MPs and the Internet

The Labour MP John Mann secured an adjournment debate in the Commons on Tuesday night, taking as his topic “Internet Abuse of Members of Parliament”. Last week, on Wednesday, he had a series of points of order after PMQs foreshadowing what he would say in the debate:

“On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the most violent and vitriolic abuse, using Twitter, of my hon. Friend [Luciana Berger], an individual was jailed for four weeks. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the abuse has worsened and deepened on precisely the same issue in the same violent way. If the medium used were a newspaper, I am quite certain that the House would demand that the editor be dragged to the Bar of the House and forced to explain himself or herself. What advice would you give, Mr Speaker, on how to handle the internet, and specifically Twitter, which is the medium by which this abuse against one of the Members of this House is continuing on a most violent and daily basis?”

It is quite true that Luciana Berger has suffered some appalling abuse, much of it anti-semitic in character, online. But it is also true that the Police have responded to it, and as Mr Mann says, an abuser has been jailed.

There now follows a substantial digression, because I’m intrigued by the idea that a paper editor or anyone else would today be summoned to the Bar of the House; it is a nonsensical idea. If you want to skip it, click here to get to the rest of this post which deals solely with the immediate consequences of Mr Mann.

The last time anyone was summoned to the Bar was in 1957 when John Junor was editing the Sunday Express and he published this comment on the position of politicians during petrol rationing (enforced as a result of the Suez Crisis):

Tomorrow a time of hardship starts for everyone. For everyone? Include the politicians out of that. Petrol rationing will pass them by. They are to get prodigious supplementary allowances. Isn’t it fantastic? The small baker, unable to carry out his rounds, may be pushed out of business. The one-man taxi company may founder. The parent who lives in the country may plead in vain for petrol to drive the kids to schools. But everywhere the tanks of the politicians will be brimming over. What are M.P.s doing about this monstrous injustice? Are they clamouring for Fuel Minister Mr. Aubrey Jones to treat politicians like the rest of the community? If it were a question of company directors getting special preference you may be sure that the howls in Westminster would soon be heard from John o’Groats to Ebbw Vale . [The constituency of a usual target of the Tory press, Aneurin Bevan] But now there is not a squeak of protest. If politicians are more interested in privileges for themselves than in fair shares for all, let it swiftly be made plain to them that the public do not propose to tolerate it. And let Mr. Aubrey Jones know that, if he is so incapable of judging public feeling, he is not fit to hold political office for a moment longer.

The MP Sir Charles Taylor complained in the Commons that this was a contempt of Parliament and a breach of privilege. Mr Speaker Morrison took the view that “I do not feel that every attack of this silly nature should be regarded by the House as a breach of Privilege”, and that the House would do better to turn the other cheek to it. However, MPs from all parties roared their fury, the matter was referred to the Committee of Privilege, and after Junor had appeared before it and failed to grovel enough to satisfy the House, he was summoned to appear at the Bar and apologise on pain of the almost unlimited punishment available to the Commons.

The problem with this course of action, and a reason Mr Mann was unwise to bring it up, is that Junor was mostly telling the truth in his original piece. He was a victim of what we would regard now as a gross abuse of power by the Commons, although the point is invariably missed when the case is mentioned these days. Junor did not specifically accuse MPs of dodging petrol rationing – he said politicians were to get prodigious supplementary allowances” – and in the course of his examination by the Committee of Privileges the scandal emerged that MPs’ constituency workers and others – including prospective Parliamentary candidates – were receiving a top-up ration for ‘political work’. This turned out to be a variation on the modern theme of allowing one’s relatives to benefit from an MPs expenses.

By referring Junor to the Committee of Privileges, the Commons created a storm of further criticism. In 1957, MPs saw themselves as being perhaps “at the top of society” (remember that phrase for later), entitled to a wide range of privilege, and didn’t care. Junor was summoned to the Bar of the House, was reprimanded, and was allowed to go on his way. The episode did rebound on the Commons, because public opinion was becoming less likely to listen patiently to the lectures of MPs than it once was, and the press were keen to exact revenge.

The Spectator archive has an interesting piece on the fall-out of the fiasco, and speaking in the Commons, Richard Crossman gave a very prescient journalist’s view of the issue (and what a fabulous phrase he came up with: “Outrageous attacks, suitably answered, are the essence of democracy”). Scandal upon scandal broke upon politicians thereafter, culminating in the Profumo affair (which Crossman had a part in unveiling in the Commons under privilege). The position of MPs in the eyes of the public eventually reduced to the low state it is now.

After that digression, back to Mr Mann. By modern standards, Junor would not be summoned to the Bar for what he wrote, even if it were untrue. Mr Mann continued from the point of order I referred to above:

“The issue of criminality is well understood and is a matter for the police, not the House, but this is about the medium of communication. If it were a newspaper, then the newspaper would not be committing criminality by allowing itself to be used as the vehicle, and the House would want to have a view on how that newspaper should be held to account. There is precedent from 1956, with John Junor, on how that was done. How can the House hold Twitter to account for its failure to act to stop its platform being used for this abuse?”

It is stretching things greatly to link the Junor case to modern criminality. It is anyway established that Twitter is a “platform” for users and not a “publisher” of their content in the way that a newspaper is. Mr Mann may well wish to change the law, but as it stands it is against his understanding of the media. Mr Speaker Bercow reminded him that criminal matters are for the Police and prosecuting authorities, and recommened he seek an adjournment debate to air his views.

And that leads us to Tuesday night’s event. Adjournment debates never result in a vote on an issue, they are an opportunity for MPs to say whatever they like at the end of a day’s proceedings in a usually-empty chamber. A government minister replies, and everyone goes home after half an hour. That was pretty much what happened in this case, but it is still worth examining. The full Hansard report is here, but I shall extract some bits below.

Mr Mann got underway by referring to the abuse Yaya Toure has received recently on Twitter – unacceptable and clearly actionable under the law as it stands, and that suffered in the past by Stella Creasy – also unacceptable and actionable. He quoted Creasy on the role of the Police and prosecutors:

“the authorities didn’t even know how to begin investigating whether one person was sending these messages — the abusive, hateful and violent messages she was receiving — or many individuals”.

The problem here is that the authorities already have powers to act, but as Creasy suggests, are technically incompetent. It’s a widespread problem in the public service, and it extends to the great majority of the House of Commons.

“A whole range internet providers—Google, Twitter, YouTube, PayPal, Facebook”

PayPal aren’t a form of social media.

“—have agreed five procedures for internet providers:”

Not quite. The Anti-Defamation League have published a code of best practice, having met some of the platforms. It would be useful if the platforms signed up to something like a code of practice, but the ADL is after all a political pressure group and the platforms are unlikely to just adopt their recommendations. It’s no good Mr Mann decrying “anti-Moslem bigotry” while expecting platforms to do the ADL’s bidding.

“Providers should take reports about cyberhate seriously, mindful of the fundamental principles of free expression, human dignity, personal safety and respect for the rule of law.”

What’s “cyberhate”? Seriously, what is it? It is not a crime to hate, and in only particular circumstances is it against the law to express hatred. The law is written carefully to prescribe what they are; why should some vague term be invented by a couple of working parties and a pressure group to make “hatred” in general illegal merely because it is expressed online? A problem encountered almost every time an MP talks about the internet is that they want to impose a different standard upon it to that which one’s conduct “in real life” would be judged against. It’s no good talking about the rule of law if you make such a fundamental error of understanding of what it means. We are all equal before the rule of law and it applies in all fields equally.

There is also the issue that laws are not all the same in different states. The protections of free speech in the US go way beyond those we enjoy in the UK. There is the related problem of jurisdiction, whereby someone outside the UK may effectively say what they like and dare the authorities to come after them. Even an establishment poodle like Paul Staines/Guido Fawkes has done that in the past from the distant fastness of the Republic of Ireland and wherever in the Caribbean he hosted his server at the time.

“Providers that feature user-generated content should offer users a clear explanation of their approach to evaluating and resolving reports of hateful content, highlighting their relevant terms of service.” Having had this happen against me and seeing it against others, I have no idea what those terms are. They are not upfront. They are not available for people to see. No one has a clue what the internet companies claim to be doing about it.”

I think Mr Mann is advertising his inability to use a computer here, rather than highlighting some desperate defect in the policy of social media platforms. If you see an offensive tweet, it takes two clicks to open the “Block or Report” form. If you go down that route, a fourth click takes you to Twitter’s “rules” (as they straightforwardly label their terms of service), which you can also access in one click from your profile page. You are never more than five clicks away from initiating a complaint process. Now, you might well argue (and I would join you) that Twitter is poor when it comes to following up complaints; but it is daft to complain that the process is not “upfront” or “available for people to see”. You can get into the ‘Report’ menu on Facebook in two clicks from seeing something you wish to report.

The problem is not that “the platforms aren’t upfront“, it is that users are just not well-enough educated about online life in general, that they take no time to acquaint themselves with systems and platforms they use before they dive in, that parents are often hopeless at explaining risks online, and that platforms are swamped with a huge number of frivolous and vexatious complaints, as well as the justified ones. Politicians in general think the internet should be some kind of nanny state, where everything is regulated to a high degree and nobody has to take any responsibility for their self-care.

“Providers should offer user-friendly mechanisms and procedures for reporting hateful content.” I would advise anyone to take as an example Twitter. To know how to use Twitter’s response one has to be something of a computer expert. It is not user-friendly and it is not immediately available for those being harassed on the internet by others, sometimes in a criminal way.”

This is nonsense, as we’ve seen, but it’s typical of the sort of thing we hear spouted time after time in the Commons chamber.

“The fourth guideline states: “Providers should respond to user reports in a timely manner.” Even when the police use RIPA requests for Twitter, Facebook and others, they go to the United States, or even Europe where the companies have their headquarters, rather than have them agreed in this country. This delays hugely the ability of the police to gain the information even to contemplate prosecuting.”

Well for a start, RIPA is abused constantly by the state, and it has been ever since it was passed. But it is true that the platforms are mostly domiciled overseas. How is Mr Mann going to compel anyone to domicile themselves in the UK to suit the authorities here? What powers has Parliament to do that? He could always make the UK a sort-of Chinese ‘walled garden’ and only allow UK internet users to access “acceptable” UK-domiciled channels, I guess….

“I am not suggesting, and nobody else is, a hierarchy of victims or any special privileged treatment for MPs…”

Mr Mann was suggesting ‘offenders’ should be summoned to the Bar of the House in his point of order. That sounds like a different process to that available to Joe Public.

“…but the fact is that Members of Parliament are receiving the most grotesque and criminal hate abuse on the internet. If that can be done to Members of Parliament, can we imagine what is being done to people out in the community? I am now hearing countless examples of the most extraordinary abuse even of tiny children and of victims being abused when the victim complains. Businesses are another example, with people’s businesses torn apart by abuse on the internet.”

Mr Mann clearly means “most” in the sense of quality, not quantity. But people in the wider community generally do little to draw attention to themselves and only rarely take controversial public positions. They are not subjected to deluges of abuse. Surely Mr Mann isn’t trying to pretend that “cyberhate” is a far bigger problem than it really is, in order to justify censorship and further legislation?

“A system that would work for a Member of Parliament at the top of society—as, in reality, we are—should and must also work for anybody in society.”

I’m not sure many outside Parliament would regard MPs as being “at the top of society”. The reason they are held in such enormous contempt by the public is precisely that kind of attitude from MPs. I nearly fell over laughing when he said that.

“In law, there is an ability to ban or block individuals on social media in relation to sexual offences. This needs to be widened to all bullying and harassment on the internet where it can be shown in a detailed way that individuals have taken a considered and determined view in advance to exploit the networks to harm others. These rules should apply in all forms of harassment and abuse.”

I’m amazed that anyone would equate people who misuse the internet in potentially quite minor ways with sex offenders, but again we have an MP seeing scary monsters in every corner of the internet. Don’t forget, Mr Mann hasn’t offered any definition of what constitutes a crime except this Brass Eye-esque “cyberhate”.

“Why are we not using internet banning orders, ASBO equivalents for social media? If we can ban people from going to a certain pub or a certain football match, or any football match…”

Football banning orders are routinely ignored, and are not policed by clubs because they have few resources to enforce them. The analogy with life on the internet is exactly the opposite of what Mr Mann supposes it to be. The aspect of football banning orders that requires offenders to report to Police stations and surrender passports is more effective, but there is no equivalent online. There is also the issue that football banning orders for a long time were abused widely by the state and do themselves represent an excessive punishment in many cases where they have been obtained.

“The powers exist in law but if the police were to ask for such powers and if those powers were to be implemented by the courts as part of prosecutions, there would be more ability to close down those who refuse to be tolerant and decent and who are criminal abusers of the existing law.”

I doubt very much there “would be more ability to close down” anyone’s internet activity. Are you going to make people log onto the internet via retina recognistion systems? There is no law requiring us to be “tolerant”, however valuable a social commodity tolerance is.

“We do not need new law. We need the current law to be used imaginatively to remove profiles from the internet, to delete accounts and to stop people continuing their abuse in exactly the same way as the police can confiscate hardware and so on.”

I suspect the Mr Manns of Westminster will be back soon enough to demand new law, when they find their codes of conduct and what-have-you are ineffectual. They are already getting ready to try to foist the “snoopers’ charter” on us once more. I’m not at all sure that law should be used “imaginatively”. Of course courts interpret laws to suit changing circumstances, within reason. But “imaginatively”? Mr Mann could expand a bit as to what he means. As for “deleting accounts”, I think “Old Holborn” is on his 36th Twitter account, having been repeatedly cut off despite never having been convicted of a criminal offence for his activity on Twitter. Some people are constantly deleted by social media operators if the right sort of people complain about them, regardless of whether or not an offence has been committed.

But we know how easy it is for people to switch to other mobiles or to internet cafes to continue and they are doing that.”

Finally the penny drops. It doesn’t matter how much equipment the Police confiscate, anyone can get online easily enough by other means. Let’s not even mention Tor, and other aspects of the “dark web” which are guaranteed to get MPs panicking. No amount of law, or law enforcement, is going to solve the problem on its own. We need several things in order to protect ourselves from the undoubted perils of life on the internet. Education of users, to understand that they are as much responsible for where they go online as they are for where they go when they are walking along the street. Education of users, to understand that it is up to them to access platforms’ grievance procedures themselves. Education of users, to understand that it is easy to libel someone online, and that what they say or do online may never go away. Education of users, to understand what rights they have against harassment and abuse and how to get the authorities to act when things become unacceptable.

Finally, we need education of everyone, but especially MPs (many of whom have the same unrealistic view of online life as John Mann), almost in basic terms of “what the internet is and how it works”. If you’re teaching someone to drive a car, hazard perception is rightly part of the course. But it is only part of the wider training. Technological education is in everyone’s interest, and it is a far better way of going about solving the problems of online life than involving the law or the Police, or having MPs panic and waffle at Westminster.


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Feminism, teeshirts, and PR disasters

I’d been planning to write something quick in response to an article that Gaby Hinsliff wrote for The Guardian. It was a very fair piece on feminism barring one or two quibbles, which I had wanted to contest.  However, then the Mail on Sunday splashed across their front page the revelation that the teeshirts in question are made in a factory in Mauritius and by workers who are paid 62p per hour. At that point, something of a frenzy erupted.

Let’s deal with the Gaby Hinsliff piece quickly, then, before we get down to the serious business of Mail moral outrage. Gaby says:

“A year after finally conceding to Channel 4 News that if feminism is indeed about women’s rights (who knew?) then “yes, I’m a feminist”, the prime minister has once again stumbled over the F-word. Unlike Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, he weaseled out of donning a “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt for Elle magazine, and thus neatly divided opinion between people who were cross that he wouldn’t wear it and people who would have been crosser if he had.”

I don’t think all women themselves are clear about what feminism is, having followed the “radfem” and cis/trans wars with some bemusement. Some women are more women than others, say some women. I think it’s a less ambiguous position to simply say that one is in favour of promoting equality regardless of the gender construct involved.

“Men in public life, meanwhile, are increasingly unsure whether it’s worse to embrace feminism (hypocritical bastard!) or avoid it (sexist pig!), and conclude that the safest option is to stay out of it. I once asked William Hague, in an interview where he’d talked frankly about the systematic use of rape as a weapon of warfare, if he considered himself a feminist: his first instinct was to ask his female adviser whether men were allowed to use the word. My guess is Cameron feels something similar, rather than suffering from austerity-related pangs of conscience.”

The appropriation of “other peoples’ slogans” is something I am wary of, and that applies in this case too. Hinsliff is more generous here than further up the piece when she talks about Cameron “weaseling out” of wearing the teeshirt.

“There is such a thing as rightwing feminism (there has been for centuries) and while it often disagrees with its liberal sisters on the means – Tory feminists are big on empowering individual women to rise, rather weaker on analysing the factors that collectively keep women down – it shares the same ends and many of the same priorities.”

This is a variation of the Thatcher resignation speech wavy-hand gestures “Do you want a bit more equality down at that level or a bit less up at this one?” issue.

“Obviously, you might argue that Tory feminists are wrong, or complacent, or wilfully blind; but it doesn’t follow that they are, de facto, not feminists. And to say otherwise is to undermine everything that T-shirt stood for when it was first launched by the Fawcett Society eight years ago – which was that this is a game anyone can play as long as they believe men and women to be equals; that there isn’t a uniform, or an entrance exam, or a million tiny unwritten rules that you should be afraid of breaking.”

Quite. Another thing that has become rather unclear is who exactly is (or was, since it has descended into farce) benefitting from this PR stunt. Elle magazine are running a feminism issue for December (already on sale now) and are calling it “our feminist tee” in their headline – not “the Fawcett Society’s feminist tee”. The tone of the coverage throughout the magazine (or at least as one navigates it through the disaster of their website) is a bit “Fawcett Society invented the slogan, we made the teeshirt”. I think they are claiming rather more credit than they are due. I remember seeing Bill Bailey in one years ago and thinking I would never look as cool as he did in one, puffing on his pipe.  But it isn’t the PM’s job to help Hearst Magazines sell copies of Elle. The reaction I’ve seen on social media has been almost entirely about “Elle’s teeshirt”, which is a handsome win for them, but it doesn’t directly say anything about feminism.

But these are minor quibbles, and it was a good piece. More murky is impact of the Mail on Sunday splash. The main Mauritius government website – – seems to be down at the moment, so the most recent available figures I’ve found elsewhere relate to 2011. You can download the 2011 Digest of Labour Statistics yourself if you like, if you go to the “Labour” tab and select the Digest but I will extract the relevant bits here. Those pages of pdf lay out the average hourly wage (in Mauritian Rupees – there are about 50 to the Pound).

The Mauritian government sets minimum wages by industrial sector, and seems to use them to manipulate the labour market in an unsubtle manner. It is clear from the extracted figures that despite being a fairly skilled job, machinists in garment factories are well below the level in other trades of a comparable kind. The Mail’s claim about “62p per hour” is borne out. However, as textile and clothing exports account for half of Mauritius’ export earnings, it starts to become clear why the sector is manipulated in this way.

We are often reminded by the likes of Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman that a minimum wage in the UK is not a “living wage”. So why should things be any more different in Mauritius? Is it acceptable to use factories in countries where factory workers are deliberately kept poor in order to protect exports? Is it acceptable for a government to manipulate the minimum wage by sector? Add in the observation that well over a third of the workers in those factories are imported labour, and a picture builds up which is pretty ugly for Ed and Harriet. Look also at the average length of a working week – nearly 49 hours including overtime.

The response of the Fawcett Society to the Mail story has been a bit confused. It makes clear that Elle were on the lookout for a good cause they could hook up with to push their December issue. It is also clear that Fawcett were expecting the teeshirts to be UK made, and not in Mauritius. The defence that CMT are Oeko-Tex accredited testifies only to the quality of the finished garments for the “Standard 100” level of accreditation they hold, and has nothing at all to do with ethical factories or workplace conditions.

Jane Sheperdson of Whistles expressed concern early on in the disposable fast-fashion revolution that ethical standards in many third-world garment factories are non-existent. She used to work as brand director of Topshop for Sir Philip Green, one of whose suppliers was attacked by an international trade union organisation over low pay, poor conditions, and abuse of foreign workers. That supplier was CMT. The same union organisation has spoken to the Mail on Sunday saying that things are no better in 2014.

What puzzles me a bit is why Shepherdson, who has a record of collaboration the fair-trade retailer People Tree, amongst others, went with a bog-standard Whistles supplier rather than someone with a more solid reputation as an ethical manufacturer. It should be possible to source it from a top-quality ethical supplier and still make a decent markup at a top-end £45 retail price. Instead, they ended up with CMT and a whole load of media embarrassment.

The entire episode is a sorry muddle. We have the Left caught out complaining about Cameron dodging feminism, while they have all been posing for the cameras in teeshirts made in factories almost certainly paying below a “living wage”; we have a magazine hijacking a long-standing and excellent campaign for womens’ equality; we have the poor old Fawcett Society caught up in a sourcing scandal in an area no reasonable person would expect them to understand; and we have the Mail giving it both barrels of moral outrage even though that isn’t the worst garment factory on the face of the Earth. Hardly anyone can say they aren’t complicit in the Third World fashion trade. I’m wearing jeans from Turkey and a teeshirt from Bangladesh.

There has yet been no comment from Miliband or Harman on the story. When they do respond, I wonder whether I’ll be reading anything about “living wage”, “poverty pay”, “predatory capitalism”, and “migrant workers”, all things Labour have been vocal about in the past when other people, like Sir Philip Green, have been in bother. When it comes to sourcing scandals Labour’s leadership too can now say “Been there, done that, got the teeshirt”.

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Anti-terror Raids in Portsmouth

The aftermath of the “terror arrests” in Hudson Rd in Portsmouth has been all over the front pages of The News for the last few days, so I’ll assume familiarity with the case and dive straight in.  But if you aren’t familiar with it, see this on the case of the Portsmouth man who became a jihadist and died in Syria (and there is a good Channel 4 News report linked at the bottom of that piece), and this on the arrest of a number of people (believed to include his parents) at his former home.

The second article I linked to tells us what the people arrested were charged with. Section 41 of the Terrorism Act is the provision which allows the Police to detain those arrested for 14 days without charge if there is suspicion of an offence being committed, as explained above. Section 38(b) (in paraphrase) makes it an offence not to tip off the authorities if you suspect someone may be engaging or planning in terrorist activity. Section 17 of the Act makes it an offence to make property or money available to someone in the expectation that it will be used for the purposes of terrorism.  Section 1 5 of the 2006 Act says it is an offence to intend to commit any acts of terrorism.

There’s a lot of law there, but the matter is simple enough. If you do anything at all that might further terrorism, you’ve broken the law. If you house or support financially anyone engaged in terrorism, and you suspect they might be a terrorist, you’ve broken the law. If you think someone might be involved in terrorism, and you fail to tip off the authorities, you’ve broken the law. It is on suspicion of those things that these people have been arrested.

We have sweeping terror laws, and they generate big headlines. Of course, arrest is never proof of guilt; but there are some offences where people are inclined to say “there’s no smoke without fire”, and it can generate unease, or the authorities may trumpet it. Indeed, the generation of big headlines is necessary to justify the existence of the legislation, such have the doubts about it been.

Let’s look at the figures to see how arrests translate into charging and convictions. Between April 2001 and March 2014, there have been a total of 2645 arrests under our various terror laws. This has led to 1027 people being charged. Of that number, 838 were charged and 713 were convicted (data taken from the tables here on the Home Office site). That takes in every arrest under terror legislation, which as we see from the case above can include people linked in any way at all to a terrorist case. Those statistics should give some reassurance anyone inclined to believe that “there’s no smoke without fire”. There is a lot more smoke than there is fire.

The justification for our surveillance society goes well beyond terrorism, of course; the surveillance state interferes if you just want to go for a night out.  I went out in Southsea with some friends who live over the back of the hill recently and they were struck at how unfriendly the place seems with bouncers on the door of every pub, and that if you want to go in even a Wetherspoon’s, you have to have ID which they scan. It’s ridiculous, and at some point this nonsense must be pushed back.

Two of the people arrested have been released on bail. Two remain in custody. Everyone else is left wondering what on Earth has happened. The News has carried a story featuring local leaders calling for calm, and those quoted make good points. But the really interesting bit is that down the page, under the subheading ‘Radicalised men do not have views challenged’:

Sumaiya Ahtia, 19, worships at the Jami Mosque in Victoria Road North. She said: ‘It’s silly to ignore the fact a number have gone to fight in Syria from Portsmouth. It’s a high concentration for such a small community. Predominantly they are male Bangladeshis. They’re being ostracised by other members of the community. They don’t really have a platform to discuss and have their views challenged. They can’t go to the mosque and talk about it or their parents. They’re going to online forums.’

This view cuts across the stereotype of Asian-origin communities, and especially that promoted by some sections of the media who imagine that mosques are incubators of terrorism, or that the community which surrounds them is tolerant of extremism. It equally challenges people like me who would otherwise dismiss Portsmouth’s statistically anomalous contribution of 5 out of 200 Britons in Syria as a blip.

More importantly, it suggests that the Bangladeshi community in Portsmouth are “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t” attempt to influence those who may follow the extremist path. But that just mirrors wider society – we all know that if parents tell their kids not to do something, they may well just goad them into challenging parental authority. Do nothing about challenging behaviour, though, and you’re a “bad parent”.

Being challenged over flirtation with religious extremism might well generate the same response in disaffected people as being challenged about smoking, drinking, or “getting in with the wrong crowd” as soap operas used to put it. No answer is guaranteed to be the right one. Shock news for the EDL: kids from ethnic minority backgrounds are just the same as yours, and you face just the same challenges as their parents in understanding what your kids are up to when you’re not looking over their shoulder.

Social media can have effects which challenge the norms of society; that is generally understood. The way in which religious extremism spreads online is the same way that fraud is perpetrated, vulnerable people are drawn into sexual exploitation, that furious outbursts of flaming (so often misidentified as trolling) online brew up. The internet itself is transparent, it will transmit whatever you put into it without itself having a moral filter or restricting its influence to one section of society. Some politicians and Policemen would have you believe otherwise, but they generally have an agenda to push. The internet (including the “dark web”) is an amoral network, and religious extremism is just one of many unfortunate viewpoints travelling over it. The internet is not to blame.

My comment on the “appeals for calm” we always get on these occasions from politicians and “community leaders” is that it is the state that creates a lot of the panic, more than the terrorists. We have flurries of arrests on a battery of charges, those arrested disappear into the criminal justice system to end up convicted in only just more than one-in-four cases, and behind them they leave a vacuum in the community they are disappeared from. All sorts of confusion and emotion can fill it.

There is no reason to panic, but not necessarily for the reasons implied by terror arrests. The reality is just that extremism isn’t prevalent, and you are much more likely to be run over by a careless driver than killed by a jihadist. Some of that is because of the work the authorities do against terrorists, true, but given the powers they have, they had damn well better be catching the terrorists.

Everyone now is bored to tears of the “Keep calm and carry on” meme. But it was good advice in 1939 when we started a war, and it’s good advice in 2014 when we are still fighting a variant of that same one. The enemy was terror then, and it’s terror now. Don’t let it scare you.



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Lib Dems Debate Football

The Lib Dems attracted derision yesterday for their conference motion on football which said “Winning has become the primary motive in the sport”, and it was a very weird thing to say. But now they have had their debate, and not all of it was all that bonkers.

The motion correctly identified the Football Creditor Rule as an evil, that many supporters have been “priced out” by soaring ticket prices, that there has been a power shift to the Premier League clubs, that the game doesn’t do enough to channel the vast TV revenues down the pyramid, and that the game could do more to promote diversity and equality.

Therefore the motion demanded that all league clubs should have “formally recognised” Supporters’ Trusts, that the Owners’ and Directors’ Test be made more robust and clearer, and that we must have total transparency and better governance.

There were some more contentious things, like demanding all stewards be SIA registered (overkill – a fair proportion already are at senior clubs and the safety regulatory environment is pretty tight as it is), or that clubs be held more responsible for the on-pitch behaviour of their players (in an age of soaring player salaries, it’s up to the authorities to fine and ban the players more aggressively). There was a rather daft line about an influx of overseas investment unjustified on purely financial grounds” which read like a complaint about “bloody foreigners” but didn’t mean a lot else. It was more UKIP than Lib Dem.

But the debate got under way. Edward Lord, who has recently been kicked off the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board for speaking out, had a good go at all the governing bodies for doing too little about racism and sexism within their own premises. He’s right, the failure to do anything about the Scudamore scandal is proof how entrenched sexist attitudes and sexist administrators are. Scudamore should have been sacked.

Then we heard from John Bridges, who told us a bit about Manchester Village FC, a team inclusive of gay footballers who are the current International Gay and Lesbian FA European Champions. He gave an instance of homophobic abuse of such an extent that they were obliged to make an official complaint, which took the FA seven months to adjudicate on. Two offending players were disciplined, their club fined £50, and when the two teams met again the match had to be abandoned at half time. Bridges complained that although their County FA had been supportive, the FA itself is just not geared up to deal with complaints in the amateur game. They make no resources available to the grass-roots to provide training in these kinds of issues.

Ross Pepper from Lincoln told the surprising story of how the Lincoln City Ladies team decamped to Nottingham, where they now play as Notts County.  This was a scandalous move, one of several misadventures associated with the birth of the FA Womens’ Super League.  It is a tacky attempt to commercialise the womens’ game and one which I am pleased to see is meeting with indifference outside its own ‘walled garden’.  There is plenty of genuine community-based football played by womens’ teams elsewhere.

After that, things got a bit mad.  Joe Otton, the PPC for Sheffield Central correctly identified the ridiculousness of the line in the motion about winning being a bad thing.  But he then veered off himself into saying that the game offers unparalleled opportunities to ethnic minority players (because they can earn money in football they can’t earn elsewhere in the corporate world), that there is less room for racial prejudice because of the pressure to win, and that it is “smug and condescending” to lecture football about racism.  It is a very strange argument.  I am just glad that racism in football is at a relatively low ebb, because his analysis of it is thoroughly muddled.

Cllr Prue Bray fairly pointed out that the motion ignored the women’s game (which, as we’ve seen is mired in controversy), saying “It’s bad enough that the media ignore womens’ sport without us doing it as well”.  Given the complete misgovernance of the womens’ game at the top level, that’s a very reasonable complaint.

Cllr Paul Baker, co-owner  of Cheltenham Town, delivered a defence of the Football League and its “great new regulations and disciplines”.  These are a bolted stable door if ever there was one, assuming we even think they are “great”, which I do not.  He blamed ITV Digital, and not carried-away owners, for the problems many clubs faced after that company collapsed. He even went so far as to say that legislation to drive governance reform should be a “final straw” answer.  I happen to think the camel’s back was broken a long time ago, and if Cllr Baker reads the Coalition Agreement he will see that both our parties have so far broken the promise we made in it to sort this mess out.

Jenni Ferrans, from Milton Keynes, delivered an even crazier defence of MK Dons, saying how great it was that moving the football club there means the town has a stadium which can host Rugby World Cup games next year.  We were going off-the-scale for bonkersness by now.

Andrew Page redeemed proceedings a bit with a joke (one of the few during conference season anywhere which was actually funny). In his playing days he once scored against Leeds United, but as everyone does these days he didn’t think it was anything to shout about.  He told the conference about the excellent work Annan Athletic are doing in guiding their young supporters to be resistant to discrimination and homophobia, and that Scottish football generally is not rampantly homophobic.  It was an enlightening contribution.

Winding up the debate, the Manchester Withington MP John Leech thanked those who’d turned up (the hall was about a quarter full) for what he called the “redeye debate” (it kicked off at the unexceptional hour of 9am). But he slightly reworked the much-ridiculed line about winning becoming the primary motive to say it is the “win at all costs” attitude which brings problems with it; and he’s quite right.  Look at the shocking behaviour on pitches up and down the country, the revolving-door culture of hiring and firing managers, the rampant commercialism, the obsession with what’s happening in the top 4 of the Premier League.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, but there definitely is something wrong with “win at all costs”, and it’s a shame the original motion used such a silly form of words.

I was surprised Cllr Vernon-Jackson, the ‘saviour of Portsmouth FC’ didn’t turn up to speak and share with the conference how he single-handedly rescued Pompey from the clutches of Chainrai, as explained in his latest bit of propaganda. As one of the speakers mentioned Pompey but got his figures round the wrong way, I wondered where he got them from. But Gerald wasn’t there.

The motion was duly passed, but we need more from all the parties than just conference resolutions.  With the Lib Dems at 7% in the polls, it’s debatable whether they will have much say in the next government anyway. If they do, they will probably have more pressing concerns – Ed Davey wowed a much larger audience later on with a policy of banning coal-fired power stations, covering the countryside with solar panels and wind turbines, and hiking energy prices so much that the cost of a football ticket will seem like a trifling concern.


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Labour Conference – Alexander Amazes the Audience, Keith Gets Confused

I had the Labour Conference on the telly earlier in the background, and caught the speeches on International Development and Foreign Affairs.  To start with, I thought the BBC were televising the wrong event, as the stage has a garish purple backdrop.  I though it might be a UKIP bash.  Then I spotted the sky-blue header panel with video screens.  Maybe I’d got the date of the Tory conference wrong.  I don’t know who does Labour’s brand guidelines, but I hope they are giving someone a bollocking for creating such a mish-mash of visual stupidity.


Then came Jim Murphy, fresh from his soapbox tour of Scotland defending the Union.  He is one of the tiny number of competent people available to Ed Miliband for Shadow portfolios; and yet in a fairly recent reshuffle, he was booted out of Defence and demoted to International Development.  Murphy put the boot into FIFA over working practices in Qatar, which was controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup and where migrant workers are dying at a shocking rate.  He made the only half-decent speech of the session.

We did also hear this morning from Vernon Coaker, who now shadows Defence, but he said nothing of any note, and he never does.  Labour has got no Defence policy beyond attacking the Coalition for not spending enough.  For the record, Labour halved the Type 45 frigate order, fatally undermining the marketplace for warship construction, but now attacks the Coalition for having to deal with the consequences of too many shipyards and too few ship orders.  It’s pathetic, and I suspect many in the Labour Party are embarrassed at the weak hand Coaker and Miliband are dealing them.

But we had some moments of unintentional humour amid the dross.  First came Dougie Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary.  He was talking about the crisis of legitimacy politicians at the top level face and what he has learnt on his travels:

All over Britain – in big houses, in little houses, in penthouses and in static caravans, from Bognor to Belfast – people will feel that in Dougie Alexander, Labour has a foreign affairs spokesman with a grasp of things to rival an Ernest Bevin or an Arthur Henderson.  That clip was literally the highlight of his speech, which, as with his comments in House of Commons debates on Foreign Affairs, was devoid of any policy or insight into how the problems of the world can be solved.  “Can’t we all just get along?” is a reasonable summary.

Immediately afterwards, in a spirit of recognising one who has made such a great contribution to peace and love in the Middle East, Keith Vaz demanded a standing ovation for former Foreign Secretary and Extraordinary Renderer, Jack Straw.  It is Straw’s last Labour conference as an MP before he retires to spend more time with his conscience, and the audience shamelessly rose to their feet.

But as the old guard shuffle off, the new recruits arrive.  Keith Vaz had been barking at speakers all morning to hurry up like a grumpy NCO drilling new recruits.  “Walk to the platform more quickly!”, “Keep your speeches short or you won’t all get in!”  A couple of new Parliamentary candidates made the foolish mistake of leaving pauses for people to laugh at their “jokes”, which didn’t help timekeeping, and nobody laughed anyway.  The PPC for Great Yarmouth even started by saying, “I’m told it’s a good idea to start with a joke”, but then delivered such a clunker that people forgot she had effectively begged them to laugh at it, and sat there unmoved.  Oratory is a thing of the past at Labour conferences.  Corporal Vaz seemed to have a bit of trouble deciding what to call female speakers; one was “Sister”, one got a “Madam”, one was “You there in the teeshirt”.

After a couple of excruciating speakers, Vaz ended that debate and moved on to a session on Business.  The Shadow Secretary of State for West End Nightclubs, Chuka Umunna, was called upon by Vaz to introduce the next speaker:

Sadly it seems Vaz has never heard of him.  Chuka Umanna? Shaka Unamma? Who? Chaka Khan?


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South Parade Pier Sale – Dead or “Just Sleeping”?

We are now almost exactly six months on from the first claims made by the parties involved that South Parade Pier had been sold.  It still hasn’t, if you check the Land Registry.  The claims have been repeated at intervals, even sometimes supported by members of the shadowy consortium seeking to buy it, but nothing ever changes.

A key member of the consortium has lost patience with the fiasco and is about to pull out.  He has told people he is “fed up” and “has had enough”.  If he doesn’t change his mind, the sale of the Pier is in serious doubt.  There are a couple of theories in the air about what the hold-up is.

We know that the-then leader of the council, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, promised the would-be owners £100,000 pounds from council funds.  As I have argued since this was announced, subsidising the purchase of the Pier by a private consortium would not be a legitimate use of CIL funding.  Then the Lib Dems lost power in the city and the scheme quite rightly came to a halt. Cllr Vernon-Jackson was hoping to get the sale done before the elections in May, claim the credit, and hope nobody questioned the legitimacy of his manoeuvres later on.  In the absence of the £100k from the council, it may be the consortium has had to have a rethink about their finances.

Another possibility is that the current owners of the Pier are reluctant to sell it because of upcoming legal action.  The company which owns it, People’s Pier (Southsea) Ltd, is in dispute with a third party, and the Pier is its only asset.  As such, they could be in hot water later on if they lose the case having disposed of the Pier knowing action was coming.  Certainly the electricity company EDF have been in dispute with the Pier’s owners for a long time over unpaid bills, although there is no sign of a court action taking place in their name yet.  At some point though, they are going to want to recoup some of the tens of thousands of Pounds they are owed in unpaid bills.

Adding to the mystery is the apparent presence in the Pier of several gaming machines belonging to another company.  It was the presence of these which led to the consortium demanding that About My Area editor Haley Storey remove photos from her website, even though they had given her permission to take them in the first place!  Are the owners of these machines under the impression they are actually somewhere else?

The other development is that another of the current owners’ companies has just been liquidated – Demasios Limited, registered at South Parade Pier itself.  This is one of several businesses under which the Pier has operated, and its disappearance may be a sign that “the end is nigh” for Fred Nash and Dawn Randall in Southsea.

We are now six months on from the initial claims of a sale, and we still don’t have many answers.  There was a flurry of activity with some scaffolding going up and a quick stopgap repair to one part of the damaged structure.  Some surveying has been carried out.  Whether the consortium will be prepared to spend more money on the Pier while there is still uncertainty over their ability to buy it, we’ll have to see.  It has been an absolute disaster for the Pier that we have had six months of largely glorious weather wasted while the uncertainty about ownership has persisted.  We have never had a convincing explanation of what the hold-up is.  It will now have to survive another winter’s battering without any of the major structural work it badly needs.

A side-effect of this dithering is that the City Council is in an impossible position when it comes to the calls from the South Parade Trust to take legal action against the owners.  If the Pier had been sold, it would be reasonable to give the new owners time to prove their good faith before marching them into court.  That’s the position Council Leader Donna Jones has taken, and it’s perfectly understandable.  However, given the failure of the consortium to complete a purchase, it’s also understandable that people will continue to support the Trust in its efforts.  Until the sale definitely falls through or is completed, we are stuck in a legal no-man’s-land.

The Trust is still in discussions with the Heritage Lottery Fund about an eventual purchase and restoration of the Pier.   Their online petition now stands just short of 7,000 signatories, and the Trust gathered even more when they had a stall at the Victorious Festival recently.  The South Parade Trust still look like the only prospective buyers who have any idea what is needed to save South Parade Pier, or the ability to do it.

If the Council had taken timely action while the Lib Dems were in charge, as I’ve argued constantly on this blog, then there might already have been a repair order in place before the current pass-the-parcel game got started between Fred Nash and Dawn Randall and the mysterious consortium.  As things are, with the future ownership position getting less and less clear as the nights start to draw in, the City Council would be wise to keep the situation under review.




Posted in Portsmouth City Council, South Parade Pier | 2 Comments

Mike Hancock interviewed on Radio Solent 2/9/14

Radio Solent were yesterday trailing an interview with Mike Hancock, which apparently culminated in him hanging up on interviewer Jessica Parker.  Sadly, we didn’t get to hear the full version this morning, which is understandable in one sense as there is a lot to get into a programme while we still have the outrageous treatment of the King family rumbling along.

However, what we did get was interesting enough.  The audio of the interview is below.  Hancock claims he has been in poor health, and still is, saying that “for the first time in my life I am going to do what I’ve been advised to do by doctors”.  This is true – when he first came back from his heart operation, it was much more quickly than doctors advised.  He is a man who is keen not to let the grass grow under his feet.

On returning to Parliamentary duty, he said “As soon as I’m well enough and I feel strong enough to be able to deal with it…..I can’t go back as I was straight away”.  Given that “as he was” from long before he was ill was pretty much a part-time MP with an appalling attendance record, I’m not sure that is any comfort to his constituents.  I wouldn’t wish ill-health on anyone, but if he’s not up to the job, after years of under-representing Portsmouth South, it’s time he set the people free and stepped down.

As it is, he is still keeping an open mind about standing in 2015.  “There will be a very interesting election come May,and I think it will be a very hard-fought contest whoever the candidates are”.  Pressed on his relationship with Gerald Vernon-Jackson, who has now replaced him as the Lib Dem candidate in Portsmouth South, all he would say was “I have nothing to say about Gerald Vernon-Jackson. When I do say it I will say it publicly at the appropriate time”.  

It sounds like there are more Lib Dem skeletons in the cupboard.  Have relations between the two broken down irreparably, even after everything Gerald has done for Mike?  He helped him get “the best deal we could” out of the Lib Dem chief whip when the disciplinary process started, after all.

There is now no question of Hancock being able to stand as a Lib Dem, so he will have to stand as an independent, as he did in Fratton Ward in May.  On that occasion, the Lib Dems gave him a free run and he still lost.  Hancock said  “I’m not making any decision about my future until I know exactly how I stand in regards to my health”.

Finally, he was asked about the disciplinary inquiry into his behaviour by the Lib Dems.  As I’ve previously explained, there presently isn’t one, because it was suspended by the Lib Dems at the start of the year to allow his court case to take place.  The court case never has taken place, because Hancock has admitted most of the complaints against him, made a grovelling apology, and agreed a financial settlement with the complainant.  Even so, the Lib Dems have failed after nine weeks to restart the process.  In that time they have managed to consider the similar case against Lord Rennard and re-admit him.  Nobody in the party can explain why the Regional Parties Committee, which only meets a couple of times a year, didn’t take the opportunity of dealing with Hancock in a timely manner.

All Hancock had to say when questioned was “I’ve not been here.  I’ve been on holiday with my grandchildren. I didn’t want to have any communications at all about any of this until I was back and I was settled myself”.

Has he been ill or has he been on holiday?  It gives the impression that the Lib Dems are letting Hancock set the pace of their inquiry into him.  There is nothing to suggest otherwise from the Lib Dem party, because they have been totally inactive.

When Jessica Parker pressed him on the contradiction between claiming he’s been ill and claiming he’s been a busy constituency MP while he’s been on holiday, he ended with the pitiable statement that “You can ask whatever you like…the answer I want to give you is that I’m not discussing those sort of things. I’m not going to fall into the trap I did before of trying to answer a running commentary of what’s going on in my life”.  You see people, none of this is his fault.  It’s all these people asking awkward questions about him molesting a constituent.  If only they’d leave him alone, everything would be alright!

Here’s the audio of the interview:



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The news about the long-running operation of rape gangs in Rotherham exploded across the media with the force of Krakatoa (which blew up on this day in 1883).  But it’s not the first case of this kind – there have already been far too many – and given the failings that permitted it to happen, I doubt it will be the last.

Some history: in Keighley in 2003, the then-MP Ann Cryer made a series of allegations that Asian gangs were grooming and abusing girls in the town.  Channel 4 News ran the story, and although the report I’ve linked to leaves the story at an early stage, over the next few years there was a stream of convictions for sexual assault and rape following up on cases related to the story.  You’ll see there that it was contentious that Cryer highlighted the ethnicity of the attackers and victims.

In the years that followed, similar cases came to light – in Oxford, in Rochdale, in Blackpool, in Derby, and now Rotherham.  Let’s immediately pick out two of those examples.  The Blackpool case is one where it is clear that the abusers were at least mainly white men preying on vulnerable kids.  We shouldn’t kid ourselves that the only abusers are “Asian gangs”.  The Oxford case is relevant because it very quickly came to light that although Oxford was the “base of operations”, in fact it was attracting abusers from around the country, especially the North.  We shouldn’t kid ourselves that what happens in one place happens in isolation.

There is a clear problem in this country with widespread abuse of young girls, organised, and working to proven patterns of grooming.  It involves a network of abusers travelling themselves, and transporting girls too for their perverted ends.  There has been for a long time – Keighley was over a decade ago – and yet nothing much seems to prevent the repetition of the same horror-story at fairly short intervals.

In a case like Rotherham, where the report explicitly identifies ethnicity as an issue, ethnicity comes to dominate the debate.  Twitter has exploded with angst about “political correctness”, immigration, Islamism, and a variety of similar themes.  The case is given added piquancy by the campaign of rape and abuse carried on by Islamist fighters in the Middle East and Africa at present.  Some welcome the likelihood that this will bring conflict between different parts of the community, as if there is some reckoning to be had for the perceived wrongs of multicultural Britain.

However, it isn’t actually ethnicity that matters.  I am quite sure that wherever this abuse happened, and whoever was carrying it out, the outcome would have been the same – no real action.

I want to get away from the idea that only white girls are suffering here – Jay makes the point (p91 of her report) that Rotherham had the biggest problem with forced marriage in the South Yorkshire Police area, with the young age of the victims being an additional concern.  Abuse in Rotherham clearly affects all women and girls, and not just white ones.  If we make this purely a “white girls v Asian gangs” row, we are going to condemn any others who are victims of sexual abuse (boys, Asians, whoever) to virtual invisibility and further suffering.  Jay says that a growing number of cases of abuse affect children from Roma and Slovak groups.  She says that there is evidence of non-Asian men getting involved in the grooming and trafficking network that started out as an Asian concern.  The problem extends across all sorts of groups in society and it would be wrong to narrow the focus.

The root cause of the abuse isn’t ethnicity, either of victims or abusers.  It is an imbalance of power.  It always is.  Abusers always rely on making victims feel they have none – “nobody will believe you”, “we’ll hurt you even more”, “we’ll hurt people you care about”.  Unless victims feel they can challenge that by reaching over the heads of their abusers, the abuse continues.

What happened in Rotherham was that however loudly victims shouted, they were disbelieved or even just ignored.  People in responsible positions just ignored them because they were an inconvenience.  They got away with doing that because so much of the state operates beyond the reach of public scrutiny and accountability.  Most of the decisions that affect our lives are taken by such people and we have no power over them at all at present.  That is another imbalance of power, equally pernicious.

Forget the standard model of Parliamentary government, Cabinet, or even “Prime Ministerial government”.  The state has reached such a grotesque size that nobody really controls it any more.  Most bits of it are run to suit the needs of its managers, be they Police officers, heads of council departments, CEOs of quangos, and so on.  Every now and again one of them does something outrageous and a QC or a judge pokes around in the wreckage, writes a report, everyone “learns the lessons”, and nothing actually changes.

“Community leaders” and “business leaders” wheedle their way into the decision-making process.  In the case of charities, look at how the cat-murdering RSPCA now behaves with the most breathtaking arrogance, pretending they have Police powers.  Barnardo’s now advise councils on child protection policy – an organisation who attribute a rocketing in their salary bill to “an expansion in our retail operations and other changes in our business requirements”.  You can watch their CEO (salary IRO £160k) get shredded by Eamonn Holmes for the failure of his charity  here.  All Khan can say is “that there are questions to be asked and answers to be found”.  He is petrified of speaking out against the incompetence at Rotherham for fear of jeopardizing his charity’s position with local authorities elsewhere.  It was a craven exhibition.

All these people and organisations I’m talking about have accumulated power to which they have no right at all.

The state is a godless cult, with members kept in their compartments and with the chain of command soon disappearing into darkness.   It espouses no particular set of values except “keep your nose clean”, “do as your told”, or even more accurately (hat-tip to @FrancisTDavis) “do as you’re targetted”.

The state has replaced all previous cultural norms, and none of the old ones may now be asserted.  All that matters now is managerial convenience.  Children have no rights to be protected from abuse; mothers have no right to their babies; fathers have few rights at all, even when courts find in their favour.  The state decided some time ago that it could care for children by putting them in homes, rather than by working with families to keep them together.  What happened then was that care homes became the playgrounds of perverts.  (Jimmy Savile was neither Asian nor a Moslem)

And despite all this, people fall willingly into the arms of the state.  We are encouraged to rely on it from the day we start school.  What has happened, progressively, is that individual responsibility and initiative has been destroyed by that reliance.  I am not arguing that we must abolish the welfare state, far from it.  I have always been the sort of Conservative who believes that our institutions should be looked after and improved.  But at the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to carry on as we are at present.

The state currently threatens to destroy democracy and liberty.  It is already doing it in Rotherham where local government is a “one-party state”, as it is in so much of the country.  It is doing it in the ever-denser tangle of laws which are passed in the name of “protecting us”.  It is an irony that “paedo panic” is used, with terrorism, to justify ever-greater levels of intrusion in our lives and yet none of these laws seem to do any good at all.  They certainly seem to make no difference to paedophiles.

The only cure for these ills are the disinfectants of democracy and transparency.  In Rotherham, or anywhere else where the local authority can be shown to have failed so completely, the entire local authority should be ripped up and rebuilt.  It is alarming that we have such completely dysfunctional authorities as Rotherham and Tower Hamlets and it is a stain on democracy, especially in the latter case given how long the problem has existed, that central government hasn’t been more militant in his response.  Those who have failed at Rotherham but have moved on to other authorities should be brought back to the scene of the crimes and made to answer for them.

South Yorkshire Police couldn’t stop 1400 girls being abused in Rotherham, but they did manage to get down to Sir Cliff Richard’s place with the BBC and run a televised fishing expedition.  The Police and Crime Commissioner, Shaun Wright, was the Rotherham councillor responsible for child protection while the rape campaign was at its height.  He refuses to resign, and incredibly there is no mechanism at all for removing him (unless he is charged with a serious criminal offence – watch this space).  South Yorkshire Police should be purged immediately and run from the Home Office if necessary, with outside support from other forces.  It is totally unfit and can hardly be expected to “police with consent” when nobody anywhere has any confidence in the force.

These may seem like drastic measures, but they are necessary to convince the public that central government is responding seriously.  It is no good commissioning further reports and mulling over them later.  We need action now.  The alternative, allowing the situation to drift, will just exacerbate the tensions around race which bubble through this crisis.  It is not in our interests to allow strife to break out between communities.  If there are elements within certain communities which have an habitually abusive streak, then the correct response is to empower their victims to deal with them and bring them to justice.

Empowerment has become a word that is sniggered at a bit by people who think it is some politically-correct buzzword, but it is the fundamental gift of the rule of law.  All of the advances of civil liberties in this country were the empowerment of the individual when faced with some or other abuse by someone in authority.  It seems that we have gone backwards in the last few decades, we must push the state back, and demand that our politicians join in the effort.  There is no more powerful weapon against abuse and tyranny in the democratic world than the House of Commons.  Our MPs, who are still figuring out that the party system is dying around them, often forget that (see my previous rant about why they should have recalled themselves to debate the foreign crisis).  They also seem happy with a subversion of the power of the state by all the people I’ve spent the last two thousand words moaning about.  That has to change too.

The kinds of abuses and subversions of state power we saw in Rotherham are probably more widespread, and I don’t doubt that further such awful cases will come to light elsewhere.  But the real lesson is this: voters have to demand higher standards and actually participate in society, rather than just accept what the state doles out to them, or just sit around moaning about it when it goes wrong.  We have to restate our faith in society, and recognise that the state is much more like an enemy of society than its guardian.  If you argue about Rotherham from a starting point based on the race of the offenders, you really are missing a much bigger and more important point.






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South Parade Pier 15/8/14

Rather than keep flooding this blog with pictures of “that bit of cross bracing that’s still hanging on by one bolt at one end” taken from four different angles, I’ve got a Tumblr page to dump the pictures in.  Tumblr’s a better tool than WordPress for uploading lots of photos with simple captions.

We had a very low tide on Wednesday, so I took the chance to wade out into the beautifully-warm water and snap a few bits that can’t often be seen close-up.  That tide was forecast to be down to 0.25m, which translates to a tide going out as far as in the picture below.  I keep an eye on tides, because I love running on the beach on Saturday mornings, and I like to know whether I’ll be skimming over soft sand with the sun on my back, or slogging along the stones into a force 7 sou’westerly.  It’s a wonderful experience either way, except that at present I have to divert up the beach rather than run under the Pier.

2014-08-13 07.13.38

We don’t often get tides that low, as you’ll see here, if you look at “Lowest Equinoctial Spring Tides”.

The seaward end of the Pier looks in better shape than a lot of the landward end.  I think this is to do with the angle of the beach.  The beach at the seaward end slopes gently, and although the columns are subject to constant exertion of pressure from wind and tide, the beams holding the deck up aren’t smashed out of place as they are nearer the land.  I think the sharper upward slope of the beach at the landward end ramps waves up, and causes a lot more damage to underside of the Pier.

The cleaning and surveying of columns was going on on Wednesday when I was down there, and it’s good to see.  If they start collapsing, then the Pier really is in trouble.  Holes in the concrete decking are a worry, but I accept that in some ways they are not the main threat.

The business of the scaffolding that went up is strange.  I can see it was there to provide access rather than support the Pier.  It wasn’t capable of taking any great load in the environment it was in, so it had to be for access.  Then a report appeared in The News saying that some work had been completed.  The scaffolding has been taken down at some point in the last couple of days.

Now, if this was work referred to in The News was on columns or something else that I hadn’t been looking at, fair enough.  But the area around the scaffolding doesn’t look much less in danger of “imminent collapse” (to quote the article).  The left hand photo below is from April, the right hand photo was taken earlier on today after the scaffolding had gone.  The hole is no bigger, thankfully.  There is some additional bracing on the wonky panel of bracing, with a steel running out from the main longitudinal supports to the edge of the Pier.  The wonky panel is anchored to that steel at three points.  It will hold it up for now, but it’s not a long-term solution.  Much heavier bits of metalwork were dislodged during the storms over the winter.

AprAug1That loose panel angled inwards at the edge of the deck is still hanging on by one bolt at one end even though it’s better secured at the other.

No doubt surveying work will continue through the autumn and winter, and we may not see until next spring how much intent there is behind the signs that have gone up:

2014-08-11 18.20.22Some of the spelling is a bit wonky, and the “(anticipated)” looks like a bit of a bet-hedging, but let’s see what happens.

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St James’ Hospital Consultation

Plans go before the Cabinet tomorrow from PCC officers recommending guideline figures for how much housing could be built at St James’ Hospital. The NHS has started to sell it off for housing development, and it is vital that PCC has a policy for the area in place to ensure that it is able to exert what little control local authorities have in planning matters of this kind.

Despite Lib Dem claims, this is classed as a “brown field site” in national planning policy, and there is a presumption that it can be redeveloped regardless of the wishes of councils and residents.  It was lazy and negligent of the Lib Dems to ignore the NHS plans for St James’, which can have come as no surprise to them when the NHS presented their plans to the then-Lib Dem administration in February.

This is another one of those bizarre areas where the Lib Dems are disavowing locally a policy they have supported nationally in government, of encouraging redevelopment of “brown field sites”.  The bulk of any housing at St James’ is going to come from converting the main hospital building.  Having had a very quick scan of the Cabinet paper, the new administration have put into the plan a lower density of new-build housing than that permitted by the Lib Dems in the past when the new estates on the fringes of the hospital site were built.

I’ll have much more to say on this in another blog, but for now, at the bottom of the page is the audio from a discussion between Cllrs Luke Stubbs and Gerald Vernon-Jackson on Radio Solent earlier, on the Julian Clegg show.  It was a pretty uncomfortable experience for GVJ, who is not only under pressure with his seat up in the local elections next May, but also only second favourite now to succeed his Lib Dem colleague Mike Hancock for the Lib Dem Westminster nomination.

Will Cllr Vernon-Jackson get a life peerage out of Clegg in the honours list after the elections to sweeten a bitter pill?  Kath Pinnock, his good friend from the Association of Lib Dem Councillors, has just been given one.  I think it’s fair to suggest it’s for “services to covering up a mess in Portsmouth”.  It’s also fair to say that there are Lib Dem councillors backing Tamora Langley who are starting to break cover and say that Pinnock ignored evidence they put to her of problems in the party locally.  This one is going to run and run.  Still running, EIGHT WEEKS after he settled with his victim out-of-court, Mike Hancock is still a Lib Dem, there is still no date set for a disciplinary hearing, and even his local office claim not to know where he is hiding.

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