Hertfordshire County Council’s Water Summit, 14 March 2013

March 19, 2013

Last Thursday I was invited to the Hertfordshire Water Summit hosted by Hertfordshire County Council and my researcher Catharine attended on my behalf. The event held at the Fielder Centre in Hatfield, lasted the whole day and was split between a morning of talks and an afternoon of workshops.

Each of the morning’s speakers touched upon a different angle of water and the importance it holds for the county of Hertfordshire. Councillor Richard Thake Executive Member for Environment & Community Safety at HCC opened the conference and stressed the need for water management planning to become a priority in Hertfordshire. Chris Preston from DEFRA proceeded to outline the Government’s position on water and referred to the White Paper “Water for Life” and the Draft Water Bill. John Wood, Chief Executive and Director of Environment at HCC touched on his department’s perspective and emphasised the importance of collaboration by the various stakeholders involved. He highlighted that this issue can only be tackled by parties working together towards the common goal of better water management. Neil Hayes Executive Director of the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership spoke not only about Hertfordshire’s economy and the significance which water plays in supplying businesses, but also its role in influencing where businesses decide to base themselves geographically. Charles Walker Member of Parliament for Broxbourne shared his concerns about chalk streams and the need to ensure their preservation. Charles pointed out that the UK is home to 85% of the world’s chalk streams but in his words currently “we are squandering our inheritance” and stressed that urgent action is needed. He argued in favour of greater use of reservoirs where possible. The morning finished with a talk from Andrew Wescott Policy Manager at the Institution of Civil Engineers. Like John Wood earlier on in the morning, Andrew Wescott promoted the idea of collaboration amongst stakeholders to manage water resource planning. He also called for a permanent Water Security Task Force for Hertfordshire too.

The afternoon’s workshops were hosted by specific stakeholders Affinity Water and Local Nature Partnership and they looked at water resource planning, water demand management and the development of knowledge on the environmental value of water. The day finished with closing remarks from Ian Reay also from HCC. The day was extremely well organised and Herts County Council should be congratulated for its efforts. Water is critically important and Hertfordshire needs to concentrate on water provision, in order to avoid a serious drought in the future. We have already seen the effects of the drought last year and Hertfordshire suffered greatly during this period. I look forward to seeing what further developments there are in light of last week’s summit.

On Saturday I was able to catch up with Ian Knight of the River Beane Restoration Association and we agreed that the Water Summit was a step forward.

International Women’s Day – 8 March 2013

March 12, 2013

Last Friday was International Women’s Day. This day has been set up to champion the efforts of women across the world and to ensure that greater recognition is given to women’s rights as far as possible. Justine Greening at DFID has been leading calls for the improvement of women’s rights and in her speech at Amnesty International earlier on in the week, she referred to some horrific cases which have featured in the world news where certain women have been subject to gender abuse. As Justine Greening said, this cannot be allowed to continue. Her statistic that “women perform two thirds of the world’s work, produce half of the food, but earn only 10% of the income and own only 1% of the property” is quite staggering and provides ample reason for why this state of affairs needs to be balanced out.

Following the launch of Strategic Vision for Girls and Women back in 2011, DFID has just announced further funding for the provision and distribution of 20 million contraceptive devices internationally, partnership with Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, the launch of a £25 million Research and Innovation Fund to look into and support the needs of women particularly in the DRC and Syria, an emphasis on increased efforts to end female genital mutilation within a generation, the commitment of up to £11.5 million to a new partnership with the World Bank for a “Gender Innovation Bank” on girls and women’s economic empowerment, UK funding for the Leadership for Change Programme and also the establishment of an Expert Advisory Group on Girls and Women which will conduct research and inform DFID’s work.

The announcement of these measures is to be celebrated. Women’s rights have been neglected in some areas internationally for far too long and its time proper attention was paid to make sure they are properly upheld so that the abuse of women in some areas of the world is no longer as seen as an acceptable. I am glad that DFID is spearheading the campaign to ensure these issues are addressed.

The Communications and Social Media Debate in Westminster Hall this week.

March 1, 2013

This week I took part in a debate on Communications and Social Media. Steve Rotheram MP had secured the debate and I spoke as Solicitor General following the publication of the “Interim CPS Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media” on 19 December last year, issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Government Consultation on this runs until 13 March.

With the rise of online commentary over the last ten years, the phenomenon of “internet trolling” has become an increasing problem. Steve Rotheram touched on the tragic case of Georgia Varley and her Facebook memorial page which became littered with offensive material posted by “internet trolls” who inflicted psychological abuse on readers of the page.

Steve Rotheram was concerned with how the Crown Prosecution Service will adequately prosecute those abusing social media and he touched upon certain points which he felt the DPP guidelines did not adequately cover, significantly what can be deemed as in the “public interest” and what can be deemed as acceptable speech, when considering a possible prosecution against a particular party. He referred to the timescales and investigative methods currently employed in the investigation of social media abuse claims and suggested they were not adequate whilst highlighting the need to take the European Court of Human Right’s decisions into account too.

In cases where credible threats of violence are made or harassment is occurring or court orders being broken, there must be prosecutions, but there also needs to be space for vigorous open debate, gossip and banter. So in cases of offensive remarks there needs to be a high threshold before prosecution, but clearly some offensive remarks are so gross that firm action must be taken. The new guidelines try to explain these matters and put them in legal context.

There is also some overlap with the Government’s work on the Defamation Bill which seeks to ensure a fair balance is struck between freedom of speech and the protection of people’s reputations and I look forward to seeing how this piece of legislation finally passes through Parliament. When I spoke in the debate, I was able to explain how internet trolling is addressed within the DPP guidelines. I commented on the rise of prosecutions brought against abusers of social media since December 2012 and explained that the DPP Guidelines are not intended to restrict free speech but people must take responsibility when expressing an opinion online.

Prosecutors can bring cases for serious Crown Court offences such as Threats to Kill and Harassment or choose Magistrates Court offences under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act and section 127 of the Communications Act. The posting of grossly offensive messages online about certain parties cannot be condoned and under the new DPP guidelines, in conjunction with the Defamation Bill, steps are being taken to tackle this issue, whilst respecting the need for a margin to allow for freedom of expression.