Queen Speech: my response to the crime and justice sections

My Lords, it came as no surprise to me that there was nothing to delight my soul in the Government’s programme. For example, a fair justice system that keeps people safe takes more than a royal commission; it takes resources. When budgets have been cut by one-third, the system does not function well and justice suffers. I hope that the royal commission will examine the impact of austerity on fairness and access to justice. I also question any attempt to impose longer sentences when we are failing to deal with the care and rehabilitation of the large number of people already in the system. The probation service and the Prison Service are unable to cope properly with the existing numbers. If you add to that number, you are adding to those pressures and problems.

The tighter rules on carrying knives repeat the same rhetoric we have heard for years and fail to address the fear on the streets and the lack of a visible police presence, which can lead many to arm themselves for so called self-protection. The deaths and injuries from knife crime are a horrendous outcome of bigger social problems. We should be debating legislation that strengthens the family and community bonds that stop knives being seen as the solution to anything except eating dinner. Increasing Section 60 stop and search is not the answer. Research by the Times into the use of stop and search in London throws doubt on its effectiveness. In Enfield and Camden, two of the boroughs where the tactic was used most, knife attacks over the past year rose by 28% and 13% respectively. Use of this tactic risks alienating communities that could assist in combating knife crime.

We should be getting drugs off the streets and out of the hands of organised crime by regulating their use and selling them at pharmacies. We should be focused on breaking the cycle of violence experienced by far too many who come to see it as an inevitability in their lives. While I welcome the government support for action on domestic violence, the rest of this proposed legislation lacks the vision to deal with the problems we face. In fact, many of the big issues are not discussed at all.

The preventable deaths of five people a day on our roads is a scandal. The facts that these deaths are taken for granted by the Government and that our efforts to address road danger have stalled in recent years display shocking complacency. This level of criminality receives no attention from the Government, when the obvious solution is to hand out a lifetime ban to anyone who fails to stop and take responsibility for their actions as a driver.

Instead of action on the big issues that impact on the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people, we have a government proposal to criminalise unauthorised encampments. This is targeted at Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities, which is discriminatory and adds an extra threat on top of existing prejudice against those communities. I am also deeply concerned about how criminalising encampments will affect a whole form of peaceful protest that was previously a civil matter. It means criminalising the setting up of protest camps for the pettiest of reasons. It is because the Government and their corporate backers have been losing the debate. For example, Extinction Rebellion has changed the debate by being inconvenient. That can involve blocking roads, but obviously that is nothing like our Prime Minister, who today blocked the cycle lane on the Embankment so that he could get to work. I do not know where he was coming from. Extinction Rebellion sets up temporary protest camps to co-ordinate its actions, provide advice, handle liaison with the authorities et cetera. Last year, these actions sent a message to people and to Parliament, and Parliament responded by declaring a climate emergency. It showed that protest can be a powerful positive legitimate force in our democracy.

Local people setting up anti-fracking protest camps as a way of mobilising a continual presence on the doorstep of the frackers was very important. The frackers lost, despite all their powerful connections and party donations. Powerful people do not like losing, and they look at ways to make life more difficult for the protestors. That is the inspiration behind the proposed legislation to make this form of trespass a matter for the police and to give them the ability to seize property and vehicles. There are other protest camps. For example, local people protesting against HS2 are camped out near water meadows and ancient woodlands that face destruction, for example at Harvil Road in Hillingdon. They have been pushed out today.

I welcome the setting up of a constitution, democracy and rights commission, but could we not open that up to citizens’ assemblies to consider the way forward? The process should be designed to obtain maximum public consent and create a democracy fit for the 21st century. Obviously, the first issue of constitutional reform should be an elected second Chamber using proportional representation. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for so passionately advocating proportional representation and for pointing out that Greens have to work much harder for a seat than any other party. The problem for me is that this Government will attempt to use this constitutional commission to cement their own power and give even greater autonomy to Ministers. We need a Parliament elected via a fair voting system which can take back control.

Leading Labour peer and rail expert slams HS2

Lord Berkeley has sent me a copy of his dissenting report on the HS2 Review and it is damning. It isn’t just his criticisms of the way he was written out of the process, despite being deputy chair of the Review, but his view that the positive conclusions in the Review are not supported by the evidence.  

I know it is difficult for many Greens and Labour supporters to criticise investment in any public transport project, especially one that claims to promote better links with the north of England, but Lord Berkeley is exactly the sort of person you would expect to enthusiastically back HS2. He has been the Labour Opposition transport spokesperson in the Lords. He advises on European matters to the Rail Freight Group, having chaired the group for over 15 years. He was Public Affairs Manager of Eurotunnel from 1981 until the end of construction of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 and before that was involved in the planning and construction of various major projects around the world. He is a rail enthusiast, who has helped deliver rail projects like HS2.

Lord Berkeley believes that the Review suffered from “a bias towards accepting HS2’s evidence in preference to those of others.” He criticises the failure of the Review to go public with evidence from Treasury officials and states that his own best estimate is that the benefit vs cost ratio is possibly as low 0.6 for every pound invested. It therefore ranks as poor value for money when using the Treasury Green Book. 

His dissenting Review concludes that the priority should be spending on regional rail services in the north and midlands. “HS2 is the wrong and expensive solution to ‘making it faster and easier to travel for work and leisure by providing better North South intercity services. Many more people travel to work and leisure on local or regional services, and those in the Northern Power House and Midlands Connect areas are some of the worst in the country.

There is strong evidence that the greatest need and demand for improved rail services is within the regions… “Its stated aim of providing better North South links is just as likely to attract more jobs from the regions to London than the other way round.”

Parliamentary support for this project was generated four years ago when the costing for HS2 Phase 1 was £15.1bn (2016). It is time for Parliament to rethink that support as the financial cost now stands at £54.5bn (2019 prices), an increase of 361%. That is a lot of money to spend on an environmentally devastating project that brings limited economic returns. 

HS2 temporary reprieve for ancient woodlands

At least 108 ancient woods are threatened with loss or damage from the two phases of HS2, with phase one already underway. A review of the HS2 project has been set up by the government and I have raised the issue of a complete suspension of all environmentally damaging work with the review team. Extinction rebellion have joined with local campaigners and with Chris Packham to organise protests against the work going ahead.

Work on the woodlands has now been suspended, which is great. These woodlands are crucial spots for biodiversity; the trees are hundreds of years old and have therefore become prized spots for rare invertebrates, bats and birds. However, there are many other habitats that need preserving while the review takes place.

Colne Valley is a good example of a site that needs treating with caution. It is not only beautiful, its aquifer is one of the main water supplies for London. Local campaigners have today sent HS2 a warning notice of intended legal action if the company goes ahead with plans to drive, a hole 30m deep, straight through the sub-soil of a highly polluted area and into the permeable rock of the aquifer below. This would potentially be a criminal act, as it would impact on the water supply of several million people.

A local pumping station had to be closed down a few years ago because of pollution from a local landfill site. Local greens have evidence that the closure of that pumping station has changed the flow of the underground water and it now goes directly under where HS2 are doing their work. I have asked a series of questions about this in the Lords and intend to send a lot more. HS2 need to start taking their environmental responsibilities seriously.

Question to Minister on protecting the right to protest

Today around 3pm I’ll be raising the issue of freedom to protest with questions to the Government in the House of Lords about the Court of Appeal’s striking out an injunction obtained by INEOS in a secret court. The successful appeal was brought by two individuals and Friends of the Earth, representing an enormous victory for the right to protest. It will hopefully pave the way for more successful appeals by peaceful protestors who have had their human rights restricted by the frackers and other environmental vandals. Continue reading “Question to Minister on protecting the right to protest”