21st Century Britain: A Nation at the Cliff Edge

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Imagine a state which has a legal system which uses secret courts; which withdraws from international human rights conventions; which exploits its poorest citizens as unwaged forced labour. Is this North Korea? Cuba? No, it is Britain; a nation on the cliff edge between liberal democracy and authoritarianism.

 Secret Courts

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 One would struggle to find a more transparently cynical piece of legislation than the Justice and Security Bill.  The Bill was hastily drafted after the UK government found its dirty laundry getting a thoroughly public washing, and it didn’t like it.

It started with the case of Binyam Mohamed. Mr Mohamed was a British Resident who was rendered from Afghanistan to US custody in 2002 for suspicion of committing terrorism related offences.  He was held in Pakistan, Morocco and Guantanamo Bay, during which time he was tortured repeatedly.  He was released in 2009, when charges against him were dropped.  He alleged that he’d undergone severe torture including being beaten scolded and having his penis slashed.  He also alleged that while in Morocco he discovered British officials were supplying information and questions to his torturers.

In short, the UK government were complicit in the torture of a British citizen.

When it came to criminal investigation, the UK Government threw everything it had at preventing the exposure of its own wrong doing.  First it requested public interest immunity on documents relating to UK complicity.  Then when a US court found Mohamed has been subjected to ill treatment and torture, it sought to avoid the publication of the parts of the ruling which demonstrated UK complicity.  Finally, they applied to the High Court that any proceedings on UK soil took place in a closed court, again to avoid exposure of their complicity in torture.  Their attempts were rebuffed by the High Court, whose ruling stated that closed courts:

“Cut across absolutely fundamental principles, such as the right to be confronted by one’s accusers and the right to know the reasons for the outcome”

Instead, the British government started to throw money at the problem.  After Mohamed, other victims of torture came forward seeking justice.  The UK government has paid out millions of pounds in out of court settlements to avoid future cases coming to open court to avoid exposing the true relationship of the British government and torture.  Frustrated by this situation, rather than accepting open justice, the government resolved to rewrite the law, using the fact that it is paying off torture victims as a defence.  Ken Clarke, leader of the Bill, has argued that secret courts are needed to stop payment to ‘terrorists’ which may mean the good old British tax payer is funding Al Qaeda:

“At the moment, we pay out millions of pounds. It is arguable that quite a lot of these people would not have got those damages if the defence had been called against them,” Clarke told parliament’s joint committee on human rights, consisting of peers and MPs, this week. He added: “We don’t know where the money goes. You are completely naive if you don’t think that some of that money has possibly made its way to a terrorist organisation. That’s why we are moving in this difficult area.”

The response in the legal community has been overwhelmingly negative to these proposals.  702 lawyers, wrote an open letter to the British government condemning the plans as ‘an affront to justice’ and ‘contrary to the rule of law’.

The Rev Nicholas Mercer, a lieutenant colonel who was the army’s most senior lawyer during the last Iraq war, told the Daily Mail:

“The justice and security bill has one principal aim and that is to cover up UK complicity in rendition and torture. The bill is an affront to the open justice on which this country rightly prides itself and, above all, it is an affront to human dignity.

“The fact that some of those individuals who are complicit in rendition and torture can not only assist in the drafting of the bill but also vote to cover their tracks is a constitutional scandal. It is little wonder that the bill has been heavily criticised by the UN Rapporteur on Torture and condemned by the vast majority of lawyers and human rights organisations in this country.”

From 3.30pm GMT today, the British Parliament in the House of Commons debates and votes for the final time on this bill.  It is expected to pass, narrowly, but pass nevertheless.  Following Royal Assent (where the Queen gives the nod) Secret Courts will form a part of the British Justice system.

Workfare

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The Workfare Programme was first rolled out in a concerted way by New Labour.

In New Labour’s New Deal, long term unemployed people underwent a compulsory ‘intensified job search’.  If the intensified job search period lasting up to four months proved unsuccessful, participants entered the second stage of the programme and are offered one of four options: full-time education or training for twelve months, a job with the voluntary sector for 6 months, work for the environmental task force for six months, or subsidised employment for six months with provision of employer on-the-job training. This last option is sometimes made available to people before the end of the ‘Gateway’ period.

On the first three options, individuals continue to receive the equivalent of Job Seekers Allowance (unemployment benefit). In addition, for working in the voluntary sector or on the environmental task force they receive an extra £400 spread over the six months. The value of the employer subsidy is £60 per week and employers receive an additional £750 to cover the costs of training they are supposed to provide.

In 2011, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government announced a plan to increase uptake of Workfare by 100,000.  They also made changes to the programme as follows:

  1. A jobseeker who leaves a placement after 1 week loses their welfare payments for 6 weeks.  If they do this a second time, they lose them for 13 weeks.  The third time, three years.
  2. Placements can be mandated for up to 30 hours a week for as long as 6 months.
  3. The scheme has been opened up so corporations in the private sector can exploit this taxpayer funded, forced labour.

This means that someone who finds themselves unemployed must work up to thirty hours a week, for up to six months at a time, stacking shelves for Tesco or Poundland simply to receive as little as £53 per week, which they are already entitled to as part of the social contract of Britain.  Also, Tesco isn’t paying the £53; the British public are, through their taxes.

Although an interview is supposed to be guaranteed at the end of the term, it is not required that the workfare provider has a vacancy open.  An interview for a job that doesn’t exist is no interview at all.

Corporations get free labour, the government gets to massage the unemployment figures (Workfare victims are counted as employed) and the unemployed, (of which there are 3 million in the UK today) get shafted.

Two victims of Workfare took the UK government to court over the scheme and the Court of Appeal found in their favour.

The verdict, while on narrow grounds stated that:

a)         All workfare programmes other than the Mandatory Work Activity scheme were quashed.

b)         As of yesterday, all people on such schemes could leave freely, without sanction

c)          All who had faced sanction as a result of refusing such schemes were entitled to full

reimbursement of withdrawn benefits.

The UK government’s response was to show the same disdain for the justice system as in the case of the tortured detainees.

Mark Hoban MP, Minister for Employment at the Department of Work and Pensions, stated in his response to the ruling:

“We are seeking permission to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s judgment and, if permission is granted, we will take our case to the Supreme Court. As we are currently seeking permission to appeal, claimants who have already served a sanction will not be able to appeal on the basis of the Court’s decision until our appeal is heard.

We are considering a range of options to ensure we do not have to repay these sanctions. Today we intend to lay new regulations which will come into force immediately and enable us to continue to refer Jobseekers Allowance claimants to our employment schemes and to provide the best chance for people to find employment.”

True to his word the department did rewrite the regulations by mid afternoon and presented them to parliament for approval the same day.  Workfare continues unabated.

While the court says the schemes are illegal, the government once again simply rewrites the law.

Human Rights

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It was announced yesterday that the Conservative Party (the majority party in the UK coalition government) will enter the next election on a platform to abolish the Human Rights Act, which makes the European Convention on Human Rights legally binding in UK courts.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has said he is “absolutely certain” the Conservatives will go into the next election with a “plan” that could involve a change in human rights law.

Given the cases outlined above, taken in the main by Conservative MPs, why on earth would any British citizen in their right mind vote for such a plan?  Surely this would be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas.

This announcement comes hot on the heels of the Conservative Party receiving a consummate horse whipping at the Polls, coming third and losing many votes to the proto fascist UK Independence Party.  Prime Minster David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, immediately promised no lurch to the right in response.

Just days later, Grayling told the Sunday Telegraph he could not conceive of a situation where a Tory majority administration would not repeal the Human Rights Act, which was introduced by Labour. He adopted the language of national security and Euro hysteria which has become the calling card of these emerging fascist parties such as UKIP and the British National Party, saying:

“We cannot go on with a situation where people who are a threat to our national security, or who come to Britain and commit serious crimes, are able to cite their human rights when they are clearly wholly unconcerned for the human rights of others.  We need a dramatically curtailed role for the European court of human rights in the UK.”

As with Ken Clarke’s assertions about tax payer funded terrorism, this argument has no basis.  The government has been struggling to justify the extradition of terror suspects to face torture in other countries.  Rather than standing for open justice and the principles of liberal democracy, the government is once again pandering to the devils in our nature rather than the better angels, for the sake of political expediency.  Once more the argument of ‘national security uber alles’ has been rolled out to sanction the removal of the most basic principle of the justice system, a person is innocent until proven guilty.

Just as the British public was led to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction deployable against Britain in 45 minutes in 2003 to force their support for an unjust invasion, today the British public is being threatened with imminent doom in order that they surrender their most basic human rights.

This is the thing about inalienable rights, they don’t just go to the people you like.  That’s what makes them so important.  They do not rely on you living in a time where you are in the mainstream of opinion, or rest on the sympathy of lawmakers, politicians or the masses.  They are yours, and they are inalienable.  To use the argument that human rights only apply to ‘good’ people is to fundamentally misuse the term human rights. The UK government is turning human rights into human privileges, granted and revocable by the state, at their whim.

Even so, these rights will not just be withdrawn for these isolated cases of people whom we might not like or trust, but for all Britons.

Learning the Lessons of History

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You could undertake research through the entire breadth of human history and never find evidence to suggest a single positive outcome for humanity produced by a state imposing secret courts and forced labour on, or restricting the human rights of its citizens.  There are none.  The broad sweep of history has seen the struggle of the citizen to create legally binding protections from both State and Private Interests to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The haunting march of the British government in these retrograde steps should be widening the eyes and galvanising the spirit of civil societies across the liberal democracies.  The worm is turning.  It appears that it is our generations turn to become more than the sum of our parts and make a stand for future generations, just as generations previously made possible the rights and protections currently under attack.  It would be damning indeed if we failed not only to extend these rights and protections, but that our children lived in a darker, less free world than we were born into thanks to our own inability to organise an opposition.

It is time to wake up and smell the injustice. Britain is a nation on the cliff edge between democracy and authoritarianism whether we like it or not.  And she is not alone. It may only be our willingness to pull hard in the direction of democracy that saves the day.

Take Action

You might feel a bit nervy or upset having read up on this.  Don’t waste it!

Boycott Workfare – join the campaign to end forced labour in Britain

Right to Protest – great campaign seeking to protect the right to protest

38 Degrees Campaign Against Secret Courts – easy to send an email to your MP if a UK Citizen

3 thoughts on “21st Century Britain: A Nation at the Cliff Edge

  1. We need a miracle, there is no more proof needed that this current bunch of truly loathsome people are completely insane & not fit for purpose…The cruelest/sickest card they’ve played is the “Workfare” fiasco considering the government used to take people to court for “Working” & signing on……

  2. You could add to the tyranny the treatment of whistle blowers and the prolific use of gagging clauses in the contracts and professional standards for public service employees and the absence of procedures for complaint or redress within contracts for public service delivery by private contractors. Together with surveillance and restrictions on dissent this effectively blocks institutional reform and protects abuse, incompetence and corruption.

    • Hi Franklin, thanks for this comment. I wrote a fuller post about these issues called One Rule for the Plebs which you might enjoy if you hadn’t caught it already. You are absolutely right, in it’s whole there is a fundamental transformation of law and justice in favour of the powerful such that they either avoid prosecution for laws they’ve broken, or the law is being changed to make their actions lawful. Stinks to high heavens.

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