Print Friendly and PDF
only search

This week’s front page editor

Rosemary Bechler

Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy's mainsite editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

War without end, amen

For an informed and sceptical take on the Afghanistan war, see Paul Rogers' many columns on the subject in his weekly openDemocracy commentary

Yet another British casualty in the war in Afghanistan has just been announced.  Only the British dead rate a mention, not those who are injured or maimed for life, nor the dead and injured of the country itself.   It is a long way from Tony Blair's confident statement in the House of Commons in October 2001 that British troops were joining a 'strong' coalition with 'robust plans' and 'humanitarian plans ... falling into place'.  There was debate, but no vote, on Blair's commitment of troops.

In January 2006, John Reid announced in Parliament 'a seamless package of democratic, political, developmental and [oh yes!] military assistance in Helmand'.  No vote.  In March Reid added this comment: 'If we came for three years here to accomplish our mission and had not fired one shot at the end of it, we would be very happy indeed'.  A large contingent of troops was deployed in Helmand in May of that year, the British presence rose by some 3,300 troops by the following summer.   Fatalities immediately began to rise every year, from 39 in 2006 to nearly 70 so far this year.  Now over 120 British troops have died there, the coalition is weak and growing weaker, and humanitarian plans have fallen into a corrupt limbo.

This eight year long war, tragic not only for the UK but more so for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has never once been put to the vote in the House of Commons.  There has been no need.  The government was able to enter into the war, and then to escalate the British commitment, through Royal Prerogative powers that do not even oblige ministers to inform Parliament on actions that they take under these powers.  As Andrew Blick said, in his magisterial dissection of the Ministry of Justice report reneging on the aborted government pledge to reform the Royal Prerogative, Parliament's ability to debate and vote on the deployment of troops in action will not be statutory (but is limited to a parliamentary resolution), and leaves the government enough discretion to drive a battalion or two through.

Our new Tory Lords?

What does Sir Richard Dannatt, the former Chief of the Defence Staff  who is to be David Cameron's military adviser with a seat in the House of Lords, have in common with Jonathan Porritt, the TV presenter, Kirstie Allsopp, and Stuart Rose, the boss of M&S?

According to PRWeek and apparently one Fiona Mason, managing director of Mandate, a public affairs firm, they are all likely to be made peers by Cameron with 16 other figures in a job-lot addition to the upper chamber of Parliament. I was going to write ‘our Parliament', but that designation is now utterly misleading.  Meanwhile, of course, the customary creep of additions goes on.  Speaker Martin, who sought desperately to cover up the MPs' expenses scandal, has just been 'ennobled'; and Jacqui Smith, whose huge expenses quite dwarfed the meagre cost of her husband's porn movies, will soon add lustre to the red benches. (I remember David Puttnam once looking round the Lords tea-room and saying to me, how proud he felt to be there with the likes of Helena Kennedy. I wonder how he feels now?) 

Having just written a spoof constitution myself, I do wonder whether PRWeek's story is also a joke designed to show how vulnerable Parliament is to manipulation by first one set of party leaders, and then another. For the idea that a party leader could well be contemplating nominating 20 new peers in a batch simply confirms the continuing degeneration of the House of Lords at a time when reform, so urgently needed, is going to be ducked for at least two parliamentary sessions, and no doubt for longer still. Meanwhile new toadies will continue to cram in and swell the internal resistance to reform - perhaps reformers could get together to demand no more additions until that day comes?

The unspoken constitution

The Unspoken Constitution

Today, to mark the return of MPs and Peers to Parliament, Democratic Audit have published a satirical pamphlet that sets out to describe how our unspoken constitution would look if actually put to paper. Below, Stuart Weir presents the Preamble, and Stuart Wilks-Heeg explains both the historical and the contemporary context of the project: 

Earlier this year Graham Allen MP made some very good jokes in a speech, suggesting how an honest constitution would describe the way we are governed. He inspired me to a brainwave: why not write an ‘Unspoken Constitution', as if from our political masters, as a satire on our inefficient and undemocratic governing traditions and rules?

Fortunately I was able to draw on the knowledge and ideas of friends at Democratic Audit - openDemocracy's Anthony Barnett among them - to hone down the weaknesses and contradictions of our constitutional arrangements to their paradoxical bones. As I wrote, I became more and more astonished at the arrogant complacency and ignorance not only of our rulers but of the whole political class - and yes, I do mean civil servants, the media, most academics as well as leading politicians- over what is in essence a rotten caricature of democracy.

The paradoxical bones? I think Article 3 of the spoof constitution best illustrates what I mean:

Government, like every subject, shall be free to do whatever is not unlawful. The government shall decide what is unlawful.

You can read the whole document, The Unspoken Constitution, here at OurKingdom, or view our site at Democratic Audit, but here as a taster, is the Preamble...

Ireland's Lisbon vote: the reality

They are stripping Dublin’s tall and elegant lamp-posts of the YES and NO placards that climbed in batches of up to five more than halfway up each post.  But before Ireland’s Lisbon referendum sinks into history along with the placards, it is perhaps worth considering what made it important other than as a test of David Cameron’s ability to avoid trouble and the Czech president’s resolve. 

The resounding NO vote in the first referendum tends to be written off as the result of the complacency of the Fine Fail-Green coalition government and the other main parties. If we are for it, ‘our’ voters will be too. But that is only half the story.  Irish voters were not ‘theirs’, and they were moved in July 2008 by two genuine issues – pre-eminently the re-balancing of power under Lisbon between large and small member states and less certainly, the market imperative in EU affairs. 

On a number count, of course, the re-organising of voting power and re-shaping of the Commission to reflect population size was a democratic re-adjustment.  But democracy is also about securing the voice and security of minorities – in the case of the EU, the smaller member states.  For Irish voters, the loss of Ireland’s own Commissioner and Germany’s greater voting power under the Lisbon treaty was symbolic of the country’s loss of voice and power in the EU.  The compromise that Ireland won over its Commissioner in the post-referendum negotiations was a vital component of the two to one majority for Lisbon last Saturday.

But more than that fear was the prime motive this time round.  Ireland’s economy is in deep trouble, just how deep the government revealed on referendum day by releasing details of a disastrous fall in tax revenues which will make a savage budget in December inevitable.  The unemployment rate has soared since July 2008 and now stands at 11.5 per cent; by December nearly half a million people will be out of work. For most people – many of whom openly fear for their jobs - turning their back on an European Union that had made the halcyon days of the Celtic Tiger possible was unimaginable - especially under an incompetent and corrupt government that has made the economic crisis worse with a foolish tax-raising budget.

Curiously, the corruption of their office-holders does not seem to have anywhere near the impact that the expenses scandal has had in the UK, even though it is far more spectacular.  Bertie Ahern, the disgraced Taoiseach, has even brought out his memoirs. John O’Donoghue, the Ceann Comhairle (or Speaker), has taken up the baton with extravagant spending as Arts Minister and in his new post, earning the tabloid sobriquet ‘Johnny Cash’.  Observers expect even more damaging revelations as the media make use of Ireland’s freedom of information laws, to obtain yet more details of his (and his wife’s) exploits on expenses. How damaging will they prove? The Irish seem to be resigned to a ruling class that has shamelessly, arrogantly even, exploited the fruits of office during Ireland’s buoyant past.  But will they accept the same behaviour in the midst of recession?  And will the Greens really hang on in there?

The Labour conference and the return of Mandelson

Peter Mandelson was long thought of as a devious and graceless politician.  Now he is a celebrity.  Shenanigans on the yachts of plutocrats are part of his new status, but the consummation of the love affair with the Labour party has set the seal on it. No Strictly Come Dancing this year, but expect long-lens photos of him in Heat cavorting in swimming shorts on some yacht or private beach next summer, with acute analysis of any flab that is revealed. The Browns could hardly re-stage their wedding day for photographers from Hello!, but Sarah Brown instead gave us all a touching tour of their domestic life for the day's television news.  Sarah Brown is a poised and sophisticated woman and she gave a beautifully calculated cameo as a loving suburban-style wife. 

Of course this is nothing new.  The celebrity culture and its media attendants have for some time been consuming politics, even Labour; remember the dazzling Neil and Glenda election campaign in 1992

What is new is that the Labour Party conference has enthusiastically provided the stage for the two vignettes performed by Peter Mandelson and Sarah Brown.  I had very low expectations of this year's conference, in part because it is a pre-election occasion.  But I did not expect it to sink so low.  This is after all, or it used to be, the single opportunity each year for party and trade union delegates to call party leaders to account and to discuss and shape party policy.  It was no business of theirs to approve or disapprove of ‘Gordon's' untidiness around the flat, but rather his untidiness over major issues of policy, social justice and democracy.  Yet he was allowed to rummage around among a variety of policy ideas, some bad, some good, some old, some new, some lost and re-found to be lost again.

There are those who will cluck their tongues at this complaint, and who will say (and have said) that the party conference was ever thus.  It wasn't.  Of course, it was never an open and pluralist assembly capable of deliberative debate. For good or ill, decisions hung on the balance of opinion and power among the big trade unions.  But it was often enough an intense political cockpit in which party leaders were obliged to explain and persuade and could go down to defeat.  Ordinary party members could organise themselves to have a real influence on policy, and even to write it. To my own knowledge they did so on apartheid in South Africa, social policy and internal party democracy, quite apart from the famous 1960 eruption over the nuclear deterrent.  I do not believe that party conference in those days would have swallowed this year's doses of schmaltz.

It was Neil Kinnock and assiduous party officials who decided in the 1980s to emasculate the conference and transform it into a rally. Mandelson was of course part of that process.  The aim was to shut the trots up, even though Kinnock himself had shown in a dramatic speech that he had the spirit and arguments to rout them politically.  Anyway, they ripped the heart out of conference.  So it was that even though a majority of members were against the Iraq war, the issue scarcely troubled party conferences, except for Walter Wolfgang's protest in 2005 made famous by the party's own draconian reaction and his being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

A New World: Paine at the Globe

A quick word on the 200th anniversary of Thomas Paine’s death.  Trevor Griffiths’s magnificent play in celebration of Paine’s life, A New World, is playing in repertory at the Globe theatre in London until 9 October. Griffiths, who wrote Comedians, the screenplay for Reds and Bill Brand, a great TV series on parliamentary politics, and much else besides, has turned his screenplay for a film about Paine into a boisterous and moving play that somehow packs in Paine’s involvement in the American War of Independence, his dispute with Edmund Burke over the French Revolution and his opposition to the Revolution’s descent into violence.

Griffiths is an eloquent writer all on his own. He  brings these tumultuous events to life on stage through imagined debates with Washington, Adams, Danton and others. But the play is also remarkable for his skilful use of Paine’s own words and arguments. Their contemporary ring amid the sloth of political and democratic understanding now brings home how utterly shocking and inspiring they must have been in his own time.

There are other contemporary aspects to watching the play in the Globe’s open-air arena.  Paine was held without charge on the verge of execution for ten months during the Terror; and while this period of his life was being played out on stage and within the pit, the Met’s surveillance helicopters clattered noisily over head.  Griffiths has meanwhile suffered from being uncompromisingly left wing.  In the late 1990s, the BBC even dithered over giving Food for Ravens, his TV play about Aneurin Bevan, a proper showing until they were shamed into it.  Don't miss A New World if you can help it.

High Court ruling won't stop the control order regime

You may well have been reassured by the recent media reports that that the “government's anti-terror strategy” had suffered a blow after the High Court ruling last week revoking a control order on “AN”, a British suspect accused of links to al-Qaeda. The ruling came after nine Law Lords unanimously agreed that suspects had a right to understand the allegations they face so they could mount a proper defence of their liberty; and that terror suspects held on these orders must be given a better idea of the case against them.

Mr Justice Mitting revoked the order against “AN” after the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, chose to drop part of the case against him rather than reveal it. This was the first case of three set to be re-heard at the High Court after the Law Lords' decision.

However, the High Court also heard that Johnson was already taking steps to make a new order - which “AN” will not be able to challenge before the autumn; and the Home Office issued a statement, saying that “we consider that there remain grounds for a control order and have been granted permission by the court to make a new one.” Further, the Law Lords had also ruled that the “restrictions to liberty” under control orders, which amount to house arrest, were “reasonable”.

Remembering Professor Peter Townsend

I first became aware of Peter Townsend, who died recently at the age of 81, when as a young journalist I read an article in the Guardian about the three professors - the others were Brian Abel-Smith and Richard Titmuss - who were going to assist the incoming Labour government in abolishing poverty.  I think that they were then engaged with Richard Crossman in constructing a fair superannuation policy; and they wrote a classic Fabian pamphlet.

Well, as we all know, it all came to an abrupt halt.  But Peter didn't.  He was very soon disillusioned and co-founded the Child Poverty Action Group in 1965 to mobilise around the cause of eradicating poverty, the Webbs' 2,000 or so people in the country who really counted. The ‘Child' was added to the title of the group to give it emotional weight, but the aim was always much broader.

Peter transformed himself into a tireless campaigner. He took the chair at CPAG and wrote and spoke seemingly everywhere, adding his considerable presence, intelligence, charm and rage to what became an endless odyssey. It is not too much to say that he inspired me. I have been an egalitarian ever since I can remember, but at first I wanted to be a journalist as well.  That ambition didn't really survive encountering other journalists, on The Times where I was working and elsewhere. Peter's work had the opposite effect, and I joined CPAG to run its citizen's rights office.

What the Butler saw

Fancy that, a Labour Prime Minister coming under withering criticism from Lord Butler, the Lord High Chamberlain of government secrecy, for not being properly open in his (and let it be said, David Miliband's also) proposal to hold the long postponed inquiry into the Iraq war in private.  It was Butler, then Cabinet Secretary, who fought tooth and nail to confine and obstruct Sir Richard Scott's inquiry into arms sales to Iraq and Iran. At one point, Scott had to threaten to send the police into Downing Street to take possession of documents that Butler was withholding.

In other words, Brown is capable of sinking even lower in the very stuff of open democracy after having boasted of his commitment to freedom of information.  Brown has justified the decision on the grounds that a secret inquiry will encourage witnesses to be frank; it seems a fair assumption that he is actually worried that they will be too frank in public.

But enough of Brown and even Butler's particular arguments for more openness.  We are at a point in our democratic life when government has to open up fully to the public.  Scott did the whole country a great service by laying bare the "hidden wiring" and governing attitudes of Whitehall and Westminster.  He scoured the Augean stable.

Faith in the system at record low shows new poll

How far has people's faith in the way we are governed been shaken by Brown's fumbling and dishonest governance, civil liberties outrages, and expenses fiddles in both Houses of Parliament?  At first sight, at least, considerably, according to an ICM poll (opens pdf) for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.  And should we be cheering the result from the same poll, suggesting that two thirds of people want proportional representation for elections to Parliament?

My apologies: a lot of figures now! 

"Faith in the system" has been measured by a single question in opinion polls since it was first asked in 1973 for the Crowther-Hunt's Royal Commission on the Constitution.  Just under half of respondents then agreed that the system for governing Britain could be improved "quite a lot" or needed "a great deal of improvement".  Public dissatisfaction rose to peaks of 69, 73 and 72 per cent under Mrs Thatcher in the 1990s, and then subsided to 68 per cent in 2003 and somewhat less in the mid-2000s

In last week's poll, ICM found that three-quarters of people (75 per cent) were dissatisfied, along whom two-fifths (42 per cent) agreed that the system needed "a great deal of improvement" - the highest ever level for real change recorded. Unfortunately, people who wanted change were not asked what "improvements" they would like to see.

Compass left still lacking in big ideas

It was a curious experience being at the Compass conference on Saturday.  Here was a gathering of the centre left, open-minded, democratic, pluralist, knowledgeable and conforming not at all to media stereotypes.  Not a "loony" left, a sane left. And yet I left the conference dispirited. 

It was partly that there was for me and my companions no buzz, no feeling of excitement. But I felt far more that the hundreds of people there were “kettled”, by political circumstance, by an electoral system that blocks free political choices, by the failed Labour regime to which most of them were still committed, by the closed opportunities all around - but also by the unreality of the debates.  Policies policies policies: regulate the market; don't privatise the Post Office; scrap Trident, the third runway, ID cards; demand a referendum on proportional representation; and so on.

It is not that I disagree with any of this.  Some of it may even happen if this wretched cabinet wakes up to the greater realities all around and if, a big if, its members are somehow liberated from strict conformity to speak out and act by Brown's weakness and the crisis they have come through. Moreover a great deal of good sense was spoken (and probably more than I heard in the break-out sessions) on Saturday.

Brown and the AV stitch up

Brown has put his great clunking feet in it again. If reports on BBC-TV are to be believed, Brown's new National Council on Democratic Renewal - a body that may very well meet mostly in private - is to propose that the UK adopt the alternative vote (AV) for elections to Parliament. There is apparently to be a referendum.

Quite what Brown and his wretched party - I am a former member - hope to achieve is beyond me. There is a very strong group in the party - Mandelson, Hain, Martin Linton, etc, etc - who have long argued the dubious case for AV since they think it is the "electoral reform" option that will best preserve their place in national politics; and since it will block the move towards proportional representation that will alone free Parliament from bondage to the executive. So there is a simple self-serving motive at work. But this is such a stupid gesture that I suspect that they would be happy to put the proposition to a referendum and lose, having falsely demonstrated their commitment to democratic renewal.

So why is this so outlandish? First, because AV is even more disproportionate than first-past-the-post (FPTP). In 1997, we at Democratic Audit - Patrick Dunleavy, Helen Margetts and me - carried out an expert simulation of the actual general election result that year and calculated that AV would have produced a more disproportionate outcome than FPTP - the deviation from proportionality was 23.5 per cent under AV, 21 per cent under FPTP. Labour's bloated seat count would have risen to 436 seats.  The Lib Dems would also have benefited disproportionately.

We need local power of recall

Gordon Brown has great clunking feet, too, and he has an uncanny knack of putting them in it - usually because he is being so transparently manipulative and canny. His new proposal to set a minimum service commitment for MPs, "naming and shaming" and possibly ejection from their seats of those who break it is a populist gimmick, unworkable, centralising and constitutionally wrong-headed.

Doh, you can see the thought processes clunking through his brain.  I have to keep up with Cameron; I must show I can be tough with MPs; I must home in on their work with constituents; ah, more central control, that's tough. But the one thing that most MPs do concentrate on is wooing their constituents, keeping abreast of their correspondence, taking up individual and constituency cases.  I don't mean to be cynical, but there is obviously a strong incentive behind their local activity: it all reinforces the incumbency factor and they can throw money at it - taxpayers' money that too often serves a largely party political end.

Meanwhile, Parliament and MPs are failing in their primary duty: to check all Bills with great care, to check the flow of secondary legislation, to hold government to account for its policies and actions.  That's why we need a reinvigorated House of Commons, that's why we need independent-minded MPs, that's why we need a proportional election system.

Brown's proposals on expenses better than Cameron's

David Cameron's media footwork is fast and impeccable.  Watching his and Gordon Brown's manoeuvres over MPs' expenses is eerily like watching Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman.  David Cameron dances around the shambling creature into which Gordon Brown has degenerated, picking him off with elegant blows and easily evading Brown's ‘clunking great fists'. 

But (and I may have got this wrong) is this not a triumph of spin over substance?  Are these virtual rather than real blows?  Cameron, forewarned I guess by the Telegraph, grabbed the news agenda with his demand that his shadow cabinet and MPs must pay back the thousands of pounds of outrageous expenses that they have claimed; Brown lumbers after him with a counter proposal and ends up vainly claiming in front of a mocking interviewer on television to have got in the first blow. 

Yet doesn't Brown's proposal actually have a great deal more merit?  He asked the Commons members' allowances committee to set up an independent body to carry out a cross-party review of all expenses claimed to ensure not only that they were "made within the rules", but also "for the purpose for which the allowance existed". The review would be undertaken by a team from outside the Commons (so circumnavigating both the Speaker and the ludicrous director general of resources who must between them share a huge burden of irresponsible conduct); and it would begin with 2008-09, and then work back over the previous four years.

Swine flu infects the whole political system

The trouble with David Purdy's argument is that witches didn't exist, and corrupt and fraudulent MPs - and peers, remember, and MEPs on the take - all too clearly do.  I personally have become increasingly angry and disgusted by the long trail of revelations of the humiliating depths of greed to which MPs and peers have plunged, the more so when some of the worst perpetrators are -rather were - friends. And everyone I have talked to shares my anger and disgust: politics does now engage people, if not in the way that David Purdy and most MPs wish.  

There is an interesting parallel in his and Gerry Hassan's argument. Both are acutely aware of the greater depths of economic crisis and inequality, social disintegration and personal debt in which the nation is sinking, but Hassan links this uncompromisingly with the broken constitutional system and the prevailing neo-liberal political and economic ideology of our ruling class.  I think he is right do so.  Do MPs really need or deserve higher salaries?  Is it possible that the rewards that the people with whom they deal are too high?  

What the media have shown is that our elected - and non-elected - legislators have themselves become infected by a variant of swine flu, obviously brought on by contact with an increasingly greedy and remote global business and professional class.  Neo-liberalism doesn't just pervert public policy, it corrupts political and personal life as well.  Similarly, our political class knows only too well that the governing system feather beds their place, and their parties' place, in Westminster and Whitehall and denies the electorate any real opportunity of change to choose when they vote. The disrespect for ordinary people is palpable. They are not lightly going to share the commanding powers in their grasp with them.

Inflatable police batons? Mark Thomas manifesto comes to Cambridge

What I like about Mark Thomas is that he is a great jokester. One of his funniest stunts was to organise for a fleet of Jaguars to drive past police guards into an official function at some stately pile to collect John Prescott. I may have got this wrong, but I think he also tried to arrest Pinochet while he was in the UK.

But he is also a switched on political analyst and his jokes and demos are all designed to make a serious point. He is currently touring with a show during which he is amassing a manifesto on which he promises to campaign. It is a collection of serious, if impossibilist, proposals, jokes and off-the-wall ideas. Unfortunately I cannot remember the host of funny ideas that he brought to his show in Cambridge. But what happened here gives some idea of important currents of opinion, on the left at least.

Firstly, I guess, resentments came thick and fast both from Mark and the audience – bankers, greedy MPs, Jacqui Smith’s expenses, the police, capitalism. One proposal was that the state should provide council homes for MPs instead of paying huge sums to instal them in privately owned properties. Another was that negligent bankers should be punished by having goats released into their homes. Another that we should replace the National Anthem with the theme from Star Wars. My favourite, as it came from my friend Claire, was that the police should be allowed only inflatable batons.

My experience of New Labour smears

It is a given that David Cameron’s “fury” over the McBride/Draper email smears is synthetic. But Sunny Hundal, at Liberal Conspiracy, is off the mark when he says:

A lot of newspapers have focused on how New Labour has always been about spin and briefings and backstabbings. Perhaps.

No, not "perhaps". While it is true that New Labour has been about more than toxic manipulation of the media – e.g., investing in the NHS and state schools (good), warmongering (bad) – very nasty rumour making and malicious briefings have characterised their project since the 1980s, to my own personal knowledge. Being in the party was no defence against their malice, indeed it seemed that they regarded it as provocation if you were a critic within or even just a colleague in government who found himself or herself out of favour. Among others, the novelist Ken Follett and his MP wife Barbara found themselves briefed against (as I understand it), but Follett hit back fiercely with an article in the Observer in July 2000, condemning briefings against Mo Mowlem and Tessa Jowell. He wrote that Tony Blair risked being remembered “as the Prime Minister who made malicious gossip an everyday tool of modern British government. I’m talking about ‘briefing’, the practice of vilifying your colleagues in off-the-record briefings conversations with journalists.”

While editing Labour's monthly magazine, New Socialist, I suffered from a constant series of nasty leaks and briefings portraying me as a hard left running dog of the trotskyists (while the trots did their bit from their own angle). But that was as nothing to the enraged reaction of the New Labour establishment when the board of the New Statesman abandoned the approved choice, David (now Lord) Lipsey for the editorship and chose me, prompting a campaign to reverse the decision. I know for a fact that Phillip Whitehead, the loyalist chair, was given a false list of charges against me which he had the decency to put to me. Journalists from The Times and Sunday Times rang to prepare damaging stories and were surprised to find themselves talking to a man with a sense of proportion and humour. The ST man said that I wasn’t at all like the foaming mad leftie he had been led to expect and that he wouldn’t write anything (he could not, he explained, write a positive piece though the woman from The Times did).

Uighurs: China ’s forgotten Muslims

Stuart Weir (Cambridge): You have just three days to see iconic photographs of the Uighur people who are being systematically destroyed by the Chinese authorities.  The photographs are in an exhibition at Abrar House, 45 Crawford Place, London W1, which ends on 18 March and seeks to draw attention to the brutal denial of human rights to the ten million or so Uighur people who live in their vast homeland and former independent republic and ages-old kingdom of East Turkistan, which has been occupied by China since 1949.

The Uighurs are among the most oppressed peoples in the world.  The Chinese authorities have been destroying their language, religion, ways of life and very identity, swamping their country with mass Han immigration, subjecting their young women to enforced exile and labour and poisoning their health with nuclear tests (and, as I understand it, even hiring out test sites to Pakistan and possibly France).  All this, let it be said, in addition to the oppression and denial of civil and political rights that are common to all who live in China.

We must protect the right to housing as crisis hits home

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): You may well believe that everyone in this country enjoys the basic human right not to be thrown out of their home without a court order. They don't. In October last year, the High Court ruled (in a case involving Horsham Properties) that lenders-banks, building societies and investment companies-were entitled to sell properties, including people's family homes, without having first to go to court for an order, following just a single default on a mortgage payment.

That objective has been achieved as a consequence of the mortgage small print- according to the judge, "conveyancing shorthand"-that is in practically every mortgage deed, and that has a devastating effect on a householder's position.  The new owner, possibly an investment company or someone seeking a home, is then entitled to a summary possession order against the householder who is rendered by law a trespasser in his or her own home, which they no longer own. There is no defence in law against that claim.

The potential for grave social and economic distress is huge.  Home repossessions resulting from defaults on mortgage repayments are rising dramatically. According to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, 45,000 homes were expected to have been repossessed by the end of last year, and 75,000 this year. Some 168,000 people are in mortgage arrears. The Financial Services Authority (FSA) and the Council of Mortgage Lenders report that more than one million households are likely to default on a mortgage payment in the next year.

Northern Ireland Commission backs social and economic rights

Stuart Weir (London, Democratic Audit): As is the way of things, only bad news from Northern Ireland makes it onto the British media. So it is that there was something of a media blackout on the report to government here from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, advocating a Bill of Rights for the province that contained significant economic and social rights.  The report, or advice, was submitted on 10 December, international Human Rights Day.

The Commission is a statutory body, set up under the Northern Ireland Act, to recommend a Bill of Rights specifically for the province that reflects “the particular circumstances” of Northern Ireland and draws upon international human rights instruments.  The Commission has worked hard since 2000 to meet this brief, but has continually met political obstruction because of its members’ interest in a broad and consensual proposal.