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Archive for the ‘Liberal Democrats’ Category

Many years ago I sat in a classroom and learned The Order of Things. That Parliament made laws, the judiciary applied laws and the police enforced laws. And that somehow the media was the fourth pillar, reporting on all of this and in doing so keeping everyone honest.

I’d already been taught from an early age never to talk to strangers, and that if ever I was in trouble I could talk to the nice policemen and women. Because even though I didn’t know them, they weren’t the strangers I should never talk to.

So fast forward to the revelations of the past few weeks. The judiciary applied laws in such a way that the defence team of Milly Dowler’s killer could drag her family’s suffering into court and twist it to try and cast doubt on his guilt. What parents get up to behind the bedroom door should be of no concern in a criminal trial trying to find out whether the man in the dock (not a family relative) murdered a teenage girl.

The press, we then find, hacked Milly Dowler’s phone when she was missing and nobody knew whether she was dead or alive. Some sick individual, acting with encouragement if not direct orders from above, decided to play God, and deleted messages that might have helped the police and the Dowler family find their missing daughter. That was an appalling and unjustified invasion of someone’s privacy and a family’s grief. But worse was to be revealed.

The now defunct News of the World had been hacking into phones for years, looking for tittle tattle and gossip that might sell papers. The Metropolitan Police were not only aware of this but by their lack of action were complicit in it. And then they took backhanders from News International – and how many other media stables – with some of their number even making it onto the NI payroll.

While this car crash was unfolding, we already knew that our political leaders were up to their necks in it too. Tories and Labour alike have danced to the Murdoch tune for decades in the hope of currying favour and getting his endorsement at election time. Like Icarus and Daedalus they flew too close to the Sun, and their wings have melted.

We’re going to have a series of reviews to find out exactly what happened. Great. They need to happen. We need to learn. But we also need to move forward.

At the 2010 election Nick Clegg said it was time to clean up the mess in British politics. He was right, but the bits that he chose to prioritise – the voting system and House of Lords reform – are but the cherry on the icing on the Establishment cake. And the entire cake is sinking. We need to get the cake right before we think about decorating it. I suspect that the AV referendum was lost because the public could see this and the politicians didn’t.

The idea of the separation of powers remains just as valid as it has ever done. Sadly over the past generation, possibly longer, all the different bits of the establishment have all become far too close through informal networking and socialising and the thought of money and/or power. We have had newspaper editors being entertained at the Prime Minister’s country residence. We have had our political leaders feted at media summer parties, and even at family weddings. It’s all grown far too close for comfort.

We need to redefine the parameters, relationships between and limitations of the Establishment. There is a debate to be had – and there’s no time to lose. David Cameron talked about ‘broken Britain’ – well it’s as broken at the top as it is the bottom – so let’s set about fixing it.

Because I don’t want to have to warn children that they shouldn’t talk to strangers OR police officers. Do you?

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I’m getting political today.

On Thursday, Parliament debated whether the United Kingdom should obey the European Court of Human Rights and lift a blanket ban that removes the right to vote from all prisoners. In what was clearly a poorly attended debate (shame on so many of our political representatives for not bothering to turn up to debate a human rights issue), the vote went overwhelmingly in favour of ignoring our commitment to the ECHR. Unsurprisingly, most Liberal Democrats who voted (again not many), voted in favour of giving some or all prisoners the vote. Four voted against – including Stephen Gilbert, from whom I personally had expected better.

I disagree with Parliament’s decision for many many reasons. I can accept – grudgingly – that some MPs will have voted the way they did because they don’t like ‘Europe’ telling the UK what to do, and this was an opportunity to rebel. I would, however, ask those MPs to reconsider the wider consequences of their actions.

Firstly, if we sign up to be bound by another body – as we did in terms of agreeing to be bound by decisions of the European Court of Human Rights – we can’t then pick and choose which of that body’s decisions to be bound by. That’s just stupid. If you want to drive a car, you get a licence and pass a test, and in doing so implicitly agree to be bound by the terms set out within the Highway Code. One of them is that in this country we drive on the left hand side of the road. As an individual driver I can’t arbitrarily decide I don’t like that particular rule so I’ll disregard it and drive on the right. Similarly, we can’t pick and choose which human rights our citizens should have.

Secondly, the European Court of Human Rights is not telling the UK that all its prisoners must be given the right to vote. Rather, it is telling the UK to review the rationale for its position because ECHR finds it indefensible. And so do I.

I’ve been debating this one a little with friends on Twitter. We’ve had the following defenses so far.

Criminals have committed a crime so should not have the right to vote.
But not all convicted criminals are given a prison sentence, and only those who sent to prison lose the right to vote. There’s an inconsistency here.

Prison is a punishment; removal of the right to vote is too.
Really? Isn’t prison – for all but the most serious of crimes – meant to be about rehabilitation and preparing prisoners for their return into society? Doesn’t denying prisoners in that position every last vestige of citizenship rather make a mockery of that?

Not everyone in prison has committed serious crimes like murder or rape. A woman in Northern Ireland this week was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for stealing a pair of £10 jeans from a supermarket. Should her punishment be the same as, say, a rapist’s? Should they both lose the right to vote?

What about people who are in prison on remand, waiting for trial? They’re innocent until proven guilty – so they shouldn’t be treated as any less of a citizen, than you or me, surely?

Some people are in prison for non-payment of bills or fines. Arguably they shouldn’t be in prison at all, and in most European countries they wouldn’t be. So should they be treated in the same way as a mass murderer?

We (the vast majority of the British people) don’t like the idea of prisoners having the vote
We (the vast majority of the British people) think the death penalty should be restored, that immigration is bad, that homosexuality is immoral and that all Muslims are terrorists. But that doesn’t stop us from passing laws axeing state institutionalised murder, allowing people to express their feelings and desires for the person of their choosing, regardless of gender, and preventing the police from locking up anyone with darker skin. We are able to separate individual (albeit collective) prejudices from the law of the land on so many issues, so why should this one be any different?

I am not advocating an amnesty for all prisoners and immediate restoration of voting rights. There is clearly a debate to be had about which categories of prisoners should or should not be able to have the vote. Perhaps those serving life sentences with no hope of release should have the vote removed – after all they’re never again going to be part of society. Perhaps the vote should be reinstated to those in the last 12 months of their sentence as part of their rehabilitation. Perhaps anyone with a sentence of under, say 4 years, should not have their right removed in the first place.

I happily confess I don’t have the right answers – I just know that this week on this one the vast majority of our Parliamentarians got it fundamentally wrong.

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The Browne Report was published this week. And it’s really caused quite a stir amongst Liberal Democrat MPs, activists and the student population.

The report’s author, Lord Browne, advocates lifting the cap on the tuition fees universities can charge students, so they can charge more. He also advocates changing the earnings threshold at which graduates start repaying the fees, and introducing some kind of tiered repayment system so that those who earn more pay more.

The report was commissioned in 2009 by the Labour government with the support of the Conservatives in opposition. Its remit was quite narrow in that it seems to have focused on how students pay for university education, and not about what universities are for and how best to fund their work.

I’ll blog about my own views another time, but at the moment there is uproar because Lib Dem policy is to phase out tuition fees entirely, not to lift the current cap. Moreover, before the General Election every Lib Dem candidate signed the NUS pledge to vote against any proposed increases in tuition fees. Suddenly it looks as though an increase in tuition fees will become the policy of the coalition Government, and Lib Dem MPs don’t like it.

The Coalition Agreement makes allowance for the Lib Dems to abstain in such a situation: it was drawn up after the election and in the full knowledge that the Lib Dems had previously pledged to vote against. So why did the Lib Dem negotiating team not hold out to vote against, given that they had all signed the same pledge?

Personally I think that our candidates were well-intentioned but misguided in signing up to the NUS pledge. I have a problem with making promises I can’t be sure I can keep, and I have a problem with others making similar commitments. I’ve been let down too many times by good people making bad calls.

The problem now is that our parliamentarians DID sign up to this pledge and are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they support whatever proposals come from the coalition government, they’ll be seen to be breaking their promises. If they vote against whatever proposals are put forward, they’re breaking the coalition agreement – another set of promises.

Meanwhile NUS – never regarded as fans of the Liberal Democrats but more generally as a vehicle for students to fast-track their way to office in the Labour Party – is having a field day, having played such a fabulous hand at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. Today their members were even held responsible for having hijacked the official party website.

Dear oh dear. I am reminded of these lyrics from the musical Chess. Having recently been to see a revival of the show, I think it should be required viewing for anyone seeking political office.

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