Norman Baker interview: David Kelly's death is "unfinished business"

Home Office minister says the Attorney General would have to "reopen the inquest, which was absurdly curtailed".

No coalition appointment has caused more consternation than that of Norman Baker as Home Office minister. The promotion of the man best known for claiming that the British security services covered up the murder of Dr. David Kelly was said to have left his boss, Theresa May (along with many others), "spitting tacks".

I interviewed Baker about this and much else for tomorrow's NS. Here are some of the highlights.

On David Kelly's death: "unfinished business"

Baker, who stepped down from the Lib Dem frontbench in 2006 in order to devote a year to writing a 424-page book (The Strange Death of David Kelly) claiming that David Kelly was murdered, told me that he stil regarded his death as "unfinished business". He told me: "People who attack it by and large haven’t read it. And I’d like them to come back and deal with the facts, if they want to deal with the facts." When I asked him whether he would use his post at the Home Office to lobby for a new public inquiry, he said:

What would have to happen is: the Attorney General would have to reopen the inquest, which was absurdly curtailed. So that’s a matter for him.

He added: "The fact that there was no coroner’s inquest appeared to be of no interest to the collective media; I just find that absolutely astonishing . . . People can look at the evidence and draw their own conclusions. All I would say is in 2003, we had a situation where the prime minister of the day lied to parliament about the case for war . . . and then people say to me, ‘You should believe everything the government said in 2003.’ I’m sorry, I don’t buy that."

On whether the Iraq war was illegal, he said: "I’ve got to be careful what I say as a minister, haven’t I? There are many who believe it to be illegal and they’ve made quite a strong case."

On NSA/GCHQ surveillance: there should be an inquiry

Baker broke with the government line on the allegations of surveillance by the British and US intelligence services by calling for a full inquiry. Asked whether one should be held, he said: "Yes. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable for the Guardian to raise questions about the balance between the state and the individual to take account of the fact that technology has moved on a huge amount and the law was drafted when we didn’t have the means of communication we do now – Skype and everything else – and the capacity of the security services, or the Americans, to engage in trawling for stuff."

On tuition fees: "eduction should be free"

The Liberal Democrat conference voted earlier this year to support tuition fees of up to £9,000, with Vince Cable telling delegates: "We and the other major parties are not going to go back to free tuition." But Baker told me that he still believed university education "should be free", adding that the fees vote in 2010 was "the only time in government that I’ve come close to resigning".

He added: "I’m very conscious that people of my generation benefited from free education. I come from a poor background, unlike most people in government, and I couldn’t have got where I was without a really good state education. I’m deeply grateful for that and I couldn’t have done it had I had to pay a lot of money for it, so I feel particularly uncomfortable with the idea of charging for tuition fees as a principle."

On Ed Miliband: "I've got a lot of time for him"

While refusing to say whether he would rather partner with Labour or the Tories in the event of another hung parliament, Baker told me that he has "a lot of time" for Ed Miliband. "He seems to me to want to try to articulate a position which is different to what came before – I’ve always got time for that. And I think he’s prepared to take the odd gamble, which is right in politics." He added, somewhat immodestly: "As someone who pushes boundaries and envelopes all the time, I like someone who does the same thing. I think that’s good about him."

Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.