No Grants, No Fair? – Guest post by Super Cyan…

 

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No Grants:

I finally have something worthwhile to say in 2016, and unfortunately it’s in response to a Conservative measure. An article by @JBeattieMirror highlighted that the Tories have blocked a debate concerning the end of maintenance grants. On Thursday the 14th of January this year, the Third Delegated Legislation Committee discussed the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 (Regulations) which was voted in favour for with a ten to eight majority. The explanatory memorandum to these Regulations maintain that 2016 cohort students, will no longer qualify for maintenance grant or special support grant, but will instead qualify for an increased loan for living costs in 2016/17 (para 4.2). A 2016 cohort student according to Regulation 4(iv) is a full-time student who begins their academic course on or after August 2016. Regulation 19 inserts the following into Regulation 56 of its predecessor:

A current system student who is not a 2016 cohort student qualifies in accordance with this regulation for a maintenance grant in connection with the student’s attendance on a designated course (other than a distance learning course) (bolded for emphasis).

Meaning precisely what has been said above, that grants and special support are to be made obsolete for students starting courses this year.

Human Rights

From a human rights perspective, what exactly are the implications of these Regulations? The starting point would be that university courses fall within the realm of higher education (Leyla Şahin v. Turkey – (Application no. 44774/98) para 141), and the corresponding right from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is Article 2 Protocol 1 (A2P1) which stipulates that:

[i] No person shall be denied the right to education.

[ii] In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

This Protocol is incorporated into UK law through Schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998). Section 15(1)(a) of the HRA 1998 sets out reservations in Part II Schedule 3 to the effect that the principle affirmed in the second sentence of A2P1 only so far as compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure. This as noted, by implication, that the UK accepts unreservedly the principle that “no person shall be denied the right to education” set out in the first sentence of A2P1.

The basis the argument would be that removing the maintenance grant and special support will indirectly discriminate against those from poorer backgrounds making them less likely to go into higher education. As the amount of grant was relative to household income, for example under the old Regulation 57(3)(a), a student whose household income was below £25,000 would receive £2,984. This is where Article 14 would take effect, this is the discrimination Article which states that:

The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

Article 14 is not a standalone right and can only be used in conjunction with another substantive right (Sommerfield v Germany – (Application no. 31871/96) para 84) in this instance A2P1. In terms of the poorest students, they would likely fall under the ‘social origin’ category which the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) refers to a person’s inherited social status (para 24). Also according to a handbook jointly collaborated upon by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (EUAFR) who regarded social origin as possibly relating to a position that they have acquired through birth into a particular social class or community (such as those based on ethnicity, religion, or ideology), or from one’s social situation such as poverty and homelessness. In the unlikely event poorer students would fall outside the ambit of ‘social origin’ they would fall under ‘other status’ where the Grand Chamber (GC) of the ECtHR in Carson and Others v United Kingdom (Application no. 42184/05) noted that only differences in treatment based on a personal characteristic (or “status”) by which persons or groups of persons are distinguishable from each other are capable of amounting to discrimination within the meaning of Article 14. Economic status based on residential income would and should quite easily fall into this as noted in Hurley and Moore, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Business Innovation & Skills [2012] EWHC 201 (Admin) (para 29).

The jurisprudence of A2P1 has grown from not guaranteeing access to any particular educational institution the domestic system does provide, or that a breach requires evidence of a systemic failure of the national educational system as a whole resulting in the individual not having access to a minimum level of education within it (Simpson v United Kingdom (1989) 64 DR 188) to the point where for example A2P1 must be read in light of Articles 8-10 ((Leyla Şahin v. Turkey – (Application no. 44774/98) para 155). In the Belgian linguistic case the ECtHR held that although Article 8 does not grant a right to education as it mainly concerns protecting the individual against arbitrary interference by the public authorities in his private family life, that does not mean measures taken in the field of education won’t affect those rights (B para 7). Similarly A2P1 must be read in light of Article 10 which pertain to the freedom … to receive and impart information and ideas (Kjeldsen, Busk Madsen and Pedersen – (Application no. 5095/71; 5920/72; 5926/72) (para 52)). Thus the argument would be that the removal of maintenance grants and other forms of support create a restriction (Leyla Şahin v. Turkey – (Application no. 44774/98) para 157) on the right to education based on social origin/other status and also interferes with Article 8 and 10 in an indirectly discriminatory manner. But for the sake of (shortening) this blog post, A2P1 in conjunction with Article 14 will only be considered .

The trebling of tuition fees:

The starting point is the High Court decision in Hurley and Moore, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Business Innovation & Skills [2012] EWHC 201 (Admin). This case concerned the trebling of tuition fees and its potential for (indirect) discrimination towards those from poorer backgrounds (para 4), the Secretary of State contested this (para 5). In order to demonstrate evidence of indirect discrimination, the GC in D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic – (Application no. 57325/00) held that it adopts conclusions that are:

[S]upported by the free evaluation of all evidence, including such inferences as may flow from the facts and the parties’ submissions. According to its established case-law, proof may follow from the coexistence of sufficiently strong, clear and concordant inferences or of similar unrebutted presumptions of fact. Moreover, the level of persuasion necessary for reaching a particular conclusion and, in this connection, the distribution of the burden of proof are intrinsically linked to the specificity of the facts, the nature of the allegation made and the Convention right at stake. (para 178).

The GC also accepted that statistic (although not in the past) can be relied upon to demonstrate a difference in treatment between two groups (para 180). Once a rebuttable assumption has been established the onus then shifts on the respondent State/Government (para 189), nor is discriminatory intent required (para 184 and 194).

In Hurley, evidence took the form of the Browne Report, which looked at higher education funding. It drew from research regarding participation rates from more socially deprived students. One such research paper titled Assessing the Impact of the New Student Support Arrangements carried out by the Institute for Employment Studies maintained that since the reintroduction of grants and other support arrangements, there was no significant change in participation but acknowledged that any potentially negative impact on the propensity to enter HE amongst those from lower socio-economic backgrounds may have been masked by the counter pressures arising from the recession. They concluded that the introduction of grants and bursaries did not encouraged greater participation (p60-61). Other research also supported this assertion (para 17). However, it was incorrectly noted that research on the Impact of Tuition Fees and Support on University Participation in the UK which stipulated that a £1,000 increase in loan increased participation by 3.2% (para 17). When in actual fact, the research demonstrated that an increase in £1,000 in fees resulted in a decrease in participation of 3.9 percentage points (not 4.4% stated by the court), and maintenance grants with an increase of £1,000 had an increase in participation of a 2.6 percentage points (not 2.1% stated by the court) and the increase in loans the participation percentage points was never measured. Thus it seems the court itself made an error of fact (which I will come to later).

In the case, Elias LJ accepted that the case law of the ECtHR regarded tuition fees as a restriction on A2P1 (para 40) but that it did not agree that it impair the essence of the right (para 42). When it came to discrimination because of the hike in fees, Elias LJ accepted that an increase in fees alone would discourage many from going to university and would in particular be likely to have a disproportionate impact on the poorer sections of the community, but an increase in fees cannot be looked at in isolation (para 51). Furthermore, the increases in fees were mitigated by loans and various measures (i.e. maintenance grants) targeted at increasing university access to the poorest students (para 52). Elias LJ found that he did not think that at this stage it is sufficiently clear that as a group they will be disadvantaged under the new scheme (para 52). Elias LJ did not find the evidence whether statistical or by way of rebuttable presumption satisfactory to rule in the claimants favour, but accepted that in time the facts may prove them right. However, overall with Mr Justice King agreeing (para 101-102) the High Court did not conclude in the claimants favour (notwithstanding a declaration that there had been a failure in the Public Sector Equality Duty) of a violation of A2P1 in conjunction with Article 14.

Applying Human Rights and Hurley to the present facts:

Before going further into arguments, it is important to note, a certain obstacle, the ECtHR have noted that a Member State’s margin of appreciation (discretion) when it comes to university (the particular case regarded tuition fees) is much wider than it would be when compared to primary and secondary education (Ponomaryovi v Bulgaria – (Application no. 5335/05) para 56). This is why the trebling in fees was ruled as Convention compliant.

But the present situation is different. Firstly when Elias’ LJ referred to an increase in £1,000 loans increased participation, it was noted that the study did not consider this (unless I’m reading the wrong study) and should therefore be rejected and that particular study cannot be used to justify an argument that an increase in loans will increase participation.

Secondly, Elias LJ noted the importance (para 52) of measures directly targeted at increasing university access to poorer students. In the report titled Urgent reforms to higher education funding and student finance it was maintained that an increase in maintenance grants for the most socially deprived was aimed at ensuring that the 2010 Regulations i.e. trebling in tuition fees did not affect individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds disproportionately (p5). This however, would no longer be the case if grants are to be removed.

Thirdly, Elias LJ did not buy into the assertion that the motivations for the measures were to save money (see para 59 and 62). However, one of the objectives announced by George Osborne last year, was to make savings in the higher education and further education budgets. Andrew McGettigan maintained back then (in 2015) that the cuts would likely affect grants (see here, and here) which was later confirmed by Osborne himself noting that it was unfair on the taxpayer to subsidise people who are more likely to earn more than them (divide and conquer much?). McGettigan also questioned whether the obligation to make savings on the public sector net debt, rather than the deficit, then a switch from grants to loans would not be sufficient as the loans would contribute to the debt. Therefore the argument of saving money would need to be taken into consideration.

One of the criticisms made by Elias LJ in Hurley was rejecting the contention that the decision was made without proper consultation and analysis. To my knowledge there had been no consultation, and thus no responses, so already these measures would be on the back foot.

When it comes to analysis, pointing back to research which stipulated that an increase in tuition fee decreased participation, whilst an increase in maintenance grant increased participation, further research was carried out which stipulated that an £1,000 increase grants lead to an 3.9% increase in participation where it was concluded that ‘[t]hese results underlie the importance of government commitment to non-repayable forms of upfront support such as maintenance grants for undergraduate degree participation.’ Moreover, the analysis from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in their executive summary (p5) noted the possible effects of the measures as a whole. They said that reduction in participation of those from the poorest backgrounds depended upon how debt averse students are and how credit constrained they are, as well as on how responsive participation decisions are to expected increases in the long-run cost of higher education. Furthermore, although participation did not decrease due to the price hikes, the situations are not analogous as grants went up for the poorest and the net present of loans went down. They contend a system that abolishes grants and d the net present value of repayments is likely to increase substantially for those from the poorest backgrounds and therefore would expect ‘both of those changes to have negative effects on participation for the poorest students.’ However, the up-front support would be increased and may have an offsetting effect if these individuals are not very forward looking and/or they are very credit constrained and/or they expect to have low lifetime income. They concluded that t the potential negative effects on participation to be stronger if all of the proposed reforms are introduced.

With regards to debt aversion, research by the University of Edinburgh concluded that interviewees from Scotland and England were concerned that tuition fees may deter young people from poorer backgrounds from going to university (p13). Back in 2005, it was noted that students from poorer backgrounds were more debt averse than those from other social classes (p 15). In a research briefing paper, the National Union of Students, Sutton Trust, University and Colleges Union were not in favour of abolishing grants, whilst University Alliance would have preferred an increase in grants understood that the government had hard decisions to make. Million+ noted the importance of grants, and urged the government to assess the impact of this switch on university access. Universities UK noted financially the situation is no different bar the increased debt, but that changes to the funding systems do not deter students from the poorest background (p14-15). Therefore, some were totally against the idea, and others were concerned that assessments need to be made to determine whether the measures acted as a deterrence to higher education.

According to the Higher education: (student support) regulations 2015 – equality analysis the switch to loans will have a positive impact on students from low income backgrounds by potentially easing financial worries, reducing the need to work excessive hours during term time and supporting students in their studies. At the margin, for some students, it might make the difference between attending University or not (p52). This increase in £766 seems like a lot to a student (because it is) but actually wouldn’t require excessive hours of work, on minimum wage, 12 hours a week spread out of term time. This £766 may well even have been superseded anyway by bursaries that universities offer in combination with the £4k loan and £3k grant). Not that I’m assuming all universities offer them, but they are means tested like the maintenance grant, and the poorest receive the most. All it would seem that switching to loans as the analysis points out, equals more debt (p52), which indeed may never be paid back, but for those that do, perhaps another post on the loan freeze will be necessary.

Furthermore, the impact assessment specifically highlights that woman, mature students, those from ethnic minority backgrounds, those with disabilities, and certain groups of Muslims students are likely to feel the disproportionate effect of these measures (all within the ambit of Article 14) (p82-83). It also acknowledged that single parent mothers and mature students could be negatively impacted upon without any resolution, the other groups were regarded as either not being a significant risk (disability and religious belief), proposals were being put in place (ethnic minority background) (p84-85). Annex 2 points to various factors of increased participation from said groups above, but it would be unwise to ignore grants etc were available then. Either way, the onus would be on the government to disprove all this, as I would contend there are ample inferences to create a rebuttable presumption.

Although there was a Parliamentary discussion which favoured the Regulations, there is also a debate going on as I type, so the Parliamentary angle is still up in the air.

What makes the argument different than what was advocated in Hurley is obviously an increase in fees plus a removal of grants adds a further restriction to accessing universities. But what wasn’t used in the claimants arguments was that discrimination should be seen in light of Thlimennos v Greece – 34369/97 [2000] ECHR 162, where the ECtHR held that Article 14s can also be violated when States without an objective and reasonable justification fail to treat differently persons whose situations are significantly different (para 44). And this is the crucial point when in concerns the poorest, disabled, single parents etc. The situation for those eligible for Special Support Grants (SSG) the human rights argument may be stronger as in Burnip v Birmingham City Council (Rev 1) [2012] EWCA Civ 629 (a bedroom tax case) found a violation in line with Thlimennos for failing to treat different circumstances differently without objective reasonable justification. The Court of Appeal further held that the Thlimennos principle was not barred from applying positive obligation to the allocate resources (para 18). Thus this reasoning could be used to suggest that Thlimennos could be interpreted as creating a positive obligation to cater for those who are disadvantaged. However, a similar case in that of MA & Ors, R (on the application of) v The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2014] EWCA Civ 13 the Court of Appeal , felt that the tax was justified based on the discretionary payments were available. Unlike maintenance grants and SSP, there will be no discretion in their allocation, this would work against the abolition of grants.

Conclusion:

Although the UK has a wider discretion when it comes to universities and how it is financed, they are not barred from treating different groups differently to correct factual inequalities (Stec and Others v United Kingdom – 65731/01 [2006] ECHR 1162 para 51), but consideration must also be taken into account when it comes to those a general rule will affect the most, thus applying Thlimennos may oblige them to permit grants for the most disadvantaged. The jury is out on whether a court would actually buy into my points (THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE, I’m looking at you NUS ;)), but whatever the matter, the argument is now stronger than it was in 2012 because of the further restriction of access to education on the grounds of A2P1 in conjunction with Article 14. The government if taken to court would have to use stronger justifications rather than rhetoric such as ‘why should tax payers subsidise X?’ which could be used to justify essentially anything ever. I couldn’t go into a full ECHR analysis of all the Convention Rights at stake or even all the measures (loan freeze etc) because those require just as much consideration as this one post.

Notes from the IP Bill Committee session

I was one of the panel of academic witnesses before the specially convened Draft Investigatory Powers Bill Select Committee on Monday 7th December. It was my first time before a Parliamentary Committee and I have to admit I was a little intimidated: from queueing up beneath the statue of Oliver Cromwell to walking through what CP Snow referred to as the ‘corridors of power’. It’s a cliché, but there really is a corridor off from which the Committee Rooms are reached – it has a little of the Alice in Wonderland about it, but the thing that I noticed the most whilst waiting to be called was that almost everyone seemed to be a bit lost. In relation to the Investigatory Powers Bill that might be more than a little appropriate.

The panel I was on was pretty intimidating too, from Professor Ross Anderson, one of the best computer science brains on the planet, Professor Sir David Omand, former head of GCHQ, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office and then Permanent Secretary and Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office under Blair, and Professor Mark Ryan of Birmingham University, another highly distinguished computer scientist. It really was intimidating at first – feeling the weight of the place, the seriousness of the subject and the crucial part that a Parliamentary Committee is supposed to play in the process of scrutinising and passing laws. And as the chair of the Committee, Lord Murphy of Torfaen said in his opening remarks, this bill was crucial – perhaps the most important bill in this parliamentary session.

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Once the session started, though, I found the level of intimidation diminished rapidly – because, in part at least, it was impossible for me not to become immersed in the discussion. It is easy (and often appropriate) to be cynical about our parliamentary process, but seeing it first hand, in this committee at least, it was clear that enough of the members of the committee really wanted to learn, and really wanted to understand the issues, that there was at least a chance that their scrutiny would have some kind of effect. The initial questions, which had been set out before the session, were reasonably good, but the follow ups and the discussions that arose were much better.

The choice of witnesses was interesting: having Ross Anderson at one end of the panel and Sir David Omand at the other end created an interesting dynamic from the start. Sir David seemed to have a particular role in mind from the start – a ‘reasonable’ voice, confirming that everything was OK, that the Bill, as it was written, was clear, balanced, fair and ‘world-leading’. As a number of people pointed out to me after the event, you could tell whether you’d made a good point by the speed and vehemence with which Sir David responded. There were a few key moments on that score, and I hope there is proper follow up on them.

The first is the Danish ‘session-logging’ experience – the nearest equivalent to the proposed ‘Internet Connection Record’ idea in the new Bill – which resulted in around 7 years of wasted money, time and effort, providing almost no help to the police at all, before it was abandoned. When I mentioned it, Sir David interjected immediately that the Home Office was planning to do it very differently. It would be interesting to know how they are doing it differently. I suspect that further investigation could convince the Committee that the problem wasn’t (and isn’t) the technical implementation but the fundamental approach. Session logging didn’t work in Denmark not because the Danes don’t have our technological expertise, but because it’s a fundamentally flawed approach.

The second was the idea that communications data is less intrusive than content – as all the other three member of the panel know, that might have been true once, but it’s no longer true. The intrusion is different, but it isn’t less. Indeed, because of the possibilities for analysis, the greater difficulty in disguising and the increasing ability to use for profiling, it is likely that the balance will shift very much the other way, with communications data being much more important and more intrusive than content.

There were many other things covered – but we had far less time than we needed to explore them in as much depth as we needed. That’s why I shall also be taking up the invitation of the Committee to submit written evidence as well as oral – and why I would seriously advise others to do the same. I was lucky enough to be on a panel – but the written evidence will be even more critical. This Committee, it seemed to me, wanted to learn and should be given the opportunity. Do take it up! Written submissions will be accepted until 21st December. To submit, follow the link here:

http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/draft-investigatory-powers-bill/publications/written-evidence-form/

The video of the session can be found here:

http://videoplayback.parliamentlive.tv/Player/Index/80ee52fd-8719-4a57-85a3-f64ad9567559?audioOnly=False&autoStart=False&statsEnabled=True

Rifkind of the ISC…

Sir Malcolm Leslie Rifkind, KCMG, QC, MP, former Defence Secretary, former Foreign Secretary, distinguished member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, long standing member of parliament, has become ensnared in a ‘cash for access’ scandal. This has many implications – and many different angles to examine, from his claim that it would be ‘unrealistic’ to expect an MP to live on £67k per annum onward – but the one that may be the most important is his role as Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the ISC. The ISC is the only parliamentary body that oversees the activities of the intelligence services – MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. It is a body that is made up only of people personally nominated by the Prime Minister, and given the nod by the leader of the opposition – and until last year, it operated effectively in private. It has had one public session (about which I have written before) in November last year, and it wasn’t exactly impressive – it felt rehearsed, and scripted, the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ having been given details of the questions beforehand.

In practice, therefore, there is an enormous amount of responsibility on the ISC, and on its chair in particular. What they do is largely behind closed doors – so we have to trust that they do a good job. The latest events for Sir Malcolm Rifkind make that seem very doubtful. I have met Rifkind – I sat next to him at the ‘Round Table’ events as part of the ISC’s inquiry into surveillance – and I have to admit I liked him. He was charming, affable, a good listener, clearly intelligent, and in some ways what appears to be a consummate politician. His experience is enormous, his ability to ‘manage’ meetings very impressive – but does that make him suitable for the key role overseeing the UK’s intelligence services?

He does not have the technical knowledge or understanding of the technology – he made that entirely clear from the start of the Round Table discussion, asking for the most basic information and demonstrating some critical levels of technical ignorance. He does not have the legal understanding either – he admitted to me directly that he didn’t understand RIPA – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that is central to the governance of surveillance in the UK. So what is left? His ‘gravitas’, his position as a ‘safe pair of hands’. And that, importantly, is what is now compromised. He is supposed to represent us – and from what we have seen about his ‘cash for access’ scandal, it seems pretty clear that his main representation is of himself. He was duped by a fake Chinese company, set up by journalists, for the chance of making money. What he said may (it has yet to be confirmed) be within the parliamentary guidelines, but in this context that cannot be nearly enough. Being Chair of the ISC is a huge responsibility – and it has huge sensitivity.

It isn’t just personal issues that are at stake, but national security to: just imagine the possibilities if the fake Chinese company had been a cover for Chinese Intelligence rather than journalists from Channel 4 and the Telegraph. It is almost a classic trap – the sort of thing that has been played out in many thrillers. Some thrillers, these days, would have had Rifkind compromised by people within the intelligence services, so that they can bend him to their will – but I don’t believe that is the real risk here. Rather, it shows inappropriate priorities – when priorities are particularly critical.

There is another side to this that should be deeply concerning. This kind of thing matters because companies – specifically companies involved in the development and supply of surveillance technology – are part of the problem with surveillance. They want to promote surveillance so they can be paid to develop and implement technology here that can then be exported elsewhere – there is a ready market for surveillance systems all over the world, particularly to the more oppressive and autocratic of governments. These companies can lobby, can manipulate, can bamboozle people without the technological knowledge or understanding to appreciate the risks. And Rifkind fits the bill.

I don’t believe it is just Rifkind that is the issue here – though the idea that he could remain as Chair of the ISC after this is frankly deeply disturbing – but our whole system of oversight of intelligence. Depending on individuals, particularly individuals appointed through a system which is rife with patronage and inside connections, just doesn’t work. It creates vulnerability – and destroys the possibility of accountability. It needs root and branch reform – the involvement of technical experts, civil society and the judiciary, not just politicians and civil servants. Will it happen? It seems unlikely. Eventually Rifkind will probably fall on his sword, but nothing more will change. If only it would.

UPDATE: 10:15 February 24th: Rifkind has stepped down as Chair of the ISC, though he remains a member of the committee.

10:30 February 24th: Rifkind will also be stepping down as an MP in May

Labour and torture…

One of the immediate effects of reading some of the Torture Report last night was a feeling of deep anger. My memories of 2003 and protesting against the planned invasion of Iraq came flooding back – and my anger towards Tony Blair in particular and the Labour Party in general came flooding back. I tweeted about it a bit last night and this morning – and though most people seemed to agree with me, a number seemed to think I was being unfair. After Polly Toynbee’s suggestion yesterday that we should ‘ignore the flaws’ of the Labour Party, having this particularly huge flaw shoved in my face seemed a touch ironic. So am I unfair to be angry with Labour? The people suggesting so seem to have a three main complaints:

This wasn’t Tony Blair – or even the UK. This is about the CIA.

It’s certainly true that the Torture Report is about the CIA’s activities – but the UK is not unconnected. Firstly, the UK was involved in the CIA’s activities, helping with rendition at the very least, and turning a blind eye to other things. Secondly, anyone who imagines that the UK is totally innocent of similar actions seems to me to be deeply naïve – the fact that we don’t know for sure may well have as much to do with our secretive and seemingly ineffective forms of oversight. A report like the Torture Report is almost unheard of in the UK. We have the odd whitewash from time to time, but nothing more. What’s more, Blair made the UK complicit in the whole ‘war on terror’ – and the torture was part of that.

Tony Blair didn’t know what was happening

For that to be true, he would have to be a complete fool – and that’s one thing I would never accuse him of. What’s more, over a million of us warned him.

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I was on that march – and we weren’t just saying ‘don’t invade Iraq’, we were saying ‘don’t go into bed with the most reactionary and objectionable US president in living memory.’ We may not have known the details – details confirmed by the Torture Report – but we knew who and what Bush was, and what joining him implied. Blair must also have known – and if he didn’t make the obvious inference about things like torture, then as I wrote before, he would have to be a fool. And he isn’t a fool.

Tony Blair isn’t the Labour Party

No he isn’t – but he led the Labour Party, and a very significant number of the current crop of MPs voted for Blair and Bush’s war, effectively voting for this torture. Some of the ‘big figures’ who actively supported the war are still very much part of the party – names like David Blunkett and Jack Straw spring to mind, but there are others. More importantly, the current Labour Party seem to be very much carrying on Blair’s agenda. Yvette Cooper seems to be almost as much an authoritarian as the rest of them!

 

So yes, I do blame Labour. And yes, I think that’s fair – and until Labour makes a proper break from the past, and shows that it understands what went wrong, or even that it was wrong, I will continue to blame Labour.

Immigration, xenophobia and racism…

Every so often, these days, someone says something about immigration that makes me think about racism, xenophobia, or both. Often it’s someone from UKIP, but recently Tory politicians have been joining in pretty regularly – and even Lib Dems and Labourites have been triggering the same reaction in me. Whenever I mention this on Twitter, in amongst the other reactions there will pretty much every time be someone who says something like ‘why does someone wanting to limit or control immigration have to be racist or xenophobic?’

The answer I generally give is that of course they don’t – but these days, all too often, the reasons behind such statements have racism or xenophobia in the background. That is, not all those people wanting to control or limit immigration are racists or xenophobes, but a lot of xenophobes or racists use the relative respectability of opposition to immigration as a cover story from xenophobia or racism.

I had three interesting altercations of this kind on Twitter last week – from what I remember, they came after the revelation that UKIP had done a deal with a Polish MEP who happened to be a Holocaust Denier. In all three cases, the starting point was a seemingly rational objection to immigration. I engaged with the argument – I don’t always, because these kinds of arguments can be exhausting and depressing – and in all three cases the ending was memorable. The first finished with the suggestion that Labour councils had been engaging in ‘ethnic cleansing of whites’ (the words of my opponent). The second peaked with the remarkable statement that everything always goes downhill when the proportion of whites in an area goes below 60% – a ‘fact’ that I was assured couldn’t be racist because my opponent has been told it by a black person. The third argument was much more rational, and specifically about immigration from the EU. It ended with a suggestion that one of the biggest problems with EU immigration was that communities didn’t integrate. When I pushed on this point, asking which EU communities didn’t integrate, the answer came Poles and West Africans. Aside from my own experience of the Poles as integrating very well into British society (as they have since their great contribution to the Battle of Britain), the way that West Africans somehow fitted the ‘EU migration’ story made that old feeling of racism and xenophobia come back again.

It happened again when I read of Michael Fallon’s comments of towns feeling ‘swamped’ and ‘under siege’ by EU immigrants. If he really was talking about EU immigrants, what was it that made him feel ‘swamped’? Too many Polish shops on his high street? Too many shopping aisles in his local Tesco with Eastern European specialist products on them? Hearing Czech spoken at the bus stop? Does he think he can tell an Eastern European from a Western European just by looking at them – I mean, Nigel Farage may be able to ‘know the difference’ between a Romanian and a German, but…

To me it feels like dog whistle politics. When Fallon talks about feeling under siege, he means that ‘they’ look different from ‘us’. ‘We’ should feel threatened by ‘them’. That’s feeding into racism and xenophobia – and I’m afraid that’s all too common in the anti-immigrant rhetoric going around at the moment. That’s where the ‘too many black faces’ talk comes from, the ‘ethnic cleansing of whites’, the ‘going downhill when the White faces go below 60%’, and the non-integration of West Africans goes. And whilst we’re at it, non-integrations is often a cypher in itself. It suggests people shouldn’t talk their own languages, even amongst themselves, shouldn’t wear any clothes that aren’t ‘British’ enough – and certainly shouldn’t practice any religion other than Christianity openly.

Of course there are rational arguments against immigration – though most of them fall apart under serious scrutiny. Those twin myths of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefit tourism’ keep being trotted out though the figures show they’re negligible – and indeed immigrants tend to be younger, healthier and less likely to claim benefits than non-immigrants, as well as contributing more in taxes than they cost in terms of health and benefits. ‘They’ aren’t taking ‘our’ jobs either – in general immigration creates as many jobs as it takes, and boosts the economy. The problem problems we have with housing are connected with chronic underinvestment and a dysfunctional market – not immigration.

All this, however, is lost in the morass of misinformation, much of it fuelled by racism and xenophobia. What are also lost in this mess are the real causes of the real problems in places like Clacton, Rochester and elsewhere. Whilst focussing on the immigrants, the unscrupulous landlords, dodgy employers and tax-avoiding rich people and companies who mess up the housing market, pay poverty wages and massively reduce the tax take necessary to make the investments those communities need, are laughing all the way to their off-shore banks. Politicians wreaking havoc through austerity and ‘reform’ are left to enjoy their subsidised drinks in the Commons’ bars. The real villains are happy to see immigrants and immigration take the blame. Of course they are.

So no, talking about wanting to limit or control immigration isn’t racist or xenophobic – but plenty of xenophobes and racists talk about wanting to control immigration. And plenty of others are selfish enough to encourage them to do so, because it keeps their own actions away from the limelight. It keeps them from being held to account – and it allows the story to keep on going in exactly the same way. The side effects of the encouragement of racism and xenophobia are hideous, and the damage it does to us as a whole, as a culture, as a community, is incalculable. It divides, it stigmatises, it spreads suspicion, distrust and fear. It’s what makes people suspect any Muslim could be a terrorist, every African a carrier of Ebola, every Serb a war criminal, every Romanian a thief. It diminishes all of us. That it’s allowed to grow, to fester, is something that makes me, for one, deeply sad.

Valuing the human…

When I heard that UKIP had forged an alliance with a Polish MEP who was, amongst other things, a Holocaust denier, a man who joked about beating wives and beating children, who thought disabled people shouldn’t be on TV, and that had described Hitler as a ‘rascal’, my first reaction was to sigh. Not because these things aren’t terrible – but because they are, and they’re sadly typical of something I see in so many places. It’s about a failure to place value on the human, but instead only on certain people.

The whole nature of the Holocaust was about that – and so is Holocaust denial. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think UKIP is a party of Holocaust deniers – though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a few in UKIP’s ranks – but that they don’t think Holocaust denial is such a big deal. Certainly not a ‘deal breaker’, as they’ve demonstrated by making their deal. Why would you not think it was a big deal? The most obvious reason is that the millions of deaths, the brutal and systematic nature of those deaths – not just of Jews but of Roma, of Slavs, of disabled people and others – simply don’t matter that much to you. For some people such an attitude is almost inconceivable – but for others, it seems long ago, those ‘people’ don’t really register as important enough to make a difference. They’re not valued.

Holocaust denial is one of the most obvious, but the failure to place value in the human is in all those other things. You can only joke about ‘wife beating’ if you don’t really value women – they don’t quite class as human, somewhere in your mind. The same for beating children. Saying that disabled people shouldn’t appear on TV can only really be because disabled people don’t count as quite, well, people. Human. And it’s part of a bigger pattern. Racism, ultimately, means thinking that people of one race are less valuable than others. Xenophobia, of the kind demonstrated by UKIP towards Romanians and Bulgarians, for example, says the same. ‘You know the difference’, as Nigel Farage said to James O’Brien, comparing Romanians to his German wife, is about valuing one kind of human above another.

It’s not just UKIP. Lord Freud’s comments about some disabled people being ‘worth’ less than the minimum wage has the same origin – and in some ways a more pernicious one. It takes the idea of value to a more calculated level, treating people not as humans but as ‘assets’ whose only ‘worth’ is their ability to contribute as productive economic units – and as a result finds them wanting. It’s not just treating disabled people as less than human – it’s treating all of us as less than human. It’s not valuing humanity at all. Labour’s Rachel Reeves gets in on the act too. In her recent speech on social security began by talking about ‘decent, hardworking people’ – which implies that there are some people who are not as valuable. Not decent. Not working hard enough – and hence not as valuable, not as worthy. That would include people who can’t work as hard – disabled people for example, older people, kids – and people whose lives are not filled with what is commonly described as ‘work’: carers are perhaps the most obvious example, the majority of whom are women. These people, the indecent, non-‘hardworking’ people are seen as less ‘valuable’ than the decent, hardworking people, who ‘deserve’ support. The value’s in the ‘decency’ and the ‘hardworking’, not the ‘people’. Not the human.

That’s also why the Tories can see an attack on ‘human rights’ as something that’s not just politically acceptable but politically valuable. Many people seem to think that there isn’t any value in the human, just in certain kinds of human.  That’s why the recent survey that suggests many more Britons think that they should have the right to work anywhere in Europe than think Europeans should have the right to work in the UK. It makes sense – if you understand that we Brits are inherently more valuable, more worthy, more trustworthy than all those dodgy foreigners. We brought civilisation to the world, you know, of course we’re better than those Europeans – particularly those dodgy Romanians and Bulgarians, who are mostly beggars and thieves anyway. Even if people don’t articulate it in those terms, that’s what underlies it. ‘We’ are better than ‘them’.

We seem to see just the differences, and use them to ascribe value. We forget the human, and undervalue it. That’s why UKIP can just shrug off the Holocaust denial and the wife beating jokes. That’s why the casual racism inherent in the UKIP Calypso doesn’t matter – and why even if Lord Freud does eventually lose his job, the attitudes towards disabled people are seen by far too many as just common sense and economic reality. That, to me, is deeply sad.

Human rights and the trivial…..

The Conservative plan for a ‘Bill of Rights’ has been made public by David Allen Green (@JackofKent) here.

I’m sure there will be detailed analyses of it by people far more expert than me – but there was one particular thing in the proposals that drew my attention. The idea is to:

Limit the use of Human Rights laws to the most serious cases. They will no longer apply in trivial cases.

So what counts as trivial? Who decides what is trivial? This may seem like a trivial question, but it really isn’t, particularly when you consider the nature of human rights. What is trivial to one person is far from trivial to another – so who it is who makes that judgment, and on what basis, is critical. As someone who works primarily in the field of privacy, this is an issue that comes up all the time. Those who invade privacy often consider those invasions trivial – and don’t understand why other people complain about this. The ‘nothing to hide’ argument often hinges on this – only ‘bad’ people are bothered by privacy invasion, because the impact on other people is ‘trivial’.

Another example has come up in the last few weeks, with the conviction of Dave Lee Travis for indecent assault. There were a number of articles in newspapers (such as this one by Rosie Millard) suggesting that what he did was, effectively, trivial. The woman whose breasts he squeezed was, effectively, accused of making a mountain out a molehill in complaining. By most accounts it wasn’t trivial for her – she certainly didn’t think so. Whose view takes precedence? Who decides when things are trivial?

It’s not a trivial question. It matters – and if the upshot of the Conservative Bill of Rights is that decisions like this are made by the government, the ‘little people’ – the people that human rights are particularly needed to protect – are likely to be given short shrift. That isn’t a trivial matter.