The Ministry of Justice has at last set the date for the abolition of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), in accordance with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act of 1 May 2012. From 3 December 2012, no more IPPs will be handed down. But abolition, however welcome, is not retrospective: it doesn’t affect those currently serving IPPs, nor those who may receive IPPs between now and the 3rd of next month, although there seem to be some signs that the processing of applications for release by IPP prisoners who are past their tariffs is being quietly speeded up and improved.
This is the most welcome culmination of years of campaigning against a huge injustice in our penal system, supported by every significant civil rights organisation and expert but passing almost unnoticed in parliament and the media. It has been the subject of numerous posts on this blog and elsewhere and of literally many hundreds of comments on them, mostly from the relatives and other loved ones of IPP prisoners suffering justified fears that they may never be released, despite never having committed any offence serious enough to warrant a sentence of life imprisonment.
The problems facing those now serving IPPs are not by any means resolved, but at least we know that the relevant ministers and their department are aware of them; and it’s probably unrealistic to suppose that there will be a single dramatic identifiable move to resolve them. It will now be for each individual IPP prisoner and his family and solicitors to do whatever they can to remedy specific shortcomings in the management of their cases, appealing to their MPs and the Justice Secretary and their prison authorities and the Independent Prison Monitors and the local newspapers as appropriate for support, and doing everything possible to satisfy their parole boards that they have reduced the risk of reoffending on release to acceptably low levels. It’s bleak and obvious advice but probably the most realistic that can be offered.
Meanwhile it will be of some comfort to know that a major blot on our system of justice is within sight of being removed. If there’s one thing about it that’s a matter for deep regret, it’s that this long overdue reform owes absolutely nothing to the Labour party in parliament, whose leaders have been consistently ambiguous or even openly hostile to the abolition of this evil and unjust régime. The LibDems have remained almost entirely silent, and the sole credit for a brave and necessary reform belongs to a handful of Conservative ministers, including notably Ken Clarke and now Chris Grayling, the present Justice Secretary and his immediate predecessor.
(Hat-tip: Lorna Elliott, once again.)
Many commentators have apparently missed the point about Abu Qatada‘s successful appeal against deportation. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) accepted the Jordanian government’s assurances that Qatada, if returned to Jordan for trial on old terrorism charges, would not be tortured and that the government, from the King down, would do everything possible to ensure him a fair trial. The problem is over two statements, made years ago, which it’s generally agreed may well have been produced by torture. These were used in evidence against Qatada when he was tried in Jordan and convicted in absentia, and are now in a sealed file of evidence used at the earlier trials. If they had the power to prevent those tainted statements being used again when Qatada is re-tried after being deported to Jordan, the King and his government would clearly do so. The SIAC judgment of 12 November (pdf) accepts that assurance: “with the significant qualification that all members of the executive government have made it clear to their British interlocutors that they cannot interfere in judicial decision-making“. The SIAC judgement exhaustively analyses Jordanian law and judicial processes and comes to the definite conclusion that re-use of the two tainted statements at any future trial of Qatada is a real possibility. This would not only contravene Qatada’s human rights under the European Convention (as the European Court has confirmed, Britain being a signatory to the Convention and hence legally bound by it) and under the UK Human Rights Act (as SIAC, a British court, has confirmed): it would also be in flagrant contravention of the UN Convention Against Torture, to which Britain and Jordan are both signatories. It is up to those who shrilly denounce SIAC’s judgment to state the grounds on which they disagree with SIAC’s carefully argued conclusion that under current Jordanian law and practice there must be a real risk that the two statements will be used in evidence against Abu Qatada if and when he is re-tried in Jordan.
Most, if not all, of SIAC’s critics have also missed an important further point made almost at the outset of its judgment:
This is our open judgment on that appeal. There is a closed judgment, in which we have set out our closed reasons for reaching the same conclusions as those set out in this judgment.
In other words, SIAC’s judgment that Qatada could not lawfully be deported to Jordan, because of the risk just described, was also reinforced by additional classified evidence which is too sensitive to be revealed publicly. There has been much criticism of the provision whereby SIAC may hear secret (“closed”) evidence, not revealed to the appellant or his lawyers but heard in closed session at which the appellant’s interests are looked after by a special advocate, a barrister with the necessary security clearance. This is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of that procedure: the point is that SIAC had other, undisclosed grounds for reaching the conclusion it did, in addition to those in its lengthy published judgment.
On the BBC’s besieged Newsnight programme last night (12 November), the Conservative MP Peter Bone said the government should have ignored the SIAC judgment and put Abu Qatada on a plane to Jordan forthwith. Mr Bone later told ITV’s Daybreak programme:
Enough is enough. Put this terrorist on a plane and send him home and worry about the European Court afterwards. There are times when we need to put the public interest in front of the European Court and this is one of them… We should not be kow-towing to this Mickey Mouse European court.
In vain Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty tried to explain to Mr Bone that he was calling on the government to disregard the finding of a British court, not just a European one. Mr Bone wouldn’t have it. A skim through Peter Bone’s voting record on civil rights issues in the house of commons shows that his public incitement to law-breaking last night and this morning was entirely in character.
Finally, where was the voice of Labour in defence of the European Court of Justice, the Human Rights Act and the Special Immigration Appeals Commission when the home secretary, Theresa May, performed her predictable whinge in parliament about the SIAC judgment yesterday? Her Labour Shadow, Yvette Cooper, far from robustly defending the rule of law and respect for the fundamental rights of even the most unsavoury of the inhabitants of our country, instead outdid Theresa May in denouncing SIAC, the European Court, the home secretary’s record of attempting to deport Qatada, and the government’s action in “watering down” New Labour’s infamous Control Orders. Ms Cooper demanded that Qatada be held in custody (contrary to SIAC’s decision) until he could be deported, if necessary under the government’s Control Orders Lite, despite the fact that he has never been charged with any offence in this country, still less convicted. She twice recited the tabloids’ cliché about Qatada being allowed “on our streets”, as if this alone represented a threat to national security. Once again Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour follows Blair’s old, discredited New Labour, positioning a once great liberal party to the authoritarian populist right of one of the most reactionary Tory-led governments in modern British history. If this represents the convictions of Labour’s front bench, they are in the wrong party. The only other explanation is a tremulous fear that the tabloids and the Murdoch press (and their political adversaries) will accuse them of being ‘soft on crime’. But cowardice is no excuse. Time for some backbone, Ed, Yvette and Sadiq!
In a lively discussion on the LabourList website of whether Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, lied when he allegedly told Andrew Neil that the SNP government had obtained legal advice that an independent Scotland would not have to apply to join, or re-join, the EU, I have drawn attention in a comment to an interesting but neglected statement of the UK government’s view:
I carry no torch for Alex Salmond (although I regard him as the most formidable political leader in the UK) and I’m vehemently opposed to independence for Scotland. But as I understand it, his defence against the charge of having lied about having obtained legal advice on the question of an independent Scotland’s position vis-à-vis the EU is that his and other SNP statements on the subject, arguing that Scotland’s existing status of EU membership (as part of the UK) would continue after independence so that there would be no need to apply as a candidate for membership, had all been seen and approved by the Scottish government’s legal advisers. This can, I suppose, just about be squared with Salmond’s reply to Andrew Neil (“We have, yes, in terms of the debate”). I conclude, somewhat reluctantly, that the charge of ‘lying’ can’t be made to stick, although the charge of having been deliberately misleading probably does.
But in all the excitement over what Salmond did or didn’t say and whether he lied, an important statement by the UK government on the question of Scotland and the EU seems to have been widely missed. The only reasonably full report of it that I can find was in the Guardian of 1 November, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/nov/01/alex-salmond-scotland-eu-membership
The relevant passage reads:
“In a brief statement issued on Thursday, Westminster hinted strongly that its legal advice directly contradicted the claim by Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, that, if Scotland voted for independence, it and the rest of the UK would need to reapply to join the EU as newly formed states.
“The UK government statement stressed that, unlike the Scottish government, it had obtained formal advice from its law officers and that Scotland would have to negotiate the terms of its EU membership with the UK and all other 26 member states.
It said: ‘This government has confirmed it does hold legal advice on this issue. Based on the overwhelming weight of international precedent, it is the government’s view that the remainder of the UK would continue to exercise the UK’s existing international rights and obligations and Scotland would form a new state.
‘The most likely scenario is that the rest of the UK would be recognised as the continuing state and an independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU as a new state, involving negotiation with the rest of the UK and other member states, the outcome of which cannot be predicted.’
“Referring to statements by European commission president, José Manuel Barroso, and his deputy, Viviane Reding, that a newly independent country would be seen as a new applicant, it added: ‘Recent pronouncements from the commission support that view.’ “
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It’s surprising, and disturbing, that the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, should have signed an agreement on the Scottish independence referendum to be held in autumn 2014 in which there will be only one question – probably on the lines of “Do you wish Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom, yes or no?” – and under which children of 16 and 17 will be eligible to vote.
The first and minor surprise is that Cameron should have agreed to give the vote at the referendum to children. Common sense suggests that teenagers are much likelier to vote for the radical option of independence than most older voters; so he has given the SNP and the independistas a head start, while apparently getting nothing in return. He has also set a most dangerous precedent for other future elections, not just in Scotland. If votes for children are OK in a referendum to settle the future of the United Kingdom, why should they not be OK in future UK general elections, local elections, referendums on Britain’s future in the EU, and the rest? If children of 16 are to be trusted to vote, why not 15- or 14-year-olds? This is the worst kind of pandering to the sentimental idealisation of the young.
The second and much more worrying surprise is that either Cameron or Salmond should have agreed to a single-question referendum. Until recently, Salmond was speculating about the possibility of a third question, implying three options: independence, the status quo, or “devo max” (i.e. further maximum devolution of powers to Scotland, amounting to full internal self-government). The evidence of recent polls is that a clear majority of Scots would prefer devo max to either independence or the status quo, and it looked at one time as if Salmond and the SNP were preparing if necessary to accept a referendum vote for devo max as the next best thing to independence and a possible stepping stone to it. Conversely, a more cautious British leader than Cameron would surely have taken the view that Scots faced with a straight choice between independence and the status quo, when most of them apparently want devo max, might well feel themselves forced to vote for independence, and that an offer of devo max (as a further alternative to the status quo option) would be the best way to minimise the number of votes for independence.
So each side had a good though different tactical reason for wanting a three-way choice, with a reasonable expectation that devo max would win. The SNP would then have been able to welcome this as at least a partial victory, leaving the door open for a vote for independence later; and those wishing to keep Scotland in the Union would similarly have been able to welcome a vote for devo max, in the hope that the grant of substantial further devolution to Scotland would blunt the edge of the desire for full independence, and provide the basis for a durable settlement between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Thus it was difficult … [More >>>]
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3804, not by private email. For example please don’t send your comments in reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal. Thanks, and now read on.
Thus it’s difficult to understand why Cameron should have insisted on a single ‘yes or no’ answer to the question whether Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom. It is equally difficult to understand why Alex Salmond should have dropped the idea of a compromise option of devo max, given that this seems to be what most Scots want. The agreement of 15 October paradoxically entails a grave risk for each side. The risk for Cameron is that a majority of Scots, deprived of the option of voting for devo max as they would like to do, will vote instead for independence, frustrated and exasperated at being denied the option of voting for what they actually want. The risk for Salmond and the SNP is that by the time of the referendum in the autumn of 2014, there will still be no majority appetite for independence, enthusiasm for which has been ebbing in recent months, and that accordingly there will be a clear majority for the only alternative on offer, namely the status quo, which would inevitably (and quite reasonably) be interpreted as a decisive rejection of independence.
Part of the answer may lie in internal Conservative party politics. A substantial number of Tories both in Parliament and in the country, already sceptical about the limited devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so far granted, are said to be strongly opposed to the devolution of yet more powers to Scotland. A more farsighted objection in some minds is that devo max, amounting to full internal self-government for Scotland, would prompt irresistible demands by England for the same status, remedying the absurd and unsustainable situation in which England, alone of the four UK nations, currently enjoys no devolution at all. With Wales and Northern Ireland, both already extensively devolved, likely to follow suit, full internal self-government for each of the four UK nations would make the United Kingdom a full-blown federation, which is clearly the logical (and highly desirable) culmination of the devolution process. No wonder that Westminster politicians, flattering themselves with the long exploded myth of parliamentary sovereignty in which the powers of the government and legislature at London are represented as both unlimited and constitutionally incapable of being limited, view with horror the idea that the vast majority of the subjects with which they deal from day to day would be transferred to the parliaments and governments of the four nations, leaving them with responsibility for little more than foreign affairs, defence, and any other matters which are necessarily dealt with on an all-UK basis.
However, it appears that David Cameron at least is in fact prepared to contemplate further devolution to Scotland, provided that the Scots vote no to independence in 2014:
[After concluding the agreement with Salmond] Cameron said that if people in Scotland wanted further devolution, they should reject independence.
“One thing is clear: that if independence goes ahead, it’s the end of devolution. All those who want to see not only the status quo but further devolution from the United Kingdom to Scotland must vote to stay within the United Kingdom.”
Cameron said that if Scotland voted to stay in the UK, further devolution would be possible.
[http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2012/oct/15/salmond-cameron-scottish-independence-referendum-live; my emphasis]
Cameron’s warning to the Scots that if they vote for independence, “it’s the end of devolution” is a meaningless threat, indeed a statement of the painfully obvious. What is more significant is his reported promise that if Scotland votes to stay in the UK, “further devolution would be possible”. This however seems to imply that the London government will be prepared to discuss what kind of further devolution will be available to Scotland only after the Scots have rejected independence in a referendum that’s still two years off. Such a sequence will surely be untenable. To ask the Scots to vote against independence and in favour of an alternative involving an undefined measure of further devolution is to ask them to buy a pig in a poke. Salmond and the SNP will certainly be forced to spell out in much greater detail than they have done so far what exactly would be involved in independence. Already Salmond has been caught out equivocating, almost to the point of mendacity, about whether an independent Scotland would automatically remain part of the EU, or whether she would have to join the queue of applicants as a new candidate for membership. Similar questions will arise over Scottish membership of the UN and many other international bodies. There will be countless other thorny matters in connection with possible independence demanding answers between now and the referendum. But by the same token there will be questions to be answered about what exactly is meant by the ‘further devolution’ dangled by Cameron in front of Scottish voters as a reward for rejecting independence. It is time for some hard work to be done by both sides on the answers to all these questions, in plenty of time for the referendum. Scottish voters are entitled to those answers before they vote, not afterwards when it will be too late.
It seems therefore that both Cameron and Salmond have each agreed on a huge gamble: Cameron betting that the Scots, deprived of the option of devo max which most of them actually want, but reassured by a vague promise of ‘further devolution’ if they vote against independence, will vote accordingly; Salmond gambling that without a specific offer of devo max, plainly defined, a majority will go for independence as the nearest thing to it. Both sides have a lot to lose if their gambles fail. If Cameron has guessed wrong, Scotland will vote for independence and the United Kingdom will disintegrate; Cameron will then go down in history as the prime minister who presided over the dissolution of his country. Conversely, if Salmond has guessed wrong, Scotland will say a flat No to independence, with little prospect of another bite at the independence cherry for a generation, and not even a bankable guarantee of further significant devolution. Not only are both men gamblers: they are reckless and irresponsible gamblers who have lost sight of the best interests of both Scotland and the United Kingdom, which plainly lie in a commitment to the offer of further full devolution and all that will follow from it.
The best hope now must be that Labour and the Lib Dems will refuse to follow Cameron down his reckless path, and instead will work together, ideally in consultation with the SNP and the other nationalist parties, on elaborating a programme of full devolution, amounting to full internal self-government, for Scotland if the Scots vote No to independence in 2014. This programme would form a commitment by a future Labour government, with or without Lib Dems support, spelled out in as much detail as possible well before the Scottish referendum. If it remains the case that when they come to vote in 2014 the majority of Scots will still prefer devo max to either independence or the status quo, a detailed promise by Labour and the Lib Dems of full devolution in the event of a rejection of independence would effectively give the Scottish voters what Cameron and Salmond have conspired to withhold from them: the opportunity to vote in the referendum for what most Scots want. Do the Labour and Lib Dem leaderships have the foresight and guts to do what needs to be done, not just for Scotland but for the future of Britain? Don’t bet on it.
Earlier this month (October 2012) J and I enjoyed a Viking river cruise on the Elbe from Berlin to Prague. In response to several requests, J has written an account of the trip, including some of the personal and historical events of which we were reminded on our visits to some of the towns and cities along the way — not only Berlin and Prague, but also Wittenberg, Torgau, Meissen, and Dresden in the former East Germany, and Litomerice in the Czech Republic.
J’s article is at http://www.barder.com/a-cruise-up-the-elbe-october-2012. Do spare a few minutes to read it if you have any interest in this part of our old war-torn continent. (If you haven’t, don’t bother!) The article ends with a link to the web album of photographs taken during the cruise — we used to call them ‘snaps’, less grandly and more appropriately in my case — which, having read the article first, you’re also welcome to browse through.
Please append any comments, corrections or other reactions as Comments to this blog post, not to J’s article.
I wrote the following letter to the Guardian minutes before leaving London for a river cruise up the Elbe from Berlin to Prague. The letter was published in the Guardian of 9 October, along with several others on the subject of abortion following the proposal by the Health Secretary, of all people, that the period in a pregnancy during which an abortion is permissible (on rigorous conditions) should be drastically shortened:
• The health secretary’s reactionary call for halving the period in pregnancy when abortion may be permissible (Report, 6 October) lacks logical as well as scientific justification.
Defenders of women’s right to choose whether and when to have an abortion should beware of accepting the anti-abortionists’ implicit claim that abortion should be banned from the point when the foetus, if removed from the womb, could theoretically survive.
There is no logic to this claim, and the test is purely hypothetical: some foetuses could be helped to survive outside the mother at almost any stage, others couldn’t. So long as it is a foetus and not a baby, it’s part of and dependent on the mother, who should have unfettered rights to decide its future.
Once born, it is a baby and a human, and quite different considerations apply, but not until then.
The alleged link between potential hypothetical viability and the ban on abortion is based purely on religious superstition about “the beginning of life” and should be firmly resisted.
Otherwise, scientific advances will eventually make foetuses potentially viable from the moment of conception – and we shall be back to the cruel days when all abortions were banned and back-street abortionists flourished.
If the space allocated by the Guardian for letters had been bigger, I would have added an acknowledgement of Owen Barder‘s blinding aperçu that there’s no necessary basis in logic or morals for the assertion that an abortion becomes unacceptable at the point where the foetus might hypothetically survive if removed from the womb, one of those Eureka! observations (except that I didn’t discover it, he did). It’s obvious when you think about it, yet even the most radical of the pro-choice campaigners never seem to challenge the underlying premiss of the anti-abortionists that once the foetus is theoretically “viable” on its own, aborting it must be wrong. Once you point out that there is no basis for this assertion, the whole case for repeatedly reducing the period in which abortions are permitted falls apart. Throughout her pregnancy, every woman should have the unfettered right to decide what happens to every part of her body and its contents, and it’s utterly unacceptable that anyone else should attempt to limit or deny that right.
(This post is being published, all being well, from aboard a river cruise ship moored on the Elbe in the heart of beautiful, beautifully restored Dresden, of whose virtual destruction by giant fire-storm, set off by the bombers of the Royal Air Force only a few weeks before the end of the second world war, we Britons ought to be suitably ashamed. But that’s a different point of controversy: this post is about abortion and women’s rights, once again under threat from religious bigots and other misogynistic obscurantists.)
This is a very rough transcript of how I remember Andrew Marr interviewing the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, on the revealingly named “Andrew Marr Show”, BBC1 television, Sunday 30 September 2012. I can’t of course vouch for its accuracy. But for those who missed it, or switched it off after the first three minutes, this may help to give the flavour.
Andrew Marr: I’m joined now by Ed Miliband as he comes to Manchester for his party conference, at which he’ll have to expect to be judged by not only his party but by the whole country on his claim to be the country’s next prime minister. He’s widely regarded as a weird pointy-headed nerdy figure, more at home in the university lecture-room discussing ideas than convincing the man in the pub that he’d be better off under a Miliband Labour Government. Ed Miliband, welcome to the Andrew Marr Show.
Ed Miliband: Thank you, Andrew. Look, I–
AM: So this is your opportunity, Ed, to reveal the closely guarded secrets of what specific policies we may expect a Miliband government to pursue, if you succeed in the elections in 2015. We really have no information so far about what you would do about public spending, for example. Would you cancel the coalition government’s cuts and repeat the familiar Labour policy of reckless spending?
EM: Well, Andrew, obviously where the coalition’s cuts are failing in their objective of reducing the deficit–
AM: So you would increase government spending. I think it’s the first time you’ve admitted that. It means the deficit would also actually increase, doesn’t it?
EM: No, I’m not saying that at all. The deficit is actually increasing as a result of the coalition’s cuts, because –
AM: You still haven’t told us which coalition cuts you would reverse or where the money would come from for all the additional spending. How can you expect to win the trust of the British people when you won’t come clean about your spending plans?
EM: Look, it’s still 2-1/2 years until the general election, and it’s impossible at this stage to–
AM: All right, so we still don’t know. Now, will you at least tell us whether you would work with the LibDems if there’s a hung parliament after the next elections and Labour is the biggest party? How can you ask voters to support Labour if you won’t even tell us honestly what you would do if you fail to win an overall majority? Isn’t that rather arrogant?
EM: Look, our aim is clear: it’s to win the next election outright, that’s what we’re working for. Of course if–
AM: So you won’t answer my question. Let me put this to you: will it be a condition of a Miliband government working with the LibDems that Nick Clegg is no longer their leader? I think we’re entitled to know that at least.
EM: I don’t think it’s for me to tell another party who their–
AM: Let’s talk about the condition of the Labour party. It’s widely believed that you and the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, have a difficult relationship. Have you really forgotten the harm that was done to Labour by the terrible relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown? If so, you must have a very short memory.
EM: Ed Balls and I work very well and amicably together. Take the issue of banking reform, which I would really like to tell you–
AM: We’ll come on to that in a minute. Just now I want to ask you about another thing which you have been very secretive about – the role in the Labour party of your brother, David, who is older than you and more experienced: how does he feel now about the way you wrecked his hopes of becoming party leader, your own brother?
EM: Well, you’ll have to ask him how he feels. He knows that I welcome the active role he–
AM: You’re generally thought to be indecisive. You were certainly decisive when you decided to run against your own brother for the leadership! Can you think of any other clear-cut decisions on policy matters that you have taken since you went into politics?
EM: As leader of the party and Leader of the Opposition, I’m having to make major decisions all–
AM: So you can’t think of a single one?
EM: Andrew, I was trying to tell you that–
AM: All right. Let’s talk a bit about your private life. People have been ridiculing you for having yourself photographed with your wife and two small children, arriving in Manchester yesterday for the conference. Is that what we have to expect now from you: all folksy family schmaltz and no policies?
EM: Not at all. I’m determined that at this conference we’ll be talking in very specific terms about the issues that are making life so difficult at the moment for hard-working–
AM: So you still haven’t told me in concrete terms what you would like to do about relations with the EU, or Afghanistan, or the trade deficit, or how you would get on with Mitt Romney if he wins the US elections, or really anything at all about international affairs. For example, now is your chance to tell me in detail how you would propose to bring the violence in Syria to an end if you were prime minister now.
EM: I’ll be very glad to tell you my position on all those matters, if you’ll give me a chance. On the crisis in the EU, for example, and especially in the Eurozone, we would give strong support to –
AM: We’ll come on to that in a moment. I want to ask you about the banks. You’ve been quoted as saying that you would point a gun at the head of the banks and threaten to nationalise them if they don’t obey your order to separate their international investment operations, or casino banking as I think you call it, from their ordinary high street banking operations. Presumably you don’t mind that this would drive all our banks to close down their UK banking operations and move to the United States where they would be more welcome to make a profit and provide badly needed services to the whole financial system?
EM: That’s a parody of what I have proposed for reform of the banks. I certainly think that a clear separation–
AM: That’s exactly what I said you were saying. How can you–
EM: Can I finish my point? A clear separation of investment–
AM: No, I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for. Thank you very much for coming in, although I don’t think you have really shed much light in this interview on what to expect from an Ed Miliband administration in the unlikely event of anyone who looks like you winning an election. Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour party. Now –
EM: But I –
AM: [Turning away from EM to face another camera; EM now out of shot] Now we’re going to be played out by listening to a very attractive young lady whose recent hit single is currently at No. 788 in the charts and rising fast. What brought you into your amazingly successful singing career, my dear? ….
The following very informative letter was published in the Guardian on Tuesday, 25 September:
Criminal justice and human rights
Indeterminate sentences for public protection were introduced by David Blunkett in 2005 for 153 specific violent or sex crimes of varying seriousnesss (Strasbourg judges attack ‘open-ended’ prison terms, 19 September). Judges set a minimum prison term (tariff) for each crime, but could not set a release date. This was the Parole Board‘s job after viewing how well the prisoner had “addressed his/her offending behaviour” – usually by means of cognitive behaviour therapy courses intended to “cure” anti-social or criminal behaviour. But Blunkett forgot to finance or staff these courses adequately and the Parole Board was notoriously risk averse, releasing only 4% of all IPPs awarded each year.
So queues swelled of prisoners going past their tariff dates. Numbers grew from 434 in 2005 to 4,461 in 2008 – when the law was changed to ensure fewer IPPs. But by June 2012 there were 6,078, with 3,531 beyond tariff – with no clue when they might be released. This causes extreme worry and anguish to both prisoners and their loved ones; children suffer, families disintegrate. IPPs were finally scrapped by Ken Clarke in May this year, but are now defended by his replacement, Chris Grayling – and judges are still awarding them. Shame on this country that it has taken the European court of human rights to condemn this legal lottery.
BK (name and address supplied)
The following letter was submitted to the Guardian on the same day and not published:
It’s a national scandal that it has taken seven years for the maladministration of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) to be declared in breach of the human rights convention (Strasbourg judges attack ‘open-ended’ prison terms, 19 September): that our English courts have failed to make such a declaration despite condemnation of this vicious system by every penal reform organisation and expert in the land, even including the prison governors’ association; that IPPs are still being handed down despite parliament’s decision to abolish them; that even now it’s only the way the system has been negligently and callously run that has been pronounced unlawful, not the inherently oppressive system itself; that Labour, which introduced the system in 2005, still lacks the courage to denounce it; that it took a Tory Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, to abolish it and to promise to reform the way applications for release by existing IPPs are assessed; and, perhaps worst of all, that Clarke’s successor, Chris Grayling, plans to appeal against the European Court’s unanimous judgment, thereby heaping further international obloquy on our failed justice system, instead of getting down to the urgent task of reforming it to meet our international and national, legal and moral obligations.
Brian Barder, London
25 September 2012
In her Guardian article today, Polly Toynbee quotes David Laws, now back in government, as saying:
As a liberal, I feel uncomfortable at the idea of the state taking half or more of anyone’s income.
This is obviously meant to justify the acquiescence of the LibDem members of the coalition in the decision last March to reduce the 50% highest marginal rate of tax, instituted by the Labour government in April 2010, to 45%. Laws’s remark however seems calculated to perpetuate the myth that a taxpayer paying the 50% tax rate is paying half of his total income to the state. This widespread misconception results from a misunderstanding of the concept of a “marginal” tax rate. The highest marginal rate of tax, whether 50% or 45%, applies only to that part of the taxpayer’s taxable income which exceeds £150,000 a year. If your total taxable income in the year (i.e. your income after deduction of various allowances) is £149,999, not a penny of it is taxed at 45% or 50%. If it’s £150,010, only the last £10 is taxed at 50% (soon to be 45%). Everything up to £149,999 plus allowances is taxed at exactly the same rates as those paid by someone earning, say, £34,371, the amount at which the rate of 40% begins to apply.
David Laws, as a former LibDem Chief Secretary to the Treasury (admittedly for only 17 days) ought to be able to grasp the meaning of a marginal rate of tax. Son of a banker, educated at fee-paying schools and with a double first in economics at King’s College Cambridge, for five years a senior investment banker, including a spell as a managing director at Barclays de Zoete Wedd, he’s no financially illiterate pleb. It’s a reasonable inference that he knows that a marginal tax rate of 50% starting at £150,000 of taxable income can’t mean “the state taking half or more of anyone’s income” (that sly insertion of “or more” making the innuendo even more untruthful). Either Mr Laws, a LibDem minister in the coalition government, didn’t know that his remarks were seriously misleading, in which case he was wasting his time as an investment banker and senior Treasury minister; or he did know, in which case….
It’s time that Labour nailed this damaging misunderstanding every time it surfaces. The case for the very rich to pay substantially more tax as part of their contribution to deficit reduction is unanswerable. This is one way to raise taxes without squeezing aggregate demand in the economy as a whole, since those earning — or at any rate receiving — more than £150,000 a year (plus tax allowances) have a very low marginal propensity to spend: almost every additional pound of their income goes into savings, often in off-shore accounts. That the coalition chose to reduce the highest rate of tax on the very rich while actually increasing the tax paid by even the poorest people in the country, VAT, thus significantly reducing aggregate spending power when lack of demand is at the root of the country’s disastrous economic problems, tells us all we need to know about the coalition’s priorities, demonstrating whose interests the Conservative-LibDem government is most anxious to promote. By comparison with such knowingly misleading spin, calling a copper a pleb is very small beer. Right, Mr Laws?
The bad-tempered outburst by the Conservative Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, against a policeman (or policewoman?) who wouldn’t open the gates to Downing Street to allow him to ride his bicycle through them, has predictably prompted a storm of criticism of Mr Mitchell and several acres of print gloating over what it reveals about Tories, toffs, chief whips and other undesirables. Commenting earlier today on one of the more moderate pieces, on the website LabourList, I wrote:
I don’t disagree with anything [in that post], but I think it greatly exaggerates the significance of the whole thing. This was an intrinsically trivial incident, which told us absolutely nothing that we didn’t already know about the attitudes of Tory (and indeed other) toffs to those whom they regard as the lower orders. We don’t even know whether Mitchell used the word ‘pleb’: indeed the whole script given (or sold?) to the Sun newspaper (presumably by the police or someone acting for them) reads very strangely, looking much more like a police approximation in imagined toff-ese than what a toff is actually likely to have said. Clearly he swore, doesn’t deny it, and has apologised for it; and anyway ‘pleb’ is hardly the most insulting word in the language, especially as it so obviously says more about the speaker than the person spoken to.
The whole episode has been absurdly inflated by a number of those with an axe to grind: the police, as a weapon in their war with the government over their pensions and police numbers, on which it’s by no means obvious that the government is in the wrong; by the Sun, with an evident interest in keeping the story running for purposes of circulation, advertising revenue and kicking the toff class in their sensitive areas; and, I’m sorry to say, by the Labour party as an opportunistic and ungenerous stick to beat the Tories with. Perhaps it’s too much to expect Yvette Cooper to have taken a more understanding and perhaps humorous line on the whole thing, which would have done her some credit; but to demand some kind of public inquiry, as the Labour party is now doing, seems to me absurd verging on despicable.
It’s worth remembering that Mitchell was a good, progressive and courageous International Development Secretary, who defended the policy of increasing overseas aid up to the UN target against howls of protest from his own more primitive colleagues and at a time when everything else was being savagely cut. Moreover, it’s rather pleasant to reflect that any character defects revealed by the DowningStreetGate-gate incident seem certain to make him an extremely disagreeable and alarming chief whip in his dealings with Tory MPs: so much the better.
Full disclosure: for a year or two Andrew Mitchell and I were members of a small non-political committee which helped to promote debating and public speaking skills in schools and universities, etc., although he wasn’t very often there at its meetings. I found him tough, very sharp, very practical, probably ruthless, always perfectly courteous — all ideal qualities for a chief whip. He wouldn’t have been my first choice as a companion on a camping holiday, but then I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been his, either. It was obvious that we were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and not temperamentally close. I don’t instinctively urge that high-powered Tories should be given the benefit of the doubt when they commit the kind of crass blunders that real humans tend to do, but Mitchell’s bad-tempered outburst was not a hanging offence by any conceivable standard, and I think he should now be left alone and allowed to get on with his vital job of terrorising his fellow-Tory MPs.
I don’t expect this post to go down well here or on Labour List, but I’ve said what I think and I don’t plan to reply to hostile or other comments on this occasion, having rather a lot of things to do in the next few days in Real Life, as we call it.
PS: I’m reliably informed that Andrew Mitchell is not a member of the Cabinet. Apparently not many people know that — just as not many people seem to know that Nick Clegg didn’t apologise for breaking his pledge on student fees (he apologised for the pledge).