Forked Tongues And Tongue Ties
After 15 years in power, this Government have become increasingly tenticular in its ways of shutting up potential sources of public criticism and ‘nuisance’ campaigners.
Squall 7, Summer 1994, pp. 28-29.
In the last few issues of SQUALL, a number of alarming scenarios have been reported involving the closing down or, more accurately, the shutting up of charities involved in work critical of the Government's way of thinking.
In Issue 5 of SQUALL, it was reported that the Traveller Information Service operated by the Bristol Branch of SHELTER had its activities curtailed after political pressures were exerted by a number of discontents, including the DoE who part-fund the charity. The official reason given at the time was that Jenny Smith, the prime mover operating the service, had finished the book she was originally commissioned to write on the subject of travellers in Britain and so had to return to her housing duties. The truth of the matter however, was that she had finished the book many months before but, because of the extensive network of contacts she had built up and the fruitful work she was involved in, she had been allowed to continue her advice and campaigning work with travellers. That was until she became ‘too politically incorrect’ in a pressured climate and was sidelined as a consequence.
SQUALL 5 also reported that the Traveller Information Unit at the Save the Children, operated by Ann Bagehot and Liz Kwast, was also under political pressure to curtail its work with travellers. In fact, Save the Children conducts an incredibly useful resource-collating service, dealing with information about travellers from all over Europe. SQUALL is just one of many groups that have benefited considerably from its regular newsletters, parliamentary abstracts and European media coverage. However, SQUALL has since learned that the Save the Children Traveller Information Unit is to cease operation in October of this year.
In SQUALL Issue 6, we also ran a report on how SHELTER had been so careful to remain politically correct with their response to the Government’s appalling Homelessness Review, that Sir George Young, actually stated publicly that SHELTER were in favour of it. Of course, in common with the other 9,000 organisations that replied to the consultation paper on the Review, they were not the least bit in favour of it and what’s more, were extremely miffed that Sir George Young to whom they had always been very publicly respectful, had claimed that they were.
As a result, SHELTER came out of campaigning closet to a degree rarely seen from them since Sheila MacKechnie took over the steering wheel. MacKechnie is well known in the housing world for wiley political manoeuvring and cultivated media-consciousness.
Publicly and unequivocally, SHELTER slated the Government’s intentions to remove the right of permanent housing for priority need homeless people, even running public adverts condemning the proposals for the callous reality they would enforce.
And the result?
Charles Hendry, Conservative MP and co-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness, actually reported SHELTER to the Charity Commission for “hysterical and exaggerated” political commentaries inconsistent with charity status. Hendry even went as far as to say: “No organisation has done more to damage sensible discussion than the charity SHELTER”. Such a statement from the co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness ought to send shivers of alarm down the spine of any observer. And there was more...
“We need a strong voluntary sector,” claimed Hendry. “But one which sets itself on a collision course with the government is on a road to nowhere.” Dictatorial words indeed...
“Sheila MacKechnie needs to decide if she is accusing ministers of lying, or simply that their words don’t tally with the content of the document. If it is the latter, isn’t it better to sort our concerns around a conference table, rather than conducting a campaign in every school, council chamber and living room around the country?” he wrote.
But isn’t this the same Charles Hendry who Chaired a SHELTER fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference, and had no complaints then of SHELTER’S credibility. And isn’t this also the very same man who co chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness meeting on Travellers in March of this year? The meeting, designed to brief its 220 member MPs and Lords on the plight of travellers, was attended by a number of children’s charities and heard speakers from Save the Children and the Children’s Society. A meagre 5 politicians turned up to “sort out concerns around a conference table” and 2 of then left early. Hendry, as co-chair of the group had to stay, so becoming the only Conservative MP present at which remonstrations could be directed.
One member of the social-concern organisations present, asked Hendry:
“Why has the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act, which made a statutory requirement for local authority traveller sites - a subject previously the brief of the Department of Environment - been tagged onto a Criminal Law Bill under the sole auspices of the Home Office?”
Although Hendry's fellow Chairperson, Lyn Golding (a Labour MP) was keen to avoid discussing such a politically awkward question, Hendry insisted on defending his Government's motivation:
“It’s in a criminal law bill because it is designed to prohibit the unannounced arrival of large numbers of unwanted travellers, who create a mess, a noise and a disruption to the local community,” gushed Hendry from the text book.
“But the Caravan Sites Act was responsible for the establishment of official traveller sites with toilets, showers and skips for rubbish,” replied the questioner. “The travellers on those sites paid a small rent for the park up spots, which helped then to maintain the services on site. Hardly the deluge of unannounced mess and noise mongers that you say.”
There were 1...2...3...4...5 seconds of stunned silence before co-chair, Lyn Golding rescued Hendry from a fate worse than dishonesty (having to answer for it) by concluding: “Well I guess that’s just the way it is. Are there any more questions?”
Yes SQUALL has one. What use are conference tables if some people sit round them telling lies, whilst other people, who have had far more experience of the harsh social realities resulting from these lies, are forced to shut up.... Charles?
Rest In Peace - memorial march in London for homeless deaths - Squall 7, Summer 1994