Come the revolution, you’re supposed to hang the lawyers first. Which is fine. But it might be better to start with the judges. Specifically those that are happy to grant injunctions that prevent members of the public from raising matters of concern with their local MP. I ken that commonsense need not be compatible with jurisprudence but this oversteps the mark by some considerable distance. It is outrageous and so outlandish that one wonders how it can actually happen. But happen it does and, it turns out, more frequently than you might think and certainly more often than you’re supposed to know.
So three cheers for John Hemming*, MP for Birmingham Yardley, for his speech to a Westminster Hall debate last week. The whole debate is worth your time and the transcript can be found here. The choice cuts include:
To say, “We will remove your child, because you had the effrontery to raise your concerns about process with your Member of Parliament” is a dreadful thing to do. Parliament should not tolerate that, because it undermines the actions of Parliament.
[…] I will now look in more detail at Andrew France’s case. I have some of the documentation with me, including a county court order-for proceedings that have now completely ended, so it is a public document, and there is no issue of privilege. The document is there in the courts. In the recitals, it states:
"upon the first and second Respondents agreeing that they will make no further disclosure in respect of this matter to any third party, including in particular the media and John Hemmings MP."
It is somewhat surprising that I am such a threat to the system that so much effort will go into stopping one of my constituents speaking to me. He was wrongly imprisoned on a made-up allegation of rape, so he went through a serious process. He won his criminal appeal but he complained about a social worker in the process, so the authorities decided to start proceedings in the family courts. Luckily, an excellent judge junked it in the bin, because it was transparently such nonsense, and everything ran smoothly for the family. However, my constituent was under no illusion that had he not agreed to those recitals in the court order, the council would have taken action – he was told – which would have been to apply for a care order taking his four-year-old daughter into care.
Mr Bacon: For the benefit of the House, can my hon. Friend clarify, in case anyone did not notice? Is he saying that a court order was made prohibiting a constituent from talking to him as a Member of Parliament?
John Hemming: Exactly. The court order is slightly different from that, because it is in the recitals. Some court orders prohibit people from talking to Members of Parliament, but, because it is in the recitals, it implies an agreement. It is slightly more complex, but, in essence, a lot of pressure was placed on him to agree not to talk to me. The threat was that, if he talked to me, they would apply to take his child into care. A note from his barrister, June Williams, said:
"All the advocates stressed to me the danger of Father having any contact with John Hemmings MP […] and had been heavily criticised by the Court of Appeal about his involvement in cases. The collective view was that he would do more harm than good. Mr Grove confirmed that he advised Mother not to contact the media again and she confirmed that she would not. I spoke to Father about this, as the parties had prepared the recital to the order about the parents not contacting the media or John Hemming […] or any third party about this case. Father was very defensive at first and said ‘No’ and that effectively this was a gagging order," which, of course, it is.
[…] The essence of it is that he has no real choice. If he does not agree to it, the local council, of which I used to be deputy leader, would take action to take his child into care.
On the processes of councils, it is interesting that I have discovered that their senior management and councillors have no knowledge of what is really going on in social services departments throughout the country on a day-to-day basis. There is no real scrutiny in the councils, and the fact that elected officials are in charge of them does not result in any proper scrutiny.
That is one example where it is obvious that action was wrongly taken to bully somebody into agreeing not to contact me.
[In another case, this time involving someone complaining that the water tanks on passenger ships could be exposed to toxins] … The person in question could actually be jailed for telling his MP that he had been in court case No. 773. What is so sensitive about that? In practice, even family court proceedings are not that confidential. I think this case was in the Commercial and Admiralty court. My first question is not just how the hell this could happen – I apologise for the non-parliamentary language, Mr Bone. How does this happen? How many more of these cases are there? How many secret cases do we have in this country, with people being banned from even saying that the case exists?
[…] This is not the sort of thing that should happen. This is not about transparency and accountability, but about using lots of money. We come back to Magna Carta and somebody with a lot of money. We are talking about various companies with lots of money gagging some poor individual. Where is the equality of arms in that? Where is the idea that we will not sell justice? The courts may not be selling justice, but the legal process as a whole is not really very balanced if this is the sort of thing that goes on.
[…]I am not the only one having problems. When I talk to colleagues of all parties, they all find similar problems with the aggressive way in which apparatchiks of the state attempt to ban constituents from talking to MPs. We have judges creating situations where it is made an imprisonable offence to tell an MP that a case exists. I do not think that is right, transparent or accountable.
Do read the whole thing. It is extraordinary, disgraceful and shaming. I can understand why social services want to bully and silence people; what seems inexplicable is the willingness of judges to endorse this approach and preserve the right of the faceless state to intimidate the citizenry and, still worse, make it a criminal offence to even complain about your treatment by the courts.
It’s a great shame no-one bothers to report on parliament these days because, actually, lots of ineresting things happen there. Perhaps editors no longer have the manpower to staff all the committee rooms and so on but were I editing a newspaper I’d hire a couple of reporters and ask them just to read Hansard. Every day. There are plenty of stories to be harvested from those pages.
In the meantime, hurrah for the blogosphere where the likes of Anna Raccoon actually bother to read Hansard and alert the rest of us to what’s actually happening. An army of laptops can pick up where the press left off and bring these disgraces to the wider audience they merit.
Finally, I’d also observe that anyone reading the transcript of this debate might be encouraged by the diligence shown by members of parliament, not to mention the work they do for their constituents. It’s cheap and easy to treat MPs as spivs and chancers and lord knows frm time to time we all succumb to the temptation to do so but, actually, as this debate and the televised proceedings of many a select committee demonstrate, there’s a quiet decency to much of their work too and a dogged willingness to do the best they can for their constituents and the institution in which they are privileged to sit.
*An obvious candidate for Backbencher of the Year at the next edition of the Spectator’s Parliamentary Awards.
[Thanks to RK]