A good political record

A good political record

No this isn’t a post about the merits (or otherwise) of Owen Smith’s voting record. This is to acknowledge the achievement of Anohni in bringing us a relevant, uncompromising musical experience in her album Hopelessness.

As the title suggests, it’s not a record that offers much in the way of solutions. It’s more of a warning that needs heeding; that we can’t continue treating each other and our planet the way that we’re doing, without dire consequences.

The songs don’t pull any punches – the first three tracks deal with warfare (Drone Bomb Me), environmental catastrophe (4 Degrees), and state snooping (Watch Me), and they set the tone for a record, unflinching in its directness. Things are getting serious so why beat around the bush with analogies when you can tackle the issues head on?

Anohni, formely known as Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons fame), cleverly delivers the songs through various personas such as a child victim of drone strikes in ‘Drone Bomb Me’, or the convicted felon on death row in ‘Execution’. The first person narratives are far more dramatically impactful than a bystander’s viewpoint would have been.

Perhaps ‘4 Degrees‘ offers us the most powerfully anthemic song on the album. The title alluding to the Celsius rise scientists have predicted the earth’s temperature will go up by due to climate change this century; a rise that would have catastrophic consequences for our very existence on planet earth. It’s a warning we, like the song’s dismissive protagonist who shrugs if off with “It’s only 4 degrees”, seem to be taking way too lightly.

The environmental theme is also played out well in ‘Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth’ which seems to lament the loss of what early ecologists referred to “everything being connected”, a mantra we’d do well to return to.

It may be difficult to listen to at times, but then the truth often can be. Presumably this was meant to be a challenging political record, and for that it scores a direct hit.



Government attempts to bury decision to close 86 courts

Continuing the trend to try to bury bad news on the last day before MPs break for recess, the Tories today confirmed that 86 courts and tribunals are to be closed in England and Wales.

Without giving MPs the opportunity to question the decision, Justice Minister Shailesh Vara confirmed in a written statement that 86 of the 91 courts and tribunals proposed for closure in last year’s consultation will now face closure.

Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards called for an oral statement and said the decision not to do so showed the Tories’ “disdain for transparency and openness with the public; avoiding scrutiny on such a significant and far-reaching issue which will have an direct impact on many communities.”

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of PCS, the union representing the majority of court workers, said closures would “seriously undermine access to local courts that is crucial not only for the administration of justice but also public confidence in the justice system”.

“The plans are not being driven by need or what will work, but by a political choice to cut public spending.

“It is impossible to know whether the government’s case on better use of technology stacks up because these decisions are being taken before it has been properly developed and tested.”

The government is using usage figures as a reason for many of the closures. However, Chichester Combined Court, which serves a population of 800,000 people and has been described as the England’s busiest doomed court is one of those confirmed for closure.

What the government conveniently ignores is the fact that they are responsible for making it harder for people to access our courts. Policies like cuts to legal aid and increased court fees are removing people’s right to local access to justice.

Court rooms may be being underused but that’s often down to a shortage of staff and Judges rather than hearings. Since 2010 the Courts and Tribunals Service has been cut by 5,000 staff and is set to lose a further 5,000 to 6,000 by 2020.

A petition to stop the closures has been launched and has so far received over 500 signatures.



2015: A year in music

2015 looks destined to be a year that will be looked back on as a vintage one for music.

Whether the stars were aligned or the tectonic plates of political and societal tensions were just perfectly set for inspiration, there must have been something in the air to influence so many great musical triumphs.

There were two particularly outstanding albums which I will get to but there was plenty to enjoy elsewhere.

It was a particularly strong year for female artists. Really strong albums from Julia Holter who was rightly lauded, the dependably innovative Bjork, folk hero Laura Marling and Aussie newby Courtney Barnett. It also saw a welcome return of riot-grrrl rockers Sleater-Kinney. Their  first album in a decade, No Cities to Love was an all killer, no filler, 10 song masterclass in indie-rock.

They weren’t the only ones to make a welcome return in 2015. In fact at times it felt like 1995 with very good offerings from former-Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes, The Charlatans, Leftfield and particularly Blur, whose The Magic Whip sounded like a Far-Eastern take on Modern Life is Rubbish.

The highpoint of Leftfield’s Alternative Light Source LP came with their Sleaford Mods’ collaboration Head and Shoulders. The Sleafords had already by that point released arguably their strongest work to date in Key Markets which cemented their place as one of the UK’s most engaging acts.

Two solo-performers from the UK that particularly impressed me, and more importantly for them garnered them each with deserved Mercury Music Award nominations, were Ghostpoet, who proved he’s here to stay with his rockier urban Shedding Skin and C. Duncan who gave us possibly the debut of the year with Architect.

Highlights from across the pond were the lyrically dexterous Father John Misty’s endearingly eclectic I Love You, Honeybear and the sublime southern blues of Alabama Shakes on Sound & Color. Meanwhile Philadelphian singer-songwriter Kurt Vile made it a hat-trick of superb solo albums with his latest outing b’lieve I’m goin down while Wilco yet again proved themselves as the consistently satisfying band around with their latest collection of glorious Americana-inspired rock on the album Star Wars.

All the above are all worth multiple listens but none could quite compete with the year’s two best offerings. In many other 12-month periods the likes of Father John Misty and Sleater-Kinney could have claims to album of the year but this happened to be a year when two instant classic long-players graced us with their presence.

First up there was Sufjan Stephen’s deeply personal Carrie and Lowell. It’s a touching album inspired by the recent death of his estranged Mother. At times mournful but also quite playful, it’s got a childlike innocence to it even though the theme of loss is at its core.

At first Carrie and Lowell seems low key and sparse, but even after nearly nine months of listening I’m still finding new things to enjoy on every play. By contrast the next of my favourite albums of the year can seem a little daunting on the first few plays as there is so much to it. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is overflowing with creativity, brimming with musical and lyrical flourishes.

Like Carrie and Lowell, it has some devastatingly honest and personal moments, but it is a work much broader and political in its scope.

It is an album of its time, yet it carries the weight of so many influences, and it’s not surprising that it’s been put on a pedestal already next to hip-hop classics such as Illmatic and It Take A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but also other nailed-on American classics such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and some of Curtis Mayfield’s earliest and best work.

Alright became an anthem of the Black Lives Matter cause and it was fitting for that to come from a record so unafraid of being challenging and confrontational.

If I had to plump for one of the two it would be Lamar’s poetic masterpiece simply because of it being so relevant to the climate of 2015.

Check out my Best of 2015 Playlist on Spotify.

Wig wearers respond to latest Trump controversy

A new survey released today has found that most wig wearers in America are seeking to disassociate themselves with the increasingly insulting comments being made by Donald Trump.

A spokesperson for American Wig Wearers (AWW) Bernie Wright said, “I’m sick and tired of being tarred with the same brush as this bigotted idiot. Someone at work even asked me to apologise for Trump saying France’s gun laws were responsible for the tragedy in Paris. After his latest outburst I’m worried that some of my Muslim friends won’t even talk to me anymore!

“Just because I wear a wig doesn’t mean I have the same views as him. In no way does he represent anywhere near the vast majority of wig wearers. I mean his toupee isn’t even legal, it’s made from bits of an endangered animal!”

Meanwhile a right-wing Republican group of baldies have set up a splinter group calling themselves Toupee Wearers Associated To Trump (TWATT). They have responded by issuing the following statement:

“TWATTs are pleased to hear what Presidential candidate Donald Trump has said about Muslims not being allowed to enter the country. I mean what the heck is going on! TWATTs across America will continue to lap up his kind of thinking.”

Syria: My case against air strikes

The following is copied from a letter to my local MP about why I am asking him to oppose military intervention in Syria. I haven’t reproduced it in its entirety because there were some personal points I made and I wanted others to be able to borrow from it if they haven’t yet contacted their MP about tomorrow’s vote.

Having read the arguments for and against British military intervention in Syria (and it has been a struggle to find some serious and rational reporting on this issue), I have come to the conclusion that it would not be in our country’s best interests and neither would it improve matters in the Middle East.

I haven’t been at all convinced by the Prime Minister’s argument for air strikes in Syria.

My first issue is that I do not believe there is anywhere near the amount of moderate Syrian fighters that Mr. Cameron claims there to be. The claim that there is a 70,000-strong militia of Syrian moderates on standby to fight alongside us and, perhaps more crucially, ensure a smooth transition of territories once they’ve been liberated from ISIL, is incredibly difficult to believe. Whatever number there are will be made up of several competing factions.
Patrick Cockburn, The Independent’s Middle East correspondent points out that such a force barely exists. He cites recent American efforts to raise such an army as an example, where it ended up with just four individual “moderate” fighters at a cost of $500m. http://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent/20151125/textview

It concerns me that the 70,000 number is being used for PR purposes in a similar way that the 45 minute estimate was used to justify invading Iraq.

Far too many of the concerns in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s report of 2 November have not been adequately addressed. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmfaff/457/45702.htm
It raised the concern that British airstrikes would not make sufficient difference and would even make ISIS more of a threat. Praragraphs 22 to 23 refer:

‘In military terms, we noted that although our witnesses believed that a decision to extend airstrikes into Syria would be welcomed by Coalition allies, some said that it would not have anything other than a marginal effect. The experts told us that it would not be likely to involve extra aircraft but would simply re-focus existing assets; that the UK was already contributing valuable surveillance in Syria; and that the ability to conduct airstrikes as well would not have a decisive effect. Sir Simon Mayall concurred, adding:

“There are not that many of them, actually. This is not an air campaign anything remotely like the scale of 1991 or 2003. We need to be very clear about this. This is not a war-winning air campaign, by any stretch of the imagination.”

‘23.As a result, several witnesses concluded that there was little reason for the UK to change its policy. Julien Barnes-Dacey was strongly against the proposal and told us that the airstrikes make the threat from ISIS worse because they “feed a sense of radicalisation”:
“Sunnis say, ‘Look, the West is not helping us against Assad, but they are fighting ISIS.’ […] We become direct parties, all the while contributing nothing meaningful, in terms of military numbers or capability. I really fail to see how air strikes against ISIS will not do more harm than good.”

I do not believe the case has been made to clear the hurdle the select committee set for the government to clear before they were even satisfied that a motion should be put to Parliament on this issue. The following extracts from the committee’s report I have borrowed from Peter Hitchens’ blog on the issue. http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2015/11/david-camerons-rush-to-war-can-be-halted-if-we-try-.html

“Enabling the House to reach a decision

35.The Government should explain the following points before asking the House of Commons to approve a substantive motion authorising military action:

a)On an international strategy:

i)How the proposal would improve the chances of success of the international coalition’s campaign against ISIL;
ii)How the proposed action would contribute to the formation and agreement of a transition plan for Syria;

iii)In the absence of a UN Security Council Resolution, how the Government would address the political, legal, and military risks arising from not having such a resolution;

iv)Whether the proposed action has the agreement of the key regional players (Turkey; Iran; Saudi Arabia; Iraq); if not, whether the Government will seek this before any intervention;

v)Which ground forces will take, hold, and administer territories captured from ISIL in Syria.

b)On the military imperative:
i)What the overall objective is of the military campaign; whether it expects that it will be a “war-winning” campaign; if so, who would provide war-winning capabilities for the forces; and what the Government expects will be the result of extending airstrikes to Syria.

ii)What extra capacity the UK would contribute to the Coalition’s actions in Syria.

36.We are persuaded that it is not yet possible for the Government to give a satisfactory explanation on the points listed above. Until it is possible for the Government to address these points we recommend that it does not bring to the House a motion seeking the extension of British military action to Syria.’”

I accept that 35 (iii) on the UN resolution has been dealt with but I cannot see how any of the others have been sufficiently answered in order to meet the committee’s recommendation that MPs are not asked to support British military action in Syria until they have been.
Part of the problem with the debate on Syria, or more rather what we do about ISIL, is that if you oppose the Prime Minister’s plan, the alternative is presented as ‘doing nothing’. Indeed, the select committee raised this as an issue in paragraph 33 of its report, stating that “taking action to meet the desire to do something is still incoherent.”
When diplomatic efforts are proposed they’re too often scoffed at as if what you’re suggesting is pulling ISIL members around a table for a cosy chat. What of course is meant by diplomatic efforts is putting pressure on governments from the likes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey to stop assisting terrorists by arming and financing them. This leads of course to difficult questions over which states we ourselves do business with. My concern is that perhaps some of our political leaders think air strikes are a simpler decision to arrive at than confronting such diplomatic dilemmas.
We also need need to use our aid budget to alleviate humanitarian suffering and to improve our contribution to deal with the refugee crisis.

Of course ISIL needs to be defeated but sending in British planes to add to the already significant air strikes of our allies will only complicate what is an already multi-sided and messy civil war in Syria.

It is my belief that our air strikes would fuel further radicalisation, playing into the hands of ISIL’s propaganda and make the likelihood of an attack on British soil more likely. It is therefore a dangerous course of action to take in terms of national security.

I am sure you will have had many letters on both sides of the debate so I thank you for taking the time to read mine. I sincerely hope that you will come to the same conclusion as me and many others that the case for military action in Syria has not sufficiently been made and will vote against when it comes to the Commons tomorrow.

You’ll see I’ve borrowed quite a lot from Peter Hitchens. Desperate times call for desperate measures! My MP is a Tory after all. I’d also recommend Keir Starmer’s excellent case against.

Government wastes £9m on abandoned privatisation project

Last month saw a very welcome u-turn by Michael Gove’s Ministry of Justice when it announced that it would no longer be privatising the collection and enforcement of criminal fines and compensation.

I had put in a freedom of information request back in July which revealed that £7.8m had been spent on the 5 year procurement project so far.

Labour Shadow Minister Andy Slaughter MP questioned the department following the announcement that outsourcing would not provide best value for the taxpayer after all.

The answer he received today states that an astonishing £8.7m had been spent overall on what was called the Compliance and Enforcement Service Project.

The decision to not pursue outsourcing was sneaked out in a written statement on 15 October. It looks as though there are still some serious questions to answer about where the money went.

It’s particularly hard to swallow as the revelation comes just a day after the Youth Justice Board confirmed plans to cut £9m from its budget. This is likely to see an increase in young people in custody and impact on the ability of Youth Offending Teams to reduce reoffending.

PCS, the union representing fines officers working in the courts, had argued all along that privatisation wasn’t necessary and that the service was performing better than ever in the public sector. £550 million in fines and other financial impositions had been collected in the last year alone.

At a time when legal aid cuts and court closures are cutting access to justice to the bone, this Government can hardly afford to continue throwing money away on needless procurement processes.

Full story in Law Society Gazette

Domestic violence victims are being let down because of legal aid cuts

I’ve written before about the chaos being wrought in our courts by the rise of litigants in person – citizens forced into representing themselves in court due to the Government’s cuts to legal aid.

One of the more worrying consequences of this has been that victims of domestic violence have increasingly found themselves in the unnacceptable situation of being cross-examined in court by violent ex-partners.

Despite assurances from Ministers at the time that the legal aid cuts were introduced, that victims of domestic violence would not be affected, the reality has been that many of them are being forced to come to court without legal representation.

The Independent reported recently, the Exceptional Case Fund (ECF) which was established to help people such as domestic violence victims get free lawyers, received 617 applications from April to December 2013 but only eight were granted.

Statistics for April to June this year show that only five out of 125 applications were succesful.

For those wanting to apply for legal aid, there is a very high and bureaucratic threshold in place to demonstrate evidence. Such evidence, say from a GP’s letter, comes at a cost which vulnerable women often can’t afford.

Judging by the above figures, it is proving almost impossible for women to receive legal aid and it is therefore making cross examination by their perpetrators increasingly common.

As Emma Pearmaine, a family law specialist at Simpson Millar, told the Independent:

“Victims no longer get their day in court. Instead of relief it turns into humilation at the hands of their abuser. The authorities should be doing more to protect these victims’ dignity – it’s surely common sense these vulnerable women aren’t degraded further.”

Emma will be speaking on 17 November at a parliamentary launch of a new pamphlet highlighting the impact of civil legal aid cuts. I am involved in supporting this important event through my union PCS and you can invite your MP along to it here.

One in four women will suffer domestic violence in their lifetime and on average, two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

Surely these are the very people funding for our justice system should be going towards protecting. Instead we are seeing these victims being subjected to further trauma in the courts because of this Government’s fixation with cost cutting.

A full and independent review into the impact of these cuts is urgently needed and it’s pleasing to hear that the Labour Party have launched a comprehensive review of their own.