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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I refer the House to my declaration of interest as the chairman of the Justice for Families campaign.
I remain concerned about cases in all the secret courts in the UK. The more secret the court, the more the system acts against the rule of law. Narrow freedoms of speech are at least as important as broad access to publicity—reporting wrongdoing to regulators and asking for advice are important narrow freedoms. Without academic scrutiny, nonsense can be spouted and experts can lie for money with impunity.
Care proceedings are an area of difficulty. I remain of the view that around 1,000 children a year are wrongly forcibly adopted in the UK. Gradually, I am getting more Government support in this area—sadly, still not from the UK Government. Last week I spoke at the Polish embassy, at a conference about care proceedings. Concerns have now also been raised by Nigeria, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Latvia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Spain and Turkey.
For the avoidance of doubt, my concern is that a material proportion of care proceedings go way beyond being plainly wrong and hit the threshold of “totally nuts”. I must stress, however, that I see the appointment of Sir James Mumby as president of the family division as a positive step. I also welcome judgments such as  EWHC 521 (Fam) of Mostyn J.
When the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) apologised to the children who were forcibly sent to the Commonwealth, I asked what confidence he had that such an apology would not be issued in the future for what we are doing today. His response was to ask me to send details of individual cases. I have, of course, sent many individual cases to UK Ministers. The standard response is “It’s nothing to do with us, guv”. The fact is that, according to our constitution, the UK Government must publicly accept judicial decisions, although in practice they often criticise them—except in the family division.
More recently, Australia has apologised for forced adoption. The question was put by Florence Bellone to Professor Eileen Munro about whether in the future we may see an apology in the UK. Her response was:
“I would not be surprised if a future generation looks back and thinks how horrific the quality of our work was and the damage that we did to families.”
What we have developed—this is mainly through a mathematical error in the use of the number of children in care for the denominator of the adoption target—is a care system that is obsessed with adoption. It is so obsessed with adoption that it does things that objectively have to seen to be irrational. I will not go into the details of Angela Wileman’s case, as I have referred to it before and I do not have time. I was pleased to hear that the arrest warrant was removed from Susan McCabe, the daughter of Councillor Janet Mockridge, who has been living in France with her two children for over five years. The attempts to remove her son for adoption in England, whilst leaving her daughter, gave the message of a system more concerned about winning than about the best interests of the child.
In another recent case, I read a note about the effect of the proposal for a child to be adopted out of her family. The report said:
“Since being told about the adoption, A’s mood has changed, she is clearly concerned and upset by this move, which perhaps is to be expected. However, she has nightmares most nights and is not getting adequate sleep, two weekends ago she vomited 5 times in one night.”
This case is not unique. There are even international cases where the system has taken children from people visiting the UK and refused to give them back, even though the system clearly does not have jurisdiction. That is damaging to the children, and I am prevented by the sub judice rule from giving more information here.
The international cases are particularly interesting as the assessments in England can be compared against assessments from professionals in other countries. Professionals in other countries wonder why such strange things are done—things that cause serious psychological damage to children in the UK. Working with Slovak politicians, I have managed to establish an inquiry by the Human Rights Commissioner in the Council of Europe. However, it remains the case that a problem that arises basically in secret courts is constitutionally difficult to fix, because it needs scrutiny to fix it. There is an additional challenge in that the people affected who are UK citizens are generally poorer people and less articulate. Hence, although stories about people who are foreign citizens maltreated in the UK get substantial coverage in the foreign media, there are only a few journalists such as Sue Reid, Christopher Booker and Ted Jeory who are willing to report on these cases. The speech of Denise Robertson, “This Morning’s” agony aunt, at the justice for families conference in Birmingham last December should be broadcast on TV to explain the truth.
What we actually have is a failure of democracy. In the same way as the cover-up over Hillsborough and the failures at the Mid Staffordshire hospital, we have a system that is going wrong in a large number of cases and maltreating families. In maltreating families, it is maltreating the children and the adults. It is reasonably well known that this is going on. However, the Government deny it. The inquiries that occur in Parliament do not look at the individual cases. Without looking at the individual cases, we cannot see the things that are going wrong. Inquiries such as the family justice review are dominated by the people who run the system, and hence are unlikely to recognise the failures of the system.
I put forward proposals in my private Member’s Bill, but it was squeezed out by the Government, who have still not explained why in detail. I have had a conversation with the Minister with responsibility for children, but I have no hopes from that. I have very little time left. I would like to give a much fuller speech, as a lot more needs to be said, but I will end by saying Happy Easter.
However, if you look at Section 12 of the 1998 Human Rights Act you will find:
(4)The court must have particular regard to the importance of the Convention right to freedom of expression and, where the proceedings relate to material which the respondent claims, or which appears to the court, to be journalistic, literary or artistic material (or to conduct connected with such material), to—
(a)the extent to which—
(i)the material has, or is about to, become available to the public; or
(ii)it is, or would be, in the public interest for the material to be published;
(b)any relevant privacy code.
This, which was introduced at the request of the newspapers, makes clear reference to press regulation in (b)any relevant privacy code..
None of the statute that has been produced as part of the process of establishing a royal charter goes any further than S12(4)(b) as above.
The scheme is optional. It would most likely include this blog as there are articles by a number of authors. However, given that most libel actions are about costs bullying I would be quite happy to sign up to such a scheme if the charges were relatively low.
There are then the questions as to the pressures on the newspapers to join such a scheme. The final draft of the clause about exemplary damages (21a) to my reading of it merely made it less likely that scheme members would face exemplary damages. It does not to my reading increase the likelihood of facing exemplary damages beyond where they are at the moment. There was not a division on the clause relating to the claiming of costs (I think 27a).
My perception is that these changes encourage newspapers and others to use a regulatory arbitration to resolve disputes rather than litigation without heavily punishing those who don't.
I have also spoken to Evan Harris who has said they will respond, but nothing ever happens.
This particular campaign are using a valid grievance (the hacking of phones) as a mechanism to bring in a substantial restraint on the investigation and reporting of issues involving powerful people and the establishment. The least they could do is to answer questions.
Notes: Letter to Chris Jeffries 3rd December 2012 - no response, Email to John Dickinson-Lilley 18th January 2013 - no response, Email to John Dickinson-Lilley 17th March 2013 (no response, but to be fair this is only today). Also an email to the Media Standards Trust Gordon Ramsay 11th February 2013 - no response. (The Media Standards Trust used to be the same as Hacked Off, but now they have been separated).
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On 29th January was a 10 minute rule bill. This was not whipped. I voted for the concept of protection of freedom of speech for those people who don't agree with marriage being redefined to include a relationship between two people of the same sex. On 28th January I voted to allow a regent to be appointed to be the head of the church of England. That was a whipped vote. On 18th December I voted against the second reading of the Justice and Security Bill. On 11th July there were a number of house sittings votes which were not whipped. On 12th March I voted for the retention of full house elections for the Back Bench Business committee. This was a sort of whipped vote. (Payroll only really). On 5th December 2011 I voted for greater parliamentary accountability. 30th November was a 10 minute rule bill as was 4th May 2011 and 13th Oct 2010 where I did a "both". On 10th October I voted for greater freedom of speech, but since the government have changed position to support this. (this was the "your horse is gay" arrest issue). On 9th September 2010 I voted for withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On Monday I voted four times against the extension of secret courts. The situation is quite straightforward. Secret courts are unreliable courts. The evidence tends to go astray. These are more secret than the family courts or the court of protection in that even the litigant is not allowed to attend. I accept the need to protect informants. However, PII certificates can do that - even though they have problems of accountability.
Given that the right not to be tortured is an unqualified right it is difficult to work out what evidence the government has that it needs to present to the judge in secret. An additional difficulty with this is that there is a gradual movement away from fair trials.
I have also rebelled by supporting the Yeo amendment on the Energy Bill. This, to me, is not such a different position to that of the government which is progressing on getting more cost effective sustainable energy. In a coalition compromises do need to be made and at times that can get a better result than a rebellion on the floor of the house which fails. Hence I do need to keep this issue under review.
There are two other positions I have taken which differ from the party recently. One is against statutory regulation of the media and the other is in support of an in-out referendum on the EU (once we know what the constitutional settlement is).
I, therefore, looked at writing something to make the process of dealing with phone calls more efficient and have written what is called a widget to sit on the home screen telling me who I have been talking to (or missed calls from) on the home screen. It also has a nicer contacts search using the keyboard by tapping the title line.
I have made this widget available for free to anyone who wishes to use it.
I have put it on Googles Playstore here.
It is easiest to find by searching for "john hemming".
My daughter has agreed to help me with anyone who has any problems with it. Her email address is the one registered. I have only tested it on my own phone.
If people are interested my casework system that I have used since 2004 is also written in Java. Hence I found the learning curve of writing an android widget not particularly steep.
If you want me to respond to any comment please either comment only on the past few entries or put something in your comment to make it clear what you are commenting on (the URL would help). Otherwise I will not be able to find the comment quickly and will not respond.