Actors Of Parliament
The farce of Labour's effort to oppose the CJB
Squall 8, Autumn, 1994, pg. 12.
The Labour Party have finally cottoned on to the fact that many people have become disillusioned with its unwillingness to provide any effective opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill.
Rather than change its tact however, the party has made amusing efforts to persuade us that it has done as much as possible to oppose it. In a recent New Statesman article, journalist Tim Malyon described the Labour Party's abstention on the Bill as "sitting on the sidelines making political capital when it should be standing up and defending the rights of those under attack". The article brought a surprising response from the Labour Home Affairs spokesman in the House of Lords, Lord Macintosh of Haringey, suggesting that the article had "undermined Labour's attempt to improve this deplorable Bill".
As evidence of the Labour Party's work, Lord Macintosh said in his letter: "Labour supported a whole raft of amendments to protect squatters from violence, to delay eviction so that squatters would have a week to find somewhere to live rather than 24 hours, and as a basic principle, argued that squatting should not be criminalised". However, SQUALL was present during the entire committee stage debate and was well aware of what measures were taken to present opposition to the Bill.
Whilst it may be true that some labour back-benchers argued vehemently against the clauses in the Bill, most notably Neil Gerrard (Lab MP Walthamstow), the Labour front bench could hardly be described as being in full support. During the debate on the clauses allowing violent entry to a property, Alun Michael (Shadow Minister of Home Affairs and most senior Labour member on the CJB committee stage) disappeared from the room and failed to show up during the vote.
The idea that Labour are opposed to the clauses on squatting "as a basic principle", was further called into question by Lord Macintosh's own words during the House of Lords stage of the Bill's passage. "We are not in any sense being soft on squatters," he announced. "If I was to suggest that we were being soft on them, Mr Tony Blair would have me shot at dawn." What is revealed by these words is that the Labour Party's response to the Bill was quintessentially orchestrated by Tony Blair, regardless of the principles held by other members of his party. As a result of his directives, the opposition to the Bill by the Labour party was only conducted by a few principled backbenchers, unsupported by their own executive. Such a position in modern politics is like trying to stop a stampeding herd with a pin.
Even certain back-benchers that had the opportunity to put up more of an argument and failed to do so, are attempting to claim in hindsight that they were against it all along.
Frank Dobson (Lab MP Holburn and St Pancras) was sent a letter by one of his constituents asking him to explain his party's stance on the Bill. Dobson replied: "The Labour Party has taken a firm position on the proposals you mention (Public Order section) and sought every opportunity to amend the Government's proposals. I know that the Home Affairs front bench (at the time led by Tony Blair) have pressed hard on these issues, although the Government seem oblivious to reason."
Of the 43 principled Labour back-benchers that did vote against the Bill, Frank Dobson was not one of them. How both he and the Labour Party executive can even begin to suggest that they did everything possible to stop the Bill, after officially abstaining during the 2nd and 3rd reading division in the House of Commons, is a symptom begging the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Or perhaps they just change the script to suit the audience.
One of the promises made by Michael Howard to mollify opposition to the CJB clauses removing the rights of silence, was a commitment to establish a national organisation responsible for investigating miscarriages of justice. However, while parliament was in its summer recess, Howard announced he was to delay the setting up of such a body until the matter had been "looked into more thoroughly".
Now, if you were to write to Michael Howard, voicing concern over his calculated rethink, you may well receive a reply from his secretary saying that Mr Howard has taken note of your comments. However, one letter voicing concern over a wrongful imprisonment recently received a full reply from Michael Howard himself. And what miscarriage of justice sufficiently moved Howard enough to write such a personalised response? The jailing of a character in the radio soap opera 'The Archers' that's what.
Howard, described as "an avid fan" of The Archers, was contacted by a rather sad spokesperson of 'The National Campaign to Save the Ambridge One'.
"I entirely agree with your view that imprisonment was an entirely inappropriate sentence for Susan," dribbled Howard in his answering letter. "I have even less influence on the fictional judge in The Archers than I have on the real judges who sit in our courts every day, so you will understand that there is no action which I can take in this case. I speak as someone who acted as a part-time judge before I became a government minister and I can assure you that, had her case come before me, I would certainly not have sent her to prison. Although the offence she committed was serious, she pleaded guilty, was of exemplary character and her children are clearly dependent upon her. In my view'.. etc."
But whilst Michael Howard may consider he has little influence over the events in The Archers, it is quite evident that the same is not true of The Archers influence over him. Take his speech to the Tory Party conference last year introducing the 27 point law and order package that manifested itself as the Criminal Justice Bill.
"There is a tidal wave of concern about crime in this country. I am not going to ignore it, explain it away or just meet it with a string of words. I am going to take action. Tough action. How many times have I heard people say 'let's bring back the village bobby'. Well that is exactly what I'm going to do. The countryside must be made safer. We have already announced tough proposals to deal with New Age Travellers and Ravers. These people have even made it onto the Archers.
"Well I've got some good news for Ambridge. When our new laws are in place, Eddie Grundy won't need to spray manure on his fields to get rid of them."
As satire becomes reality, politics assumes the status of a soap opera with Howard in position as one its principal actors.
Great delight was taken by Nicholas Hawkins (Con MP Blackpool South), when he showed the CJB committee a copy of a magazine entitled 'Chalice ' New Age Networking Wales West'. "Does my Hon. Friend agree that the glossy magazine produced by and on behalf of new age travellers would be entirely beyond the means of our constituents?" he snorted.
"I was fascinated to see the magazine," continued his committee colleague Jonathan Evans (Con MP Brecon and Radnor). "It is a glossy publication produced by well-organised people with many resources and it encourages the type of activity which, I am glad to say, clause 45 intends to strike down."
Hawkins (three chins and only 35 yrs old!) rarely followed the debate, busy as he was doing his constituency work, reading the Evening Standard (several times) and avidly reading the "glossy" magazine he had ridiculed earlier.
Over his shoulder it was possible for a SQUALL observer to see that the magazine described as being "beyond the means of his constituents", retails at '2.50. A copy of Hansard for just one session of the committee stage debate costs '7.50 and there were three sessions a day. Faced with the prospect of paying '22.50 for a days worth of hot air or paying '2.50 for a magazine on subjects such as aromatherapy, presents a Tory MP with something he can't abide - no competition.
However, good to see an acknowledgement from Evans that he considers new travellers to be "well-organised people with many resources".
For more articles about the Criminal Justice Act and Public Order Act 1994 - covering the build-up, the resistance, the consequences, plus commentary of discussions in the House of Commons about it click here.
Actors of Parliament - the theatre continues - Squall 7 - Summer 1994.