This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Scoffing at a meaningless apology

I feel the need to explain myself to you, my dear readers, you curious onlookers at this journalistic car crash that I call a column. Yet again "Baby Blunkett", Charles Clarke, features in this week's light-hearted romp through our postmodern, liberty-lite, corporately sponsored Labour landscape. Though I will admit to being mildly fascinated by some aspects of Clarke, in particular how his face manages to look like a scrotum with a hangover, I insist that I am not fixated on him. There are no pictures of him covering my bedroom walls nor do I send him Hallmark cards with pictures of kittens on the front and "I thought our love was special" written in blood on the inside. He features yet again simply because he is so steeped in new Labour funk.

Recently, Clarke's boss managed to apologise on behalf of the British state to the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven for their wrongful imprisonment. Admittedly, it was long overdue, but the apology when Tony Blair met Gerry Conlon and others face to face in private was hugely important for them, and is indeed an example of what our judiciary and executive should be doing more often. Yet for me, this apology, when placed alongside the general practice of dealing with such cases, has about the same sincerity and commitment to justice as an al-Qaeda victim support hotline.

How does the British state apologise to those it wrongfully imprisons?

Vincent Hickey and his cousin Michael Hickey served 18 years after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of Carl Bridgewater, a newspaper delivery boy. The Home Office gave them a special type of apology: it charged them £60,000 each for food and lodgings they received while wrongly imprisoned. The Home Office is fighting legal challenges for the right to charge B&B to innocent people, to be deducted from their compensation, no doubt for all the trouble they caused by not being guilty.

What kind of "sorry" did Johnnie Kamara get? Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981 for the murder of a betting-shop manager, Kamara served more than 19 years, of which nearly 16 were spent in solitary confinement, one continuous stretch lasting four and a half years. He was released suddenly, when the authorities produced a mere 201 eyewitness testimonies that had not been disclosed at the trial. One of these came from the headmaster at Kamara's sister's school; he vouched that Kamara was in his office at the time the murder took place.

What repentant arms stretched out from the British state when Kamara, who had suffered depression in prison, was released? He was left on the steps of the Court of Appeal with £46, a Travelcard and some bin liners with his belongings. The state wouldn't help an innocent man, who had served years in solitary confinement, find a bed for the night.

Admittedly, two years after his release, a small special unit at the Royal Courts of Justice in London was created to provide help and assistance specifically to victims of miscarriages of justice - a small but significant step. However, the biggest problems are not learning how to fill in forms, but psychological.

Dr Adrian Grounds is one of the few professionals to assess the psychological effects of wrongful conviction and imprisonment. His findings were published last year. In a period of more than ten years, Grounds assessed 18 men, all victims of miscarriages of justice, including four of the Birmingham Six and one of the Guildford Four. He found that 14 of the 18 "fitted the diagnostic category of enduring personality change after catastrophic experience". Twelve met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. "Since release, ten of the men had suffered from depressive disorders; five had additional features of panic disorder; four had paranoid symptoms; and three had alcohol or drug dependence."

About 35 people are found to be wrongfully convicted and released each year in the UK. A sizeable number are, quite simply, fucked up and need treatment. But do you think a government that charges innocent people for prison food and lodgings is going to provide practical mental-health support? Well, yes, actually. They have in the past. Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy who was taken hostage in Beirut and held captive for five years, was rightly given counselling on his release, as were members of his family and those who campaigned for his release. And quite rightly, we would have been outraged had the militias that held him captive tried to hand him an itemised bill for the pitas, beans and falafel he consumed. That, I am afraid, is the extent of Britain's treatment for wrongfully held innocent people.

So until Clarke funds effective mental-health treatment for those released after a miscarriage of justice, his boss's "sorry" will continue to ring false compared to the state's determined abandonment of those whose health it has destroyed.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Imagining a UK without migrants

The best thing that could happen to resolve Britain's immigration issues would be for all immigrants to leave Britain. They should not tell anyone of their plans. But late at night, while white Britain is tucked up safely in bed, they should sneak out quietly. Find a good vantage point. Sit back. And watch Britain grind to a halt.

Watch as the health service collapses, building sites stagnate, hotels implode and schools panic as they frantically call up every supply teacher that ever uttered breath in a classroom. I estimate that it should take less than a week for Britain to issue a formal apology to every migrant, though we should allow for six months if the immigration service is posting out the letters.

That immigration and asylum should be such important topics in the run-up to a general election campaign shows a huge failure on Labour's part. Many Britons believe the proportion of immigrants in this country to be between 22 and 24 per cent. In fact, the figure is roughly 4-5 per cent. So either immigrants are all doing the work of five people, creating the impression that there are more of them, or most white British people are hallucinating and walk around shopping centres thinking, "Zulus! Thousands of 'em!" Or it means that Britain is still a petty little xenophobic nation, where people's vision of reality is warped with bigotry.

It is to this gallery that Michael Howard, the Tory leader, and Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, now play. We expect it of Howard - he was always going to work the crime and immigration field, rather than health and the economy where no one takes him seriously. He was on the TV news recently, attending a police raid on a drug house, possibly looking for people stoned enough to vote for him. The cops charged into the building, while Howard hung around in a fluorescent jacket marked "POLICE", with the demeanour of a kid on a "bring your children to work" day. Unfortunately, no one in the drug house mistook Howard for a burglar and battered him to death in defence of their property.

You might not think that there is much room to the right of Howard, after his promise to put quotas on asylum-seekers and his talk of a fantasy island where they would be held until their claims could be processed. But if his rants play well with the electorate Howard will continue to tack to the right. Eventually, he will act retrospectively and deport himself.

However, the past few weeks have been defining ones for Clarke. I don't think we need a DNA test to know he is David Blunkett's true son; there's no mistaking David's "little lad". Not content with keeping former detainees at Belmarsh Prison under house arrest, or trying to deport them (with a promise that they won't be tortured) to such human-rights-loving countries as Egypt and Algeria, Clarke has now decided to play with Howard on immigration and asylum.

Sir Bill Morris, the black former trade union leader, is right to describe the process as one of a "bidding war" to get tough on immigrants and asylum-seekers. But it is a war of Labour's own creation. It was Jack Straw and Mike O'Brien, Straw's junior at the Home Office, who first started punting the phrase "bogus asylum-seekers". It was Straw and O'Brien who introduced laws that forced asylum-seekers (who are forbidden from working) into selling any possessions they might have over the value of £200 for a single man, before they could claim benefit. The value of that benefit was only 70 per cent of the value of everyone else's, and that was set by Straw and O'Brien. They started this ball rolling.

Labour insists that it is important to have a sensible debate about immigration and asylum. So why did the government persuade the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the British Trades Union Congress to delay publication of a report that highlights the abuse of migrant workers in the UK? Forced Labour and Migration to the UK was due to be published last September but, according to the Guardian, a senior TUC official said: "ILO was threatened with funding cuts by the Department for Work and Pensions if the report were to be published."

The report apparently highlights the exploitative charges levied on migrant labour by agencies and employers. Migrant nurses are told they will have to pay £2,000 if they want to quit their jobs, or they are charged £3,000 for registration. Note that nurses form the second group in Clarke's proposed points system, which will decide entry and rights, while low-skilled migrants form a third group. Doctors and IT specialists are in an elite group that gets maximum points. So now we have a class system for immigrants.

In the muddied world of Clarke and Howard, asylum-seekers and economic migrants amount to the same thing. "They" are out to rip us off and to exploit "our" system. So a report which shows migrants being exploited - well, that sort of thing just doesn't fit the image.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Calculating Britain´s torture quota

Discussion document for the shadow cabinet. Subject: delivering quota policies for asylum-seekers

Tory policy is to limit the number of people coming to the UK as asylum-seekers, and this requires that any future Conservative government fix a quota for each year. Outlined here are a number of options on how to make that objective achievable. Some of these measures may be illegal; however, legality has not been an issue for the Labour government.

Option one: Since asylum-seekers are fleeing torture, repression and persecution, we could redefine torture and raise the benchmark for suffering. This would disallow and deter claims from casual asylum-seekers. Psychological torture could be reclassified as "name-calling". Its victims would then have no need to flee from persecution, especially if they made a concerted effort in team sports - which would earn them the respect of their peers, rather than taunts and/or repeated death threats to friends and family. For example, a moderately funded project to teach netball in Burma could bring down asylum claims.

Further reclassification could define electro-shock torture as "alternative medicine". Should this proposal be adopted, physical beatings and humiliation/sexual humiliation would be reclassified as "working them hard".

The most extreme cases of torture result in death. Here, we cannot duck our international obligations: we propose that murdered asylum-seekers automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain.

However, we would recommend that relatives and friends of the deceased be denied the right to attend the funeral to clamp down on bogus mourners, many of whom grieve for economic reasons.

Option two: Critics have argued that it is impossible for a UK government to fix a figure for the number of people who will be tortured each year. We disagree. A suitable and attainable figure for the number of torture victims each year could be negotiated in advance with the torturers. This could be done on a bilateral basis, though multilateral methods would be preferable. Indeed, once targets have been set we could introduce torture trading within the torturing community. Thus, we could give a country with high torture requirements the opportunity to buy torture credits from a country with low torture rates. This would reward countries with low torture rates with an income that could then be used to bribe its internal opposition groups, rather than physically harming them and running the risk of increasing the national torture rate.

This method would also put financial pressure on the high-torturing country to ensure that only essential torture took place, which would cut surplus torture and avoid what the EU would call a "torture mountain".

Option three: This may be called the Charles Clarke option: deport the asylum-seeker to his or her country of origin, having negotiated a promise from the government of that country that it will not torture or kill the asylum-seeker on return. Obviously, we would need to obtain promises from governments as well as individual torturers; these promises should be witnessed and verified by a credible third party with good standing within the community - possibly the best netball player from the local school (preferably secondary).

At first glance, this idea seems to lack merit. However, it does not follow logically that because someone is a torturer they must be more inclined to lie than a non-torturing person - though we do acknowledge that an individual's propensity to place electro-shock batons in other human beings' rectums could indicate a blurring of moral boundaries. We therefore propose that any guarantee elicited from a torturing state should be accompanied by human rights training, carried out by the British army, within that country's penal institutes.

Option four: Making asylum-seekers apply for refugee status before they arrive in the UK would deter a certain number of false claims. However, people under threat and persecution cannot be expected to make their claims from the countries that are persecuting them. We recommend that applicants make their claims from a third country or region, somewhere that could guarantee their safety from external threat and at the same time serve as a measure of their desperation. We therefore suggest that the best place from which asylum-seekers could make their claims would be Guantanamo Bay.

Option five: It has been argued that the number of asylum-seekers in Britain is undermining tradition and a sense of Britishness. In an effort to revive traditional British life, and solve the problem of asylum-seekers, we propose that they be bound and gagged, have their pockets filled with stones and thrown in the river. If they float, they are bogus.