November 25, 2012
An interesting news story that broke this weekend involved a growing scandal over Rotherham Borough Council’s decision following an ‘anonymous tip-off’ to remove three EU Migrant children from the care of a foster family, a decision apparently made due to the fact that the foster parents are members of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
In light of the facts (Admitted by the council) that the parents are otherwise good foster parents the reasoning behind this decision appears highly questionable, and has in fact drawn universal and fierce criticism from many quarters including members of central government such as Michael Gove, and understandably from the UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
As stated it seems Rotherham Council’s decision was based on the fact that the foster parents concerned are members of the UKIP and that the Council’s Strategic Director of Children and Young People’s Services, Joyce Thacker appears to believe that UKIP policy on ending the active promotion of the doctrine of multiculturalism in the UK media was a sufficient reason to remove the children concerned from the foster parents on the basis that the placement was not a good cultural match. Note therefore that the decision was not based on the actions of the parents concerned. On their part the parents concerned believe they are accused of affiliation with a ‘racist’ party and if reports are accurate they have indeed been treated particularly shoddily.
Without even having to get too deep into this issue, to me a number of questionable issues and considerations arise on the facts as widely reported in the media.
Firstly it seems to me that just because a person identifies with a political party, this does not necessarily mean that they identify with or practice each and every policy. I personally believe that the majority of voters in the UK probably have no idea of the full policy intentions of any given party. How many for example read through a party’s manifesto before deciding to support them? I would submit that many base their political choices on the public statements (or lack of) of the party concerned as presented by their various personnel through the media rather than conducting detailed research into the party in question.
How many for example were motivated to vote against Labour in 2010 following Gordon Brown’s staggering on mic ‘just a sort of bigoted woman’ faux pas? How many others were influenced by the performance of the party leaders in the various televised debates that took place prior to the election? I would bet there were many who formed their voting intentions purely on such issues without ever actually coming into contact with any substantive policy or manifesto materials.
For my own part I have never really been interested in UKIP because I don’t identify with their stance on the EU or on the European Convention on Human Rights, and have never had any desire to know the detail of their policies to any depth beyond those bald perceptions, and the specific issue on multiculturalism is therefore news to me (though it is one that I could see being pretty much impossible to implement anyway). However the main identifying broad policy of UKIP as presented in the media and around which I believe many likely base their voting intentions is that of EU withdrawal and of curbing immigration (policies which many in the conservative party probably share by the way).
This is not however something that I believe would automatically mean that any voting individual must also identify with each and every other policy that a party may have. I would go as far as to suggest that actual party membership does also not of itself signal an individuals in depth understanding and support for every policy of their chosen party. In some cases why bother anyway as policy is not something to which any party is legally bound to, as evidenced by often seen policy u-turns and the manifesto pledges that often go down the Thomas Crapper as soon as a party wins.
In addition is the fact that political affiliation of itself is also not set in stone. I know from personal experience and from having observed the political actions of others over the years that party affiliation can be a lifelong or a merely transient issue. Persons may support one party yet shift allegiance to another simply because they prefer the others stance on a particular issue, or they may like myself grow to not identify with any one party. Some may vote for a party on the same basis as supporting a football team, for example merely because their parents did or because it is the accepted norm in their social circles. Voters may also change allegiance in protest against their preferred party’s stance on a particular issue. These are issues which come into play at every election in the UK. Indeed as reported here it seems that the parents concerned were previously labour party supporters.
I do not believe however that there are many who base affiliation on the entirety of a party’s policies, particularly (given the transient nature of politics and politicians in general) when policy is liable to change at a moments notice. Instead I believe the reality is that affiliation is usually strongly identified not with an in-depth knowledge of the minutia of manifesto small print, but on a mix of perception and an appreciation of perhaps some policy considerations mostly gleaned second-hand through the media.
Hell there may even be some who in the past voted UKIP and later Veritas simply because they liked (or fancied) Kilroy.
The point is that with some very limited exception (i.e. if you happen to be a swastika tattooed neo nazi skinhead in knee-length bover boots likely to engage at a moments notice in a bit of the old ultra violence, then fostering is not for you, though an iso cube may well be!) political affiliation like religious belief of itself generally should not be a deciding factor by any local authority in any decision to place or remove children with any particular foster parents as by its very nature political belief is not of itself a truly quantifiable factor. That is even more so when as in this case the parents political affiliation has no discernible effect on the parents ability to provide the right kind of good home for the children concerned that would justify such a council decision.
However, even if political affiliation and the issue of multiculturalism are relevant issues capable of justifying a decision such as this, then surely Joyce Thacker’s decision should have been made on the basis of whether the parents themselves were actively against multiculturalism, and were likely to act under such belief in a way that would be likely to harm the children, not simply on the bald fact that the political party they support may have a policy that the decision maker happens to disagree with. The fact that in this case the parents concerned had chosen to foster children from an EU migrant background and to all intents and purposes appear to have sought to provide a good stable home for them strongly suggests otherwise.
It appears however as per Ms Thacker’s statement to the BBC in which she admits that her decision was influenced by UKIP policy, and not apparently on a consideration of the actions of the parents themselves or whether they themselves actually identified with it. In fact from media reports which may or may not be accurate, it appears that following an anonymous tip off the decision was made out of the blue without consultation with the parents themselves or any further investigation as to whether their political affiliation did in fact compromise their ability to foster the particular children involved. I also have to question the integrity of the so-called anonymous tipster, what exactly was their motivation in this?
Thacker claims that the decision was made after taking legal advice. It would of course help to know what this advice was as it does seem incredible that the Council would have been advised to proceed as they have, much less proceed on such advice given the fact that from the get go the decision just feels entirely wrong to begin with. Why also would the council have concerns about the long-term future of the children concerned when their placement with the parents in question was an emergency temporary placement which surely would not have been in the long-term? Also if political affiliation is such a crucial deciding factor in like cases then surely it should be part of the authorities legal duty to actually determine the political allegiance of the parents concerned before placement? Not so according to their web application system for prospective foster parents which makes absolutely no mention of political affiliation of the prospective carer. In fact the closest it gets is asking about ethnic background.
In addition are councils really likely to take advice which on the facts immediately raises questions of whether they have complied with their duty as a local authority in accordance with Human Rights law and the possibility of judicial review? For example under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) which incorporates the articles of the European Convention on Human rights there is the possibility that Article 8 on the right to respect for private and family life, Article 11 on the right to freedom of assembly and ‘association’, Article 14 on the prohibition of discrimination regarding a convention right and Article 1 of protocol 12 on the general prohibition of discrimination against legal rights on grounds of political or other opinion may all be engaged regarding the Council’s decision.
Was any consideration given to this?
The problem now however it is difficult to determine what remedy would be available were any claim under the HRA successful as the children have already been removed, and the placing was an emergency fostering of likely short duration anyhow. The only damage appears hurt to the parents and possible damage to reputation suggesting compensation and a possible declaration that the Council decision is incompatible with convention rights, although I would argue that given the fact that the fostering placement was temporary and of undetermined duration this alone renders even the provision of compensation questionable as the children could have been moved at any time anyway. Of paramount concern in any case would be the welfare of the children, and it seems unlikely that they would be placed back with the parents concerned as such toing and froing would ultimately not be in their best interests having been moved already.
The Council as a public authority is also amenable to judicial review, and the decision itself is likely justiciable given that it was made in relation to the exercise of a clearly public function under statutory powers. Whether it falls within the heads of illegality, irrationality or procedural impropriety or would be granted leave for review requires further information to determine, although there is room to argue on the facts at least that it appears the parents may not have been given a fair hearing. However the same potential question of remedy remains, what would such claim achieve other than to highlight by declaration a fault in the Council’s decision-making process if successful?
The decision certainly couldn’t be quashed as again the welfare of the children is paramount so there is no question of them being returned to the parents rendering such remedy unavailable. Again compensation is questionable given that there is nothing in reality to be compensated other than hurt feelings. In the meantime substantial amounts of court time and money would have been spent on achieving very little, if anything.
As such the possibility of any legal claim appears slim, and at best if the Council are in the wrong which other than media and political fury has not yet been established, the appropriate remedy would seem to be at least a public apology to the parents, an acceptance of the current trial by media and political fury over the decision, and the provision of safeguards to ensure that such decisions cannot be made under such circumstances in future. There have been calls for resignations of the officials concerned, and I have to say that this would be appropriate if they were indeed in the wrong over this.
There may also be more immediate political repercussions over the decision. This entire affair could even open the door for UKIP to increase their standing in the upcoming Rotherham by-election next week as considered by Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph.
While there is no suggestion here that the decision was made for political reasons (which considering the potential own goal that such a thought process would lead to given current reaction seems unlikely) without further clarification on the grounds of removal Rotherham Councils decision is left appearing publicly political in nature and must therefore be addressed urgently by their raising of suitable justification for the decision, at least in order to restore public confidence in their actions as a local authority.