Long overdue — human trafficking gets a life sentence

Long overdue — human trafficking gets a life sentence

Trafficking In Persons Report Map 2010

Trafficking In Persons Report Map 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

BBC News – Human trafficking gets life sentence in slavery crackdown. All political parties agree that modern day slavery — human trafficking — is a terrible thing. What is strange is that it has taken such a long time to get anything serious done about it. Women trafficked for domestic service prostitution, men for labouring, children for forced begging, and all three for benefit fraud and other purposes, represent the very worst excesses of a society where everything has a price.

The new bill which is being introduced is being called the ‘Modern Slavery Bill’, according to the BBC. Among other things, it will involve a potential life-sentence for human trafficking. Other aspects of the proposed bill seem rather weak: seeking commitments from companies that they will not use slave labour seems to me rather like seeking commitments from companies that they will not commit murder.

The Western World lives rightly under the guilt of the 315 years of the Atlantic slave trade, in which an estimated 15 million people were sold as goods to enrich their purchasers. You can read first hand accounts written by slaves who subsequently escaped or were freed. The casual barbarism should horrify the modern reader. Slaves were beaten to death for failing to fold their hands when their master wanted to punish them. Yet these same masters would no doubt go to church on Sunday, or, if they were more in the mould of humanist Thomas Jefferson, participate in the great liberal debates of the day and create documents to be quoted by hundreds of millions declaring the inalienable rights of man.

That we should have allowed anything comparable to return by the back door is a tragedy on a scale that the mind cannot take in. And yet all the techniques employed by Atlantic slave traders — imprisonment, starvation, beatings, the threat of death — are commonly applied by today’s traffickers. They have added their own to the list of techniques.

However, the most recent figures suggest that 29 million people may be living under slavery today across the world, either in coercive debt bondage or transported to other countries where they lack the linguistic skills or legal status to make their escape. This means that — if the estimates are correct — just in today’s world, twice as many people are as enslaved as in the whole of 315 of the Atlantic trade. This, of course, does not remotely diminish the guilt and horror of that abomination. Rather, it puts into sharp relief modernity’s contribution to the history of human ethical behaviour.

Like any bill, this will go through many committee stages and votes before it becomes law. Let me urge fellow Liberal Democrats, and anyone else who has some influence on MPs or Lords, to push for a stronger bill with tighter definitions, more options for the police, and the toughest penalties.

Quite simply, the traffic must be stopped.

Why morality is none of government’s business

Why morality is none of government’s business

David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, using Tax Ca...

David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, (Photo credit: HM Revenue)

BBC News – Paying tradesmen cash in hand morally wrong, says minister David Gauke, Treasury Minister, is the most recent Conservative politician to argue the moral case for doing what government wants you to do. The problem is, morality is none of government’s business, and by attempting to take the moral high ground, Gauke is simply ceding it.

In America they have separation of church and state. It doesn’t always work that well, but at least it’s something. In Britain we have a constitutional state church which often seems to have better separation. But it does prompt calls from time to time for the church to stay out of politics which is i) unconstitutional ii) unnecessary and iii) not a good thing. When Thatcher was in power, it was bishops and archbishops who formed the phalanx of the intellectual opposition.

The Americans created a church state divide not to keep the church out of politics, but to keep the state from interfering in the conscience of the individual to worship (or not) in the way that he or she thought fit.

The thing about the state is that it has exactly two functions: executive and legislative. On the executive side it takes our money and spends it (or should) for our collective benefit. Margaret Thatcher never actually said ‘there’s no such thing as society’, but it became a meme because the phrase represented what she seemed to be trying to do. She should have saved her energy. The very fact that we have an executive arm to the state means that there is definitely such a thing, and without it the state has no meaning. We may not agree with what the state does with our money, but the days are long gone when the sovereign gathered in taxation for the exploitation of her or his own agenda without any obligation to the people.

On the legislative side, parliament creates legislation. It doesn’t quite create law, because law is what happens when the courts get round to testing and interpreting the legislation. But parliament does its best.

Unlike medieval sovereigns, that is where the power of the British state stops. It doesn’t own the English language (though the French government believes it owns the French language), it doesn’t control the medals at the Olympic Games, it doesn’t control what goes in history books or in science books, it doesn’t get to control our religion, and it most certainly doesn’t get to set out what is right and what is wrong.

Government does have a connection with morality: ministers and members are enjoined to behave uprightly, and both newspapers and the voters are swift to punish those who do not, especially those who claim one thing and do another. But, like Samuel Rutherford‘s Lex Rex, which set the law above the king rather than the other way around (an innovation in its day), morality governs the conduct of government, not the other way around.
Why is this important? I’m not an advocate of moral relativism and, as a Christian, I believe I am called to obey the law except when it is in direct violation with my conscience. However, what troubles me is that politicians are beginning to equate their own dictats with morality. Why is it illegal to pay traders in cash with the aim of avoiding paying VAT? Essentially, it’s illegal because it’s against the law. That’s all there is to it. Our taxation system is set up to reward businesses that register for VAT and keep their accounts in order so that they can claim back VAT on their costs. It’s not organised to reward businesses which trade in cash rather than through cheques. It’s an entirely reasonable way to go about things, but it’s not the only way, and it isn’t based on a moral foundation. We collectively accept the need to raise taxes to fund society, and we collectively accept the moral obligation. But there is nothing intrinsic about the moral obligation, and we might, collectively, vote out the government at some point and insist that the next government makes cash transactions untaxable, as a way of boosting micro business.
No-one is going to get hurt as a result of Gauke’s tirade. It does no-one any real harm to pay the tax that they owe. The problem is when government starts using the ‘moral’ argument for other things. War in Iraq? Clearly Blair thought it was moral. But what if he thought it was immoral to oppose it? What if he accused those who opposed it of being immoral for so doing? What if school teachers taught children that those who opposed it were by definition bad people? And what happens when a government tells the voters that voting for anyone is an immoral act — a sin?
And what about the other corollary? If government is the arbiter of morality, then, in time, we will come to accept law and morality as the same thing, thereby making anything which is not unlawful also not immoral. But the law is built on behaviour which can be proven to be illegal in court. The conclusion of conflating the two would be to say that anything which you got away with is by definition moral.
Actually, given that very few people trust politicians and the ones who do were going to vote for them anyway, this wouldn’t make that much difference. But what if we collectively accepted the right – indeed duty — of the government in power to lecture us on morality. At a particular point, it would become accepted that it was immoral to vote against the government.
This is, of course, not going to happen. But it is the logical conclusion of the Tory tax team beginning to come up with moral instructions to the public. Not moral argument, which would be entirely proper, but instruction. Like Cameron before him, criticising Jimmy Carr for being ‘morally wrong’, Gauke has stepped into a misuse of authority. We, the people, have authorised him to administer tax affairs, not to be our moral pundit.
Why docking benefits is not the answer to truancy

Why docking benefits is not the answer to truancy


Hodge Hill Girls School. This site on Hodge Hi...

Hodge Hill Girls School. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dock truants’ benefit, ministers urged | BBC. Behaviour tsar Charlie Taylor was on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, explaining why, despite his track record of holistic and child-centred behaviour work, he is now recommending docking £120 from child benefit for parents who don’t pay their £60 fine for truancy.

I believe this is wrong.

It is true that children who truant face a bleaker future. Their educational prospects are, of course, blighted. Statistically they are more likely to get involved in an unwanted teenage pregnancy, more likely to leave school with no qualifications, more likely to be long-term unemployed, and more likely to spend time in prison.

I’m not really surprised that Michael Gove looks at those statistics and says “stop truancy at all costs”, though I’m a little more surprised that Charlie Taylor agrees with him.

I grew up in what is now Hodge Hill constituency — it was Stechford then. Hodge Hill has the lowest educational attainment, as measured by GCSEs and A-levels, of any constituency in England. Likewise, it is among the worst for health outcomes, employment, and the other measures of deprivation. Truanting is a problem in Hodge Hill. However, it’s not a problem that is going to be solved by docking money from child benefit.

Charlie Taylor’s report points out that, of the 127,000 penalty notices issued since their introduction in 2004, around half went unpaid or were withdrawn. His response is to increase the fines to £60 from the current £50 and to double them if unpaid after 28 days, with the money automatically deducted from child benefit.

Coincidentally, they were talking on Today about the difficulty of getting very high earners to pay more than the equivalent of 20% income tax. Not many weeks ago we were facing national furore at the notion that child benefit should be stopped for those earning more than £40,000.

In places like Hodge Hill, many people do not make it into the bottom end of tax. Unemployment is high, earnings are low, many families have just one parent struggling to pack the kids off to school and then move quickly on to part-time job at the minimum wage. Child benefit is all that is keeping these families’ heads above water.

Take £120 away from such a family, and you have not created a stimulus for reattending education, you’ve created a cause for despair. It’s all very well for middle-class people in nice communities to say that ‘it will teach the parents to be a bit more responsible’. The reality is that the kind of people most likely to be hit by these measures are the ones who have struggled the most in responding constructively to pressure.

If we were in America, someone would already have used the term ‘tough love’: hit them where it hurts now, so that they can learn for the future. I see the ‘tough’ bit, but where is the love?

There is a reason for almost everything. Charlie Taylor did well to analyse the extent to which fines are paid for truancy. What he should also have done is explore the patterns of decision making that lead head teachers, council officers and the police to either withdraw penalty notices, or not to enforce them.
In most cases — I believe, though I can’t prove it, except anecdotally — individuals responding sensibly and compassionately to the situation recognise that imposing the fine or collecting it will make things worse, not better. Charlie Taylor’s solution is to take this out of the hands of these individuals and make the fine automatic.
You might argue — and he probably will, if he reads this article — that the consequences of truancy are so severe that the short term consequences to the families of truants are outweighed by the long-term benefits of attending education — ‘tough love’, by another name.
My question is: where is the evidence that this actually works? There is no intrinsic connection between taking money away from someone and inspiring them to go back to school. At the micro-level, the stigma of being poor, of not having branded trainers, of having to accept free school dinners, of wearing hand-me-downs, is one of the reasons why children from deprived backgrounds don’t like school. It’s not the only reason, but these things prey on the minds of teenagers more than most adults remember. If the result of a truancy fine is having to go to Cash-Converters to sell some prized possession in order to pay for food, then taking money away is going to make truancy worse, not better.
A couple of years ago we had the high profile stories of parents sent to prison because of the persistent truanting of their children. The message of the orchestrated PR campaign was clear: get your child to school, or go to prison. Did it work? Evidently not, or we wouldn’t be looking at another, similar, measure today.
The Conservatives went into the last election with a slogan about fixing ‘Broken Britain’. Mr Taylor and Mr Gove, you can’t fix things by breaking them some more.
Bradford what? Labour’s nightmare night

Bradford what? Labour’s nightmare night

British politician George Galloway.

British politician George Galloway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write this, George Galloway is already claiming a huge win in Bradford West, and — according to Sky and other sources — Labour has conceded it. In a week where the Conservatives have done everything to make themselves unpopular (cash for access, panic buying at the pumps), the love is not flowing towards Ed Miliband.

Not that it looks like the Tories are out of the woods — early indications suggested that their vote, too, had collapsed.

So what is going on in British politics, and what is going to happen next?

First, the coalition. As predicted by almost everyone, coalition politics has not been good for the Lib Dems in terms of popularity. Having been down to a low of 8% last year, Lib Dems are knocking along at 13% in the polls, despite having picked up almost a quarter of all votes at the last General Election (though less than 10% of the seats, because of the poor electoral system).

We knew this was going to happen when we signed the coalition agreement. It’s what always happens to the second party of a coalition. On the other hand, without it Britain would have been ungovernable, and we would have gone down in history as they people who could have rescued the economy, but cared more about popularity than serving the public.

I don’t expect we’ll get any credit for this, but that’s the way things are.

The Tories, though, have not capitalised on their big party status in coalition politics. A succession of gaffes including hiring and firing Andy Coulson, the News of the World guy, the cash for access scandal which is less than a week old, and the even bigger petrol-panic-buy advice. If their vote really does collapse tonight, then it’s only themselves they have to blame.

But what about Ed Miliband’s Labour?

They went into this election with a 5,763 majority from the last General Election, and they would — normally speaking — have been expecting to dramatically increase their share of the vote. No Opposition party has lost a by-election since Romsey in May 2000 when Lib-Dem Sandra Gidley defeated the Tories.

Labour’s previous run-ins with George Galloway were all when they were in power, and still unpopular across the country for the Gulf War. It’s true that Galloway has personal charm and charisma, a fighting spirit, and, most important of all, has been on Celebrity Big Brother. He’s perceived as anti-American, largely because the Americans summoned him for what can only be described as a kangaroo hearing.

Is it really his Gulf War reputation? But if Labour is so unpopular in Bradford West because of the war, how did they manage to increase their majority at the last General Election, when the matter was much fresher in the mind. True, they weren’t facing Galloway, but it was the night when they lost most of the gains they had made across the country under Blair.

Galloway may have whipped up a frenzy of Gulf War sentiment, but the reality is much more likely to be this:

  • Galloway is perceived as a trustworthy politician, someone who has paid the price for standing up for what he believes in
  • Ed Miliband is perceived as an untrustworthy politician, someone who persistently fails to accept even partial responsibility for Britain’s economic crisis, and, crucially, sounds like he is talking rubbish even when what he is saying is cold sense.
It’s fairly common to criticise the leaders of other parties and say ‘the best thing we’ve got is -name of leader of other party-‘. It’s just in poor Ed’s case, it’s really true.
Let me say that I have no objections to the man personally. He’s said a few things that weren’t great, but nothing like the way that William Hague did. He’s an unexpected leadership contest winner at a tough time. And yet, and yet, and yet…
This is the point in the electoral cycle when Labour should be sitting at their highpoint. 2011/12 was always going to be the worst year for the Coalition, with the aftermath of Tuition Fees, the NHS Bill, and the economy looking no more rosy than it did when they took office. Even in easier conditions, it’s the second year going into the third year which sets the tone for what is going to happen next. Blair was still riding high at this point in his first term, and the Tories weren’t getting a look in. The coalition certainly isn’t riding high — but Labour is now losing ground, not gaining it, and, coming up to the council elections where they would normally expect to trounce everyone, it’s not a good sign.
“By the Grace of God we have won the most sensational victory in British political history,” tweeted George Galloway earlier. He’s not given to underselling himself, but this time he might well be right. You’ve got to go a long way back to see something like this, in these conditions.
We shall see what happens next.

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