Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hemming's Law II

A while back, I wrote about a case in Doncaster where John Hemming used parliamentary privilege to raise a very difficult family law case. As I wrote at the time, this was a very difficult case involving allegations of child abuse made against a father by his former wife. The case reared up again this week, as the President of the Family Division took a rare decision to name all the adults involved because of the lengths that the mother and her unqualified 'investigator' went to to put these 'scandalous' allegations into the public domain, in clear breach of court orders. He wanted it to be clear that there was absolutely no credibility to the allegations about the father, having reviewed the evidence - the third judge to do so and the third to find no evidence against the father. Indeed, it was felt that the mother's behaviour in coaching the daughter to repeat the allegations against the father actually caused significant harm to the child.
"These proceedings have had a serious effect on the life of the father and have threatened the stability of the child. Her mother's actions are wholly contrary to her interests. The father is entitled to tell the world, and the world is entitled to know, that he is not a paedophile, that he has not sexually abused his daughter and that the allegations made against him are false."
The 'investigator' and 'child psychologist' Elizabeth Watson apparently referred to herself as 'Elizabeth of the Watson family' - an indicator that she may adhere to the delusion of the 'freeman on the land' brigade, who decline to accept jurisdiction of the law courts on anything other than their own terms, which are needless to say, entirely at odds with centuries of public jurisprudence and based on rather peculiar interpretations. This may go some way towards explaining why the judge lost patience with her and jailed her for 9 months for contempt of court - that and her insistence on breaching court orders. Indeed, the judge nearly ruled her to be mentally ill.

John Mann, the redoubtable Labour MP for Bassetlaw - and whose constituent Vicky Haigh was at the time - is furious and has called for Hemming to resign as he is unfit to hold office following his abuse of parliamentary privilege. 

Liberal values?

Oh for the good old days when you knew what the Liberal Democrats believed.

Way back in 2003, Liberal Democrat spokesman for children, Paul Burstow spoke in a party conference debate on banning the smacking of children. 

"It is a terrible indictment of our society that, though smaller and more vulnerable, children still have less protection under the law...We are not pleading a special case for children, just equality and the freedom to grow up without violence... What changing the law does, as we have seen in Sweden, is it provides the backbone to the educational campaigns by sending out the message as a society that it is not OK to hit a child." 
 Speaking in support of the motion, Baroness Walmsley added,
"Learning from Europe, we should scrap this archaic law to discourage hitting children and help us promote positive and more effective forms of discipline.The law educates and sets standards in all spheres of society, including how we behave in the home."

In less than a decade, we now have John Hemming MP - a man increasingly indistinguishable from the Tories - calling for parents to be allowed to hit their children, against the policy of his own party. Perhaps even more shocking is that the Daily Express described him as a senior Liberal Democrat, when he is clearly a loose cannon on the gun deck and irresponsible at best.

The inquiry into the riots must look at the way in which the state undermines parental discipline. Smacking children rarely does any long-term harm.
Well, that's not what assorted charities believe and not what the research shows. It doesn't work and it raises children to believe that violence is the right response. Let's ask Miriam Stoppard:
Scientists from Canadian and American universities have found that smacking kids, instead of using ­non-physical punishment, such as time outs, actually defeats the purpose. It leads to poorer discipline among the kids who are smacked. They may comply with rules in the short term to avoid being smacked but in the long term they fail to understand the reasons behind corporal punishment. The researchers have also found that it reduces a child’s emotional intelligence.
The NSPCC are also quite clear on it - it is never a good idea - and I would tend to believe them rather than Mr Hemming's peculiar views.
Parents may believe there are occasions when only a smack will do. For example, your child is really cheeky and disobedient; your toddler runs into the road; one of your children bites a playmate. It can be tempting to think a smack sorts out these incidents quickly, but it does nothing to teach your child how you want him to behave.
Instead, it:
  • gives a bad example of how to handle strong emotions
  • may lead children to hit or bully others
  • may encourage children to lie, or hide feelings, to avoid smacking
  • it can make defiant behaviour worse, so discipline gets even harder
  • leads to a resentful and angry child, damaging family relationships if it goes on for a long time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

'Slugger' Lines gets tough on the causes of crime at home

Predictably, Cllr John Lines is eager to throw his weight around to demonstrate his right wing disciplinarian attitudes.
"We have 65,000 council houses and hundreds of these looters will be going before the courts, so I am quite positive that many of these criminals will be council tenants. I have thousands of decent law-abiding families queuing up for council houses and will waste no time getting rid of these scum of the Earth."
As we know, when it comes to violence and anti-social behaviour, Cllr Lines is something of an expert

While I have no time for tenants who make their neighbours' lives a misery or those who consistently disrupt their neighbourhoods, I'm concerned that eviction isn't used excessively to punish families for the offences of a junior member - I'd ask if that is likely to build broad faith in the system or perhaps set up further problems down the line as a result of disillusionment now. Some of those policies that may make the right wing disciplinarians feel all powerful may have unforeseen consequences ahead as they cause further disconnection between people and the community - exclusion is rarely the answer. The alternative, support and intervention, is far more challenging, but potentially far more effective. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The next big issue

I've noted before that the Tory party has historically been perceived as the party of law and order - capturing that ground was key to Labour's victory in 1997 and when we left office, crime was falling and we had more police officers than at any point in our history. Although Thatcher was no friend of the public sector, she ensured that the police were properly paid and reasonably resourced. Politically, law and order is always a top line subject - consistently towards the top of people's concerns - and is, after all, at the heart of what the state should prioritise, the protection of its citizens. The police are also a service that is consistently trusted by the public, far more than politicians or the media.

All of that makes the current government's attitude to the police all the more surprising. Previously, it has seemed to be labelled in the same way as the rest of the public sector and ripe for 'reform' or 'cutting' as it is better known. The result has been predictable and the government seems to have lost the confidence of the dressing room, with the police staff associations lining up to express dissatisfaction and concern.

16,000 sworn officers are to be released through recruitment freezes and forced retirements. To put that into context, that is the same as firing every officer in the West Midlands, Warwickshire, West Mercia and Staffordshire. To add to that, there are a further 16,000 civilian police posts to be removed and we can expect many of those roles to be filled by officers, taking still more away from frontline policing. No sane person can expect this to leave the quality of policing untouched - although the Home Secretary maintains that it will. 16,000 is also the number of officers from across the country deployed to London to quell the looting that has scarred the capital. Indeed, despite the assurances from the Home Secretary and Nick Clegg, more than half of the British public believe that the police are already under-resourced, despite the best efforts of the chief constables. As Hugh Orde puts it
Chief constables have minimised the impact on the frontline. We will have to have some very honest, straightforward conversations with government in years three and four. We have to understand what sort of service we want and what we want it to do, and not do
That does not sound like a service looking forward to working with tightened budgets, although it should be said that they felt able to work with Labour's planned 12% cuts, but not with the 20% promised by the government.

The scrapping of the world-leading Forensic Science Service has also been criticised as ham-fisted and rushed, as it has forced police services into unexpected and truncated tendering processes with various private providers in what is an experiment in the almost total privatisation of a vital function of our justice system - other countries keep that firmly in public hands. The service may not have been a money spinner, but then the legal system is supposed to administer justice, not turn a profit.

The disorder will put funding of the police straight back on the table - it seems impossible that the police service will be required to cut as deep as the government demanded, so we can surely expect the government to review the situation urgently. If they do not, then it is a fair question to ask if the police would be able to respond to this sort of issue if it were to happen once they have finished their budget cuts. With the security-hungry Olympics only a year away, can Britain afford to risk a repeat of the past few days? Once ministers see the bill for riot damage that will be presented to police services across the country over the next couple of weeks as insurers and others seek redress for their costs, then the reality will finally strike home. This is a massively destructive electoral liability for the Tories - lose this one and they have lost a cornerstone of their political genetic blueprint. The fact that, thus far, the Tories are facing down the police and promising that the cuts must continue is intriguing and will prove to be a political mistake.

That is not to say that the police should not be looking to raise their game. In recent weeks, the News International saga has take a number of police careers and looks likely to take more before it concludes, as vast quantities of previously concealed dirty washing is laundered in the glare of publicity. The Duggan shooting last week typified a mendacious approach to the truth from the police when faced with potential controversy - they spun a story in the favour of the police in the sure knowledge that the fastest story sticks. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, many people will only remember that when stopped and challenged by armed police officers, Duggan opened fire, leaving a bullet embedded in a police officer's radio. The fact that he didn't fire and that the bullet has now been demonstrated to be police issue is indicative of the spin to which the Met press team have been used to putting on a story. Remember the story spread about de Menezes following the shooting - he wore a bulky coat, he ran from police, he vaulted barriers at Stockwell underground station? All untrue, but all stuck in the popular memory, despite being later overtaken by the facts revealed by investigation, but all pushed to friendly correspondents in an attempt to minimise damage to the Metropolitan Police.

But, just as this past week has shown some of the worst and best elements of society, the police have risen to the occasion, after a shaky start when they lost control of parts of London, simply because they were outnumbered and unable to respond fast enough to flashmob disorder, blossoming in one part and then fading away to appear somewhere else. Have a read of Inspector Winter's fine account on his blog and in the Telegraph, an anonymous officer caught up in public order policing away from his day job in specialist surveillance.

The criticisms of the police that I have heard have made me angry.
When you have 20 or 30 officers facing a crowd of hundreds, many of them armed with bricks and petrol bombs, and you know you have to obey the limits of the law even when your attackers are not – well, solutions are just not as simple as critics would have you believe. We were outnumbered, encumbered by our equipment and drained.

Would water cannons and baton rounds have helped? In practical terms, water cannons take time to deploy and the riots were so fast moving that they would have been quickly left behind. Also, their presence would have ramped up the aggression. As for baton rounds, we would immediately have faced an outcry from the usual complainers.
We have trained and trained for this. But in the situations we’ve found ourselves, with riots kicking off all around us, another three starting almost as soon as we had contained one, there was simply no viable way to take back the streets at a stroke.
I have maintained throughout this week that the more repressive forms of crowd control were not the answer to this disorder, both for operational reasons and because they would fundamentally shift the relationship we have developed with a police service that operates with our consent. The correct response was what developed over the next few hours and days - overwhelming numbers of police out on the streets with the mobility to respond and intelligent deployment to flashpoints. That has been followed up by an unprecedented number of suspects being arrested, charged and placed before a court within a matter of hours. Indeed, Inspector Winter revealed that he'd been on a warrant execution where the suspect had slept through the noise of his door being battered down and was awoken by the police, allowing Insp Winter to utter the immortal line 'Get your trousers on, you're nicked' - something he has been waiting fifteen years to do (although we assume he followed it up with the formal caution).

It is a mark of how fractured the relationship between the government and the senior ranks has become that there is a very public spat ongoing between them over who can take the credit for bringing the situation under control, given that the PM, the Mayor of London and the Home Secretary were all on holiday when it kicked off and by the time they returned, plans were already well advanced. The acting commissioner of the Met, Tim Godwin acidly observed, even as senior government members are prowling the riot-hit communities to demonstrate that they care, that
“I think after any event like this, people will always make comments who weren’t there.... The issue around the numbers, the tactics – they are all police decisions and they are all made by my police commanders and myself”

Theresa May has been pushing the line that she ordered the redeployment of numbers of police and a shift in tactics and Sir Hugh Orde has joined the fray
That politicians chose to come back is an irrelevance in terms of the tactics that were by then developing... The more robust policing tactics you saw were not a function of political interference – they were a function of numbers being available"
The Home Secretary yesterday very pointedly praised the front line officers for their efforts in quelling the riots - ignoring the senior officers who made the whole thing work. Intriguingly, a source is suggesting to the Independent that Cameron had to be talked down from putting the army onto the streets, a decision that would have had dramatic consequences for this government and the police. That seems credible, given Cameron's wild promises to deploy water cannon at 24 hours' notice that followed, but is rather disturbing in what it indicates about Cameron's leadership and crisis management skills.

Aside from the lunacy of their plans to cut police numbers - something that nobody outside government believes can possibly leave front line policing unaffected - there is also the ongoing issue of the next Commissioner of the Metropolis. On current form, it seems unlikely that either Godwin or Orde will be in line for the job, although Orde is probably the best one to take on the role of leading a service in crisis at the top command level. Cameron has this whacked-out idea that he wants to appoint an outsider, Bill Bratton, the former chief of police in both New York and LA and credited with turning round both those forces. Frankly, this seems an insult to senior British officers - that not one of them is deemed capable of doing the job and that we should have to turn to someone with no experience whatsoever of the culture of British policing. Ironically, it looks as though Cameron's plans may founder on immigration grounds, but Bratton is to be invited over to consult on riot control. Again, Orde weighs in
The leadership of this service understands policing. We all started where our brave officers were the other day. We start at the bottom, we move up and we learn and we move on.
And through all this, nobody has yet raised the imminent spectre of the elected police commissioner, who would have been the centre of blame for the unrest and disorder, despite having no operational control over the police service in their care. The police are being politicised and it is to their credit that the senior officers are fighting a rearguard action against it. For all their faults, we need an independent police service that is professionally run, not one at the whim of an elected official.

This government is eroding the ability of the police to do its job, it is eroding the political independence of the service and it is demoralising the men and women that we rely on to deliver it. They have lost confidence in their political masters and that should worry us all.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Personnel Issues

We've had the news that Mirza Ahmad will leave Birmingham City Council as his post was deleted and then came the surprising news that the man in charge of the slow car crash that is Business Transformation (which will produce different savings depending upon which day of the week you ask the question) is also to leave the council as part of another restructuring of the change team.

Glyn Evans, the grandly titled Corporate Director of Business Change isn't actually leaving, he's being seconded to Warwick Business School, with a vague assurance that he will find some funding from somewhere to cover his wages. I have to admit to struggling with the idea that the council, busy at it is trying to fill various black holes in finances and cutting grants to charities providing frontline support, can fund a senior manager to toddle off for a year on a paid sabbatical. Even more curious is the assurance that - despite the doubts of many - the business change is now so well embedded and the savings so guaranteed that the management team can be dispersed. Add to this the fact that the council is expected to change political control next year and go through a period of redirection and upheaval and you have to wonder why he's being allowed out at such an important time.

Unless of course he knows something that others only suspect about Business Transformation. Do we really want to pull back the curtain and destroy the image?

Speaking of confusion over personnel issues, Cllr Rudge spoke damningly of the 'moveable feast' that is HR legislation, which is apparently being made on the fly by tribunals on a monthly basis. Which it isn't. What is damning is the series of poor decisions that have been taken to defend utterly indefensible cases against counsel's advice.

The coalition has brought these problems on itself - many councils resolved them without half the troubles that Birmingham has faced and this is largely down to the appalling way that the city has treated its employees. Cllr Rudge should be utterly ashamed of the situation, but he prefers to try to shift the blame onto others.

Interesting that many council employees face thumping cuts in their pay, but the senior managers share their pain by losing their free parking spaces and suffering - suffering, I tell you - a cut in mileage rates. Shall we have a whip round for the senior grades to ease their grief?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

We're all going on a summer holiday...

I don't think that anyone honestly believes that any national leader is out of contact whilst on holiday - the full panoply of electronic communications ensures that Cameron is in touch with home base and his senior colleagues. Gone are the days in the 1950s, when the control links to the PM for nuclear launch relied on the radio network of a motoring organisation, but that doesn't mean that we don't need a senior figure around on the spot and not rely on being able to drag the PM out of an Italian coffee shop or off the tennis court to try to look in touch and reassuring.

This week has been another serious failure in the government's communication strategy, as they have given the appearance of not being in control. Whilst it is true that governments are pretty much at the mercy of events, it isn't wise to remind the electorate and the markets that this is the case, otherwise you open yourself to claims that you are in government, but not in power.

I can't imagine that it has happened in recent years that so many senior government members have been allowed to disperse across the globe at the same time - imposing a genuine communications problem with the different time zones. Certainly, under Labour, the PM/DPM were never both unavailable and there was always a planned ministerial team available to manage issues and provide a public face if required and I suspect that things were similar under the last Tory government.

The problem now is that bringing the Chancellor or PM back to the UK now looks like panic - something not calculated to ease the volatility of the markets. It just looks like the business of government is appallingly badly managed and it also demonstrates the utter irrelevance of Clegg as deputy PM.

And next time, don't forget to get someone to look after the cat.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Down the market

After five years of promising a future for the Birmingham wholesale market, in return for them relocating and freeing up a valuable site for development close to the city centre, last week, the city council shamefully pulled the plug on the project to relocate to a site in Witton. Apparently, they've just realised that the loss of Advantage West Midlands - which is putting staff on garden leave as I write - will cost them co-funding and they can't afford it themselves anyway.

They've promised to help the traders relocate - although the traders will now need to find their own private sector market operator to establish a site by February 2013, when the council will want the site to redevelop.

Essentially, blame for this seems to lie with the council, who have not moved fast enough to tie up the deal and secure the funding through AWM - there are a number of projects that will progress separately to the death of the regional development agency. The government aren't excused though, as they have ensured an economic environment that is entirely unsuited to this move and have cut the council budget.