Press coverage of my campaign to become Braintree MP

In the past few days, my campaign to become MP for Braintree has increased its profile! There have been articles about my candidacy in the Braintree and Witham Times, Essex Chronicle and Colchester Gazette. In addition to these articles, I have also made a Facebook campaign page, which I invite and encourage you to “like” if you are on Facebook.

The newspaper articles highlight electoral reform, wealth inequality, public transport nationalisation and green energy as policy areas of mine. These and many other issues are discussed on this blog, so if you’ve not already done so, feel free to have a look around. All the posts are linked to down the left-hand side, as well as on the “About” page.

The Essex Chronicle article quoted me as saying that the idea that MPs are elected on local issues is outdated. This is a slight misrepresentation of my views. I think that people should be able to vote on any issue or issues they want. This includes, among much else, local issues, but in particular I don’t think that people should be limited to voting for whichever candidates happen to be standing in their geographical constituency. It should be a national election. As I discussed here, people’s voting power varies wildly from constituency to constituency, partly because of safe seats, and also in terms of the selection of candidates standing. On this latter point, traditionally the main parties do not field a candidate against the Speaker of the House (currently John Bercow). Presumably they see the loss of democratic options for the Speaker’s constituents as collateral damage.

I discussed here various possible ways of holding a simple proportional election that would enable voters to vote for any candidate in the country. I did not at the time commit to any one of these. However, having given the matter further thought, I will shortly write another post to clarify exactly which system I am advocating.


Greater funding for the NHS and keeping it under public ownership

The NHS is badly underfunded at the moment, and this has caused many problems such as the recent “major incident” at Colchester Hospital, where people were told to visit Accident and Emergency only if they had serious or life-threatening conditions. Waiting list times have gone up, and the NHS has generally been in the news a lot recently for the wrong reasons.

It is clear that the NHS needs more money to cope with demand. Essentially this means that more money needs to be raised from taxes. And as I have argued previously, with such inequality in our society, the extra tax should come from the wealthier members of society. With this goal in mind, the Labour party has suggested, among other things, a mansion tax to raise money for the NHS. Obviously a lot needs to be done to fairly tax members of society on their ability to pay, but certainly this would be a good start.

Mental health funding in particular is currently far too low, accounting for just 13% of NHS spending despite accounting for 28% of illness. Mental health problems may not have obvious physical symptoms, but they are no less existent because of this. Cutting corners on mental health costs is in any case a false economy, because if these problems are ignored when they first appear, they can become more serious and end up costing the NHS, and society in general, a lot more in the long run.

Then there is the issue of privatisation. I am in general against the privatisation of essential services and utilities, so it should be no surprise that I am against any privatisation of the NHS. It would result in the fragmentation of the NHS, and obviously money would be siphoned out of the system by profit-driven companies. There’s no reason why the same standard of service can’t be offered if all NHS services are entirely publicly owned. And the ex chief executive of the NHS David Nicholson has argued that private-sector style competition has hurt the NHS.

Concerns have also been raised that any privatisation of the NHS (or indeed other services) could become irreversible if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) came into effect. This has been disputed but, of course, it can be difficult to know these things for definite given that negotiations on TTIP are being held in secret. In any case, the future of the NHS is not something we should risk for a trade deal with America.

The same standards of justice should apply to vehicle-related offences

In this post I’m going to discuss vehicle-related offences and how the usual burden of proof and general principles of justice do not seem to apply in these cases.

If you are the registered keeper of a vehicle in the UK, then at all times this vehicle has to be either taxed and insured or declared off the road with a statutory off road notification (SORN). If you don’t make this notification, you are liable to receive a fine. To be clear, if your vehicle is not declared off the road, it needs to be both taxed and insured regardless of whether it is being used.

However, this legislation does not prevent cars from being driven untaxed or uninsured on the roads; it merely requires people to declare that they are not going to do this. As such, there is no logical reason for this legislation to exist. If someone does not tax or insure their car, the assumption should be that it is not going to be used on the road. Then if it is seen on the road untaxed or uninsured, a fine can be issued. The current legislation is no different from requiring people to sign a declaration each year that they’re not going to rob a bank.

A quick search of the Internet will show you many cases of people being hassled by the DVLA for not making a SORN declaration, even though in many cases it has seemingly been submitted but subsequently lost. The DVLA has even appeared on Watchdog about this issue. I used to work for the DVLA (not on the enforcements section but in the same building), and I’ve seen plenty of cases of people being treated unfairly. Obviously, how the DVLA in practice handle the offence is not directly related to whether the legislation should in principle exist. However, it is quite clear that the legislation is both unnecessary and in many cases mishandled by the DVLA. It’s time to declare it scrapped.

Vehicle-related offences should be seen in a similar way to other offences – there should be a presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. This means that cars should not be clamped or impounded with a demand for payment before the vehicle is released. This is effectively a conviction with no legal process. This is not to say that fines should not be issued, but they should be disputable in court before any money is paid. To claim the car as a deposit on the fine before the court case is to presume guilt and not an acceptable form of legal justice.

It may seem that if, for example, a car is parked illegally then it’s a clear offence and no further legal proceedings are necessary. However, some offences seem more clear-cut than others in general, but this is no excuse to short cut the full legal process. Where is the line drawn? Furthermore, the car may have been stopped due to an emergency, it may have broken down, or there may be more than one person that drives the car making it unclear who is the guilty party. In this last case, it would be unfair on the vehicle owner if their car is confiscated on demand of payment of a fine when someone else has parked it illegally. One could argue that the vehicle’s owner is responsible for whoever they let drive it, but this is not fair or logical, and it doesn’t apply generally but specifically to motoring offences. For example, if someone borrows my hammer and unknown to me uses it to smash up someone’s property, it is neither my fault nor my legal responsibility.

Generally speaking, it is the registered keeper (who may or may not be the owner) who is by default held responsible for any offences relating to a vehicle, including in the above example. I mentioned the owner in the above example because since it is their car, they would still suffer the loss until it is sorted out, whoever is held legally responsible.

Of course, if a vehicle offence has been committed, it may in many cases be difficult to prove who actually committed the offence if the only evidence relates to the car and not the driver, but that doesn’t make it any fairer to move the goal posts on what standard of evidence is required for the legal process.

If you are the registered keeper of a vehicle that has been driven by an uninsured driver, then you are legally responsible, even if it was not you driving the car and the real perpetrator is known. This is completely arbitrary legislation and puts far too much of a burden on the registered keeper, who should not be held responsible for other people’s lack of insurance and for carrying out extensive checks on friends and family members just in case they’ve been deceived by them.

The police have the power to seize and destroy cars that have been driven without insurance. However, it is not within the understood and accepted role of the police to do this, unless we accept that we’re living in a police state. I do not. They are not a court and should not have these powers. And they can make mistakes.

The conclusion is simple – we need the same standard of justice to apply to offences relating to vehicles as we have in the legal system generally. Anything else is an unacceptable imbalance.

We need to invest more in green energy

It has been reported that we will be quite low on electricity supplies this winter, and while it seems that we are unlikely to have any blackouts, spare electricity capacity is likely to be at only 4%, down from 17% three years ago.

This shows that we clearly need to invest more in energy. And with the dangers of climate change and nuclear waste, and now the added threat of fracking, we need to invest more in renewable energy, such as wind and solar energy. This is not something that can be solved overnight, but this is where we need to be looking in the long term, and much more so than we are doing at the moment.

Based on 2013 figures, we get approximately 15% of the energy for electricity from renewable sources. We could get a lot more from wind power now, but many applications for wind farms are rejected often for apparently no good reason. Conservative MP Eric Pickles in his position as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has unilateral power over these decisions. Such a state of affairs means that decisions are at risk of being made for political reasons, as many would argue has been the case here. I have previously argued that individual politicians should not have so much power. The level of power held by cabinet ministers has not been awarded democratically as it goes way above and beyond their election by their constituents as a local MP, and generally appointment is not based on any sort of merit or expertise; cabinet positions are handed out seemingly arbitrarily to the MPs who happen to be favoured by the party in government at the time.

Many people make the argument that wind farms are ugly, but as Vince Cable has argued, it is an irrational dislike as they are no worse than the electricity pylons that dominate the skyline. It certainly seems to be a very selective dislike, which coincidentally is held almost exclusively by people who are opposed to green energy in the first place. And which is uglier: wind turbines or much of the world descending into poverty caused by out-of-control climate change? Some people need to get a sense of perspective. We want to avoid fracking, and reduce our dependence on nuclear power and fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but to do this we need to take seriously the investment in renewable sources of energy.

People argue that there’s no point in putting in the money and effort because other countries, including perhaps America and China, will continue to pollute anyway. That is of course an overly simplistic view of these countries. But while there does need to be more of a coordinated global effort, there are international agreements in place such as the recent EU deal. But regardless of what other countries are doing, we should carry on developing the technology and infrastructure as much as possible and not be afraid to take a lead where necessary. Technology developed here can be used by other countries in the future so it would not be wasted effort, and obviously this goes both ways, with the UK being able to use technology developed elsewhere. The more of a worldwide effort and the more money that is spent on this, wherever it is spent, the better for everyone. In other words, don’t hold back on green energy development just because you think some other countries might not be doing enough.

A YouGov poll indicates that most people want energy nationalised. Nationalised energy would mean that we could take control of how energy is generated without involving companies that need it to be profitable for them. There would be no companies applying for fracking licences, because the decision on whether to frack would not be made on the grounds of profit. It makes sense for essential services that require such high levels of regulation and coordination to be nationalised to keep them to under proper control.

Improving our transport system

At the start of this year, rail fares increased, as they do every year, making it harder and harder for users of the rail service. The problem is that successive governments haven’t been interested in keeping people using the trains. Currently the government pays 32% of the total railways bill but they want it to be 25%, putting more of the burden onto passengers (see above link), which is clearly moving in the wrong direction. Compared with other countries in Europe, our rail fares are already very expensive. There are complicated discount rates if you book in advance for journeys on off-peak trains, but this isn’t at all helpful for most commuters, and isn’t a particularly fair system anyway. Those who travel at peak times have to endure the most crowded trains, and pay the highest rates, and are effectively subsidising those who are able to travel when they please on emptier trains.

Considering the size of the UK, it becomes clearer how poor our rail service is. We have a high population density, making it far cheaper per head to keep up a reasonable rail network than most other countries, so it should be far easier for the government to subsidise than with other countries.

Travel by rail needs to be encouraged more. To decrease carbon dioxide emissions, pollution in general, as well as congestion on our roads, the government should be encouraging more public transport use, and for this to happen we need a cheaper and better service. What we have at the moment is completely unacceptable, and the idea that the government wants to contribute less than it currently does is appalling. For a start, public transport should be nationalised. The changes required to our rail system need to come from the government; changes should not be driven by the desires of profit-making companies.

We need to get away from the idea that the car is the default mode of travel. Public transport needs to be cheaper, run more frequently and for longer hours, and have wider geographical coverage. This will require more investment in rail infrastructure, which will obviously take a lot of time and money. But trains are only one part of the solution. We need to nationalise the whole of public transport, including buses. Yes, buses are polluting, but less so than the same number of passengers in individual cars. A cheaper and better bus service is part of the solution to remove cars from the road, and would be relatively simple to implement as it does not require building such an infrastructure first. Buses are also a more realistic solution for small towns and villages where travel by rail is less realistic.

This needs to be more than simply responding to demand that currently exists. The idea is to create demand by improving public transport to the extent that it becomes the cheaper and more convenient option for most journeys when compared to driving. Many people don’t use public transport now because it is inadequate. There are a lot of people who like to drive, certainly, but there are also many people who do not like to drive but feel forced into doing so because public transport is not fit for purpose. There are also many people who cannot drive, who therefore have their travel options severely limited.

You only have to drive from one town to the adjacent town in rush hour to see how ridiculous the situation is. So many people are making almost exactly the same journey but in hundreds of different vehicles, all creating pollution, all contributing to global warming and all congesting the roads, and quite often all travelling rather slowly. This isn’t an attack on car users. This is about giving them a realistic and cheaper alternative that would in many cases cause them to willingly give up the car for the daily commute.

I live in the Braintree constituency in Essex, and the train service here is awful. Trains to and from Braintree are hourly for most of the day, although it stretches to approximately every three quarters of an hour during rush hour. The last train to Braintree is also very early as well. For example, on weekdays, the last train leaves London Liverpool Street at 23:18 compared to 00:46 if you are going to Chelmsford or Colchester. This is a difference of nearly an hour and a half.

The poor service to Braintree is partly because Braintree station is on a branch line with just one track, so only one train can be between Braintree and Witham (where it branches off) at any one time. But since it can be every three quarters of an hour during rush hour, they clearly aren’t running at full capacity for most of the day. But even that isn’t enough. Really it needs a half-hourly service. And presumably they don’t want to send trains down the branch line late at night if they can get away with it.

There has been a lot of talk about building a “Cressing loop”, where an extra lane of track would be made to allow trains to pass each other at Cressing, which is about halfway between Witham and Braintree. This way there could be more than one train at a time on the branch line, allowing for a half-hourly service, and hopefully a service that runs later. It has been talked about for years, but nothing has been done, although there have been recent reports that it might happen. But this is an essential improvement that should really have been made years ago.

It is also not enough on its own to have transport running reasonably frequently. There needs to be coordination. I live in Rayne, which is a village about two miles from Braintree rail station. If I want to use public transport for my journey, I have to first get the bus into Braintree before getting the train. But they’re run by different companies and don’t tie up remotely well, which results in a lot of waiting around. Even if I wanted to get another bus from Braintree to, for example, Chelmsford, they still don’t tie in which each other, so there is no less waiting. So, of course it’s far more convenient for people to all get in their own individual cars, to all make the same journey separately, to create pollution and congestion, and to contribute to climate change. This is obviously just a very small cross section of public transport in the UK. Many places, particularly rural areas, have it far worse. But this is why money needs to be spent on public transport.

Where possible, better than trains or buses is walking or cycling. For longer journeys, these aren’t feasible, but in many cases people are discouraged from walking or cycling because the journey is perceived to be too dangerous. Many people who want to cycle are put off by the fact that roads are primarily designed for cars, and simply not safe enough for cyclists. Pedestrians often find themselves walking on narrow roads with no pavement.

We need to bring in more pedestrian and cycle routes, so that pedestrians and cyclists can complete their journeys with minimal contact with motorised traffic. Main roads could have such routes running parallel. Cyclists and pedestrians are far better bedfellows than cyclists and motorists, as long as the paths are wide enough. In the Netherlands they have separate cycle paths, which aren’t just a bit of paint on the same road the cars go on like we have here, and while they don’t generally have shared pedestrian/cycle paths, where there is no pavement, pedestrians can use the safer cycle path rather than the road designed for motor vehicles. In the UK, pedestrians and cyclists are in most cases a mere afterthought.

Obviously these proposed improvements would cost a lot of money, and it would have to come from somewhere. But as I have argued previously, higher taxes for those who can afford it is not something we should be afraid of. According to this website the government spends £20 billion of our taxes on transport a year. This is less than half of what is spent on defence and is less than 3% of total public spending. In the general scheme of things, I don’t think that this is very much, and I think it could easily, and indeed should, be a lot higher.

Extradition, deportation and human rights

David Cameron has recently declared that he wants to get rid of the Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act gets a lot of negative press because in some cases it enables foreign criminals to escape deportation. It’s not unknown for politicians to score a few cheap political points by reducing complex issues to a few simplistic sound bites, so getting rid of the Human Rights Act wholesale and replacing it with their own watered down bill of rights is a small price to pay if it gains a few votes.

Deportation and extradition to other countries is a serious matter and not something to be taken lightly. This country has a responsibility not to put people in dangerous situations. If, for example, we send someone to a country where there is a risk that they might be tortured, then this country is responsible for that, even if the UK doesn’t commit acts of torture itself.

Politicians have wasted so much time, effort and money trying to deport a handful of specific individuals out of the thousands of potentially dangerous people we have in this country just so that they appear tough on foreign criminals. For example, the case of Abu Qatada should not have got anywhere near the amount of attention from politicians and the press that it did. The absurd amount of money the government spent trying to get rid of him would have been much better spent elsewhere. Politicians do not need to get involved in individual cases such as this. Obviously it is a problem when legal cases take years to resolve, but the solution isn’t to crudely reduce everyone’s legal rights across the board. It’s far more complex than that.

I’m going to use the rest of this post to discuss extradition in general. We have certain punishments for crimes, because, rightly or wrongly, it’s been decided that these are the appropriate punishments. And if someone is at risk of a significantly higher penalty by being extradited to another country, then this extradition should not take place. As it is, the UK will not extradite someone if they face execution abroad, and what I’m arguing here is just a generalisation of that. Put simply, the UK should not extradite people to face punishments that the UK itself would consider unjust. This applies as much as anywhere else in the case of extradition to America, which has a very poor record when it comes to its treatment of prisoners, and is one of the few countries in the western world to still have the death penalty. For a country that is advanced in so many ways, it lags very far behind when it comes to human rights. Guarantees over potential punishments always need to be given before any extradition occurs to any country.

This doesn’t just apply to countries with harsh punishments, but also to countries with unsafe legal systems, which have a high chance of a miscarriage of justice. So we need to be careful with EU extraditions. The European Arrest Warrant makes it very difficult to block extradition to other EU countries, despite there being no guarantee of the standards of justice. Ensuring better safeguards in these cases is an area where David Cameron would be better advised to devote his efforts.

Furthermore, we should not under any circumstances extradite someone to another country for an alleged crime committed in this country. High-profile examples include computer hacker Gary McKinnon, and Richard O’Dwyer, who faced copyright charges in America over his TVShack website. But even though these two ultimately avoided extradition, it was not for the right reasons. The main issue has not been addressed.

Gary McKinnon has Asperger’s syndrome and was said to be at a high risk of suicide. But that could equally be the case with someone at risk of being imprisoned in the UK. Why are these factors more important if someone faces extradition abroad as opposed to imprisonment in their home country? It seems as though these reasons were used as an excuse not to have to deal with the real issue – that he never should have been considered for extradition in the first place because he had never set foot in America.

Some people have argued that it’s a grey area because although McKinnon was physically in the UK, his actions had their effects in America. But that doesn’t make it a grey area. Gary McKinnon was in the UK. While in the UK, he is clearly bound by UK laws. It really is that simple. Yes, it’s possible to cause problems in other countries while remaining in the UK, on the Internet or in other situations, but that doesn’t change anything. If his acts were criminal, then he can be tried in a UK court and subject to UK penalties. The American legal system is irrelevant to acts committed in this country.

However, reasons have not always been found to stop these unjust and illogical extraditions. The “NatWest Three” were three bankers who were extradited to America and then convicted and imprisoned despite being in the UK for the whole time when their alleged offences took place. It’s a disgrace that this was allowed to happen.

It’s time to look at extradition and deportation in a more mature and logical manner. Not as vote-winning rhetoric, but to ensure fairness and justice for all.

Coordinating international military action

The UK Parliament has recently voted for military strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Other countries have recently had similar votes, such as Canada and Turkey. Barack Obama has called on more countries to sign up.

However, I would argue that this is the wrong way to go about things. Decisions for international military action need to be made internationally. For individual countries to decide whether they should go to war in another country is a recipe for disaster.

The most prominent recent case was in 2003 when America, the UK and other countries decided to invade Iraq, despite the protests and the many claims that it was an illegal war. However, this will remain a problem if individual national parliaments can decide to have a vote on whether they are going to go to war with another country.

But this problem need not exist. We have the United Nations Security Council – an international body that can make international military decisions. It’s not an ideal solution in its current state, with its arguably unbalanced and outdated five permanent members of just China, France, Russia, USA, and UK – this permanent membership stems from the result of World War II! So while it is not really fit for purpose in its current state, it is still better than countries making their own unilateral decisions.

International military action needs international control and coordination. Countries that meet certain standards (based on factors such as stability and democracy) would sign up to a body (whether a vastly improved Security Council or something else), with no arbitrary hierarchy where some countries have elevated status, and this body would make decisions independently of the individual countries’ governments or parliaments. All legal international military action would be decided by this body. Signed-up countries would contribute resources including soldiers. So while countries would have their own armies, in an international conflict, they would be considered to be an international army under international control. This would save every country from individually having the same debate over whether military action is desirable.

This would also enable us to get rid of individual countries’ nuclear weapons. For example, there is simply no need for the UK to have its expensive Trident system all on its own. If there really needs to be a nuclear deterrent, then it can be shared among all cooperating nations. This way, the cost would be spread, and the total amount of nuclear weaponry could be reduced.

An improved international body would mean that military action would be one step further removed from domestic politicians, who might be looking at irrelevant factors such as how action might affect the next election or their own legacy. It would also mean that military action would not take place simply because the nations that happen to have the most military power decide that it should. Military power does not equal sound military judgement.

With a view to standing in the 2015 UK General Election, I will be posting about relevant topics on here.