Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hemming's Law

Increasingly, it is looking as though John Hemming may be the last person you want helping you with your legal problems.

When he spoke out in parliament, only to be slapped down by the Speaker over a point of order, my first thought that he was doing the right thing in response to what appeared to be a manifest injustice and oppressive use of the law by a local authority against a pregnant woman. I have agreed with him publicly on a a number of these issues and my instincts placed me in support again, but I should really know better by now and should dig a little before I leap to judgement. To save me the trouble of doing the research, the ever-reliable Unity at the Ministry of Truth has been scything through the undergrowth to get to some facts about the case. A degree of caution is advised on this subject as, while reporting parliamentary proceedings is protected, comment around them is not. As in a previous posting of mine about John's adventures within the family law system, there will be few jokes and I'll avoid cheap politics - this is too serious for that.

This wasn't about breaching a superinjunction obtained by a wealthy man - for they are usually men - to silence an inconvenient woman's approaches to the press, but a very difficult case from the family courts. This is no great surprise, as cases that reach this level within the judicial system are typically the most difficult and this one is no exception.
From this alone, it should be clear that this is a problematic case, not one best suited to brief exposure by a publicity-hungry MP or to indelicate scrutiny by the media.

Carl Gardner - Head of Legal - adds fuel, by pointing out that Hemming's actions raise questions about his use of parliamentary privilege in discussing a case that is arguably still sub judice, matters that are by agreement not raised in the house for fear of prejudicing active cases. It seems that this case is very much still active - long drawn out, to be sure, but certainly active, from what few facts are known. Further, the local authority seem to believe that it is and are not being drawn to comment. Sometimes, things are kept secret to conceal wrongdoing, but sometimes, secrets are there to protect others. Surely, professionals may be incompetent or, sometimes, corrupt, but much of the time, they are just trying to do their best by their clients or their patients.

Carl also refers to an earlier case, where Hemming seized upon another difficult case in his defence of the right of constituents to talk to their MPs without hindrance, in particular with regard to a case where a person had given an undertaking (not under an injunction, but a voluntary matter) not to talk to the media or to his MP. The Head of Legal suggests that the earlier case, detailed here, may have fatally damaged John's status within the court system to the point where his involvement with a case may be a seriously negative influence.

all sides in the case felt Andrew France’s disclosures to John Hemming MP were not in the interests of his child. 
Carl reminds us, rightly, that
There may be injustices and unfairness in some or even all of the cases John Hemming raises; we don’t know. Injustices do happen in court cases. But John Hemming’s saying so doesn’t mean we should automatically think so too.....

Hemming seems to discount the possibility that the professionals involved may actually be genuinely trying to do what we pay them to do – protect young people like this. What he did in the debate was to “scatter allegations of professional impropriety and malpractice” to use Wall LJ’s words – in this case, suggesting there may be a council cover-up of sexual assault allegations. Given what seems to have been his conduct in RP, might it be reasonable for some other party to this other case to want John Hemming to butt out, and to want the family to stop talking to him? Might it be reasonable in Andrew France’s case, too?

Reading back over last week’s debate, it’s clear that John Hemming repeatedly complains about social workers – a classic easy target – and other professionals who have important responsibilities to children and their often vulnerable clients. None of these people will find it easy to answer these sometimes very serious allegations, bound as they are by obligations of confidentiality. John Hemming, on the other hand is free to make whatever allegations he wants, safely sheltered by Parliamentary privilege.
It’s important to add that, in addition to these family law and Court of Protection cases (some of which may well involve injustice; I’m not saying that can be excluded) he mentioned in the debate a civil case about toxins in which apparently what he calls a “hyper-injunction” has been ordered, barring someone from disclosing anything about the proceedings to an MP. There may well be something very wrong here. I don’t know. It sounds extraordinary, and on the face of it raises serious questions that need to be answered. But all we know at the moment is what John Hemming has told us.
And that is starting to look like unreliable evidence.

These cases involve people in appallingly emotionally painful situations, typically at the very lowest and most difficult points in their lives, it involves the future of children and people who deserve the protection of society, not to be held up to close public scrutiny for the entertainment of the masses. Yes, there are serious issues being raised in these cases and there may - or there may not - be wrongdoing, injustice or malpractice involved, but it looks increasingly as though John isn't the best route by which these people can get justice and may actually prove to be an obstacle, so damaged is his credibility. I will stress again - this is not a political attack on John occasioned by my Labour Party membership. I think that he is wrong headed in what he is doing and may not be helping. I still don't believe that he has grasped the meaning of s1(1) of the Children's Act 1989, which says
the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration
It isn't about the parents, the courts, the local authority or the psychiatrists. Still less is it about an MP or a handful of bloggers. These are issues of child protection and deserve the most serious of consideration, not cheap politics and showboating by anyone. Lives and emotional sanity are at stake here and that's too big a gamble - these cases all have at their heart a human tragedy and we should look to help, not take advantage.
What can reliably ascertained is that this is a particularly complicated, unpleasant and acrimonious case which arose, initially, out of the breakdown of a relationship which gave rise, to begin with, to a dispute over a father’s access rights to a single child. What elevates the case far outside the norm is that the mother who, to begin with had custody of the child, sought to deny the father access to the child by way of levelling a series of damaging allegations against the father, the most serious of which accused the father of sexually molesting the child. Following a series of investigations and hearings in the family court over a period of five to six years or so, the current state of play in this case appears to be that the child is now in the custody of the father but still subject to a care order or care plan put together by the local Social Services department (this is not entirely clear due to certain issues with the source material I’m working from here that will become clear in a moment), while the mother has no access to the child at all, having been served with a non-molestation order by, seemingly, the Local Authority. Precisely why this should be the case is, perhaps, best illustrated by the finding of fact handed down following a hearing early in 2010:

1. [The child] has not been sexually abused by the father, or at all.
2. The allegations of sexual abuse were made first by the mother, not by [the child], they were false and the mother knew them to be false.
3. As a result of inappropriate pressure and prompting, [the child] came to make and believe the allegations.
4. Once [the child] adopted the allegations, the mother may have deluded herself that they were true.
5. [The child] suffered actual and significant emotional harm

Friday, April 22, 2011

First fruits of the LEP - the Birmingham Enterprise Zone

The map of the new Birmingham Enterprise zone hit the Birmingham Post today - it was hardly clear along the northern edge because of the clever 3D mapping (sometimes, 2D is just easier to grasp folks), but we are getting a peculiar loop zone, which forms a ring around the city, with the largest chunk of real estate in the Digbeth industrial sector. It takes in New Street Station - a £275,000 sweetener for John Lewis to site a new store there; runs round to Alpha Tower and the Hyatt, then along the outer edge of the Queensway to Snow Hill, with another small industrial quarter just to the east of that, bounded by the canal, then round through the Aston Science Park, Millennium Point - including the proposed HS2 Curzon Street Station, before running back round to Digbeth, encompassing the Beorma island site by the BullRing, a site that the City Council looks likely to compulsorily purchase to assist the developer.

The zone takes in a range of likely business sectors - professional services, retail, transport and light industrial - so that has to be a positive mix, but the overall plan appears rather peculiar. The Department of Communities laid down some guidelines on Enterprise Zones - indicating that
The Government therefore envisages that Enterprise Zones will generally be based on ‘clean’ sites with little or no business occupants. Targeting such sites will reduce the risks of simply favouring incumbent businesses with little added value to the economy of the area.
This certainly does not describe the area laid down - this is a very mixed area including established businesses of a range of different types and can in no way be described as clean. The guidance also clarifies
Evidence suggests that single ownership of land could have had a significant effect on the success of earlier Enterprise Zones.
I can't believe that this ring of land falls under a single common owner - there must be dozens, if not hundreds, who must be persuaded to work together for the common good. The evidence also suggests that Enterprise Zones greatest success lies in relocating jobs rather than attracting new ones and this looks to be Birmingham's greatest hope. If you are an employer occupying premises just outside the zone, the offer of up to £55,000 a year for five years in rebates is a very attractive one, especially if you only have to move your business 50 yards.

You have to wonder why somewhere like Pebble Mill or Longbridge wasn't considered - where you have contiguous parcels of land ripe for redevelopment, often under common ownership. Surely, this was an opportunity to use the land bank in the hands of the former RDA, Advantage West Midlands - and the DCLG suggests exactly that.
Local enterprise partnerships may also wish to consider the potential to use public sector land assets to support Enterprise Zones. This might include former Regional Development Agency or other central Government assets for example...
The barrier to that is the insistence that the RDAs sell their land at commercial rates, not simply transfer them across to their 'successors' in the LEPs, to allow continuation of development plans - something proposed by the RDAs in their asset plans, but denied by DBIS on Treasury instructions. Further, to avoid flooding the market, the land will be sold off in tranches, so we face the prospect of sites remaining derelict or undeveloped for some years to come, waiting for a serious uptick in property values. Ironically, Vince Cable seemed largely unaware of this when questioned in parliament, suggesting that he is not just semi-detached from government, but barely in touch with his own department.
Mr Cable seemed unaware of this position, and told MPs that some assets could still be transferred. “The process is being carefully worked through at departmental level, and it will produce a sensible outcome that remains supportive of local initiatives through the LEPs,” he said. This is not what the department’s statement said - or what the RDAs are now saying too.

You have to wonder if the department is really being run as an arms-length body from the Treasury, rather than by St Vince. AWM recommended retention of the Longbridge development site in public ownership and this would have been a classic Enterprise Zone opportunity - brownfield ripe for redevelopment as a hi-tech business park, with good road links and potential for improved rail links.

There is an exception to this 'fire sale' ruling and that is the London Development Agency, which is gifting all the assets - and liabilities - to the Mayor. It is a key question, particularly since we have a Liberal Democrat/Tory council, which should have good connections to both sides of the coalition government, why they proved singularly unable to negotiate suitable terms for Birmingham to acquire some of the RDA sites. Sion Simon makes a sound point that this is unfair and short-sighted and indicative of the weakness of the civic leadership of our city.

I wish the Enterprise Zone success, but I fear that there are too many obstacles in that path and some have been created by the LEP themselves. It remains to be seen whether the zone will really generate new business or just shift employment from elsewhere in the region. It will also be interesting to see whether the zone meets the requirements to allow it to leverage in support from the European Regional Development Fund, which the government intends to align with the Regional Growth Fund. I have a suspicion that this zone may not be the promised land which others seem to foresee.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Democrat love rat rats on rats

Actually, for one of those rare occasions, I'm going to say something nice about John Hemming - through fearsomely gritted teeth. He's promised/threatened to use parliamentary privilege to name celebrities who have obtained super-injunctions to protect their love lives from exposure. John, of course, has tremendous form for publicising his own marital wanderings - even nominating himself as love rat of the year - and will doubtless be making some friends among the tabloids for promising more grist to their celebrity grinding mill. Now, I don't really care about celebrity love lives - nor do I care much about John's, entertaining though it undoubtedly is to observers of his complicated personal relationships - but I do care about the courts being used to grant the super-rich a level of personal secrecy that is unavailable to others.

Of course, it would be nice to see John using valuable parliamentary time to deal with other evident injustices - his government's effective silencing of litigants through withdrawal of legal aid is one example and I hope he can be relied upon to support root and branch libel reform, but these protective injunctions are unfair and inherently unjust. We saw how Trafigura attempted to protect their name by indefinitely silencing opponents through use of a similar injunction, only broken by a similar use of parliamentary privilege and it would be a bad day for democracy and freedom when we surrender entirely to the rich and the corporations. We would regret it if an attack on public prurience restricted the public interest.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Toxic substance sighted in Birmingham suburb

My man on the Coventry Road reports that Nick Clegg paid a flying visit to the office of Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley (lease expiring in 2015) this lunchtime. He was greeted by a crowd of 18-20 Lib Dem activists and employees and disappeared inside to meet the local candidates.

Given that this man is the party leader and deputy Prime Minister and we are a fortnight away from local elections, this is stunningly low key. Security cannot be an issue - I've been to events with Labour's former DPM, John Prescott organised at short notice and I can't imagine him only drawing a crowd of a couple of dozen. There are 40 Lib Dem candidates in Birmingham alone and others locally who should be clamouring for a quick photo with their party leader.

Unfortunately, he is just too toxic to the battered brand, hence his disappearance from leaflets across the country and even from those in his own constituency. Given that last year, everyone was agreeing with Nick, the fall from grace has been dramatic.

Now, he has to rely on the charity support of an MP desperate to curry favour in pursuit of a junior government position. The other, more terrifying option is that Hemming actually likes being in bed with the Tories. It has suited the local Lib Dems to prop up a Tory administration since 2004 and they have cheerfully voted with their Tory masters at every monthly council meeting since then. We now get glossy leaflets from the local councillors claiming that this is a Liberal Democrat council - a fact at odds with the reality of their third place in the council chamber. Still, if a Lib Dem council wants to take credit for scrapping the social care to 4000 adults across the City or for cutting the opening hours and staff of our libraries or effectively abolishing council youth service provision across the City, then that's fine. They must be very proud.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Punchbag, Doormat or Calamity?

Nick Clegg has been all over the place this week. Newsnight broadcast a difficult interview conducted by Gavin Esler, focussing on the social mobility agenda, an agenda for which Clegg has seemed rather ill-suited, given his background. Granted, this is less privileged than Osborne or Cameron, but he is still the product of money, of a private education and a leg up the ladder from a family friend. To be fair, he can't be blamed for his parents' actions - who wouldn't want to help their child? That said, the narrative doesn't hang very well around him. The interview wasn't his finest hour - although nowhere near as battering as the assault on Danny Alexander the following morning on the Today programme, when Evan Davis left Alexander a spluttering heap on the studio floor. One of the most commented upon elements was the curiously shiny, sweaty appearance of the Deputy Prime Minister and it was hard to work out whether this was a product of stress, poor lighting or dodgy make-up.

As is becoming a regular element of the Clegg narrative, we were treated to another insight into his private life through an interview with Jemima Khan in the New Statesman -
he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'
I note that he apparently
tries to pick his children up from school... at least two or three times a week

Khan also picks up on Clegg's new, Nixonian image
"Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one... Clegg arrives two hours late.... and looks corpse-like with exhaustion... He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

This defence by public emotional release is fast becoming a regular event in the Clegg narrative - last October, he was interviewed in Esquire magazine and revealed
...people are very angry. You don’t have to tell me. I’m getting dog excrement through my letterbox. People are spitting at me.

Although the Daily Mail didn't find anyone to corroborate this.

The truth is that the Liberal Democrats are finding this new focus upon them very difficult. Previously, of course, they were able to rely on pure oppositionalism and hoovering up votes from whichever bandwagon happened to pass by. Being in government makes life rather more difficult. Every decision carries with it the risk of offending somebody, which is not the natural stance of the LDs - they thrive on being fluffy and harmless. Power isn't harmless and comes at a price. You can see in interviews that Clegg and Alexander, in particular, become very short tempered when challenged - they simply aren't used to having to defend unpopular political positions.

Just like his focus on internships misses the point of social mobility, this repeated referral to how tough his life has become is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It doesn't work as self-flagellation - in the way that Blair's post-Iraq media tour was about him taking public humiliation and punishment - and nor does it work to raise sympathy, when other people are worrying more about whether they can pay their mortgages, not what they might do when they leave politics.
which is something of a luxury - most people in normal 9-5 jobs never get that luxury and you wonder how the deputy prime minister could possibly find the time with what should be a full workload. Unless he has so little of substance to actually do that he can spare the time to collect the kids from school, but I digress.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Lines' head in the sand endangers lives

Last week, Cllr John 'Slugger' Lines was in volcanic mood, fulminating at Labour politicians and misdirecting his anger. Firstly, he was kicking off and blaming Gisela Stuart for interfering with an independent report from the Audit Commission, which looks set to reduce his housing department down to a single star and fair status - just one step above a Billy No Stars failure.

Then, he decided that the best thing to do, faced with an evident failure in his department to handle emergency housing requests for people threatened by domestic violence, was to attack Cllr Ian Ward (Lab) for politicising the issue. This even ties in with the concentration of homeless support services into just four offices across the city - Northfield, Erdington, Small Heath and Newtown - making it difficult for homeless people (who, by their nature, are least likely to have the cash necessary to trek across the city to suit the convenience of the local authority) to get the support they need. The neighbourhood office system is to be left to wither on the vine and will probably shortly be withdrawn for lack of interest - I understand that at least one office is to be reduced to offering services just three days a week. Most of them are already appointment only - leading to the sight of more than one customer standing outside the security door calling the contact centre to book into a fortunately spare appointment slot just five minutes away.

But what we have now is a genuine risk to life and limb. Sorting out a genuine case demanding urgent action as a result of domestic violence should not be a challenge to an authority like Birmingham, but I'm aware of one incident where it took a caseworker a whole day chasing round Birmingham in a vain attempt to get help, only to resort to another housing agency which was able to do the job that the city council signally failed to perform. The cases cited by Cllr Ward are not the exception. That is an appalling indictment of the state of the housing department under Councillor Lines.

Perhaps if they had not been spending up to £500 a day for six years to employ one consultant in the housing directorate, who was taking away over £118,000 a year based upon his day rate, they could deal with this rather better. I have often stated my view on consultants - they are ideal when you need to bring in people to fill a short-term skills gap, but longer term needs should be met by recruitment or upskilling. Six years for one consultant is simply unacceptably wasteful - that's someone who has become essentially an employee on a very generous salary and this happened only on John Lines' watch.

Perhaps he should spend some more time fixing the problems rather than inventing conspiracies to try to shift the blame away from his department. Perhaps he should not be calling for opposition councillors to resign for raising legitimate issues which should be concern to everyone in the City. Perhaps he should be considering his own position as leader of a department that is clearly starting to fail, after several years of improvements fuelled by generous settlements from a Labour government.

The buck stops with you, Cllr Lines.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Stay classy, Birmingham

Apparently, Bob Warman is mulling a bid for the Birmingham mayoralty, if it comes to pass following a referendum. He's been approached by an unnamed group of local businessmen who would like him to run. Whether that means that they don't expect to get the level of pliability or support they expect from the mainstream candidates. Apparently,
They want to see Birmingham move ahead, they don’t want to see it bogged down in politics
and Warman will present himself as a non-political independent figure.

Why this is a qualification, I'm not sure. The moment you step into the political arena - and make no mistake, running for the leadership of the largest authority in Europe is an intensely political post, potentially bringing a national profile to the office holder - pretending that you won't be political is at best naive and at worst, downright disingenous. If you are a serious candidate for the office, you need to grasp now that winning will take politics, not a quiet backroom deal with a handful of Birmingham business people with their own agenda, an agenda as yet unscrutinised by anyone.

Typical, you wait for local TV to focus on local politics and it takes a career opportunity for them to notice it.