Four stories in one day to remind us why we need judges

We are going to need a strong judiciary in these dying years of New Labour. Four events reported today remind us how contemptuous Government has become of those who elect it.

The Government announced plans to exempt MPs from a requirement to detail their expenses. The Treasury announced that it would not be hurrying to compensate those who lost their pensions in Equitable Life. The Government said that Heathrow Airport is to be extended without Parliamentary debate. And John Mortimer, fierce fighter for individual liberty, died. I do not suppose there was in fact a connection between this last event and the other three, but it is easy to see one.

The announcement about MP’s expenses shows direct contempt for the law. The story begins with a Freedom of Information request for a detailed breakdown of the expenses claims of 14 MPs. The request was not complied with and the House of Commons clocked up £150,000 fighting to keep secret the sums which we spend on the lifestyle of those we elect to represent us. The High Court upheld the FoI request and ordered disclosure of the details, and the Commons said they would comply. They dragged their feet, complaining of the cost of compliance, and meanwhile refused further FoI requests on the basis that all details would be published by October.

Today’s announcement severely limits the amount of information which will in fact be published and merely increases the headings under which information will be provided. The change is introduced by statutory instrument which means effectively that Parliament is changing the law to grant itself an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, and spitting in the eye both of the judge who ordered publication and the public whose money its members pocket with such abandon.

Even while the Government was announcing that Commons pigs could keep their noses in the public trough in secrecy, the Treasury was announcing a scheme designed to ensure that many of those who lost money in Equitable Life would die before they saw any compensation for their losses. They did not put it quite like that, of course. Just as Harriet Harman had sold the expenses cover-up as greater transparency, Treasury Minister Yvette Cooper, whilst apologising for the regulatory failures (some of them anyway) and maladministration which lost Equitable policyholders their money eight years ago, outlined a compensation scheme so cumbersome that it will take years for any money to reach the victims. Even then, it will effectively be means-tested – a concept which is irrelevant to the losses which policyholders suffered.

The government has rejected most of the recommendations made by the Ombudsman – as with the High Court order about MP’s expenses, the Government simply ignores what it does not like. Twenty odd years ago, Gordon Brown fought fiercely for compensation for victims of the Barlow Clowes scandal. His famed moral compass has taken a change of direction since then.

It is ironic that the denial of money to the Equitable policyholders should have been announced by Yvette Cooper. She and her husband, the ghastly Ed Balls, were reported to Parliament’s sleaze watchdog, the Commons’ Members Estimate Committee, for apparent abuse of the perk which allows MPs to claim reimbursement of mortgages on their second home. Cooper and Balls bought a big house in London and were (and presumably still are) pocketing the mortgage costs although the house is clearly their main residence. Perhaps paying out the Equitable victims would reduce the funds available to cover this.

The Heathrow decision is plain wrong on all sorts of grounds, not least the environmental ones which the government is so full of when it comes, for example, to taxing cars – recall the budget change which imposed without notice a higher tax on owners of older vehicles. The environmental effect of those is trivial compared with the effect which the extra take-offs and landings will have in terms of noise and emissions. The plans also involve the destruction of 700 homes which does not sit well with the Government’s urgent plans to dump little boxes all over the Green Belt to meet the housing crisis.

The real issue here is not the exchange of arguments over the impact of emissions and other environmental concerns – if I assume that the Government’s estimates of adverse impact are wrong, it is because where New Labour is not actually lying, it is almost always incorrect in its assumptions. What matters more is the refusal to let Parliament debate a question which is of such magnitude and which has aroused such passions.

So why is the Government so keen to expand Heathrow? One can think of all kinds of reasons why a cash-strapped party, many of whose members face almost certain redundancy by June 2010, would be willing to cosy up to big business interests whilst it is in their power to do so. They will lose all those expenses for one thing. Perhaps some of them had their retirement funds with Equitable Life. Where you cannot see a clear public interest, keep an eye out for the private ones.

Sir John Mortimer was a champion of individual liberty and the rule of law whose lifelong support for the Labour Party was ground away by New Labour’s erosion of ancient freedoms. A Labour Government which defies a High Court ruling by legislating to keep its members’ expenses secret, which deliberately denies compensation to victims of Government neglect, and which ignores Parliament to authorise a bitterly-contested airport development, was not the Labour Party he supported for so many years.  Dying on the day that Labour did all three of these things was almost a form of protest.



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