide redress to force web operators to take down posts is anything but that.
As he himself states the ministry claimed it “designed to be as straightforward as possible for people to use” but there are in excess of 20 cross-references in a procedure spanning over four pages with 47 FAQs and 10 pages of guidance.”
Worse it looks as though it will do the opposite that it intends by encouraging more people to blog anonymously as people might have to get court orders to find out who is behind the post.
He points out “People blog and comment on websites anonymously for a reason: because they do not want to be identified. Why would an anonymous blogger suddenly identify himself without a court order because a website operator tells him that a legal complaint has been received? There is absolutely no incentive, especially for a whistleblower, someone intent on causing damage, or someone who cannot afford to be sued, to come forward and identify themself voluntarily as a potential defendant.”
There is also a 48 hour fast track application to get someone’s post down – but make one mistake in the form and web operator can ignore. I can’t imagine WordPress, based in the US with a tradition of free speech, being over impressed by these new UK regulations.
For those who want to study it further he supplies a flow diagram, which almost rates in complexity ( but not quite) with Andrew Lansley’s re-organisation of the NHS.
In my view the planned regulations look hardly worth the paper they are written on. They seem a waste of cyberspace.

How bungling ministers are closing down specialist help for child abuse victims

Graham Wilner: Picture reproduced courtesy Rory Wilmer Photography

Graham Wilner: Picture reproduced courtesy Rory Wilmer Photography

Last week  I wrote a blog showing how David Cameron had failed to implement immediate help for people who witnessed child abuse. Downing Street responded by saying that there was £10.5m was available to help.

Not only has this proved to be wrong . But the situation  is far worse than I could have imagined. The government is closing down what specialist support that might be available just when the police led by the  Metropolitan Police Paedophile Unit are expanding their investigations so people all over the country  are being contacted about historic child abuse – whether over Savile or the Fernbridge and Fairbank operations or  further allegations against music schools or Roman Catholic priests.

Now I have learned from Graham Wilmer, pictured above, that we are just a week or so away from the closure a pioneering project in Merseyside, the Lantern project. This project ( see http://www.lanternproject.org.uk) is unusual since it is run by a person who was sexually abused in his youth. It is also a specialist site.

Mr Wilmer is alarmed about  the situation facing people now being contacted by the police who cannot get help. See my article in Exaro News (http://www.exaronews.com/articles/4909/child-sex-abuse-groups-offering-support-services-face-closure)  for the full story.

But his experience of government support under the coalition is appalling. First the funding of his centre was halted by the justice department under Ken Clarke. Then he was advised to apply through the Cabinet Office under Francis Maude who pushed him to the Big Lottery. But the Big Lottery would not fund him for bureaucratic reasons – and only the use literally of the old boy’s network – did he get any cash.  He rang Gus O’Donnell, then Cabinet Secretary, who used to be head boy at his old school to explain the situation. An hour later,he says, £29.000, was promised to the charity.

The money was given to put on a course to train health professionals in giving proper support to people who had been abused as children. But the NHS re-organisation under then health secretary Andrew Lansley, meant that the local primary care trust, was being abolished and did not send anyone on  the course. Its successor body may have some money under Jeremy Hunt next year, but by then the centre will be closed.

As he said: “We will be closing down in two weeks time. The outgoing government did promise to set up a national strategy which would include funding for child sexual abuse but this was cancelled by the new government.”

His will not be the only none. Fay Maxted, chief executive of the Survivors Trust, said: “A significant number are going to have to close as they are funded by private trusts and money from the lottery and this is not forthcoming.

So far from the government supporting victims and witnesses to child sexual abuse – they are actively  hindering any help. Cynics might think the ministers might not care because after all some of the alleged paedophiles are linked to the Tory  and Liberal Democrat parties in the past. I do not think this is case but people could be forgiven for thinking it.

This situation is a disgrace and the present coalition government has not got a grip on the scale of the problem. Hang your heads in shame Francis Maude, Jeremy Hunt and the present justic secretary, Chris Grayling. You don’t seem to have clue about what is happening.

Why charging for Freedom of Information requests will be utterly wrong

Freedom of Information: Charges will put it under threat

This blog was written for the London School of Economics British politics and policy website (the link is http://bit.ly/H7C8lD) and is now up on the site. I have reproduced it here for my followers who may miss it  at the LSE.

It must be very tempting in these times of austerity for government to introduce charges for freedom of information (FOI) requests. Tempting it might be but it would be utterly wrong.

Giving evidence to the Commons Justice select committee’s post legislative inquiry into the FOI Act, I got the strong impression that some Conservative MPs might want to do this. The example of the Republic of Ireland which has introduced charges for requests, internal reviews and appeals to the Information Commissioner, has provided an excuse.

The fact that the new act has been a resounding success with the public, journalists and also private businesses is not a reason to introduce charges. My reasons for not going down this road are not such much to do with limiting the public’s right to know – although as Ireland has shown – this would be the inevitable consequence. They are more fundamental.

As a taxpayer I am obliged – I have no choice – to fund public services from my income. Therefore if I wish to know whether my money has been spent wisely and people have taken the right decisions – I should have the right to ask questions and ferret for information. As a journalist rather than a private citizen I have more time to do this – it is part of my job – and the information I discover can be communicated to thousands, if not millions, of people.

As one recent example showed – the disclosure under FOI that Ed Lester, the chief executive of the Student Loans Company, had found a legal way to avoid tens of thousands of pounds of tax – it can even lead to alerting ministers to something they were unaware.

To introduce charges would in effect be double taxation. I would be charged once for providing the service and again if I wished to find out what officials and ministers had done with my money. This is why I believe it is unacceptable.

A more subtle variant of charging is a suggestion that private citizens still receive the free service but commercial organisations like the media, private firms and official bodies paid the cost of the request – which could be anything up to £600. Again it would unfair and also unworkable. Businesses, law firms and the media – unless they are near bankrupt – pay their share of taxes to the government and again would be charged twice for seeking to find out how and why their money was spent.

It would also be completely unworkable to run such a two tier system. There is nothing to stop me as a journalist, or indeed any business person, asking a friend to put in a FOI and getting it sent to their address. And there is no way officialdom could find out, unless they subject every private requester to a ninth degree inquisition every time they asked a public body for information.

It would be a nightmare scenario for the public sector to police and make officials extremely unpopular with the general public. It might even lead them to face legal complaints, such as falsely accusing individuals of avoiding charges.

What is required urgently is an extension of the freedom of information act to the private sector when it provides public services. The government has an active policy of encouraging private providers – whether charities, mutual or commercial companies – to provide public services. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, in an address to the Policy Exchange think tank said that turning state provided services into mutuals owned by the staff might indeed be as widespread as privatisation of state industries in the 1980s Thatcher government.

At present the mechanism for extending FOI to new bodies is rather cumbersome – requiring a designation under the Act by ministers – usually following a consultation period. This is woefully inadequate to cope with a major shift from public to private sector providers in Whitehall, local government and the NHS. One simple solution would be to include a standard clause in any private sector provider contract saying that if the company accepted public money to run a public service they would automatically be subject to FOI requests about that particular service.

No doubt they would be a howl of protest from the business community about new burdens and costs to running the service, but given the multi million pound size of most contracts it would be a small price to pay. And if it was a standard contract it would mean that there would be a level playing field for contractors bidding for the work. It could also be confined only to the services they provided in the public sector and not to normal business contracts.

This would bring within the scope of FOI private train operators and bus companies who take taxpayers subsidies but are at the moment outside the act. It would also encourage these bodies to provide a more efficient service since they would have an incentive not to encounter the wrath of the travelling public every time they failed to provide a public service.

The public could also question and challenge the companies when they cut service provision to prove they had a case and also ask for detailed policy on protecting public safety. Similarly, it would provide the public with some protection as the NHS expands the use of private hospitals for operations as they are outside the scope of the act.

The act does require an overhaul in this area. But MPs on the committee should resist the temptation to call for charges to use the act as this would be unfair to the general public and to taxpayers. The right to demand information on services you are required to pay for without being charged is a fundamental human right that should be non-negotiable, even in the present financial climate.