Mother of soldier killed in Iraq loses legal aid after taking low-paid job

The story of Beverley Clarke, who is pursuing a case against the Ministry of Defence after her 19-year-old son David was killed by friendly fire, is yet another example of how this Conservative government is punishing working people.

19-year-old Trooper David Clarke, killed in Iraq
19-year-old Trooper David Clarke, killed in Iraq

The main criticism levelled at George Osborne’s cuts to tax credits is that they punish people in work. The Labour Party have labelled them the ‘work penalty’ as they hit working families for doing, as shadow chancellor John McDonnell said yesterday, “everything asked of them, going to work, raising their children.”

Beverley Clarke’s plight is further proof that the Tories aren’t on the side of the people they claim to represent.

The Observer reported on Sunday that the previously unemployed Mother’s case is in jeopardy because she lost her legal aid after she took on a shop job. What makes this all the more tragically ironic is that she took the low-paid job to comply with welfare laws that oblige benefits claimants to look for work.

As Jamie Doward’s article explains:

“Under the previous system, Clarke could have obtained a specialist form of insurance to protect her if she lost the case and had to pay the MoD’s legal bill. But the market for this type of insurance has dried up and drastic cuts to legal aid mean she no longer qualifies for funding, even though the job she has taken pays a low wage.”

The removal of legal aid puts this landmark case at risk. On her crowdfunding page, Clarke says that she and her legal team are attempting to use the case to create a legal obligation for the armed forces to adequately train all recruits before combat and to be accountable to the victims and families when training has not been good enough.

Clearly this is a potentially groundbreaking case which carries huge significance for  families of those in the armed forces who sacrifice their lives to protect our country.

Yet, again we are seeing the very people that this government wants to be seen to be on the side of, finding themselves the victims of its cruel cuts agenda.

Just as its welfare cuts punish the poorest in society, so too are its legal aid cuts making our once cherished justice system become, as Clarke’s lawyer John Hendy QC accurately puts it, the domain of only “corporations and the very rich”.

I wish Beverley well with her fundraising efforts but it’s frankly unacceptable that she should have to resort to such desperate measures just because she has a low-paid job. So much for the party of working people.

Visit Beverley’s crowdfunding page

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Government sees sense and abandons its justice fines privatisation

There was very welcome news this morning that the Ministry of Justice no longer intends to privatise the collection and enforcement of criminal court fines.

This comes after a hard fought campaign over the last five years to stop the plans led by my union PCS.

Tensions over the privatisation plans had intensified over recent months due to the introduction of the criminal courts charge. The mandatory fine has led to resignations by Magistrates and a vote in the House of Lords opposing the controversial charge which was introduced under Chris Grayling.

Last month Francis Crook the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform wrote to the only remaining bidder, Concentrix, urging them to withdraw from the process.

Further concerns had been raised over the suitability of Concentrix after it had failed to deliver on a contract tackling fraud on behalf of HMRC.

Just before summer recess 27 MPs, including new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, signed a motion opposing the privatisation.

This isn’t the first welcome U-turn to take place in the MoJ this week. On Tuesday the Saudi Arabian prison contract was abandoned and there is speculation in today’s Independent that Michael Gove is considering withdrawing the criminal courts charge.

There is still a long way to go in clearing up the mess Grayling left of but this latest news is definitely a step in the right direction.

Those of you that regularly read my blog (an exclusive bunch) will know that I’ve covered this issue regularly.

Having met with PCS members who work in fines offices I know how stressful the last few years have been. It is a pity it took so long for the government to come to the right decision. A great deal of stress, not to mention taxpayers’ expense, could have been avoided.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said today:

“Finally, our years of campaigning have produced the result we fought for. We are delighted for our members who will remain civil servants and have the opportunity to continue to prove how well they do this work, including their success in collecting £550 million in fines and other financial impositions in the last year, though it should not have taken so long for their voices to be heard.”

He may have won this battle but Osborne’s fiscal charter is putting politics before basic economics

So a majority of MPs have voted for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter. This would mean that from 2020 any government would be legally bound to run a budget surplus ie. collect more in revenue than it spends.

It’s nice for Osborne that he had enough supporters on his own side of the House to back him up on his plan. It also helped him that roughly 20 Labour MPs are so caught up in their own political machinations that they abstained from voting against a ludicrous policy that could spell disaster for the British public.

Caroline Lucas summed it up pretty well for me when during the debate she said, “This might be clever politics, but it is staggeringly bad economics.”

The ideology of running a budget surplus derives from the notion that borrowing is bad. It ignores the fact that actually borrowing can be a very positive thing. Especially if you use it to invest in jobs, support vital public services like health and education and badly needed infrastructure, manufacturing and renewable energy investments. Rather than saddling the economy with more debt, if used in the right way it it can be used to grow the economy.

Take for example, borrowing to invest in our tax system. As the shadow chancellor John McDonnell rightly pointed out, this government has cut almost 20,000 HMRC staff since 2010. Perhaps they would have been better off, in fact we’d have all been better off, had they kept on those staff and actually invested in more tax professionals. After all, each so-called tax collector brings in on average over £900,000 in revenue each year – and that’s after staff costs.

But no, this is a Chancellor happier trading off political trickery than he is putting forward any credible economic plan.

It’s telling that outside of the comfort zone of his own party’s green benches that no one supports his fiscal charter. It doesn’t have the backing of the CBI, the Bank of England or any credible economists. In fact eminent economists have warned that a government inflexibly running surpluses will mean households, businesses and consumers will have to borrow more and that it runs the risk of a personal debt crisis to rival that of 2008.

We can’t expect Osborne to alter his damaging chicanery any time soon. We can only urge those politicians in possession of a basic grasp of economics, not to mention of conscience, to put aside their political differences and oppose such a discredited policy.

Austerity: More than just a word

The new Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell had promised to be dull today and come across as boring as a local bank manager. Well I’m afraid his impassioned speech was anything but dull, but then I’m sure he can live with that.

At the heart of his speech and indeed the campaign he led to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as leader over the summer, was the message that austerity isn’t a necessity.

We’ve been presented with austerity as if there is no alternative, that to argue against it somehow means that we’re burying our head in the sand.

For so long we’ve been indoctrinated by the Tory spin that austerity is the only way forward. It’s been in the Conservatives’ interests for us not to question this, which is why we’ve seen so many personal attacks aimed at John, Jeremy and others on their team. They know that the more the focus is on the new Opposition’s policy rather than the personalities, the more people will begin to question the inevitability of austerity.

McDonnell’s starting point for today was to examine what austerity actually means. It was a powerful way of presenting the argument for another way forward. I thought it was well worth copying here for those that missed it:

“At the heart of Jeremy’s campaign, upon which he received such a huge mandate, was the rejection of austerity politics. But austerity is just a word almost meaningless to many people. What does it actually mean? Well, for Michael O’Sullivan austerity was more than a word. Michael suffered from severe mental illness. He was certified by his GP as unable to work but despite the evidence submitted by 3 doctors, he was assessed by the company given the contract for the work capability assessment as fit for work. Michael killed himself after his benefits were removed. The coroner concluded his death was a direct result of the decision in his case.

I don’t believe Michael’s case stands alone. I am grateful to Michael’s family for allowing me to mention him today. I send them, I am sure on behalf of all us here, our heartfelt sympathy and condolences. But also I want them to know that this party, when we return to Government, will end this brutal treatment of disabled people.

Austerity is also not just a word for the 100,000 children in homeless families who tonight will be going to bed not in a home of their own but in a bed and breakfast or temporary accommodation. On behalf of this party I give those children my solemn promise that when we return to government we will build you all a decent and secure home in which to live.

Austerity is not just a word for the women and families across the country being hit hardest by cuts to public services. Women still face an average 19.1 per cent pay gap at work. Labour will tackle the pay gap, oppose the cuts to our public services and end discrimination in our society. Whenever we cite examples of what austerity really means the Conservatives always argue that no matter what the social cost of their austerity policies, they are necessary to rescue our economy.

Let’s be clear. Austerity is not an economic necessity, it’s a political choice.”

 

‘Taxi for the Ministry of Justice!’ as MPs criticise court closure plans

MPs lined up yesterday to criticise the MoJ’s consultation on the closure of courts and tribunals in England and Wales.

During a debate over the proposed closure of 91 courts and tribunals, MPs from across the House complained that the consultation document is full of inaccuracies and that there isn’t sufficient data to back up the assumptions of cost savings.

Many pointed to the knock-on effect on other public services closing the courts would have.  Using more Police time to ferry witnesses to courts further afield was an example used by Nic Dakin MP, who warned:

“I am concerned that we might find police officers having to spend more time as taxi drivers, when I would prefer them to be out on the streets preventing crime in the community that they serve.”

The debate was secured by Tory MP Ben Howlett who raised serious concerns about the proposed closure of Bath Magistrates’ and County Court. He stressed the added travel times for his constituents who would be expected to travel to Bristol.

There were warnings that the closures would lead to justice not being seen to be delivered locally with Newbury MP, Richard Benyon, stating, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Commenting on the prospect of people from Scunthorpe travelling to Grimsby once their court is closed, Andrew Percy MP said, “you might as well move the court to Timbuktu.”

Labour Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter reminded MPs that the Government had closed 90% of the courts it had consulted on closing back in 2010. He warned that if the majority of these closures went ahead it would mean that 40% of all courts in England and Wales would have been closed in five years.

Quoting from a briefing from the PCS union, he said:

““We are concerned that the justice system is in danger of becoming so divorced from the people who require access to it, that it can no longer be considered to be true justice.””

I suspect that that resonates with a number of Members who have to explain or justify to their constituents the fact that something that has been taken for granted for centuries in this country—local justice which can be seen and heard in local communities—is now fading fast.”

It was the “sloppy” information that the proposals were based on that was met with the most derision. One Tory MP Richard Fuller even went so far as to accuse the Ministry of Justice of “going rogue” on the issue and called for the consultation to be scrapped.

After what had largely been a non-partison and respectful debate, the Minister Shailesh Vara apologised for the errors in the court closure consultation document but ruled out scrapping, or even extending, the consultation.

The consultation runs until 8 October and is available on the HMCTS website.

A full transcript of the debate is available on the Parliament website.

Who needs the National Gallery when you’ve got Banksy on your doorstep?

I have to admit that when I recently removed myself from London to the North Somerset coast I brought some of my metropolitan prejudices with me.

Sure there would be advantages like having our own garden, coming back from a run without coughing up what looked like it should be pictured on the front of a fag packet, and being able to commute to work without feeling the need to remove my arms to get on a packed train carriage, but what I’d really miss was the culture.

I mean how could I expect anywhere to compete with all the theatres, museums and galleries I hardly ever visited but could’ve done if I’d had the time, inclination or spare cash?

In fact I’d been less inclined of late to visit one of our most treasured cultural venues, The National Gallery, because of its mission to ‘modernise services’ or, as I like to call it, ‘sell off its loyal staff to a security firm.’ Staff, who incidentally have been taking months of strike action to prevent this from happening.

Even with this boycott in mind, it was difficult to imagine what cultural comparisons would await me when I reached the other end of the M4 corridor.

What are we going to do when we get visitors from that there London? Sure there is a splendid beach but the Westonian weather isn’t renowned for its reliability and there are only so many hours you can spend in an Aquarium.

It turns out that my worries were unfounded for this week I’ve found that Weston-Super-Mare has become the centre of the contemporary art universe.

For some weeks now I’ve wandered by the worn out looking Tropicana centre thinking ‘that’s a shame, they should do something with that.’ And low and behold, along comes world-renowned, visionary street-artist Banksy to bestow it with his dystopian ‘Bemusement Park’ Dismaland.

In the last few days up has sprung a derelict looking Disney-like castle, trucks twisted into a helter-skelter-like fairground ride, and other more metaphorically twisted exhibits and attractions.

Photo by @journo_girl
Photo by @journo_girl

In addition to Banksy’s own artworks, there is an abundance of other works from the likes of Damien Hirst, David Shrigley and Polly Morgan.

It’s staffed by surly theme park attendants. They’re a long way from the brightly enthusiastic gallery staff I’m used to at the aforementioned National Gallery, but probably nearer to the ones we can expect private firm Securitas to replace them with when they cut costs.

It seems significant to me that while our National Gallery prepares itself to be subsumed by corporate power, that here is something that rails against such soulless ventures.

It comes to something when a disused old lido can provide a more suitable creative environment in which to view art, than one of our internationally renowned galleries.

I know which one I’ll be visiting this weekend. If I get the time, that is… I mean, that garden won’t tend itself you know.

Get tickets for Dismaland.

Sign the petition to stop privatisation at the National Gallery.

Is Gove set to award Synnex-Concentrix with £675m fines contract despite its HMRC failures?

Michael Gove

The Government looks set to press ahead with plans to privatise the collection and enforcement of fines and compensation set by the criminal courts in England and Wales.

I have written here before about this unnecessary and costly privatisation that is happening at a time court-based staff are collecting record amounts of fines.

Concerned about the spiralling costs of this drawn out privatisation project, I wrote to the MoJ asking them how much had been spent on the project.

The response I got to my FoI request confirmed my fears. It revealed that the MoJ spent over £3m in two consecutive years on the project. Overall the cost to the taxpayer has been £7.8m in the five years since the privatisation plans were first introduced.

On the day I received this response, Ministry of Justice staff were told that the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove had signed off on the business case. It’s hard to comment on the business case because no one outside the MoJ has actually been allowed to see it. When MPs have requested sight of it they have been refused on commercial confidentiality grounds. So much for openness and transparency when it comes to Government outsourcing!

This means that the awarding of the lucrative £675m contract has been effectively given the green light without the opportunity for public or even parliamentary scrutiny.

Rewarding for failure

What makes this all the more concerning is that the company waiting in the wings to receive the contract is the US-based business services giant Synnex-Concentrix.

The company has recently been criticised for its performance carrying out fraud and error prevention work for HM Revenue and Customs.

The National Audit Office discovered that the company only generated savings for HMRC of £500,000 in 2013-14 compared with the original estimate of £285m.

This comes after reports that it had falsely accused thousands of families of cheating on their tax credits.

So rather than rewarding the hardworking civil servants for collecting record amounts of fines in the face of cuts in their staff numbers; the Government would rather reward an American multinational for its failure.

If, like me, you want to see this privatisation halted, then please write to your MP asking for their support.