Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Redbridge Street Enforcement - Inept Or Wilfully Obstructive?

I have written before [see here, here and here] about the decision of Redbridge council to send me three fixed penalty notices by for allegedly fly posting leaflets about the Save Wanstead Flats campaign.

Those notices were begrudgingly withdrawn after they were challenged, with the caveat that “as long as there is no repeat if the original offence, you will not hear from us again.” As there never was an 'original offence' involving anything I have ever done, I have tried to understand this puzzle: how did Redbridge council reach the decision to target me, when my name does not appear on the campaign's publicity? Did they just just pick the first name they could find on Google?

So on 20 October, I made a Data Protection Act request, requesting the release of information that the council's Street Scene Enforcement team holds on me within the statutory 40 calendar days. Just days before the deadline on 29 November, a package arrived at work - and sadly, it was a very long way from illuminating.

The released information contains a short hand-written notebook entry recording where the flyers were found, a copy of the poster (complete, I note, with the words NOT FOR FLYPOSTING printed on the bottom), five photos of the offending posters pinned to trees, copies of my own correspondence with the department and short - very short - action logs. But nowhere is there any information about how the case officer who issued the threats of legal action reached the decision to connect a flyer with no personal details on it to a named individual.

Basically, this means one of two things. Either Redbridge's Street Scene Enforcement team is incompetent, keep the most incredibly lax records and are in breach its own Operating Procedures [PDF], which states that investigations "will be carried out in line with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 codes of practice and agreed procedures". For those unfamiliar with PACE, Code D is very demanding on the importance of keeping accurate and reliable records when exercising statutory powers to identify persons, in order to "provide safeguards against mistaken identification."

Or alternatively, the council has breached the Data Protection Act by failing to provide all the information it holds.

So which is it - ineptitude or wilful obstruction? Either way, the package I received in the post has done nothing to change my view that Redbridge’s Street Scene Enforcement officers remain completely out of control.

Day X2 - Students Protest In The Snow

This morning Chris Greenwood, the crime correspondent at the Press Association, tweeted that "the gods of public order have surely answered the Met's prayers as heavy snow falls in Westminster". Predictions, however, that the weather would dissuade students from protesting again today proved wildly inaccurate: the power of prayer is obviously as unreliable as ever.

In London at midday, hundreds of police poured from Horseguards Parade to cut off large numbers of demonstrators marching to Parliament Square, but instead of allowing themselves to be corralled inside a 'kettle' in Whitehall, protest tactics had changed. At 2pm, students avoided police lines and spread out around central London, leaving behind a small rally in Trafalgar Square. Trying to contain a peaceful but mobile and flexible protest was then apparently as difficult as herding cats - when the police attempted to corral students on Aldwych, they simply didn't have the numbers to contain the demonstrators.

It was only when students drifted back to Trafalgar Square that the police were able to return to their normal public order tactics, blocking every road around the Square to try and impose one very large kettle - but reports say it leaked like a sieve, with protesters adopting widely circulated advice on targeting the weak points in the police lines.

Around the country, there were large demonstrations in Bristol, Manchester, Leeds and Brighton, whilst council offices were briefly occupied in Oxford and Birmingham. This evening, a small group of students remained inside a kettle in Whitehall, but Met Commissioner Paul Stephenson's claim that the "game has changed" has turned out to be more accurate than he realised - with young protesters rather than the police rewriting the rules.

Picture: Cillygrrl14


This is hilarious... Police chase protesters across London, set to Yakety Sax (the theme from 'Benny Hill').

First Snow Of The Winter

It'll probably be treacherous tomorrow, but the snow was rather lovely today. The first couple of pictures are from up on Wanstead Flats at lunchtime and the last was taken up on the roof of the hostel at Durning Hall - more on Flickr

Monday, 29 November 2010

Tomlinson Family Statement on Misconduct Charges

I've posted this as I spent lunchtime today helping the Tomlinsons to draft their statement. From the campaign website:

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has announced that PC Simon Harwood, the officer caught on video assaulting Ian Tomlinson shortly before his death, faces internal disciplinary proceedings for gross misconduct and could face dismissal without notice.

Julia Tomlinson, widow of Ian Tomlinson, spoke on behalf of her family today to say:

“We cautiously welcome the fact that Deborah Glass from the IPCC has said that 'there has been an overwhelming public feeling that the officer seen to strike Ian Tomlinson should be held accountable for his actions'.

However, the possibility Harwood might lose his job is not the genuine accountability that our family have waited so long for. Whilst we believe that any disciplinary hearings must be held in public, we have already been badly let down by the Crown Prosecution Service and have real worries that these misconduct proceedings will lead to yet another whitewash. We are also gravely concerned that holding hearings before the inquest takes place may prejudice its outcome and further undermine the possibility of the kind of justice that overwhelming public feeling demands.”

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Let's Make 29th April Local Heroes Day

I guess there are plenty of other people who, like me, really couldn't care less about next April's wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton. I suspect that even those who express their enthusiasm for the couple's nuptials are more fascinated by the celebrity of the groom than they are moved by feelings of reverence for the royals.

But here's a thing: how much difference do us republicans really think they can make by complaining that it's all nonsense? Yes, it is bizarre that the nation has been granted a bank holiday, a day-off, the kind of absence from work that businesses vehemently complain about when it involves strike action, for nothing more than the wedding of a upper-class young man and his upper middle class girlfriend. It is just as preposterous that this is happening for no other reason than his biological accident of the groom's birth into staggering privilege. But in all honesty, how much of an impact do we hope to make by simply responding in a curmudgeonly manner?

Don't get me wrong: I share the view that an obsession with the Windsors speaks volumes for the immaturity of our 'advanced' democracy and for the way that fame and notoriety, driven by the media's need for cheap, disposable 'news', has elbowed aside genuine achievement and distinction. So here's a though: how do we offer an alternative that celebrates individuals from working class communities, people whose contributions are usually ignored by the national fixation with the supposedly 'beautiful people'?

Rather than grumbling about the ridiculous pomposity and excess of the royal wedding day, let's make that day - 29 April 2011 - our 'Local Heroes Day'.

I bet we all know people who we think are amazing. I can immediately identify the person who regularly checks in on housebound pensioners because the council's social services help is so erratic; someone who gives long hours to helping people navigate the complexities of dealing with the UK Borders Agency; or even the friend who cooks and delivers free food to people who have just come out of hospital (and brought round some of the best chana masala I've ever tasted when I came out of the Royal London). Then there's my friend Vivian and the fantastic literary events she organises, or the campaigners who have struggled long and hard to make sure that Queen's Market in Upton Park remains open. Without people like these, life would be poorer, bleaker and far less interesting.

I'm not suggesting something like the ludicrous Pride of Britain awards, with its royal patronage, corporate sponsorship and z-list celebs. On 'Local Heroes Day', all we really need to do is make a point of going out of our way to thank the people we think matter to our communities.

We don't do it enough - and it's a far, far better use of a bank holiday than ranting at the TV or finding ways to desperately avoid the royal wedding coverage.

Friday, 26 November 2010

London Under Siege: Churchill and the Anarchists, 1911

To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the siege of Sidney Street, the Museum of London Docklands opens a new exhibition in December, London Under Siege: Churchill and the Anarchists, 1911.

In partnership with the Jewish East End Celebration Society, the exhibition will set the murders and the siege in their historical and social context, exploring immigration at the time and the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill's role at the siege.

The siege of Sidney Street, popularly known as the "Battle of Stepney", was a gun battle in 1911 where over 200 armed police and a detachment of Scots Guards laid siege to 100 Sidney Street in Stepney. It ended with the deaths of two members of a politically-motivated gang of burglars supposedly led by "Peter the Painter", and sparked a row over the involvement of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, whose on the spot advice included refusing to allow the fire brigade access to the building when it caught fire.

London under siege: Churchill and the anarchists, 1911 opens on 18 December 2010 and runs until April 2011 at the Museum of London Docklands, No1 Warehouse, West India Quay London E14 4AL [Map]. Entry is free.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Student Protests - Leaderless Doesn't Have To Mean Disorganised

It’s is entirely reasonable that students involved in yesterday’s protest on Whitehall are enraged about brutal police tactics, particularly the use of enforced ‘containment’ or kettling and the repeated baton-charges of young people. Simon Hardy of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts speaks for many when describing the actions of the Metropolitan Police as “absolutely outrageous".

But as well as quite rightly condemning yesterday’s oppressive police behaviour, we mustn’t forget it was only last year that the use of similar tactics caused the death of Ian Tomlinson, drew the same angry response from G20 protesters and led to a review of public order policing, Adapting to Protest, by Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Dennis O’Connor. At the time some saw this as a significant turning point, although O'Connor's review didn’t propose to abandon the use of kettling, only new guidance and better training. Now it seems that nothing has really changed. However, if we see yesterday’s police brutality completely in isolation, there’s a real danger that outrage over the policing of protests eventually becomes little more than an annual expression of frustrated impotence.

So why didn’t the supposed ‘reforms’ promised after the G20 protests in 2009 stop the aggressive policing we witnessed yesterday? There are two very different ways of explaining this. The first is to say that the police are essentially benign, have a difficult job but do their best to ‘facilitate’ protesters, so the blame must lie elsewhere. Before yesterday’s protest, the Green Party’s London Assembly member Jenny Jones argued on Liberal Conspiracy that the cause of police brutality is the provocation provided by “the people who have come along for a punch up”. She says:

For example, one of the reasons for the appalling policing of the happy, peaceful, singing, dancing G20 climate camp protesters who put up their tents in Bishopsgate last year is that they were dealing with police officers who had been through a hard time with less than peaceful demonstrators earlier in the day at a different location.

It’s an appalling argument, one that is riddled with holes. To begin with, placing the blame on a supposedly ‘violent minority’ makes a huge assumption that the police are either able or willing to make a distinction between violence and ‘civil disobedience’ – even though experience shows that confrontational tactics such as kettling lump everyone together and do not differentiate between those who are peaceful or belligerent. Indeed, they are a direct reason why crowds react with increasing hostility to their treatment by police officers. Moreover, it’s an argument that sets up an ill-defined boundary around what is ‘acceptable' protest, one that can be continually tightened and controlled by those with little interest in supporting the right to demonstrate.

The other, more logical explanation for the apparent failure of last year's public order review to stop police beating teenagers with batons yesterday is that the 'reforms' were always entirely meaningless – the police simply reacted to unexpected criticism last year by promising a new approach, knowing that memories are short and public opinion is fickle. Furthermore, the one thing that hasn’t changed is an underlying, historical fear within the ranks of the police of ‘the mob’ – unruly, leaderless and difficult to contain – and that their role has never really shifted from suppressing protest rather than ‘facilitating’ it.

This explains their favoured form of ‘acceptable’ demonstration, along a prearranged route with organisers, stewards and perhaps a rally, and why anything outside of this kind of ‘self-kettled’ protest is always likely to lead to a violent response. However, the problem now facing senior officers, as I argued last year, is that “many protesters became disillusioned with this kind of sterile ‘stroll through the streets’ after the massive anti-war demonstrations failed to have any impact on the government”. Yesterday’s student demonstrations around the country were an obvious example of this - organised using social media, they had little involvement from trade unions, the National Union of Students or other political organisations.

The conclusion to draw from all this is that aggressive police tactics are not just “absolutely outrageous" – they are entirely to be expected. On the one hand, this means that anyone who really does want to “come along for a punch up” understands that they’ll almost certainly lose a pitched battle against one of the most powerful instruments of the state, face the prospect of prosecution and possibly a long prison sentence.

But it also means that a new generation of protesters who want to demonstrate creatively, no matter how peacefully or disobediently, should have no illusions about the police’s role – they intend to stop you at all costs, Direct action therefore involves preparation and planning, knowing what your legal rights are, setting up affinity groups and learning ways to avoid tactics like kettling: much of which has already been tried and tested over countless protests.

Unruly, leaderless and difficult to contain may well be the future of protest – but that doesn’t have to mean disorganised.

See the Activists Legal Project and The SchNews Guide to Public Order Situations for more information on taking part in protest with your eyes open.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Lawrence Archer Shows Why Juries Matter

Like most jurors, Lawrence Archer was a typical, not especially political member of the public, a BT engineer who was called for jury service at the Old Bailey in 2005 and became the foreman of the jury during the infamous "ricin plot" trial. What made yesterday evening's discussion in Stratford, about his book on the trial and its aftermath, so completely fascinating is how his experience was revelatory - and how it has changed him into a campaigner against the injustices of the 'war on terror' here in Britain.

In 2003, anti-terrorism police raided a north London flat after a tip-off from the Algerian government, which was almost certainly based on evidence extracted using torture. They had alleged that there was an Al-Qaeda plot to attack the London underground using the poison ricin. Five men were arrested and Tony Blair said the threat of international terrorism was "present and real and with us now and its potential is huge". In the incredibly paranoid and hysterical period after 2001, the press inevitably went berserk, with The Sun reporting the discovery of a "factory of death" (an sensationalist claim that was recycled following the police raids in 2006 of my neighbours in Forest Gate). The Daily Mirror front page (above), which was reprinted and displayed last night, had a map of the UK emblazoned with a skull and cross bones and the headline: "It's Here".

But after the jury had spent six months hearing evidence, they had heard that no ricin had ever been found, that biological weapons experts at the government's Porton Down Laboratory knew this within two days and that there had never been a sophisticated plot, only loose associations between the five men. After taking a then-record 17 days to reach a decision, they acquitted four of the defendants and found a fifth guilty of the Victorian-era offence of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance, a charge dug up specially for the trial.

After the trial was over, however, the jurors saw that the media coverage of the trial bore little relation to the evidence they had heard. Journalists, who had faced a media black out during the trial and hardly attended the court proceedings, preferred to rely on briefings from the police and security services. The story they told was a pack of lies. Britain's most politicised police officer, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, went further: he used the failure to convict to demand legislation for “acts preparatory to terrorism”, because 'terrorists' operate using “very loose-knit conspiracies.” The then home secretary, Charles Clarke, duly obliged.

Remarkably, a number of the jurors decided not to simply walk away but to investigate further, meeting the defence lawyer Gareth Peirce, and the some of the defendants themselves. Lawrence Archer was one of those who spoke out when several of the men were rearrested and threatened with deportation. He has given evidence at the secretive Special Immigration Appeals Commission hearings and expressed his horror that the 'ricin' plot was used by Colin Powell as alleged proof that Saddam Hussein had been secretly arming terrorist groups in the approach to the war in Iraq. Last night he described his scepticism whenever he hears reports about 'intelligence', calling it "guesswork based on fourth hand sources, some extracted under torture."

A jury trial not only prevented an injustice - it also led some jurors, people like Archer, to take a greater interest in the way the state operates and to continue to believe in a 'duty of care' beyond the courtroom. None of this would have happened without the jury system and the involvement of citizens in the criminal justice system. It's the reason why defending the principle of trial-by-jury is so important and explains why the security establishment, if it could have its way, would favour its abolition in alleged terrorism cases.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Ricin! The Terror Plot That Never Was

Tomorrow evening, Newham Monitoring Project and Newham Bookshop present Lawrence Archer talking about his book Ricin! The Inside Story of the Terror Plot That Never Was.

Archer was the jury foreman in the trial of an alleged al-Qaeda cell that anti-terrorism police alleged had planned to release the deadly poison ricin on London in 2003. However, the Old Bailey trial revealed that the ‘ricin plot’ had been a shameless distortion by government, media and security services: there was no ricin and no sophisticated plot. In 2005, defendants Samir Asli, Khalid Alwerfeli, Mouloud Bouhrama and Kamel Merzoug were all cleared.

The event takes place at 7 pm at St John’s Church, The Broadway, Stratford E15. Tickets are still available and cost £5 from Newham Bookshop

'Police' Lose Tug-of-War To Residents On Wanstead Flats

On Friday, the police finally submitted their application for the Olympic operations base they plan to construct in 2012, so it was definitely the right time for local people to 'Take Back Wanstead Flats' and remind the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Corporation who the land really belongs to.

It's amazing what you can buy on the internet - such as one kilometre (I'm not kidding) of 'Police Do Not Cross' tape, for example - see right. Starting at around 11.30am, a group of us met up on the west side of the Flats and with gardening canes and our new rolls of tape, we marked out the boundaries of the planned police base, so that everyone could have their first opportunity to see how much space that Fortress Wanstead Flats would occupy if the Met's proposals are allowed to go ahead. And it's absolutely vast - a massive area of public land that will be enclosed by a solid 11 foot high wall.

Early on, we realised we were being watched from a distance by two police officers in a Land Rover and a couple of us made a point of speaking to them to find out what they wanted. An officer called PC Snowden, whose card says he is from something called the 'Olympic Site Support Unit' (and who I've since been told has a background in 'forward intelligence') said they had seen today's event advertised "by anarchist groups involved in the student protest", naming the Whitechapel Anarchist Group and its tiny membership in particular. Frankly it's laughable - but this is how far the 'domestic extremist' agenda has now come. If the police are turning up to a local residents' protest because of something they have seen on a website, it's obvious that 'anarchists' are now firmly back in the frame for close surveillance.

The two officers today seemed satisfied that there were no scary anarchos around - if only they'd realised the sterling support provided to the Save Wanstead Flats campaign by members of Action East End... or my own political sympathies, for that matter.

By about 2.30pm, around a hundred residents had gathered and together we walked around our freshly cordoned-off area, 'beating the bounds' in the ancient custom to protect the land. We returned for free baked potatoes and a 'Residents versus Coppers' tug-of-war contest - which as there was such a marked reluctance to don a policeman's helmet and join the 'Coppers' team, was won decisively by residents.

I'm now completely exhausted, but today has been enormous fun and another chance for those who care about the future of Wanstead Flats to gather together in its defence. Over the next few weeks, the priority has to be to encourage as many local people as possible to submit objections to the Metropolitan Police's proposals.

The planning process is handled by Redbridge council and the application is available online at http://bit.ly/wansteadflatsplanning. The campaign intends to produce a briefing on making an objection, which will be available at the end of the coming week.

I didn't take loads of pictures today but there are a few more on Flickr

Friday, 19 November 2010

Local Paper Picks Up Redbridge's Fixed Penalty Zeal

The following is from this week's Wanstead and Woodford Guardian. Thank goodness the photo in the paper isn't also online - but many thanks to Dave who e-mailed to say I haven't changed a bit since I was 21!

By the way, if there is anyone reading this from Redbridge council, you only have until Monday 29 November to comply with my subject access request under the Data Protection Act. If you fail to meet that deadline, I'm ready to see a court order to force you to release the information you hold on me.

Campaigner condemns 'overzealous council officers'

Cracking down on flyposting has helped Redbridge Council rake in more money than most councils in the country in recent years.

However, a campaigner against the plan to put a police headquarters on Wanstead Flats for the Olympics in 2012 has criticised council officers as being overzealous.

Kevin Blowe is a lead campaigner against plans for the Metropolitan Police to have a base on Wanstead Flats in 2012.

He says he was issued with three fixed penalty notices by Redbridge Council for flyposting in relation to the Flats campaign, however, he was adamant it was not him as he was at work in Forest Gate at the time of the alleged offences.

Figures from the Department of Food and Rurual Affairs for 2007/08 and 2008/09 show Redbridge to be the most prolific local authority in the country for issuing fixed penalty notices to flyposters.

Between April 1, 2007 and March 31, 2008, the council issued 401 fixed penalty notices and from the 181 penalties which were paid, the council collected £8,230.

Only Milton Keynes Council and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council made more money for flyposting and the FPN's issued by Redbridge Council accounts for a quarter of the notices issued that year all over the country.

Between April 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, Redbridge Council issued 206 FPNs and collected £3,070, according to DEFRA figures.

For the amount collected from flyposting FPNs, the authority was fourth in the country only behind Newcastle upon Tyne City Council, Manchester City Council and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council.

Mr Blowe, 42, of Rothsay Road, Forest Gate, said: "The really surprising thing is not only that Redbridge are among the highest in the country but what really struck me is half of the notices issued last year were cancelled.

"If nothing else, that's going to bring the system into disrepute - all that effort for about £3,000 is astonishing."

DEFRA figures show that in 2007/08 Redbridge Council issued 401 FPNs and although none were cancelled, 220 were not paid and no further action was taken.

In 2008/09 the council issued 206 FPNs, with 101 being cancelled and 52 not being paid and no further action being taken.

Mr Blowe, who found out on October 18 that his FPNs had been waived, claims the council plucked his name off the internet in connection with the Flats campaign and decided to issue the FPNs .

He says his name was not on the flyers and the council has no evidence he was responsible.

He said: "I have been offered an apology 'for any distress', but that's simply not good enough.

"Council officials can't exercise what are considerable powers with a complete disregard for the law or their accountability to the public."

A spokeswoman for Redbridge Council said: "We can't comment on individual cases, however Redbridge Council now takes a proactive zero tolerance approach to flyposting and this has shown a substantial decline in this type of environmental crime.

"Our Enforcement Officers are not overzealous and act on behalf of the public interest.

"The majority of flyposting relates to one-off events which normally result in the organisers disappearing after the event has taken place, therefore we find that we are unable to pursue a prosecution and subsequently the matter has to be closed.

Newham Council Seeks £80m Loan For West Ham United Whilst Planning Massive Cuts In Local Services

Next week, there are two secretive public council meetings. Those who live outside of the borough of Newham might wonder what this means - how can a meeting be both secret and public? They'll be unfamiliar with a local authority where every elected member belongs to the same political party and assembles with regimented, almost cult-like discipline. But next Tuesday, a meeting of the Cabinet takes place, with every Labour councillor in attendance. Those councillors will then remain in their seats for a full Council meeting. The public and press will be excluded from a discussion on 'Securing a Community and Regeneration Legacy of the Olympic Stadium', although really the decision has already been made. And then councillors will nod through a vote to take out an £80 million loan so that it can support West Ham United plans to lease the Olympic Stadium after 2012.

Why is such a massive decision happening behind close doors? To protect West Ham's financial and business affairs, apparently. It is perhaps just as well that so many councillors are attending the Cabinet meeting, as a number of its Members and Mayoral Advisers have benefited from the football club's hospitality or are season ticket holders - they must declare an interest and exclude themselves. This includes the Dear Leader himself, who has made numerous visits to the Chairman's Suite at the Boleyn Ground. But the decision to take on such a massive debt, at the same time that the council is planning 25% budget cut over four years, will still go through. That's the way things work in Newham.

Anyone else would think such a decision was insane. Who would borrow £80 million to give to a club that already has staggering debts, estimated at £110 million by its new owners at the start of the year? Then there is the obvious question of West Ham's current position at the bottom of the Premier League. At the start of this month, co-owner David Sullivan admitted that West Ham's debt still stands at £85 million and that relegation gives him "sleepless nights" because the club might not survive a drop down to the Championship. Why give council tax payers' money to such a high-risk partner? And why finance a proposal that a survey of West Ham fans shows has little support?

The money itself will ultimately pass to the Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC), who take ownership of the Olympic Stadium and the park after the Games. It has no funds of its own, as its Chief Executive Andrew Altman told me in a meeting just after his appointment. The OPLC, which will soon disappear as it is subsumed into Boris Johnsone's 'Mayoral Development Corporation', is completely reliant on deals such as the one planned with West Ham to pay for the transformation of the Olympic Games site into a new Royal Park in 2013. Who would have thought that 'Olympic legacy' meant burdening the people of one of the poorest boroughs in the country with an enormous debt to pay, indirectly, for London's newest park?

And who could have dreamed that this decision would have been taken in secret - at a meeting where councillors also plan to rewrite the terms and conditions of its own staff, slashing redundancy/severance payments, cutting annual leave and destroying staff morale (see this PDF for more on these plans)?

People say that other local authorities behave in this way too, but I guess you have to live in Newham, dreading the impact that devastating cuts will have on local people, to appreciate just how terribly, terribly wrong this is. After Tuesday's meeting, any councillor with even a ounce of conscience should hang their heads in shame for the decision they are about to make.

Photo of work on the Olympic stadium is from September 2009 - see here

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Plastic State Of Mind

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Reminder - Take Back The Flats This Sunday

A reminder that this Sunday at 2pm is the chance to Take Back Wanstead Flats, where campaigners intend to mark out the boundaries of the proposed site of the police's Olympic operational centre (shown in red on the map above). This will provide the first opportunity for local people to properly see for themselves how much space the police base will occupy during 2012.

The Save Wanstead Flats campaign has argued that maps or drawings can never make as much sense to local residents as seeing its massive size for themselves but campaigners would prefer not to wait until construction starts and it’s too late to stop these plans.

Don't forget to wrap up warmly - the BBC are predicting cold northeasterly-winds and the possibiliy of a few showers. See you there at 2pm!

Newham Campaigners In High Court To Fight City Airport Expansion

Tomorrow, local residents are heading to the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand to ask the High Court to overturn Newham Council's decision to expand London City Airport.

Campaigners from Flight The Flights are opposing Newham's decision to allow a 50 per cent increase in flights at London City Airport because it has failed to consider changes to government policy on climate change or properly consult boroughs and residents in the surrounding area. The council’s decision, made in October 2008, would increase flights from the airport from 73,000 to 120,000 a year. However, on 15 January 2009 the government announced its intention to reduce aviation emissions to below 2005 levels by 2050. Newham Council decided to proceed with expansion anyway, reconfirming their decision at a planning meeting on 8 July 2009 and issuing formal grant of approval.

The High Court hearing starts at 9.30am and will last for two days. Campaigners are represented by Friends of the Earth's Rights and Justice Centre and will be joined by Friends of the Earth London Campaigner Jenny Bates, Lib Dem MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford and London Assembly Member for the Green Party Darren Johnson. A decision is expected at the end of the year or early in 2011 and if the Judicial Review is successful. Newham Council would have to reconsider the application.

Fight the Flights Chair Anne-Marie Griffin said:

"The residents who make up and support Fight The Flights have worked tirelessly for the past three years to stop the expansion of this airport, which already causes so much disturbance and pollution. This hearing will allow those who were not consulted, and those who were not listened to by Newham Council, a chance of justice."

Friends of the Earth's London Campaigner Jenny Bates said:

"More flights will mean more noise and air pollution for local people – these damaging plans must be overturned. Expanding the airport would increase climate changing emissions as well as adding to breaches of air pollution limits and worsening noise disturbance locally. London is not on track to meet either its own climate change targets or EU legal air quality limits - we should be developing plans that improve the situation, not make it worse."

Gita Parihar, Acting Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth, said:

"We believe Newham Council has acted illegally by failing to adequately consult on its proposals and failing to consider Government policy on tackling climate change. This legal challenge aims to give both the planet and local people a voice in decisions that affect their wellbeing now and in the future."

See the Fight the Flights blog for more information

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Humiliated Met Police Is An Enemy Of Free Speech

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that a powerful institution like the Metropolitan Police, wrong footed and deeply embarrassed by the student protest at Millbank on 10 November, would throw its resources into a major operation to hunt down the protesters who had humiliated them. Buoyed by the ‘shop-a-student’ campaign organised by the Daily Telegraph and the obnoxious right wing blogger Guido Fawkes, there have already been more than fifty arrests.

At the same time as issuing the media with CCTV images of protesters it wants to question, the Met has also turned its vengeful eye onto the blog run by FITwatch, which campaigns against intrusive surveillance of protesters and is loathed by the police because it has successfully challenged the actions of its Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) officers. According to a report in the Guardian, the Met’s Public Order Unit CO11 have alleged that a recent posting on the blog (see here) was “attempting to pervert the course of justice” by providing guidance to students who fear they might face imminent arrest. Instead of approaching FITwatch directly about for the offending post, however, the Met's e-crime unit contacted the website’s US-based hosting company, JustHost.com, requesting the closure for entire site for 12 months. Currently it remains down, although there is apparently a back up and it can only be a matter of time before the site is moved to a new host.

FITwatch has rejected the police’s interpretation of its advice to students, saying the post was a direct response to the hysteria in the right wing press, contained nothing more than basic common sense and was comparable to solicitors’ warning to a client to say 'no comment' during a police interview. On one level, shutting the site already looks to have backfired badly – FITwatch has been provided it with more publicity than it could ever have hoped for and the post that has so upset the police has already been republished by other bloggers. The same advice to students, meanwhile, has remained online at the November 10 Defence Campaign website.

However, what is really alarming is how easy it has been for a powerful institution to lean on a website hosting company, even one outside the UK, to silence one of its more vocal critics. Perverting the course of justice, usually associated with threatening or interfering with witnesses and deliberately concealing evidence, is a serious indictable offence that would require proof of intent to secure a conviction for inducing others to fabricate or dispose of evidence, which seems like the allegation that the Met is making. Instead, the police didn’t bother with gathering evidence, making an arrest or even require a court order - one heavy-handed e-mail was enough to shut down a website without the hosting company seeking clarification for its owner or offering a opportunity to appeal.

It goes to show that there is no need for a Great Firewall or draconian legislation to censor the internet. All it now takes is a craven hosting company that cares only about making money - and a bitter, ruthless, largely unaccountable public body like the Metropolitan police that decides to suppress the right to free speech as a reprisal for its public humbling by a crowd of teenagers.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Former Foundry Bar Gets Anti-ConDem Makeover

There are those who look back with fondness on the Foundry, the dingy bar, venue and art space on Great Eastern Street in Shoreditch that closed in May and is due to become the site of a depressingly corporate 18-storey hotel. My own recollection of the bar, based on the occasional and reluctant visit, was that it was a complete dump, the artwork was awful and it was full of pretentious tossers pretending that cod-bohemianism is somehow revolutionary. Well, I suppose that appeals to some people.

Far more impressive is the 'Great Brain Robbers' mural by Dr D that has been plastered on the front of the now empty building - a brilliant piece of anti-government propaganda. See here for more pictures.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

NETCU Uses Friendly Journalists To Send Message To Government

Tucked away at the end of a piece in today's Observer about the National Union of Students' plan to 'decapitate' senior Lib Dems at the next election is this passage:

"As police face continued criticism for failing to control the march, the Observer has learned that defence firms are working closely with UK armed forces and contemplating a “militarisation” strategy to counter the threat of civil disorder.

The trade group representing the military and security industry says firms are in negotiation with senior officers over possible orders for armoured vehicles, body scanners and better surveillance equipment.

The move coincides with government-backed attempts to introduce the use of unmanned spy drones throughout UK airspace, facilitating an expansion of covert surveillance that could provide intelligence on future demonstrations.

Derek Marshall, of the trade body Aerospace, Defence and Security (ADS), said that such drones could eventually replace police helicopters. He added that military manufacturers had discussed police procurement policies with the government, as forces look to counter an identified threat of civil disobedience from political extremists".

The idea of a a “militarisation” strategy is incredibly alarmist and has certainly alarmed some people - or at least those prepared to believe that links between the police and the security industry is some kind of new development.

In reality, the rise of paramilitary-style policing in Britain over thirty years has resulted in the steady growth of an industry to supply the police with new gadgets and equipment. The trade group mentioned in the report is itself the result of a merger between three older industry bodies: the Association of Police and Public Security Suppliers, the Defence Manufacturers Association and the Society of British Aerospace Companies. Companies that are members of ADS are not talking to the police because of a new threat of civil disorder - it's what they do all the time. ADS has itself denied that its comment to the Observer about sale of kit to police forces has anything to do with recent protests.

So why pretend otherwise? I believe there is a different message being conveyed here and that the presence in the byline of Mark Townsend, the Observer's Crime, Defence & Legal Affairs correspondent, should have been an immediate indicator of the need to exercise an enormous amount of scepticism.

Some may recall that Townsend was responsible for a thinly disguised propaganda-piece for the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU) in November 2008, written with a former army officer called Nick Denning, which claimed a "growing threat from eco-terrorists" and linked this to activists involved in Climate Camp. It was such blatant police spin that the Observer subsequently withdrew the story. Townsend is clearly in close contact with NETCU and today's hysteria about 'militarisation' is followed by a more telling piece of spin - another opportunity for the Observer to act as NETCU's mouthpiece, with unnamed 'police sources' claiming an increase in "the criminal intentions of political extremists" and “extreme leftwing activity”.

In September, I wrote a short piece for the Manchester Mule suggesting that as police numbers are cut, the government may be persuaded of the benefits of cheaper alternatives such as "targeting potential 'troublemakers' even more than at present." With the debate growing over why the police were so unprepared for the student protest at Millbank, it looks as though NETCU is simply issuing a few reminders through the press to its government paymasters. It is using its friend at the Observer and its contact at the Sunday Telepgraph to say to ministers that, whatever else is cut, its role must be protected or further disorder cannot be prevented.

A substantial increase in covert surveillance of anyone deemed a potential 'domestic extremist', a term that has no legal definition and can apply to almost anyone, is far more alarming - and far more likely to actually happen - than any nonsense about a supposed 'militarisation strategy'.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Tonight's Launch Of 'Dispatches from the Dark Side'

No-one organises political events on a Friday night. It's almost a golden rule. But this evening's launch in Stratford of Dispatches from the Dark Side, a series of essays by the radical lawyer Gareth Peirce, was packed out, completely absorbing and, because of Gareth's long association with Newham, an opportunity to celebrate her extraordinary commitment to fighting injustices that most people choose to ignore.

In the past this commitment involved challenging the state over its treatment of black and Irish communities and innocent so-called 'terrorists' like the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, people vilified during an earlier period of paranoia and suspicion. Now it means defending those who are caught up in the government's new and increasingly draconian 'war' against Islamism, suppression of which is used to justify 24 hour surveillance, house arrest and state complicity in torture, actions that Britain has the audacity to condemn others nations for participating in. Who knows, in the future perhaps another group - anarchists maybe, or anti-government campaigners in general - may become the new enemies (the concept of 'domestic extremism' certainly points in that direction) and the widening powers to suppress and harass in the name of 'security' will turn onto others. That's why we need lawyers like Gareth - and as she made clear this evening, campaigns to bring injustice to the attention of a public that might prefer not to hear what has become of their 'free' country.

Tonight was also, quite deliberately, an opportunity to show support for former Guantánamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg, who has been one of those horrendously vilified over the last year. The unsubstantiated and often irrational attacks on him by Gita Saghal and her supporters from February this year, which left many of us utterly confused and then increasing angry, have undoubtedly had an effect on Moazzam - as he said this evening, he is a survivor of torture and although he tries to appear confident and articulate, like the rest of us that isn't always how he feels.

Inviting him to speak alongside Gareth was a way of expressing a little solidarity and it was great that he was able to attend. It's also to the credit of Stratford Circus that they ignored a complaint from at least one (as yet unnamed) Newham councillor and a telephone call today from anti-terrorism officers, saying they were aware of the event and asking for copies of any leaflets distributed this evening to be kept. When a literary event becomes the subject of state suspicion and condemnation by council morons, you begin to understand why solidarity is so important.

In ten days time we have another event organised jointly by Newham Monitoring Project and Newham Bookshop - about the 'terror plot' that never existed. In January 2003, the media splashed the news that anti-terrorism police had disrupted an alleged al-Qaeda cell, poised to unleash the deadly poison ricin on London. Police had reportedly found traces of ricin, as well as a panoply of bomb and poison-making equipment in the cell’s ‘factory of death’ – a shabby flat in north London. ‘This danger is present and real, and with us now’ announced former prime minister Tony Blair.

But, when the ‘ricin plot’ came to trial at the Old Bailey, a very different story emerged: there was no ricin and no sophisticated plot. Rarely has a legal case been so shamelessly distorted by government, media and security forces to push their 'war on terror’ agenda. In Ricin! The Inside Story of the Terror Plot That Never Was, jury foreman Lawrence Archer and Fiona Bawdon give the definitive story of the ricin plot, the trial and its aftermath.

The event takes place on Monday 22 November at 7 pm at St John’s Church, The Broadway, Stratford E15. Tickets cost £5 from Newham Bookshop (020 8552 9993) and copies of the book, published by Pluto Press, will be available to buy.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Redbridge Enforcement Officers 'Out Of Control'

Here’s an interesting statistic to ponder. According to information made available online by Defra, one east London council absolutely loves issuing fixed penalty notices (FPNs) for alleged flyposting.

In 2008-09, the London borough of Redbridge issued more than any other local authority and its 206 FPNs accounted for 16% of all those around the country. The year before, it again topped the list and was even more enthusiastic about threatening legal action: it issued 25% of all the FPNs recorded by Defra.

What is really surprising, however, is that in the year to March 2009, a staggering 49% of Redbridge’s FPNs for alleged flyposting were subsequently cancelled.

As I reported at the time, in early September I was issued with three fixed penalty notices by Redbridge council for allegedly fly posting leaflets about the Save Wanstead Flats campaign. At the time these ‘offences’ supposedly took place, I was at work in Forest Gate and so I refused to accept liability for paying them, challenging the council to take me to court if necessary. After some prompting, a senior official in Redbridge’s Street Scene Enforcement team wrote on 18 October to left me know that “having reviewed the evidence and circumstances in this case”, he had graciously decided to waive the FPNs, adding that “as long as there is no repeat if the original offence, you will not hear from us again.”

Although pleased that I wasn’t facing a day in court, I was understandably livid at this last comment. Redbridge council clearly had no evidence it felt it could substantiate in front of a magistrate and any ‘original offence’ involving me had never occurred, so it could hardly be repeated. With help from Newham Monitoring Project, I therefore spoke to a solicitor, who wrote to demand an apology. Today, he received an extremely intemperate response expressing anger at the accusation that the council issues FPNs without evidence. It states:

“The posters concerned were advertising the ‘Save Wanstead Flats’ campaign and bore an address, which you have agreed is your client’s work address. I would contest that in any other proceedings, this would be viewed as legitimate evidence, for instance we deal with many cases of flytipping, if correspondence is found in a bag of fly-tipped rubbish, would this not be considered evidence of the origin of the rubbish? As your client is a ‘well known community activist in the Save Wanstead Flats campaign’, what would a ‘reasonable’ person think?”

What indeed? The problem with the comparison to a stray letter left in a dumped bag of rubbish is a simple one – my name does not appear anywhere on the campaign leaflet that was apparently pinned to a tree in Wanstead High Street back in September. It’s a clear admission that Redbridge thought it ‘reasonable’, with no other evidence, to simply find a name linked to the campaign, presumably through a quick Google search, and use this as the basis for a threat of a fine or court hearing. It’s also an admission that a senior member of the borough’s Street Scene Enforcement team doesn’t understand the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003, which forbids the issuing of FPNs unless there is reason to believe that a person has ‘personally affixed or placed’ a poster illegally. That involves rather more than plucking someone’s name off the internet - such as catching them in the act of flyposting, for instance - and it’s hardly surprising that Redbridge council wasn’t prepared to risk scrutiny by a court of its officers’ flimsy conjecture.

But it is also far from surprising that so many of its FPNs are cancelled if this is the cavalier attitude towards evidence adopted by Redbridge’s Street Scene Enforcement officers, who appear to be completely out of control. Decisions about whether to send out letters demanding an £80 penalty, with the prospect of a £5000 fine for non-compliance, shouldn’t be taken lightly. But Redbridge council seems to throw them out as though they are confetti.

I have been offered an apology 'for any distress', but that's simply not good enough. Council officials can't exercise what are considerable powers with a complete disregard for the law or their accountability to the public. Meanwhile, someone in Redbridge council really needs to look at its FPN statistics and start asking questions about what on earth is going on in the Street Scene Enforcement team.


At the same time as instructing a solicitor, I made a Data Protection Act subject access request, demanding to see the information that Redbridge council's Street Scene Enforcement team holds on me. They have 40 days – until 29 November – to release this data. If they fail to keep to this deadline, which considering their casual approach to the law seems probable, then I’ll have no hesitation in seeking a court order to force them to do so. It looks like I'll be facing a hearing after all.

The Start Of Something Big?

Kudos to Spanish newspaper El Pais for photograph of the day from the national student protest at the Tories' Millbank headquarters. More great pictures here.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Atheists Don't Have No Songs

Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers perform Martin's original a capella 'gospel' tune at this year's Austin City Limits for the non-believers among us.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

'Save Newham Services' Launched

This evening at Durning Hall Community Centre in Forest Gate, the ‘Save Newham Services’ campaign finally became a reality with a planning meeting to formalise local opposition to cuts in public services. The campaign aims to:

  • Publicise, encourage, support and provide solidarity to local opposition to cuts in the London Borough of Newham.
  • Provide a point of contact and coordination for local opposition to cuts in the borough.
  • Research and publicise the potential impact of cuts on people living in Newham.
  • Put pressure on local elected representatives to stand alongside local people to insist that cutting services is dangerous, unnecessary and must be opposed.
  • Ensure that our local experience is fed upwards to all regional and national opposition to the government’s cuts programme.
  • Call for greater transparency and accountability within public services in Newham.
A website has been set up - see savenewhamservices.wordpress.com for more details.

The next planning meeting is on Thursday 18 November at 6.30pm, again at Durning Hall Community Centre. It is open to anyone who wants to get involved in developing and widening the campaign.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Newham Pledges Not To Screw Up on Release Of Council Spending Data

At the beginning of October, the Guardian published an article revealing that, despite pressure from central government, only 66 local authorities had already managed to publish every item of their spending over £500. By the end of this year at the latest, all 326 councils in England must have systems in place to provide this data.

In September, the government published its guidance for local authorities, which states that "data should be published in a timely manner and with a licence that allows open reuse" and that "files are to be published in CSV file format". Both these requirements are mandatory. However, as Chris Taggart of OpenLocal highlighted at the end of September, many of the initial batch of 66 councils have already managed to completely ignore these instructions, by publishing insufficient or incomplete information in PDF format and therefore making the data extremely inaccessible.

At least there is time for these councils to fix their failure to follow the guidance. We can expect the new England-wide system that starts in January 2011 to include many more examples of data that does not indicate department names, identify suppliers or describe what different payments were actually for.

Needless to say, Newham wasn't one of the 66 authorities that has made a start. Out of curiosity, I therefore dropped the council a line, asking whether it was able to confirm whether it intends to make its spending information available earlier, as a number of other councils have done. For some strange reason, this simple query was treated as a Freedom of Information request and the council then proceeded to take the full 20 working days to reply. And its response? This is what took all that time:

London Borough of Newham will comply with the regulations regarding publication of payments set out by Government.

I guess that's an abrupt 'No' to earlier publication, then.

But at least this otherwise anodyne statement confirms something - that Newham council promises to publish its spending on a monthly basis, in CSV format, with the detail of "all individual invoices, grant payments, payments to other public bodies, expense payments or other such transactions", broken down into meaningful expense areas and including supplier names. That's what the regulations require.

Anything less from New Years Day 2011 - including the kind of evasiveness demonstrated by other local authorities - would be a breach of that promise. Fortunately, I'll be in the country for a change at the start of next year to check and see - but it's Newham, so I'm still obviously expecting the worst...

Thoughts On Saturday's Deaths in Custody Protest

Paul Hanes of Fourman Films has posted this video from Saturday's United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC) protest from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street against deaths in police custody, in prison and in secure psychiatric care. There are also photos on Indymedia UK and Harpymarx (Louise took the great photo below).

I wasn't able to make it on Saturday because of a promise to see friends in Brighton (one I've known for 30 years) who are heading to new jobs in Europe. But for a decade, I was one of the principal organisers of this annual remembrance procession along the same route down Whitehall. After the tenth year and with UFFC essentially wound down as a campaign, those of us left making arrangements for the march decided to call it a day. Although it had gradually been ignored completely by the government and the press, without doubt the procession's most important element was the gathering together of bereaved families, acting collectively and in solidarity with each other. However, it was also emotionally difficult for many families and harder to explain how taking the same action every year was making any impact. The small group that planned each procession was just too exhausted after ten years to come up with anything else that was quite as powerful. We also really missed the crucial contribution made to the planning of the annual march by our friend Gilly Mundy, whose sudden death in 2007 was such a huge loss, politically as well as personally.

Nevertheless, there is still no other national gathering of custody-death families and that is why I was personally relieved when, after a break last year, others have stepped in to pick up the UFFC banner. From reports, it seems that the police at the gates of Downing Street refused to accept a letter from the marchers, as has been customary in previous years, which is itself a reminder that protests don't just happen but need considerable organisation. The intense security around Downing Street meant that a delegation to No 10 to hand in a letter was only possible with prior negotiation each year with the police. That didn't happen this year. One conclusion to draw from this is the need for greater skill-sharing - those of us who previously organised the march need to pass on what we know to avoid a repeat of the same problem in the future.

But another conclusion is to consider whether it is possible to hold a wider caucus or convention of custody-death families that can collectively help to organise an annual protest, ensure that it is bigger and that it reflects the true scale of the state's betrayal of bereaved relatives and their loved ones. As a trustee of INQUEST, the charity that supports families following a death in custody, I would be keen to see such a national gathering, one that enables bereaved families to meet, debate, plan and organise - and perhaps succeed where some of us failed after ten years and organise a protest every year that is as powerful as the remembrance procession, but with a far greater impact on the state and on public awareness of its failure to protect those held in its custody.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Churches Accuse Osborne Over Benefit Fraud

Three of Britain's churches have accused Chancellor George Osborne of exaggerating the scale of benefit fraud during his speech to the Commons on the Spending Review a fortnight ago.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the United Reformed Church argue that the government's own statistics show the Chancellor's claim that welfare fraud amounts to £5 billion every year is untrue. A Department for Work and Pensions report [PDF] says that benefit fraud is estimated at £1 billion and tax credit fraud is estimated at £0.6 billion, making a total of £1.6 billion. However, the report also makes clear that the remaining £2.2 billion is due to genuine error on the part of officials or benefit recipients.

The churches say that deliberately conflating these figures has the effect of depicting the poorest and most vulnerable in society as thieves. They also challenge the the Chancellor's claim that he is targeting £7 billion of uncollected tax revenues when, according to HM Revenue and Customs, there are actually around £42 billion in uncollected taxes. This suggests that Osborne is deliberately downplaying business tax fraud - the biggest shortfall was in VAT, with £15.2 billion or 16% of all potential tax was uncollected, followed by an estimated £6.9 billion in unpaid corporation tax - whilst exaggerating the level of illegal payments to welfare claimants.

I'm am not, as you may gather from other posts on this blog, at all religious but this intervention by the nonconformist churches is very welcome. Simply and clearly, it shows how the ConDems' talk about fairness is meaningless when the most senior members of the government are prepared to mislead with statistics. It's just a shame that their efforts haven't attracted more media coverage.

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.