Tuesday, January 29, 2013

21st century slavery in the uk

None of us like to think of ourselves as slave owners. It has become unsavoury to have house slaves so we squirrel them away out of sight in places like East Asian sweatshops. With the advent of workfare, it has come a step closer to home.

Unemployed people are forced to work for private companies to get work experience. Except that they are given the most basic unskilled work with no chance of an actual job. When their placement is up they are simply replaced.

Major retailers like Argos and Tesco didn't need to take on Christmas staff, the government simply sent them free workers. In return, the government gets to lower the unemployment figures as these jobless people do not count as unemployed. On many of the schemes, benefit claimants who refuse to participate get 'sanctioned' -  they have their benefits stopped for months, even years.

Whilst many of the deprivations that the government are subjecting its electorate to are Tory inventions, others are not. Workfare is a Labour initiative, and if you're one of the 90%+ of people who voted Tory, Labour, LibDem or UKIP, you gave it the mandate.

The negative connotations on the words 'forced labour' are shied away from. When it was announced in 2008 the Telegraph reported

the unemployed will be forced to undertake voluntary work including picking up litter and cleaning graffiti

Quite how anyone can be compelled to do a voluntary activity is not so much a matter for journalists and politicians, it's more a koan for zen masters. But this idea is persisting.

The government petitions website has produced several interesting results. The 100,000 signature threshold that triggers parliamentary debate has helped advance justice for Hillsborough. At 10,000 signatures the government has to respond. Their comments on the petition to end workfare are perplexing, yet illuminating.

We do not have Work for Your Benefit or Workfare schemes in this country. Workfare is an American term used to describe employment programmes which force all jobseekers to work at a certain point of their claim in order to continue to receive benefit...

Mandatory Work Activity gives extra support to a small number of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants who would benefit from a short period of activity.

The minimum sanction period for someone refusing Mandatory Work Activity is three months, a 'third offence' gets three years. They hold your family hostage threatening to starve them if you don't comply.

The clue is in the name. If it is not forced labour, how is it Mandatory Work Activity? In denying what we are doing to the impoverished we signal our inner squeamishness. If we don't think forced labour is tolerable as an idea, we shouldn't try to mask it with a false name. Instead we should exclaim the outrage that our consciences know it to be.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

we live in a turnip republic

A senior United Nations official has slammed UK policing of protest, with especially scathing condemnation of the undercover police scandal.

The UN commissions human rights experts called Special Rapporteurs to investigate how countries comply with their human rights obligations. Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, has been in the UK for a week.

Having met government officials, human rights organisations and those concerned with protest, yesterday he presented his preliminary findings, pending a full report in May.

He reserved his strongest words for the undercover police scandal - both the infiltration and the subsequent efforts by those responsible to avoid accountability and smother justice.

Speaking of the "trail of victims and survivors in its wake", and making a sideswipe at the judgement last week that took guidance from James Bond, he said

This is not a James Bond-type movie issue. I therefore call on the authorities to undertake a judge-led public inquiry into the Mark Kennedy matter, and other related cases, with a view to giving voice to victims, especially women, who were deliberately deceived by their own Government, and paving the way for reparations.

Kiai, a global expert on human rights, spoke unequivocally about the breaches involved.

It is a clear violation of basic rights protected under the Human Rights Act, and more generally under international law, such as the right to privacy.

But he is clear that this is not just about those directly affected. It is a grave matter of justice.

This is a national issue and I think it's important to the United Kingdom. Because of the trauma, because of the chilling effect that this has on association and freedom of assembly, that this be done publicly, in a public judge-led enquiry.

The state has, instead, been setting up a raft of tiny limited enquiries where the police pick one small aspect of the affair and investigate themselves. It is an approach widely derided by the victims, as activist/researcher Eveline Lubbers made plain in her open letter response to the police this week. Kiai is clear that such tactics are a whitewash and are an insult to those who want the truth, most especially those directly targeted.

There's been absolutely no regard, no attention given for the victims of this, and the victims are a lot of people. People have formed relationships, friendships, and I think that when the state is perpetuating that it's a public matter. I think that we should remember that there are victims in this, it is not a victimless issue... children were born, relationships happened. The British government has to take on their responsibilities.

The Home Office limply responded with their standard line.

The use of undercover officers remains an important investigative tool for the police in preventing and detecting serious and violent crime.

"Serious and violent crime"? Kiai's prepared statement did make the curious - well, clearly untrue - assertion that

The case of Mark Kennedy and other undercover officers is shocking as the groups in question were not engaged in criminal activities.

But answering questions at the press conference he clarified

Every police force needs a way of gathering intelligence, however that is reserved, and should be reserved, for serious criminal activities such as drug trafficking, anti-terror work. When you target a group that are involved in peaceful actions, many of which are lawful, and you do it as Mark Kennedy did, then there's a problem, as potentially the state is paying to infiltrate you for simply doing what you should be doing.

He pointed out that the government decided the phone hacking scandal warranted a full public inquiry, yet refuses to consider doing the same for this scandal that is of - at least - similar proportions. It is, as Jonathan Freedland said this week, the hacking of people's lives.

Kiai then moved on to compare the police's approach to dealing with other organisations that contain some criminal plotters.

Civil society exercising their rights must not be treated differently simply for doing so. Marks and Spencer or BAE don't have police spies sent in to look for white-collar crimes.

The police he met had engaged in open and frank discussions on all issues except this one, where he said he was confronted with "a wall of silence". He is plainly outraged at the reaction, and continued

You simply can't go ahead and pay people to go off and have relationships and families with people and then disappear. That to me is unacceptable - completely. That is what you see in a banana republic.

One case doesn't define the character of a nation's ruling culture. But given that the same tactics have been used to undermine a wide variety of campaigns, unions and pressure groups for decades, allied to the even wider response of state obstruction of justice familiar to us from Hillsborough, phone hacking, Stephen Lawrence and any other number of scandals, it doesn't feel like an exaggeration. Though in northern Europe we might more bioregionally be defined as a turnip republic.


The "indiscriminate and disproportionate nature" of kettling was singled out as an assault on the right to protest, and despite the UK courts finding the practice is legal, on this too he was unequivocal.

I think there's absolutely no justification for kettling. If you need to keep people away, there are ways in which you can put people aside and move them out. Holding people for as long as we've seen here is wrong, and I think is a contravention of human rights law.

Kiai also - on the day the No Dash For Gas protesters who occupied a power station were charged with it - singled out the crime of Aggravated Trespass as "very problematic", criticised the use of anti-stalking injunctions being used by corporations to prevent protest, and attacked not just the practice of union blacklisting but the paltry sentences given to its perpetrators. A construction industry blacklister was given a £5000 fine whilst the clients - including most of the major firms - were let off with a warning.

I was appalled to hear about the existence of a blacklist of union members in the construction industry, with no sanctions allegedly taken against those who benefited from the list. It is crucial that strong actions be taken against the making and using of such lists as a deterrence.

His full report is due out in May. It will be interesting to see not only what it contains, but how the state defends itself against so august a critic.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

judgement day

A judge has ruled that a group of women suing the police for sending undercover police officers to deceive them into committed long term relationships will not have their human rights case heard in open court.

It will instead be heard in a Bullshit Stalinist Tribunal. The police can make up whatever evidence they like (and omit whatever incriminates them). The complainants do not get to see the evidence, do not get to be in the court, do not get given the reasons for the verdict, and have no right of appeal.

Whilst Twitter lit up with outrage that the case had been thrown out, The Guardian saw it as a 50/50 thing with a subheader saying

Judge rules half of the women's cases can be heard in open court but half must be first heard by secret tribunal

Neither is true. I'll try to explain what, to the best of my understanding, today's judgement is, and also what it isn't.

Firstly, it's not just about one group of women, and not just one neat case. There are two main elements to the claims.

1 - Human rights. The right to privacy and the right to freedom from degrading and inhumane treatment have been ours since the European Convention on Human Rights was signed in the early 1950s. Enforcing them, however, was another matter. It took a long and expensive case at a court in Strasbourg. In 1998 the Human Rights Act made them enforcable in UK law. The guff against the Act in the Tory press is a decoy; it granted no new rights, just extended their effectiveness so that rights weren't just for the rich.

Though the dozen people suing the police had similar experiences, only the six people whose relationships occurred after the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force have a human rights claim in the UK courts. The other six were not part of today's judgement.

2 - Common law. There is quite a list of these claims including assault, deceit, negligence and misfeasance in public office. All the claimants are suing for these. Those cases will (hopefully) be heard in the High Court at a later date.

First bit clear? Right.

When the Human Rights Act came into force the government invented Investigatory Powers Tribunals. These were designed to hear any cases involving surveillance and espionage. They realised that spying intrudes into people's lives, and that revealing details of spy missions and methods may jeopardise future work of that kind and possibly place those involved in serious danger.

The police argued that the entire undercover cop case should be struck out, and if not then it should be entirely heard in such a Bullshit Stalinist Tribunal. The idea that these activists may unleash deadly carnage if they find out the details of what happened to them is laughable. But even that is not quite as absurd as the idea that the police need to protect their secrecy in case we find out that Mark Kennedy, Marco Jacobs and all the others were undercover officers.

The claimants say that the relationships were unlawful, and that the proper place to hear the evidence and weigh it up would be in a place where all evidence can be heard by both sides, such as the High Court.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has clear rules about authorising most aspects of surveillance, yet says nothing about authorising long-term intimate relationships. Where do we turn for legal instructions?

Displaying all the grasp of reality you'd expect from someone at the unquestioned top of a hierarchy, today's judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, decided that fiction should guide us in deciding whether events in real life are normal and justified.

James Bond is the most famous fictional example of a member of the intelligence services who used relationships with women to obtain information, or access to persons or property. Since he was writing a light entertainment, Ian Fleming did not dwell on the extent to which his hero used deception, still less upon the psychological harm he might have done to the women concerned.

But fictional accounts (and there are others) lend credence to the view that the intelligence and police services have for many years deployed both men and women officers to form personal relationships of an intimate sexual nature (whether or not they were physical relationships) in order to obtain information or access.

Presumably this means the complainants should watch Mission Impossible to find out what happens next in their case. Perhaps when Marsellus Wallace's boys get medieval on that cop's ass it is, by virtue of its fictional depiction, giving us permission to do the same with other police officers. Or perhaps Star Wars lends credence to the view that a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away justice was meted out with light sabres.

Anyway, among such ramblings the judge made three important rulings today.

1 - The common law claims should not be heard in a Bullshit Stalinist Tribunal, they should be heard at the High Court. This is good.

2 - The human rights aspects of the claim should be heard in the Bullshit Stalinist Tribunal.

3 - Crucially, the Bullshit Stalinist Tribunal goes first. It alone gets to rule on whether relationships breached the claimants' human rights, and they will also decide whether the relationships were lawful or not.

Even though it's just a court-shaped glove puppet on the police's hand, the Bullshit Stalinist Tribunal's verdict could well influence the High Court's decision on the remainder of the case. It may even persuade them to strike out the case entirely.

As the adage says, justice must not merely be done, it must be seen to be done. The fact that a Bullshit Stalinist Tribunal can make a decision for reasons that claimants don't even get told, let alone get to question or confront, means what it delivers cannot be justice. It has no place in the pantheon of the judiciary.

What it decides will cast a shadow over the rest of the case. So, contrary to what the Guardian suggest, it's not half and half. And contrary to what Meatloaf asserts, two out of three actually are bad. The playing field just got tilted today and it remains to be seen how many of the players roll to one end.

Friday, January 04, 2013

new lang syne

The MPs expenses scandal is still with us. George Osborne is a Chelsea fan (who else?). He just happens to have a meeting arranged with German official that lets him be in Munich to see Chelsea win the Champions League and witness John Terry's thuggish racist little hands hoist the trophy. That way Osborne had the trip paid for by the taxpayer instead of out of his inherited millions.

He also flogged his second home that we paid for and made a personal profit of £450,000. Items on expenses must be 'wholly, necessarily and exclusively' used in the job. Why is it 'necessary' to have a house worth a million pounds? With a fucking paddock for horses?

If the Tories really want to end the 'something for nothing culture' then let's have a 100% Inheritance Tax and administer it retroactively so it removes the fortunes that Osborne, Cameron, and Iain Duncan Smith are living off.

They aggressively portray benefit claimants as scroungers who get that 'something for nothing' at the expense of 'hard working families'. Iain Duncan Smith said that benefits have risen faster than private sector wages. Well yes, they have as long as you do some nimble footwork and only start measuring wages from where they slump in the credit crunch and recession.

But more to the point, it's not about competing with private sector wages. It's about ensuring that nobody goes hungry, cold or homeless. With food prices rising faster than either benefits or wages, and fuel costs rising faster still, the level of benefits has effectively plummeted. Families are choosing between food and warmth. People are, entirely predictably, being made homeless.

The millionaire government and the millionaire-owned media have flooded us with stories of the feckless poor. And it has worked. A YouGov poll found this week that on average people think that 41 per cent of the entire welfare budget goes on benefits to unemployed people, while the true figure is 3 per cent. They also found that, on average, people think that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, while the government's own figure is 0.7 per cent.

Of the people polled, those with the least accurate picture of what the benefit regime is actually like were the ones with the most anti-claimant view.

The fact is that the jobless outnumber vacancies by more than 5:1. There are over two million people for whom there is no job. The demonisation of the jobless is a problem in itself. But having successfully done that, the government then turns on the same 'hard working families' with swingeing cuts to Housing Benefit (where 93% of new claimants are in work) and Tax Credits (100% in work). That time Iain Duncan Smith didn't even cherry pick his figures, he simply made them up.

The pared down Housing Benefit comes into effect in April on the same day that there's a tax cut for those earning over £150,000 a year. We can't afford housing for the poor and disabled they say, whilst ruling out a Mansion Tax. The Daily Mail hailed that as helping 'hard-pressed middle-class families'. Owning a property worth over £2,000,000? What the fuck is that the 'middle' of? The Tory front bench?


In Scotland, they consistently vote against the Tories. As the UK suffers an accelerating runaway Tory train of devastation, forcing people into poverty and on to the streets, in Scotland they've extended the rights of homeless people to be housed.

Whilst the Tories strip the NHS, in Scotland - like Wales and Northern Ireland - they extend it with free prescriptions for all.

As the Tories hand out UK public services to corrupt profiteers and slash workers rights, in Scotland there's a law on the table to ban construction firms from getting public contracts if they've been involved in blacklisting workers (a widespread illegal practice to keep unions out).

As the increasing spectre of student debt forces young people from poorer families to opt out of university, in Scotland they have reinstated free higher education. Labour have criticised the move as 'regressive'. Mind you, Labour's response to attacks on the unemployed is to propose their own punitive regime. That's unsurprising given that the comprehensively derided workfare scheme was actually designed by the last Labour government.

Whilst the Tories resurrect zombie road schemes triggering a new rash of 90s-style road protests, and start a new generation of fossil burning that will shatter our carbon reduction targets, the Scots generate 35% of their electricity renewably, well ahead of their target to get them to the equivalent of 100% renewable by 2020.

Come independence, I think I'll be seeking political asylum there.