Archives For June 2013

Recommended: We found this great blog where members of the criminal bar can air their views and write a post about their experiences, feelings and predictions regarding the proposed cuts to legal aid. We definitely suggest heading over for a read from some of the voices inside the profession.
Find them at criminalbarassociation.wordpress.com

criminalbarassociation


We received this yesterday, 11th June, before the Justice Select Committee hearing, and before Lord McNally’s “hysterical” outburst on Law in Action, in an admirable interview by @joshuarozenberg.

Then this morning, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail attacks the “ashtray” voice of Michael Turner QC, and the “Biker” Lucy Scott Moncrieff whilst railing about legal aid lawyers in sharp suits on £200 per hour.

Who knows how far into the public arena this blog reaches? This post is certainly not one likely to feature in the Mail, as they do not have the wit or the guts to publish anything that offends against their slavish toadying to the likes of Grayling and his ilk.

If you sense anger in this introduction you are right. Far too much of what appears below strikes personal chords with your editor, as indeed it will with the vast majority of those practitioners who…

View original post 1,843 more words

Advertisements

In the second part of out interview with Criminal Barrister and joint secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, Mike Goold, we talk about the effects of cuts on the law profession, nasty hidden extras in the proposals and building on the anger and resistance felt by the public and the profession.

Demonstration against Legal Aid Cuts Image: The Times

Demonstration against Legal Aid Cuts Image: The Times

The legal aid cuts affect the free services for those at the bottom of the ladder. Will the changes have any effect on other areas of the law profession as a whole, for lawyers and clients?

A lot of people will lose their job. At the moment according to the MOJ’s own statistics, there’s about 1600 firms that have criminal legal aid contracts and provide criminal law services. They want to reduce that to 400. Dramatically reducing the number. 25% will have a contract. If they’re organisations that do other work from criminal law they might not go bust, but they’ll either go bust or their criminal department’s going to close.

I think a number of organisations, if they do go ahead, will end up merging, so I don’t think 1200 firms will go bust but a huge amount will. But this is what the government want. They keep saying the consultation is about rationalising or making it more economical, but what they mean is reduce the number of people employed in this area. So thousands of solicitors will lose their jobs, and if the cuts go through as they currently are, within the bar it could be even worse. It could just be the end of the criminal bar in general, because they want these big companies to bid for contracts.

The bigger risk really, and what we should raise in the public, is the effect on clients; vulnerable people and people who rely on legal services and need legal services because those people are really going to get screwed over.”

Barristers’ chambers are not like this. We are self-employed and organise ourselves in chambers. It’s a way for barristers to pool their resources, but most chambers are a few odd members, so there’s no way they can bid for these contracts. It won’t be a financially viable system, and might disappear altogether. Solicitors will want to work in-house themselves because the fees have got so bad they won’t be able to extract the barristers to do the advocacy work, so they have to do it all themselves. It could be the end of the criminal bar if these cuts go through, so it will have a huge impact on the profession.

The bigger risk really, and what we should raise in the public, is the effect on clients, vulnerable people and people who rely on legal services and need legal services because those people are really going to get screwed over.

And there’s some nasty little added extras that they’ve put in this consultation.

“So that’s a nasty little extra thing they’re putting in, which obviously stinks of a generally quite racist thing that this government is adding, in relation to immigration in their general policies.”

One thing they have put in, in relation to civil legal aid, is a residents requirement. So you’ll only be able to qualify for civil legal aid (so whatever housing representation is left or any part of civil law) you have to be lawfully resident in the country for 12 months. So if you have an overstayer or even if have been in the country legally, but you haven’t been here 12 months, you won’t qualify for legal aid. There’s been huge issues raised by some NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) recently that this could affect for example trafficking and sex workers, children of failed asylum seekers, migrants who haven’t been given the right to stay – these people will be no longer be entitled to any sort of representation. And obviously immigration is something that falls under civil law. So that’s a nasty little extra thing they’re putting in, which obviously stinks of a generally quite racist thing that this government is adding, in relation to immigration in their general policies.

And another thing, the judicial review is a means by which people can challenge the decisions of executives of the government and any executive bodies. So that can be anything from being evicted from a council house owned by the government, you, or immigration decisions, decisions to be refused asylum, these things can be challenged by judicial review. And the government have, if you’re being quite cynical about this, and I certainly am, the government have an incentive to stop people if they can, because it’s the way people challenge unjust government decisions.

MoJ says it wants to cut 75% of firms with legal aid service contracts Image: gmbnorthwest.com

MoJ says it wants to cut 75% of firms with legal aid service contracts Image: gmbnorthwest.com

What they’re proposing to do (it’s quite complicated), but in judicial review cases you have to apply for permission before you actually bring the case. So the first stage is you actually putting together the case, you take it to the court and say you want to challenge a decision. The court assesses if there’s a valid case there, and then grants you permission. But, they are changing it so anything in terms of legal aid isn’t available until permission is granted. So if permission is refused people won’t get paid for any of the work that was done up to that point in that case. If permission is granted, then you get paid for the work that you did.

“It’s quite a calculated thing the government are doing here, because like I say, this is going to stop people from being able to challenge government decisions, which is in their interest and it’s protecting themselves as well as cost saving.”

So that means it’s going to be very financially dangerous for firms to take on risky cases, because if there’s a chance that permission isn’t granted. Then they won’t get paid, that work will be for free and they might go bankrupt. It’s very hard to assess a case at the outset and say for certain whether it’s going to be successful or not. Some of the most important judicial review challenges that have been won against unjust government decision, may have, at the outset have looked like weak cases, which now won’t be able to be brought to challenge because of risk. It’s quite a calculated thing the government are doing here, because like I say, this is going to stop people from being able to challenge government decisions, which is in their interest and it’s protecting themselves as well as cost saving.

Unlike other forms of benefit cuts, it seems that from polls, the public do really want to protect legal aid and feel it is important to invest money into it, and provide legal assistance. But what can they do now to fight them? 

The cuts that came in April have happened, but obviously the other consultation to do with price competitive tendering and other cuts, they haven’t come in yet. Chris Grayling (Justice Secretary) has said he wants to take bids from organisations in, I think, Autumn of this year, with the system completely ready to roll out by Autumn of 2014. So there is still time to fight it, these recent policies aren’t in yet by any stretch.

“There’s been cutbacks to legal aid for the past 10 years, they’ve really been hacking away and there really isn’t that much left.”

In some ways the solicitors and barristers and profession in general, and particularly the professional bodies like the Law Society. the Bar Standards Board and the Bar Council have been quite crap up to this point about fighting the cuts because this isn’t new. There’s been cutbacks to legal aid for the past 10 years, they’ve really been hacking away and there really isn’t that much left.

The action so far has been pretty poor. Since the cutbacks in April there was some campaigning from NGO and some left wing areas of the profession but very little from the actual bar as a whole.

I think finally the Bar Count and the Law Society are realising how serious these most recent proposals are, and they are trying to mobilise, letters are being sent, petitions are going round and there’s been demonstrations. So the actual profession is mobilising – so that’s a good thing, and there is support from the public that needs to built on. There have been a few polls that suggest that the public feel that if these cuts go through there will be more miscarriages of justice – that’s a good sign that they are also aware. Now, we have to fight it and raise the publicity but also, I would suggest, and a lot of other practitioners thinking this too, some sort of direct action. Whether you want to call it a strike or not I don’t know. It’s not a profession used to industrial action. There’s talk of having organised “training days” which is effectively just withdrawing our labour for the day. So that sort of action I think needs to be followed through on. But there does seem to be a lot of anger and resistance in the profession now because I think they realise how severe these cuts will be.

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass
Like us on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter

Around 78% of British press is owned by a few wealthy men. The power of these men and their companies is often considered more than that of our politicians and MPs. And, while we continue to allow such influence and concentration of ownership over our media, our press can never really be that free.

The ability for our newspapers to have their own political stance has been seen by many as important to the democracy of Britain. However, when this is complicated by cross-paper and cross-media ownership this viewpoint becomes muddied. What are the costs of this influence and how does it translate into a new currency of power in politics?

Title ownership of 3 of the biggest moguls.

Title ownership of 3 of the biggest moguls in Britain.

One of the clearest examples of this happened when the perhaps the most prolific of media moguls, Rupert Murdoch, bypassed a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to take over The Times and The Sunday Times in the early eighties. He already owned The Sun and The News Of The World. In an apparent back-scratching deal with the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Murdoch was able to control more of the British Press in exchange for favourable coverage and leniency to the Tory policies within the pages of his new purchases. Former editor of The Sunday Times, Harold Evans commented:

“A newspaper merger unprecedented in history went through in three days.”

So what prompts politicians to go through with such exchanges?

Good press and reach. It seems being portrayed well is just as important, if not more than being right, good, electable and strong.

Rupert Murdoch, for example, has the ability to push a political stance across several media platforms including TV, print, online through some of the most popular channels in Britain, with an ability to reach millions everyday, in our homes, on our way to work, on our mobiles. Repeated bashing of an opposition, for all things from their spelling to their appearance and (sometimes) their politics will eventually grind on the audience’s ideas. Particularly when coupled with an obvious general lathering of support for the party they are immediately in bed with.

Rupert Murdoch Image: The Guardian

Rupert Murdoch Image: The Guardian

Further, moguls like Murdoch have the ability to cover losses and damage to its own profits and publications. Take for example, the closing of the News Of The World after 168 years. Rightly so most would believe, in the light of a phone hacking scandal that saw so-called journalists hacking the devices of celebrities and members of the public who had been part of large-scale stories including the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

However, the gap left in News International profits was filled but months later by The Sun on Sunday. Same owner, same company, a lot of the same staff, which leaves the thought, did Murdoch really pay for the mistakes of the infamous NOTW’s culture, or did The Sun on Sunday actually give him the chance to reinvent and package the same thing without any real damage?

This is why we need more plurality in our media ownership. Use and abuse of wealth, politics and public influence has clearly happened so far without it, in a press that is dictated by a few men, their greed and a government minister’s want to please them.

And it is the effects of this media on us as the public that is most threatening. Trust is put into these publications and forms of information, and their leniency in showing and hiding things that flow with their own agendas can be most damaging to our decisions, opinions and thoughts, as this passage from opendemocracy.net explains:

“At the moment a combination of market-driven and public service institutions provides us with the information on which we base our public decision-making. The collective record of these institutions has in recent times been wholly inadequate. We have been profoundly misinformed about the stability of the financial system and the political economy it underwrites, about the threat posed by dictators in faraway countries, about the nature and significance of international terrorism, and about the role our countries play in the wider world.

Again and again our common sense, the shared stock of descriptions and assumptions offered by the major media, has turned out to be a kind of daydream. Sometimes leaks of official information disabuse us. More often reality collides with our carefully fostered illusions.” 

The Leveson Inquiry has been a huge eye-opener to the practices of some media. But it’s clear that there needs to be strong reform to prevent the smokescreen that hid the acts of so many journalists (if you can call them that), authorities and public authority figures.

We recently found out about the Media Reform Coalition, who are holding a rally on 17th June to take back OUR media, and instill a trust between the public and journalism to perform the job of holding the governments and authoritites to account, to act in the interest of the public and inform the public instead of massage the deals of wealthy men and politicians.

Find out more about the Media Reform Organisation here.

Our Media Not Theirs - mediareform.org.uk

Our Media Not Theirs – mediareform.org.uk

 

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass
Like us on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

On 4th June, the consultation on new reforms to legal aid ended. The last few weeks have seen hundreds of barristers, lawyers and firms condemn the proposed changes, in a bid to stop “catastrophic“, elitist, and “unjust” cuts to legal aid. Despite strong feelings from the Bar and the public to protect this vital service, it is difficult to understand exactly what is happening to our justice system. So, to get an insight, we caught up with Criminal Barrister and joint secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, Mike Goold, to find out in detail, what we stand to lose.

In the first part of the interview, we find out what is happening right now in legislation, how changes will affect fairness of trial, and also discuss the Justice Secretary’s elitist attitude to the reforms.

Scales of Justice. Image: The Telegraph

Scales of Justice. Image: The Telegraph

Talk us through what is happening in terms of legal aid cuts right now. How will and how are they affecting people? 

There’s [been] a consultation proposed by the government, which they launched a week or so into April and which [closed] on Tuesday [4th June]. They’re proposing quite substantial cuts to criminal legal aid in particular, but also civil legal aid – immigration, housing law and criminal law, those sorts of areas.

“Withdrawing legal assistance that hits some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.”

This comes off the back of already very substantial cuts that were introduced in April. There was an act that came in called the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act which was passed in 2012, but provisions came into force in April, which took a lot of areas of civil law out of legal aid altogether.

This covers housing law and things like social welfare law, so advice and representation in relation to people making claims for benefits and appealing against refusals of benefits.

The cuts that came in April very much focus on civil law, but are very nasty, because people that tend to rely on or require that kind of legal advice are some of the most vulnerable people – people who are facing eviction, people who are being mistreated by their landlords and in relation to social welfare – people who are on benefits, disabled people, people maybe who have been wrongly refused benefits. So withdrawing legal assistance that hits some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.

So this already came in, in April, at a time when the government is looking to make cutbacks in public spending [with] the bedroom tax, housing benefit cap and such. So coming in at a time when people are increasingly needing support in housing areas and benefits. There’s quite a big incentive at the moment for examiners and people making decisions over benefits to refuse people benefits for cost saving. So there’ll be a lot of people being refused benefits who’ll be needing assistance and now can’t get it.

So all that came in April and about a week after these cuts came in, they released a further consultation. This time, mainly focusing on cuts to criminal law, but there are some nasty things for civil law as well.

Socialist Lawyer is a journal run by Haldane. Image: haldane.org

Socialist Lawyer is a journal run by Haldane. Image: haldane.org

One of the main things they’re doing is introducing price competitive tendering. So effectively, they want organisations to bid to have a contract. You have to have a contract to do legal aid law, but at the moment there’s no limit on the amount of organisations that can get contracts. What they’re proposing in criminal law, is reducing the amount of contracts to a much, much, much smaller level than it is now. In geographical areas, they’ll enforce companies to bid and basically offer to do the work at the lowest price. They’re saying that they will only accept bids 17.5% lower than the current rate. So that’s the maximum you’re allowed to bid. So there’ll be at least a 17.5% cut in legal aid rates.

“It’s going to be a race to the bottom for the quality of the legal aid that’s going to be provided.”

And they sort of sell this by saying that all this money goes to fat cat lawyers anyway, but in reality, legal aid solicitors, junior barristers and solicitors that work in criminal legal aid are pretty poorly paid already, and it’s going to get much worse.

But the main issue isn’t whether the lawyers will survive, it’s what happens to the clients. Because they’re asking companies to bid for the lowest cost. It’s going to be a race to the bottom for the quality of the legal aid that’s going to be provided. And what the government want is for big companies to come in and do it by economies of scale. So there’s already talk about organisations such as G4S, Tesco and Co-op and even Eddie Stobart. In fact Eddie Stobart has already set up a company called Stobart Law – they’re clearly going to be one of the organisations bidding. So organisations with no specialist knowledge are going to try and churn out this work at the lowest cost and it’s really going to affect the quality of the service people get.

The people representing civil cases will be chosen by a government agency. How will that affect the fairness of the trial and how important is it for a client to choose their own lawyer?

It’s extremely important for a number of reasons. At the moment when someone gets arrested and they go to the police station, they can request a solicitor to attend, and may already have dealings with a solicitor they want. They can pick their own solicitor, and that’s very important because it means solicitors, firms and lawyers at the moment are competing essentially by quality. So the better firms are, the more likely they are to get clients because they’re better at the work they do. What’s going to be introduced now is after they have a much smaller amount of organisations with contracts, there’s going to be no client choice. Effectively, there’ll be a rota. If there’s eight companies offering legal services in a geographical area, the first client that goes into a police station gets organisation number one. The next will get organisation number two. So there’s no client choice.

 “It’s going to stop firms from being able to specialise and therefore stop clients from being able to get that specialist support…and if you get an Eddie Stobart pop-up lawyer who just cares about getting the case out the way very quickly, there’s nothing you can do to challenge that.”

That’s a trap for the client for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s going to be very, very difficult for any organisation to offer specialist legal support. At the moment there are organisations that are known for doing say, human rights work, or protest work in criminal law. A lot of students who got arrested after the student demonstrations went to particular firms because they knew they were good at doing protest law and that kind of political law. But you won’t be able to do that anymore because you’ll get whatever one that happens to be on the rota. So it’s going to stop firms from being able to specialise and therefore stop clients from being able to get that specialist support. So taking away any idea of client choice, and if you get an Eddie Stobart pop-up lawyer who just cares about getting the case out the way very quickly, there’s nothing you can do to challenge that.

Haulage Firm Eddie Stobart is likely to bid for legal aid contracts. Image: The Guardian

Haulage Firm Eddie Stobart is likely to bid for legal aid contracts Image: The Guardian

Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, justified these changes by saying, “I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills. We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts are often from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds”. What is Grayling saying here? And what does this mean about the attitude of the government towards these cuts?

It’s an astounding quote from him. People in the profession thought that [quote] showed such disregard, and such arrogance, and instead of trying to do better for the people using the legal system, what he’s saying is this incredibly elitist position that the average criminal is too stupid to know whether he’s got a good lawyer or not. If it was true even, it would not still not justify giving them a cut, because if someone was particularly disadvantaged that wouldn’t justify giving them a terrible lawyer. But of course, it isn’t true.

Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling. Image: johnnyvoid.wordpress.com

Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling. Image: johnnyvoid.wordpress.com

That’s one of the annoying things, they claim they’re introducing these changes to introduce competition into the market, but there’s already competition because solicitor’s firms compete on quality. Clients do know whether they’ve had a good lawyer or not before, and they’ll go back to that lawyer or firm because they’ve had good quality representation. So it’s completely wrong to say that clients aren’t aware of what a good lawyer is, and I’d say even if it was true, it’s unjust and wouldn’t justify what they’re trying to do in any event.

What you’re saying about fairness of trial, there’s two big issues there. Firstly, the quality of the representation is going to go down, which is obviously going to have an impact on fairness of trial and whether people get good quality representation. I think we can predict there’s going to to be a huge increase in miscarriages of justice just because there’s going to to be such an incentive for the organisations providing legal service to get through cases quickly.

There’s going to be a big incentive, therefore, to get clients to plead guilty, because it means you can get the case out the way much quicker. So I think clients will be pushed to plead guilty when they’re not. And also, even if they do go to trial, if things are being rushed over, there’s not going to be anywhere near enough time for the lawyers to analyse the case and go into detail and pick up things they might otherwise not in the papers. Some of the biggest miscarriages of justice in history are either evidence that wasn’t given by a prosecution or things that just weren’t picked up, small things that didn’t seem important and analysed, and we’ll see a huge increase in that.

But the other main reason it will effect sentencing of trial over the quality of representation is, in theory, especially if organisations like G4S get involved, there’s going to be a huge conflict of interest. I don’t think it’s been confirmed that G4S are bidding for contracts yet, but it’s very, very, likely. G4S currently run some of the prisons and transport clients between prisons and courts, and already have a very involved role in the justice system, and the punishment point. If they’re also going to be representing people as lawyers, then that’s a huge conflict of interest, because you’ve got someone representing a client, from a company that also has a financial interest in them being sent to jail because they’re running the prisons.

KS
Catch the second part of the interview on Thursday.
Like us on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter

1) Ed Miliband makes a controversial speech on social security spending.

On Thursday 6th June, Labour leader Ed Miliband gave a speech on his party’s new plans for social security spending in the UK. In a U-turn on previous policy, Ed Miliband said that he would not reverse the removal of child benefits from homes earning over £50,000 and also showed support to some of the benefit caps.

The changes brought attacks from Prime Minister David Cameron who branded the Labour leader ‘weak’ and ‘confused’ on his benefits policies.

Other reforms in the speech included aims to ‘start investing in homes again, not paying for failure‘, and a limit on the length of time those well enough to work can remain unemployed:

‘For every young man and woman who has been out of work for more than a year, we would say to every business in the country, we will pay the wages for 25 hours a week, on at least the minimum wage.

Fully funded by a tax on bankers’ bonuses.’

For those over 25, this would be imposed after two years of unemployment.

The speech has had a mixed reaction from both supporters and opposition, with some agreeing that certain cuts on welfare need to be made and some feeling the Labour leader has played into providing the ‘tough’ stance on benefits and welfare, instead of defending it.

Read The Full Speech Here.

Ed Miliband Image: bbc.co.uk

Ed Miliband Image: bbc.co.uk

2) ‘Legal revolt’ against cuts to legal aid

Leading barristers and lawyers submitted strong concerns over the proposals for legal aid cuts that aim to see savings of £220m. 4th June stood as the deadline for consultations on the “Transforming Legal Aid” policies, and proposals have been met with severe condemnation from those inside the Bar.

The policies would see huge changes including competitive tendering from contractors who must bid at least 17.5% lower than the current standard rate. The opportunity has seen interest from companies such as supermarket giant Tesco, and haulage and logistics company Eddie Stobart. Lawyers fear the new system will drive down the quality of service in the justice system, as well as see many public law firms close under financial pressure.

Some took to the streets outside the Ministry of Justice to protest on 4th June.

Due to strong opposition to the reforms, the Justice Select Committee will hold an inquiry beginning on 11th June.

Read More About This Story Here.

Legal Aid Cuts Protest Last Month Image: The Guardian

Legal Aid Cuts Protest Last Month Image: The Guardian

3) New report predicts Britain will face a “colossal” bill for child poverty by the end of the decade

The Child Poverty Action Group, who commissioned the report, said that 1 in 4 children (around 3.4m) in Britain will live in relative poverty by 2020, costing the country £35bn.

The report claims that reductions in public spending now will force bigger costs in the future, as more and more families and children face destitution in the wake of cuts.

Alison Garnham from the Child Poverty Action Group branded the cuts a ‘false economy’ and fears the spending review at the end of this month will bring yet more poverty to the country’s children. Instead, Garnham says the review should be seen as “an opportunity to change course and prioritise families with children once again.”

The DWP have enforced their commitment to ending child poverty despite missing their target to halve it in 2010, and admitted there were “far too many children being left behind.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that child poverty rates will rise 6% between 2010/11 – 2020/2021, undoing the reductions made under the Labour government in 2000/1-2010/11.

Read More About This Story Here.

Image: channel4learning.com

Image: channel4learning.com

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

Like us on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter

Thanks to @Sunny_Hundal for highlighting this – “Two Charts Relevant To [yesterday’s] speech”, where Ed Miliband said that he would cap social spending and, in a U-turn, said that he would not reverse some of the measures and cuts David Cameron has enforced, including removing child benefits payments to those earning over £50,000.

BMFOB2hCIAE_8-9.jpg-large

BMFN2aNCcAEmE58.jpg-large

It seems Ed Miliband is also playing into some of the rhetoric of the coalition government, saying “We don’t want worklessness passed down from generation to generation.” For the last time politicians, it isn’t. And there’s proof here.

Not a step in the right direction we fear, Ed.

My granny is 91. She was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire and knew my grandad from the age of 4. When they were 13, he said he’d marry her one day. He joined the army and worked his way up to Sergeant Major. She stayed in Wakefield where she worked from being 14. When they eventually did get married, my granny went everywhere he was posted during his time. In her long life she’s lived in Germany, Edinburgh and Ireland, as well as various army bases around England. She now lives in Wakefield again and has done since the death of my grandad in 1976.

Antonia and her nan, Irene

Antonia and her nan, Irene

When she was 14 she got her first job, she says she worked “in every mill in Wakefield and more.” She even worked in a factory during the war packing gunpowder, where she got blown off her chair (don’t worry, she can laugh about it now). I spoke to her yesterday and she told me she’d ‘never not worked’ and at one point, even worked from 5am to 11pm, 6 days a week. In all the places she’s lived, she’s worked; ushering at theatres, working behind bars as a waitress, working in mills. She was never content with doing nothing all day, and still isn’t. At 91, she’s still active and rides an exercise bike almost every day.

My granny’s houses have varied. She’s lived in massive houses with more rooms than she could fill during her time as an army wife, and moved to a 3 bedroom semi-detached council house after grandad retired. She loved that house, but as she got older, the bills got bigger and rooms were becoming unused. She moved 6 years ago to a small council flat round the corner, to save herself some money and generally downsize.

The flat she lives in has a small front room, separate kitchen, small bathroom, and a bedroom with a spare room. Every month she gets £404 in Pension & £500 in Army Pension, giving her a total of £904 in the bank. She pays out £390 in rent, a maximum of £280 in bills, leaving her with £234 to live on.

£58.50 a week.

That’s before new glasses when she’s accidentally sat on them for the 5th time this year, and before new teeth (same reason), but most importantly that’s before food & clothing. She had some savings but she bought a new washing machine 3 years ago, and has been dipping in to it to pay bills every month. She has about £1000 left. Some weeks she can’t afford to go shopping more than once. Not to mention the fact she has 12 grandchildren, all of which have birthdays, and there’s Christmas, and her coffee mornings (which she never goes to any more).

All this maths doesn’t quite add up to £58.50 a week, every week. Her pensions come in at different times, sometimes her bills are less, sometimes they are more. Sometimes she can treat herself to Marks and Spencers cheese, sometimes she can’t. Either way, she’s worrying constantly about how much money she hasn’t got.

Image: money.aol.com

Image: money.aol.com

I read her the article ‘Iain Duncan Smith urges wealthy elderly to ‘hand back’ benefits.’ She said she agrees with helping people on a low wage, but why take it off the people that have worked hard all their lives? She branded it a ‘stupid idea’ and said a few swear words. Luckily she is unaffected by the bedroom tax, as she’s too old. She’s also lucky enough to get two pensions. If she didn’t have the army pension, she probably wouldn’t be around to swear when I tell her about Iain Duncan Smith and his grand ideas, because she’d be living off -£266 a month. Although she’d probably get housing benefit, which she isn’t entitled to at the moment, but it would still leave her at a pretty low figure.

“Hand it back? If I had more than a tenner left I might stand a chance.” she says. The really sad thing is, she’s right, she doesn’t stand a chance.

AL

Like us on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter

Take a drug addict who sells her body, a cagefighter, a shoplifter, an unemployed father of 7, a troubled child with a few school exclusions under his belt, some teenage pregnancy and a good dose of patronising narration, and you have the making of a new Big Fat Gypsy-esque assault on the welfare rhetoric, courtesy of Channel 4.

Image: The Telegraph

Image: The Telegraph

The channel has, in the past, been known and revered for it’s documentaries, often pressing deep into sensitive areas, many of which the BBC has shied away from. ‘Skint’ is something rather different however.

With a continued rise in unemployment in the UK,  more and more people are facing the difficulties of finding work and living off benefits, or taking pay cuts, short term employment or working fewer hours. And while the labour market struggles to provide jobs for many work hungry and indeed, hungry, Brittons, Channel 4 presents us with the documentary series ‘Skint’.

A programme that perhaps many had hoped would see the independent broadcaster reveal the plight of the thousands struggling to make ends meet, looking into the real social and political problems stifling the jobs market in the UK and its effect on communities. Instead, the show demonises and pretty much ridicules the unemployed, and the welfare system itself.

The characters followed on the programme have been hand-picked to fit the tabloid press description of ‘scroungers.’ Let’s take a look at just one of the stories.

Dean and Claire are parents and step-parents to 7 children between them. Dean had a job at the steelworks, but now the family survive off benefits, or the ‘social’ as the narrator likes to casually call it, as if Dean and his giro are old pals.

While hinting at the effect of the redundancies from the local steelworks, at no point does it delve deeper into the reasons why there is unemployment in North Lancashire. Over 20,000 people lost their jobs from that one industry in the local area. But Channel 4 skims over the real causes and issues, in order to provide light entertainment from the poverty of others.

It might be titillating to viewers to watch the people on Skint like they would animals in a zoo, but for those who are between jobs and are actively seeking work, being grouped in with the characters on the programme might feel like being kicked when they’re down. The programme has foundations in an ‘us and them’ mentality, ‘us’ being ‘hard-working’ members of society, and ‘them’ being benefit claimants. And many took to Twitter to echo that:

Some Twitter comments following the show.

Some Twitter comments following the show.

And this family is like ‘many other families round here’ apparently. Cue the children telling the camera they know families with 7 kids, 8 kids, 5 kids. We are left to assume that they don’t work either. But we don’t know that. The idea that there is a culture of families having lots of children on benefits is another tabloid favorite. In truth, there are around 3,200 families with 7 children in the UK, claiming ANY sort of out-of-work benefit, just over 1000 with 8 children, and around 30 families with 11 kids:

Families by number of dependent children receiving any type of out-of-work benefit Image: The Guardian

Families by number of dependent children receiving any type of out-of-work benefit Image: The Guardian

The voiceover is often nothing less than patronising and shows the flippancy with which the programme’s creators are approaching the problem of poverty and unemployment in Britain. “Not everyone’s on the dole here…but most are” says the sneering narrator. Yet, according to figures released by ONS, only 5.9% of the population of Scunthorpe claim the dole. But perhaps that was too much of a non-patronising mouthful.

Tom Sutcliffe from The Independent picked up on the lack of depth to the programme:

“Skint doesn’t actively mock Dean. It doesn’t make him jump through hoops in some reality format or snigger at his lifestyle in an obvious way. But it does enjoy him and leaves you wondering whether that enjoyment is entirely seemly.”

And it’s true, the programme doesn’t actively mock the people on Westcliffe Estate, but it’s faux compassion towards their struggle is just as undermining.

There are some moments where the locals begin to talk about their situation. One young man began saying “I’d rather work hard and get a decent wage at the end of the week, but there just isn’t any work about”, but rather than focusing on why this may be, the editors prefer to cut to shots of kids riding motorbikes and drinking Special Brew.

The Twitter reaction was mixed, some slamming C4 for their ‘poor bashing propaganda’, and labelling ‘Skint’ as ‘sensationalist voyeurism’. In the backlash against the anti-welfare tweets some posted the TUC’s statistics vs misconceptions poll results:

TUC myths about welfare. Image: falseeconomy.org.uk

TUC myths about welfare. Image: falseeconomy.org.uk

Screen shot 2013-06-04 at 21.54.29[1]

The programme’s steeped in distaste and is unsuccessful in shedding light on the reality of people on benefits. The summary of the programme declares it shows ‘the real impact of worklessness – both today and over generations’. A JRF report has already de-bunked this idea of worklessness culture, and called on politicians to stop using this false idea. However, it seems the creators of this C4 documentary were looking for it whether it was there or not. And a few edits can stop us from thinking otherwise.

‘Skint gets behind the headlines’of ‘people, often maligned for their lifestyle’ the Channel 4’s synopsis says. And it does. It helps to prop those headlines up.

 

Like us on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter

Over half a million Britton’s are now having to turn to food banks in order to keep their families fed, a joint report by Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam has claimed.

Food Banks are used by round half a million Brittons. Image: Channel 4

Food Banks are used by around half a million Brittons. Image: Channel 4

Trussell Trust, the biggest charity in the food services field, has reported a 465 per cent increase in people using their banks over the last two financial years – with 346,992 people relying on emergency food supplies provided by the charity

To put these numbers in to context, in the financial year between 2005-2006 just 2,614 people received emergency food supplies from the Trussell Trust.

Of course, since 2006 we have seen the UK enter a double dip recession, which for many would go halfway to explaining the astronomical increase in the number of people needing to use food banks. The report however, seems to point the finger at another culprit: the inefficiency of the UK’s welfare system.

Although the number of people using food banks has been increasing year on year since the recession – with 25,899 people needing help from 2008-2009 and 61,468 people using the banks between 2010 and 2011 – the figures for the last two years don’t tie in with the rate of growth (around 50 per cent a year) seen previously.

The reason for this, according to figures provided by Trussell Trust, is because 50 per cent of people who use the food banks now do so because their benefits have either been stopped, cut or paid late.

People who use the food banks have to be issued with a voucher by a professional such as a doctor, social worker or Job Centre advisor in order to be eligible to receive help. The voucher has to indicate what caused the emergency, whether it’s debt or low income or something else, which is how Trussell Trust have managed to collate this alarming information.

According to the report titled ‘Walking the Breadline’, for the first time, changes to the benefit system are now more likely to be cited as the reason for the emergency food voucher being issued than “low income”.

The issues people are encountering with the welfare system range form the below-inflation rises in benefit payments, to the new Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctions and also the controversial reassessments that are happening to gage claimants entitlement to incapacity benefits , which last week saw double transplant patient Linda Wootton, die just 9 days after being assessed as ‘fit to work’ by private assessment firm ATOS.

The report is also highly critical of mistakes and delays to benefits payments, which can mean that people don’t have any money coming in for more than two weeks at a time, leading to “food uncertainty” amongst many british families.

The Trussell Trust Food Bank have seen a huge increase in demand.

The Trussell Trust Food Bank have seen a huge increase in demand.

The increase in use of food banks has been widely condemned in the media, with former World Health Organisation adviser and University Professor Tim Lang saying that there “ought to be a very big political debate about food banks”. He went on to say: “It should be a sign of shame that the sixth-richest economy on the planet has people who are essentially retreating to a Dickensian world. It’s shocking how quickly it’s been normalised.”

However, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has said he is proud that the government agreed that Job Centre staff could refer people to food banks. Speaking to the BBC he said: “Under the last government, Job Centre staff were not allowed to talk about it. My concern is that the individual who is in front of Job Centre staff can get access to everything they need to.”

This attitude, however, doesn’t tackle the real issue.

Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne hit the nail on the head when he stated: “Instead of sending people to jobs, our job centres are sending people to food banks.

“Yet instead of offering extra help, this Tory-led government is cutting taxes for millionaires. That tells you everything you need to know about this government’s values.”

With more changes to the welfare system happening over the next few months the government needs to seriously consider how they are going to support the most vulnerable families.

Image: backbencher.co.uk

Image: backbencher.co.uk

The Department for Work and Pensions has said that their welfare reforms will “improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities, with the universal credit simplifying the complex myriad of benefits and making three million households better off.”

However, the report warns that because universal credit will normally be paid monthly instead of fortnightly, it could mean that the experience of people running out of money before the end of the month will become “much more widespread”.

If the the amount of people needing to use food banks increases even at the previous trend of around 50 per cent each year, it could mean that next year nearly 750,000 people will need access to emergent food supplies, and if it increases at the rate it did this year then we could potentially see numbers as high as 8 million people needing to use food banks.

Now that is certainly something that needs thinking about.

CGA

Like us on Facebook / Follow us on Twitter
Tower Hamlets Protest Begins to Gather

Tower Hamlets Protest Begins to Gather

With lower numbers than expected due to a protest in Woolwich, locals from around the Tower Hamlets area gathered outside the Housing Association to make a stand against welfare reforms last Saturday. Despite the smaller turnout, the day united communities around the country to make a stand.

We spoke to some of the people there. Here’s what they said:

“This is the place from which people are told that there’s nowhere in Tower Hamlets that you can be re-housed and actually you’re going to have to go to Northampton or Luton or wherever. And that is happening everyday, and that’s partly why we chose to come here. Because of the bedroom tax and council housing tax, a lot of people are being evicted. We are all fighting benefit cuts and we all need to stand together and that’s why we’re all standing here today.”

Eileen, Tower Hamlets Benefit Justice Organiser

“I have a spare bedroom. A small, spare bedroom. I’ve lived where I’ve lived for 30 years. Because of ill health, I can’t move. There’s nowhere in my housing co-op with one bedroom. I’m here because it’s criminal what the government are doing. It’s a huge swathe on honorable, hardworking people.

“We need to get the message out to the people that they are not alone, and get them on the streets. The Tories will realise that though we are not well-off, or are ill or disabled, we are a force to be reckoned with.

“A good judgement of society is how it treats it’s weak.”

              Elsbeth, Protestor

“I’m not affected by it personally, because I’m a pensioner. But I think the big problem is that there aren’t any places for people to move to. If they’ve got an extra bedroom there’s no housing available in Tower Hamlets. We’ve got thousands of people on the waiting list.

“A woman just stopped who has two sons. She’d been waiting 8 years for a two bedroom place. It just doesn’t work because there are queues of people waiting for smaller places. They haven’t really thought it through. They don’t know the impact it’s going to have on people.

“Same with the NHS. I’m involved with trying to stop what they’re doing to the NHS as well. It all kind of fits together, like, ‘If you can get it through and people don’t realise what you’re doing to them, just get on and do it.’ The [government] don’t have any morals it seems to me. Fortunately, I’m not affected by it myself, but I can see lots of people suffering badly because of it.

“And who’s the money going to? The thing is the rents are too high – that’s the problem. If we can get the rents controlled and lowered, they wouldn’t be such a drain on the benefits. Because housing benefit pays very rich landlords a lot of money. So that’s the basic fault with it. What we need is more housing and controlled rents, and that would solve the problem. Not picking on individuals.”

                                                                         Myra, 80, Protestor

“I have been out campaigning for the last three years because we have a dangerous, sociopathic group of people in charge of government.

“We need to let the people speak, but they won’t until there are massive numbers of deaths, which will happen because they are also decimating our 999 services.”

                                                                                                       Gabriel, Protestor

“I’ve been affected by the bedroom tax, and I will be affected by the benefit cuts. And we’ve got the council tax. So it’s going to be three – the bedroom tax, the benefit cut and the council tax.

“I can’t afford to pay it. I’m not in a position to take in a lodger. They suggested people take in a lodger. It’s not really going to solve the problem, because if you have a lodger, you’re still going to have your benefit cut anyway. There was a time when you had a network or a community. The networks now are not necessarily that safe to say I’m going to take Tom, Dick or Harry or Lucy or Jane in, because you have to think about who you’re sharing your house with.

“It’s easier to attack the weaker ones rather than the stronger ones. They need to build more housing, and not luxury flats. They need to assume that everybody who is on these benefits is NOT a lazy sit around. A lot of people are becoming unemployed and they can’t live on fresh air.

“And it doesn’t matter who you are, wherever you’re working. If you’ve worked, and you’ve paid your tax, you’re entitled to have some relief if and when you‘re not well, that’s why it was there wasn’t it?

“And when I’m saying the benefit, that goes down to the NHS and the Fire Brigade and whatever. And they’d all be willing for us to burn in our extra bedroom. That’s what they’re trying to do if you don’t move out. But where can we go?”

 Margaret, Petitioner

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass