Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Until I'm Blue in the Face!

Welfare reform is a term we hear quite frequently these days. This so called ‘reform’ is said to be designed to save money. This is not true, what welfare reform will do is label the unemployed and deflect from the failings of those in government by manipulating the unemployment figures. After all, if you’re on one of those ‘work for your dole’ schemes you are not technically unemployed. Furthermore welfare reform will impact harshly on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

Yesterdays announcement that Stormont now faces legal action over the lack of anti-poverty strategy as outlined as a key element in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement came as no surprise given we still await a Bill of Rights. CAJ Director Brian Gormley said "It is particularly important that there is a strategy to alleviate poverty and ensure resources are targeted at those most in objective need in times when budget cuts are being imposed from London and there is the spectre of so-called welfare reform impacting on the most vulnerable in our society."

Welfare reform

In an October 2013 report Report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action it was found that Welfare Reform will see £750m a year taken out of the local economy. This money will be taken from the poorest and most vulnerable in society with an additional £214 million in penalty payments taken from the Stormont budget.

Annual cuts to the following benefits:

Incapacity benefits are to be cut by £230m,
Tax Credits will be cut by £135m,
The 1% up-rating of most working age benefits is to be reduced by £120m
Disability Living Allowance is to be cut by (£105m a year)
Housing Benefit reforms will mean a loss of an estimated £20m in the form of bedroom tax.

A real cause for concern comes from the introduction of a Universal Credit  which will replace many existing benefits and see multiple benefits paid to the claimant in one combined payment. The idea of a combined payment is a real cause for concern for families who have difficulty in managing their household budget. If you are given a lump sum and you have to decide between paying rent or buying your children clothes and food you are going to put the needs of your children first, which will then lead to an increase in rent arrears and the possibility of homelessness. What about someone with an alcohol addiction problem? Are they going to think about paying rent when they have money in hand to buy alcohol?

Let’s look at the facts.

There are now 55,500 unemployed people in Northern Ireland, which is 6.3% of the workforce. Derry currently has the highest unemployment rate with every third child said to be living below the poverty line.

Study shows that there is a direct link between suicide and unemployment. Research has also uncovered a link between suicidal behaviour and having experienced traumatic and conflict-related events. Additionally there is evidence to suggest that the North of Ireland has high levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the Troubles, which in many cases remains untreated.

In a study published by the Prince's Trust it was found as many as 750,000 young people in the UK may feel that they have nothing to live for. It was also found that almost 1/3 of long-term unemployed young people have contemplated suicide.

3,288 suicides were registered in the North of Ireland from the beginning of 1998 to the end of 2012, these figures have dramatically increased over the past two years.

A record number of anti-depressants were prescribed here last year with more than 100m anti-depressant tablets given to patients. The 2013 figures show an increase of 37% from 2008 in the number of people taking anti-depressants.

With the seriousness of  these issues we need to question how the British Government and their Stormont cohorts can justify such savage cuts in the midst of such suffering. In 2011/2012 it was found that tax avoidance costs the taxpayer £4bn with tax evasion costing £5.1bn per annum. Combined these figures account for about 1/4 of the £35bn which is lost to the British Treasury each year through the "tax gap".
Surely it makes more sense to fill in these gaps than to penalise the poor for the failings of government 

Another obvious solution to Welfare Reform would be to abolish the Northern Ireland Assembly Gravy train, which is about as useful as chocolate fire guard.

Let's look at examples of money wasted and the money that could be saved:

Firstly the reckless borrowing through Private Finance Initiatives accounts for £250 million per annum from the budget. In a report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office in January 2014 it outlined 39 PFI schemes in Northern Ireland that will cost more than £7bn over the lifetime of the projects. One example of this at a local level is the joint cost of building two schools in Derry which was 45 Million pounds – the end cost to the public purse is around 185 Million pounds. They must have borrowed from those who operate on a par with pay-day lenders!

The Audit office in a 2014 report went as far as to raise concerns over the transparency and accountability and affordability of the use of PFI. Stating that ‘The Executive does not have a published and transparent borrowing strategy, which sets out to ensure that total capital investment remains within affordable and sustainable limits. It is important that the affordability of the long-term spending implications of RRI borrowing is taken into account by the Executive and made visible to the Assembly. In our view, both the Budget and Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI) documents should be underpinned with a borrowing strategy that is transparent to the Assembly.’ 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

The ESA scheme which has recently been scrapped with £17 million wasted over a seven year period.

Invest NI spent £12 million pounds on property that’s never been used.

The Office (OFMDFM) has twice as many staff as 10 Downing Street and nearly as many as the Whitehouse. In 2010 the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister spent £16m on staff. In September of this year it was revealed 12 staff in OFMDFM operating credit cards have spent a staggering £2.6million in seven years on travel and accommodation expenses.

161 people work in the Stormont Press offices.

We currently have 108 Members with Limited Authority/Ability (MLA's) each receiving £43,101.00 in wages with the First and Deputy First Minister each receiving £71,434.00. This money would go along way, coupled with the money that would be saved on expenses, trips abroad, golf tournaments, subsidised canteen facilities (£250,000 per annum) not forgetting the £50,000 spent each week on hospitality.

And the frightening thing is that these people stand to have more powers devolved to them. If they cannot balance the books now, what calamitous disaster awaits us if they get more powers?

Let’s get real.... the British Government still rule the roost here hence the minimal powers devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, so surely the ending of Indirect British Rule even in the short-term is an option. Look at this as a way of cutting out the middle man, because either way ordinary people are shafted no matter who holds, or pretends to hold the reins of power!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Reject all cuts!

Today I received a letter which has been circulated to all NI library staff advising that the library budget is
 to be cut by a further £1.4 million by March 2015. This notification of cuts was delivered to the library service last month by the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL), the same DCAL as headed up by Sinn Fein Minister Caral Ní Chuilín. .

This announcement comes with the added news of how things are set to get worse in the coming years. These cuts are said to involve a reduction in the level of new stock, scheduled maintenance, staffing, programming, travel and training.

The letter
There is to be a full review of staffing to ensure libraries provide the core services and a reduction in opening hours by November 2014.

The staffing budget is to be cut by £520k which will see the removal of listed vacancies and agency sickness cover which will also impact on outreach work carried out in deprived communities. Furthermore there are cuts to the staff development budget.

The stock budget is to be reduced by £489k which will involve a decrease in the level of new stock purchased and also in the purchase of daily local newspapers.

Marketing to promote free Wi-Fi has been cancelled.

Planned maintenance is to be cut by £150k.

Library service staff are also to be given the option of a voluntary reduction in hours. The Library service has stated that these cuts will also mean ad-hoc closures of libraries due to a reduction in staffing levels and available cover.

Libraries provide an invaluable resource for many in our communities from mothers & toddlers groups to older members of the community and everyone in between. Libraries provide more than books, they are a social hub, the provide services to marginalised and disadvantaged communities and this service needs to be protected.

From helping reduce social isolation in the elderly, to providing a whole raft of services across our communities the library service and its staff do a fantastic job on an already limited budget, yet the powers that be in Stormont are implementing cuts of £1.4 Million against the library service after just wasting £17 Million on the failed Education and Skills Authority.

It would seem that the politicians would be better off looking at the amount of public money they are wasting before they cut essential services. Don't forget it wasn't the Tories who wasted that £17 million quid, nor have they forced the library service to cut their services!


Sunday, 7 September 2014

From disparity to despair!

A few days ago I read a statement from Stormont Justice committee member,  Raymond McCartney and MLA Jennifer McCann in relation to the treatment of Republican prisoners in Maghaberry. Whilst I have no doubt their concern is genuine the more cynical side of me questions the timing of the statement given the issues outlined have been ongoing for some time. This statement came just hours before the British Secretary of State announced that the protection letters issued to hundreds of Republicans through the 'On the Runs' scheme are to be rescinded with their contents now considered null and void due to alleged"errors" that were made at the time.

The main issue raised in the statement from Sinn Fein is the continued use of forced isolation. Indeed Gavin Coyle who has been held in isolation since April 2011 is but one example. Furthermore Gavin Coyle is said to be subject to what appears to be arbitrary interrogation with an open door policy available to British Security services who are said to have tried on numerous occasions to recruit Coyle as an informer. These security services are not accountable to the Northern Ireland Justice Department as they fall under the remit of the Northern Ireland Office which was set up under direct British Rule in 1972.

The role of the Northern Ireland Office is to oversee issues of national security, whilst they are further responsible for electoral, human rights and equality legislation. This places our political leaders in a bit of a conundrum as they have a duty to ensure that the treatment of prisoners complies with Human Rights Legislation which in some cases it clearly does not. Forced isolation amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment and is therefore in breach of article three of the European Convention on Human Rights. Another major impediment in Maghaberry has been the failure to replace degrading forced strip searches, with security scanning equipment similar to that used in airports, as agreed in August 2010.

The accepted dis-empowerment of our politicians stems from deals underpinned during the signing of the St Andrews Agreement which with the consent of the main political parties gave free reign to the unaccountable British Security Services.. This makes me wonder why Sinn Fein even went to Maghaberry, whilst they can appeal to the British Secretary of State in these matters they have no oversight over the activities of these 'secret services'.

Following the announcement that the British government had reneged on the 'On The Runs' Scheme the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton announced cuts of over £80 million to the PSNI budget. This came with the news of how less resources will used to investigate past and legacy cases. A reduction in resources to deal with the past could lead to the possible scaling back or abolishment of the HET.

It is said that this announcement will also impact on investigations into the Bloody Sunday Massacre. It would seem that the main thrust of the statement from George Hamilton to the Policing Board was directed towards cases that could be considered 'troubles' related. What needs to be asked is will cases of a historical nature with no connection to the troubles still be investigated? Who will decide which cases are to be investigated, who measures the importance of these cases and who decides what is and what is not in the public interest?

Another item which featured in the news last week was on how three people, including a former police officer and his wife will no longer face trial on charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, in connection to the murder of Robert Hamill. Robert Hamill who was 25 years old died after being beaten by loyalists in Portadown in1997. The judge in the case described the witness in the case as being "evasive, obstructive and untruthful" and further said that she was "an entirely unreliable and utterly unconvincing witness" who had seasoned her testimony with"inconsistencies and outlandish assertions.” The witness did not attend court on the day to provide evidence, firstly claiming her child was ill and then later alleging that she had received a letter warning her not to give evidence. I wonder if this case will feature on the PSNI priority list when choosing which past cases will warrant investigation.

When reading the judgement on the case I couldn't help but reflect on the case of the Craigavon Two whose conviction is secured on the testimony of short sighted Walter Mitty. This witness, described by his own family member as a Walter Mitty contacted the police whilst heavily intoxicated 11 months after the murder. The eye witness testimony from this witness known as witness 'M' is said to be a medical impossibility, he is also said to have lied continually under oath with his partner from the time refusing to confirm his version of events to be true. Furthermore this witness is said to have gained financially from providing evidence which he did with his identity protected in court.

When you compare both cases you can't help but see the disparity and begin to wonder if there is any consistency in the application of justice, the powers that be would argue that the each case is considered on it's merits and the evidence available and without political interference.

Last week a senior judge said comments by Health Minister Edwin Poots were detrimental to the rule of law and damaging to public confidence in the justice system. Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan outlined his concerns in a letter to Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson eight months ago and has received no response. 

Maybe the actions of the judiciary in their application of the law coupled with the ineptitude of politicians here has damaged public confidence in the justice system. I just hope that if I'm ever in court for some infraction of the law that the prosecution doesn't wheel out some short sighted Walter Mitty with a taste for alcohol, then I'll know I'm in trouble.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Free the Craigavon Two!

Two men are currently imprisoned in Maghaberry after being convicted on the most questionable evidence following the most unconvincing of trials and subsequent farce of an appeal. Sadly this is one more in a long line of miscarriages of justice perpetrated by the British justice System.

The easiest option in the majority of cases would be to remain silent particularly when it doesn't affect  you or the people closest to you. However the case of these two men who have become known as the Craigavon Two is a case that should be of great concern to all, particularly to people in the North of Ireland who know only too well of injustices, miscarriage of justice and of a litany of people who spent years in jail for crimes they did not commit. The Craigavon two have protested their innocence since their arrest for the murder PNSI Constable Stephen Carroll who was callously gunned down whilst on duty in 2009.

Yet in this an era of normalisation the case is not being given the attention it so desperately deserves, with our politicians and moral guardians remaining surprisingly silent despite the case bearing all the hallmarks of political expediency.

The recent appeal to have the men freed was later dismissed despite the evident holes in the case. Having read the official campaign literature and court judgement the following points are prominent: The star witness in the case whose identity remains hidden is known as witness M and is alleged have gained financially from his involvement in the case. His testimony was submitted 11 months after the murder when he is said to have first contacted the police, whilst under the influence of alcohol. This witness has been described by his own family member as a Walter Mitty something which would seem to have been corroborated by his failure to give honest answers during the trial.

The more concerning but not surprising aspects of the case stem from allegations of police harassment and interference, including the arrest of a witness for the defence and attempts to sully the professional integrity of the legal team involved in the case.

Furthermore it has been alleged that the British Security Services tampered with surveillance equipment resulting in the disappearance of alleged evidence from a tracking device which was said to have been Planted in John Paul Wooton's car. With these factors in mind we can only conclude that this case involves an element of malevolence and exposes the inbuilt weaknesses in the British justice system and failings of the PSNI to carry out a robust and comprehensive investigation into the Carroll killing. As a result two men Brendan McConville and John Paul Wooton are languishing in prison cells on the strength of missing and circumstantial evidence and on the word of a Walter Mitty with an alleged vested interest.

One of the main campaigners for the two was the late Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. Prior to the Craigavon Two appeal Gerry voiced his disappointment over the silence of nationalist politicians, reminding them of how their silence could be construed as acceptance of a case that was and remains inherently flawed.

Over the past decades many miscarriages of Justice have been exposed with the accused and truth seemingly lost in a quagmire of red tape for years before any possibility of appeal, as again was witnessed in the case of Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four who was also shunted from prison to prison by successive British Governments in an attempt to curtail his campaign to prove his innocence and that of his co-accused.

Here are but a few cases of miscarriages of justice which saw convictions secured due to non-disclosure of evidence, questionable evidence, forced statements, the fabrication of evidence, police interference and what was clearly conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Derek Bentley
On January 28th 1953 19 year old Derek Bentley the last person to be hanged in Britain was executed in Wandsworth Gaol for his part in the killing of a police officer. Among the factors that led to his conviction was the fact the jury heard no evidence of his learning disabilities over the period of his two day trial. Scientific evidence later proved that the three police officers who gave evidence on Bentley shouting "Let him have it" had lied under oath. Forty five years later Derek Bentley's name was cleared having been denied the right to a fair trial.

Gerry Conlon

The cases of the Guildford Four were quashed by the Court appeal in 1989 after they spent 15 years in prison. Surprisingly in 1993 three retired detectives were acquitted of fabricating evidence and conspiracy to pervert the court of justice. Sir John May's inquiry into the Guildford and Woolwich bombings which was published in 1994, criticised every stage of the process that led to the abuse and imprisonment of the Guildford Four.

In the case of the Maguire Seven their convictions were ruled unsafe in 1990 following an inquiry which exposed flaws in the police's forensic evidence which was used to secure their convictions. On further examination it was found that the traces of nitroglycerine found on their hands and gloves were the result of innocent contamination.

The Birmingham Six

In the case of the Birmingham Six , six Irish men living in England were wrongly convicted in 1975 of bombing the Mulberry Bush bar in Birmingham in 1974. The convicted men served more than 16 years in jail until 1991 when the court of appeal quashed their conviction. The six men were partly convicted on forensic evidence which was later discredited with officers involved in the case accused of tampering with evidence, however prosecutions against those officers were shelved in 1993.

Judith Ward

 Judith Ward was convicted in 1974 of the M62 coach bombing in which 12 soldiers and their family members were killed it was later found that she spent 17 years in prison for crimes she did not commit. During her appeal her legal team stated there had been "significant and substantial" non-disclosure of information to the defense coupled with a failure to acknowledge her mental health state.

The Bridgewater Three
The Bridgewater Three were jailed in 1978 and spent 18 years in prison for the murder of Staffordshire newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater. Appeal judges were advised that two policemen had probably fabricated an important statement. Due to the efforts of forensic scientists, the crown prosecution service accepted that the trial was"fundamentally flawed" from the outset. A fourth man Patrick Molloy who had been convicted of manslaughter and died in prison in 1981 also had his conviction reversed posthumous. Patrick Molloy had previously claimed that a “vein of corruption and dishonesty” permeated the entire proceedings.

Liam Holden

In 2012 Liam Holden who was the last man handed the death sentence in the United Kingdom had his conviction for murdering a British paratrooper quashed after telling a court he confessed at gunpoint having being subjected to water boarding by members of the parachute regiment, water boarding is form of torture used to simulate drowning. Holden spent 17 years in prison after having his death sentence lessened to a term of life imprisonment and was later released on licence in 1989.

Patrick Livingstone

In 2013 Patrick Livingstone had his conviction for the murder Samuel Llewellyn in 1975 quashed. Livingstone was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977. During the hearing Senior judges announced their unease over the safety of the verdict returned at the time on Patrick Livingstone. The appeal judges ruled that the the statement was secured following alleged brutality from the RUC officers involved in the case.

Today the use of immunity orders allow state protection for those who could be considered guilty of perverting the course of justice and I doubt the soldiers involved in the torture of Liam Holden or the RUC officers involved in the abuse of Pat Livingstone will ever seen the inside of a court or gaol cell for their brutal tactics which led to innocent men been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

Bearing the above cases in mind is it really so hard to believe that the Craigavon Two have been wrongly convicted? With the farce of a trial, farcical evidence and farcical appeal proceedings coupled with the ongoing silence of politicians, clergy, civic and community leaders the worry is who is next?

In the absence of someone like Gerry Conlon who experienced a miscarriage of justice first hand we must do all we can to highlight and support the campaign to free John Paul Wooton and Brendan McConville, prisoners of convenience and political expedience.