Monday, 28 September 2015

Open or closed?

Transparency or confidentiality?

All too often we hear people talk about human rights as though they are clear principles and requirements which will take you to a logical conclusion about a particular issue.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there are a variety of human rights – often spelled out in conventions or legislation – which set out principles, but often in practice, there is a conflict between particular human rights.

One simple example, which we see played out every day in the media, is the conflict between the right to privacy and a public right to know. The media will attempt to justify an intrusion into an individual’s right to privacy by arguing that publication is in the public interest. Actually, too often, it seems more to be justified on the basis of the prurient interest of the public – who doesn’t like a bit of gossip? – than in the public interest itself.

It was a debate that was partly played out in the Leveson Inquiry, as the media sought to justify all sorts of hacking and abuse of the right to privacy in the public interest. Incidentally, I don’t think we have yet heard the last about the extent of hacking over the last twenty years.
There has been a lengthy on-going debate about transparency and confidentiality in the courts that deal with family matters – divorce, adoption, care proceedings for children, protection proceedings for vulnerable adults.

In some ways, life is slightly easier since the establishment in 2014 of a single Family Court for nearly all family proceedings to replace proceedings which had formerly taken place in magistrates’ courts, county courts and the High Court.

There are rules concerning the disclosure of information from the Family Courts. They were last substantially updated in 2010. These allow the disclosure of information in particular circumstances to specified individuals, for example lawyers, social workers or other parties in the proceedings. The court itself can allow wider disclosure. But, beware, as disclosure outside these rules is likely to lead to a heavy fine or even imprisonment for the guilty.

Since 2009, accredited representatives of the media – but not the general public – have been allowed to attend court for some, but not all, proceedings in the Family Court. Nor are they allowed to identify children publicly. Further, since last year, new guidance has applied to the publication of judgements.

The current provisions have been criticised by the media, some MPs and some campaigning organisations. They suggest that confidentiality rules have prevented them from highlighting perceived injustices, especially in some care proceedings and adoption cases. Fathers’ rights groups claim that the rules just adds to the perception of court bias against fathers. However, too often the words secrecy and privacy are wrongly transposed.

In August 2014, the President of the Family Division published a consultation paper Transparency – The Next Steps. The consultation is still open. If you have any views on these issues, especially if they are informed by personal experience, it would be a good time to make them known.

You can find more information about the recent history about transparency and confidentiality in the Family Court:

Confidentiality and openness in the family courts: current rules and history of their reform

Transparency – the Next Steps

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

We should celebrate achievement much more

Immediately before Sheffield Wednesday’s home match against Fulham last Saturday, the players and officials arranged themselves around the centre circle.

It was announced that there would be a minute’s silence in remembrance of Ron Springett who had died aged 80.

Ron played 384 matches for The Owls before re-joining Queen’s Park Rangers in a unique deal which saw his brother Peter, another goalkeeper, come the other way. Whilst at Hillsborough, Ron had represented England on 33 occasions and was in England’s World Cup Squad’s in 1962 and 1966. Only the emergence of Tinsley, Sheffield-born Gordon Banks – England’s greatest ever goalkeeper – stopped him being on the pitch when England defeated Germany in the 1966 final.
At the proclamation, people stopped in their tracks. The crowd hushed. The referee blew his whistle to mark the start of the minute’s quiet.

The silence lasted precisely 1 second before the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. It wasn’t just the home supporters; the Fulham fans and all the players were just as effusive. They clapped and clapped and clapped until the minute was up and the referee’s whistle sounded again, and then a loud cheer rocked the ground.

For me, the moment was more emotional than for most. The 15th of March, 1958 was my Dad’s 50th Birthday. Ron Springett played his first game for The Owls against Bolton Wanderers that day. But he wasn’t the only one making his debut. My uncle and my cousin took me, aged 8 years, to watch my first Sheffield Wednesday match. We walked down the hill to Hillsborough from my council house home in Longley.

I seem to remember that Albert Quixall scored and Wednesday won 1-0. Whatever, I was gripped and, despite what I have to admit has been year after year of mainly disappointment, I still am. I’ve hardy missed a home match on the Kop since that date.

Ron’s contribution was considerable. Although he would have signed at the maximum wage then applying, it wasn’t that great. He certainly didn’t get the enormous financial rewards enjoyed by today’s top players.

Saturday reminded me that we ought to spend more time celebrating achievement.

Not just of individuals like Ron, but also of those citizens who give their time and energy – week in week out – to support other people and their local communities.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Open all hours?

David Cameron’s Conservative government seems intent on undermining the democratic process.
Bad news’ announcements (like the delay on rail electrification) are delayed, commissioned research remains unpublished if the conclusions are inconvenient, and there’s been a flurry of written statements on Fridays and at the very end of the parliamentary session in a way designed to prevent proper scrutiny. David Cameron himself has tried to turn Prime Minister’s Question Time into Questions to the Opposition Parties as a way of avoiding being accountable for his performance.

Therefore, it was entirely consistent that, after parliament had broken up for the summer recess and most of the public were thinking about their summer holidays, the government should announce a short consultation about changing the Sunday trading laws.

The current Sunday trading laws were established in 1994. Basically, whereas small shops can open all day, large stores were newly allowed to open for 6 hours a day. It is undoubtedly the case that retail shopping has dramatically changed over the last 20 years. Out-of-town malls have threatened city centres and, more recently, there has been a significant switch to internet shopping.

The big retailers were never satisfied with the 6 hour limit and would like to see the abolition of all Sunday trading laws. They use international comparisons to suggest that deregulation would lead to a significant increase in some types of shopping.

I think this is mostly poppycock. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend because the shops are open longer! In fact, if stores are open longer – with all the associated costs – but spending does not increase, prices will necessarily rise.

However, changing opening hours will undoubtedly have an impact on the distribution of spending. The big retailers will want to buy market share, whilst small retailers are likely to suffer.

The government is suggesting that, in different ways, some decisions on Sunday trading could be localised. Superficially, that might look attractive but, in reality, it might be difficult for one area to resist change if its neighbor is open all hours.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Working on justice for all

In July 2013, the last coalition government, led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, introduced charges of up to £1,200 for individuals who wanted and needed to take their case to an employment tribunal.

It appears that this is just part of a relentless Conservative attack on the ability of ordinary working people to be supported and represented in the workplace – especially when things go wrong.
It is clear that these charges have become a significant barrier to securing justice where people have been treated unfairly and improperly. The introduction of these employment tribunal fees has seen the number of new cases plummet.

In the six months up to March 2014, new cases were down 62% on the same period in 2012-13; cases involving unfair dismissal were down by 64%, those involving alleged sex discrimination by 80%, and those relating to equal pay by 84%. They haven’t recovered since with the number of new cases in the last two quarters of 2014-15 down 69% on the same period two years ago.

Recent statistics also show that fewer than one in five applications for employment tribunal fee reductions are successful. Less than 4,000 of the 21,000 cases, where fees were required, were awarded a full or partial remission in 2014/15.

When giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee in July, the Conservative Justice Secretary Michael Gove said that “a simple reduction in the numbers of people going to employment tribunals is not in itself proof that there’s been any injustice visited on anyone.” He added “….. there is no evidence yet that the bar being set at a high level has meant that meritorious claims by people who feel they’ve been discriminated against aren’t being heard.” That is not a view shared by those now being denied justice.

I think the employment tribunal system does need reform so that workers have access to justice, employers get a quick resolution, and the costs are controlled. Following much pressure, the government has now announced a review into these fees.

If you have been affected, or you have ideas for improvement, please let me know.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Franco would be proud

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Cameron’s Conservative government is pursuing a wide-ranging agenda designed to curb democratic rights, suppress civil liberties, and silence the voices of ordinary working people.

This government wants to scrap the Human Rights Act, has introduced fees denying women the chance to sue for equal pay in tribunals, has slashed legal aid, has disenfranchised millions of voters through ill-thought out changes to electoral registration and has stifled the ability of charities to campaign and challenge government policy.

In addition, it is now attempting to limit the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to prevent people from gaining access to information about policies and performance which should be in the public domain. I know from personal experience just how hard it can be to get basic straightforward information out of this government’s Ministers. For example, Eric Pickles persistently refused to answer questions about the number of households receiving a weekly all-purpose refuse collection service because he didn’t want to admit he’d wasted £250 million.

Now Cameron has launched an attack on the basic rights of 6 million members of trade unions. They are workers in a wide range of industries and services – from engineers to shop assistants, teachers to bakers, office workers to nurses.

The Trade Union Bill presents a threat to activity and campaigning by trade unions – which is entirely unrelated to party politics. Things that will be stopped or hampered include Usdaw’s ‘Freedom From Fear’ Campaign which seeks to prevent violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers, and the ‘Hope Not Hate’ campaign which works to build community cohesiveness, and efforts at increasing electoral registration. 

This Bill risks damaging industrial relations and the proposals will undermine constructive employment relations. It’s likely to result in more, not less, industrial action as the provisions risk extending disputes and making it more difficult to reach settlements.

When it gets to the point that prominent right-wing Conservative MP David Davis calls some of the Bill’s measures “like something out of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain”, you know that the government should think again.

If you want to read more about what the government is proposing and some informed comment about the background to and detail of the Trade Union Bill, I suggest:

House of Commons’ Library Briefing
You can read a summary or download a detailed report about the Bill’s provisions at

Stop the union-bashing
An essay by Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow

Comprehensive briefing by the TUC and General Secretary Frances O’Grady

Care not

The number of elderly people requiring residential and nursing care is rising, as are the costs of providing such care. The care costs for some people were wiping out the vast majority of their limited assets.

In 2011, the Dilnot Commission recommended the introduction of a cap on social care costs “to protect people from extreme care costs” in a range of £25,000 to £50,000, with a suggested rate of £35,000. It also proposed an increase in the upper capital limit for the means-test – below which people are eligible for local authority financial support towards their care costs1 – from £23,250 to £100,000.

That led to the Care Act 2014 and, in February 2013, the Conservative Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced that the Government would follow the Commission’s recommendation and introduce a £75,000 cap on social care charges in April 2017. He also announced that those with assets worth £123,000 or less would receive some degree of financial support for their care costs. Just a month later, George Osborne changed that to a £72,000 cap and a £118,000 upper asset limit. In January this year, the draft regulations were published.

In April this year, David Cameron promised – as set out in the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the General Election - that a Conservative Government, if elected, would implement them and on the timescale already set.

On 17 July 2015, just 10 weeks later, the Government announced a four-year delay in the introduction of the cap on social care costs.

In this Ministerial announcement, reference was made to lobbying by the Conservative-led Local Government Association which had confirmed that the funding gap in adult social care is growing by a minimum of £700 million a year – fewer people are being cared for, home care charges are rising rapidly, hospital bed-blocking is at record levels, and Mr Osborne has already announced that he intends to make £9bn additional cuts in local services later this year – and suggested that the care cap costs would be better used to fund these services.

Unsurprisingly, the care cap has been delayed for a minimum of 4 years and there is no sign of the saving being used to support home care.

Are we seriously being asked to believe that Cameron, Osborne and Hunt had not already intended delaying the care cap when they made that manifesto promise?

Monday, 13 July 2015


I’m proud of the part I played in getting The Hunting Act 2004 on to the statute book.

As well as being one of the Labour government’s best achievements, it is overwhelmingly supported across the country, in both urban and rural areas.  I’m pleased at a big poll last year confirmed  that a big majority of the British public are in favour of continuing to ban fox hunting (80%), deer hunting (86%), hare hunting and coursing (88%), dog fighting (98%) and badger baiting (95%).

It’s interesting to note that fox numbers haven’t increased since the hunting ban. Lamb loss due to fox predation is still evidenced to be less than 1% of all lamb deaths. And, contrary to the regular assertion, culling actually appears to increase fox numbers because it attracts foxes from surrounding areas and increases reproduction rates.

The Hunting Act 2004 is the most successful piece of animal welfare legislation. Recent Government figures reveal that a total of 590 prosecutions were made under the Act, with a success rate of 64%.

David Cameron – a huntsman himself - It appears to be one of the few manifesto promises he is trying to keep. The Conservative manifesto pledged to give ‘Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote government time’

However, David Cameron recognises that he does not have the required numbers for a full repeal. So he’s trying to wreck the Act with some ‘technical’ amendments.These are designed to wreck the Hunting Act 2004 using a back-door device in order to appease his supporters in groups such as the Countryside Alliance.

If, like Oscar Wilde, you think that fox-hunting is a case of ‘the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’, it’s time to ensure that you speak out now…..and do it loudly!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Not safe in his hands

Most people – including those who voted for him – knew that the NHS was never going to be safe in David Cameron and the Conservatives’ hands. Far from creating safety, they have created an NHS crisis. Services are going backwards and patients are paying the price

Starting with a damaging top-down reorganisation (broken promise) which wasted £3bn and harmed patient care, they have made it harder to see a GP and sent demand for A&E soaring.

Whilst promising to protect the NHS, the government has stupidly cut social care under the guise of efficiency savings in local government funding. 300,000 fewer older people are now getting home care help, meaning that too many older people are ending up in hospital. Emergency hospital admissions for elderly people increased by 22% to 2.2m a year between 2005-06 and 2012-13, while spending on social care has plunged by almost a third to £5.46bn.[1] It’s no surprise that delayed discharges at a record high.

This week, Age UK said that more than one million elderly people are not receiving the home social care they need.[2] The charity’s analysis showed that more than half of the 1.1m people who said they struggled to wash had no help, as did more than a third of the 400,000 who had difficulty using a toilet unaided, and 210,000 out of 650,000 who found it hard to leave bed alone.
Yet the government is already cutting a further £1.1bn in social care this year, described as ‘absurd’ by the Association of Directors of Social Services.[3] They predict that this will mean shorter home care visits and even fewer people benefitting from care. 

As I write, the Conservative-led County Councils’ Network is predicting a £1bn gap in the care home market, caused by the last coalition government’s Care Act[4]. The research, by health market consultancy Laing Buisson, said this would mean councils having to pay higher fees for each care place and a scarcity of care homes into which the NHS could discharge elderly hospital patients.[5]

As a result of this analysis, the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association’s  Community Wellbeing Board has said that the rollout of the second phase of the Care Act should be postponed and the £590m earmarked to fund the reforms should diverted to help plug the gap in social care funding.

Last week, she told the government that it would be “deeply damaging” to press ahead with the reforms, including a cap on care costs, in the face of a funding gap that is increasing by £700m a year.[6] She said the approach councils had taken to date to manage shrinking budgets – including cross-subsidising social care through cuts to other services – was no longer sustainable.
But it isn’t just health and social care for the elderly which is increasingly getting worse and failing to cope.

Last year over a million people waited over four hours in A&E. Over one in four people now wait a week or more to see or speak to a GP, or don’t get an appointment at all. The waiting list for treatment is at a seven-year high. The vast majority of NHS staff say David Cameron’s reorganisation harmed patient care – is it any surprise that clinical negligence claims are up 80 per cent since 2010?

The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government cut nurse training places, which has created staff shortages – forcing hospitals to recruit from overseas or spend vast amounts on expensive agency staff. It simply won’t do for Mr Cameron to blame the NHS for recruiting agency or overseas staff when he took the decisions which have caused the problem.

David Cameron was not straight with people at the election on the NHS. He promised to protect the NHS but refused to set out where a single penny of the extra money it needs would come from. He was not open about the scale of the deficits that hospitals face this year – which could require staff cuts, bed reductions and even service closures.

Last year, NHS Trusts in England reported a total deficit of £822m in 2014-15, compared with £115m the previous year.[7] This year, More than 80% of NHS acute trusts are reporting that they will be running at a deficit this year – estimated to be more than £2bn in total.[8]

Mr Cameron told us that cancer services were improving, but then tried to sneak out a document admitting the two-month waiting-time target won’t be met for another year

He has also committed to £22bn “efficiency savings” but refused to spell out whether this will involve staff cuts or service closures. Yet Norman Lamb, who was the Health Minister until May this year, says that the plan for £22bn efficiency savings outlined in the NHS Five Year Forward View are ‘virtually impossible’ to achieve. He said the document’s financial assumptions were “completely heroic”.[9] Followers of Yes Minister will recall that “completely heroic” actually means “wildly optimistic; well beyond any realistic expectation of delivery.”

In Sheffield, we are very fortunate – I say fortunate, but actually it’s due to the tremendous hard work and professionalism of NHS staff at all levels – to have high-performing acute hospital trusts. Although this month the Care Quality Commission gave a wake-up call about some services to the Health and Social Care Trust, it also found other of its services to be outstanding.

However, Mr Cameron is determined to press ahead with his plans to make a massive shift in NHS resources from the poorest areas with the lowest life expectancy and highest morbidity to the wealthiest areas with the highest life expectancy and the lowest morbidity. It’s simplest to understand this as shifting £40m a year from Sheffield to Surrey’s health services.

Further, I anticipate that the proposed changes in primary health care funding will bring major problems for some GP practices in Sheffield. Stories about particular GP practices – for example, Devonshire Green[10] and Beighton[11], in which I was heavily involved - have already appeared in the local media, but these only reflect the opening skirmishes.

I predict that in the next few weeks we will publicly learn that some GP practices will announce that they are no longer going to be financially viable or capable of delivering the quality of service they think is essential for the resources available.  This will herald a damaging shake-up of primary care services in the city with areas with some of the biggest health challenges taking the biggest hit.
The NHS is simply not safe in Mr Cameron’s hands.


Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Throwing the toys out of the cot

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Winston Churchill was a prime mover in getting international agreement about human rights. This resulted in fundamental human rights being agreed by nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Convention – and the European Court - on Human Rights have absolutely nothing to do with UK’s membership of the European Union.

The Human Rights Act was introduced by Labour in 1998 and came into force in 2000. It effectively enshrines the Convention in UK law.

David Cameron first proposed the idea of a British Bill of Rights in 2006.  The last government established a Commission to look into it. It reported in 2012 but didn’t come to any substantive conclusions. Then there was a document outlining Tory proposals in 2014 and the promise of a draft Bill for 2014. No sign of it – another broken promise. 

The Tory party manifesto promised to “scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK”.

The Queen’s Speech promised to introduce “proposals for a British Bill of Rights”, but the plans are quite unclear. David Cameron has been asked repeatedly about the government’s position on the UK withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and he’s refused to rule it out.

If the UK left the Convention, we would be in the sole company of Belorussia – Europe’s last dictatorship – as the only two countries in Europe not to be signatories. No wonder, there’s a lot of opposition in the Conservative Party. 

The Tories’ plans would not make it easier to deport foreign criminals or address any of the other supposed problems.

Mr Cameron is flouncing around like a petulant child rather than accepting that, in a democracy with an independent judiciary, the judges will sometimes tell you that you’ve got it wrong. The proper response is not to throw your toys out of the cot.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Too much hot air?

Air pollution in the UK results in the premature deaths of at least 29,000 people a year. Air pollution hits the most vulnerable and children hardest. The World Health Organisation warns that air pollution is carcinogenic; it’s the primary environmental cause of cancer.

Because of the coalition government’s failure to act, the date at which the UK is expected to achieve compliance with legal air quality limits was revised from 2020 to 2030 last year.

Action on air pollution has collapsed across the country. There has been no improvement in the UK’s air quality over the last year and almost 90% of the country now exceeds legal air pollution limits.  It is a particular concern in South Yorkshire and especially in my constituency where pollution levels in the areas around the M1 experience extremely poor air quality standards.

Bizarrely, last year, the Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment wrote to every local authority where air pollution exceeded legal limits to explain that “ultimate legal responsibility for air pollution lay with local authorities and that any fines levied on the Government would be passed on to them.”

Now, I’m fully in favour of ensuring that local councils are taking the appropriate action to cut air pollution. But, suggesting that Sheffield and Rotherham Councils should pay fines because the UK government wouldn’t act to cut air pollution from the M1 was clearly ridiculous.

In April, the Supreme Court ruled against the Secretary of State and stating that: “The new government should be left in no doubt as to the need for immediate action, which is achieved by an order that new plans must be delivered to the European Commission not later than 31 December 2015.”

The Government has to reverse its quite irresponsible approach to air pollution and to ensure local people have cleaner air in the shortest time possible.

Last year, it was clear that the Department of Transport just wanted to press ahead with the expansion of the M1 through South Yorkshire and to pay little attention to the consequent air pollution problems. That cannot continue.