Time to legalise cannabis

I frequently read in the Courier how the Police have raided houses and caught various people growing cannabis plants. The preferred phrase for such operations is now ‘cannabis factories’ which conjures up images of Blake’s dark satanic mills. On the one hand the Police are to be congratulated on efficiently enforcing the law of the land. However I fear in this case the law really is wrong and ought to change, and using up Police resources to enforce prohibition is a folly.

In Colorado, USA the law has already changed. Cannabis is now legal and is set to raise $134M in taxes in the next financial year. Crime has halved and the criminal justice system has more time to tackle offences that hurt other people. The taxes raised can be used to help provide health services, education and help support people who are addicted to other drugs like alcohol or smoking (which due to social norms we don’t commonly refer to as drugs even though they are).

Legalisation of cannabis has to be an improvement on the current situation where the proceeds of this prohibited plant go to the black market and fund more serious forms of organised crime. That shouldn’t surprise us as the prohibition of alcohol in the US had the same impact, an increase of organised criminal activity.

Prohibition simply doesn’t work. The war on drugs is damaging society, criminalising people who are not really criminals, and wasting millions on enforcement whilst denying lucrative tax revenue that could help repair the hole in the nation’s finances.

More importantly prohibition restricts people’s freedoms and liberty. If people want to consumer a plant such as cannabis society should not criminalise them for doing so. As a liberal I’m a passionate defender of the maxim ‘do what you want so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else’. If someone complains I’m ‘soft on drugs’ so be it, to them I say this: I’m not soft on drugs, I’m strong on liberty.

Response to some of Calderdale Labour’s spin

Labour have launched into a tirade against the Conservatives, Independent and Lib Dems on Calderdale Council. After losing control control of Calderdale Council for failing to listen to residents or full Council on key issues.

1. Labour now admit plan was hatched in advance

In the meeting Labour claimed Lib Dems had wanted to do this for ages and that the deal had nothing to do parking or Hipperholme crossroads, they push that line again in press releases  the two issues which Cllrs Battye and Baines pretended this was all about”. Thankfully they have now admitted it was actually a last minute reaction as we said it was.  The new claim is “obvious that the Lib Dems had cooked up this deal with the Tories at the last minute”.

Doesn’t that rather suggest it wasn’t premeditated as they first claimed,  but a reaction to two issues as stated!  Think about it if we had wanted to throw Labour out wouldn’t we have just done this at annual Council, or last year? The balance of power hasn’t changed, so the only thing to change since then is Labour’s failure to work with other parties, and to push ahead with unpopular road and parking schemes.

2. Labour complain of Chaos after meeting, but were busying doing a press stunt rather than sorting out how Council would be run.

Labour are now complaining about the length of the adjournment after the meeting. Leaving aside the fact they themselves called for the first adjournment, we had the second  adjournment so Labour could sort out their own nominations for committee places. You would think after an unprecedented change of Council control they would be talking to the opposition parties, trying to discuss the issues that brought this about and work out how the Council would be run. Instead we now know they were busy getting hold of props and conducting a PR stunt. Labour’s press release confirms this ” Attached is a photograph of the Labour Group taken immediately after last night’s coup demonstrating that the Lib Dems and Tories are two sides of the same coin”. Their first priority was not tackling the local issues but trying to do some PR and spin.

3. Labour now claim issues were not debated at Council after voting only days previously for them not to be debated.

Labour’s minority administration had tried to push to get  both the parking scheme and Hipperholme Crossroads compulsory purchase of land passed without a debate in Council. When these issues were called-in, the scrutiny panel voted to have them debated at full Council. Labour members on those panels voted against that happening. I don’t think it’s consistent for Labour to vote against them coming back to Council and then complain when the meeting is adjourned at gone 10pm so the issues can be considered at another time when people are not really tired, and reeling from a change of administration.

4. Labour complain a cabinet meeting has been cancelled.

The Conservatives and Independent are running cabinet so the Lib Dems have no control over when cabinet meetings are held or the power to cancel them. However I think it’s fairly obvious that a new cabinet may not want to pursue the same agenda as the old cabinet. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to delay a meeting to give them time to create a new agenda, and allow for proper consideration of the issues.

5. It’s not a Lib Dem/Conservative administration

I can reveal the Lib Dems were offered cabinet places but we actually refused them.  We did not want to enter into administration with the Conservatives for two reasons. Firstly we don’t think we had a democratic mandate following May’s election to do so. Secondly we are our own party with our own ideas. We voted in this new minority administration as it promised to work in a more cross-party, open and democratic matter. We are not bound to continue supporting it if it doesn’t do this as promised.

6. But wait Lib Dems have chairs of committees….Well yea but so do Labour!

Labour’s next claim it’s  - It’s actually a coalition because Lib Dems have got some chairs of committees. The only change is that I go from being the Deputy Chair of Economy and Environment scrutiny panel  to Chair. Scrutiny panels do not  run the Council, they scrutinise the executive.  Cllr Janet Battye will chair the Health and Wellbeing board, an areas she is particular interested in.  The problem with the argument about us getting chairs and it therefore being a coalition is that Labour are also chairing committees. This kind of shoots a hole in their argument.  The reason Labour are also chairing some positions is that these are shared out between opposition groups. Labour did exactly the same at annual Council having previously agreed to support Conservatives in various  positions. It’s called cross-party working!

A few thoughts on Calderdale’s new administration

I sat in a number of scrutiny panel call-ins these past weeks where it was clear that no matter what full Council decided Cllr Barry Collin’s in his previous role as the lead member for Economy & Environment was determined to push on with plans to ignore budget Council and keep evening charges in Halifax, and plough ahead with the Hipperholme crossroads scheme. If it hadn’t been for Cllr Collin’s attitude on these two issues then neither myself or the other Liberal Democrats on Calderdale would have supported a Conservative and Independent minority administration.

The accusation from Labour is that we are simply ‘yellow Tories’ and would prefer to support the Conservatives. They argue that because we voted in a Conservative leader we are in a coalition. Of course if you were to accept that logic then it would mean that Labour & Conservatives had been in a coalition up until now as the Conservatives voted in a Labour minority administration this year!

Labour would also like folk in Calderdale to ignore that we had been working in a coalition with them from 2010-13. Labour broke their promise to honor that  coalition after securing the support of the Tories in 2013 to run a minority administration. So we clearly haven’t been waiting to put the Tories in power, as we would actually still be working with Labour if it hadn’t been for Labour’s own decision to try and go it alone,

As Liberal Democrats we don’t particularly want either the Conservatives or Labour running the Council.  We would rather return to the Committee system. Under the Committee system decisions are taken by committees comprising members from all political groups , which we think allows more Councillors to be directly involved in making and influencing decisions. We would also like to introduce a mechanism whereby any petition of  a 1,000  or more local residents would automatically trigger a debate in the Council chamber. Our desire out of all of this is to empower residents to have a say in how decisions are made.

If Labour had listened to us, invited us to talk through issues instead of allowing members like Cllr Barry Collin’s to railroad through their plans then we wouldn’t be in this situation. Some people on the left say wouldn’t it be good if Lib Dems and Labour worked together, well in Calderdale we did that, and it was Labour who called off that working arrangement. Maybe under better leadership things would have been different in the Labour group, and they would still now be running Calderdale Council.

The Conservatives on Calderdale have promised they will operate a more open style of cabinet, we are not in a coalition with them because we want to retain our Independence as a party. We thought this was more important than simply going for all the power we could grab. We will support them issue by issue on a confidence and supply basis.

We recently held a policy day and we want to pursue things our members asked us to. That includes efforts to try and fix Calderdale’s broken political system. We want to make Calderdale more democratic by web-casting meetings, a petition to trigger debates and a return to the Committee system of governance.

 

Labour try to shutdown Scrutiny panel questions on Hipperholme Crossroads bid

I’ve just come back from an extraordinary meeting of the Economy and Environment scrutiny panel on Calderdale Council. In the meeting the Labour cabinet member for the Economy and Environment portfolio tried to claim the panel couldn’t ask any questions about a Department of Transport ‘Pinch Point’ bid used to obtain money to carry out controversial works at Hipperholme Crossroads.

The reason given was that the cabinet had recommended the decision on whether or not to accept Department of Transport funding be refereed to full Council. Now whilst Part 4 Section 20 (j) (iv)’Call-in Exceptions’  of the Council’s constitution states the call-in procedure shall not apply to decisions which require the approval of full Council it does not state the panel is unable to question any backgrounds documents, or any other function of the executive. The constitution  means scrutiny panels can’t call-in something that is being recommended to Council, it doesn’t mean (as Labour claimed) that a background documents relating to that decision is beyond questioning.

In this particular case the Pinch point funding bid also relates to issues that do not require the approval of full Council such as the use of compulsory purchase orders.  Despite this the Deputy leader of the Labour group claimed officers should not even answer questions about this bid, when In fact scrutiny panels have a statutory right to pursue such lines of questioning.

Chapter 2 of the Localism Act 2011 states (my emphasis)-

(2)Executive arrangements by a local authority must ensure that its overview and scrutiny committee has power (or its overview and scrutiny committees, and any joint overview and scrutiny committees, have power between them)—

(a)to review or scrutinise decisions made, or other action taken, in connection with the discharge of any functions which are the responsibility of the executive,

So the panel was perfectly within its rights to question the Council’s Pinch Point bid to the Department of Transport. I said as much in the meeting. From questioning the bid it is clear that it contained a number of inaccuracies. For instance it claims that landowners will be prepared to sell the land required, and that a letter is attached to prove it. In fact no such assurance was given and there was no such letter. There other inaccurate claims for instance a box is ticked to say the scheme is not controversial.

What concerns me most is that Labour who promised an ‘open and transparent’ administration tried to use a false legal and procedural argument to try and shut down a scrutiny panels attempts to question its administration.  This is totally below the belt, and  typical of the secretive and controlling approach adopted by the Labour group on Calderdale.

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.

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