Restriction to public bodies that can access RIPA – Missing in Action

Last week I spoke to Julian Huppert MP about my concerns with the DRIP Act that was then passing through parliament. He informed me that one safeguard the Liberal Democrats had won was a restriction to the number of organisations that could access communications data retained under the new act through use of RIPA powers. If you are not familiar with what RIPA is then here is a good report on it by Big Brother Watch.  Julian informed me the bodies that could access RIPA powers would be restricted via a Statutory Instrument.  The same claim was made by Julian in his article on Liberal Democrat Voice:

We will restrict the number of public bodies that are able to approach phone and internet companies and ask for communications data. Some bodies will lose their powers to access data altogether while local authorities will be required to go through a single central authority who will make the request on their behalf.

A restriction to the bodies that can access RIPA would be a good liberal move, restricting some of the more frivolous abuses of surveillance powers. Currently these restrictions it was announced the Lib Dems had won are missing in action. If you spot them please let me know!

Parking Changes at Calderdale

So this rather long post is all in response to some questions about parking  charges Andrew Marsden has raised on his local blog. Andrew’s comments are put in quotes.

The Conservative opposition assisted by the Liberal Democrats announced in February their success during a full council meeting. They obtained a democratic decision at the full council meeting to reverse increases to Car Parking charges thus amending the CMBC annual budget due to be implemented with effect from 1st April 2014.

Assuming as with a vote at Westminster a vote in the full CMBC Council is binding and can only be over turned by another vote the planned Calderdale increased Car Parking chargesmust be reversed? If this is not so Democracy in CMBC is an illusion, it does not exist

Before the budget Council meeting the Liberal Democrats and Conservative groups publicly announced they would make an amendment  to Labour’s budget proposals. This amendment included a line on improving local parking arrangements. At the start of that meeting Labour announced they would bring forward a revised set of budget proposals that actually accepted the vast majority of that amendment put forward by the opposition group.  One of the lines they accepted included the proposal to reverse the recent parking charges. You can see in the minutes their budget proposals are described as ‘revised’ and there is money allocated in the Economy & Environment budget to cover the cost of local parking improvements. In the meeting Labour said (and I paraphrase) “that this parking change was not one they would have chosen, but they were happy to accept that revision”. It is not even the case that Labour were outvoted on this, but rather they accepted this change and voted for it themselves.

Barry Collins CMBC Cabinet’s Deputy Leader did state “Cabinet will be reporting to full council in the near future on the review process required by the budget decision on parking charges taken earlier in the year” See Car Parking, with a possible sting in the tail? June 2014. Do we now know this was a delaying tactic meaning the Cabinet will not accept this change?

The February meeting was budget Council. At this meeting the full Council sets the budget for the following financial year. Following that meeting at annual Council in May the Council appoints a leader.  Calderdale Council currently operates under a cabinet system introduced by Tony Blair through the Local Government Act 2000. Under this system the Council elects a leader and then  the leader appoints a cabinet. The cabinet is the main decision making body  who have executive powers to implement the budget.

So Councillor Collins was right, the cabinet would have to create a paper on reversing the charges. Also we are told the change in parking would require a traffic regulation order and as such there would need to be a statutory review process. Some Conservatives have argued the charges could have been reversed under a different legal procedure.

As we are aware of the outdated, overly complex, confusing, labyrinthine bureaucracy that is CMBC we must assume there are legal ways and means for a minority of members to overrule a full council vote!

Is this recent decision to overrule a full council vote legal or not? If it is legal thenDemocracy in CMBC is indeed an illusion, smoke and mirrors. Was it that Opposition Conservatives, Liberal Democrats not understanding CMBC rules were simply lead up the garden path by those who do!

It is the case in minority administrations that the cabinet could make an executive decision within the budget set by full-Council that did not implement the full will of the Council. In this instance despite the Labour group announcing they would support the decision they have decided instead to use the money allocated in the budget (under a line ‘improving local parking arrangements) not to do as they said they would e.g. reverse the charges, but rather announce a prize freeze.

It is my view that this is an undemocratic way in which to operate a cabinet in a minority administration. The Council elects a leader to implement the will of the Council and its budget. In this instance that leader and his cabinet have done a u-turn on what they said to carry on with the parking charges that Cllr Barry Collin’s is obviously keen to see retained.

Does Council Leader Tim Swift or the up and coming Conservative Leader in waiting Scott Benton need to consult the CMBCOracle, as to whether this is legal and then let ratepayers know the answer expressed in non political words folk can understand.

The CMBC Oracle, who is this you ask! Calderdale’s exceedingly well paid legal beaver the Senior Officer for Democratic and Partnership Services, Ian R Hughes. He will know!

It is legal in my opinion. You could argue that the cabinet  was acting ultra vires if it spent a budget allocated for x on y, but in this instance the expenditure is still on local parking charges so that argument wouldn’t hold any water.  You have to understand that full Council sets a budget, elects a leader and then that leader is free to wield executive power or simply ignore full Council. Ultimately of course Council still has the power to sack the leader if they are not being listened to. At the annual Council Cllr Tim Swift was elected leader with the support of the Conservative group. He then went onto form his minority Labour administration.

Or has the Ruling Party just re grouped to out manoeuvre the opposition? If so will any opposition leader “fess up” to being outsmarted instead of crying foul?

I don’t think anyone is calling foul, but rather calling u-turn. The Labour party accepted this change themselves, everyone understood the change would happen. Cllr Collin’s and Cllr Swift said to me before annual Council that they would listen to opposition parties and not carry on as if they had a majority.  Now it seems Cllr Collin’s and Cllr Swift never really meant to reverse this parking change. They schemed instead to keep evening charges and use the money allocated for this price freeze (although I didn’t know a price rise was on the cards, so where will the rest of the money go?). So that’s where we are and how we got there. Now where are things heading to?

Although cabinet has executive powers, the scrutiny panel can call-in decisions.  –  The evening parking charges will be called into the Economy and Environment scrutiny panel, I’ve signed a call in notice requesting this and the Conservatives are asking for this too.  The panel will have a chance to question the executive as to why they have done a u-turn and ignored the clear will of full Council. There will also be questions around the cost of the new cabinet proposals.  The panel can agree to release the decision for implementation, recommend to cabinet that it reconsiders or refer the matter back to full Council.

Ultimately unless the leadership of Calderdale Council is challenged then Labour could just push ahead, ignoring everyone else and implementing the decision. I believe Cllr Barry Collin’s is stubborn enough to try and push this through.  The question will be really whether the rest of the Labour group will let him push through an unpopular policy or whether the political pressure will build and force them to do another u-turn.

 

Bedroom Tax needs to be scrapped

The interim report on the removal of the spare room subsidy aka Bedroom Tax makes for sobering reading. Only 4.5% of those affected have downsized to a smaller property, compared to 6% who have been forced to borrow on either credit card or take out loans to cover their additional costs. It’s clear from the evidence that the policy is failing to achieve the aim of  freeing up social housing for families desperately in need of larger houses as they have children living in overcrowded accommodation.

When this issue was debated in Calderdale Council I supported the broad efforts of the policy to try and help families  living in overcrowded housing find suitable accommodation. I put in an amendment to a Labour motion condemning the Bedroom tax that  sought  to introduce some practical measures to lessen any negative impact of the policy.  Although Labour’s motion was critical of the policy, I considered it grandstanding  that didn’t offer anything practical that would actually help local residents.

Now the policy has been in place and its impact has been assessed it’s abundantly clear it needs to be radically altered. The result of the policy as it stands is that more people are falling into personal debt and financial problems. Additionally the evidence shows the policy isn’t achieving it’s aim of encouraging people to downsize.  When the facts change, so should people’s views. I hope other Liberal Democrats that had supported the aims of this policy will now agree with me it’s not working and needs to be changed.

Liberty claim new surveillance powers breach Human Rights

A joint Liberty, Privacy International, Open Rights Group, Article 19, Big Brother Watch, English PEN briefing on the emergency surveillance powers announced by the coalition government claims powers granted by the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) would breach Human Rights legislation.

In an email sent to parliamentarians Liberty make the following statement:

“Clause 1 of the Bill contains powers for the Government to continue to mandate blanket retention of communications data within the UK for 12 months. This is in direct contradiction of a CJEU judgment, delivered in April, which held that blanket indiscriminate retention of such private data breached human rights. The judgment laid out ten criteria for proportionate retention and access to communications data that are ignored in this Bill. The Government has known of the judgment for over three months and cannot justify the ‘emergency’ it now claims.”

The question should no longer be whether Lib Dem MPs won enough concessions, but whether they are prepared to back a bill that Liberty claim is in direct contradiction to a European Court of Justice ruling on Human Rights.

You can read the briefing in full here

Briefing on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill

Data retention – Devil is in the detail

Emergency legislation has been announced today on new data retention legislation. I think those of a Liberal mind should rightly be very sceptical of legislation which apparently had the backing of all three party leaders before it was announced to the public.  To give a bit of background there is a need for new legislation after the EU data retention directive got struck down by the CJEU. Since that happened in April the UK has been carrying on with its blanket data retention regime.

The significant part of that ruling is in para 58

“Restrict retention to data that is related to a threat to public security and in particular restrict retention to a particular time period, geographical area and / or suspects or persons whose data would contribute to the prevention or prosecution of crime.”

That should kill blanket retention dead, unless the UK can demonstrate it’s needed for national security and proportionate for a democracy. That will probably be heading to Strasbourg for a ruling (although it’s worth noting Terrorism is generally considered  a criminal issue than national security issue, as despite the serious threat it posses to life and property it rarely if ever actually threatens the integrity of the state).

New Secretary of State powers

The Liberal Democrats were/are  in a very powerful situation to demand compliance with that aspect of the ruling as the price of any new legislation. The new legislation is presented to us as the status quo with some additional protection for civil liberties. This isn’t actually the case as it contains a number of provisions for the Secretary of State to make future changes to it via means of Statutory Instruments (a parliamentary procedure that lacks real scrutiny). In this regard it is actually enabling legislation that allows for the potential of illiberal measures to be pushed through by the Home Office and Home Secretary. Either in another future emergency, or more likely overtime slowly with a series of seemingly banal changes.

The Secretary of State may by regulations make further provision about the
Such provision may, in particular, include provision about
(a) requirements before giving a retention notice,
(b) the maximum period for which data is to be retained under a retention 5
notice,
(c) the content, giving, coming into force, review, variation or revocation
of a retention notice,
(d) the integrity, security or protection of, access to, or the disclosure or destruction of, data retained by virtue of this section

and

Any power to make regulations under section 1ó
(a) is exercisable by statutory instrument,
(b) includes power to
(i) confer or impose functions (including those involving the exercise of a discretion) on any person (including the Secretary of State),

No expert or public input

The other real problem this legislation has is that technical legal and privacy experts have been given no opportunity to contribute towards it. As they normally would do via means of public briefings to MPs and political parties. It’s disingenuous to spin this as an emergency as the need for new legislation stems from a court ruling that happened three months ago. Nor has there been any public debate around the nature of new powers that are needed. Both of these things should give any mature democracy cause for concern. It’s also a strategic mistake as it’s really going to upset privacy and civil liberty groups. Hence why you have reactions like this from ORG, a negative reaction from Liberty and from NO2ID.

No Emergency stop the data retention stitch up 

DRIP bill means future torrent of surveillance powers.

Emergency data law: “A debate for the future”? 

Agreement on scrutiny panels torn Up

The long-standing agreement that on Calderdale Council the Chairs and Deputy Chairs of Scrutiny Panels should not come from the same party as the Cabinet member has been torn up by the other parties as Conservative and Labour Councillors voted to appoint a Labour Deputy Chair for the Children & Young People Scrutiny Panel.  The agreement has worked well for over a decade, and helped ensure the scrutiny was an independent voice. I’m concerned that the Children and Young People’s scrutiny panel with have a Labour deputy Chair, when it’s Labour who are also making the executive decisions in this department.  The risk is they will give an easier ride to the wife of the Labour leader who has been reappointed as the cabinet member for the department which has been criticized by Ofstead.

Conservatives back Labour to run Council

Conservative Councillors have voted to appoint a Labour Councillor as Leader of the Council. Labour does not have a majority on the council, so the election of a Labour leader was not a certainty. However, the Tories made sure that it did happen by backing Labour and Cllr Tim Swift as leader of the Council.

Although Labour won nine of the 17 seats this year, they got less than one-third of the votes cast. Their vote went down by about 3,000 and their share of the vote by about 7% compared to the last elections in 2012. That’s not exactly a mandate to govern or a ringing endorsement of their work over the last year.

I hope residents who voted Conservative will question why their Councillors backed Labour when it came to the vote given they claimed to be acting in opposition on their leaflets!

Work on the Green Economy

I’ve recently participated in a large bit of work into developing the Green Economy here within Calderdale. I co-chaired this cross-party scrutiny review. It was very pleasing to be able to get involved with this piece of work given a long standing interest in green issues, and previous involvement in groups such as Friends of the Earth.

One of the main things to strike me from this piece of work is how slow large organisations like the Council are at making changes to things we would so easily do at home.  This perhaps isn’t surprising to anyone who has worked in a local authority, but we really ought to be doing a lot of simple things a lot more quickly. For instance the review heard from an electrical lightening wholesaler who explained how easy it would be to upgrade the Council’s lights to LED lights. I’ve made the switch over to LED lightening at home already and they save loads of energy (and therefore money) whilst not taking as long to light up as the old energy saving bulbs.

Wind

The Council really needs to pick up the pace of change on a lot of these things. Investing in energy saving measures now will not only save on CO2 emissions, but also save drastically on the Council’s energy bill, that in turns mean more money to spend on the services we value and rely on.

You can download a copy of the full report, and the ten recommendations it made to the Council from the following link

Green Economy Review

Cutting air pollution in Calderdale

The government has announced a £5 million fund to help cut vehicle pollution. Grants of up to £500,000 are available for authorities to apply to. The money can then be used to adapt Council vehicles to ensure the emit less pollution. I’ll be asking questions to ensure that Calderdale Council makes use of this fund if any of our local fleet of vehicles need adapting.

Air pollution from vehicles is a problem across parts of Calderdale. There are several hot spots in areas like Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Hipperholme. According to Public Health England it’s estimated that around 5% of all deaths among the over 25s is linked to long term exposure to air pollution.  So it’s not just an environmental issue, but also a public health issue. It’s something I raised as an issue in the Economy & Environment scrutiny panel that I currently c0-chair. If you are interested in finding out more about the current monitoring of air quality undertaken by the Council. then you can download the following briefing note on the issue that was provided to the panel in response to the questions I raised.

Brief note to Scrutiny May 14 – Air Quality

 

Still no flood recovery website

Last year the Economy and Environment Scrutiny panel of Calderdale Council examined the ongoing flood recovery operations of Calderdale Council. One clear recommendation to come out of that work was that the Council’s progress at delivering flood recovery, and resilience against future flooding should be published on a publicly focused web page.

Minute F22/16 of the 8th August 2013 Scrutiny Meeting Meeting

(b) the Flood Resilience Strategic Partnership Manager, in consultation with the Director, Economy and Environment and the Cabinet Member for Economy and Environment and in liaison with the Council’s Marketing and Corporate Communications and Web Teams, be requested to look at the introduction of a prominent, publicly focused web page on the Calderdale Council website which provides regular updates to the public on the ongoing flood recovery/delivery work and that the updates on progress be provided on a traffic light system of information wherever possible.

Nine months have passed since that recommendation was made, and still no such website exists. Letting people know how things are progressing in this area of work is of vital importance in an area at high risk of devastating floods. Calderdale Council could do  a lot better in communicating it’s flood recovery work.

While we are on the topic of floods, it would also be nice if the Government could provide the kind of support for Northern Mets affected by flooding as it has some of the Southern Counties!

 

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