My week in Loughborough, Labour and the law…

As I am running to be a representative of Labour in Loughborough and Parliament, I thought you may like to hear the sorts of things I am getting up to.

Monday

Was dinner with the Law Society President Joe Egan in my capacity as a member of our local Law Society’s Council.  In his initial remarks he mentioned the work of Lord Bach and the Fabian Society in their important Access to Justice Report.  I had been fortunate to attend the launch of that document at this year’s Labour Conference.  It is well thought through and comprehensive: it rightly calls for reinstatement of legal aid across a range of areas, a legal right to legal assistance, and its proposal for a Justice Commission to act as watchdog and advocate on matters of access to justice would be a very positive step.  As a high street lawyer from Bolton, Joe Egan was very aware of the issues that need addressing and receptive to the proposals.

There was also an exchange with Joe about the Law Society as an advocate for access to justice and the profession.  It is fair to say that both the Law Society and the Bar Council are still in transition from regulators to representative bodies.  Brilliant work is done by both (not least the Bar Council’s Brexit Papers), but neither seems to have transformed into household names (as visible and powerful as say Digby Jones once was at the CBI or Len McClusky is at Unite) that can persistently campaign for access to justice and the right to a lawyer.

Tuesday

Took me to Thompsons Solicitors in Sheffield.  I spent the day up there working on their personal injury matters, some for trade union members.  I really enjoy my visits there.  The receptionists are always so nice to me, and I always get a kick out of the wall decoration.  Plates from local miners’ unions (pictured here) got special attention this time.

Wednesday

I was lucky enough to spend some time with Labour members in Loughborough, some planned and some serendipitous.

Firstly, I heard worrying concerns about the Glenfield Children’s Heart Unit which is under threat, and the fairness of Universal Credit, which contrary to its advertised intention is not incentivising people to go back to work (see this from Paul Lewis on an 83% marginal loss to some).

Then later I took myself along to the “Eco-Social” which brought together environmentally thinking people in Loughborough.  I heard a lot about Transition Loughborough, and really got a sense of a community of very able, idealistic people that were not just talking about environmental and sustainability, but were living it.  I was really inspired.  I used to work on climate change policy and drive an electric car.  If selected I would love to get immersed in the work of this community.  I happened upon a number of Labour members there too.  Making me think that the party where it currently is, is very well placed to push for a rapid shift towards better air quality, and more sustainable cities, towns and villages.  It’s an area that I think needs a big focus before the next general election.

Thursday

Won my trial in Wandsworth.  As an illustration of how the Bar works, I was against a colleague from my Chambers.  We are based in Nottingham, but are probably the leading chambers in the area of industrial disease, so bumping into each other at far flung courts is normal. My client had been deafened by his employer, a well-known national butchers, whilst working on band-saws and the like cutting meat.  I was glad that we got a result for him.

Sadly the trial ran late meaning I was not able to get to my Coop Party branch meeting.

Friday

A fantastic day doing the rounds in Loughborough.  After a Cino’s Cappucino with a hard-working member/activist talking campaigning, my day took me all over the constituency.

It was great to learn about the work of the Loughborough Town of Sanctuary.  Volunteers stand outside the Home Officer Immigration Reporting Centre which serves much of the East Midlands.  They provide details of where advice can be obtained, and were offering hats, scarves and vouchers for hot drinks and food.  It was obvious that these offerings and simply their presence, warmth and humanity were incredibly well received by those having to report at the centre.

We walked with one asylum seeker to John Storer House, itself a brilliant community asset. I had a fascinating conversation over my poached eggs on toast in the community café, with the person in charge of the organisation.  Her passion and professionalism was admirable. It was great to learn about the funding model, and how this has had to adapt to changes such as budget holding.  Hearing about their work using gardening with disadvantaged groups brought back memories of how much my dad enjoyed his involvement in a couple of such initiatives when he was in the early stages of dementia.

Later on, I was interested to learn about the Loughborough Generator project which is seeking to build a creative community to support start-ups and companies from across the creative sector.   All really exciting stuff.

This was all rounded out by a helpful discussion with Dan from the Loughborough Labour Students on some campaigning ideas, a fascinating talk at Loughborough Labour’s Unity House with Lilian Greenwood about women in politics and her political story (including her gruelling Selection Campaign experience!), and then a Refugee Forum event back in my village (raised around £900!).

Saturday

A professional development session on ethics at Grays Inn.  It says something about my profession that you can dedicate three hours of training to discussing ethical questions and scenarios.

I feel lucky to be a member of a profession that takes this sort of thing seriously.  Balancing your duty to the Court and your client is really the essence of what being a barrister is all about.

We are really lucky that the Inns of Court are largely left to get on with this sort of stuff, and that barristers are largely trusted to uphold the standards required to further the rule of law.  I would really like the same empowerment to be given across all professions and areas of work.  Particularly in health and education.  Government reforms have too often alienated and not empowered professionals and employees.

Sunday

Family time and promoting our CLP’s 2017 December Draw on Facebook.

 

 

How we ended up with the Catalonia Crisis: the thoughts of a Spanish PSOE comrade

Massive thanks to my good friend, PSOE comrade and proud resident of Murcia, Mario Lopez, for allowing me to share his thoughts on this matter of critical importance to Europe, regionalism, democracy and the rule of law.   It really is worth a read! I think there are some important learnings for our own constitutional position which I plan to share on this blog at a later date.

To understand the current crisis one needs to go back to 2006 when the Zapatero government, having been unable, because of PP opposition, to open up a reform of the Spanish Constitution to deepen its federal structure, kick-started a process of reform of the regional constitutions instead. Catalonia was one of the regions that reformed hers. The Catalan reform was passed at the time by a vote in the regional parliament and a referendum. However, Rajoy, then leader of the opposition, began a campaign against the new Catalan constitution. He collected signatures against it, used anti-Catalan rhetoric and took the text to the Constitutional Court. The result was that the court ruled several of the new articles unconstitutional and the entire text got diluted. For many Catalans this was seen as an attempt by the rest of Spain to limit Catalan self-government and so began a questioning of whether Catalonia would be better off as an independent state. 

That sentiment has been growing steadily over the last decade because of many factors: the economic crisis, the corruption crisis and the fact that Rajoy (Catalan enemy no. 1) is now PM of Spain.

At the same time, the biggest Catalan nationalist party (CIU, now rebranded as PdeCat), which has ruled Catalonia for decades, suffered its own political crisis as its historical leader, Jordi Pujol, and many others have been jailed for widespread corruption. To avoid being overtaken electorally by other nationalist parties, the PdeCat began upping its independentist rhetoric. (Traditionally, the PdeCat has been a culturally nationalist, but politically federalist, party).

In the end, we have a convergence of a legitimate sentiment of affront among Catalans and a political class (both PdeCat and PP) fuelling nationalist sentiment on both sides in a populist manner for short-term electoral purposes. 

Arriving at the current crisis, the fundamental issue is that the Spanish Constitution doesn’t permit a referendum to break up Spain. Because Spanish and Catalan laws stem from the Constitution, both governments have the duty to uphold the law. The Catalan government hasn’t done so by calling for a referendum first and then by threatening to declare unilateral independence. The Spanish government has followed the law by trying to stop the referendum and now by using Article 155 (direct rule from Madrid) to remove the Catalan government, dissolve the regional parliament – so it can’t declare independence – and calling for fresh regional elections. But as we all know, in politics the law is not always enough. The Rajoy government massively overstepped the line by sending the police into Catalonia to stop the referendum. And equally, the Catalan government for all its talk of democracy, has prevented a genuine democratic debate in many instances, from its control of public Catalan media to the forcing through of unilateral laws in the Catalan parliament without proper legislative scrutiny by the non-independentist opposition.

How do we solve the crisis? In my view, the main problem is the current interlocutors on both sides, Rajoy and Puigdemont. They are both discredited by their actions. We need a genuine dialogue between both sides. One ray of hope, in my opinion, is that PSOE has managed to get Rajoy to agree to opening up a parliamentary commission on reviewing the Spanish Constitution. This is the perfect forum for all sides to sit down and agree on a new constitutional structure in which Catalan needs and concerns can be accommodated within Spain. The key question is whether a referendum for self-determination should be included. PSOE has said no, because the main goal should be to make Catalonia feel comfortable remaining within Spain, not to make arrangements for it to leave. I despise nationalism (both Spanish and Catalan, or any other for that matter) and I believe it is a morally superior position to want Spain to remain a single state (understanding Spain as a plural state, with many identities, languages and cultures living within it, as it should be reflected in the new Constitution) than breaking it up on the basis of cultural singularity and economic selfishness. We have had that kind of democratic referendum recently in Europe, Brexit, and look how that panned out!

In the eventuality that a reformed Constitution is voted on a referendum across Spain and in Catalonia was voted down, then I would agree that a referendum on self-determination would be necessary. But that would be a last resort option, we ought to be constructive, not destructive, in the first instance.

This is just my opinion. I am sure there are many factors I have left out that other people will think are more important and not everyone will agree with my preferred solution. But that tends to be the case with my political views most of the time anyways! 😉

55p per minute example of Government’s disregard for Universal Credit claimants

Although last week’s PMQs challenge over the “55p per minute” Universal Credit helpline is only a small part of the story of this policy’s rollout, it shows how this government is willing to treat those wholly or partly reliant on benefits: or alternatively, that group of “just about managing” people suffering the “burning injustices” that Theresa May loves to talk about.

The Government’s own cabinet Office guidelines suggest that freephone numbers “can be considered where a department provides a service to callers who are likely to be part of a vulnerable or low income group, particularly when the typical call duration is long and could result in substantial charges”.  I don’t need to spell out how this applies, nor how the most vulnerable would not have landlines and would be on the “pay as you go” mobile contracts that would attract the 55p per minute rate.

Even if this guidance had somehow been missed by Government, a report by Citizens’ Advice titled “Fixing Universal Credit” would not have been.  One of its recommendations was to “make the Universal Credit helpline free of charge, at least until the roll out is complete”.  What is notable about this report is: one, it was produced by the foremost body in this domain which has unparalleled primary evidence to draw on; and two, it was released at the start of July this year!  It would have been placed on minister’s desks, and ministers/officials will have met with Citizens’ Advice top brass to discuss its contents and recommendations.

So a conscious decision will have been made to ignore this recommendation and continue to place the cost-burden of the helpline on the shoulders of benefit claimants.  A cruel and unfair decision on any analysis.

It is the unwillingness to see matters from the claimants’ perspective which is most disturbing.  Very soon many areas will be reverting to a “full digital service” for new claimants of Universal Credit (i.e. anyone who would previously have claimed Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income-related Employment & Support Allowance, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit or Housing Benefit).

This means nearly all applicants will have to make an application online.  Loughborough will be subject to this system from March 2018.  It seems that any Government properly reflecting on this policy from a claimant’s perspective would anticipate the errors and injustices that will occur as a result of unequal web access/web literacy, lack of availability of accurate information (for example up-to-date rent levels), the changes in how rent will be paid to landlords, the switch to payment in arrears, difficulty some will have in accessing a Job-Centre Plus (e.g. those having to travel from outside Loughborough into town) and myriad other complications and errors.  A tidal wave of debt, rent arrears and evictions is foreseen.

Although Government claims to be addressing these risks, its approach in relation to the helpline clearly shows that this rollout is not being conducted with claimants’ best interests in mind.  If it was, then stories of serious anguish, like those in this recent Guardian article, could only lead to the Government stopping this rollout until its serious shortcomings are addressed.

Theresa May: bridges burnt, nowhere to go

One consistent aspect of Theresa May’s ascent to the top of the Conservative Party has been the tenor of the landmark speeches that have defined her career.

Firstly, she gave the “nasty party” speech to the 2002 conference when she was the party chair (then went on to be the Home Secretary who refused to support the rescue of drowning migrants in the Mediterranean ).  Then when Home Secretary she gave that famous speech to the Police Federation where she pointedly accused them of crying wolf in relation to police numbers (whilst allowing the number of officers to be reduced by 21,500 and armed officers by 6,000).   And then even on the day of her leadership election launch she took the opportunity to have a barbed attack on Boris Johnson’s skills of international diplomacy with reference to his bungled purchase of water cannon from Germany , and then went on to make him Foreign Secretary.

The theme running through all of the above is that Mrs May was not offering any positive vision or ideas.  She was defining herself and her politics by contrast with others and by attacking others.

This was continued upon her taking the premiership. She clearly sought to define herself against the old Etonians, then shunned her cabinet during the 2017 election campaign.

Last year I read Sir Alex Ferguson’s book on leadership.  One of the lessons from it was, never go looking for conflict as a leader.  Conflict will find you soon enough so don’t exacerbate the situation by making unnecessary enemies and distractions.

So, when we look at yesterday’s terrible conference speech, and consider what a forlorn and lonely figure Mrs May looked, we must remember that much of that loneliness is of her own doing.

We must also remember that a PM’s role is to unite the country.  She has no track record of doing that in her own party let alone the country.

This stands in marked contrast to Jeremy Corbyn.  Despite having come through the most turbulent times as leader, he was able to unite a party around a manifesto and throughout an election campaign.  That was in no small part because he has shunned the style of politics that Mrs May has made her forte.

Let me know what you think Loughborough needs!

Dear Loughborough Labour members,
Thanks for all the helpful thoughts and conversations on the priorities for Loughborough over the past few weeks. I look forward to lots more conversations as we move through the selection process for your Prospective Parliamentary Candidate.
In the meantime, I would be really grateful for your views on the priorities for Loughborough and its Labour party by completing my survey.
Thanks!
Stuart

Our attitudes towards women and equality: so far to go. Across society.

I have followed the story about Mark Sampson, the now sacked England’s women’s football coach with interest.  Apparently he had conducted himself inappropriately with female players whilst coaching at Bristol prior to gaining the England job, with the FA seemingly or allegedly turning a blind eye prior to his appointment.  This leading on from alleged racial abuse allegations that were becoming better-substantiated by the day.

This led to calls for the umpteenth time for root and branch reform of the FA.  Which it was said by some (like BBC pundit Danny Mills) could fix this.  But this overlooks one massively important fact: the culture of football is horrendously misogynistic.  This may only clearly surface via instances such as this, or the terrible Ched Evans trial, or when leading Sky commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys got caught on microphone uttering their standard offensively sexist “banter”.  However, I would reckon upon such attitudes to women being very deeply seated.

And football is not alone.  Rugby has seen its own allegations.  Some underway at the moment involve a player capped many times by Ireland.  And as a former professional rugby player (albeit for a short and remarkably unsuccessful period) I can say that attitudes towards women were not particularly healthy.

This all comes following the fall-out within our party surrounding Sarah Champion’s comments seeking to “tackle head on” alleged problems with Pakistani men raping white women.  I felt those comments were unnecessarily incendiary, and lacked the nuance required to properly take the situation forward.

What we had in the Rochdale, Rotherham and now Newcastle cases were groups of men, who were subject to a certain set of cultural dynamics who went on to commit systematised rape and sexual assault.  To reduce that to a generalised problem across the Pakistani community as if that community were not in any way influenced by either specific local dynamics affecting the men involved (many of whom were not Pakistani), or by other prevailing norms existing in Britain today, is unhelpful.

Whilst of course the order of severity in the matters Sarah Champion was addressing was far far higher, than the Sampson example, or my experience of moderate misogyny in sports, what those latter examples speak of is a prevailing status quo across many all-male groups and cultures in our country.  That is created by a complex mix of gender behaviours, roles, and stereotypes, all perpetuated or exacerbated by the media and society.  The same media and the same society that the men in Rochdale, Rotherham and Newcastle were exposed to and existed in.

Of course, specific groups should be investigated when there is cause to investigate.  But steps must be taken to address unhealthy attitudes to women and equality in whichever group or domain it arises.  Doing so would help to destroy the foundations upon which such behaviour is built.

The UNISON Supreme Court victory: a lesson on the rule of law that many need to learn

The lead Judgment of Lord Reed in the Supreme Court case that Unison had brought against the Lord Chancellor on the illegality of fees levied on claimants seeking justice in the employment tribunal was a tour de force on the rule of law.  Magna Carta gets a couple of mentions as do great architects of the common law Coke, and Blackstone.  Anyone with the slightest interest in our constitution or matters pertaining to access to justice ought to read it.

In fact, it contains principles which you would hope no right-thinking observer, participant or commentator in our public realm could dispute.  You’d be wrong.

Another article I came across last week really jarred with me.  The Economist had taken it upon themselves to report on an alleged fraud involving British tourists suing for food poisoning suffered in all-inclusive hotels: a subtly-titled piece, “Holiday Cons… “Puke for payout”, the scam making holiday firms sick”  . It cites as its evidence for this assertion the fact that such claims are up by 500%.  It provides no evidence of fraudulent claims (even though legal judgments are perhaps the best documentary trail one can imagine), but is happy to assert that “many of the “crash-for-cash” fraudsters who used to run whiplash scams have taken to falling ill on holiday, a much easier hoax to execute“.

It refuses to countenance the possibility that these may be bona fide claims.  And that the legal services market (the Economist loves markets?) has responded to the opportunity to provide these claimants with a route of recourse.  Legal services that will enable them to pursue a claim, in which evidence will be provided and tested prior to judgment or settlement being obtained.   Thus, furthering another of the Economist key tenets, and one of its few ascribed roles for the State: the Rule of Law.

Let’s be honest, the Economist’s view here is based on some elitist world view whereby anyone seeking “compo” for a personal injury or the like is demonised as fraudster/scrounger or worse.

And it was this type of world view and the coverage it propagated that led to the introduction of Employment Tribunal Fees in the first place.  Typified by the CBI, whose line is so often accepted at face-value, not least by the right wing press.  This Telegraph article from 2011 titled “Employment Tribunals are legalised extortion” , based on another flimsy evidence base is a case in point.  Thankfully, this has now been summarily debunked by the Supreme Court, let’s hope our nation’s journalists take note.