Posts Tagged ‘Big Issue’

Us & Them

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Us & Them
The Big Issue, February 2009
By Heather Brooke

Not one to believe hype, I was sceptical when I popped in the first series of the much-acclaimed TV series The Wire. For those who haven’t seen it, this is a series that breaks all the rules of TV drama and yet the hype is merited: it is the best thing on television.

Each episode is like a chapter in a book and the stories build across the season. The first deals with the police closing in on a drug dealer which is common enough in a cop show, but what makes The Wire different is that it focuses on the lives of the dealers and users as much as the police. There is none of the easy morality common to other police dramas. Instead there is reality. The writers know their subjects inside out. These are not champagne socialists writing about the lives of poor kids in Hackney, they are veteran newspaper hacks and homicide detectives who know the gritty scenes they describe.

I used to cover crime for a newspaper in South Carolina in a city with a large concentration of projects that were infested with drugs, and I often wondered why the people in these sink estates didn’t clean up, move out, get a better life. What did I know? A college girl from an English family? But at least I could talk to the vice squad who filled me in on what was happening. The stories the police told me didn’t always fit into the newspaper format, focused as it is on the end result: who got shot, when and why. The ‘why’ being the least explored part of the story. It wasn’t until I saw The Wire that I understood how these stories could be told. If you want to understand the cycle of poverty and addiction look no further.

The realism of The Wire is due in no small part due to the ability of the writers to get inside the institutions they cover. David Simon spent a year in Baltimore Maryland’s homicide division. Such inside knowledge informs the series and gives it the needed reality that makes it so powerful. Could such a show be written in the UK?

I’m not a crime reporter anymore but I am a freelance journalist and so I asked the Metropolitan Police if I could visit my local police station. In the US I went ‘round back’ all the time, even did shifts with various cops as a ‘ride-along’. Some forces in the UK offer this insight to members of the public, but not the Metropolitan Police. Even the full-time crime reporters in London aren’t allowed in. The only way I’m getting into my local police station is if I’m arrested.

Frankly that’s a cost I’m not willing to bear. It strikes me as counter-productive for the police to fortress themselves against the public whom they are meant to serve and protect. By refusing to let us in, they foster an attitude of ‘Us and Them’. Both for themselves and for us. The tie that might link us is broken.

I had another encounter with the ‘Us and Them’ attitude in Tottenham Court Road tube station. The escalators were shut but none of the guards were telling anyone why or when they might resume. When I went over to ask, the guard pointed to a gang of teenagers and said: “Your colleague there pressed the emergency stop.”

My colleague? What did he have to do with me?

In the mind of the TfL official it was clear all who were not TfL were some ‘other’: that great repulsive organism – the public.

Aren’t we the reason for TfL’s existence? If it wasn’t for us paying our extortionate fares this official wouldn’t have a job. And yet he views us all as one amorphous mass comparable to an enemy.

All institutions are susceptible to this type of thinking, but the danger is even greater when there is no competition. Where there is a monopoly on service the best solution is higher levels of transparency. We should be allowed into our local police stations, we should be able to see crime incident reports. It may not be easy, but an open door can bring many rewards, not least the best show on television.

Obama-style activism in Britain

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Obama-style activism in Britain
The Big Issue, January 2009
By Heather Brooke

Are British people disengaged with politics? I don’t think so. It’s simply that the man in the street is relatively impotent in the British political system, whereas in the US, where politics is much more open and competitive, politicians must be responsive to the electorate or face imminent extinction.

There aren’t enough avenues for change in British politics and the few that there are rely on patronage more than merit; who you know rather than what you know and particularly what school you attended. Someone like Barack Obama would have zero chance of being selected as an MP in this country, let alone get to the leadership. MP selection isn’t voted on by the people, nor even the party, but a handful of party apparatchiks. Until the system of selecting candidates changes, we have only the illusion of choice.

But there are ‘green shoots’ of hope. In the same week the press was saturated with coverage of Obama’s inauguration, another event received substantially less publicity though it involved our very own elected officials. On January 22nd, MPs planned to exempt their expenses from the Freedom of Information Act.

I fought a 3-year legal battle for transparency of MPs’ expenses. In my High Court victory in May 2008, the judges ruled that transparency in this matter was of the most vital public interest and essential to the health of UK democracy. So what do our highest elected officials do? They lie numerous times about the date they will publish these claims and then sneakily slip in a Statutory Instrument that allows them to keep their expenses secret without having a full debate.

Every other citizen in this country must keep receipts for expenses claimed for five years or they are in breach of HM Revenue and Customs rules. Yet our MPs are intent on creating for themselves a privileged arena where they are exempt from the laws they force the rest of us to live under.

It was only due to the sort of Obama-style grass-roots campaigning that this rot was stopped and a last-minute u-turn was made by Gordon Brown on Wednesday (January 21) shelved the law. Groups such as, Unlock Democracy, Taxpayers Alliance and other activists spread the word. Thousands joined a Facebook protest group, or rang or wrote to their MPs expressing their outrage.

Very occasionally, we can and do make a difference and this was one of those times. But it’s worth noting that this activism completely circumvented traditional politics. In the minds of most citizens the British Parliamentary system is archaic, elitist and woefully out of touch. MPs must open up and make themselves relevant again to their constituents. If they don’t, then the only people they have to blame for voter disengagement, is themselves.

Secret Policemen are having a ball at our expense

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

Secret Policemen are having a ball at our expense
The Big Issue, December 2008
By Heather Brooke

Once upon a time people complained of rarely seeing a bobby on the beat. Now they’re lucky to get a full glimpse of a policeman’s face.

Watching the video footage of police searching the office of MP Damian Green I noticed that practically the first words out of the investigator’s mouth were: “turn that camera off.’ This was in response to another MP daring to film the police in action as they searched and seized Green’s possessions without a warrant.

According to the Tory party, the posting of the video footage was delayed because the Metropolitan Police demanded that the officers’ faces be blanked out. Why?

Robert Peel created the principals of policing when the Metropolitan Police was first created in 1829. He ensured every police officer be issued a badge number, to assure individual accountability. His most famous principal:

Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public…

That’s worth keeping in mind as the police increasingly demand special rights which they deny the law-abiding citizen. Here’s an example: Go to any protest or an event held outside Parliament and you will see police officers filming people who have committed no crime yet if any Joe Public attempts to film the police he will quickly find himself harassed, threatened with arrest or have his camera seized or film deleted.

Go into any police station and you will find yourself under the gaze of CCTV, yet if you dare to get out your own camera you’ll be ordered to stop immediately; if you persist you’ll be threatened and likely ejected from the building.

Don’t be fooled. This is not about security. It is about power. We know it’s about power because if citizens wear masks, the police force their removal. Being able to identify someone is the primary way of holding that person to account.

It is well documented that people behave differently when granted anonymity, and not usually for the better. In a crowd or under the orders of a powerful leader, people will commit all sorts of outrageous behaviour, say all kinds of offensive things if they feel cloaked by the mantel of anonymity.

The police have a monopoly on force so it is right that in a democracy, police officers are individually accountable for how they exercise this force. Anonymity invites abuse. Yet police forces are increasingly demanding anonymity for their officers. The officers who shot Jean Charles de Menezes remain unidentified, as do the officers who killed Derek Bennett, 29, when they thought his cigarette lighter was a handgun.

I’ve worked as crime reporter in the US and the default position there is the opposite: police are identified by name and their photographs are published unpixilated. Anonymity is granted rarely and only if there is a quantifiable threat to the officer. Even FBI agents are named in court cases. Individual accountability is the cornerstone of public service effectiveness. Common to all totalitarian systems is that agents are hidden. Is this what we want from our police?


A shot of pure democracy

Friday, October 31st, 2008

A shot of pure democracy
The Big Issue, October 2008
By Heather Brooke

I’ve just completed my absentee ballot for the US elections. It took two requests to receive it but I don’t think that had anything to do with me being a democrat in the state of Florida – famous for voting irregularities that helped put George W. Bush into the White House.

I look forward to receiving my American ballot. It’s a shot of pure democracy which I long for after the faux democracy of the UK. I’ve seen too many meaningless public consultations where the will of the people is ignored, and MPs put in position not by the people but a tiny faction of a party elite, to think much of English democracy. In the US, by contrast, I feel my vote counts. The presidential election is just a small part of this particular American ballot paper. Judges, sheriffs, public prosecutors and defenders, councillors and neighbourhood representatives are all up for the people’s vote, along with proposed amendments to the state constitution and the way property tax is calculated. Nor are all the positions party political. Judges are non-partisan and their position rarely contested but the people still have a choice:

Shall Judge Charles T. Wells of the Supreme Court be retained in office?
Two options – Yes or No.

Can you imagine an English judge or police chief being made to answer to the public like this? The very idea no doubt sends shivers of fear through their elitist bones. How vulgar! The great unwashed masses deciding the future of their betters. Unthinkable! This mentality abounds and it is not confined to any particular political party: Conservative paternalism is based on privilege, Labour’s on the belief that the State knows what’s best for us. It’s difficult to know which one is worse.

There is much rhetoric about English democracy but what is it in practice? Did any of us have a say in Peter Mandelson’s promotion to the House of Lords? Or the person chosen to head London’s Metropolitan Police? It’s true we do elect MPs but is our selection really a choice? More often it is simply a rubber-stamp. The real selection is done by a tiny number of unelected party officials in relative secrecy, there is not even a primary where all party members have a say.

Councillors are elected but an inverse ratio exists whereby the less power they have, the more councillors there are. Miami-Dade County manages to get by with just 13 Commissioners to represent a population of 2.4 million. They have the power to raise their own property taxes and spend that money as they wish. Tower Hamlets by contrast has a population of not even 200,000 yet it’s packed with 51 councillors who oversee a budget in which 80 per cent of the money comes from Whitehall and is already allocated. With so many councillors, no one person can ever be held accountable for poor decisions.

In the US property tax stays in the area where it is collected so people can see clearly what they are getting (or not) for their money. This is a great spur to the performance and efficiency of any council. This relationship doesn’t exist in the UK.

Article: Lament for the public loo

Friday, October 10th, 2008

Public services should be for the many not the few
The Big Issue, September 2008
By Heather Brooke

In for a penny in for a pound or at least 50 pence. That’s how much you’ll pay to visit the so-called public toilets around Parliament.

Local councils say the reason for leasing out the loos to private companies is purely economic. In a Westminster cabinet member report, officials say that the £2.7 million the council spends on public toilets is “a high level of expenditure for an entirely discretionary service.”

What? Pissing is discretionary? Tell that to your bladder the next time you get a call from nature. I suppose they mean peeing in public. We could go home or buy something in Starbucks or a pub and use their toilet. But should we have to? And what about those who have nowhere to go or the money for a purchase? And really, what else are taxes for but to provide common public services for which there is no commercial incentive?

Surely it’s basic human dignity (and hygiene) to have access to a clean toilet. Yet the number of public loos has diminished by 50 per cent according to Mike Bone, Director of the British Toilet Association, a finding backed up by other government investigations. London has seen the worst decline with just 400 public toilets left in a city with nearly 7.5 million people. That’s one for nearly 18,000 Londoners. Quite a queue!

It gets worse. There are 28 million visitors to London, of whom 12 million are from overseas and there is just one public toilet for every 67,000. That’s even before we consider the 2012 Olympics. Public transport is no better: of data supplied by 255 Tube stations, only 88 (35 per cent) have public toilet provision.

Beijing spent $48million (£27million) to provide 4,700 public toilets for the 2008 Games, one for every 500 metres. In addition all restaurants, shops and hotels have to offer their toilets for the use of non-customers for free.

I’m a healthy young woman and I find the lack of public loos in London extremely inconvenient so how much worse it must be for older people, pregnant women, parents with young children and those with urinary health issues. These people suffer while the young men who piss publicly on the street are given extra street urinals. Will it take a cadre of women urinating in public before we are given adequate resources?

When I think of all the nonsense my taxes pay for such as social engineering projects, public relations (which is little more than political propaganda) and top officials’ salaries, I am livid. According to the Town Hall Rich List (, 818 council managers earned more than £100,000 in 2006-07, up from 645 the previous year and in 2007 Tower Hamlets, England’s most deprived borough, paid 27 staffers more than £100,000!

Get your nose stuck into the council’s books

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Get your nose stuck into the council’s books
The Big Issue, August 2008

Government bureaucrats spend a lot of money telling us what they wants us to know but very little on what we actually want to know, namely how they spend our money.

I discovered this first hand after putting MPs’ rhetoric to the test in relation to their claims of supporting open government and grassroots activism. I asked to see all the receipts for expenses they claim from the public purse. They fought for nearly four years before they were forced to concede this basic tenet of democracy.

Recently I discovered that for every person employed by police forces to answer freedom of information requests (what we want to know) there are on average 8.4 press/PR staff (telling us what they want us to know). In Thames Valley Police that ratio is 27 to one.

The same muddled thinking is operating in our local councils. Here we find numerous officials signing up to the mantra of ‘citizen activism’ and yet when it comes to the one real power citizens have to scrutinise council spending they are suddenly mute.

I’m betting few of you realise that August is the month when most councils and police authorities must by law throw open their account books for 20 days so the public can inspect them. This right is granted under Section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998. This law allows any elector or taxpayer in the area to inspect and make their own copies of all the detailed contracts, invoices, receipts, books and bills that are related to the accounts of the recent financial year for the council or police authority.

It’s a powerful right and one of the only ways for the common man (or woman) to see the nitty gritty detail of council spending. It is the only way to find out, for instance, how much police spend on informants (the Metropolitan Police in London paid out more than £2.2m to informants in 2006/07).

The end of the financial year is 31st March but the accounts aren’t usually completed until the end of July so the inspection time starts from then and can go until September. For a guide to see when your local area opens its books see the website or call your local council.

This tiny window is the only opportunity local people get in this country to see the full detail of the millions spent by councils. By law, notice of this time must be placed in the local newspaper but who of us regularly reads the legal smalls of our local newspaper? And even if you do and read, as Julian Todd did last month, that the City of Liverpool’s accounts would be available every day between 8:30am and 4:45pm from 2 July to 29 July, it doesn’t necessarily mean the council is prepared for the public to take it up on the offer.

As Julian says: “Now, this ad was not meant to be followed up, because when I presented myself between 8.30am and 4.45pm at said offices, nothing was prepared.”
He then battled with the council’s accountants before finally getting to see the contracts and details that were supposedly open for public inspection.

Where are the glossy ads or pamphlets telling people about this powerful right to hold their local representatives to account? Where will you find it on the website? Most councils keep very, very quiet about this public obligation, preferring instead to spend taxpayer money on propaganda. I recently received one of these ‘spin sheets’ from Kensington & Chelsea council and the Met Police telling me about ‘Anti-Social Behaviour and what your council is doing about it.’ This 8-page glossy is thick with photos of councillors buddying up with police, removing graffiti and working with youth.

What a waste of money. Give me the name and direct telephone number of my local community officers. Better yet, tell me the date and times when I can go and inspect the police authority and council’s accounts and see exactly what these people are actually doing about youth crime.