Iain Dale: The Education Recovery Plan. Williamson has very little capital to expend. Will it be Marcus Rashford to the rescue?

4 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I must admit I did have a little chuckle when I saw that Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds had managed to get married without any member of Her Majesty’s Fourth Estate finding out about it. It just shows that it is possible, just about, to keep a secret in today’s gossip-filled society.

Naturally, though, some people couldn’t quite bring themselves to congratulate the happy couple on their day of joy. Plenty of commentators decided to indulge in a bit of Talleyrand-esque “what did they mean by that” speculation. Leading the charge was my good friend Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who Tweeted this:

I scratch my head and wonder to myself how an intelligent person could come up with a conspiracy theory like that. If Johnson really wanted to distract from anything, wouldn’t he have had an all guns blazing type of wedding, with peals of bells ringing out, TV cameras present and naked dwarves wearing nipple tassels at the reception? And while he’s at it, get a blind trust to pay for it. Now that really would be a distraction.

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I’ve experienced a lot of Twitter pile-ons in my time, but this week has been something to behold. Now I generally make it a rule never to intervene in the burgeoning debate about self-gendering and trans rights. Mainly because no good ever comes of it.

On Monday I broke that rule and tweeted something which I thought was quite balanced.

What I had failed to comprehend is that you can as nuanced as you like and still fail in a quest to be balanced. The wrath of Hades immediately descended on me. The Tweet attracted more than 1,100 replies, with both sides of the argument professing to be outraged.

Next up was Darren Grimes who I invited on to my Cross Question panel on Tuesday evening. You’d have thought I’d invited the devil himself. We cover all sorts of subjects in the hour long programme, just like Question Time or Any Questions. I’ve always found Darren to be one the most articulate exponents of the arguments for Brexit, and the fact that he comes from a working-class background in the North East gives him a different perspective on all sorts of levelling up debates.

But the North London polenta-eating intelligentsia can’t cope with a North East accent challenging their preconceptions of what they think is best for the hoi-polloi. This was typified by a Matt cartoon in The Telegraph this week which should a Labour canvasser at a council house door holding a clipboard and asking: “So who are you racist fascists going to vote for then?”

The argument quickly descended from “Well you shouldn’t have him on, he’s not a virologist” (note: Paul Mason, Chris Green and Caroline Flint, the other panellists, aren’t either, but they escaped that one) to “You clearly want to sleep with him” and then ultimately “You just feel sorry for him because he’s got a small penis.”

Well, that’s a winning argument if ever I heard one. And they say people on the right are the nasty ones.

I’ll continue to invite who I damn well like onto my show, and hang the consequences. Just imagine what they’ll say when I invite David Starkey back on *opens contacts book*.

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Yet another unforced error from the Government, this time over the Education Recovery Plan.

So far we haven’t had an intervention from Marcus Rashford, the Shadow Education Secretary, but it can surely be only a matter of time before he shames the Government into yet another u-turn.

It should never have been this way. If you appoint an expert to be your adviser and then he finds out you’re only taking 10 per cent of his advice, don’t be surprised if he then quits in high dudgeon. And that’s exactly what Sir Kevan Collins did on Wednesday.

It followed the Chancellor, backed by the Prime Minister, saying that schools could only have £1.5 billion to fund the Education Recovery plan. The IFS worked out that it amounts to £50 per pupil. Risible, compared to the Netherlands spending £2,200 per pupil or the US £1,600.

And the thought that just by adding an extra half an hour onto the end of the school day would do the trick is ridiculous. It seems that Collins was supported in his case by Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary. The trouble is that Williamson has very little capital to expend so the Chancellor found it quite easy to swat him away. Rishi Sunak may well come to regret that. Over to you, Rashford.

Caroline Ffiske: How non-crime hate incidents came into force. And why they should be reformed – or scrapped altogether.

18 Feb

Caroline Ffiske is a former adviser to the New Zealand Government and Conservative councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham.

Sir William Macpherson, who led the damning report into the Metropolitan Police following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, has died, aged 94. Tributes have poured in for his groundbreaking work in naming and tackling institutional racism.

However, his legacy is mixed. For it was the Macpherson report which introduced into policing, the concept of the ‘non-crime hate incident’ which has become so controversial today.

Introduced with the best of intentions, it has grown and morphed beyond reason – more so than Macpherson could surely have imagined. How can we now freely debate important and controversial political issues, when to do so might land us with a police record accusing us of hate?

The question is of growing importance. Conservative MPs are taking an increasing interest in free speech – and Priti Patel is reported to be considering an overhaul of hate crime law.

Action would be complicated. There isn’t a single piece of hate crime law that, with a tweak or two, would restore us to a Miltonian lost paradise of free speech. But the non-crime hate incident is part of the mix ,and needs reform. Before exploring options, it’s useful and timely to revisit its origin and evolution; and also to carefully consider whether and how it harms.

The origin of the non-crime hate incident

The widely publicised Harry Miller case in 2019 helped to bring the non-crime hate incident to public attention – and gave the police a jolt.

Miller received a call from the police and was told to ‘check his thinking’ – and so learned that participating in online debate about the meaning of sex and gender had earned him a police record accusing him of hate.

When he took the matter to court, the judge agreed that the behaviour of Humberside Police, in their visit to and warning of Miller, had breached the boundaries of the reasonable. Their actions were criticised as being akin to those of the Cheka, the Stasi, and the Gestapo.

However, the judge also concluded that it was perfectly correct for the police to maintain a record of Miller’s tweets. In doing so, they were following the College of Policing Hate Crime Guidance which originated in the Macpherson Report.

This introduced key components of the non-crime hate incident; the most significant being the validity of individual perception. A ‘racist incident’ should be defined as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. That was in 1999.

Concept creep

The College of Policing’s current Hate Crime Guidance can be found here; and the definition of non-crime hate incidents here.

As inspired by Macpherson, this says that all reported incidents must be recorded. There is a reminder of their supposed seriousness; they “should not be dismissed as unimportant; they can cause extreme distress to victims and communities”. After all, they might be “the precursor to more serious or escalating criminal offending”. This reminds us of Macpherson’s original serious intent.

But, twenty years on, nothing seems too trivial to count as a hate incident. It’s anything that anyone perceives to have been “motivated wholly or partially by hostility…the victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief”. Indeed, police officers “should not directly challenge this perception…police officers may also identify a non-crime hate incident, even where the victim or others do not”. Indeed, “victims … may not be aware that they are a victim of a non-crime hate incident, even though this is clear to others”. Hostility? This from the Met: ‘evidence of the hate element is not a requirement.’

Macpherson intended the concept to tackle racism. But more ‘monitored strands’ have since been added: disability, religion, sexual orientation, and, most recently, transgender, in 2015. However, these don’t limit the concept: “non-crime hate incidents are also committed against victims who are targeted because of a non-monitored personal characteristic”.

The non-crime hate incident has become a concept without meaningful boundary – no wonder the police record people’s tweets.

The police keep notes; how is that a problem?

Firstly, the scale of the issue is not insignificant. In January last year, it was reported that police forces in England and Wales had recorded 120,000 non-crime hate incidents over the last five years.

People aren’t told when they’ve been accused of a hate incident now on police record. And there is an issue over how police handle these records.

In the Crime Report relating to Miller’s tweets, Humberside Police stated that “the suspect” was “posting transphobic comments on Twitter” and “showing hatred for the transgender community”.

This was a slur. Sarah Phillimore, a barrister who co-founded WeAreFairCop with Miller, discovered that her local police force has records describing her as ‘a barrister who has been posting hate about Jewish and transgender people‘.

Regarding her comments about Jewish people, they noted that there is nothing ‘overtly offensive’ about them, but nevertheless claimed that she had been ‘posting hate’.

Again, this was a slur. But when Phillimore asked the Wiltshire police to delete the record, they wouldn’t – and here seems to be no mechanism for review. College of Policing Guidance also indicates that records could be shared with future employers via DBS checks.

You may feel sympathy for the police as they battle the intersections of ‘culture wars’, ‘vexatious reporting’, and guidance which requires them to record trivial matters. They must, at least, minimally comply.

But here is a video from the Wiltshire Police touting for trade ‘if you experience any kind of hate crime or incident then please call us on 101 or report it online’.

More generally, the non-crime hate incident now feeds into a police culture too focused on accusing us of offence. It’s one of the building blocks, which, taken together, resulted in the police investigating Darren Grimes for a media interview with David Starkey, and arresting Kate Scottow at her home and holding her in custody for eleven hours, because of some offensive tweets.

In February 2019, Boris Johnson said of Scottow’s case: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of this internet feud, we are wasting too much time and resource on cases like this’.   Macpherson intended the concept to help drive community cohesion; I would argue that the non-crime hate incident has grown into a tool that can be used vexatiously to drive us apart.

Options for reform

The obvious route is a Law Commission Review. But the Commission is already mid-way through such a process – and it’s not boding well for free speech.

It’s more of the same: the Commission proposes to expand the reach of hate crime law, not limit it. It has proposed a new category of communication offence.  Here is a telling extract: “The offence does not require proof that anyone was actually harmed”.

No, the Government must take charge. Racism and discrimination must be taken seriously; so too, must free speech and open debate – and the pursuit of violent crime. None of these benefit from police focus on the inconsequential.

Here are some suggestions for reform:

  • The emotive concept of ‘hate’ is not helpful – would ‘discrimination’ be better?
  • Some degree of significance is needed.
  • If someone is accused of a non-crime hate incident, they should be informed.
  • There should be a mechanism for challenge.
  • Records should use non-emotive language; they should not slur people.
  • The police should not tout for trade.
  • Non-crime hate incidents should not be disclosed in DBS searches.

Alternatively, the government could grasp the bull by the horns; in the spirit of Macpherson, be bold. Twenty years on, the Conservatives could go full circle – and simply do away with the concept of Hate Crime altogether.

Toby Young: O’Brien is wrong – censorship is never the answer

12 Jan

Toby Young is the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union and the Editor of LockdownSceptics.org.

I was disappointed to read Neil O’Brien’s column on this site yesterday (‘Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists’), and not just because I’m the only person in the media whom he actually “calls out”.

He didn’t say outright that he supports the Donald Trump Twitter ban, or the censorship of cranks and conspiracists on social media, but he came close. Indeed, he called for newspapers to no platform some of the people who challenge the official narrative about Coronavirus, dismissing them as “professional contrarians” who are poisoning the well of public discourse. “We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting,” he wrote.

That a Conservative MP and the Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board should set so little store by free speech is alarming. No one is suggesting that the right to it should extend to inciting violence, and some of the things that Trump said in the lead-up to the attack on the U.S. Capital last week and on the day itself crossed that line.

But couldn’t Twitter have simply deleted anything it regarded as dangerously inflammatory rather than banned Trump outright? He is the President of the United States, after all, elected by 63 million people in 2016. Who elected Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter?

O’Brien says he’s concerned that British politics will become as polarised and venomous as American politics if the media doesn’t behave more responsibly, by which he means excluding people express views he considers false and dangerous.

However, there are numerous problems with this censorious attitude, starting with the first question that defenders of free speech always ask: who decides? After all, one man’s conspiracy theory is another man’s inconvenient truth. It’s all very well saying we should ban ‘misinformation’, but these days that’s just a euphemism for ‘a point of view I disagree with’.

Sometimes, the would-be Lord Chamberlains use the phrase ‘hate speech’ to describe the views they think should be censored, but defining which opinions are ‘hateful’ and which merely controversial is notoriously difficult. Last year, I started an organisation called the Free Speech Union, and many of our members have been kicked off social media platforms for breaching anti-hate speech rules, even though their views would be considered perfectly reasonable by ConservativeHome readers.

To give just one example” a trans activist started a petition on Change.org last year demanding that the OED change its definition of woman from “adult human female” to something less “exclusionary” – i.e. delete the word “female”. The feminist campaigner Posie Parker responded by launching a counter-petition on the same platform, asking the OED to retain its definition. Change.org took it down, explaining to Posie that defining a woman as an “adult human female” was “hate speech”.

But even if there was a consensus among right-thinking people about which points are beyond the pale, would that be a good reason for banning them? I’m not talking about stirring up racial hatred, which I would never defend, although the bar needs to be set a lot higher than it was by the police in the Darren Grimes/David Starkey case.

But what about the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Washington is run by a cabal of devil-worshipping paedophiles? If you’re concerned that people’s belief in this theory may lead to their estrangement from civil society – or worse – isn’t it better to let its proponents set out their case in the public square, where it can be rebutted with reason and evidence? If you suppress it, not only will you deprive people of the opportunity to hear these rebuttals, you will probably convince some fence-sitters that it’s true. After all, if it is obviously and transparently false, why hush it up?

As the Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, said: “if there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence”.

Which brings me to Neil O’Brien’s disapproval of lockdown sceptics. In his article, he smears me and the contributors to the sceptical website I run as cranks and conspiracy theorists, lumping us together with Covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers. He even puts inverted commas around the word “scientists”, as if no respectable scientist could be anything other than four square behind the lockdown policy.

This is plainly ludicrous. There are plenty of mainstream scientists, not to mention psychologists, sociologists, economists, historians, philosophers, statisticians, actuaries, financial analysts and novelists – even some Conservative MPs – who believe the harm caused by the lockdowns outweighs the harms they prevent.

They’re not Covid deniers or anti-vaxxers – just people who are sceptical about prioritising saving people from Covid-19 at the expense of everything else, including other deadly diseases, mental health, children’s education, the economy and our civil liberties. Many of them are contributors to Lockdown Sceptics.

O’Brien is perfectly entitled to think this is a dangerous, irrational point of view, just as most of us think his fanatical support for lockdowns is dangerous and irrational. The difference is that we don’t think he should be kicked off Twitter or no-platformed by the mainstream media. We believe in free speech, which means we think the best way to determine when the current restrictions should be lifted – and weigh up the costs and benefits of the lockdown approach more generally – is through vigorous, open debate.

Daniel Hannan: Overstretched – that’s how our police see themselves. So how have they found time to hound a young Geordie journalist?

14 Oct

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Which of the following do you reckon constitutes a public order offence? Holding a demonstration in defiance of lockdown rules; vandalising a statue; recording an interview with a well-known Cambridge historian in which he makes a racist remark.

If you picked the third option, you could have a glittering career in the Metropolitan Police. London’s coppers, who switched from heavy-handed enforcement of the lockdown to indulgence of Leftist demonstrators, who literally dropped to their knees during violent protests, and one of whose commanders went so far as to issue a video asking BLM agitators to break the law considerately, has decided to investigate Darren Grimes over his interview with David Starkey.

Grimes, a Eurosceptic commentator, has been interviewed under caution in connection with Section 22 of the 1986 Public Order Act which makes the producer of a broadcast containing abusive or threatening language liable if “(a) he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or (b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.

No one, as far as I can tell, has defended Starkey’s assertion that, had the transatlantic slave trade constituted a genocide, “there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks”. Indeed, the dyspeptic doctor himself has issued a (for him) exceptional apology.

We can all agree that his remarks were intemperate, inaccurate and impolite. More than that, they were racist – a word that has been cheapened throughoveruse, but which applies in this case. A racist remark, though, does not in itself constitute a crime. The test is whether anyone hearing it would be stirred to racial hatred. In this instance, it seems vanishingly improbable. The common reaction, as we have seen, was a shudder of distaste at the speaker.

There used to be a clearly understood distinction between opinion (“Why are there so many damn Archenlanders in Narnia?”) and incitement (“Are you just going to stand there and let these Archenlanders violate our Marshwiggles?”) But that distinction has been systematically demolished, partly through legislation, partly through judicial activism and partly through over-eager policing.

It seems highly unlikely that the action against Grimes will result in a prosecution, let alone a conviction. But that doesn’t make it OK. For one thing, every investigation of this kind diminishes civil liberties and undermines the police. For another, there is a human cost even in cases that don’t reach court. As Mark Steyn (himself a victim of frivolous and malicious hate crimes accusations) puts it, “the process is the punishment”.

Grimes spent the better part of four years fighting off vexatious charges brought by people who resented the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum. Although he was completely exonerated in the end, nothing could undo the stress, the financial cost and the damaging media reports. Now, he faces going through another such ordeal. And the poor chap is still only 27.

Hate crimes are one of the places where we hear screeching gears as our politico-legal class pulls one way and public opinion the other. It is incomprehensible to most people that a police force that claims to be overstretched and underfunded can find time to chase a young Geordie journalist (“investigate crimes, not Grimes”, as one wag put it).

There is also a strong suspicion of partiality. Had David Starkey made his remarks in, say, a Guardian interview, does anyone seriously imagine that that paper’s editor would find herself under investigation? Yet, as the public looks on in bewildered alarm, the Law Commission is plugging ahead with its attempts to extend hate crimes legislation even further – this time to include misogyny.

Labour MPs have piled in against Grimes. Karl Turner, a shadow law minister, came out with a singular definition of free speech when he declared: “Of course everyone has the right to freedom of expression. But that doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences from what they have said. As I understand it, the police are investigating complaints. And it is right that they should investigate racist behaviour.”

Got that? You have absolute freedom of expression, but you may end up getting your collar felt if you exercise it in the wrong way.

Keir Starmer agrees. “I think it does sometimes have to involve the police,” he said on Monday. “There has got to be a level of tolerance of course, but there is a line which can be crossed, and it’s very important that it is investigated, and that in some cases there are prosecutions.”

Starmer has what coppers call “previous” here. When he was Director of Public Prosecutions, he reportedly overruled his staff to insist on pushing ahead with a case against someone who had made a joke on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood airport.

If Boris Johnson moves to reverse the spread in these illiberal laws, he will be in the happy position of having the electorate with him but Labour against him. That, though, is not why he should act. He should act because, until he does, there will be many more travesties: more wasted resources, more ruined lives, more tarnished liberty. “It’s a free country”, we used to tell one another. Let’s make it one.