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After Amritsar, Time to Call Time on the 30 Year Rule

Margaret Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe and Leon Brittan held Britain’s three great offices of State thirty years ago.

The idea that they could have allowed the SAS to get involved in the Indian government’s attempt to retake the Golden Temple in Amritsar by force would have seemed fanciful just hours ago. But the fact that they did (it’s just the extent of the SAS involvement we’re unaware of at this stage) isn’t just a matter that should concern those of us from a Sikh background. It has implications for everyone.

The correspondence between the private secretaries for the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary of 1984 is shocking in its frankness. One of the letters states:

“An operation by the Indian authorities at the Golden Temple could, in the first instance, exacerbate the communal violence in the Punjab.

“It might also, therefore increase tension in the Indian community here, particularly if knowledge of the SAS involvement were to become public. We have impressed upon the Indians the need for security; and knowledge of the SAS officer’s visit and of his plan has been tightly held both in India and in London. The Foreign Secretary would be grateful if the contents of this letter could be strictly limited to those who need to consider the possible domestic implications.”

I was only thirteen at the time but can recall the tensions and concerns within the Sikh community. Looking back on it now, I wonder if Howe, Brittan and Thatcher were emboldened by the thirty year rule. Would they have made this decision if nearly a million British Sikhs had been aware of it back then?

But let’s take Amritsar and this particular event out of the equation for a moment. In the modern world, is it really acceptable to hide behind the 30 year rule to keep military operations and who knows what else covert? Politicians need to have a long hard think about this.

Making decisions in the knowledge that you’ll be dead when the world can hold you to account for them, or at least very elderly, is no way for holders of major offices of state to behave.

I hasten to add we need to wait and see the details of this particular case, but the secrecy is damaging enough.

There have been constitutional changes to the 30 year rule on recent years, including FOI act. But none of these changes prevented thirty years from elapsing in the case of one of the holiest shrines in the world, and the deaths of hundreds (some say over a thousand) people.

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Responsible Capitalism is alive but needs a helping hand

The phrase ‘responsible capitalism’ has become a popular slogan for those on the left and the right. However, slogans are no substitute for policies.

Responsible capitalism is sometimes used as a cover to bash the bankers, but there is much more to it than that.

Kofi Annan, in his term as UN General Secretary back in 2006 had a go at providing some definition. He brought together some of the world’s biggest investors and got them to sign up to some core principles – the UN Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI).

Under the radar, seven years later we have seen the green shoots of these principles developing via shareholder action in the equity markets. It might sound dull, but bear with me for a moment.

£35 trillion of investments signed up to Annan’s ‘Principles for Responsible Investment’. The principles were meant to cover a company’s environmental, social and governance policies (ESG).

So what, you might say. After all companies often sign up to promises to behave more ethically, and then end up polluting rivers, attacking workers’ rights and marginalising women, etc etc – all too often.

I think every political party leader who wants to take ownership of the ‘responsible capitalism’ tag should carefully read the government commissioned review of UK Equity Markets and Long Term Decision Making, by Professor John Kay.

You and I have tens of trillions of pounds invested in companies worldwide through our pension funds. Many of these companies are signatories to the PRI. The default position is for fund managers to invest pension funds on our behalf and get as big a return as possible. The asset owners (us, represented by trustees) are usually in the dark about where our pension fund is invested.

As the Kay Review showed (and no doubt the Arch Bishop of Canterbury would agree) your money is invested by equity fund managers for a short term return and usually with little or no recourse to the trustees. You might not know you’re investing in Wonga (as the Church was), or for that matter the pharma company that’s been bribing doctors, or the company that has a reputation for sacking trade unionists, but you have invested in them nonetheless.

One of the worst recent examples is the collapse of a textiles factory in Bangladesh, killing hundreds of workers. You and I may have indirectly contributed to this through the investment of our pension funds in companies that purchased these garments. The companies are reputable – they may not even have been aware of where their supply chains led from. So perhaps we need to use our investments to focus their minds on such issues.

There is some welcome news. Of the £35 trillion worth of investors who signed up to the UN code for more responsible capitalism back in 2006, a small but growing group of them, worth nearly £200 billion of investment, are taking a more responsible approach.

For want of a better name ‘asset stewards’ like F&C and Hermes Equity Ownership Services (who are a not for profit organisation) are growing the number of companies involved in a more responsible approach. They won’t get it right every time but by creating a direct link between asset owners (pension fund contributors like you and I) and the companies that our funds have shares in, they are influencing company behaviour.

I’ve taken some time out and seen it in action. The worst excesses of capitalism can (and occasionally) are being curbed. But for me, and I suspect for you, not nearly fast enough.

This is the nub of responsible capitalism and it is also where political rhetoric could and should turn in to policy.

This area of equity stewardship may be a political new ground for many politicians, but it’s a great opportunity for anyone who wants to turn political rhetoric about a better and a more responsible form of capitalism in to practical reality.

By promoting and supporting a new type of engagement between us, as owners of trillions of pounds of shareholdings through our pension funds and the boards of major corporations, we can improve their behaviour. And in a significant way change the world we live in.

These ‘asset stewards’ engage in board level dialogues on behalf of our investments. Our investments, after all, are key to keeping big corporations alive. From gentle dialogue, right through to shareholder votes at board meetings, a new form of capitalism is being shaped by a new breed of not-for-profit asset organisations.

But they are still a small drop in the ocean that Kofi Annan dipped his toe in to in 2006. With the right regularity and political framework, so much more could still be achieved.

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10 Years on From the Iraq War Vote

Why did I do it? It wasn’t easy, not for me anyway. Ten years ago it wasn’t fashionable in the Parliamentary Labour Party to be an Iraq War Rebel.
And I was doing well. A young starlet in the party amongst a young dream-team intake that included Purnell, Burnham, Watson, Miliband (David), Knight and many others. Rebellion was not on my mind – I was neither disloyal nor disaffected.
By accident rather than design I sat in front of Robin Cook the night he resigned in the Chamber. I knew my mind well enough to be certain I agreed with every word he said. I hadn’t become a rebel – I stayed true to my view that Britain could not go to war without that second UN resolution. That had been the Party’s policy throughout. Until this week ten years ago.
The night of the vote was tortuous. I remember ringing dad. “I just can’t do this dad. Its wrong.” He told me to do what I thought was right. He was never keen on this war.
Then I got the call to see Tony. I think he thought I’d come round. I really didn’t want to let him down. He said the government would win the vote, but he didn’t want to win on the back of Tory votes.
We talked about Bush and his roadmap to peace in the middle-east. Without wanting to sound stroppy I tried to find statesmanlike language to question Mr Bush’s sincerity on the issue.
But before I left his office I promised him I’d consider what he’d said, because I genuinely respected him (Blair, not Bush).
When the division bell rang my good friend Keith Hill (the Deputy Chief Whip) waved to me and urged me to get up to head to the ‘no lobby’. I can still recall the look of disappointment on his face when I shook my head, signalling that I was going to break the cardinal rule of political collectivism by defying a 3 line Labour whip. I had to pass some of my strategically positioned friends from the 2001 intake as they stood next to the entrance of the rebel lobby, imploring me not to throw away my career. Others, in the ‘aye lobby’ laughed and patted each other on the back. It made me feel really uncomfotable. I just wanted to vote, get out and drive to my parents house in Hayes to regroup, away from all this pressure.
But as I emerged from the rebel lobby a shocked and then delighted John McDonnell bear-hugged me as I exited. No disrespect to John but I was in no mood to celebrate.
The 139 of us who rebelled that night all had our reasons. I felt genuinely awful. I hadn’t been elected as a Labour MP to spend my time voting against my own party. And when I got home that night I’m not ashamed to say I cried my eyes out. The day and the run up to it had been a huge strain. Many of us felt like pariahs in our own party at that time

Why did I do it? Because I thought the war was wrong. And in time, unfortunately, I feared history would prove the 139 rebels to be right.

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