Saturday, December 27, 2008

Boxing Day

Alastair and Archie had stayed overnight, and for an extended lunch we had Philip and Edwina, Kina, Sue and Lyulph, Vanessa and Jamie, and Alex.

We listened to the Queen and Mr Ahmedinejad, and I thought he should have also livened his talk up with some clips of essential events of the past year, such as the installation of some new centrifuges or the stoning to death of a married woman found guilty of adultery - its only 80 lashes if she's unmarried.

Of course, Mr Ahmedinejad avoided any reference to the extremist interpretations of Islam preached by some, though not all, of the mullahs in Iran. The Iranian media no longer report executions as they did until recently, and I'm not sure that sinners are executed in public these days.

In Islam,as in Christianity, so much depends on the interpretation of the scriptures. The Qur'an and the Bible could both be treated as justifying men's domination of women and the criminalisation of gays, and there are some Christians who still read the Bible as if every word came directly from the almighty and must be followed to the letter. Actually, those books are the product of their times, and they reflect the ideas of the 1st and 7th centuries, but nowadays, in the Dar el-Harb, the non-Islamic world (the Abode of War,literally), there is acceptance in principle of the equality of all human beings, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. So we are doubly shocked to read that militants in the Pakistani province of Swat have announced that all girls' schools must close by January 1, and they will blow up any that are still open after that date. Its appalling enough that in the view of these people,led by Maulana Fazlullah, women should be deprived of education, but worse,that apparently the Pakistan authorities have no power to arrest them for threatening violence against anyone who resists them,on their own radio station!

Marcelle & Hugh, Christmas Day

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wednesday, December 24

The last three days were largely taken up with changing from TalkTalk to O2 as ISP, a decision taken on the grounds of speed. Its definitely faster, but their helpline was totally useless. Every machine on the network had to be set up individually by connecting it to the supplied router and running the O2 software on it, and Lindsay's computer didn't recognise the ISP. I thought it might be a fault on the ethernet cable, which runs through the window frame of my room, along the back of the house and in her window frame, so I tried using another ethernet cable inside the house and when that didn't work, got JW to move Lindsay's machine into my office so we could use the short yellow cable supplied with the router. When that didn't work either and I telephoned O2 helpline, after a lot of humming and haaing they finally admitted there was a fault at their end, which they rectified. They weren't prepared to offer any advice on how devices sould be connected via a hub, or how the NAS storage device should be connected. It turned out that once a machine had been recognised by connecting it directly to the router, it could then be linked via the hub - just as well since the router only has four ports. The NAS was recognised by the router and I left it attached though it would probably be happy being connected via the hub too.

One residual problem is that my laptop, and one desktop, connected to the network wirelessly, see each other but not the ones that are linked by cable.

This galvanised me into a partial reorganisation of my office. We don't use fax nowadays so I'm getting rid of the bulky HP All-in-one that sat on top of the filing cabinet, and cancelling the telephone connection, saving £20 a month. There's an IT recycling outfit on Coldharbour Lane that accepts old kit, so I hope to get rid of the HP, the old router and some other bits and pieces after the Christmas shutdown.

Sunday I visited Rosalind O-Reilly, who retired from the Lords Library in 1982 abd is now in a nursing home in Pimlico. It seemed to be well-run and clean, and the staff were kind and attentiveto the needs of the residents, who were in the dayroom after their lunch, but Oh dear, what a dreary existence! Ros said she didn't get bored, but she doesn't read, and her only regular visitor is a brother who comes up once a month from Shropshire. She isn't able to get up from the chair, let alone to move about, without assistance, and there seemed to be very little social interaction between the residents, only one of whom was mobile.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Olivia at her school graduationl

Curious refusal of visa to human rights activist

Statement by Lord Avebury on the refusal of visa to Mr al-Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, to attend a seminar on human rights and democracy in Bahrain, helf under my chairmanship in the House of Lords on Thursday December 18.

On December 14 I learned that Mr al-Maskati had been told more than once by the British Consulate in Manama that his application for a visa to attend and speak at the seminar being held under my chairmanship at the House of Lords on December 18 was still being processed, and since there were only a few days left for him to make his travel arrangements I emailed a senior official in the Consulate as follows:

May I please ask for your help with the application for a visa by Mr Mohammed al-Masqati of Bahrain Youth for Human Rights, who is an invited speaker at a seminar on Bahrain that I'm chairing in the Moses Room, House of Lords, on Thursday? He has attended the Consulate but has been told that his application is still under consideration, and I'm getting anxious, as tomorrow is the last working day in Manama before our seminar.

If you would kindly email me in the morning, I hope to say that the visa is being granted, it would be helpful.

On receiving an automatic ‘Out of office’ reply saying the official would be away until December 29 and giving an alternate email address, I forwarded the original email to the suggested address with a covering note as follows:

I had an 'out of office' reply to this email, and since the matter is indeed urgent, I would be grateful if you would email me in the morning.

On the morning of December 15, having had no answer, I telephoned the Consulate, and the official I spoke to on referring to their computer database of visa applications, told me that no trace could be found of an application under either ‘al-Maskati’ or ‘al-Masqati’.

I telephoned the office of the Minister who deals with these matters, and they referred me to the ‘MPs’ hotline’, and after several attempts to contact thus number, only to receive an answerphone message, when I finally got through I was asked to provide Mr al-Maskati’s passport number. I emailed the official at midday of December 15 as follows:

Details of applicant:

Mohamed Abdulnabi Ebrahim Ali Al-Maskati, Bahraini Passport No: ******* (details withheld for reasons of confidentiality)

This gentleman has been invited for a short visit so that he can speak at a seminar I'm chairing on the morning of Thursday this week.

These seminars have been held regularly every six months for many years, and none of our invited speakers has ever infringed the immigration rules to the best of my knowledge.

Its a public holiday in Manama tomorrow, but I very much hope that the UKBA can make up their minds to grant Mr al-Maskati a visa in time for Wednesday first thing, which I hope would enable him to book a last minute flight.

The following day, December 16, the official emailed me:

Just to keep you updated on Mr Al-Maskati's visa application, this application has been referred, and is being currently being looked into.

The words ‘has been referred’ meant that the Consulate in Manama had referred the application to the UK Borders Agency in London. I replied:

Thanks for that. But if he doesn't get the visa tomorrow, he will miss our seminar on Thursday, which I must say would be a great disappointment.

On Wednesday, December 17 the official emailed me:

While I can't pre-empt any final decision, I did want to update you that it does look likely that Mr Al-Maskati's application may be refused.

At that point it was already too late for Mr al-Maskati to make travel arrangements even if the application had been granted.

Although it would have added greatly to the analysis of the situation of human rights and democracy in Bahrain if the seminar could have heard from the President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, his absence underlined what I said in my own speech about the attempts to silence Bahraini activists speaking at meetings abroad:

“When three prominent human rights activists spoke at a meeting in Washington DC about the exclusion of Shi’a from higher education and public sector jobs, they were branded as ‘traitors’ and ‘stooges of the Unuted States’ on returning to Bahrain, and the Interior Minister, one more al-Khalifa, called for the enforcement of Article 34 of the Penal Code, which provides that a person who criticises Bahrain abroad is liable to three months imprisonment and a fine. I wrote to the Foreign Office Minister who deals with Bahrain, Bill Rammell MP, and he said our Ambassador was seeking a call on the Interior Minister to discuss his Article 34 demand, and also the wider issues of Bahrainis speaking at conferences abroad”.

We will make arrangements to receive a note of the speech Mr al-Maskati would have delivered, for inclusion in the report on the proceedings of the seminar, and we will make further inquiries with Foreign Office Ministers about the reasons why the application was referred to London, and why it was refused.

Chairing the meeting on 'Outsourcing Abuse', December 10

Friday, December 19, 2008

Bahrain seminar

The pictures are of yesterday's seminar in Bahrain in the Moses Room. On my right is Hassan Mushaime, Leader of the Haq Movement, and on my left, the Director of a new US organisation to promote democracy and human rights in Bahrain.

One of our speakers, Mohammad al-Maskati, was unable to attend because the British consulate in Manama were told by the FCO not to issue him with a visa at the last minute, after much prevarication. I couldn't get a straight answer when I inquired about the problem, either from the consulate or from the FCO, and I will have to nake further attempts to find out what the problem was after Christmas. Irs bad enough that the Bahraini regime does its best to intimidate activists into silence at home and abroad, and we shouldn't appear to be collaborating with them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Short week

Monday, Lyulph came to lunch at the House. He's been working just over the road. On the afternoon there was a statement on Pakistan, which inclused a reference to the 'causes of radicalisation'. I asked what could be done about the large sums of money from the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular, to fundamentalist mullahs inciting people to religious hatred, which the Leader of the House sidestepped.

Tuesday, the inaugural meeting of the Chagos Islands All-Party Group, at which I was elected one of the vice-chairs. There was a good attendance, and afterwards I filed the registraion forms, which have beenaccepted, so we're up and running. It was agreed that following the split decision against the Islanders by the Judicial Committee, it was now up to Parliament to see that a solution is found to the islanders' eviction from their homeland when Britain handed the territory over to the US as a military base.

Wednesday, my first meeting of the EU Justice & Home Affairs Subcommittee, to which I'm returning after 18 months' absence. The Committee is doing a short inquiry into an EU 'Civil Protection Mechanism' to promote cooperation in dealing with majore disasters, natural and man-made, then a longer one on money laundering. My old friend Nasim Bajwa came to lunch, and we discussed the current situation in Pakistan. At question time, I asked a supplementary on Caroline Cox's question on the mayhem in Jos, Nigeria, where more than 1,000 people were killed in a post-election rampage - a repeat of similar events in 2001 that were the subject of a judicial inquiry, but no report was ever published. In the afternoon, attended the All-Party Bangladesh Group AGM, where there was a useful dialogue with the Minister, Lord Malloch-Brown.

Thursday, an appointment at King's urology clinic first thing for a urine flow rate test, then chaired a successful and well-attended seminar on Bahrain in the Moses Room. We had three TV companies present - BBC Arabic service, Al-Aalam, and al-Jezira. Lunch, with my friend Benyamin Tsedaka of the Samaritans (the original ones, not the charity). They have good relations with both Israelis and Palestinians, and do a lot to promote peace and reconciliation between the two peoples. In the afternoon, a meeting with Nasser al-Anezy of the Kuwait Community Association on the intractable problem of Kuwait's denial of citizenship to its Bidoon inhabitants. The Bidoon - an Arabic term meaning 'without' - are severely disadvantaged, and a few hundred have claimed asylum here.

Today, Parliament rose for the Christmas recess until January 12. Its good to have a chance to catch up on the paperwork.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Habilian, an Iranian GONGO

There is a misleading account of my recent meeting with the Secretary-General of Habilian on their website. I met Mr Javad Hashemi-nejad, because it is my general policy to discuss issues with people from authoritarian regimes. He gave me no idea that he was intending to distort what I said for propaganda purposes, though my long experience of the Iranian government and their agents such as Interlink is that this is their usual practice.

Mr Hashemi-Nejad told me that the People’s Mojahedin of Iran was engaged in terrorist crimes and I asked him to let me have the evidence. I told him that the English courts, as well as the European Court of Justice, had found there was no evidence that the PMOI had committed any such offences. The PMOI had not done anything to justify their designation as a terrorist organisation under English law, and accordingly they had been removed from the list of organisations proscribed by the Terrorism Act.

Mr Hashemi-nejad said he would provide me with evidence, but has not done so. The documents he gave me at our meeting attacked the PMOI in general terms only, and were not evidence.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Week in Westminster

Monday, a brief meeting with the Director of the International Organisation for Migration, William Swing. Among other roles, they help unsuccessful migrants to return totheir home countries and resettle. On a question by Lindsay Northover, asked the Government whether, considering that children with HIV/AIDS are 40 times more likely to contract pneumococcal disease, which kills 1.6 million a year, they would consider integrating pneumococcal disease into their strategy and giving it the same prominence as they do malaria and TB, in consultation with the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization and its initiative PneumoADIP. The Minister said they would!

Then, a meeting to discuss current problems in Kurdistan, and later, meeting of the LibDem Foreign Affairs Team, at which we had a good discussion with a visiting delegation from the FDP, our German sister party.

Tuesday: In the morning, a meeting with Bolivian MP Rene Martinez, at which the main topic was the Pando massacre in which 19 people were killed, the subject of an inquiry by an international commission chaired by Argentine lawyer Rodolfo Mattarollo. At questions, asked a supplementary on Sue Miller's question about the DNA database. The European Court has declared that its unlawful to retain samples of persons not charged of convicted, and I wanted to know if orders were being given to Special Branch ro destroy samples taken from innocent passengers passing through Heathrow. The Minister replied that nothing would change until the Government comes up with proposals on how they intend to comply with the ruling, by March 2009. It seems to me this compounds the offence.

Wednesday: In the morning, chaired a well-attended meeting in Committee Room 14 to discuss the report 'Outsourcing Abuse', on assaults on asylum seekers in detention and when being returned to their countries of origin. Lunchtime, chaired a meeting in the Moses Room to celebrate the 69th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, organised by Ian Hall of the Bloomsbury Society. Then took part in Peter Blaker's question on the situation in Zimbabwe. In the evening, to the Charity Champions awards, at which I was nominated by the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group - see my kind sponsors with me below. It was a great honour, and I would love to have had the chance to say what splendid work they do to ensure that in asylum cases, the appeal authorities are kept informed of the way gay and lesbian people are viciously persecuted in many countries of origin - but only the winners were invited to speak.

Thursday: A meeting in the morning with the Minister at the Department of Children, Schools and Families, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, at which there was an exchange of views with the Advisory Council on the Education of Romanies and Travellers (of which I'm President) and the National Association of Traveller Teachers. Then at lunchtime to a reception hosted by Lindsay Northover for the Tropical Health Education Trust, with an exhibition on the work they're doing in various parts of the world including Somaliland.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sunday evening

Had a good Skype video call to Maurice in Auckland yesterday evening, possible now that he's got broadband. Skype now has 330 million users and accounts for 7% of international calls, but the wonder is that anybody at all pays for international calls via landline when they can have it for nothing on Skype.

A theme has been running through my head for the last week, and I could only remember that it was a slow movement from one of Bach's cello suites. This evening I played my 33 rpm Tortelier Suite No 4, and it was the Sarabande. Try the sarabande at Mournful, aching, regretful - what was the trgedy immortalised here?

I was shocked to receive the following story of heartless cruelty to a victim of domestic abuse and her three-year old child. Surely in a rich society like ours there ought to be a safety net to prevent this kind of thing happening, but particularly with Baby P all over the media, you'd imagine local authorities would be more concerned about the danger that a violent man would attack the child as well as the spouse. Clearly there is a general problem here, that Ministers need to address, and I have copied this story to Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, the Minister in the Lords who deals with domestic violence

In my professional role, as a worker with victims of domestic abuse, one of the most maddening problems we deal with is trying to assist women who have ‘no recourse to public funds’. Some are asylum seekers, who may have gone through the applications system and may be waiting for a judicial review. Often they may be waiting years for the Home Office to deal with the huge backlog of cases that is currently in existence.

Other foreign nationals may have married a Brit, but do not yet have a residence qualification, as they have not lived here for the required two years, in order to be eligible for public funds.

It is usually impossible to get these ‘No Recourse’ women into a refuge as these cannot take women who have no funding. This is a source of enormous frustration for DV advocates. Women often are given no option but to return to the violent partner and we, as advocates, can only stand by helplessly.

However, there is the 1989 Children’s Act and the amended Section 17 which states that Social Services have a duty of care to protect all children. So a route that is sometimes followed by DV advocates is to get social services to fund first bed and breakfast places and then emergency housing through the local borough.

I was fairly confident therefore when I got a call, through my Zimbabwean networks about a young Zimbabwean woman, age 22, who was 7 months pregnant, with a 3 year old, that this would be the route to getting help for her. When I got the call, she was very distressed, it was late and she was at Shoreditch police station. The police there did their best to support her. They were trying to get the housing department to put her in a B&B for the night. The girl was extremely distressed though – her husband had the day before thrown her against the wall and put his knee in her stomach and had only stopped further violence because the 3 year old had intervened, screaming at him, to protect her Mum. She was taken to a ‘safe’ house (Zim) for the night, staying on a sofa, with her child..

This was clearly a child protection issue. I felt fairly confident that Hackney Social services would take this on because of that. When I went to see the young woman, I went through the risk indicator checklist developed by CAADA (Coordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse). The score made it clear that she was in a high risk situation. This should mean that her case goes forward to a MARAC (Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference) for discussion and her protection prioritised. She could not go back to the flat, even though he was arrested, as the mother-in-law who was part of the abuse was also living there.

The next morning, I accompanied her to the Social Services office in Hackney and left her there. I told her she that she should explain the situation to the social workers and that they had, due to child protection laws, a duty of care to her child, at the very least.

She sat there all day, filled in many forms and the social worker assigned to her Michael Robinson, did his best to help her. But when he went to his managers he was told that Hackney could not help her and he was instructed to put her out on the street, together with her child. By the time he was told this, it was 5 PM and it was cold and raining outside. In spite of this, and Z’s extreme distress (and the effect on her 3 year old, who had by now wet herself in distress), he had to follow his manager’s instruction. She pleaded with him to help and asked where she was to go. He opened the door and told her to leave. I rang her and she was very distressed and sitting huddled at a bus stop with the child not knowing what to do or where to go. I left work and came and picked her up in my car and took her for the night to my one bedroom flat, where she and the child slept on the sofa for the night.

Meanwhile I also got hold of one of the midwives at the Homerton Hospital where she was being seen, who was shocked that the social services could have put her out on the street. Because of her intervention social services agreed to look again at the case and said she should come again next morning.

Next day she again presented herself there and sat there all day again. Then a manager came down to talk to her. Again, by then, she was distressed and crying. The female, white manager gave her a lecture that she should never have come to this country without sufficient funds to support herself in this situation. The best thing for her (apparently) was to go back to Zimbabwe as soon as possible (I.e. Zimbabwe where the hospitals are closed down, there are no medicines, few doctors and domestic violence goes completely unpunished). This to a 22 year old who had married in Zimbabwe and prior to her arrival 7 months before had never lived outside of Zimbabwe. The manager told her again to leave and ushered her out onto the street. After work, I picked her up from the bus stop and brought her back to my one bed flat for the night.

Shocked at the way the Social Services had dealt with her, I phoned someone in the Zimbabwean community. Soon there were several offers to take her in to their homes by ordinary Zimbabweans, one in Cardiff, one in Bedford, one in Barking. The problem though was the pregnancy and her being treated at the Homerton hospital – she couldn’t be too far away from there. The social services department had given her such little support, we had to give up on them. So much stress had put a strain not only on her and her three year old but also on the unborn child too.

Therefore, she stayed for a few days rest and recovery before taking her on to the next safe house. She has moved since then to another one and says (although grateful) she is tired of moving. She is in negotiation with her husband to return to him currently. She feels she has no choice as he will support her financially, and she hopes he will not abuse her again, that he will have had a shock by the police arrest (the police meanwhile have decided not to press charges as there were no ‘visible’ injuries. Meanwhile he has been violent to her on a regular and escalating basis for the last 3 years). All this happened in the same week that the baby P story was in the papers.

I am writing this story as I would like someone to take note. To take note of an injustice that is happening in this country right here, right now. It is appalling that a seven month pregnant, 22 year old girl with a three year old child in tow, a resident of Hackney and fleeing violence, can be rejected by social services as a case outside their remit. And put outside their office at 5 pm on a cold wet winter’s evening with no where to go. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, that she can be given a lecture by a manager on how she should never have come to this country.

I am writing this story as I personally think it is an outrage and a shame on British justice –do we think we are better than Robert Mugabe?

It’s not just this case either – there are many other foreign nationals who are being sent back to violent husbands. It was just lucky in this case that the Zimbabwean community stepped in to help, that this girl happened to ring someone who tapped in to that network.

I have dealt with several Eastern Europeans, for example, who have had to go back to their husbands. The worst of this case is the way this young Zimbabwean woman was dealt with by Social Services and I wanted to draw this to your attention.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

This week

Tuesday was the Queen's Speech opening the new Session of Parliament. In the 46 years since I entered the Commons in 1962 I have never attended this event, because it portrays Westminster as a theatre of charade and pageant, when in fact its a working environment. Of course the state opening makes better TV than the everyday grind of standing committees, but which is actually of more importance to people's lives?

Yesterday, the media reported the finding of the European Court of Justice that it was unlawful for the Government to retain DNA samples and fingerprints of suspects later found not guilty indefinitely. The Govenment will have to ensure that fingerprints or biometric samples taken from a suspected person are destroyed if he isn't charged, or is found not guilty. There are said to be 800,000 records in these categories already on the national DNA database, which must be removed. Did Parliament realise, when it passed Section 82 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act seven years ago,that it was "moving on to the slope that leads to a complete national DNA database; namely, that every child born will have his or her DNA profile registered"? Yes, because Lord McNally, now Leader of the LibDems in the Lords, told them so in those words (Hansard May 8, 2001, col 206). Isn't that more important than the trumpets and tiaras of the State Opening?

Wednesday was the foreign affairs day of the debate following the Queen's Speech, and I spoke about the fallacy that al-Qa'eda and similar terrorist groups all over the world can be dealt with by military and political means only, while ignoring the Wahabist doctrines that motivate them, and their funding by oil money. I referred to the particular threat in Somalia, with Ethiopian troops withdrawing by the end of the month, followed closely by the 2,700 AMISOM troops helping to protect the capital, Mogadishu, and the seat of the transitional government (TFG), Baidoa. With no foreign protection, the TFG is not likely to survive, and Somalia will be ruled by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is on the UN list of terrorist associates. The UN isn't lifting a finger to prevent this failed state being handed over to this person and his "Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia".