Tag: Richard Burgon

Labour’s pledge to reinstate legal aid reflects a democratically accountable and trustworthy party

 

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Yesterday I wrote about the Labour party’s plans to reinstate legal aid, so that people who need to challenge social security decision-making may access legal support to do so. A number of people commented that we shouldn’t need legal aid to challenge the government’s welfare policies, as they should be fit for purpose in the first place.

However, I think that is a measure of how very low public expectations of government have sunk. What the Labour party are offering, to date, is a reformed social security system that does not punish the very people it is meant to support. So far their pledges include scrapping the bedroom tax, the Conservative’s sanction regime, the work capability assessment, the personal independent payment assessment, and a ‘root and branch’ review of the welfare system more generally, to ensure it is fair and adequately supportive.

Social security as it stands does not provide enough support to meet the essential costs of living, which has had some recognisable and catastrophic concsequences. The Labour party’s work on welfare is ongoing, and importantly, it is in consultation with disabled people, allied organisations and academics who have researched the woeful and absolutely unacceptable shortcomings of the current system. The consultations have been ongoing, too, indicating a party that is democratically inclusive, responsive, and is genuine in its claim to meet the needs and best interests of the many. 

The Conservatives have turned justice into a commodity for the very wealthy. Legal support is available, provided people can afford it. That unequal access to justice serves as a buttress for social inequality and political oppression.

Furthermore, a government owes its citizens distributive justice, too: fair policies, just laws, effective means to participate in how we are governed, fairly distributed resources and services, and so on. The Conservatives are unable to understand that justice is the application of the law equally to all citizens of the state, and that in democracies, policies are generally regarded as a mechanism for distributive justice, they are not devices for the withdrawal of justice and increasing oppression.

Similarly, human rights are also universal. That is the whole point of them. However, the Conservatives have also made them increasingly conditional, which has exposed some communities and social groups to increasing political discrimination.

Recently, the Bar Council chair said the rule of law is at risk because of such “political folly and expediency.” Andrew Walker QC also said that justice in the UK is at risk because of political decisions that threaten to undermine the independence of the judiciary, underscoring a deep anger coursing through the legal profession.

Walker used his speech to the Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference last month to say: “In truth, in the last decade, we have been following a course that has set its face against justice, by political design, political folly and political expediency.”

He added “Cuts to legal aid represent “a huge threat to access to justice in our country. If we can no longer deliver access to justice of which we can be proud – even worse, if our systems of family and criminal justice start to fail – then our justice and rule of law are at risk.”

The comments reflect widespread, mounting concern about cuts to the legal system and the impact they are having on access to justice.

Referring to they way the justice system in the UK had taken centuries to evolve, Walker said: “Just because something is longstanding does not mean that it, or the people in it, are unbreakable.”

Many of us raised these concerns when the cuts were first proposed by the government. Access to justice is an absolute constitutional principle. It must not be undermined. Access to justice is a fundamental democratic right, and the chaos and failure unfolding across the legal system as the result of cuts should concern everyone who cares about justice.

The Ministry of Justice is under criminal investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office for having failed to publish its research in full when ordered to, opting instead to publish a short and incomplete summary.  A review of 2012’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) is being carried out. But ministers have already delayed far too long in the face of clear evidence that cuts in the family courts have been harmful.

Official figures show that the proportion of litigants with legal representation fell from 60% in 2012 to 33% in the first quarter of last year, and it is not uncommon for one party in a civil case to be represented by a lawyer while the other is not. Last year one senior family court judge, Mr Justice Bodey, described the current position as “shaming”, while Mr Justice Francis said it was remarkable that the parents of Charlie Gard did not qualify for legal aid in their dispute with their son’s doctors.

Meanwhile, the Law Society began a judicial review of cuts to the fees paid to solicitors for legal aid work, while a strike by barristers, which saw more than 100 chambers refuse to take on new cases, was called off in June only after the government came up with additional funds.

Legal aid began in the UK in the 1940s, along with the rest of the welfare state. In the US, a defendant’s entitlement to a lawyer in a criminal case is enshrined in an amendment to the constitution. While the rules in the UK may lack this constitutional underpinning, people should still be entitled to access to justice – including lawyers paid for with legal aid. Without equal access to justice, human rights frameworks are pretty much redundant. 

In a functioning democracy, regardless of what kind of policies a government puts in place, we must have equal access to justice. Legal aid was part of our post war democratic settlement, and the Conservatives have dismantled most of that. Restricting our access to justice was part of a deliberate and coordinated attack on citizens’ most fundamental rights, in an attempt to prevent people holding the government to account for their devastating welfare ‘reforms’ and cuts to the NHS, among other authoritarian changes the government have made to our society. 

A key point is this. Even when we have a rather more fair, balanced and egalitarian government in office, we must always, nonetheless, have access to justice, so that if or when things go wrong, we can hold that administration to account. In pledging to reinstate legal aid, Labour are not only doing the right thing, they are demonstrating a willingness to be held democratically accountable for their policies and their consequences. That must surely inspire a degree of faith and trust.

These are the essential mechanisms of democracy that we seem to have forgotten over the last eight years. We no longer expect government to act in the best interest of citizens.

However, that is not true of all governments.

I am hopeful that the Labour party’s social security policies will be fit for purpose precisely because Labour plan to reinstate legal aid. It shows that they plan to implement policies that comply with human rights frameworks, and are therefore much less likely to face legal challenges in the first place. Legal aid provides ordinary people with an essential democratic safeguard and demonstrates the Labour party are comfortable with being held accountable should the need arise.

These are the key reasons why I welcome this move.

Legal aid is a fundamental right and a crucial safeguard in a democratic society. Without equal access to justice, we simply cease to be free. 

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Labour party pledge to reinstate legal aid, restoring equal access to justice

 


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Labour party pledge to reinstate legal aid, restoring equal access to justice

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The Labour party will restore legal aid for people appealing against cuts to social security, such as Universal Credit and Personal Independent Payment, the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, is to announce.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned last month that cuts to legal aid meant many could no longer afford “to challenge benefit denials or reductions” and were “thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy”. 

Back in 2012, I warned that without equal access to justice, citizens simply cease to be free. I strongly welcome this move from the opposition, in particular because I regard access to justice – a basic human right – as absolutely fundamental to a functioning democracy.

Those seeking to challenge decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on social security payments, many of which are incorrect and unfair, will be able to gain access to legal advice to help them pursue appeals, Labour has pledged.

Burgon argues that restoring such financial support would encourage the DWP to get decisions right the first time, thereby reducing costs for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

More than two-thirds of appeals against DWP decisions on personal independence payments (PIP) and employment support allowance (ESA) are successful, says the Labour party, adding that those decisions have affected thousands of vulnerable people with illnesses, disabilities or in poor health. 

Since the Coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect in early 2013, the number of people receiving legal aid to challenge benefit decisions has fallen by 99%. The MoJ spends more than £100m a year on tribunals disputing appeals against benefit decisions.

In addition, the DWP has spent more than £100m on PIP and ESA reviews and appeals since October 2015. That means  the state is spending huge amounts of money to get its’ own way in imposing wrongful decisions, while ensuring those affected cannot easily challenge such unjust decision making processes, which become embedded into an increasingly punitive social security system. It’s difficult to regard this as anything other than a politically coordinated attack on the rights of citizens and the welfare state by the Conservatives.

Since the Laspo act came into effect, many expert social security lawyers have left the field because cases were no longer funded. The MoJ has experienced the deepest cuts of any Whitehall department since 2010; its budget is to shrink further over the next two years.

Burgon said: “People should never be expected to navigate a complex appeals process all by themselves. That can force some to give up their claim altogether after a wrong initial decision. Others endure months of stress trying to prepare their own case. It’s bad now but will be even more difficult after universal credit’s rollout.

“Cuts to early legal advice have been a false economy. Ensuring that people are armed with expert legal advice to take on incorrect benefits decisions will not only help people get the benefits they are entitled to, it should make it less likely that flawed decision takes place in the first place, which would be good for the individuals themselves, and help to tackle the tens of millions of pounds spent on administering appeals against flawed decisions.”

Unless, of course, the intention all along was to ensure that the state’s ‘incorrect’ decisions stand. I rather suspect that is so.

The number of people granted legal aid in welfare cases has plummeted from 91,431 in 2012-13 to 478 in 2017-18, according to Legal Aid Agency figures.

A 2010 Citizens Advice report (pdf) concluded that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice, the state potentially saved £8.80.

Labour estimates that to restore early legal advice to pre-Laspo levels for benefits cases would cost £18m a year and help about 90,000 cases.

The party has already pledged to restore legal aid funding for advice in all housing cases, reversing far-reaching cuts imposed by the government five years ago. It has also promised to re-establish early advice entitlements in the family courts and to review the legal aid means tests.

Burgon says “Cuts have left vulnerable people without the legal support they need when faced with a rogue landlord, a difficult family breakup, or Theresa May’s “hostile environment. 

“But of all the cuts to legal aid, the slashing of advice for ill and disabled people unfairly denied their benefits is one of the cruellest. It creates the shameful situation where people are first denied the financial support to which they are legally entitled and then must struggle through a complex appeal without legal advice, causing further stress and anxiety.”

He says that the Labour-initiated Bach commission on access to justice outlined the direction in which the government needs to go. The Conservatives’ review (due before Christmas) should follow its recommendation to boost funding for early legal advice. Instead, however, it’s likely to be ‘another missed opportunity’. 

As Burgon notes, next year marks the 70th anniversary of the Legal Aid and Advice Act of 1949. Too often, legal aid has been treated as the forgotten pillar of the welfare state. Access to health and education are rightly recognised as the right of every citizen. Access to justice should be too.

 

See also: Labour will restore legal aid so all citizens have access to justice – not just the rich


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Serco, government contracts and the new minister for justice: what could possibly go right?

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is conducting a criminal investigation into Serco (and G4S) regarding electronic monitoring contracts – specifically concerning the tagging of prisoners. Although the case was opened and announced in 2014, the case is still ongoing, and is listed under ‘current cases’. Serco is reliant on the UK public sector for half of the group’s sales: £1.2 billion last year. As a “strategic supplier”, Serco’s contracts include running prisons, Royal Navy tugs and the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

Labour’s Richard Burgon has written to justice secretary David Gauke to express concern over the appointment of a new  junior minister who previously worked for the outsourcing giant Serco – which is under criminal investigation for overcharging Gauke’s own department. 

In 2013 Serco agreed to pay £68.5 million for overcharging the Ministry of Justice. There were allegations that the government had been billed for the electronic monitoring of people who were still in jail, were not tagged anymore, or were even, in a few cases, dead. Serco also had to pay back £2 million over claims of fraud concerning its prisoner transfer contract. In May 2014 a Survation poll for campaign group We Own It, found that 63% of respondents thought Serco should be banned from bidding for any new public contracts after the firm was investigated for overcharging on government contracts.

Despite the ongoing criminal investigation, it’s rather worrying that Serco continues running one of its most lucrative operations after it was announced in 2016 that the struggling government contractor was to retain its role in the manufacture and maintenance of the warheads for Britain’s Trident ­nuclear deterrent, and in the storage of UK atomic waste, especially given claims that the company has “mishandled” the disposal of nuclear waste. 

After months of contractual wrangling in which investors had feared that Serco and its joint venture partners would lose the work, the Ministry of Defence announced that it is keeping the contract to run the Atomic Weapons Establishment, based at Aldermaston, other sites in Berkshire and at Coulport in Scotland.

It was revealed in the Paradise Papers that Appleby, an offshore law firm, regarded Serco, who run “sensitive” government services in Australia and the UK, as a “high-risk” client, expressing concern about its “history of problems, failures, fatal errors and overcharging”. The company had also presented false data to the NHS  at least 252 times, was accused of fraudulent record keeping and had allegedly manipulated results when it failed to meet targets, Appleby’s compliance team warned. 

In health services, Serco’s ‘difficulties’ include the poor handling of pathology labs and fatal errors in patient records. At St Thomas’ Hospital, the increase in the number of clinical incidents arising from Serco non-clinical management has resulted in patients receiving incorrect and infected blood, as well as patients suffering kidney damage due to Serco providing incorrect data used for medical calculations. A Serco employee revealed that the company had disgracefully falsified 252 reports to the National Health Service regarding Serco health services in Cornwall. 

On 24 October 2017, it was reported that Serco was preparing to buy healthcare contracts from facilities management business Carillion. The deal included 15 contracts, with annual revenues of approximately £90m, for which Serco would pay £47.7m, with Carillion losing £1bn from the value of its order book. 

Chief among the law firm Appleby’s concerns about Serco were the  numerous allegations of fraud, the cover-up of the abuse of detainees, and the “mishandling” of radioactive waste in the UK.

Serco say: “Within the UK and Europe we work across public service sectors in Justice, Immigration, Healthcare, Defence, Transport and Citizen Services. From providing critical air navigation services for our aviation customers to pursuing innovative approaches to reduce reoffending in our prisons, we seek to transform the experience of our services users”. The company have a finger in many lies.

Edward Argar, Conservative MP for Charnwood, has replaced Phillip Lee at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) following Lee’s resignation last week over the way Theresa May is delivering Brexit. He is ex-head of UK and Europe Public Affairs at Serco, working there until nine months before he was elected as MP for Charnwood in 2015.

Argar was previously head of UK and Europe public affairs at Serco, which has a number of prisons contracts and previously ran Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, in County Durham, prior to its closure in 2014.  Serco runs  a total of five private prisons on behalf of the MoJ – Doncaster, Ashfield, Dovegate, Lowdham Grange and Thameside. Doncaster was criticised by inspectors in 2016 who found vermin infestations and “overwhelmed” staff.

In September 2013, Serco was accused of extensive sexual abuse cover ups of immigrants at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre prison in Bedfordshire. In August 2014, Serco, along with G4S, was criticised for using immigrant detainees as cheap labour, with some being paid as little as £1 per hour. 

The decision to give the company a new £70 million eight-year contract to run Yarl’s Wood has been criticised. Natasha Walter, of Women for Refugee Women, said “Serco is clearly unfit to manage a centre where vulnerable women are held and it is unacceptable the government continues to entrust Serco with the safety of women who are survivors of sexual violence.”

In January this year, a damning report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee described the programme – by this point five years late and £60 million over budget – as “a catastrophic waste of public money which has failed to deliver the intended benefits.”

Argar’s new role will include overseeing the establishment of proposed “secure schools” as part of efforts to place a greater focus on the education and rehabilitation of young offenders.

Argar’s voting record reveal a staunch and mean neoliberal, who believes, unsurprisingly, that the government should make the asylum system more ‘strict’ and should be ‘tough’ on illegal immigration. He strongly supports academy schools, austerity; welfare cuts, including the bedroom tax; mass surveilance and of course, increases in the tax-free allowance. He supports the replacement of Trident 100%, too, which is also unsurprising, given Serco’s role in the nuclear industry. He’s not so keen on equality and human rights legislation, however.

Labour’s shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon has quite rightly asked whether Argar will be dealing with any contracts related to his former employer as part of his work. 

The letter, sent on 15 June by shadow justice secretary, Burgon, says: “It is essential that government ministers can command public confidence that they are capable of holding such companies [as Serco] to account.”

It goes on to ask whether “Mr Argar will be involved in any way in liaising on behalf of the Ministry of Justice with the Serious Fraud Office about the ongoing investigation” or “dealing with any of the ministry’s contracts with Serco in his new ministerial capacity”.

The campaign group Transparency International has said that the government should have “mechanisms” in place to avoid the possibility or perception of any firm ‘gaining an advantage.’

Research manager Steve Goodrich said: “When appointing new Ministers it’s imperative that all real or potential conflicts of interest are fully scrutinised and addressed, and mechanisms are in place to avoid any decisions made in the interest of previous employers.

“Failing to do so can lead to the perception or reality that a Ministers may seek to put private interests first at the public’s expense.”

An MOJ source stressed: “There is no conflict of interest simply because someone has worked for a particular employer earlier in their career.

 “The Government benefits by having Ministers with a breadth of previous experience.”

And big business benefits by having Ministers in government with a breadth of big business experience, who vote on issues that affect and promote big business interests.

The Ministry of Justice has declined to comment further, when asked if any  mechanisms of transparency and accountability would be put in place, but said that Argar had been appointed “in line with normal procedures and rules.”

You can’t help but wonder just how many catastrophic failures it will take to demonstrate conclusively to an ideologically paralysed government that in reality, existing public services markets are a far cry from the paradigm of ‘competitive efficiencies’ in perfect markets.  Serco alone has perpetrated more scandals than a public agency would have ever survived. Yet this government has rolled over hundreds of major outsourcing contracts in 2017 without review, many of them 10 years long, because of the current Brexit workload. 

Within the neoliberal idiom of public services, there is clearly a fundamental inability to consider collective public interests because of the private profit motive. 

You also have to wonder what part of this idiom constitutes “sound public finance.” Yet despite the clear wake of crises thrown up by a fatally flawed outsourcing model, the government stumble on dogmatically, hiding their own ideological reach behind a privatised wall that completely blocks out transparency and democratic accountability.  

The companies profit, while all of the risks of privatisation are carried by citizens using the diminished, ‘streamlined’, ‘efficient’ facade services. Meanwhile, democratic transparency and accountability is denied; due to the ‘commercial sensitivity’ of private companies, they cannot be held to account by public appeals to the Freedom Of Information Act (FOI), debarring openness and transparency – the essential foundations for democratic decision making. 

Here is Richard Burgon’s letter in full:

Dear Secretary of State,

I am writing about the appointment of Edward Argar MP yesterday as a Justice Minister following the resignation of Dr Phillip Lee earlier this week.

Press reports today state that Mr Argar was formerly Head of Public Affairs in the UK and Europe for Serco, the outsourcing giant. A Serco spokesperson confirmed to the media that Mr Argar was employed there for over three years until August 2014.

As you know, Serco plays a significant role in our justice system, including by running five private prisons and in transporting 24,000 prisoners per month to court through the Prison Escort Contract.

The role of the private sector in our justice system is increasingly contentious given the widespread performance failings, for example in the probation service and in detention centres for young people such as Oakhill.

Serco itself has a controversial record in our justice system. It is currently under criminal investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for overcharging in an offender tagging contract. In 2013 it was forced to repay £68.5m to the Ministry of Justice after having charged for tagging offenders, some of whom had died or were back in prison. In addition, Serco previously had to repay £2m to the Ministry of Justice after being found to have falsely recorded prisoners as having been delivered to court on time.

It is essential that government ministers can command public confidence that they are capable of holding such companies to account, that the interests of the public, and not the profits of the corporations, are being put first and that there is no perceived conflict of interest.

Given this could you confirm whether Mr Argar will be involved in any way in liaising on behalf of the Ministry of Justice with the Serious Fraud Office about the ongoing investigation or will be dealing with any of the Ministry’s contracts with Serco in his new ministerial capacity?

Yours

Richard Burgon MP

As I’ve said elsewhere, in the UK market economy, everything is for sale, with the very wealthiest people finding considerable discounts on moral obligations and behavioural ethicality. It’s become very easy to lose track of why some things simply shouldn’t be. The Conservative’s privatisation programme has proved to be a theme park for economic crime and party profit; firms and politicians collude to ensure we have the ‘best’ system that money can buy.  It’s a system, however, that is incompatible with democracy and human rights frameworks.

We hear a lot from the new right fundamentalists about how the market place extends ‘liberty’, but there is little discussion about the fundamental imbalance built into the system that has systematically disempowered many others who can’t afford to pay for their liberty. Or their legal fees and penalties. The market place is not neutral. It’s a place where class discrimination is rampant, traditional power relations are fortified and morally constrained behaviour is only ascribed to and required from the poorest citizens. All of this has profound implications for democracy. 

‘Public choice’ economics has shaped the neoliberal reforms to the civil service and public institutions, resulting in the slippery sloped internal market in the NHS, the dismantling of the welfare state and outsourcing of many other state functions, student fees in higher education, the destruction of social housing, legal aid provision and the deregulation, bonfire-of-the-red-tape approach of the pro-market regulatory agencies of many other areas of public life, including the financial sector.

The wake of scandals to date, in which large corporations more generally, politicians, and bureaucrats have engaged in criminal activity in order to profit personally, facilitate mergers and block competition; in which officials accept private payments to facilitate private interests, and for public services rendered, demonstrates only too well the extent to which corruption is driven by the very economic and political reforms that are claimed to decrease it. 

 

Related

Neoliberalism and corruption: hidden in plain sight

 


 

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