Friday, February 22, 2008

This week's lessons in how government works

HM government has announced new rules making it more difficult for people from outside the European Union to come here, or once here, to acquire British citizenship and access to services. It is seen as placating "middle England" - Daily Mail readers - and those who think immigrants are to blame for our welfare problems - Sun readers and these days it seems BBC viewers.

It is nothing to do with race or colour, of course. Oh no. That it won't impose restrictions on fair-skinned people coming from Poland is just a coincidence. And anyone who comes here well-loaded, from wherever, can buy whatever they like, no questions asked. Just as wealthy Brits have been taking their loot abroad, without worrying about having to "integrate".

Besides learning to speak good English (fat lot of good that will do trying to communicate with the natives), obviously not a problem with east Europeans, those who aspire to citizenship will apparently have to pass tests on their understanding of British history and civics. Maybe they can then teach some of our politicians and journalists.

Understanding our unwritten constitution is tricky, but with current events in mind, I have thought of a few suggestions for questions.

One, if a foreign airliner lands on British soil, are police allowed to board it for law enforcement? Answer: it all depends. In 2005, British police had an arrest warrant for Israeli General Almog who was charged with a breach of the Geneva Convention in ordering the destruction of Palestinian homes. Almog had arrived in Britain for speaking engagements, but was tipped off and did not leave the El Al plane. Documents obtained by lawyers Hickman and Rose show anti-terrorist police were unsure of their rights, and decided not to board the plane for fear of a clash with armed Israeli guards and/or political consequences.

Two: If a department of HM government, e.g. the Foreign Office, is told to release official documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, can it remove and conceal items for reasons other than national security, e.g. if they might reveal criticism of a foreign government? Answer: it seems it thinks it can. Once again, the example concerns Israel.
A dossier concerned with Iraqi weapons, drafted by then Foreign Office chief information officer John Williams in preparation for the Iraq war, was requested by a researcher. The Foreign Office did not want to release it. When they were eventually told to do so, they removed a marginal note which referred to Israel's possession of nuclear weapons and flouting of the UN.

Three: can a foreign power use British territory for flying prisoners to places where they might be tortured, with or without bothering to inform the British government let alone require its permission? Answer: if the power in question is the United States, and providing nothing comes out their end, the British government will say nothing.

Four: If police receive documents which cast doubts on an accused person's conviction, are they obliged to disclose these to defence lawyers? Answer: No. In fact, even a senior prosecutor such as Scotland's lord advocate can be told not to release these documents, if the Foreign Secretary thinks it impolitic. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is appealing against conviction for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. In 1996 a foreign government gave Scottish police secret documents which might show the Libyan has been wrongly convicted.
(There have been plausible suggestions from the start that responsibility for the airliner bombing might lie in a quite different direction. But looking there became undiplomatic as Middle East requirements changed). It was reported last week that the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband signed a public interest immunity certificate to prevent disclosure of the documents. What's a possible miscarriage of justice when weighed against a foreign policy manoeuvre? (That's not a question to answer).

Let's hope that people applying for British citizenship can show a proper understanding of our values, like justice, truth, honesty, and democracy. It would be too much to expect that our politicians do, and attaching too much importance to them would be a distinct disqualification for anyone expecting high office in state.


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