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The CRED report and Tory ‘Marxism’: Time to bring in S1 of the Equality Act

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The thing about inviting Marxists (or “post-Marxists”?) into the heart of the UK Government, if you are a right-wing prime minister like Boris Johnson, is that they sometimes come with ideas you don’t understand with implications you can’t fathom – and hence policies you are unlikely to want to implement. This is very much the case with the No 10 report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED). Its emphasis was on the largely socio-economic basis of such disparities, ditching decades of liberal-left post-structuralist identity politics and notions of institutional racism for a more orthodox materialist historicism. Boris must have been quite baffled (though how would we tell?).

As it happens, if the government does actually want to do something about disparities that are embedded in socio-economic deprivation rather than racism, it has one quick fix that would actually do something: bring into force Part 1 of the Equality Act 2010.

This Act was largely a tidying up operation by the Gordon Brown government to bring equality legislation into one handy place.  It is full of provisions to deal with institutional racism but it also had something new in Part 1, Section 1:

Public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities
(1) An authority to which this section applies must, when making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise its functions, have due regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage.

This is bang on the button as far as the disparity report goes, with its concern about Britain as “a world where your talent and potential contribution are limited by which postcode you live in, your race or your socio-economic background”.

The CRED report, for example, shows its socio-economic class-based analysis by quoting with approval research that suggests Black Caribbean children perform less well than Black African children at school (and hence in life) in part because the more recent African immigrants are from a higher socio-economic group than the second or third generation of Caribbeans who came over specifically for working class jobs. Similarly those Indians who have migrated to Britain had a higher socio-economic status allowing them to flourish. (Report pp 67-8)
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Begum judgment: a dilemma for liberals

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How awkward! For Lisa Nandy, for Labour MPs in general only just getting used to donning the Union Jack waistcoat, and for all liberal constitutionalists who are believers in the rule of law and defenders of judges from allegations of “treachery” and “activism”.

The Begum Supreme Court ruling that “Jihadi bride” Shamima Begum cannot return to Britain to fight for her British citizenship has put them in a very contorted position. These, after all, are the people who believe it is right that judges stand in judgment over the executive; that they are a bulwark against oppressive government actions. That, after all, is the “rule of law”.

Yet here is a case where the highest court in the land supported the Government against the individual, backed the Goliath against a tragic single mother seeking to assert her rights, declared, indeed, that the courts should not intervene in such government policymaking.

The position of Nandy, the shadow Foreign Secretary, epitomises the agony on the liberal left. In the past she has, in principle, backed Begum’s return, saying (according to this Labour site last July): “The law was on the side of bringing her back to the UK, because it’s not legal to deny someone a fair trial or to make them stateless.” Here, though, is what she said on BBC 4’s Any Questions in response to the Begum decision (with emphases added):

  “I suppose first of all to say we respect the court’s decision. The judgment that the Home Office put forward was that it would create national security risks for her to return to the UK to appeal against the decision to strip her of her citizenship. She wants to have that heard in the UK. The Home Office wants that to be heard remotely from the camp that she is currently in and the Supreme Court ruled with the Home Secretary essentially that this [her return] creates national security risks. We wouldn’t welcome the prospect of anyone returning to the UK who wishes us harm.”

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Law Commission backs commonhold? It’s not that simple for leaseholders

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The long-awaited report by the UK Law Commission, which was supposed to deal with the iniquities of Britain’s leasehold property system, is out. Badly put-upon leaseholders, particularly in a post-Grenfell Tower environment, were placing much hope in the commission recommending a system that removes freeholders and lets leaseholders administer their own blocks – commonhold.

But has the Law Commission really backed commonhold (where a block is owned by the people leasing the  flats in it rather than a possibly distant entity known as a freeholder) as a replacement for leasehold? It has set out the issues, proposed ways of making commonhold “work”, and is full of words that give the impression of a strong statement, but the reality is that it in effect concedes the matter will be a political decision. The Commission knew the Government wanted something on commonhold – but also knew it didn’t want to go all the way. The biggest omission is to do with whether commonhold should be the sole form of tenure for owning flats henceforth. The Law Commission hedges around the question.

The problem with leasehold (owning a flat on a lease for a period, often initially set at 99 years though some can be as much as 999 years) from the point of view of leaseholders is basically that the flat is a wasting asset. This means the lease has to be regularly extended ie extra years bought to keep it above the 80 years when costs of extension rise rapidly and it risks becoming unsaleable and unmortgageable (see this on marriage value). There is also ground rent and an unsatisfactory system of deciding on maintenance for the common parts and updating the fabric. The post-Grenfell situation is only the most egregious example of where this can go horribly wrong, with leaseholders vastly out of pocket. It’s a legal minefield and a lawyers’ field of gold.

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Coronavirus crisis: just the time for an experiment in deregulating child safeguarding

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Everyone agrees: the coronavirus lockdown is putting particular pressure on vulnerable children. They are more at risk of violence and abuse when confined to their own homes and less able to seek help. Only 5% of them are believed to be at school, where they have a right to go despite the lockdown.

So the Government will have put much thought into helping under-pressure local authorities and their social workers to have the emergency legal backing to perform their child safeguarding duties in these particularly challenging circumstances, right?

Wrong. In fact what has most exercised the Department for Education is launching an experiment to reduce or remove certain statutory local authority child safeguarding duties – using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse. Hence the  Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 – a piece of secondary legislation published by the Government on 23 April in a Parliament of MPs scattered around a country on lockdown and passed into law the morning after.

The worry is that the Government has used coronavirus as a stalking horse for an experiment in what it has already been trying to do for some years despite Parliament’s opposition – producing a less regulated system of child safeguarding. The fear is that emergency legislation is actually crafted as a response to a longstanding Conservative bugbear – that councils should be relieved of safeguarding obligations – rather than a response to the Covid-19 emergency. Read the rest of this entry

Can Boris Johnson defy a commons vote of no confidence?

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For those British MPs wanting to stop a no-deal Brexit, the options are running out. Among  avenues apparently blocked, according to some, is a motion of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s government. The prime minister’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, has declared it is too late for such a motion to halt Brexit on 31 October. Even if he loses a motion of no confidence, Johnson can, according to Cummings, refuse to make way for a new Prime Minister and stay on until he decides to have a General Election – probably during or after Brexit on 31 October.

Meanwhile, the bad news for the ant-Brexit proponents of the “government of national unity” is that, even if Johnson follows correct procedure and quits, it is Jeremy Corbyn who should most likely be invited to set up a new government, not a cross-party coalition. There is no parliamentary mechanism for such a coalition to take power unless it is led by Labour.
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Right to rent ruled discriminatory – an innovative judgment

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If ever there was a petty-minded, oppressive and irrational notion it was former British prime minister David Cameron’s “right to rent” crackdown on illegal immigration, now ruled incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights by the High Court. The 2014 legislation turned everyone letting residential property into an arm of the UK Border Agency – or an unprofessional and arbitrary backstop when the immigration authorities had failed. It even sought to give landlords supra-legal powers of eviction, to throw tenants out without a court process if the tenants could not prove their immigration status was in order (see this Al’s Law piece).

And of course landlords were likely to take the easy option of renting only to those who could produce a British passport – hence the legal claim that the whole scheme was had discriminatory effects and was therefore contrary to the ECHR.

But the judgment raises the intriguing issue of how far legislation, not in itself discriminatory or unlawful, can be deemed discriminatory when it simply prompts the discriminatory (and unlawful) behaviour of others – the landlords meant to operate the scheme.

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Is Jeremy Corbyn’s no confidence vote ‘stunt’ a bigger deal than he realises?

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Could Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn inadvertently stumble into achieving what he has so far balked at even attempting: bringing down the Theresa May government? He has tabled a “symbolic” motion of no confidence in her personally while shying away from a motion under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 that could actually produce a general election.

He may not realise it but his motion could actually bring down the Government – if enough Tories become desperate enough to ditch May and put Brexit on hold.

Corbyn said the motion was to “put pressure” on May to name a date for the “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal – and when she did name a date, he pressed on regardless. This vote has certainly been spun as merely symbolic: that’s how the Guardian saw it , presumably after talking to Labour sources:

“The form of the motion is such that it would not lead to a general election or even the ousting of Theresa May if she were to be defeated – rather it would amount to a symbolic defeat of the prime minister.”

Coincidentally, though, a week earlier, a report from the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee was released here (pdf) on the very subject of confidence votes in the House – with this dire warning: “Any clear expression of ‘no confidence’ could topple Government”. Read the rest of this entry

Grenfell effigy bonfire and Section 4A – a flawed piece of legislation

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Was a criminal offence committed when a group of friends took it into their head to mock up a Grenfell Tower cardboard effigy and set it ablaze on Bonfire Night? The short answer would seem to be … it’s complex – and that the law six of them have been arrested on is deeply flawed and potentially oppressive.

The question for the police is: did their action amount to causing intentional harassment, alarm or distress according to Section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986? This says:

  1. A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he—
    (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
    (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
    thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

The cardboard Grenfell Tower is a “visible representation” and setting it alight is “behaviour”. But the issue is the motivation of those doing it. Leaving aside the social media issue, the burning of the effigy was in a private garden – possibly among like-minded friends. Can the police show intention to cause  harassment, alarm or distress to a particularly defined group? Can they also show that such harm was, in fact, caused?

The Section 4A provision of the Act that the police are using is something of a confused botch-up. Significant parts of the Public Order Act are very much about public, open places or public buildings. It is about avoiding public disorder: riot, affray, provocation of violence; that sort of thing.

But Section 4A was introduced in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, at a time when a new sense of public threat was abroad under a tough new Home Secretary, Michael Howard (the 1994 Act also cracks down on trespassers and squatters). The political focus was on victims and toughening up the law dealing with the remarkably subjective harms of “harassment, alarm or distress” (wording also in Section 5, and controversially so; see Harvey v DPP 2011; see here) but not explicitly in a there-and-then public space.

In contrast, Section 4 (part of the original Act) on provocation uses similar wording, criminalising threatening, abusive and insulting words and behaviour and visible representations etc but only insofar as there is “intent to cause that person [the victim] to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person”.

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Can Sir Philip Green suppress media interest in his ‘banter’?

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So it was just banter. That is how British entrepreneur Sir Philip Green is defending his behaviour towards employees – and presumably defending his right to keep his behaviour secret with the full weight of a permanent High Court injunction. But hasn’t his statement to the Mail on Sunday (“There has obviously from time to time been some banter, but as far as I’m concerned that’s never been offensive”) rather undermined his case for such an injunction?

The essence of the case is that his behaviour, as covered by non-disclosure agreements with alleged victims, is a private matter. It comes within the English Common Law “equitable doctrine of confidence”, that is to say confidentiality, particularly applicable to the relationship between employer and employee. “The doctrine serves the public interest by encouraging trust, candour and good faith in legal relationships,” as Mr Justice Haddon-Cave expressed it in the original High Court injunction case (which Green and two associated companies lost).

One has to ask, of course, whether Sir Philip’s “banter”, was likely to encourage “trust, candour and good faith” with his employees. He insists: “I’ve got a good relationship with all my staff” – though some would seem to disagree. But the legal point is that Green and his lawyers have to establish the issue as one of confidentiality/privacy since that is the only way they can exercise power over the media to bar publication. This is the reason for his rather carefully worded (and hence rather odd) statement when his name was revealed in the House of Lords by Peter Hain:

“to the extent that it is suggested that I have been guilty of unlawful sexual or racist behaviour, I categorically and wholly deny these allegations”.   

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Who pays for Grenfell-style cladding? The government plan

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Various UK government ministers have insisted that those living in flats with flammable Grenfell-style cladding should not have to pay for it to be stripped from their blocks and replaced. The latest view was given by Dominic Raab, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, who told a CIH Housing conference that “leaseholders should not pay those costs. And the private sector should not be let off the hook.”

The legal stituation as it stands is that cost of recladding will very much fall on leaseholders (the people who have bought their flats), as suggested by the Citiscape case (judgment here – not binding but indicative of where we are). So does the Government have a plan? Apparently it does, and Raab’s comments give clues to what it is. In broad terms, this seems to be it:

• The main thrust of the plan will be for those leaseholders who have bought their flats from local authorities or through housing association schemes (such as right to acquire or shared ownership). As the law stands, one would expect the LAs and housing associations to get the recladding done and bill the leaseholders for their share. (Note that other tenants may be in those flats who would never have faced such costs.) Instead:

• The Government will dip into its affordable housing budget and will use it to fund 50% (according to rumours) of the costs of recladding for leaseholders in the above categories. The implication of Raab’s words at the conference is that the local authorities and housing associations will fund the rest of the cost on behalf of leaseholders (as well as the full cost for the rest of their flats in the blocks ie those with tenants rather than leaseholders).

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