Tuesday 29 November 2011

Public Sector Strike Action Tomorrow

Tomorrow, around two million public sector workers begin a one-day strike over government plans to change their pensions. In total, 23 unions having voted for industrial action and everything from the courts to council services and hospitals will be affected. It's a measure of how much this represents the first serious mainstream challenge to the Coalition government - one sadly missing from the Labour opposition - that ministers like Education Secretary Michael Gove have resorted to red-baiting in the desperate hope that this may dent the 61% of the public who support strike action, according to yesterday's opinion poll commissioned by BBC News. There's a useful analysis of the claims and counter-claims by Polly Curtis on the Guardian website that illustrates the weakness of the government's case.

In Newham, however, despite the inevitable disruption, it may be easy to miss the fact that strikes are even taking place. Friends of mine who work in the public sector been rather hazy about whether there will be picket lines anywhere in the borough and the False Economy website, which has a map of activities taking place across London, includes nothing about Newham but a host of activities taking place in neighbouring Tower Hamlets, including a march from George Greens School on the Isle of Dogs to Canary Wharf as a warm-up for the SERTUC rally and march from Lincoln's Inn Fields. I'm not sure what this says about the generally demoralised state of local politics and union activism here in Newham - it's not as though there won't be extensice strike action taking place. Newham council reports that the majority of local schools will close, as will Beckton Globe, Green Street and Docklands Local Service Centres. This map shows the extent of the strikes in the borough:

View Newham N30 Strike Map in a larger map

If all goes to plan, I'll be heading into town for noon to join the march to Victoria Embankment. Let's hold the police don't decide to kettle protesters and that the key advice from Green & Black Cross won't be needed tomorrow.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Today's "Writers: Pictures in a Tunnel" Exhibition

Even after 25 years in the city, there is so much I don't know about London - for instance, that Leake Street in Lambeth, under Waterloo station, is an unofficial 'authorised graffiti area'. Marc Vallée, who with Brian David Stevens held a 'pop up exhibition' there today, told me the rumour that the pedestrian-only tunnel is still leased from owners Eurostar by the artist Banksy, who hosted the 'Cans Festival' there in 2008. Whether this is true or not, graffiti artists are quite obviously tolerated - nobody bothered to even glance up from their work as two police officers walking through while we were there.

The lunchtime exhibition included images of some of these 'writers', the result of Marc's decision to work with Brian to document the London graffiti scene after eight years of photographing political protest and dissent (which is how my mate Cilius and I know him). Some of the images from this new project can be found here and on Brian's 'Drifting Camera' blog here: my more amateur efforts from Leake Street and the exhibition itself can be found in this Flickr set and below.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Going Underground - Aldwych Station

After yesterday's Royal Courts of Justice hearing, an entirely different experience: one of my friends got hold of tickets for a rare opening of the disused Aldwych station. I wasn't sure what to expect but it was interesting to see what has become a popular film set - especially the 1970s advertising. Here are a few pictures:

More on Flickr

Friday 25 November 2011

Wanstead Flats - At The Royal Courts Of Justice

This morning I attending a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice for the first time since 1988, when I was there because my polytechnic was trying to shut down a student occupation (that time, due to lack of sleep, I fell asleep in one of the corridors).

As regular readers of this blog will know, a Legislative Reform Order (LRO) amending the Epping Forest Act was passed with little debate by Parliament some months ago. However, the Save Wanstead Flats Campaign has continued to argue that because the consultation carried out by the Home Office was so poor and denied local people a proper chance to challenge the decision, it should be overturned. One resident and Campaign member, Dr Michael Pelling, has therefore taken on the Home Secretary and Metropolitan Police by seeking a judicial review of the consultation process and the quashing of the LRO. The Save Wanstead Flats Campaign is an "interested party" in the case.

In early October, the original request for permission to apply for a judicial review was turned down by Mr Justice Irwin. Some of his reasoning was decidedly peculiar – he argued, for instance, that the existence of “a local action group that mounted an active campaign” means that “the idea that the proposal [from the Home Office] was somehow concealed from the local community is quite fanciful”. The ludicrous notion that local campaigners, with extremely limited resources (about £180 raised at public meetings, some of my time provided by my employer and the passion and dedication of local people), are able to force the police and the Home Office to release information shows just how out of touch the judiciary can often be. As the Save Wanstead Flats Campaign pointed out a year ago, the police’s decision to release limited details of alternative sites only a few weeks before the close of the consultation made it impossible to check how reliable this information actually was. We didn't have the funds or the time to check every location on its 'long-list' of potential sites.

As a result of Mr Justice Irwin's unimpressive ruling, Dr Pelling sought a Renewal Hearing. Yesterday’s presentation at the Royal Courts of Justice in front of Mr Justice Bean was to prepare for a full hearing in December. Michael asked for disclosure from the Home Office and the police of the ‘alternative sites’ they had identified in the event that the LRO is overturned – this was refused. So too was an argument against a ‘rolled-up’ hearing, which would mean seeking a renewal of the judicial review and, if successful, holding the review itself on the same day. This makes Michael’s job considerably harder, but he has managed to secure some protection against costs.

The ‘rolled up’ hearing is scheduled to take place on 5 December, back at the Royal Courts of Justice. One way of another, we will know the outcome of the legal challenge against the Home Office in defence of keeping Wanstead Flats open to the public – and it is essential that as many people as possible come along and show the level of opposition to the planned Olympics operations base.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

What's In Newham's Stop & Search Scrutiny Report?

Last week, the final report of the Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Commission ‘Review of Stop and Search Procedures in Newham’ [PDF] was finally discussed by the council’s Cabinet after it slipped off its agenda in July. It makes for interesting reading.

It confirms that during June and July 2010, compared to neighbouring boroughs, Newham’s police carried out the highest number of stop and searches under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. 'Section 60s', unlike other police stop & search powers, do not require an officer to justify having a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that a person may be about to commit a crime (although justifications under other powers can often seem pretty dubious). The report also confirms that the impact of this ‘intelligence-led’ power, usually justified to tackle knife crime, was very low, that few people stopped were ever carrying a knife and that “it was very difficult to assess what crime had been prevented by stopping and searching members of the public”.

Nevertheless, Newham's senior officers told the Crime and Disorder Scrutiny Commission that the local police have “the support of the community” in using these powers and that “consultation took place, in particular with young people”. However, the evidence provided by focus groups of young people themselves seems to suggest a far less rosy picture. The Commission found that:

"Overall, there were fairly negative connotations and experiences associated with stop and search procedures. A general lack of explanation and being stopped for no apparent reason was evident in the experiences of the young people in the groups. Feelings associated with stop and search included resentment, embarrassment, frustration and the feeling that it was a waste of time. More explanation, respect and privacy were wanted if young people were to be stopped and searched. It was also very much thought that stop and search procedures was not as random as it should be and that the young people felt targeted for a number of reasons e.g. race/ethnic background, appearance, social class, etc".

Unfortunately, the response of the Youth Strategy Lead for Newham Police, Chief Inspector Gary Brown, was not a recognition that stop & search is something of a blunt instrument, one that produces limited results in combating knife crime and is, according to the testimony of young people, not always conducted in a “respectful and dignified manner”. Instead, he dismissed the Scrutiny Commission’s qualitative research as unrepresentative compared to the “thousands of young people” he had personally spoken to.

The overall impression is that although "feedback is welcome", Newham's police treated the Scrutiny Commission as a distraction that can be safely ignored, despite statistics released in July 2011 [PDF] that show there were 13,780 'Section 60s' in Newham over a 12-month period (one that doesn't include August's riots). Chief Inspector Brown, in the formal response to the report [PDF], offers only to "look into" the recommendation for ‘young engagement classes for officers’, which somehow managed to attract some publicity in the Evening Standard last week. My guess is the idea is unlikely to ever materialise.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Fog & Sunset On Wanstead Flats

This afternoon I joined a friend to wander across Wanstead Flats and on to Wanstead Park. On the way back, a low-lying fog descended just as the sun began to set - and the result was stunning, the Flats at its most beautiful.

Photos from today have been added to a set on Flickr, "Wanstead Flats Over One Year", with pictures of the changing seasons on the Flats from October 2010.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Bank of Ideas - The Surveillance State

During the week, protesters against the banks and the power of the City of London set up the Bank of Ideas, the new squatted space at an office block owned by the Swiss bank USB in Sun Street. The Bank of Ideas has been running a series of lectures and discussions and at 2pm this afternoon, I dropped in to listen to Nick Pickles from Big Brother Watch on "The Surveillance State".

What intrigued me was the choice of speaker by Occupy London activists: after all, Pickles (right) was a Conservative Party candidate in West Yorkshire and Big Brother Watch has close associations with the right-wing Taxpayers Alliance (it shares a Chief Executive, Matthew Elliot). It is most definitely a creature of the right: it's first director Alex Deane was David Cameron’s first chief of staff. That doesn't mean the libertarian right hasn't been making some valid arguments about civil liberties and the power of the state, just as the centre-left, particularly under the Blair government, decided that individual freedoms should be abandoned, indeed sacrificed completely, in the name of 'security'.

As a result, there was little that I would necessarily disagree with as Nick Pickles outlined concerns about the growth of government databases, the unaccountable influence of Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) or the misuse of police powers of stop & search. However, much of the debate today concentrated on privacy and data protection issues and Pickles spoke a lot about local councils and the NHS, the right's traditional focus of attack (although defending the intrusive actions of useless councils and hospital trusts simply because they are public sector bodies is a trap that the left should really try and avoid more often - the state is still the state, even if it is threatened with cuts).

Where I also disagreed completely was in the emphasis on why abuses of civil liberties happen - for instance, I don't accept the argument made by Pickles that it is also the fault of bureaucratic target setting and incompetence, or that police officers actively resent having to conduct arbitrary stops and searches to meet targets. All the evidence available suggests that officers actually relish the power they exercise, especially over young people (for instance, see the Newham scrutiny commission report on stop & search [PDF] released last week). The powers to interfere, intimidate and spy on people's lives are deliberate, not accidental. Furthermore, I still think Big Brother Watch, like others, places far too much emphasis on legal processes after people's rights have been abused. This continues to feel like a response that is too late, is too much like desperately holding the line in the face of a growing surveillance state and is far too dependent upon the uncertain decision-making of another conservative part of the establishment, the judiciary.

Nevertheless, many of the points made by Pickles are arguments that sections of the protest movement are themselves making and are highlighted by the campaign led by the Network for Police Monitoring, 'Kettling the Powers of the Police'. The position of Big Brother Watch may be similar to that adopted by groups like Liberty, who I have different problems with. But they did turn up and speak at the Bank of Ideas - which, to be honest, I can't imagine that Shami Chakrabarti would ever contemplate.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Anonymous Sources Raise Olympic Trial Balloon

I see that yesterday’s Guardian article claiming that the United States has raised serious concerns about security measures for next year’s Olympic Games has been rejected by the US State Department.

I’m not really that surprised, for in truth, it was always highly likely that during the Olympics there would be substantial number of overseas security personnel, including FBI agents “to provide protection for America's contestants and diplomats”, just as it was likely that we’d see the deployment of ground-to-air missiles to ‘protect London’. The fact that “the sponsors of the Games, including Coca-Cola, will have their own private security details” was an intriguing extra, but nevertheless, some of us living near to the Olympic site have been saying for several years that our community will effectively become a militarised zone from around May 2012.

What is perhaps most significant about the Guardian piece is its extensive use of unattributed contacts from within the security and intelligence establishment – “one security official” and a “well-placed Whitehall source” – and the eagerness of these sources to blame everything on the Americans. Rereading the article, the issues of ‘concern’ they raise, from the meddling of foreign agencies to restrictions on the scope of anti-terrorism stop and search powers and budgetary limitations, look very much like their own gripes, particularly as Britain’s securitariat is notorious for its turf wars and petty jealousies . What the piece also looks like is the raising of a trial balloon for more money and more draconian powers (especially around stop & search) to see how much is shot down by politicians and public opinion (rather than the aforementioned naval missile batteries).

With under a year until the start of the Games, it feels like the process of soften us up for potentially sweeping new powers – in the name of Olympic security – has finally begun This may well mean more arguments for a ‘temporary’ reversal of the repeal of section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which allowed police to stop and search people with impunity, along with demands for a range of new laws to clamp down on public gatherings, ban protests and install a far more intimidating level of visible security in east London than many people may have perhaps realised.

The security establishment used to use the Murdoch press, especially the Sunday Times, as its vehicle for communicating its messages. The right, however, is already largely onside. That this story appeared first in the Guardian does tend to therefore suggest a more targeted audience, aiming to persuade liberals who are more likely to complain about infringements on civil liberties that draconian measures are necessary in the ‘special circumstances’ of the Olympics – and pointing the finger of blame at those terribly hawkish, ‘risk-averse’ Yanks.

Sadly, it’s a strategy that is likely to work – we only have to look at the meek acceptance of the Blair government’s aggressive legislation over a decade of ‘the war on terror’ to see how fragile the liberal establishment’s support for civil liberties can be during ‘special circumstances’. However, the implications for those living near the Olympic park remain genuinely frightening, especially if you are young, black, Muslim, poor and unable to afford to escape to Tuscany during July and August next year.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Catching Up On Political Protest

Having been away, I've missed an eventful month that has included some particularly oppressive policing (see this report from the Network for Police Monitoring) and the Occupy London protest outside St Paul's Cathedral. Today I dropped by the West Courtyard, caught up with some friends who have been taking part from the start and chatted with some new, first time protesters.

For those of us who are unable to take part on a daily basis, there are still ways of offering some practical solidarity. The Occupy London website has a list of 'tat' that the camp needs - more here.

[More photos on Flickr]

Back From India Part 2 - Haryana in Black & White

After a week back in the UK, the jet lag has finally disappeared and I'm starting to get used to the cold. One thing I've been looking forward to seeing the results from this week is an experiment in taking black & white photos using an old school film camera whilst I was in India.

Sadly, the results have been far from a success - the photo service that I used have made a complete mess of developing the black & white film. What I have learnt? That there are real advantages with digital photography - and that Bhogals Pharmacy on Green Street are complete cowboys who have no clue how to develop and print film without screwing up massively. Anyway, here are the pictures. Next time I'll go to Jessops.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Back From India

Apologies for the fact that this blog has gone rather quiet over the last month. Since the beginning of October, I have been in India visiting the school built as a memorial to my old friend Gilly Mundy, who died in 2007 at far too young an age.

Thanks to fundraising by the Buwan Kothi International Trust (of which I am Treasurer), a field in a fairly isolated rural village in Haryana in northern India has been transformed into a school with over 500 students in just over three years - and this was the first chance I have had to see it.

Here are some pictures from the school - I'll try and add more on an eventful trip to the Golden Temple at Amritsar and the India/Pakistan border in the next few days.

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