Mary Reid's blog

The ins and outs of the Snoopers Charter

You may be forgiven for being confused over whether the Snoopers Charter (aka the Communications Data Bill)  is in or out.

Back in December Julian Huppert reported that the Joint Committee that was looking at the Bill had unanimously agreed that it would have to be significantly amended to be acceptable. In an article in the Independent he wrote: “We have gone through the Home Office proposals – and the results are damning. The Bill as it is simply cannot proceed. ”

In April, Nick Clegg vetoed the Bill, and Julian Huppert greeted the announcement with much relief, having campaigned against it consistently since its inception. However, Jonathan Calder warned us to be vigilant.

The Bill was notable by its absence from the Queen’s Speech in May.

Then came the appalling murder in Woolwich, and it was not long before this was being presented by some as a reason for reviving the Snoopers Charter. Following that Daniel O’Malley argued on Lib Dem Voice that “We cannot give up the freedoms that our nation has held so dear and fought so hard for in the name of expedience.”

Over the last few days we have read in the Guardian the extraordinary news of the extent to which US National Security Agency had been extracting information from major online providers such as Google and Facebook about US and UK citizens, with, it claims, the explicit co-operation of GCHQ.

In spite of the public anger at those revelations, yesterday the Home Office confirmed that it still wanted to bring in enhanced Internet surveillance. Unnamed minsters are quoted as saying: “It does not change our position. The government is continuing to look at ways of addressing this issue with communication service providers. This may involve legislation.”

The fight is not over yet.

First published on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Thoughts on a windy moor

Yesterday afternoon I was standing on a windy moor in Scotland and reminding myself that, over 250 years ago, my ancestors, the Prices, had stood directly opposite my husband’s ancestors from Clan Donnachaidh, preparing for what was to become the last full-scale battle in Britain. After one hour of intense fighting, 1250 Jacobites lay dead on the moor alongside 50 Government troops. The field of battle is still honoured as a war grave.

My memories from school history had romanticised Culloden as a confrontation between the Scots – Bonnie Prince Charlie and the brave Highlanders – and the English, or rather, the Germans who had taken over the English throne, all over the succession. In fact, the truth was far more complex, with Scots and English (and Welsh) serving on both sides, and many other political and religious factors at play. An excellent new visitors centre has been built since I last went there, and it traces the many-faceted origins of the ’45 rising through multi-media presentations and re-enactments.

I was deeply affected by the section on the aftermath of Culloden. What followed was brutal suppression and the systematic destruction of Highland culture. Large numbers were murdered or imprisoned and we know that 936 Jacobites were transported and sold into slavery in the Southern States of America and the West Indies. Many others escaped to Canada, to the familiar landscapes of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Gaelic and the wearing of tartan were both outlawed.

The fairly swift progress from defeat, to demonisation and ethnic cleansing in the 18th century, helped to legitimise the Highland Clearances, and the greater diaspora, that followed over the next 100 years.

Just as I find it very difficult to get under the skin of Northern Ireland tribalism, so, as an outsider, I find current Scottish politics somewhat intractable. How much of this history, embedded in the national consciousness, is driving the moves for independence today? Do echoes of the  Jacobite cause still call Scots to metaphorical arms against the English?

How can we as Liberal Democrats acknowledge this challenging heritage whilst backing Better Together? I imagine that people who live in the Highlands today will not be happy with any Government, whether based in Westminster or Holyrood, unless it responds to their unique needs, so getting their infrastructure right may well be the key to a resounding No vote. We are right to focus on the future – one in which the UK nations support each other to our mutual benefit – rather than dwell on a bloody past.

First published on Liberal Democrat Voice

Large supermarkets are hoarding good housing land

A large site which has been earmarked by a council for residential housing, but owned by a major supermarket chain, has been lying derelict for 11 years. At a time of pressing housing need, this is a scandal.

Perhaps you know of similar cases to my story. If so, share them in the comments. Does anyone know how much land is being hoarded in this way?

In 2002 Tesco bought a redundant Ministry of Defence site in Tolworth, which lies within the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, in the southwest corner of Greater London. The sale was by private treaty and was never placed on the open market. Tesco also acquired a landmark pub, and a housing block that needed replacement, adjacent to the main site. All the existing buildings were demolished.

The total area of the site was 5.4 hectares. It could hold up to 400 homes, of which 50% would be affordable, although the preferred option is for a mixture of housing types including family homes with gardens, which would reduce the total number.

Since then Tesco has submitted three planning applications, all of which are for a very large 24 hour supermarket covering about 50% of the site, with high density housing crammed into the rest of the space.

The site lies across the busy A3 road from Tolworth Broadway, which is a substantial district shopping centre.  There is a genuine fear that a large supermarket located away from the main shopping parade will severely damage the local economy, and kill off many of the shops. Indeed, all the local planning policies for the area identify the whole of the site for housing, not for retail.

When Tesco’s first plans for the site were submitted in 2006, public opposition, led by Edward Davey and local Lib Dem councillors, was overwhelming and Tesco withdrew the application before it came to a Planning Committee.

Their next attempt in 2009 was also aborted when it became clear that they would not be able to afford to meet the Mayor of London’s requirements for managing the traffic in the area.

The latest planning application was submitted in June last year. Although the density of the housing has been reduced, it still only covers about half of the site.

The ward councillors, all Lib Dem, would be very happy to see this brownfield site used in totality for housing, which is sorely needed.  But Tesco is hoarding the land and hoping to wear down the local community and councillors by gradually offering less worse options, in the hope that eventually they will cave in. The derelict appearance of the site is not entirely unintentional, either.

The Tescopoly Alliance tracks potential developments by Tesco, but is mainly concerned with the impact on other retailers and the fair treatment of farmers and other suppliers, rather than their stranglehold on housing land. There are campaigns across the UK against other large supermarkets as well, but again they often focus on the effects on local shopping parades. It is about time we spoke out about the land hoarding strategies which are denying housing to needy families.


First published in Liberal Democrat Voice.

Changing culture is a long term project – the future

Last Tuesday I wrote a post in which I looked at some of the major changes for the better that had occurred in my lifetime.  In many cases they were eventually consolidated in legislation, but cultural shifts had to happen over a long period of time before Parliament was willing to formalise them in law.

Before outlining some ideas for the future, I wanted to highlight a few more changes in my lifetime. Some of these required only minimal or no legislation but the changes in culture were nevertheless significant.

  • Mental illness was considered deeply shameful and patients were locked in large mental asylums.
  • Many parents thought it was not worth educating girls beyond the age of 16.
  • Stories about women drivers, mothers-in-law and busty blondes were standard comedy material.
  • Seat belts were not fitted in cars. (Ironically, when they were introduced Jimmy Savile fronted the government “Clunk, click, every trip” campaign)
  • The general view was that women who were raped were asking for it.

I repeat what I wrote in that earlier post:

As Liberal Democrats we must not lose sight of our role in this kind of long-term change over the years – being in Government is not the only way to extend liberal democracy within our country.

So what needs fixing in the UK now? In which areas of community life can we help to generate a shift in public attitudes? Here are some initial thoughts:

  • Children are overprotected, and need to be able to take more risks.
  • There is huge income inequality in pay, which goes way beyond bankers’ bonuses.
  • Prisons don’t work as they are, because a huge proportion of inmates go on to re-offend. Proper training, rehabilitation and aftercare would be cost effective if they brought down crime. There are far too many people with mental health problems in prison.
  • Looked after children leave care at 18 and are often cast adrift; they are much more likely to turn to crime, or to suffer mental illness, than other young people
  • Social workers should be given greater public recognition and esteem.
  • Far too few rape allegations are brought to court.
  • Human trafficking into the UK, which results in forms of bonded labour or prostitution, must be stopped.
  • Female genital mutilation is horrific and should never happen here.

So what would you campaign for, to help bring about a more humane and fairer society?

First published on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Changing culture is a long term project – the past

Over the years there have been many changes in legislation that have made the UK more liberal country and a safer place to be. Equal marriage is a recent example, a proposal that would have been inconceivable 50 years ago when homosexual acts between men were still a crime.

In my lifetime we have seen anti-discrimination policies enshrined in law in terms of race, gender, disability and sexuality; we have laws that protect children and that give women control over their own bodies. But all of these were only possible because of cultural shifts that had occurred in the decades that preceded them.

It is possible to bring about culture change, through political action and education, but it is always going to be a long term project.

I wanted to share with you some memories of my younger life. Don’t worry – this is not going to be a nostalgic look at how much better things were when I was young; quite the reverse in fact.

  • Parents and teachers were permitted to beat children with sticks.
  • Racism was endemic and casual. All children learnt the rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo, catch a n***** by the toe”. At primary school we were taught about “poor little black children who lived in mud huts”. The British Empire was extolled as evidence of white superiority.
  • Two options were available to working pregnant women: 6 weeks maternity leave after the birth before returning to a full-time post, or resign.
  • Abortions were illegal; women risked their lives with back street abortionists.
  • Disabled people were rarely seen in public apart from those who were able to drive the flimsy three wheeled invalid cars issued by the Government.
  • Homosexual acts between men were illegal, lesbians ‘didn’t exist’ and all LGBT+ groups were described as deviants.
  • Women were only granted mortgages in their own right if they had a male guarantor. Banks and building societies would only correspond with the husband on a joint account held by a married couple.
  • Family Planning Clinics only offered advice on contraception to married women or within 3 months of the wedding. Some GPs refused to prescribe oral contraceptives to anyone on moral grounds.
  • Only 10% of the places at Oxford, Cambridge and medical schools were open to women.
  • Abortions were illegal, and women resorted to dodgy back street abortionists.
  • Acts of violence acts against women in the home were dismissed as ‘domestic incidents’ and rarely investigated. There was no such thing as marital rape; it was assumed that the marriage contract gave ongoing permission for sex.
  • Smoking was considered sophisticated and was normal in cinemas, on planes, in restaurants. New parents and pregnant women smoked.
  • Sexual abuse of children was not really recognised, and penalties were minimal. (I have commented before about the secondary school head who was given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting one of his pupils).
  • Children with learning difficulties were described as educationally sub-normal or mentally retarded. Those with severe difficulties were denied an education and almost always placed in an institution.

You see? Things have changed for the better through the work of pressure groups, political organisations and inspirational individuals over many years. These give me reason for hope.  If attitudes can be changed so radically in my lifetime, then new generations can also strive for a better future.

But which comes first, cultural shifts or legislation? There  has to be a critical mass of opinion before the Government will act. MPs will always be keeping an eye on electoral prospects, so will be reluctant to go against the views of their constituents. Once they have seized the moment and brought in a liberalising law, work still has to be done to win round the rest of public opinion.

As Liberal Democrats we must not lose sight of our role in this kind of long-term change over the years – being in Government is not the only way to extend liberal democracy within our country.

In a few days I will be suggesting some of the things that need fixing in the UK. These will be ideas for campaigns that Liberal Democrats can get behind, with a view to changing public opinion over a long period of time, and an eye on eventual changes in legislation. What would be your priorities?


First published on Liberal Democrat Voice.

After prison

A former journalist, who rose through the political ranks to become a cabinet minister, resigns in the midst of a scandal of his own making, strenuously denies the allegations but is convicted of perverting the course of justice and goes to prison, with his political career and reputation destroyed.

That was the tragedy of  Jonathan Aitken, who has been doing the media rounds in the last 24 hours.

I want to tell his story – it happened some years ago so some readers may not remember – because it is a tale of redemption.

The incident that led to his downfall took place in when he was Minister of State for Defence Procurement, but it only came to light in 1995 after he had been promoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He accepted hospitality, in the form of nights at the Ritz in Paris, from a Saudi businessman.   The Guardian unearthed the story and Granada investigated it further in World in Action documentary.

Aitken denied the allegations with this famous line:

If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight.

This was not the only time he had been accused of inappropriate relations with arms dealers, but on this occasion he decided to sue the Guardian and Granada for libel. The case collapsed after evidence was produced that proved he was lying about who had paid for the hotel stay.

He was eventually arrested and convicted of perjury as well as perverting the course of justice and received an 18 months prison sentence. He was also made bankrupt.

So what did he do after he emerged from jail?  He quietly changed direction, studied theology, campaigned for prison reform, took up public speaking and wrote a biography of John Newton. In 2006 he became the  President of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organisation which campaigns for “religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice”.

More recently, he chaired a task force for the Centre for Social Justice (Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank) on prison reform, which produced a report titled  Locked Up Potential: A Strategy to Reform our Prisons and Rehabilitate our Prisoners.

He is not a Liberal Democrat, indeed it appears that he has joined UKIP, but he has found a way of facing up to his past and creating a new life after disgrace. He too has fallen from a great height, but he has redeemed himself.

Some commentators, including Lib Dem Voice’s Stephen Tall, believe that Chris Huhne should not have been sent to prison because he doesn’t pose a risk to society and has so much to contribute. As I said yesterday,  there is a deeper issue of inequality here.

Prisons are full of young men (mainly) who are poor, semi-literate, have few qualifications, and for whom social mobility is a myth. Most have been convicted of blue-collar crime, that is, offences against property or persons. Many of the most damaged young people in society – those who have been taken into care – end up in jail. Most convicts go on to re-offend, so the prison experience has had no reformative effect.

In contrast, middle class criminals have the wherewithal, in terms of personal qualities,  social connections and intellectual skills to rebuild their lives after prison. Rehabilitation for people lacking those characteristics is a much more challenging issue.

So maybe the deprivation of liberty is a suitable punishment for people who have operated successfully in society; it  forces them to rethink their values and to take a new path through life, which they are well equipped to do.  On the other hand angry and damaged young men should be kept out of traditional prisons, which only make them worse, and instead be offered rehabilitation in a secure environment.

There are some brave moves in this direction. A couple of months ago I had lunch at The Clink, which is a restaurant located within High Down Prison. It is run by a charity which offers training and qualifications in catering and hospitality to inmates during their last year before release, and then continues to support them into work and monitor them outside. The meal was excellent, with attentive service in pleasant surroundings. There were some oddities – plastic cutlery and no alcohol – and we had to go through a formal ID process in order to get in.  Although it is early days it has already been highly successful in reducing re-offending rates amongst its trainees, and it now employs three former inmates as staff.

The cost of such programmes could easily be outweighed by the costs, both financial and social, of repeated re-offending, and the inevitable increase in prison population. Jonathan Aitken and Chris Huhne don’t need that kind of training, but thousands of other offenders do.


First publsihed on Liberal Democrat Voice

Contexts of abuse revisited

The revelations about Jimmy Savile reminded me of a blog post I wrote four years ago. It was inspired by the events that were unfolding then in the former children's home in Jersey, and it has now emerged that Savile himself was also implicated there.

Although my post concentrated on other forms of physical abuse, the general argument is just as relevant today for sexual abuse.

I will repeat it in full, as my old blog is not easily accessible.


Saturday, 01 March 2008

Contexts of abuse

The revelations about child abuse in Jersey have been very disturbing, and will no doubt get worse as more evidence is found and more information is put in the public domain. 

For me they awakened memories from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Not that I suffered any abuse myself, but I feel an irrational guilt about the way abusive behaviour was often considered acceptable then.

It is only in the last twenty years or so that attitudes to children have really changed. The images that haunted my childhood were of other children being beaten or humiliated in front of me. Six year olds spanked in front of the whole school as punishment for bad behaviour; infant school refusers being dragged screaming into assembly, banging their heads horribly on the doors; nine year old boys being caned in front of the class. This was considered acceptable by teachers who were acting 'in loco parentis' - after all, parents could do it in the privacy of their homes.

So violence against children was institutionalised and indeed promoted as the way to produce good citizens.

Child sexual abuse did not, according to popular wisdom, exist - but then sex was not talked about much anyway.

Back in the 70s I was a Governor in an Inner London school (it no longer, exists, by the way). Right at the end of his career the Head was arrested for sexually assaulting a pupil while on a residential trip. It appears this was by no means the only incident. 

Looking back we realised that there had been some attempts at whistleblowing, but the brave whistleblower had been branded a trouble maker and eased out by the Head. (Hm.. it seems something similar happened in Jersey, too)

But what really upsets me now is that the Head, who pleaded guilty, was only given a suspended sentence. Can you imagine that happening now?

This is the context within which the Jersey abuse was happening.  The casual acceptance of violence, coupled with a belief that the damaged children who found their way into children's homes needed 'discipline', created a culture which, sadly, permeated all such institutions at that time. 

How it then slipped in Jersey into a different level of abuse, going far beyond the acceptable limits even of the time, will probably be revealed when all this comes to court. My guess is that one charismatic and physically powerful character established a regime in which more and more extreme forms of 'discipline' were gradually introduced as instruments of control. Each step would have been justified by the failure of previous methods. Of course, such cultures attract and encourage those with an appetite for sexual abuse.

I'm just very grateful that the UK is now a more liberal society. People in general are sensitive to the damage that can be caused to children, and today's youngsters are protected in a way that my generation never were.  Abuse does still happen, and we should all be ready to report it, but the difference now is that beating a child is actually recognised as assault and not dismissed as discipline.

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