Protests force new deportation black-out system

As far as I know, it's the first time the Home Office has come out and admitted it. It's been confirmed the protests planned against Isabella Acevedo's deportation last Thursday led to its cancellation.

Unusually, the Home Office admitted Acevedo, the former cleaner of Home Office minister Mark Harper, was not put on the flight because of "potential disruption by third parties". There had been a protest at Harper's flat the night before and one was planned at Heathrow on the night of the flight. That's the 'third party' disruption they're talking about.

Praise be to third parties, to the third parties who give up their time and money, who travel to bleak and remote locations, with precious little media coverage or public sympathy, and campaign for the decent and humane treatment of the vulnerable. They are the best of us and this morning they are entitled a trace of self-congratulation.

We often see these last minute changes to deportations in controversial cases but could never be sure why – was it the airlines responding to pressure on social media, or mere administrative coincidence? Well it appears that at least some of the time it's because protests were planned.

The Home Office is now exploring a solution: a deportation window. Acevedo has been given a two-week period in which it will happen. This is very new but becoming more common. In Acevedo's case it is between 23:59 BST tomorrow and the same time on August 15th. This way no-one knows when the deportation will take place and protests are harder to plan.

One legal requirement stands in their way: detainees must be given a 48 hour notice of deportation, 24 hours of which must be a working day. They must also be given details of the flight.

That suggests the protests will still be possible to organise, albeit at the last minute. After all, if the protestors were the sort who minded a struggle, they'd have selected a campaign with at least a modicum of public sympathy.

But there's an extra element, which the Home Office is likely to deploy. Before the deportation takes place guards transfer the person to a short-term holding centre near the airport. When that happens the deportee can't keep their phone. If they are very lucky, they might be able to call their lawyer from the bus, but that is at the discretion of the guards and is consequently very rare. Once they're in the holding centre, there's no way to contact them or for them to tell supporters what is happening. It’s the ultimate black-bag-over-the-head treatment. They make them disappear.

I've no evidence to substantiate this, but given the reasons behind the cancellation of the flight last Thursday it seems likely this short-term holding period will last the duration of the 48-hour window. That way the Home Office can fulfil its legal obligations while still keeping the deportee completely cut off.

There is precious little reason to feel upbeat about this situation. But it is a sign, even in a limited way, that the protest movement against Britain's detention and deportation programme is affecting the system.

The brutality of British deportation is a response to all the pressure coming from the anti-immigrant, anti-asylum right. Now we know the pressure is being felt from the opposite direction as well. For now, the response is to go further underground. But that might not always be the case.

Small blessings, to be sure. But something's better than nothing.

How Whitehall neutered the Freedom of Information Act

"You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop," Blair said to himself in his memoirs.

"There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it."

Was he discussing the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq? The dismantling of Britain's civil liberties? His decision to let John Prescott stand in for him at PMQs? No. Of all Blair's decisions, it was the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act which sparked a crisis of self-doubt.

It's a doubt the civil service has done its best to address. Since the Act was passed it has become increasingly useless. Now, after four years of coalition government, the FoI Act is barely worth the paper it's written on. One of the most powerful pieces of transparency legislation this country produced has been neutered.

In recent months, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has fought a fierce legal battle to prevent the publication of the risk register into Iain Duncan Smith's Universal Credit scheme, along with other documents into concerns and problems with the plan. The information commissioner ruled it should be released, minus the risk register. A tribunal agreed, but wanted the risk register published too.

The DWP fought the case tooth-and-nail but lost. It appealed and lost that too, this time with a venomous response from a judge who could see "no support for the argument" and pointed out that the department had not "provided any persuasive evidence". The DWP asked for permission to appeal again and has been granted the opportunity to do so at an oral hearing in a few months.

How much is all this costing, you might wonder? Well wonder all you like, because you'll never find out.

My FoI to the DWP asking for costs came back recently with a flat refusal, as expected. "The department does not keep a record of the time its staff spend on particular Freedom of Information case work so the information you seek is not held," it said. The full cost to the public purse would have involved the costs of the DWP, the Treasury Solicitors Department and the Information Commissioner's Office, but even this small piece of the puzzle was considered confidential.

These legal cases are not small fry. The grade of barrister involved in them usually cost £3,000-plus a day and countless government appeals mean they go on for months, even when the judge's disparaging remarks have already made clear they have almost no chance of success.

It’s the same across government departments. We know from the scraps of information in Home Office accounts that it haemorrhages cash on Theresa May's constant legal battles and appeals. These included £8.9 million on liability for unlawful detention by the UK Border Agency (UKBA), £37.5 million in a dispute between UKBA and former asylum accommodation providers and £21.2 million for outstanding cases in which UKBA changes to immigration rules had a negative impact on institutions.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but when campaigning group Brit Cits tried to find out more, the Home Office - without a trace of irony - told her it would be "disproportionately expensive" to provide the information.

What goes for FoI goes for parliamentary questions as well.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan recently asked a series of basic parliamentary questions to then-prisons minister Jeremy Wright. He was told it would be too expensive to "manually interrogate" prison incidence reports to find out how much contraband was getting into jails and how. In a string of questions, Wright basically just stamped the words 'disproportionately expensive' across each one. 

When Tory MP Philip Davies asked which religions were being targeted in religiously-aggravated attacks, he was told that "data on religious belief of offenders or victims are not reported centrally to the Ministry of Justice".

There was a similar response when campaigners from the Howard League used FoI to ask how many times their name had cropped up in internal correspondence. They have a sneaking and not-unjustified suspicion that the justice secretary does not like them very much and may be making policy decisions to spite them. "I am afraid that I am not able to confirm whether the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) holds the information you have requested," the department wrote back. "On this occasion, the cost of determining whether we hold the information would exceed the limit set by the Freedom of Information Act and, as a result, I am afraid will not be taking your request further."

In its response the department let slip that it can only search for the titles of emails, not the content of the message.

It is symptomatic of the way governments have responded to FoI: not by embracing the spirit of openness but by finding ways of avoiding compliance while staying within the letter of the law.

The first response is not to record information at all, as in my FoI request. Alternately they just don't to hold it centrally, as in the MoJ's refusal to collate incidence reports from prisons about contraband. They can then cite an S12 cost of compliance exemption, saying it would cost more than £600 to collect the data.

Or they cripple themselves with ineffective systems, like email searches than can only scan titles rather than the message content.

This approach is hopeless if one is interested in effective government. What sort of company would make do without information as pertinent as that which the MoJ claims to have no interest in? If the government cares about contraband it may wish to find out how it gets into jails. If it cares about hate crime it may wish to find out which faiths are being targeted.

One quick glance at Google Analytics gives me much more information about the aims and achievements of this website than government departments have about matters of national importance. A Google Mail account allows far greater search and retrieval than the system employed in Whitehall. We're not talking top-level data here. This is simple stuff.

When these tried and tested methods fail, departments cite an S22 exemption, saying the information is intended for future publication, although they can rarely confirm when the future publication will take place.

Or they cite S35 on the formulation of government policy – an exemption intended to relate to high-level government police but which is increasingly applied far more broadly.

Or – as in the DWP risk register case – they cite the S36 exemption on the basis of prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs. As several judges have made clear, this is overwhelmingly used to save ministerial blushes rather than protest honest internal debate.

Finally, they cite the S43 exemption on commercial interests to keep the activities of privately-run public services, such as those delivered by Atos and G4S, out the public eye. Labour has pledged to make these firms subject to FoI if it gets to power but even if it does so, the commercial interest exemption allows the department and the contractor to play a game of hot potato, constantly citing commercial sensitivity in refusing to reveal information which is manifestly in the public interest.

(Incidentally, the mad effects of privatisation are more far-reaching and pernicious than that. Justice minister Simon Hughes recently revealed he couldn't visit a women's rehabilitation centre, because to visit one and not all of them would potentially open up the MoJ to judicial review after the work is contracted out. A child who had just drunk five pints of Coca Cola could not have developed a more problematic system.)

The reason Blair felt so strongly opposed to FoI was because it was such a genuinely good piece of legislation: transparent, far-reaching and closing the gap between the state and the public. But it wasn't enough to pass it. Laws like that need to be tended to make sure they are achieving their desired objective. Instead, the political class has looked aghast at what it did. Civil servants and ministers have taken notice of that and stacked the odds against publication.

Their method for doing so has significantly constricted the potential for effective government. It is a telling indication of their priorities: faced with a choice between being able to do their jobs properly and limiting embarrassment, they opted for the latter.

It is part of a depressing tradition in Westminster. When a genuinely radical innovation is introduced, the system shuts it down. That's why Sarah Wollaston – the independent-minded MP selected by an open primary for the Tories – was the last of her kind. The scheme was not cancelled because it didn't work. It was cancelled because it did work. The same thing is happening to Freedom of Information.

Brave New World: Even the UN is open to drug decriminalisation

The body set up to enforce the world's drugs laws has admitted decriminalisation is an "alternative" to prohibition. The story is unlikely to garner many headlines but this is brave new world territory. It's the global equivalent of a town sheriff telling his officers not to put people in jail for taking drugs anymore.

The funny thing is, it happened ages ago and we didn't even notice.

It's in the 2007 report of the UN's International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a deeply reactionary and aggressive body which polices nation states' obedience to the 1961 Single Convention banning recreational drugs. Transform's Danny Kushlick was going through it the other day when he noticed something remarkable. It says there is no need to send anyone to jail for the "possession, purchase or cultivation" of recreational drugs.

Here's the quote in full, from section B18:

"The conventions differentiate sharply between offences related to drug trafficking and offences related to personal use of illicit drugs and between offences committed by drug abusers and those committed by others.

"Under the 1988 Convention, drug abusers who commit offences may be required to undergo treatment, education, aftercare, rehabilitation or social reintegration, in addition to being convicted or punished, providing that the facts and circumstances surrounding the commission of the offence indicate it to be an offence of a minor nature.

"However, with offences involving the possession, purchase or cultivation of illicit drugs for the offender’s personal use, the measures can be applied as complete alternatives to conviction and punishment, and none of the convention obligations referred to in paragraphs 15-17 above apply to such offences.

"As such, the conventions recognize that, to be truly effective, a State’s response to offences by drug abusers must address both the offences and the abuse of drugs (the underlying cause)."

As Kushlick wrote to me:

"It's weird on two fronts:

"1) That they said it and

"2) That no one had noticed it before

"I feel a bit like I walked through the looking glass…"

It's important to note where the board stops. It is not supportive of legalisation. In fact when Uruguay legalised cannabis, it bullied it with a statement warning about the impact on the country's "public health and well being".

It added, with a trace of malevolence:

"INCB looks forward to maintaining an ongoing dialogue with all countries, including those where such misguided initiatives are being pursued, with a view to ensuring the full implementation of the convention and protecting public health."

Bu the fact that this organisation is open to decriminalisation is an astonishing benchmark for the drug reform movement. Apparently, even the most die-hard prohibitionists are starting to recognise the evidence of decades of failure. As Kushlick said: "UK politicians must follow the numerous countries that have decriminalised, to vastly greater success, rather than those that continue to criminalise users and small-scale growers."

Fittingly, the comment has been discovered just after the UN's leading health agency, the World Health Organisation (WHO), effectively called on countries to end the criminalisation of narcotics. The WHO has worked hand-in hand-with the INCB to aggressively push for the blanket ban on recreational drugs on the world stage.

Now, after countless deaths and ruined lives, it has changed its tune.

A report earlier this month on HIV among vulnerable people – like gay men, drug injectors, prisoners and sex workers – suggested countries end the criminalisation of injection and certainly stop sending people to jail for it.

"Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalise injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration," it said.

It also called for countries to decriminalise programmes which provide clean needles and syringes and encouraged opiate substitution treatment for people who are dependant. Finally, it said countries should ban compulsory treatment for people who use and/or inject drugs.

The recommendations were in relation to HIV and drug injection, but you can see how the priority is being placed on public health rather than criminal justice. This is the balance of priorities which drug reform advocates have been demanding for decades: a focus on saving life rather than punishing it.

The ramifications of that advice go well beyond injection. It's unthinkable that someone offering that advice would suggest sending a cannabis smoker to jail, for instance.

With intellectual changes of this magnitude taking place at a global level, there's a growing sense that we're approaching critical mass. Soon even the most studiously ignorant national government – like ours, for instance – will need to take note.

It's a brave new world. And we've been in it since 2007, apparently.

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