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At a time of a significant religious festival in the Christian calendar and at a time of global anxiety, sacrifice and distress, it seems apt to reflect on where we stand in it all.
Like most, I watch the television, listen to the radio, tap into social media (albeit only on limited occasions), receive emails and listen to family, friends and colleagues.
I am amazed by the sacrifice that some people make to protect or look after others and yet dismayed by the actions and comments of some. And yet as I ponder on the current situation I realise that it only brings into focus behaviours, actions and comments that were already there. Perhaps, the circumstances have allowed some to shine or provided more of a focus on those that already do outstanding things, and this is a good thing but human nature as it is, doesn’t really change. Here are a few examples, I’m sure if you reflect on these you will think of more.
- We lament at the inequality in the world, but we do little about it. Instead, we fight to buy up all the toilet rolls that we can, lest we run out.
- We complain the government haven’t done enough in the current crisis and then flout the guidelines they gave us on social gatherings and movement or cause others to do so (did you really need that Amazon order?)
- We complain about our work conditions, but we are content for the company or organisation to continue paying us, often saying they don’t pay us enough
- We are upset by colleagues who do us a disservice and then denigrate others because of their so-called ineptitude
- We complain about being bullied but go on to display the same bullying behaviours that we complained about
- We call people misogynistic but then in the same breath suggest that the world would be better without men or that women do a better job
- We accuse people of being racist but then use derogatory and stereotypical language to describe those that we accuse
- We condemn those that we see as privileged and suggest they should give up their wealth and status. And yet we fail to consider our own privilege and are not prepared to give up what we have (see the first comment re inequality)
- We see the criminal justice system as unfair but would be the first to complain if we were a victim of crime and the offender wasn’t brought to justice. What we see as justice is dependent on the impact the wrongful act has on us
- We commit crimes, albeit perhaps minor ones or committed crimes when we were younger and didn’t know better, yet we castigate others for being criminal. Welfare cheats are awful, but tax payments are to be avoided
I could go on, but I think by now you get the general idea. I’ll return to religion if I may, not that I’m religious, but I did start off the blog with an acknowledgement of the timing in line with the Christian calendar: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her”, (John, 8:7). Maybe we should be a little more honest with ourselves and think about what we say or do before we judge and condemn others. I do wonder though, are we all hypocrites, or is it part of the pathology of just being human?
I am minded to write something about both utilitarianism and human rights as a consequence of watching the news the other night. Two separate but linked news articles struck a chord. The first about police being heavy handed in applying the emergency laws surrounding the restricting of movement and the second about the emergency laws being passed to suspend jury trials in Scotland. Both have an impact in respect of human rights.
Turning to the first, the complaint is that the police across England and Wales have in some cases been disproportionate in their dealing with the public when attempting to manage the restrictions around movement. The example shown was the uploading of videos onto social media depicting people walking around the Peak District. The captions simply asked whether the trip was necessary.
The government guidance is pretty clear regarding staying at home but perhaps is a little less clear about travelling to a location to partake in exercise. I must admit though I am a little perplexed at the accusation of heavy handedness. The Human Rights Act 1998 provides for a right to life and it has been held that the government and its agencies have a positive obligation to facilitate this. There are of course some caveats as it would be almost impossible to ensure this in all circumstances. There is no doubt that people are dying from Covid-19. The approach to enforce social distancing, presently predominantly through information and the reliance on responsibility and good will, seems to be the only current viable approach to combating this killer. The curtailment of some Human Rights is it seems necessary to ensure the greater good and to preserve life. The latter of course is a primary duty that most police officers would recognise. The greater good for the many is it seems compatible with a key principle of human rights.
Turning to the second news article. The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right. The suspension of a jury may be against longstanding legal principles but, the Human Rights Act does not specify that the trial should be before a jury, merely an independent judge. The argument could be made that trials should be suspended but this might be impinging on rights in respect of defendants being held in custody awaiting trial. The convening of a jury would flout the rationale behind current legislation in place to enforce social distancing and would quite simply be contrary to obligations to protect life.
The notions of utilitarianism are often viewed as in conflict with individual rights and therefore the Human Rights Act. Many see the two as incompatible, one relates to the many and the other the individual. This argument though fails to have vision, it is not truly consequentialist. Human Rights are utilitarian in their very nature. Is it not to the greater good that people have a right to life, a right to freedom of association, a right to a fair trail to name but a few? Should it not be considered that every individual case that is examined under the Human Rights Act has consequences for the many as well as the individual? A breach of the Act if unchallenged opens the way for abuses by governments and their agencies, it is utilitarian in nature, it is there for the greater good, not just the individual circumstances that are being examined. But should we also not consider that there is a need to prioritise rights, particularly in the circumstances the country and world finds itself in? Some parts of the Act are in clearly on occasions, incompatible with others. Curtailment of some freedoms and rights is necessary for the greater good but more importantly, it is necessary to save lives, perhaps even the life of the individual complaining of the curtailment. We can but hope that amidst all of this, good sense prevails.
A week has passed since the election and our political parties have had time to reflect on their victory or demise. With such a huge majority in parliament, we can be certain, whether we agree with it or not, that Brexit will be done in one form or another. The prime minister at the first meeting of his cabinet, and as if on cue ready for my blog, in front of the cameras repeated the pre-election promise of 40 extra hospitals and 50,000 extra nurses.
Putting aside my cynicism and concern about how we, as a country, are going to grow enough money trees without our foreign agricultural workers after Brexit, I welcome this much needed investment. I should add here that in the true sense of fairness, pre-election, other parties were likewise offering wonderful trips to fairyland, with riches beyond our wildest dreams. Trying to out trump each other, they managed to even out trump Trump in their hyperbole.
However, rather appropriately as it turns out, whilst sitting in the waiting room at a general hospital on election day, I read a couple of disturbing articles in the i newspaper. Pointing to the fact that makeshift shelters are becoming increasingly common in British cities one article quoted statistics from Homeless Link showing that rough sleeping had increased by 165% since 2010 (Spratt, 2019). Alongside, another article stated that A&E admissions of homeless patients had tripled in the last eight years with 36,000 homeless people attending in the last year (Crew 2019). Whilst I am always cautious regarding statistics, the juxtaposition makes for some interesting observations.
The first being that the promised investment in the NHS is simply a sticking plaster that attempts to deal with the symptoms of an increasingly unequal society.
The second being that the investment will never be enough because groups in society are becoming increasingly marginalised and impoverished and will therefore become an increasing burden on the NHS.
Logic, let alone the medical profession and others, leads me to conclude that if a person does not have enough to eat and does not have enough warmth then they are likely to become ill both physically and probably mentally. So, alongside the homeless, we can add a huge swathe of the population that are on the poverty line or below it that need the services of the NHS. Add to this those that do not have job security, zero-hour contracts being just one example, have massive financial burdens, students another example, and it is little wonder that we have an increasing need for mental health services and another drain on NHS resources. And then of course there are the ‘bed blockers’, a horrible term as it suggests that somehow, it’s their fault, these are of course the elderly, in need of care but with nowhere to go because the social care system is in crises (As much of the right-wing pre-Brexit rhetoric has espoused, “It’ll be better when all the foreigners that work in the system leave after Brexit”). It seems to me that if the government are to deal with the crises in the NHS, they would be better to start with investment in tackling the causes, rather than the symptoms*.
Let me turn back to the pre-election promises, the newspaper articles, and another post-election promise by Boris Johnson.
My recollection of the pre-election promises was around Brexit, the NHS, and law and order. We heard one side saying they were for the people no matter who you were and the other promising one nation politics. I don’t recall any of them specifically saying they recognised a crisis in this country that needed dealing with urgently, i.e. the homeless and the causes of homelessness or the demise of the social care system. Some may argue it was implicit in the rhetoric, but I seem to have missed it.
In her article, Spratt (2019:29) quotes a Conservative candidate as saying that ‘nuisance council tenants should be forced to live in tents in a middle of a field’. Boris Johnson’s one nation politics doesn’t sound very promising, with friends like that, who needs enemies?**
* I have even thought of a slogan: “tough on poverty, tough on the causes of poverty”. Or maybe not, because we all know how that worked out under New Labour in respect of crime.
** The cynical side of me thinks this was simply a ploy to reduce the number of eligible voters that wouldn’t be voting Conservative but, I guess that depends on whether they were Brexiteers or not.
Crew, J. (2019) Homeless A&E admissions triple. i Newspaper, 12 Dec 2019, issue 2824, pg. 29.
Spratt, V. (2019) ‘You Just didn’t see tents in London or in urban areas on this scale. It’s shocking’: Makeshift shelters are becoming increasingly common in British cities. i Newspaper, 12 Dec 2019, issue 2824, pg. 29.
Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health, Education and Society at the University of Northampton
Over the past few weeks our political lexicon has been further developed. We have all learned a new word. The word in question is prorogation. Hands up who had heard of this term before recent events in parliament? I see very few hands up. What we all now know is that this is the term that defines the discontinuation of a session of a parliament or other legislative assembly without dissolving it. It means parliament’s sitting is suspended and it ends all current legislation under discussion. It is usual for this to happen every autumn. The current prorogation is for five weeks and includes a three-week period that would typically be recess anyway, during which the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative party conferences are held, but is nevertheless longer than usual. However, there are several highly irregular factors at play here. For prorogation to last more than a month is unprecedented in recent times. For example, since the 1980s prorogation has typically lasted less than a week. So, what is going on and why is this prorogation proving to be so contentious?
The heart of the matter is the issue that has dominated UK politics for the past three years, namely Brexit. Despite a vote to leave the European Union (EU) back in June 2016 we currently remain part of the EU with the deal negotiated under the previous prime minister Theresa May culminating in a withdrawal agreement that was soundly rejected by parliament on several occasions. This has set up tensions between the people and parliament. How do we enact the will of the people and honour the referendum result within a parliamentary democracy where there is no majority for any Leave deal on the table?
The new prime minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet are resolved to break the political impasse by leaving come what may “do or die” by October 31st, 2019. So, with the country rapidly approaching the deadline for leaving the EU, Parliament has been working to pass a law that would prevent the UK crashing out without a deal, regardless of the fact that Boris Johnson has promised to leave on that date. With no deal currently agreed and no law allowing a no deal exit the Government would be obliged to ask the EU for another extension. There are suggestions from some quarters that the Government might ignore any law requiring them to agree an extension with the EU. Given this situation some politicians have been dismayed that parliament will not be sitting while the situation remains unresolved. Hence the view that this prorogation is stifling parliamentary debate on the most crucial political issue in a generation.
The act of prorogation took place in the early hours of Tuesday September 10th with a ceremony involving a message from the Queen being read in the House of Lords and then Black Rod summoning MPs from the Commons. A list of all the bills passed by the parliament was read, followed by a speech on behalf of the Queen announcing what has been achieved by the government before MPs were sent home. Johnson intends for parliament to return on 14 October with a Queen’s speech, which he says will “bring forward an ambitious new legislative programme for MPs’ approval”. He will then almost immediately have to head to Europe for the vital EU council, which is the last chance for him to obtain a new Brexit deal or to ask for an extension of article 50.
The situation has been deemed a constitutional crisis by some and the fact that parliament is not sitting at this critical time is being seen by some as undemocratic, indeed unlawful. Indeed, the act of prorogation has been subject to judicial review for the past couple of weeks. Scottish appeal court judges declared Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament in the run-up to the October Brexit deadline unlawful. The three judges, chaired by Lord Carloway, Scotland’s most senior judge, overturned an earlier ruling that the courts did not have the power to interfere in the prime minister’s political decision to prorogue parliament. The key issue in question being whether the act was in breach of the constitution, as it was designed to stifle parliamentary debate and action on Brexit.
Regardless of the legal arguments which ended up being played out in three dramatic days this week in the Supreme Court the Brexit process and endgame has pointed up a range of tensions at the intersections of our constitution. The old political landscape is being swept away and being replaced by a much more complex set of political indicators. Left versus Right which had been making a comeback after years of centrist neo-liberalism has been replaced by Leave versus Remain which pervades across the old battle lines. Furthermore, other tensions are apparent as set out below.
- People versus Parliament (How to deliver the referendum result in a parliamentary democracy)
- Executive (Government) versus Parliament (especially when the executive has no overall voting majority)
- The Executive versus the Judiciary
- The position of the Judiciary as related to Constitution
- Politics versus The Law
- The roles and power relationships of the Executive, Parliament and the Judiciary as related to The Constitution.
What the overall Brexit process has created is a new socio-political landscape in the UK, with distinct differences in each of the four countries. It also illustrates how complex the nature of our constitution is given there is no written version and we depend on precedent and convention. The intersections are thrown into sharp relief by the current “crisis”.
Whilst all of this may be concerning as the old order shifts the really concerning question is whether the Executive will abide by the law. Given the outcomes of Parliament in terms of blocking “no deal” regardless of the Supreme Court Judgement on the legality of the prorogation. So, will we leave EU on October 31st? Utilising classic political phraseology, I’d say there is still all to play for, it’s too close to call and all bets are off.
Dr Stephen O’Brien