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I’ve lost count of the number of times when the UK Labour Party have stated ‘only 24 more hours to save the NHS’. As somebody who has always voted for Labour in fact since 1992, I take no pleasure in saying that Labour now must prove that the NHS is safe in its hands.
If you believe that the NHS is a cherished institution, or even a ‘sacred cow’, with massive public goodwill, it might seem strange that the Secretary of State for health, Jeremy Hunt MP, plays so fast and loose with junior doctors’ pay. A reason that Jeremy Corbyn MP, the current leader of the opposition and leader of the Labour Party, is so despised, apart from not turning up to gala rugby matches or singing the national anthem, is that he has effectively torn up the rule book. It’s no longer a case of ‘balancing the books’ – and let’s face it Osborne has been dramatically unsuccessful in even doing that – but it’s a case of making sure the customer doesn’t get ripped off from rail privatisation or has a decent living wage.
A favourite line of attack for Progress, the think tank which caters well for Labour believers who believe in modernity, is that ‘money does not grow on trees’. This is of course a full throated lie when you factor in that George Osborne himself got out the printing press recently, and did rather well out of it.
It has been convenient to misquote Liam Byrne MP as ‘there’s money left’ to perpetuate the idea of ‘living within your means’. That is except for the investment bankers who were not living within their means, and had to suffer the indignity of one trillion pound of a State bailout to help subsidise their lavish bonuses and more.
The austerity in the NHS is better known as ‘efficiency savings’, except here money is leaking like a sieve. The Conservative mantra that you need a successful economy is utterly fraudulent when you finally acknowledge that national debt since 2010 has gone through the roof. It also becomes hollowed out when you consider the high number of NHS foundation trusts running a deficit, because they have not been – take a deep breath – given enough money to run the NHS.
This was of course the biggest lie about the word ‘sustainability’ which many came to know as code as ‘we don’t want to afford it’. This means that it became a tough public choice that we didn’t want to afford the pay of nurses or junior doctors, but we could somehow afford the unconscionable loan repayments to the City for shiny new PFI buildings.
The lack of ability of Labour, like the Conservatives, to do something about the private finance debt, not just talk about it in a public accounts committee, is staggering. The current crisis in agency staffing could have been totally avoided with better planning.
Jeremy Corbyn wishes to give an apology for the Iraq War. But this is not the only apology that Labour needs to make over policy, although other apologies are less serious. For ages, Labour peddled the myth that quality between autonomous foundation trusts could be driven up through competition. To acquire ‘foundation trust status’, NHS hospitals had to reach targets, and even if NHS CEOs ultimately failed they could move onto other equally lucrative posts.
To make the financial books balance however, it is sadly the case the legacy was that some Trusts did not run their operations safely. The issue of lack of planning, in an unsocialist way, also is evident in the way in which Labour embraced independent sector treatment centres; the argument ‘to increase capacity to deal with demand’ was an entirely synthetic one, given that the NHS has been increasing significantly in demand since 1946.
So it is quite possible that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Labour is a stop to ‘more of the same’. This entirely depends on how much Corbyn’s private views are tempered by his shadow cabinet, and Corbyn has tried to bring dissenters into his tent to manage the situation in the same way Abraham Lincoln had many years ago.
To give Burnham credit, there was the beginning of a discussion of bringing health and social care together. Such discussions have nonetheless failed to reconcile how an universal NHS system can be bolted onto a means-tested social care system. The relics of personal budgets, which also have been identified as a practical way of devolving cuts and rationing, continue in policy, and have been furthered rather than extinguished by recent legislation.
Labour itself did much to wreck social care with privatisation, and, whilst we have had relentless cuts in social care funding in recent years which have also affected the way in which the NHS works, the problems started a long time before 2010. But Labour has for me much to prove on the NHS. It’s a long time since ‘the spirit of 45′, but Labour cannot just function as a shrill shroud waving protest party. It needs to have, at last, a sensible debate about all these matters which have been festering for far too long.
My decision to vote for Jeremy Corbyn was not easy. I have learnt to desensitise myself from the hyperbolic shrill of Twitter, and the numbskull hashtag bandwagon campaigns.
First of all, I am mindful that voting for Jeremy Corbyn will be seen by some as a betrayal of the legacy of the Labour Party having made itself electable in the turbulent years in the since the mid 1980s. I should not go so far as to say ‘a pig with lipstick’ could have won the 1997 general election, but I do agree with a sentiment expressed in Liz Kendall’s final speech that Labour did not really have an adequate discussion of what it stands for for a very long time. Whether you agree it or not, there is a perception that Labour to get itself elected is ‘Tory Lite’. This is perceived as huge insult to those who believe in the policies which swept Tony Blair to power in 1997 by some. But it is the reluctance of those same people to ignore how ineffective we have become in opposition which truly worries me.
Get this. I am physically disabled, and I had to apply three times including a tribunal in Grays Inn Road to get my disability living allowance restored. I found my experience with welfare benefits traumatic, but this cannot have been said to be anywhere as traumatic as those people who took their own lives. Like the MP who spoke elegantly in the debate on assisted dying yesterday, I am loath to say ‘commit suicide’ in the linguistic conflation with the criminal law, such as ‘commit manslaughter’ or ‘commit murder’. I cannot think it is necessary for you to be physically disabled to understand the mental pain which has been brought about by the welfare reforms. but it sometimes feels like it.
When three of the candidates abstained on the welfare reform bill, it really was a massive kick in the groin for me. If anything, Andy Burnham’s explanation of the ‘reasoned amendment’ made it a million times worse. I am not a subscriber to Len McCluskey and UNITE but I felt more than a smidgeon of sympathy when he said he felt like sending Harriet Harman MP the dictionary definition of “opposition”. This single vote was a game changer for me. I had to look very hard to support Andy thereafter. I think his idea to bring together health and social care is much overdue. The reason for this is that the problems in the social care system have a direct effect on the operations of the NHS. But it cannot be ignored by me that Labour did much to bring about the mess of privatisation of social services either. I do not agree with the Foundation Trust policy, introduced by New Labour, as it is my perception that there are NHS Trusts, such as Mid Staffs and Morecambe Bay, which were more interested in their Foundation Trust status than their record on patient safety, and the ability of the clinical regulators to bring anyone to account for clear misfeasance is woefully inadequate. Foundation Trusts, and what has happened, a high proportion of Trusts in deficit in a market gone wrong, is not a legacy of New Labour I can agree with. I am sorry to lay this at the door of Andy Burnham partly, and I would not have minded had it not been for his stance on the private finance initiative (PFI). Andy uses PFI to argue that Labour mended the roof while the sun was shining, but it is shockingly and absorbingly transparently the case that the loan repayments have been unconsionably poor value, as admitted by Margaret Hodges’ committee, something has to be done about it fast. The fact that there are City traders who trade in equity in PFI tells you something about the machinery New Labour put in place over the NHS.
Jeremy Corbyn spoke to my values. I get the fact that he is very old (but that surely should not be a problem unless you are profoundly ageist which I am not?) I think the fact that he disagrees with PFI is a factor, but so is the idea that you invest in people. I remain aghast at how many people seem to think that nurses pay is a trivial idea, mainly from people who have never done had a hard day’s work in the NHS ever. But let me tell you one thing which is very important – nurses’ mental welfare is very important, and rewarding nurses for their difficult job is a step towards that, more useful than yoga classes or whatever the latest out of touch managerial initiative from NHS England is. I think also it IS a problem that Russian oligarchs can buy up new builds in London, and Boris Johnson for example is prepared promote that, at the expense of shoving up house prices in London making social housing in London unaffordable for many. The Blair Twelve, for all their verbal masturbation about how disastrous a Corbyn government will be, have never offered anything constructive on social housing. This is not an issue of “Blairite vs Brownite” for me, it just happens that the abuse from some of those people who have been classified as Blairite has been for me completely unacceptable. Likewise, I think the abuse that Liz Kendall has received is simply disgusting, on account of her standing up for her opinions legitimately.
Economists disagree. I know a reasonable amount of economics, to the point I came top in economics in my own MBA. I think the way people have dismissed a ‘people’s QE’ out of hand distresses me, as it shows that they are more driven by securing their own ideology than potentially helping others in society. It does distress me even more that we have continued with the destruction of delivery of legal aid as we “cannot afford it”. Remember – Sadiq Khan MP, newly elected Labour Mayor candidate – was unable to pledge the reversal of cuts to legal aid when Shadow Justice Minister. And so it goes on. There’s a Labour refusal to say that the £20n efficiency savings, now £30bn, is now unworkable because of the desperate need to hang onto austerity. I have found Yvette speaking too much ‘shrill’ in the debates, and, apart from her interesting anecdote about her Haribos factory, I have found her uniquely uninspiring in the debates. Cooper for example had nothing of interest for me to say on the NHS or social care. And we do know that austerity has failed in numerous jurisdictions – Osborne’s own plans for austerity have failed numerous times, as our national debt has exploded far more than under Labour. Cooper may want to reduce the ‘people’s QE’ as ‘PFI on steroids’ but the way in which Labour implemented QE was itself ‘on steroids’. As Jeremy Corbyn rightly points out, signing up to the Conservatives’ economic plan in 1997 meant us signing up to PFI at the time, and a huge number of contracts were introduced under Labour (even thougjh the Major tenure originally introduced it in 1993).
I think Jeremy Corbyn is a good speaker. He is a Facebook friend. Sure, I ‘get’ the concerns about him potentially leaving NATO and wider foreign policy, but I note that he has never said recently he will definitely leave NATO. For me, he has spoken much sense on the refugee crisis. I expect his Shadow Cabinet to be kept in check by a strong Shadow Foreign Secretary, as I think Hilary Benn MP might be. I as it happens feel that Angela Eagle MP would make an excellent Shadow Chancellor. It’s clear that Scotland rejected Labour. I think the SNP is nationalist rather than socialist, and will do anything to further their nationalist ambitions. But I do think Corbyn does have a chance in speaking to disaffected Labour voters who voted SNP or UKIP recently. I think Corbyn is far from perfect, but he himself has urged the need for a united party, where policy is going to be driven by the grassroots. One of my own personal unpleasant experiences was in the Socialist Health Association where I felt it was impossible to have your contributions valued despite the wealth of experience you can bring. I have no truck with this method of working from the SHA, and I think the whole Labour machine has been like that.
I would like to give Jeremy Corbyn a chance. I am genuinely sorry to those of you who will feel offended by this.
And so, as Mahatma Gandhi said once, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
I remember watching the BBC Newsnight Labour leadership hustings when they first happened, quite some time ago. I recall Jeremy Corbyn MP being introduced derisively as the old candidate who’d only just managed to make it onto the ballot sheet. And yet as I listened to Jeremy’s responses it became clear to me that his answers were addressing that significant electorate; those people who felt totally disenfranchised by Labour in the last ten years.
The odd thing about ‘choice’, so exuberantly espoused by both the Conservatives and Labour Party, in recent years is that you come in for rather heavy abuse, some of it of a rather personal nature, if your choice disagrees with someone else. I really can’t rationalise how Tony Blair came to think it was acceptable to state that if your heart is with Jeremy Corbyn you need a heart transplant. But as the campaign has progressed, things have been increasingly desperate. Every man and his dog from New Labour, including Alastair Campbell and David Blunkett, have been wheeled out to deride Corbyn. I am particularly puzzled how David Blunkett came to think he could produce the deal maker for the Blair era, when he has been happy being paid as an advisor on corporate social responsibility for the Murdoch operations.
That the main Union leaders wish to support Corbyn does not surprise me. That Keynesian heavyweight Lord Skidelsky has produced a coherent argument to explain why ‘Corbynomics‘ is not as extreme as some present does not surprise me either. That serious heavyweights in economics wish to lend their support to Corbynomics is not a shock, in addition. This was to be expected with the huge social movement which accompanied the work of Prof Kate Pickett and Prof Richard Wilkinson, for example “The Spirit Level”.
What I was seriously caught out by is how wise leading commentators, particularly at the Guardian, were so keen to sneer at Corbyn. I can understand the thing about not wanting to jump on the bandwagon, but their position was totally untenable. There was little attempt to engage with the actual policies, or to query why so many members of the general public had engaged in what was patently more than a mass hysteria ‘Corbynmania’. This does disappoint me, as some of the commentariat included bright people, sympathetic to the aims of New Labour and the Blair governments, who really could not meet half way with Corbyn.
If it happens that Jeremy Corbyn wins, and let’s face it the polls have been wrong before, I am hoping that members of Labour will pull ranks to help Corbyn. I as it happens have voted in this election, as I was entitled to as a Labour member. Not being offensive, but it might have helped that I haven’t left tweets and Facebook posts banging on about how wonderful the Greens are.
Rupert Murdoch commented in a tweet that Murdoch seems to be the only one who seems to be very clear about what he stands for. Corbyn has had plenty of time to rehearse the arguments in the front of the bathroom mirror, but I dare say he has thought exactly why he felt unable to support tuition fees, Iraq, or the private finance initiative, even having been elected on the same ‘disastrous’ Michael Foot manifesto which first saw him elected together with Tony Blair.
The arguments are very well worn. If there is money for war, why is there no money for social care? The criticism should not be why Corbyn is able to go over the same territory as the 1980s politically, but why these arguments have particular traction now. It is simply the case that the opposition from Labour has been unacceptably weak on the destruction of social care, which is a calamity in itself, but also disastrous from the perspective of how the National Health Service functions.
Repeated apologies for misdemeanours and misfeasance from the past have their place, but only if correct and authentic. The candidates for the Labour leadership have clearly been unable to settle with united voice on the actual reason Labour should be criticised; despite ambitious spending on public services (such as Sure Start or the infrastructure of hospitals), it was unable to regulate the City of London stringently enough. It happens that the Conservatives agreed with this light-touch regulation, and levels of public spending too, but that is not really the point as they were neither in office nor in government at the time.
Labour has never ‘apologised’ for the Iraq War, despite the sequelae, presumably on the basis that it feels it has nothing to apologise for. But there were screw ups in decisions from Labour. Many in the general public find it inconceivable that the Labour leadership, apart from Jeremy Corbyn, aren’t making more of a noise about the destruction of the Independent Living Fund; and abstaining on the welfare reform bill is testament to how some feel there is no alternative to austerity.
Currently a large proportion of NHS Foundation Trusts are in deficit. Many feel that some Trusts, in chasing targets and wanting to become Foundation Trusts, became extremely dangerous from a patient safety perspective, and this legacy from New Labour must not go unchallenged either. Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn can actually win in 2020 is in a way irrelevant to the huge strides forward in re-establishing socialist principles back on the political map. It could indeed be the case that Sir Keir Starmer QC MP is parachuted in just before the 2020 general election, but the ‘political left’ should not by this stage feel disappointed about their progress here. This progress might not have been what Progress wanted, but giving disenfranchised people a voice is a meritorious goal too.
And he might even win with the clarity of his arguments, even if you disagree with them. So get over it.
I must admit that I was taken aback when Gordon Brown quoted a former ‘successful’ Labour Prime Minister thus, “And, in Harold Wilson’s words, Labour is “a moral crusade or it is nothing”. I wasn’t so much amazed that Brown had decided to name drop a Labour Prime Minister who was well known for making policy up on the hoof, and possibly more into style than substance, but the fact that Brown had quoted one of Tony Benn’s favourite quotes ‘of Harold’. To understand the general approach of Jeremy Corbyn, you could do no worse possibly than to watch the film ‘Last Will and Testament’, where like Brown, Benn sets out the historical events which have inspired his quest for social justice. Brown’s penultimate line of conclusion was “And follow what Bevan called that decent instinct to do something that will help the lives of people most in need”, but I think that it is through looking that through this prism you can begin to understand the pain at the lack of efficacy of Labour’s so-called ‘opposition’. For example, Labour has never committed to reversing the destruction of the English legal aid system and the network of English law centres, claiming that such plans would not be possible given austerity. Austerity itself is the reason the NHS is being driven to do ‘more for less’, except the whole world and his dog knows that hospitals get by with the basic of staff on on-call cover, and idea of stretching out existing resources into a seven day way is laughable for most professionals within the service. It is therefore easy for me to understand the immediate popularity of Jeremy Corbyn; that he is defying the neoliberal doctrine, ‘there is no alternative’, with an alternative to austerity. This indeed is not an unelectable formula – look at Scotland (even though one can rightly moot whether SNP policies as actually legislated are particularly left wing). One can argue about whether Corbynomics will work, but the sheer defiance of the ‘there is no money tree’ with quantitative easing is worth raising an eyebrow at least. I have no idea whether Corbynomics is pro-inflationary, but then again no one else unless he or she happens to be an astrologer.
I went up to the Labour Party Conference in 2010 in Manchester. I got to Manchester Piccadilly precisely at the time that they were announcing the Labour Party’s new leader – who was Ed Miliband. Ed Miliband had defied the critics, and had come from nowhere to ‘seal the deal’. This was to much happiness of those who at that stage hated the Blairite wing of the party. I as such do not hate Blairism in the same way that I do not hate any corporates. I do not see Blairism as a social movement, but as a group of some extremely bright people but also some rather sanctimonious disparate people who can see no wrong in Tony Blair. I think many people use Chilcot as an excuse to hate Blair personally rather than a reason, but then again whether the UK went into war legally is a serious issue. I was greeted accidentally by Michael Meacher MP as I entered the ground floor of a pub in 2010 for the Socialist Societies meeting. I asked Michael if he was happy at Ed Miliband’s election: he said, “Not happy – ecstatic.” But he then added, “We’ve got our party back.” And I was to hear this phrase often during conference. And yet he struck me for the remainder of his term as leader that Ed Miliband was never a socialist, but a social democrat. That’s why I thought that the attacks of Red Ed were deeply fraudulent – but clearly not as ridiculous as the bacon butty jibes. When Gordon Brown referred continually to ‘Labour values’, this inevitably was a ‘fist pump’ moment for many, but it is essential to deconstruct whether Labour values, as espoused say by Keir Hardie, have been at the heart of the private finance initiative, where you end up paying for state assets through unconscionable loan agreements, or whether it is particularly Labour values to flog off the State’s infrastructure which you’ve invested in for decades. Lord Mandelson was one of the principal architects of the Royal Mail privatisation, so was it really possible for Labour to ‘oppose’ this when the time came? Is it a Labour value to remain relatively supine about the relative lack of nurses’ wages for many?
What has been incredible for me has been the sheer vitriol aimed at Jeremy Corbyn MP. Representing a different part of North London to the one I’m in, I ‘get’ his views on social housing. When you consider that the Mayor of London, currently Boris Johnson, does not have qualms about selling ‘new buys’ in Paris, making property prices unaffordable for residents of London, you get his point. When you also realise that without any forms of rent controls, landlords are regularly receiving state subsidy to provide accommodation at a huge profit, you see where Corbyn is coming from. However, there are substantial problems with Corbyn’s pitch in various areas, such as possibly exiting NATO. I remain unconvinced whether he really wants the Labour Party to stay in Europe. We all know his ‘friend and mentor’, as indeed he has called him himself, Tony Benn said ‘No Non Nein’ in the original EU referendum. Benn’s socialist reasoning was that he didn’t want everything to be run from unelected people in Brussels, which saw his logical reasoning go into an unholy alliance with the late Enoch Powell’s. But there is a substantial grouping within the Labour Party who do not see Europe as the great competitive nirvana that multinational corporates espousing free movement of capital and labour can do. They see it as a body which does not protect adequately workers’ rights. Corbyn may wish to take the EU negotiations from first principles with Labour. The attack on Labour during the Scottish referendum was that it was indistinguishable from the Tories – the scope for history repeating itself with the EU referendum is there too.
Harriet Harman MP was adamant that Labour should not be opposing for opposing’s sake, and that Labour had to have a moral drive and logic to its opposition. And yet it is Labour which perpetually gives the impression of being utterly toothless and taking it regardless. Its response to the Budget was pretty unmemorable, apart from Chris Leslie for all the wrong reasons. Andy Burnham MP somehow seems to arrived at losing from the clutches of victory, in no way helped by Harman’s stance on the Welfare Reform Bill. Burnham in ‘abstaining’ instead of giving an impression of firm opposition in the form of a ‘reasoned amendment’ which accounted for ‘collective responsibility’ looked instead as if he didn’t give a shit about the devastating effect of welfare cuts, including for the disabled community. Prof Germaine Greer in BBC’s Any Questions unsurprisingly therefore arrived at the conclusion that she expected HM’s ‘Loyal Opposition’ to oppose. There is clearly a feeling now that Labour should not oppose in a long-winged convoluted fashion. It is pretty hard to escape the conclusion that if you want to afford the NHS (not fraudulently articulated fraudulently in neoliberal language as ‘unsustainable’), you have to be willing to pay for it through general taxation. And yet Andy Burnham wants to set up a ‘Beveridge style Commission’ to arrive at this answer. His reasoning for this was presumably because his cherished National Health and Care Service, a great idea which would do much to make a ‘parity a reality’ (one of Burnham’s slogans before he railed against slogans), did not receive its democratic mandate. But there are vast swathes of NHS policy which seemingly do not operate on the basis of a democratic mandate, take for example the suggestion from McKinsey’s of £2 bn or so efficiency savings, or PFI. TTIP is yet another policy arm which, to give him credit, Burnham has been to Europe to oppose. Labour was not in government during the negotiations, but there is a general feeling that Labour did much to put in place the market infrastructure which made subsequent privatisation of NHS relatively easy.
(Cartoon by @BarkerCartoons)
As for Gordon Brown’s ‘Labour values’. where was tub thumbing Brown given the precipitous and disastrous privatisation of social care? It is a honest and settled view of many that social care funding is now on its knee, having not been ring fenced for the last few years. This simple fact makes Cameron’s view that England is the best place to live with dementia frankly delusional. A lot of reasoning behind Labour’s stance has been that it’s been ‘austerity lite’. Whilst socialism does need lots of money to succeed, or as the critics say ‘someone else’s money’, the state infrastructure does need a modicum of investment – even if the return of the investment is later to the City of London, as will inevitably occur when CrossRail or HS3 are flogged off. Tuition fees is another golden example of where a universal right to higher education has been marred with a requirement of an ability to pay. They say that somebody can easily land himself or herself a £60K debt bill at the end of university education, and I can well believe that. I am grateful for my university education, but equally I understand that university education is not the ‘be all and end all’ (for example we might wish to extend legal apprenticeships). I don’t like the A level system, as it’s my opinion it reflects more how well you’ve been taught than anything else, but there is so much mileage to be gained from my ‘I wouldn’t start from here’ arguments.
I do not happen to agree with the ‘savage’ attacks from the BBC in framing Gordon Brown’s speech as a devastating attack on Jeremy Corbyn MP. For example, Brown quoted Mandela in reference to the notion of the need for hope especially after years ‘in the wilderness’. My interpretation of what Brown was trying to say, albeit with a twang of ‘Don’t blame me if it all goes horribly wrong’, was that any Labour leader must receive the popular vote to get elected in the first place; but once elected it will require a huge effort from all sides to make Government work. I think this is particularly the case for Jeremy Corbyn. At one level, the popularity for him is not the same as left populism, it might be argued, and that the echo chamber Corbynmania and packed out lecture halls are not representative of the Labour voting public at large. We’ve been there before with a heightened sense of optimism, for example Milifandom. You don’t have to go far back in time to get constructive knowledge of polls which have been totally wrong – it could be all the ‘hard entryists’ into Labour do not vote for Corbyn at all, though I have no idea what a million Toby Youngs or Dan Hodges are like. There is a huge risk that Labour is about to enter an extended period of mockery, but you have to remember that Labour had relatively little hope of winning 2020 in any form anyway. Tony Blair is to blame in my opinion definitely for not having done the ‘succession planning’ properly; or you can argue that he is in fact an incredibly successful politician for having pulled the ladder up from underneath him. I think Blair has left in many areas a very formidable legacy as a social democrat, for example LBGT equality, public services reform, devolution, national minimum wage, but the essential problem with all of these policy planks is that we remain utterly clueless about the destination of travel. But the same can be said of Gaitskell or Wilson. But not Attlee – and therein lies some of the trouble. And as Nye Bevan said, “It’s not where you’ve come from, it’s where you’re going to” – or “If you remain in the middle of the road, you’re bound to get runover.”
Islington Law Centre, Islington People’s Rights and Islington CAB, organised a “Justice for All” open morning at the Islington Law Centre on Friday 3rd June 2011. Students from the BPP Law School were strongly represented at the meeting, particularly the BPP Pro Bono Unit. Jeremy Corbyn, MP for North Islington, whose appointment to the Commons Select Committee has been widely praised is pictured here (on the left), with @legalaware from the BPP Legal Awareness Society, based at the BPP Business School (middle).
At worst, the reforms represent the end of legal aid for social welfare law. The Law Centre is paid for by legal aid, and grants locally. However, in large city areas such as Birmingham and Glasgow, there will be many people who will not have access to legal aid.
Jeremy Corbyn MP (furthest right) and Cllr Catherine West (middle), the Leader of Islington Council, were invited, and attended as, the main speakers at this event by Ruth Hayes, Director of Islington Law Centre (furthest left). The meeting was to discuss concern the deep concern that the Government’s proposals for legal aid will deny hundreds of thousands of people access to justice. This event was a chance to find out more about current legal advice provision in Islington, understand what the Government’s proposals would mean for low income Islington residents, and add your voice to the campaign. The event targeted primarily at an audience of staff, volunteers and members in community organisations and other front line agencies, whose own service users may rely on legal aid to find out about and exercise their legal rights. Cllr West provided that councillors have a vital role in explaining access to legal services, which can feed into making legal policy in the Council. Catherine emphasized that this reinforces a community culture.
Jeremy has always been a strong advocate of putting the case for Parliament. He felt that it is very important to change the debate from a pressure by the legal profession, into pressure by people who are worried about access to justice. Jeremy emphasised that we are currently in the midst of the Consultation on legal aid, and he personally is involved now in the Select Committee for Justice, as stated above. He said a big thank you to Islington Council for opening the Islington Law Centre in Upper Street. There is no competition in provision of legal aids, but there is a desperate need for support and advice. All of the stakeholders appear to be co-ordinating legal information effectively.
In his short thesis, he wished to expose a few myths. The national budget for legal aid is about £2bn, which is not much compared to a nuclear missile. The Government is trying to cut £350mn from there, which is a substantial cut. They happily claim that barristers and solicitors are paid a huge amount on legal aid, because of the “greed of the legal profession”. Some barristers do command high fees in the High Court, and there is a very small number of high profile cases. However, legal aid does support a lot of law centres nationally; and many law centres have ceased to function. Claimants are now lost in the system, because a number of law companies have disappeared. There is a lot of work being done on minimal money.
According to Jeremy, the Government also argues that more can be done through mediation. Jeremy believes that this is difficult – for example, in a contentious immigration case, legal aid can be applied for in relation to detention aspects. Jeremy believes that this is dealing with the symptoms, not the issue. Every case of disability living allowance is being analysed in an aggressive way; about two-thirds, however, are successful on appeal. This does not appear like a sensible use of public money, as the process is very traumatic. Finally, the Government also puts great store on mediation of ‘solved problems’; however, mediation does not often work, and is a “pipe dream”. You need good quality legal representation in certain cases of family aid. Legal aid provides the basis of doing that. That is why Jeremy is angry about the criticisms on the basis of cost. Legal aid can be considered as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the welfare state, and has to be paid for. Access to justice should be available to all, not just those who can afford it. The Government has had to delay the closing date on the consultation, because of the sheer volume of consultation reports. Jeremy will be arguing as central to the Commons Justice Select Committee that access to justice is very important, not just large corporations.
There is a petition, to be closed before next week. Jeremy advised the submission of the large numbers of petitions early next week, perhaps with a hand-in to the Ministry of Justice within ten days.
The Islington Law Centre will be celebrating its 40 years’ anniversary shortly, and offers a full range of legal services in ‘social law’, including education law, employment law, housing, law, immigration and asylum law, and welfare benefits law . The Law Centre offers a range of provisions, including initial advice, appeals and representations in higher courts. It has an open-door policy, and does not charge clients for its services. Three days a week the clinics are staffed by City law firms. The City law firms have urged the need for such volunteering activity to continue. The BPP Law School pro bono has been heavily involved in such work. A range of services could be threatened, however. The future could mean that there could be no welfare benefits service at all, and without legal aid there will not be opportunities for claimants. Similarly, the volume of debt cases is massive, and there will not be legal aid work available unless a claimant’s home is at risk; this will create huge strains for people. Employment law means that claimants often do not have access to large trade unions, often in small businesses with complex conditions. In education law services, some families report that the young people were so distressed, that they were actually suicidal. Such law work was held on Saturday, as a result of people who were now working, because they had re-integrated into society. The scope for housing law is limited, meaning that a lot of agencies will not survive. Immigration is a real concern in Islington, including the loss of representation by some firms such as Fisher Meredith. Asylum cases will still be in scope.
There will be a ‘telephone gateway’ to access to legal aid, problematic for people with insufficient credit, or have communication difficulties as a result of disability. It is the intention that about 75% legal aid cases will be dealt with by phone, taking away the genuine community component of legal aid. A lot of cases are multi-factorial, e.g. housing, debt and immigration, making such telephone consultations sub-optimal. A national phone service makes no use of local knowledge, diluting the effect of local specialist knowledge which can offer detailed, excellent, practical local support. A telephone service, in summary, is therefore iniquitous. It turns out the Equality and Human Rights Commission are seeking to implement a telephone advice, which is impossible for complex cases, particularly for claimants with communication difficulties. Jeremy represented the situation as a recipe for disaster, and needs to be properly supported as appropriate, for example with translation services.
“Islington’s People’s Rights” does offer an outreach service. The majority of welfare benefits work involves outreach, in mental health, disability, addiction, and other vulnerabilities. The changes proposed in legal aid will have a huge impact. A lot of claimants are going through an assessment, often at first stage, but increasingly at second stage, following appeal (despite failing at assessment despite a strong case). The impact of legal aid ceasing for welfare benefits and debt will have a devastating effect on that client group, and cannot be underestimated. If you are losing your home under 30, you might escape this lack of scope. Certainly, people are not optimistic about the effect of the reforms on the work with vulnerable members of the community. The need for services continues to get greater,
Lorna Reid, Welfare Benefits Advisor in the Islington Law Centre, drew special attention to the phrase, “undeserving poor” against, say, people with serious vulnerabilities such as medical addiction problems. Islington Law Centre currently has a success rate in turning over 80% of cases on appeal, and there is an increase in jobseekers’ allowance. A vast number of families are being pushed below the poverty line, people who cannot keep up with their debts, and their health suffers. The Council has run a successful form-filling clinic; 78 of 182 people had their claims were followed-up, and satisfied on the first claim (each claim takes about three hours). Without that additional help, there is no ‘form filling’ clinic. The demonisation of the poor in terms of language used by Iain Duncan Smith, e.g “lifestyle choice” is considered by Jeremy as ‘deeply offensive, rubbish and nonsense’; poorer people, who are trying to do their best in life, should be allowed to be demonised.
The author would like Jennifer Ball, from the Law Centres Federation, who has been pivotal in inspiring him about the importance of pro bono publico.