I think David Mitchell has it pretty much right about university students, their demonstrations and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and his pre-election lies:
Student “unrest” is embarrassing for the coalition because even its slavish supporters in the press can’t resist talking up a bit of pushing as if it heralds revolution. A few short clips of jerkily televised vandalism make the government look like it’s failing to govern. The fact that more damage gets done to public property every day by people turning round quickly while holding something hot is irrelevant. A photo of broken glass is a thousand times more politically threatening than a kid with an unwise haircut whining about his allowance.
Another reason to support the fisticuffs is that Nick Clegg doesn’t like it at all. Before last Wednesday’s demonstrations, he appealed for people to “examine our proposals before taking to the streets. Listen and look before you march and shout”. Sounds like a protesters’ green cross code.
One of the many problems with the proposals is that you need to examine them so carefully before you realise that they’re not quite as awful as they initially seem. The fact that the vast amount of debt that students will accrue will only be repayable when they earn more than £21,000 a year and will be written off after 30 years of failing to do so elevates the scheme from an utter disgrace to a huge disappointment. But this scant silver lining is barely noticeable. Kids, especially from poorer backgrounds, will just see the giant cloud of future debt and infer that higher education isn’t a welcome opportunity but a big financial gamble.
Very well put indeed. As he put it earlier, of course the demo wasn’t going to hit the newspapers without something controversial happening. I don’t imagine for a moment that the NUS’ strategy ever involved attacking the Tories’ Millbank HQ, but the fact is that event changed the entire tone of the stand-off to one which suddenly matters. The fact is too that his final line is especially poignant. Yes the Browne Report isn’t the total disaster on paper which many students and commentators are attacking, but what’s been noticeable from those arguing against the student demonstrators has been their dismissal of the massive increase in future debt, and how the now inevitable variation in tuition fees across the country will skew the entire higher education system.
Under Browne everything will be skewed on class grounds. When Oxbridge, the LSE and others surely start charging extortionate amounts, which in the future will be much harder to pay back unless you’re from a wealthy background, as Mitchell puts it, kids from poorer backgrounds, with a completely different experience of money and debt, will be more predisposed to going to universities which charge less (and which have lesser reputations – a crucial factor in the age where even this government wants 50% of young people to go to university) to avoid the crushing debt. We’ll end up with a two-tier education system. Didn’t Clegg want to abandon tuition fees to prevent this? Why is it ideologically correct for graduates to be saddled with ever greater debt?
I remain confused why so few commentators seem to grasp why the students are angry. I’ve seen them accused of stupidity, jumping on bandwagons, political naivety and ignorance, but that’s not my experience of the main body of them. Michael Chessum and Jonathan Moses put their case very effectively:
mobilise we must. The coalition’s proposals represent a nigh irreversible transformation of higher education, and the commodification of knowledge and learning. Dressed in the semantics of deficit reduction, it has been easy to play one sector off against another. Yet, as a recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute acknowledged, these measures will increase public expenditure through this parliament and into the next. It is ideology, not necessity, that ultimately informs the coalition’s agenda.
I’ve argued myself about the commodification of knowledge and learning, and how this will damage civil society. If an outcome of the Big Society is to increase the inequality of access to knowledge, how on earth can Clegg support that? It’s an argument unconnected with the education debate, which presupposes that everything has a market value – how can he possibly expect the main body of students to agree with that? Mitchell concludes:
National wealth comes and goes, we have good times and bad. A rarer commodity, one vital to effecting change, is political will. If there’s a will for a progressive reform, statesmen instinctively find a way. That’s why Clement Attlee persevered with setting up the welfare state in the late 1940s, even though the country had never been poorer. He sensed that, if he waited for better economic times, the political will would have gone. In this less statesmanlike era, when the political will existed to reform the banking system in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, the government bottled it and now the Tories are in and the will is gone.
The student protests just might be demonstrating a growing political will to reform our higher education system, to have it paid for out of income tax. I think that would be fairer. Maybe it’s unrealistic but it’s what happened until 12 years ago before the proliferation of courses. If, as a nation, we really cared about higher education, we’d find the money. If the Lib Dems cared half as much as they claimed, they’d welcome this movement.
And the Higher Education Policy Institute concludes of the proposed changes:
The reality is that we cannot safely extrapolate from the introduction of fees in 1998, and then their increase to current levels, to predict the effect of the new arrangements. It seems quite plausible that some potential students will be deterred from entering higher education, but we do not know how many. Their actual impact will depend to a large extent on perceptions. To the extent that loans are not distinguished from ordinary debt from banks, then fees will act as a deterrent. How the new arrangements are described and “sold” will be crucial.
And that’s the battle going on, which is being played out 0n a weekly basis on the streets. Nick Clegg was elected on a platform of being the one party leader who wouldn’t lie, yet look where we are now. The fury at his and his party’s betrayal is only likely to grow, the more he publicly embraces a political ideology alien to the majority of students, many of whom voted for him. Granted there are still calls of ‘Tory scum’, which as I said the other week are entirely misplaced (Browne was a Labour idea), but this appears to sit on top of a broad identification by most students that Browne (as Mitchell agrees) isn’t the only possible solution to the problem of university funding in the middle of the economic crisis. The Higher Education Policy Institute rightly points out that it’s impossible at this stage to determine the impact of the imposition of Browne, and which side in this increasingly angry debate eventually wins out will no doubt be determined by how eager the coalition is to repress rebellion – the evidence of the last weeks suggests it’ll just get uglier. Either way, if the coalition really doesn’t budge I can’t imagine how Clegg will manage to keep his job as Lib Dem leader for much longer.
It’s about time, isn’t it? Cameron doesn’t like it but he’s going to allow at least some prisoners to vote:
Prisoners are to get the right to vote as the government is poised to throw in the towel in a long-running legal tussle with the European court of human rights, it emerged today.
It is understood that the coalition is to confirm that it is ready to change the law to remove the voting ban on more than 70,000 inmates of British jails.
The move comes after government lawyers advised that failure to comply with a 2004 ECHR ruling could cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds in litigation costs and compensation.
David Cameron was said to be “exasperated and furious” at having to accept that there was no way of keeping the UK’s 140-year-old blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting.
There was no official confirmation of the decision to drop the ban, but a representative of the government is expected to signal the move in a statement to the court of appeal tomorrow.
I’d like to make two points: firstly that Nick Clegg had signalled that he was going to change this voluntarily, but never did; it makes the leak of Cameron’s opinion quite curious. Just two months ago the ConDems were voluntarily admitting that responsibility for complying with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was passing to the Deputy Prime Minister, but the focus seems to have shifted and the coalition now sounds reluctant to change. Secondly I personally don’t believe in any limitation on voting rights at all – I don’t think there are any conditions under which you should lose the right to representation. Obviously the government won’t go down that path, but I hope they’ll literally just limit the ban to lifers without parole – everyone else after all will be expected to rejoin society. Sending them the message they’re not welcome to, by removing their right to representation, sort of makes rehabilitation through prison kind of meaningless, no?
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform suggests:
“If we want prisoners to return safely to the community, feeling they have a stake in society, then the right to vote is a good means of engaging individuals with the responsibilities of citizenship,” she said.
“We understand the Government is still looking at excluding some prisoners from voting, in particular prisoners serving sentences of four years or more.
“One way the Government could enfranchise this group would be to link their plans to make long-sentenced prisoners work and pay tax to voting rights, as taxation and representation should ideally go hand in hand.”
Prison reformers have welcomed reports that Nick Clegg is to move to end the ban on prisoners taking part in elections, despite the government being compelled to do so after a European judgment.
A report in the Times of the deputy prime minister’s backing for enfranchising prisoners surprised penal reformers because it follows strong criticism last week from the Council of Europe on the government’s failure to abide by a 2005 European Court of Human Rights ruling that the ban was unlawful.
The Cabinet Office confirmed today that responsibility for prisoners’ voting rights was moved in July from Ken Clarke’s justice ministry to the office of the deputy prime minister, which is in charge of electoral reform. A spokesperson said the issue had been given “active consideration” over the summer, but would not say that that consideration was continuing.
Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat justice minister, promised a House of Lords debate in June that the coalition was “looking afresh” at ways of lifting the ban and would report by September. McNally told a fringe meeting at the party’s conference in Liverpool this weekend that the government now intended to comply by December.
Good. It’s about bloody time. I’ve never comprehended how as a society we can tolerate removing prisoners’ rights to vote. If prison is supposed to be (at least in principle) a place for offenders to be rehabilitated, what message does it send them when they are excluded by the prime means of representation in the society they’re supposed (eventually) to be released back into? For that matter do they not have the right to representation as prisoners? Should their needs not be catered for by the political system? I agree that they should be. Controversial it may be, but I also believe that all prisoners should be represented, even lifers. They may be taken out of mainstream society, but they still have human rights and thus needs which deserve to be represented.
I wonder if this’ll generate any comments?
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has asked us to tell him what laws need repealing:
He’s a brave man, I’ll give him that. But the answers are there in front of his face. Let’s start with the case of Jules Mattson:
On Saturday 26 June, photojournalist Jules Mattsson, who is a minor and was documenting the Armed Forces Day parade in Romford, was questioned and detained by a police officer after taking a photo of young cadets.
According to Mattsson, who spoke to BJP this morning, after taking the photo he was told by a police officer that he would need parental permission for his image. The photographer answered that, legally, he didn’t. While he tried to leave the scene to continue shooting, a second officer allegedly grabbed his arm to question him further.
According an audio recording of the incident, the police officer argued, at first, that it was illegal to take photographs of children, before adding that it was illegal to take images of army members, and, finally, of police officers. When asked under what legislation powers he was being stopped, the police officer said that Mattsson presented a threat under anti-terrorism laws. The photographer was pushed down on stairs and detained until the end of the parade and after the intervention of three other photographers.
Now I know Jules. He’s a good kid and a superb, passionate photographer, and this is is just appalling. Want proof? He recorded it:
The debate about the Metropolitan (and City) Police’s abuse of Section 44 has been waged many times and the arguments have been made more times than I can be bothered to think. But it’s now, once and for all, conclusively been ruled in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights:
In January 2010 the European Court held that section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (the broad police power to stop and search without suspicion) violates the right to respect for private life guaranteed by Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights (Gillan and Quinton v. UK4158/05  ECHR 28 (12 January 2010)). The claimants received £500 each by way of compensation.
The European Court has now rejected the UK’s application to appeal to the court’s Grand Chamber, meaning that the decision is final. This leaves stop and search powers in further disarray. The Home Secretary has already announced an “urgent review” of the powers after the recent admission by the Home Office that thousands of individual searches had been conducted illegally.
It’s clear that Section 44 has to go, but the risk remains that Clegg uses this scheme either to get the country to vent about laws they don’t like, or simply to delete specific laws without confronting the trends and behaviours which led to them in the first place. The cops who attacked Jules Mattson didn’t just cite Section 44 to try to stop him taking perfectly lawful photos – they made all sorts of garbage up in order to intimidate him into not taking photos. There is an institutional prejudice within the ranks against photographers, which was channelled by Section 44, and which would be much harder to root out and stop. New Labour made it abundantly clear they didn’t care one iota about the Met’s excesses. Time will tell if Theresa May cares any more, and this is what I want Nick Clegg to understand and tackle, more than anything.
There’s a fight under way behind the scenes between the ConDemNation coalition partners over the Human Rights Act. The Tories have long wanted to supplant the Human Rights Act (HRA) with a British Bill of Rights, on the one hand not trying to extract the country from the European Convention on Human Rights, but also trying to, as Helena Kennedy puts it:
“protect our freedoms from state encroachment” on the one hand and “encourage greater social responsibility” on the other.
She then goes on to add:
No explanation is given as to how to achieve these triangulated aims without weakening the protections we now have in the HRA.
It’s also not quite clear what those aims actually mean in practice. The language is quite reminiscent of New Labour’s similar idea of a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, although when discussed at the Convention on Modern Liberty early last year the idea was kicked thoroughly into touch for failing to identify what additional responsibilities should be codified other than to obey existing criminal law. Both parties have in recent years tried very hard to conflate civil rights with human rights, and have notably attacked the latter when rulings under the HRA haven’t been to their political benefit. But that’s not a sufficient reason to replace the Act, quite the opposite in fact, particularly, as Richard Norton-Taylor acknowledges:
All the Human Rights Act, brought in by the Blair government, really did was incorporate the convention into UK domestic law, avoiding long and expensive delays in disputed European court cases.
And as of an interview in the Times yesterday morning the Deputy Prime Minister wasn’t having any watering down of the HRA or any suggestion of its repeal. Clegg said:
“Any government would tamper with it at its peril.”
In response, Theresa May, the new and already illiberal Home Secretary has seemed to back down:
May was asked about the manifesto promise in an interview on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, she downplayed the significance of this pledge. “We did say that we thought the Human Rights Act was not working in certain areas,” she said.
She went on: “We are currently in discussions with our coalition partners about what we will be doing in this area.”
‘Discussions with our coalition partners’? We can only hope they went along the lines of ’you tamper with it at your peril’, but there are pressures for both sides to do just that. The HateMail has unsurprisingly gone on the offensive:
A flagship Tory pledge to tear up the Human Rights Act has been watered down in the coalition pact with the Liberal Democrats.
In opposition, the Conservatives repeatedly promised to replace Labour’s controversial legislation with a Bill of Rights.
But Government sources said last night that an independent commission would now be established to examine the ‘feasibility’ of the move.
‘Are we going to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights? Very possibly,’ said one. ‘But the commission is going to look into all that.’
A commission? Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, has said:
“A coalition that has attempted to tie itself together with the language of civil liberties cannot now renege on fundamental human rights.
Given the way in which Liberal Democrats all the way up to the Deputy Prime Minister vowed to defend our Human Rights Act, any attempt to dilute it would spell the end of this Coalition – and rightly so.
Governments like people are bound together with common values not vested interests. There is nothing more British than the free speech, fair trials, personal privacy and rule against torture protected by the HRA.”
Yet the final coalition agreement accepts this commission. We have to hope that its findings aren’t against retaining the HRA – both for our sakes, and for the Deputy Prime Minister’s political future. Helena Kennedy concludes:
it may be very tempting for the Liberal Democrats to carve out victories on some areas of reform by making concessions elsewhere. This is why we have to make it clear that the terrain of human rights must not be the ground on which any further deals are done. Human rights have to be non-negotiables in this new political landscape.
And Clive Baldwin warns:
Experience shows that a taste for human rights acquired in opposition can soon wear off in government. Once comfortable behind their desks, new ministers tend soon to find the very repressive and authoritarian measures they decried in opposition rather congenial and useful once they sit in government. Let’s hope that the novelty of coalition government can buck that trend.
I couldn’t agree more. It would be alarming if the new Prime Minister actually negotiated effective repeal of the HRA and achieved his ambition of curbing the power of the judiciary:
And it’s why we will abolish the Human Rights Act and introduce a new Bill of Rights, so that Britain’s laws can no longer be decided by unaccountable judges.
It’s a second gripe about the HRA, it isn’t related to the first, and is a common refrain from the Right – ‘unaccountable’ or ‘activist’ judges must be stopped from interpreting codified, semi- or actual constitutional laws, because it interferes with the legislators’ political agendas. But to suggest the Act is at fault because judges have been free to interpret the European Convention on Human Rights from a British perspective makes no sense other than a political one – the judges and the Act get in the way, and the Tories would prefer they themselves had control over human rights law in the UK. Except the UK would still be covered by the convention.
The immediate effect would be to effectively deny access to the European Court for those who really need it because they simply wouldn’t be able to afford it – it’s dog whistle politics, Tories agreeing amongst themselves that some people deserve access to human rights, and not others. But Helena Kennedy is right – human rights are human rights – they are (and must be kept) universal. A replacement, which the final Coalition Agreement hints at, would water down the principle of universality and endanger those most in need of human rights protection. Clegg surely understands that, and given the rumours that all other disagreements in the coalition are being referred to similar ‘commissions’, it does look as though this battle will remain at stalemate. Any other outcome would surely smash the coalition into smithereens.
So this is the important bit in the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech, promising a bright, new, un-authoritarian future, with:
Landmark legislation, from politicians who refused to sit back and do nothing while huge swathes of the population remained helpless against vested interests.
Who stood up for the freedom of the many, not the privilege of the few.
A spirit this government will draw on as we deliver our programme for political reform: a power revolution.
A fundamental resettlement of the relationship between state and citizen that puts you in charge.
‘Much in this new Government statement accords with the BHA’s policies we set out in our own manifestos ahead of the election and with the principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. We particularly welcome moves to increase freedom of speech, and a reformed House of Lords which, by being fully elected, would necessarily remove the right of Bishops to sit in our second chamber.’
‘We also look forward to making our case for the repeal and revision of unjust, restrictive and discriminatory laws, such as those which require compulsory worship on our school children – a clear violation of their freedom of conscience – and those which unfairly restrict the right to free speech and protest.’
I think Copson is generally right but there are serious problems here. Clegg’s ideas are laudable, but there are as yet no indications as to how he thinks he’ll implement them – moving children of asylum seekers from one detention centre to another (particularly one with a notorious reputation) is not a remotely adequate solution. Much of the push towards ID cards came from within the civil service itself, and there is still an entrenched authoritarian culture in government agencies which needs urgent tackling; just yesterday the new government took the same stand on control orders as its predecessor.
I don’t just expect a repeal of New Labour’s surveillance state laws, I expect a change in culture to uphold the rule of law and to abide by evidence-based policy making. That means not just accepting the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling on the National DNA Database, but abiding by rulings against denying prisoners the vote and on the legality of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. I’m worried that now in government Clegg is going to pick and choose what works for him and what doesn’t and not challenge the vested interests, defeat of whom really would make the “most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great enfranchisement of the 19th Century” much more than overexcited hyperbole.
(pic from my Lewishamdreamer Flickr profile)
Clegg’s putting his money where his mouth is. Some of you don’t like it, but he’s read the political wind, seen now is the time for coalition government, which after all is what proportional representation would deliver, and pulled an extremely unlikely coalition off. If PR really is that important to you, you’ll appreciate that some coalition formulations will be distasteful, but are the will of the electorate. If Clegg had stood to one side he would have betrayed the entire basis for wanting electoral reform in the first place, and by leading by example he may yet prove to a sceptical electorate just how right the call for change in the voting system is.
Last week Jackie Ashley said:
I think he would be mad to engage in a full coalition, with cabinet seats and the rest of it. That would infuriate his activists and make him jointly responsible for Tory cuts. He needs to offer a deal from the outside, while he reviews the biggest mystery of the past election, which is why the Lib Dem poll bounce did not translate into any advance on the ground. It isn’t all the fault of the unfair electoral system.
And that’s the danger of course – that he gets tainted by being in power (particularly with such economically ruthless Tories) but there’s only so long the party can stand by and watch others take and use power, before they start looking a little pointless. It’s all well and good having noble policies and ideas, but it’s pointless if they aren’t used, which (sorry to say) means compromises have to be made. It’s undesirable but it’s the way of things, but Clegg clearly came to terms with that and decided to risk everything by moving his party back into government for the first time in three quarters of a century.
The electorate have shown that they will not be cowed by the media northe markets into voting for a particular outcome. Instead, they have sent a message that has confused everyone by its unfamiliarity. What can it all mean? Well, clearly they are not happy with the government as it is, nor are they convinced that the Tories offer something better. Instead they have voted for something different and sent the parties away to hammer out a consensus. Under a PR system, there would be a mandate for such an administration. It is only the familiarity of our current electoral arrangement that allows the media to treat the result as some terrible misunderstanding.
Clegg’s decided to show us what it would be like. And of course if he does provide ‘sound and stable government’ through this coalition, he’ll have made a better case to the British public for PR than any party political broadcast or policy document could ever hope to. By agreeing to a high-risk referendum on AV and perhaps hoping he’ll prove the case for PR by example he gets to play a high stakes poker game. On offer is genuine, lasting change to the political system itself; if he plays it wrong however the Lib Dems are essentially dead.