The rule of law

January 31, 2008

Let’s hope Mr Justice Munby is taking his blood pressure tablets: this week he has had good reason to be apoplectic about government failures to obey the law. The first concerned the case of SK, a prisoner who had not received the regular reviews required by law. The opening four paragraphs of the judgment include this:

I have to say that the melancholy facts that have been exposed as a result of these proceedings are both shocking and scandalous. They are shocking even to those who still live in the shadow of the damning admission by a former Secretary of State that a great Department of State is ‘unfit for purpose’. They are scandalous for what they expose as the seeming inability of that Department to comply not merely with the law but with the very rule of law itself…SK will evoke sympathy in few hearts but everyone is protected by the law, by the rule of law.

Today the papers are full of the case of a baby who was taken away from its mother without a court order:

Local social services had shown hospital staff a “birth plan” detailing how the mother, who suffers from mental health problems, was not to be allowed contact with the child without supervision.

However Mr Justice Mumby said that no baby can be removed “as the result of a decision taken by officials in some room”.

And quite right, too. It’s alarming that any practitioners can be so convinced of their own rectitude that they don’t feel any obligation to obey the rule of law and present evidence to a court.

As the European Court of Human Rights said twenty years ago:

it is an interference of a very serious order to split up a family. Such a step must be supported by sufficiently sound and weighty considerations in the interests of the child… it is not enough that the child would be better off if placed in care.

The good die young

January 29, 2008

In the Guardian today a nice obituary for the human rights and criminal lawyer, Anthony Jennings QC, who died last week at the age of 47.

In 2003 I was doing maternity cover as co-ordinator of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England – the dreadful year-of-the-Blunkett that saw in three hateful pieces of legislation reeking of contempt for young people, amongst them the Antisocial Behaviour Act. We asked Anthony Jennings for a legal opinion on the Bill and he gave it the going-over it deserved – although it soon became painfully clear that trivial issues of human rights were not going to deter a hell-bent Home Secretary.

Jennings was generous with his time and concerned beyond the call of duty, answering my inept follow-up questions with great patience and tact. A lovely man. I shall keep in my head the memory of him saying: “Remember, nothing – absolutely nothing – can entirely extinguish a human right.”

Essential reading

January 29, 2008

A couple of good articles for your perusal. The first is from Liz Davies writing in the Guardian about the eclipse of child protection by the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda:

Following Laming’s report, the government used the findings to justify a policy shift away from the proactive protection of a few children at high risk of harm to intense state surveillance of every child and family though technology and broad based strategies to address child concerns.

With the subsequent launch of the Every Child Matters agenda, the phrase “children at risk” gained new meaning. Children were now defined as at risk of becoming future criminals, rather than victims of abuse, and professional attention was diverted away from the investigation of child abusers and their criminal activities. A set of five outcomes included the ill-defined “staying safe” and the language of protection became almost obsolete.

This seems a good moment to mention the Contactpoint Early Day Motion again. It seems to have stalled at 24 signatures, so if your MP hasn’t signed up yet, it’s time to give him/her a hefty reminder.

The second essential read is from Ross Anderson talking about the NHS databases (pdf) for the British Journal of General Practice:

Of course, there is not just one ‘NHS database’. The current opt-out campaign relates in the first instance to the Shared Care Record, which is being piloted in Bolton, Birmingham and Christchurch; this is being loaded with current medications and allergies initially, and is expected to contain much more later. A further concern is the move to hosted systems by many providers, in both primary and secondary care, which is making records available for central uses outside the effective control of the providers. GP records in particular, once hosted, are expected to be accessible across the local health (and social care) community.

Every child matters?

January 27, 2008

Child protection makes good spin, but here is another example of the declining commitment to children genuinely at risk of harm. Words fail me. The whole article is in this month’s Law Gazette.

New proposals to force local authorities to bear the cost of children’s care cases could see vulnerable children put at serious risk, family lawyers warned this week.

Solicitors told the Gazette they were alarmed that the government is trying to rush through new rules obliging councils to pay a £4,000 court fee before they can issue proceedings to take a child into care. The current fee is £175.

The proposals are part of the government’s strategy to make the courts system completely self-funding, through fees. Local authorities have been told they have already been provided with the necessary budget to pay the £4,000 fee.

Graham Cole, local government representative on the Law Society’s family law committee, said: ‘Government says that provision has been made by local authorities, but all the finance managers I have spoken to have not been able to find this provision. This will have a very significant deterrent effect on local authorities bringing care proceedings and will leave vulnerable children at risk.’

He added: ‘The consultation runs until 11 March but the proposals are due to come in on 1 April. This looks like a done deal that is being rushed through.’

The full consultation document is here (pdf). See page 8.

Bring on the crash-test dummies

January 27, 2008

From The People this morning, some choice quotes from a leaked Home Office document that reveals the intention to come for the young people first:

The secret document from the Identity and Passport Service is headed: “Options analysis – outcome.”

It says: “Various forms of coercion, such as designation of the application process for identity documents issued by UK ministers (eg passports) are an option to stimulate applications in a manageable way.

“There are advantages to designation of documents associated with particular target groups, eg young people who may be applying for their first driving licence.” The report says “universal compulsion should not be used unless absolutely necessary” because of the ID controversy.

In other words: “who’s going to care if it’s only a bunch of kids?”

How very similar to ‘Connexions’ – the information-sharing scheme for 13-19s that was actually a trial run for the entire Transformational Government agenda. Back in 2002, we managed to get a brief flurry of press interest, and then nobody wanted to know. It was another 5 years before the public began to smell the coffee.

Maybe this time around the public will realise that, even if they subscribe to the tired old prejudices and cliches, there’s at least some self-interest in defending young people’s interests.

Four legs good

January 27, 2008

Spyblog has a good piece on the revelations that the best people’s tax records are too sensitive for online filing, drawing the obvious comparison with intentions to ‘shield’ the records of some children on Contactpoint.

Update: Irdial is well worth a look, too

Contactpoint and eCAF

January 20, 2008

Here’s the third of our trilogy. Number 1 and number 2 explain what we’re all talking about.