Tuesday 13 October 2009

Another small blow for freedom

It's been somewhat overshadowed by the Trafigura affair, but it's good that Dutch MP Geert Wilders has managed to overturn the ban on him coming to the UK which was introduced by former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith (whatever happened to her?).

I am no apologist for his views, which as I blogged in February are based on falsehoods and distortions. But I don't believe he incites violence and so he should be free to come to this country to air his views. People like Wilders can best be tackled if their opinions are exposed and argued with, not given a false sense of martyrdom by being banned from coming in.

It's a remarkable achievement...

...to go from being a company known by relatively few people to becoming a symbol of global corporate evil within the space of 24 hours.

It's even more remarkable to do so without having much coverage in the mainstream media.

Today's events surrounding Trafigura and its doomed attempt to gag coverage of its toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast certainly show the ability of the internet/blogs/Twitter to make the running on a story like this, although Alix Mortimer is probably right that this would all have been in vain without political action also being taken. It certainly shows an ability for new media outlets to react in a more flexible way than traditional media, very few of whom took the decision to publish the parliamentary question at the centre of the storm.

Some might believe this demonstrates the inability of corporations to control and censor adverse information about themselves. Certainly, where information is in the public domain or easily accessible, it's stupid and futile for any company or government even to attempt to keep embarrassing information under wraps.

But let's not kid ourselves that this is anything other than a small victory for freedom. We all only found out about the Trafigura toxic dumping only as a result of them taking their blunderbus and aiming it squarely at their own feet by attempting to censor reporting of Parliament. The injunction had been in place for weeks until it was revealed in Paul Farrelly's question.

There are doubtless numerous corporations whose sins we haven't heard of, because they are able to use injunctions and gagging clauses to prevent the public from finding about their crimes and misdemeanours.

The main benefit of this whole affair has been to let sunshine in on the whole panoply of ways in which press freedom is limited in this country. Using injunctions to gag parliamentary reporting is only the most extreme example of the limitations placed upon the press. Whether it's our absurd libel laws, which even restrict legitimate scientific enquiry, or the increasing threat from rules governing breach of confidentiality, the reality is that the UK has some of the most restrictive laws governing freedom of expression and press freedom of any democratic country.

While we should celebrate that Trafigura and Carter-Ruck have been defeated in this instance, it's only a small step in the wider battle for freedom opf expression.

A question

Imagine you're a multinational firm facing the following question being asked in Parliament:

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

Do you (a) realise that few people pay much attention to what happens in Parliament and that even if it is reported in the media, not too many people will actually read the reports, or (b) get a gagging order against a national newspaper which tries to report the story, thereby giving the story real legs and encouraging websites across the world to publish the details and thereby highlight the absurd lengths you're going to in order to suppress a story of legitimate public concern, in the process trampling on centuries of parliamentary freedom?

Answers on a used injunction to Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors, please.

I'm delighted that the Lib Dems have realised the importance of this issue and are tabling an urgent question about it.

Monday 12 October 2009

Gnats face both ways on defence

More fantasy politics from our beloved Gnats, this time talking about defence.

Angus Robertson, the MP for RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth, has been outlining how he thinks Scotland could go it alone on defence when freed of the clutches of the Evil English.

To an extent that's fair enough: you wouldn't expect a Gnat MP to do anything else but bang on about how Scotland will be a land of milk and honey come the happy day when independence is achieved and all of Scotland's problems are solved instantly. The fact that Scotland would have to face the significant cost of shelling out for its own defences should it ever gain independence is largely irrelevant.

But what really got my attention was Robertson's statement that the remains of the UK could continue to use military bases in an independent Scotland.

Let me see if I've got this straight. Robertson wants the supposed benefits of Scotland going it alone on defence AND he wants England to continue to base its forces north of the border?

Why the hell should England do that? If Scotland did go it alone, why on earth would England continue to subsidise Scotland in that way? If Scotland did ever become independent, you can be certain that both RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth would see their squadrons withdrawn to RAF Lineham or RAF Brize Norton quicker than you can say 'massive blow to Moray's economy'.

Defence is one of those areas that Scotland would more or less have to build up from scratch if it ever became independent, with all the costs that would involve. And it's far too important a subject for people like Robertson to indulge in the sort of juvenile gesture politics he's been displaying today.

Even MPs deserve natural justice

People have rightly been angered over the behaviour of many MPs with regard to their expenses. It has been a tale of greed and, in some cases, of downright corruption.

But that doesn't mean that MPs have forfeited any right to natural justice. MPs have the same right as anyone else to know the nature of any charges against them and to know that they will be subject to a fair process in dealing with these.

It's not a principle that MPs have always applied when dealing with other people, particularly in some of the assaults on civil liberties which the Labour government has introduced, such as control orders.

But MPs have discovered today why such principles are important. Sir Thomas Legg's introduction of new standards relating to expenses claimed for cleaning and gardening means that MPs are being made subject to rules that are being applied retrospectively, which is an abominable principle. As a result, Gordon Brown is having to repay more than £12,000 and Nick Clegg over £900.

Legg's introduction of a £3,000 limit on cleaning and gardening seems to me to be a wholly arbitrary decision. He could have decided that having MPs claiming for cleaning and gardening was not 'wholly, exclusively and necessarily' related to their parliamentary duties and thus should be paid back in full. That would be a tough call for many MPs, but he would at least be applying the rule which applied at the time. Or he could have decided that gardening and cleaning were entirely legitimate expenses for MPs and that nobody should therefore pay back any of these costs.

But he's done neither - he decided to introduce a wholly arbitrary limit under which cleaning and gardening expenses are 'deemed' reasonable if they are under £3,000. Why £3k and not £2k or £5k? There doesn't seem any particular reason to have chosen that figure.

As it is, Legg's introduction of such a limit would seem to breach Article 11 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed." Those rights apply even to people we might not approve of, including MPs.

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