Tagged: civil liberties

‘Public at mercy of council pen-pushers’ says civil rights group

The number of council officials with the power to enter homes in South Tyneside is too high, say civil rights campaigners.

South Tyneside Council employs 61 officers who have powers of entry which enable them to barge into homes and businesses across the borough.

This covers regulatory roles such environmental health and trading standards officers.

However, campaigners at Big Brother Watch (BBW) – a civil liberties and privacy group which obtained the figures – believe the public has been left ‘at the mercy of pen-pushers who can enter our homes as they please’.

But council bosses say that it’s very rare for an officer to gain entry to a property by force, with the normal procedure being to notify occupiers first.

A South Tyneside Council spokesman said:

“Powers of entry are set out by Parliament when enacting legislation and are essential to enable councils to carry out their statutory functions.

“They are available to staff across our regulatory services, which cover things like seizing illicit goods from business premises and enforcing building regulations, to carrying out environmental health inspections and food safety checks where there is a risk to public health.

“It is rare that officers have to exercise this power as a right, as most property owners and businesses premises permit entry.

“The council has robust policies and procedures in place to ensure that these powers are only used where necessary and that they are used properly and in accordance with the law.

“Without these powers the council would not be able to provide the same level of reassurance and protection local people demand and deserve.”

South Tyneside Council has 11 building control officers with powers, 14 planning officials, 13 trading standards and licensing officers and 23 environmental health workers.

Newcastle City Council employes 107 officers with powers of entry.

North Tyneside Council told the BBW it has zero officers.

Northumberland County has 541.

Sunderland City Council refused to provide their figures due time and cost restraints.

Emma Carr, director of BBW, said:

“Few people would expect that public officials would have the power to enter your home or business, often without a warrant or police escort. The general public have been left high and dry, at the mercy of an army of pen-pushers who can enter our homes as they please.

“There have been a number of missed opportunities to rectify this, including the Protection of Freedoms Act and the Home Office’s review of the powers, yet both have failed to tackle the number of officials with these powers.”

Source – Shields Gazette,  16 Jan 2015

Tory proposal for union ballot reform could be a vote loser in the North East

With a general election looming ever larger on the political horizon, the main parties are now unveiling the policies they think will secure them victory.

The economy, immigration and benefits are among the battlegrounds which they will be fighting over in the next four months.

Another is the heavily unionised public sector which has undergone swingeing cuts since the Coalition Government came to office in May 2010 and historically has been the favoured whipping boy of the Tory party.

And so when David Cameron’s party revealed plans to make it harder to call strikes in certain “core” public services if it wins the general election, it came as no surprise.

A policy along those lines, after all, was floated last year by Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster general Francis Maude.

There was also no surprise in its backing by the employers organisations the CBI and the British Chamber of Commerce, or in its universal condemnation by members of the TUC.

Yet, while certain sections of the media need no invitation to attack the public sector, and its day of action last year caused discomfort and annoyance amongst the public – not least the sight of rubbish piling high in places like Newcastle – it is still a risky strategy.

For a start, it opens the Government up to accusations of hypocrisy and double standards.

After all, the present Coalition Government is made up of the Lib Dems and Tories who between them received 38% of the total number of the UK’s eligible voters – 18m out of 45.5m – and below the 40% threshold it wants to demand of the public sector it is targeting. The Tory share of this was 23%.

In her heyday , Margaret Thatcher won around 30% of the total available vote and, during the present parliament, the Tories voted down a Lib Dem motion to introduced an alternative voting scheme which arguably would have made parliament more representative of the people’s views.

Meanwhile, GMB general secretary Paul Kenny also got his calculator out to further hammer home the point. He said:

“Only 16 out of 650 elected Members of Parliament secured the support of 40% of those entitled to vote in their parliamentary constituency area election in 2010.

“Only 15 Tory MPs out of 303 secured that level of support. They had no hesitation in forming a government in 2010 without securing 40% support from the electorate.”

Another point is that, particularly in the North East, the public sector which employs many in the region, is not as hated as the Tories might think. So such a policy strategy could be a vote loser here.

Gill Hale, regional secretary of Unison in the North East, said:

“They are the anti-public sector party – you only have to see what they are doing to the NHS and what they have already done to local government.

“Industrial action is taken as a last resort, and when we’ve had to take it we’ve had very good public support. I don’t think it will be a vote winner.”

 

Meanwhile comments by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable, in which he denounced the plans as “brutal” and “ill-conceived”, echo those of Ms Hale.

He said the Conservative proposals were “entirely ideologically-led and a brutal attempt to strangle the basic rights of working people in this country”.

Mr Cable added that a 40% threshold would be “odd”, when MPs do not have to overcome such a high hurdle to be elected.

Under the plans, a strike affecting health, transport, fire services or schools would need the backing of 40% of eligible union members.

Currently, a strike is valid if backed by a simple majority of those balloted.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC says the Conservatives’ proposals would have “profound implications” for civil liberties.

They would also end a ban on using agency staff to cover for striking workers, impose a three-month time limit after a ballot for action to take place and curbs on picketing.

The package of measures will feature in the party’s manifesto for May’s general election.

In explaining the plan, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said a planned London bus strike set to take place on Tuesday had only been voted for by 16% of people entitled to take part in the ballot, and called the walk-out “ridiculous”.

“I think before a strike is allowed to go ahead it must havemuch more support from the union members and cannot be called by politicised union leaders,” he said.

But Ms O’Grady said that participation in strike ballots and other types of vote should be improved by introducing online voting, in “safe and secure balloting”.

At the moment, strikes can only be called based on the results of a postal ballot – which “don’t do the job”, Ms O’Grady added.

She said the government “continues to oppose this proposition”, although Mr McLoughlin replied he would be willing to talk “in more detail” about such proposals.

However, his partner in the Coalition Government, Mr Cable, goes further.

He said: “If there is to be trade union reform, it should be to allow electronic voting in ballots which would improve the turnout and legitimacy of polls.”

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said the Conservative Party’s proposed changes would have a “chilling” effect, and added the way to “resolve disputes was through negotiations – not to intimidate and silence by legislation”.

Ministers have repeatedly clashed with trade unions over pay – with a 1% cap on increases in the public sector – as well as changes to pensions and retirement ages.

It was during the day of action last summer when hundreds of thousands of public sector workers took part in a day of strike action across the UK, that Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “time to legislate”.

Public Sector Workers Day of Action March and Rally Newcastle
Public Sector Workers Day of Action March and Rally Newcastle

But Ms Hale added:

“We already have some of the most draconian laws in Europe regarding industrial action. There are so many obstacles we have to get over.”

However, Mr McLoughlin said:

“It is wrong that politicised union leaders can hold the country to ransom with demands that only a small percentage of their members voted for. That causes misery to millions of people; and it costs our economy too.”

He said the changes, which would be introduced in the first session of a Conservative-led Parliament, would “increase the legitimacy” of strike action held by unions.

It is only fair that the rights of unions are balanced with the rights of hard-working taxpayers who rely on key public services.”

CBI deputy director general Katja Hall commented:

“Strikes should always be the result of a clear, positive decision by those balloted. The introduction of a threshold is an important – but fair – step to rebalance the interests of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions.”

However, the TUC has previously said imposing a minimum turnout would leave unions with “about as much power as Oliver Twist”.

Labour criticised those plans as “desperate stuff”.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the proposed measures would make it virtually impossible for anyone in the public sector to go on strike and would shift the balance completely in favour of the government and employers, and away from dedicated public servants.

He said: “The UK already has tough laws on strikes – there is no need to make them stricter still.”

But John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “In the eyes of businesses large and small, these proposals have merit, as they would help ensure essential services and the freedom to work in the event of strike action.”

Source –  Newcastle Journal, 12 Jan 2015

State Corruption – The Biggest Threat to Our Liberties

Why It’s Now So Dangerous to Protest by Alison Banville (BSNews Editor)

In early 2011 I wrote a piece for the New Statesman about Mark Kennedy, the undercover policeman who had infiltrated an environmental group even forming a relationship with a female member. I addressed the question some had asked – why would so much time and effort be spent on a bunch of ‘tree-huggers’?:

‘All long-term campaigners on a range of issues – from the environment to the arms trade to animal rights – know, and have known since they began protesting, that the police are not the neutral body they pretend to be, but act on behalf of powerful vested interests: the corporations whose profits they defend and the government that is in bed with those corporations.’

This is the crux of the matter: profits. Nothing can be allowed to threaten them, not least peaceful people who simply want a just world and who are providing ordinary folk with the dangerous example of a life not ruled by the Holy Commandments of ‘consume, comply, conform’. That is why the gentle ‘tree-hugger’ is considered an enemy of the state, and will be treated as such. The state will also employ any and all measures to ensure that peaceful and LEGAL protest becomes a move too costly for any ethically minded person to contemplate.

Below I present the case that the UK government, in collusion with the criminal justice system and the police, has already embarked upon a deeply corrupt, systematic campaign to ensure that eco-activists (and animal rights/arms trade  activists etc) will be too fearful to claim even their most basic civil liberties for fear of the dire consequences others have already experienced:

The case of undercover cop Mark Kennedy’s infiltration of an environmental campaign group has led commentators, including myself, to highlight the worrying way in which the police appear to be defending corporate interests rather than the public’s.

As George Monbiot points out the role of ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers, in running the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which managed Kennedy, should be scrutinized, especially in light of the fact that the former operates as a private limited company so that it is not accountable in any meaningful, democratic way.

It is right that we should question the apparent use of our police as a private protection force for corporations, but there is one sinister development that has been missed in this debate, and that is the subversion of the law in order to specifically convict campaigners participating in activities which threaten corporate profits. What is this subversion? It is the use of the charge of ‘conspiracy’.

Monbiot unwittingly touched on this when he mentioned that twenty of the people Kennedy reported on to his superiors were ‘convicted on the desperate charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass.’ But George was mistaken in thinking that this was simply the result of the police and Crown scrabbling around for any old charge that would secure a guilty verdict – that would have been bad enough. No. This was, in fact, part of a very deliberate and traceable strategy that has been used in recent years to deal with ‘problem’ movements of which this was just the latest example. The ‘conspiracy’ tactic is a weapon, sharpened and wielded in order to weaken those groups most effective in challenging powerful corporations. And what’s more, it has been used successfully against perfectly peaceful campaigners:

Sean Kirtley was jailed for four and a half years in 2008 on a conspiracy charge. He was part of an anti-vivisection campaign against animal research company Sequani. Sean carried out no violent act; he used no intimidation; it was never suggested that he had conducted himself in anything other than a completely peaceful manner at all times and, as far as Sean was aware, he had kept scrupulously within the law. But because he had updated a website with perfectly legal information, and because he had attended wholly legal demonstrations he was convicted of ‘conspiracy to interfere with the contractual relations of an animal research facility’ under Section 145 of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act (SOCPA). Is that clear? – it was possible in this country for someone who hadn’t actually behaved illegally to be imprisoned for years because his lawful behaviour amounted to a ‘conspiracy’. Ingenious!

There was no outcry about Sean’s sentence because a reporting ban was slapped on the trial – and even if publicity had been allowed well, he’s just one of those ‘extremists’ isn’t he? To hell with justice. During the trial ‘evidence’ was presented to show how Sean and his co-defendants (all of whom were acquitted) had planned (legal) protests – the very act of planning to demonstrate being portrayed as somehow illegal. In fact, a host of totally lawful behaviour was offered to the jury as evidence of conspiracy.

Thankfully, after a campaign to free him, Sean’s sentence was overturned on appeal but he had already lost a year and a half of his life. After release, he reflected on the conspiracy charge saying, ‘the final nail that was hammered into the prosecution’s ‘argument’ was when they could not name anybody that I was supposed to have conspired with, so my conviction was quashed there and then….I did often ponder in those small hours in my various cells in various prisons who I may have conspired with – Jesus? The Holy Ghost? Superman?’

We might also reflect for a moment on the mindset of those who were happy to see Sean rot in jail for four and a half long years.

Footage of people at various legal protests has also been used in other cases to accuse them of being ‘lead conspirators’. In this way, it becomes dangerous to engage in lawful protest for fear of being convicted – which is exactly the point. Because to stifle dissent is the overarching aim here while police and politicians pose as neutral supporters of the right to protest. This is why in the recently collapsed Ratcliffe Power Station case the authorities waited to arrest 114 people in a Nottingham school when they had Kennedy’s information (him being a major architect of the plan) much earlier. Far better to deter a large group from political action than just a few.

Danny Chivers, one of the defendants confirms this  also pointing out it was ‘the biggest pre-emptive environmental protest arrest in British history, and the starting point for a truly bizarre sequence of events involving a ‘conspiracy to commit trespass’’.

Here he nails the importance of the conspiracy aspect adding that ‘while Aggravated Trespass is a minor crime normally dealt with by a magistrate, anything involving Conspiracy has to go in front of a jury at the Crown Court’. This is the appeal of the charge for those employing it – it not only requires that no discernable offence actually be committed, it ensures a longer sentence which, in turn, acts as a deterrent. For the corrupt state fearful of the power of direct action – what’s not to like?

Chivers gives mention too to the draconian bail conditions given to those arrested preventing them from engaging in any LEGAL activities related to their cause. Again, this reflects the tactics tried and tested first on the animal rights movement, and this is significant because the thorough demonization of this latter group has meant there has been a fatal lack of scrutiny of its treatment at the hands of the police and justice system which has allowed individuals such as Kirtley to suffer serious miscarriages of justice. Crucially, it has also emboldened the police in their efforts to apply these same corrupt methods to the environmental movement because, in the eyes of the authorities, the two pose exactly the same threat. To misquote Martin Niemoller’s famous verse:

‘first they came for the animal activists…..’

The gullibility of the public on this issue must be replaced with a vigilance determined to protect the rights of every fellow citizen. Justice is for everyone or it ceases to exist and only an alert and watchful people can protect it, as John Adams knew when he said that ‘liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.’

Because the truth is, a covert game is being played with protest groups in this country which requires that the general population (and media) readily believe the propaganda of establishment voices. This game has absolutely nothing to do with protecting the public and everything to do with protecting corporate profits. It must be exposed because those who are happy to see our legal system subverted and fundamental liberties sacrificed are the real danger to any free and civilised society. And that’s no conspiracy theory.

Source – BS News  18 Feb 2014

http://bsnews.info/state-corruption-biggest-threat-liberties/