Hillsborough Families:Patronised to death by the disdain of the powerful

hillsborough.pic credit ITV

A Liverpool football shirt commemorating Hillsboough. pic Credit: itv.com

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While Westminster was yesterday swirling with tales of sexual harassment by powerful ministers and MPs and the arrogance of a government that won’t tell us what will be the real effects of Brexit, a calm but hard hitting report was published on what had happened since the revelations of the Hillsborough disaster.

The scandal of the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans who went to watch a football match 27 years ago is well known and now well documented following the Hillsborough Independent Panel which  exhaustively looked at what happened.

Since there are now criminal proceedings against people following the disaster I am not going to rerun  who was to blame for these needless deaths but concentrate on what yesterday’s report was about – what should be done.

There are many reports exposing what goes wrong. There are fewer reports proposing how to remedy serious shortcomings. There are even fewer that  demand a cultural change in British society.

This is one of them. The gruesome testimony in this report of the families who lost loved ones well before their time demands nothing less than a radical change in the way the ruling elite view ordinary people.

People caught up in a tragedy are confused, distraught. angry and suffer lifelong angst   and the last thing they want are people in power who frustrate, ignore, belittle or patronise them for wanting to know what happened to their loved ones. The Hillsborough families also had to put up with  very public denigrating coverage from the Sun  which has never been forgiven in Liverpool.

This report shows a way  change can come and outlines the legislation needed to get it done. The recommendations – if implemented in the right spirit – would make a radical change in the way society coped with  the aftermath of disasters – whether it is Hillsborough or the Grenfell tower fire tragedy.

The proposals go from introducing a ” duty of candour” for police officers to tell the truth, providing proper legal aid for ordinary people attending inquests so they can really participate in the proceedings and a special charter for families who suffer bereavement in a major tragedy like Hillsborough.

It also wants to make sure authorities don’t destroy vital documents to avoid public scrutiny, better training and evaluation for coroners, a review of the  effectiveness of  the pathology services and the way death certificates are issued. Nor should public bodies use public money to their advantage to outspend ordinary people trying to get to the truth.

Two other things should be said. Theresa May, whom I may  disagree politically, should be commended for commissioning this. She could easily have walked away once the Hillsborough Panel had done its work. Liverpool football fans are not her natural constituency. She will be even more commended if she decides to implement its findings.

There is also an remarkable passage in the introduction from the  report’s author, the Right Reverend James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool and chair of the Hillsborough Inquiry which sums up the spirit of the report and what the families have suffered. It is worth quoting in full :

“I also wanted to set on record a recurrent theme that has been present, either implicitly or explicitly, in many personal conversations that I have had with families and survivors over the past 20 years.

“It is one that they have often been reluctant to raise not least because of public and political indifference to the subject and perhaps out of fear that it would add
to the lack of empathy that they experienced. The disaster, the aftermath, and the struggle to be heard for over quarter of a century have had an adverse effect on the mental and physical well being of both families and survivors.

“Depression, marital breakdown, family division, mental illness, unemployment, premature death and even suicide have featured in the Hillsborough narrative. Hopefully society’s increasing awareness of the issues of mental health will lead to a more sympathetic understanding of what they have endured.

“People talk too loosely about closure. They fail to realise that there can be no closure to love, nor should there be for someone you have loved and lost. Furthermore, grief is a journey without a destination. The bereaved travel through a landscape of memories and thoughts of what might have been. It is a journey marked by milestones, some you seek, some you stumble on. For the families and survivors of Hillsborough these milestones have included the search for truth, accountability and justice. But even these are not the end of the road.They are still travelling. And this report is another step along the way.”

You can read the report for yourselves here .

 

 

 

 

 

Time for MPs to take back control of Parliament

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John Bercow, the Speaker Image credit: bbc

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There has been much debate about populist slogans from Brexiteers about Britain needing to take back control of the country from so called Brussels bureaucrats when we leave the European Union in 2019.

The very same MPs are remarkably silent about a decision taken seven years ago by the UK Parliament to set up an independent committee to  take  back control of how the government can present its legislation to Parliament.

Put it very simply we are supposed to live in a Parliamentary democracy but in fact MPs allow the government to monopolise and control Parliament  through the Whips system without so much as a whisper of discontent.

The fact that nothing has been done was highlighted ( though you won’t have read in mainstream media) by John Bercow, the Speaker, in an address given in Parliament to the Hansard Society this week. You can read the full speech here.

In 2010 a committee chaired by Tony Wright, a Labour Mp who did a very good job scrutinising Whitehall on the public administration committee, proposed a series of reforms to  allow MPs to take back control of the running of Parliament from the government. One reform giving backbenchers a greater role in debates got through. Another reform giving Mps much more control over government business was also approved – but guess what the government did nothing about it.

As John Bercow said in this extract from his speech:

” It is missing in action, confined to something akin to parliamentary purgatory. Nailed to its perch.”

He goes on in this longer extract:

” As a matter of basic democratic principle this will not do. The House decided to back the concept of a House Business Committee along the lines of the Wright Committee recommendations. One of three courses of action should follow. The House should have its decision implemented. Alternatively, it should be consulted on some other design for a House Business Committee. Or the House should determine in a vote that it has changed its mind on the issue. It should not be side lined in this fashion. It is quite wrong for there to be a vacuum. This is as inappropriate as, for example, legislating to hold a referendum on a major question of the day and then simply ignoring the outcome. The longer that this state of affairs persists the more profoundly unsatisfactory I believe it to be.

“The Wright formula, to remind enthusiasts in the room for such detail, was very balanced. It did not seek to defenestrate the Whips Offices. It recognised that the Government of the day had a right to have its business tabled. Elections would be rendered impotent affairs if this were not the case. Ministers are, therefore, in my view entitled to a majority but not a monopoly on a House Business Committee. The legitimate issue for the House as a whole is the balance of allocation of time across the various measures that constitute a legislative programme. The Wright Committee also underlined the importance of the Official Opposition – and other opposition parties – being given more say on scheduling their business, and envisaged, I am reliably informed, the House Business Committee as the forum for such discussions. I dare venture that some of the recent tensions over scheduling Opposition Days or more accurately not scheduling Opposition days, might have been avoided if there had been a House Business Committee to hand.

“Any such Committee should be chaired by an independent figure. Wright suggested the Senior Deputy Speaker. It should have a backbench component as well as representation from the smaller parties. It would also be desirable to link the chamber to the select committees perhaps via the presence of the Chair of the Liaison Committee. Finally, if not instantly but over time, it should include the direct election of the backbench members in the spirit of the various other reforms which Wright offered to the House more than eight years ago and which the House chose to adopt.”

Now you might say -particularly after this long extract –  why should I be bothered about this arcane Parliamentary stuff? You should for two reasons.

First though she won the most votes Theresa May did not win enough Parliamentary seats to have a majority in Parliament but is ruling – because of the deal with the Democratic Unionist Party – as though she does using every statutory wheeze to try and stay in power for five years.

This measure will put Parliament as a whole in control as it will give greater bargaining power to Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, the Scots Nats and the solitary Green MP – to influence how the government timetables its legislation and how Opposition Mps and backbenchers can get issues debated.

Second whatever your views on Brexit the government is planning to try and by-pass Parliament by using the Brexit bill to take power to change all sorts of laws and regulations by   ministerial diktat – the ” so called Henry VIII clauses ” – named  after the monarch who dissolved Britain’s monasteries – with little chance of debate.

These could be used to  change rights for the disabled, curb worker’s rights to holidays , drop environment protections , cut benefit entitlement and amend health and safety protection, – like for example reducing safeguards on working with asbestos ( this has actually been suggested by one Tory).

This will affect you in your daily life and Parliament needs to defend itself by making sure that ministers can’t  avoid being challenged by manipulating the Parliamentary timetable.

So what we need are some bolshie backbenchers of all parties to put up a motion to set up this committee. From what was said  week they would get a fair wind from the Speaker.

 

 

 

 

 

Theresa May’s wasted £11.2 billion of taxpayers money on initiatives Tory youth doesn’t want

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The Tory conference was supposed to be the point when Theresa May announced a raft of policies to challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s wooing of the youth vote.

If she had  left the main platform of the conference and slipped into a packed Adam Smith Institute fringe meeting at the Manchester conference she would have been sorely disappointed.

The meeting chaired by a young Times journalist ,Grant Tucker, was meant to be a discussion on what  the millennial generation want and how they can get young voters away from Jeremy Corbyn.

Predictably it was hostile to any Corbyn programme of  rent control and nationalisation but what was extraordinary was the hostility to the May announcements earlier in the week.

The meeting was  heavily dominated by the housing crisis facing the young Tories – almost to a man and woman – all privately renting and paying up to 50 per cent of their monthly post tax income for small rooms in shared flats.

The £10 billion put aside to massively expand the Help to Buy programme was universally condemned from both the platform, by Madsen Pirie from the Adam Smith Institute, and by the audience as exactly the wrong thing to do.

Madsen Pirie

Madsen Pirie Pic credit: wikipedia

They saw it as putting up house prices even more beyond reach and doing nothing to aid the supply of affordable homes. Nor did they want a big council house building programme.

What they wanted was a liberalisation of the planning laws and a mass release of land to allow not a few thousands but a million, yes a million, homes built  in three years to totally change the affordability of housing and bringing back mass home ownership.

Nor were they impressed with a £1.2 billion spent freezing student loans at £9250 and raising the pay back level to £25,000. What they wanted was instead the abolition of the new 6.1 per cent interest rate on loans, pointing out that this could add £5000 to payments soon after students graduated.

So how has May got this so very,very wrong. The answer was plain to see. The Tory leadership is not listening to them. What came over to me was that thus young strand of the Tory’s future had no influence on what their leaders did and were very frustrated and even angry about it.

Unlike at Labour where it is clear that young people – as members of the party had an input – these young people seemed to be treated as election fodder to get the mainly elderly Tory vote out.

There was other thing I noticed at this gathering.There was not a black or brown face to be seen, they were universally white, again unlike Labour. Yet they were not all from the Tory shires, some were from multiracial Bristol, and another from Camberwell and Peckham. Given what diverse place this is, I was surprised there was no ethnic minority representation. I had seen a more diverse audience at an earlier fringe organised by Westminster council.

What this augurs for the future of the Tory Party is not good for them. Their membership is already elderly and falling. If they don’t take any notice of their young membership they are doomed to oblivion – just as Tory campaigner John Strafford said earlier this week.

 

 

Exclusive: Tories face “oblivion” says party campaigner as membership plummets to 100,000

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One of the Tory’s longest serving campaigners is predicting the party is facing ” oblivion” after losing nearly 40,000 members this summer following Theresa May’s failure to secure a majority government at the general election.

John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, in an  eve of conference exclusive interview  on the Tribune magazine website, says the real membership of the party has plummeted to around 100,000- way below the 149,500 figure and 134,000 figure used by the party in 2013.

Mr Strafford said: “The party is facing oblivion. If you take the fact only 10 per cent of the membership is likely to be very active they will not have enough people on the ground to fight an election – they won’t even have enough people to man polling stations on the day.

“They are keeping council seats because often the families of the councillors are campaigning with party members to get them re-elected. They simply don’t have the local resources to do this in a general election.”

According to Mr Strafford in 300 of the Parliamentary constituency parties  – nearly half the MPs in Parliament – membership has dropped to 100 people or fewer.

The contrast with Labour could not be stronger – with the party already having 569,500 members and launching a further on line membership drive after their conference.

Membership could also be lower than the Liberal Democrats who have also seen a jump in members from 61,000  to 102,000.

He said a series of recent events had led to this parlous state of affairs. The leadership contest after David Cameron announced his resignation initially led to the Tories recruiting an extra 40,000 members who wanted a say in voting for the next leader and Prime Minister.

But when Andrea Leadsom pulled out from challenging Theresa May – there was no vote for the leadership- and Theresa May became PM without an election.

The situation was compounded when Theresa May called a snap election and rather than allowing constituency parties to select their own candidate – imposed candidates in seats that did not have one selected.

John Strafford pic credit Conservative Home

John Strafford Pic credit: Conservative Home

The bad handling of the campaign irritated party members – as many activists assuming Jeremy Corbyn had no chance  were sent to Labour held seats with large majorities with the aim of toppling the  sitting MP – while leaving Tory marginals undefended. One example was Slough – where instead of the Tories taking the seat the new Labour MP was returned with a huge increase in his majority.

As a result nearly all the 40000 new members recruited by the Tory leadership battle last year have not renewed their membership because, according to Mr Strafford they have found out they have little say in party proceedings or policies. Again the contrast with Labour which is devolving more power to its members could not be stronger. ” They are just not renewing their membership with some constituency parties which recruited hundreds of members finding only a handful renewing.”

The plummeting membership is one reason why some MPs are becoming restive. One  with his ear to ground is Robert Halfon, Tory MP for Harlow, who this week in Conservative Home  backs John Strafford’s analysis that lack of democracy is driving away members.

” I began to realise that, far from being a lunatic, John was quite sane…and it was perhaps us who closed our ears to what he was saying who were the crazy ones. For many years, he rightly predicted that a lack of democracy would lead to a loss of membership. He was right.”

The issue will be raised at the Tory Party conference fringe in Manchester next week.

On Monday the  Campaign for Conservative Democracy will hold a fringe meeting to discuss how to tackle this by injecting some democracy to attract members.

The Adam Smith Institute will hold a meeting on Tuesday to address why 60 per cent of young people are supporting Jeremy Corbyn and how the party needs new policies to attract a younger membership.

How party politics have changed. A year ago it was Jeremy Corbyn whom the Tories regarded as unelectable and a joke. Now it is the Tories that are worried they are becoming unelectable  and are running a party few people would want to join.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncork the Gauke: Could the Tories go for another grey man to lead the party – like John Major

david gauke gov uk

David Gauke: potential leader? pic credit; Gov uk

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August is the time of the year when lobby journalists love to speculate on leadership plots. If Jeremy Corbyn had done really badly in the June general election – it would be all about who is going to succeed him. But as it is Theresa May who lost her majority and authority – the speculation is all about who will replace her – even though she is at the moment determined there will be no vacancy. So I thought I would add my pennyworth.

The last Tory PM to be deposed in office was Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and she was at that point even more unpopular than Theresa is now. Her disaster was the poll tax – which was quickly replaced by the present council tax – after she stood down.

People forget that at the time John Major was the least known of the candidates who stood to be leader and PM.

Just as now the leadership favourites were big beasts –  the two top runners were Michael Heseltine – who had resigned over a row over the  fixing of an order for a new generation of helicopters in what became the Westland affair – and Douglas Hurd, a well known big Tory beast and foreign secretary. Both are now peers.

Heseltine was at the time a bit of blonde bombshell – unpredictable and strident. Nicknamed ” Tarzan ” because- though he denies it – he was accused of swinging the Parliamentary mace in protest against Labour. Definitely regarded as leadership material – he had shades of Boris Johnson in his leadership claims for today.

While Hurd was seen as more thoughtful – just like Michael Gove who prides himself as a radical thinker – sees himself today.

But both these big beasts were trounced by the ” grey man ” – the relatively unknown John Major.

Today there is another relatively unknown man – a John Major for the 21st century. He is David Gauke. In the Westminster bubble he is known by the phrase ” Uncork the Gauke ” for  his ability to smoothe over gaffes made by his then boss George Osborne in successive budgets. He is a safe pair of hands to send to Westminster and handle Opposition anger over ministerial mistakes.

He was first out of the traps to address the Westminster  press gallery lunches this month – and came to put himself over as an agreeable lunch companion with a store of self deprecating jokes. He is also benefiting from Theresa May’s decision to promote him to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, presumably thinking like Thatcher about Major that he is no leadership challenger.

But don’t be fooled by his manner. At the heart of the man is a determination to continue the Conservative austerity programme. He was careful only to park plans to end the ” triple lock” on pensions and a new charging system for social care. He has since taken the decision to raise much earlier the pension age to 68 – something that was not in the Tory manifesto.

He also showed little real concern that benefit claimants had committed suicide as a result of  tough decisions. He came out in favour of means testing and to a question from me that his ministry was turning into the Department of Corporate Manslaughter – ignored the point – saying  lamely that there might be mistakes by staff.  There is a lot of difference between a  mistake and a suicide.

A lot is at  stake at the next general election – and Jeremy Corbyn has no longer that element of surprise that he is supposed to be a ” no hoper”  to become PM. So expect the unexpected from the Tories – they will devise new ways to stay in power and an unexpected figure emerging as their leader could be one of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exclusive: How the Boundary Commission could smash the Tory DUP love in

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson ” These proposals are not welcome” Pic credit: BBC

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While everyone has been concentrating on  the wrangling between  Cabinet ministers over Brexit another crisis is looming for Theresa May which could cause enormous bad blood between the Tories and its newly found friends, the Democratic Unionist Party.

Theresa May has inherited  from David Cameron a  controversial revamp of all Parliamentary boundaries with the aim of slashing the number of MPs from 650 to 600.

The review is being undertaken by the Boundary Commission- independent of government – but set to strict guidelines on the size of each constituency. A move to reform Parliamentary boundaries collapsed during the coalition government when the Lib Dems voted it down and Cameron and Theresa May backed its revival when the Tories won a majority. The change is expected to benefit the Tories at the expense of Labour because many of the smaller constituencies are inner city seats.

In Northern Ireland the Boundary Commission has made its recommendations are they are extremely bad news for the DUP. The number of seats in Northern Ireland are cut from 18 to 17 – with the loss of one Belfast constituency – but the real controversy is the complete redrawing of all the other seats to meet the new standard size constituency.

As I have written in Tribune  this radical revamp means the  DUP are set to lose three of its ten seats and Sinn Fein is expected to gain two – making it the largest party from Northern Ireland. The DUP have reacted with fury and complained to the Commission asking them to change the proposals.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, which will disappear to become part of a new constituency under the changes, said: “The proposals are not welcome. We have made representations to the Boundary Commission to get them changed and expect them to publish their final proposals in September”.

More seriously for the government, the proposals are not part of the deal agreed with the DUP on “confidence and supply”. This was confirmed by Sir Jeffery, meaning that the government could face a defeat in the Commons next year if the DUP decide to vote them down – denting the government’s position still further and possibly triggering a general election before Brexit negotiations are completed.

Such a defeat would cause enormous damage for ministers because it would mean that the next full term general election, originally scheduled for 2020 and but now 2022, will have to be fought on the present boundaries. These are now years out of date.

And the embarrassment will not be confined to N Ireland.There is no provision under the Act which set up the boundary review to allow any special concessions to N Ireland. So not a single Parliamentary boundary will change if it is voted down in the Commons.

The damage by this debacle will only add to the frailty and weakness of this government – if it can survive as long as next year.

 

 

 

 

Will May’s terrorism clampdown restrict freedom of speech?

Police at Finsbury Park after latest terrorist attack

Police at Finsbury Park, north London after the latest terrorist attack this week Pic credit: BBC

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Theresa May promised ” Enough is Enough”  after the two vicious terrorist attacks in Manchester and London Bridge during the election campaign. Since then we have a third attack in Finsbury Park, north London targeting Muslims.

Today a much slimmed down Queen’s Speech promises new laws on security and possibly a U-turn on police cuts. But we need to be vigilant on what measures are taken and ensure that in a rush to clamp down on extremist perversions of the Muslim faith that the law is not used against other people to restrict freedom of speech and robust debate.

This threat was highlighted by none other than researchers at the House of Commons library who produced a timely review of terrorist legislation and also pointed out the pitfalls of badly drafted legislation and loose definitions of extremism.

As I wrote in Tribune last week:

In the Tory manifesto Theresa May had committed herself to creating Commission for Countering Extremism. The Commons library paper says the last Tory government has already got a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill in the pipeline – which was never introduced because of the snap election.

This included powers to regulate all official out-of-school activities to prevent extremists from using them and banning people with extreme views from teaching in schools by extending the scope of the debarring system, at present used to prevent criminals and sex abusers from getting jobs.

It also included new powers to block people streaming extremist videos from outside the EU and new action to be taken against local councils that did not act to stop extremism in schools.
What is not clear is whether the new legislation would also include measures to disrupt extremist activity, including outlawing some organisations and some individuals, barring them using premises and trying to criminalise people who say they do not believe in democracy and advocate violence even if they have no intention of committing offences themselves. Some of this would involve issuing civil orders against individuals.

The  Commons report  raises a lot of questions:
• Can extremism be defined in a way that offers legal certainty?
• Is it necessary to resort to new civil orders instead of existing criminal offences?
• How will proposals avoid unjustified interference with freedom of religion and expression?
• Is it justified to limit speech which is not in itself illegal?
• How can online extremism be dealt with both by government and social media companies?

It warns: “Unless a consensus can be reached as to what constitutes extremism in the first place, the development of effective measures will continue to prove problematic.”

And the government can hardly introduce a law that singles out Muslims.

These are wise words because the direction of travel is to try to prosecute people for what they say not for what they do – and somehow try and control what is on the internet.

It is a law of unintended consequences as the Commons paper reveals. For while naturally Liberty objected it also led when the idea was debated in 2015 to objections from Christians.

They were protesting that people advocating gay marriage should be banned could face prosecution or denial of access to buildings because they would be described as extremists.

It is delicious irony that tough talk to clamp down on radical extremism could end up alienating  the Tory’s preferred government partner, the Democratic Unionist Party , who oppose gay marriage, unless of course there will be a special exemption for Northern Ireland.  Even Dominic Raab, Conservative MP for Esher, now a government minister at the Ministry of Justice, objected to curbs on free speech, warning it could be used to prosecute other groups – including Christians opposing gay marriage,

People should scrutinise the proposed terrorism bill very carefully when it is published today. The Commons research paper is here.