Friday 4 March 2011

Tories, Murdoch and the Competition Commission

Arrogance, effrontery, nerve, chutzpah,audacity, brussenness; it is hard to find a word to describe the Tory mindset in the Murdoch/Competition Commission issue. Perhaps "Shameless" has the best connotations. The sequence of events: the transfer of the decision from the declaredly partial Vince Cable to the equally declaredly partial but in the other direction Jeremy Hunt, the Camerons at a dinner over Christmas with the News International chief executive,the promise that isn't worth tuppence of the editorial independence for Sky News, and now the shameless assurance that all correct procedures have been followed and all is well in the best of all possible worlds.

Clearly neither the BBC nor media plurality are safe in their hands.

This disdain for public opinion and promises augurs badly for the NHS.

Surely now is the time for Liberal Democrats in parliament to show their metal. I can't remember whether it was in a Laurel and Hardy or an Abbot and Costello film that I first heard the immortal phrase: "Even a worm will turn, just as a sausage will if you keep it long enough."

Here we have an explicit election promise of "no top down reorganisation,", an issue that is not in the coalition agreement, a proposal that is opposed by the overwhelming majority of the medical profession.

I earnestly hope that at our Spring Conference next week there will be such outrage that our people in parliament will be steeled to say "Enough is enough."

This is not a call for the end of the coalition. We are suffering for our own broken promise and betrayal of our economic and social principles, as the result of the Barnsley by-election shows. Surely we don't have to go along with a Tory broken promise as well, especially as it reveals rather than betrays their principles, which in the context of the NHS are the opposite of ours.


  1. It's a tight line to walk. The party cannot bring down the coalition by being too intractable or else faces annihilation at the polls before the LDs are given the time to recover support, but there does need to be a showing of strength to convince the Tories, many of whom (unlike the public) feel they have given up almost everything to the liberals, that it is not worth pushing their junior party too far.

    I do not envy the next few years for the LDs. Good luck.

  2. You're right, it is a tight line to walk. A friend has compared the present working of the coalition to a marriage in which one partner dominates and makes all the decisions. This is not, as yet, strictly true, as there have been concessions on civil liberties and some constitutional reforms. We clearly cannot dictate to the Tories on everything but we should be able to stop them doing something that the promised not to do, which is not in the coalition agreement, and when it is so clearly against our own principles.

  3. To be fair, I think there have been a good deal more concessions that that; I wouldn't count civil liberties as a concession as it is fairly close to the heart of most Conservatives anyway - more a meeting of the minds. Where liberties and indeed a raising of the income tax threshold are concerned, most Conservatives are very pleased.

    I would however point to the fact that many Conservative activists have had to tolerate the loss of many cherished goals: the abolition of the Human Rights Act, the putting on the backburner of repatriation of powers from the EU, greater use of custodial terms rather than 'community sentencing' (indeed I think Ken Clarke himself is a massive concession of the Lib Dems), lower rates of Capital Gains Tax, reduction in inheritance tax, a firm Trident decision, measures design to aid the family (particularly in the tax system) to name but a few. The fact that Conservatives feel somewhat disempowered to tackle the ECHR head-on is something many will feel particularly sore about.

  4. It is hard to reconcile your alleged belief in liberty with your desire to abolish the Human Rights Act, surely there to enhance our liberties.

  5. I understand why many traditionally on the left of politics find the desire to scrap the Human Rights Act seemingly incompatible with a belief in liberty, equality and indeed any sense of human compassion - allow me to explain.

    The problem I have with the Human Rights Act is not what it attempts to do - preserving the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual against the state is something I hold very important and something that has been a critical development point in the history of humanity from the days of Magna Carta onwards. The problem I have is with what it *actually* does.

    Our British legal system is based on a number of concepts, two of which are important when it comes to the HRA - first, that we have no formal constitution but an uncodified one based partly upon decrees of Parliament, and second, that we have a system of common law. In both cases, precedent in previously-tried cases binds the hands and strongly guides the judiciary in how to rule on any given case. Our judiciary are there to follow those precedents using good conscience and standing practice, and to weave that in with an "interpretation" of laws passed by Parliament. In short - the legislature make the laws, but it is the judiciary who must interpret them based on these and other concerns. Whatever one thinks of the pros and cons of this system, this is the one we operate within.

    Laws are of course created ostensibly to reflect the morals and values of the populace. However, because our courts 'interpret' the law that is handed to them to use, and further compound the efficacy of those interpretations with rulings that set a precedent which must be followed, it's important that we have very tightly-worded legislation. This ensures that the laws are interpreted in a way that matches their intent at the time of creation. The House of Lords in particular often plays a big role in tightening up legislation such that the meaning is extremely clear, giving judges the material to make a fair ruling that is within the spirit of the law.

    This system is not however used across the rest of Europe, which operates using a civil law system. As there is no interpretation or precedent, the need to make laws so tightly-worded is nowhere near as pressing. Enter the European Convention of Human Rights: a document so vague and loosely worded as allows for it to be applied to almost anything, in almost any situation; and our own Human Rights Act, which enshrines the law that all of our other laws must be subordinate the the ECHR, allowing any of our other laws, past or future, to be struck down on the basis of a document widely open to interpretation.

    And this is what has happened. Take for example the passage that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". We can all get behind the prohibition of torture for sure; but how do you define "degrading treatment and punishment"? Is it the same as how I'd define it? Most importantly, judges are left with two other important questions - what range of treatment could possibly apply, and how have cases across the rest of the EU (taking into account *their* laws and judgement which will reflect their society's morals and values, which are not always 100% contiguous with our own) been tried?

  6. The result is a hugely open loophole for people to evade the rest of the British law canon. Take the ruling in 1997 in favour of an illegal immigrant where his deportation was overturned because the standard of general medical care available in his home country was not as high as that in the UK; who managed to make a case that it wasn't possible to fully exclude this a form of "torture or inhuman or degrading treatment". Did the architects of such vague words ever intend that they'd be used to allow people from any country in the world to have an entitlement to Britain's limited services and resources for free? I find it more likely they were trying to prevent atrocity and abuse of power; but thanks to the poorly-constructed words the HRA, the country's needs and values are overturned in favour of a vague claim that this is a 'right'.

    Perhaps the same with giving prisoners the vote. Whilst one might agree with giving them the vote or disagree, is it fair to say that it was the intent of the HRA to prevent society from meting out what it collectively determined in good conscience was a fair punishment in the form of denying prisoners the liberty of the vote, just as they are denied liberty of movement and other liberties? Again, if our values have changed, let's change the law directly; but having it forced upon us because someone has managed to make the case that it could qualify as "degrading" or "inhuman" seems a nonsense and makes a mockery of our attempts to determine how we deal with criminals.

    Or perhaps the judgement of the HRA on Anthony Rice, a life-sentence prisoner who was deemed by his Parole Board unfit to re-enter society, but who was released on the grounds that the HRA 'required' his release at that point - and who subsequently went on to commit a murder before being returned to prison.

    This is why most Conservatives want the HRA scrapped and replaced with a British Bill of Rights, drawn up and articulated carefully by own own senior lawmakers and judiciary who have expertise in our legislative process. I don't want the state encroaching on my liberties and indeed my basic humanity, and I champion the cause of any work that advances that goal. The truth is that the HRA in present form doesn't just achieve that; it frustrates and takes away the rights of all of us to self-determination as a people, to make our own laws that match our own values, instead allowing them to be frequently quashed not because we as a people have determined that it is right that they should be, but because the law involved is so fundamentally loose and incompatible with our system as to allow it to be completely abused. And whilst I can sympathise with those who might agree with some of the more contentious outcomes (such as granting the right to vote to prisoners), this isn't the right way to go about achieving those goals. Let's have the case put to us and sold to us as an independent people, rather than the surreptitious and corrupting use of legal trickery and sleight of hand.