lavender-hill-police-stationI have tended to shy away from national politics and issues in this blog, keeping it more focused on local and council issues. However, one subject that increasingly concerns me is the erosion of civil liberties in this country. Yesterday saw another little chunk of our freedoms eroded with section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act coming into force.

Photographers must now be a careful they don’t get the police in their photos for fear of arrest.

I have an interest in this because I have already (late last year, before s76 was in force) been stopped by the police for taking a photo.  I was on Lavender Hill and my sin was to get a police car in a photo taken near Lavender Hill police station.  Four officers questioned me because, apparently, my behaviour was suspicious – something I refused to acknowledge (though I would later admit it was a truly awful photo, bad framing and a bit of camera shake).  I suppose you could argue that Al-Qaeda don’t realise those white cars with orange stripes are the police.  I think it a bit unlikely.

This is already a remarkably common occurence.  Within days of being stopped myself, I heard, through friends, of two other people who had been stopped and searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act for taking photos at Clapham Junction.  It seems that even before section 76 you had to be worried if you were innocently taking a photo.

I would stress I do not blame the police for this.  They have to act according to the laws the government makes, and they have to fulfil their targets.  The people I do blame are the government.  And I’m not alone in this – Stella Rimington, a former head of MI5, today saying that Ministers are using the fear of terror to restrict civil liberties.  One of her comments deserves quoting in full:

It would be better that the government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism – that we live in fear and under a police state

Now you can argue that, of course, they aren’t going to be stopping the innocent tourist or hobbyist photographer.  So what’s the point of the power?  I’m guessing the average terrorist tries to blend in rather than look like a terrrorist, which implies the police are either going to have to question lots of innocent people in the hope of catching a terrorist, or they are going to have to rely on other intelligence.  If the latter is the case, then why do they need powers like those given under the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Counter Terrorism Act 2008?

Many years ago I would have said that a police state could never happen in this country.  Nowadays, it seems the Blair and Brown governments don’t just want to show that it could, they are actually working to make it a reality.

brown-i-didnt-see-crisis-comingWe’re officially in recession, with a second quarter of ‘negative growth’, although we’ve gone three quarters without any growth.  Unemployment is rising, so is crime, and house values are falling almost as quickly as high street names.  So why is it, as a Conservative, I sorry for Gordon Brown?

It is an odd feeling.  But I’ve had it for a long time.  I think it’s because he’s actually not very good at his job, I’m sure he’s well-meaning and has the best intentions, but sadly he’s just not up to delivering on them.

I was first aware of it shortly after he became Prime Minister.  He’d desperately wanted the job for so long, and when he finally got it, it turns out he’s not very good at it.  It’s like being a child at Christmas, desperately wanting some toy, then, finally getting it and discovering that it isn’t actually anything like you imagined it.

What has really compounded my pity is the discovery that he wasn’t any good at his last job either.  He’s basically spent the past 12 years turning up for work and hoping no-one spots that he’s bluffing, promising “an end to boom and bust” and sustained growth.  Of course, now he blames the international banking system, as if it’s something new rather than something he failed to regulate or monitor properly.  Or maybe he managed 10 years as Chancellor ignorant of the fact there was a banking system.

And bizarrely, all of us have known for a long time it was coming.  I remember having conversations in pubs at least 3 or 4 years ago, speculating on whether it was worth selling the house and banking the equity for when the crash came, and most people I know can recall similar thoughts or conversations from before the recession.

The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing, but when the man in the pub can feel it coming, it really speaks to the incompetence of a man not spotting it despite having an entire Treasury of civil servants and economists.

But although I feel sorry for the guy, I feel sorrier for the ordinary people who are losing their jobs and homes on his watch and it’s time for me to move past my sentimentality.  We all love the plucky amateur who refuses to recognise his lack of talent – shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent trade on it – but when he’s managed to rise so far above his level of competence that he’s running the country, and running it into the ground, he doesn’t deserve pity – he deserves the boot.

The whole episode of MPs’ expenses has been an interesting one, many will concentrate on the government’s reaction, which has been a typical Brownite dither, bottle it, try and blame the Tories.  What I think is more interesting, though, was the initial attitude.  Having passed the Freedom of Information Act, the government then decided it shouldn’t apply to MPs.

Initially I wasn’t a great fan of the Freedom of Information Act.  The great majority of applications that come through the council fall into five categories:

  1. Someone appealing against a parking ticket, asking for all the information they can get in the hope of supporting their appeal.
  2. Headhunters and recruitment consultants, looking for organisation charts, names and contact details to help them find and place candidates for jobs.
  3. Political researchers of all parties, who are compiling information for a current campaign or cause (and probably making the same request to every council)
  4. Journalists, hoping to find something embarrassing for a headline (again, probably making the same request to many councils)
  5. People genuinely seeking information, but not realising that looking around the council’s website or using Google would have found the information already published.

There are very few requests from members of the public for information they couldn’t get any other way.  This is because Wandsworth has always operated as openly as possibly, with the principle always being that unless there is a compelling reason information should be placed straight into the public domain.  The number of confidential papers seen by councillors is very small, and limited to those containing sensitive commercial or personal information.

On that basis we could probably have a great case for saying that Freedom of Information legislation should be changed, after all, why should the council tax payer be helping recruitment consultants who are already being paid by their clients.  Maybe we should be able to decide what is a ‘legitimate’ request, or decide the format in which we will provide the information so we can cut down on these requests.

But that would go totally against the the spirit of freedom of information.  Given that power, what would there be to stop us, or any public authority, picking and choosing the requests we answer, or the information we release.  It is a very very dangerous path when, as happened here, the government decides it doesn’t like the rules and that the best course of action isn’t compliance, but using Parliament to change the law.

The simple fact is that while the Freedom of Information Act is a pain a lot of the time, it does change behaviour.  Public bodies are more open to begin with knowing that private individuals have the power to see information even if they try and hide it.  It makes for an empowered public and better government; we let the state remove that right at our peril.

Everyone who joined the campaign, and especially MySociety who organised it, deserve congratulations in standing up against the government and Harriet Harman’s ridiculous proposals.

My expenses
It is only fair I reveal my expenses.  It’s fairly simple.  I haven’t claimed any – my total for the year is £0.00.

A councillor doesn’t get an allowance for a second home, nor does it buy any furniture, clean my windows or do my gardening and I’m expected to fund my own travel around the borough.

The nearest I get to expenses is being part of the council’s ‘Computers for Members’ scheme which provides IT related equipment to councillors to help them do their job.  I have a printer (I bought my own computer) and broadband access under the scheme and pay the council £12.35 a month for it.  Given that you can get broadband for free from a lot of places, and how cheap printers are, it’s probably not a great deal.

Last night saw Wandsworth’s last full council meeting of the year.  My main part was speaking in a debate on the results of the business survey carried out earlier this year.

It showed that business confidence was declining (even though it was carried out before the news started to turn really bleak) but Wandsworth was generally feeling more confident than businesses elsewhere in London and the country.  There was also good news that the council’s business support services are generally highly regarded.

What astounded me, however, is that the Labour Party really do seem to have fallen for the spin that Gordon Brown is some sort of world leader stirring everyone through a financial crisis.  They applaud his VAT cut, but fail to notice that shops are having to have 10%, 20% and even 50% sales just to get them through Christmas!

On a day he said he’d saved the world (and while we all make slips of the tongue, they often reveal what we are really thinking) we also had the German finance minister calling Brown’s plans, “crass” and saying they would take a generation to pay off.  It seems Brown is a world leader with no followers.

In the midst of this it’s down to Wandsworth to try and make things as good as we can for businesses in the borough, while no-one should be under any illusion times will be easy for business, hopefully we will be able to avoid the worst of it.

Today Alistair Darling will announce that Labour have finally seen the benefits of low taxation.

Or has he?  The BBC is currently reporting an expected temporary reduction in VAT to 15%, along with the introduction of a new higher rate tax band and the postponement of various other changes.  In other words, we’re increasing taxes, not immediately, but it’s coming.

And it’s questionable who will benefit from the reduction in VAT.  Any reduction in tax is not to be scoffed at, but if you take a low income household and consider where their income goes, much of it is spent on VAT exempt goods.  The weekly food shop – mostly VAT free.  Children’s clothes – VAT free.  Fuel bills -already at a lower VAT rate.

Of course, they’ll save a few quid on their Christmas shopping, but I suspect that’s small consolation when the parents fear for their jobs as we head into recession.

Is there another way?  Well, there was a good article in today’s Telegraph that points out that Conservative controlled councils are about the only places you see efficient, well-run and affordable government nowadays.