Friday, July 29, 2011

Support Justice For All

One of the ways to fight the proposed cuts in legal aid (which was the topic we examined at our Discussion Meeting earlier this month) is to support and help the work of the "Justice For All" Campaign. To see what they are about and then to give them your support, see here.

You can also press your MP into giving them support. This is of particular importance as legislation which is currently before parliament is in need of radical change, if it is not going to create serious problems for many vulnerable people who are in need of the legal aid services, such as those services provided by Law Centres.

The role of the Campaign is explained in Early Day Motion 1194 which is currently before the Commons. Under the title Justice For All Campaign it states - "That this House welcomes the Justice for All campaign launched in the House of Commons on 12 January 2011; supports the aims of the campaign which are to raise awareness of the vital importance of advice and representation on legal matters for the most vulnerable in our society and to ensure that everyone is treated fairly under the law, no matter who they are, how much money they have or where they live; recognises that the strength of feeling is reflected in the fact that the campaign is a broad coalition of legal and advice agencies, trades unions, charities, community groups and members of the public; regrets that the reduction in spending on legal aid, through restrictions in scope and eligibility and the blanket 10 per cent. cut in the lower fee paid to providers of legal services, is having a detrimental effect on access to justice and on the well-being of the most vulnerable people; questions the real cost savings to the public purse that this budget reduction will achieve, given that early advice on legal matters saves money by keeping families together in their homes, and in work and education; believes that free, independent advice and representation on legal matters is essential to achieve justice for all; and calls on the Government to rethink the provision of legal services for the poorest in society."

The proposal is currently supported by 109 MPs. The political party make-up for this support is 83 Labour, 15 Lib-Dems, 3 Democratic Unionists, 3 SDLP, 2 Conservative, 2 Plaid Cymru and 1 Green. Their names can be found here. Names added who are Conservative and/or Liberal Democrat MPs will be greatly prized for they help break the Government's stranglehold on the current proposals. So it is a matter of how good you are at winning friends and influencing people.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Refounding Labour Will Not Be Refinding Labour

If you ignore the item below this , there then follows ten threads which are related to this one.

What appears below is taken from Ann Black's unofficial report of Labour's National Executive Committee Meeting which was held on 19 July. It covers the latest known stage of developments in the follow up to Labour's consultations on "Refounding Labour". Much of what is emerging will be presented in a "take-it or leave-it" form at the coming Labour Party Conference. Many of the ideas which are being peddled are in direct opposition to the proposals which were submitted by our Discussion Group, the Dronfield Branch of the Labour Party and the North East Derbyshire Constituency Party. In the final section which appears below, Peter Hain even seems to deny that he ever received our Discussion Group's submission. For we sent him the very idea he says had no support.

Without Ann Black we would have little idea of what is now likely to be foisted upon us.

"Refounding Labour Continued

Peter Hain introduced the latest proposals, after discussion in the organisation committee. An interim report has been circulated to stakeholders, and I’ve attached a copy. The NEC will not agree final recommendations until 20 September, four days before conference, no amendments will be allowed, and Peter will ask delegates to vote Yes or No to the entire package including rule changes. I think this is a bad way to begin a new era. In 2007 Gordon Brown pushed Extending and Renewing Party Democracy through conference, and we spent the next three years removing unpopular and unworkable parts. As a fallback I have asked for constituency NEC representatives to be engaged throughout the summer so we do not end up with deals or
stand-offs between the leadership and the unions, and I will consult as widely as I can. I was also promised, again, the full membership of the shadow cabinet review groups, a request outstanding since November 2010.

There is plenty of good stuff in the paper: welcoming new members, engaging with the community, more flexible local structures and so on, though much of this concerns good practice rather than rules. It recognises that many developments are only feasible with new technology, although these risk widening the digital divide. Development plans for constituencies and contracts between local parties and candidates or elected representatives gained general support but the details will be crucial.

The same applies to registered supporters. Maintaining lists of people who will help with campaigns, and inviting them to social events and local policy discussions, seems uncontentious. While Refounding Labour would not give them votes for council or parliamentary candidates, it does envisage allowing them to vote for the party leader as part of the affiliates’ section. Further, external organisations could apply for “registered consultee” status and gain rights to give evidence to policy commissions greater than those enjoyed by constituencies. Sharing contact information between the party and the unions is
another sensitive issue, and the unions are keen to regain nomination rights in parliamentary selections.

From Each According to their Means …

The paper tries to balance concerns that subscriptions are too high against the need to maintain income. The minimum age for joining would be reduced to 14, paying £1 a year until the age of 20, then £12 from age 20 to 26. Unwaged members and registered supporters would pay £15, and this would also be the first-year rate for new joiners. After that rates would be linked to income: £24 for trade union levy-payers and those earning under £20,000, going up by £12 a year for each additional £5,000 of salary.

Currently constituencies receive 33% of reduced-rate and 22% of standard-rate subscriptions. For some this is less than central charges for election insurance and the Euro-levy, and optionally Contact Creator, so they are permanently in the red. Many have argued that national charges should be proportional to the number of members, and so I will pursue this. It fails to address inequalities in wealth related to property or legacies, but no-one has yet found a way of
grasping that nettle.

On openness the paper is patchy. I agree that women, ethnic minority and young members should be able to work across party boundaries on common objectives, and hope that this will extend to constituency secretaries, and indeed to all members. The section on Young Labour has been subject to exhaustive consultation: among many changes, constituency youth officers and national policy forum youth representatives would in future be elected by young members only. There is a commitment to further discussions with the Northern Ireland CLP, the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party. And it is proposed to change the rules so that constituency AGMs would normally be held in November rather than February, leaving the spring free for campaigning: I would be interested in views on this.

Counting the Votes

Most agreed that multiple votes for the leader were not defensible. MPs could be restricted to their own section, but enforcing single votes across individual and affiliated members would only be possible if the ballot was conducted by a single body. The principle of having a woman in the leadership team was endorsed, but there were doubts about a leadership ticket, where candidates would choose a running-mate of the opposite gender and members would vote for the leader only, so discussion will continue.

Also still unresolved are voting procedures at conference, the make-up of the conference arrangements committee, and the composition of the NEC itself, apart from a proposal that the Scottish and Welsh leaders should each nominate a member of their executive committees with voting status. I am opposed to the idea of giving some of the conference vote to the national policy forum: it does not exist as a collective entity, and the NEC, as part of the forum, would gain a significant share. All these are central to the party’s future, and it would be wrong and dangerous to bounce them through conference without proper consultation. Finally Peter Hain said that submissions supported the continued vital role of the joint policy committee, and that there was no support for restoring any policy-making role to the NEC."

UPDATE 26 JULY: On this theme, see today's important contribution from Peter Kenyon

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Still Refounding Labour

We devoted two of our recent discussion meetings to a consideration of the Labour Party's consultative document "Refounding Labour", as well as to certain related documents. We also forwarded submissions on these to the Labour Party. Similar action was taken by the Dronfield Branch of the Labour Party and by the North East Derbyshire Constituency Labour Party. The Regional Offices of the Labour Party also ran consultative meetings on "Refounding Labour" at Chesterfield and Sheffield. Details of these and related activities can be found here.

The Labour Party has now produced what it calls a "Summary Report" arising from its consultation procedures on "Refounding Labour". It can be found via this link. Comments upon this stage of the proceedings would be welcome. We will be pursuing the issue further.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fighting Cuts To Legal Aid

On Sunday we held an important meeting addressed by Juliette Frangos of the Chesterfield Law Centre under the title "Fighting Cuts To Legal Aid".

On 29 June the Commons passed the Second Reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill by 295 votes to 212. Yesterday the Bill moved into its Committee Stage where it receives more detailed scrutiny, although the Coalition Government have a built in majority on that Committee and they are committed to the general trust of its proposals.

If passed into law as the measure stands, it will have a devastating impact on the provisions of legal aid for masses of vulnerable people. It will remove legal aid for 100% of cases concerning welfare benefits, 100% of cases concerning employment law and 75% of cases involving new debts - with the other 25% of funding only being available via a Government telephone line for those whose homes are at immediate risk of being taken from them. On average 46% of Law Centre funding, to provide services for those who can not afford otherwise to obtain help from solicitors, comes from Legal Aid and without it many will face closure. Those who remain will be hamstrung in their work. Yet Law Centres, that were established because the original Legal Aid scheme had failed to address the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, have been providing crucial services to those most in need of legal assistance ever since 1970. Now almost 70% of Legal Aid funding is earmarked to be cut with some cuts beginning as early as this October.

Because the proposed legislation covers a wide area, the issue of the massive cuts in legal aid is in danger of failing to get a full and fair hearing in the Commons. Nor is it a matter that is receiving the attention from the media which it should be given. Campaigning to defend access to Legal Aid is, therefore, crucial.

As a consequence of our meeting on the topic, I was asked to seek out ways and means by which our group could involve itself in moves to defend current legal aid provisions. As a starter, I provide the links below to two campaigns which I have signed up to. I hope that others will also do this. The links also provide further details of of the devastating impact of the proposed legislation. There is a need for all of us to do whatever we can to block the measure.

See Sound Off For Justice and Justice For All

The campaigning organisation 38 Degrees (which as you will see has a valuable track record) runs an opening entitled "What should we campaign on next?". I will now submit this item to them and press for their support. It would help considerably if others also raised the issue with them via the above link.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Black Report On Wrexham

The following is an unofficial report by Ann Black (above) of what went on at Wrexham when the National Policy forum met to discuss the submissions which had been received by the Labour Party on its three consultations - (1) Redfounding Labour, (2) Partnership Into Power (which now is seemingly incorporated in "Refounding Labour") and (3) New Politics, Fresh Ideas.

It is reproduce because our last two discussion meetings, the eight blog items below this one, the last two meetings of the Dronfield Branch of the Labour Party and the last meeting of the General Committee of the NE Derbyshire Constituency Labour all focused on some or all of these consultations.

I have highlighted some items which can be linked back to the general trust of what the thirteen avenues mentioned above tackled.

"National Policy Forum, Wrexham, 24 June 2011

The Chair Peter Hain welcomed members to Labour Wales, where student fees remain low and the NHS is safe from privatisation, and expressed solidarity with the public service unions fighting for justice. He reported that Refounding Labour had received 125 submissions from constituencies, 35 from affiliates and groups, and 2,660 individual contributions through the website. The party’s reaction to the splits and losses of the 1980s may have prevented blood on the conference floor, but at the cost of over-centralisation and shutting out the grassroots. The task now was to re-establish the original inclusive, interactive vision. An audit trail should let members see what happens to their views, currently disappearing without trace, and genuine differences should again be debated at conference.

Leader’s Questions

Ed Miliband also addressed the Forum, accusing the government of U-turns, handbrake turns and three-point turns on everything from selling forests to sentencing policy to the NHS, and recklessness with the future of health, young people and local services. They could not even get it right on barring wild animals from circuses (a pledge which should have been in Labour’s manifesto, instead of waiting for courageous Tory backbencher Mark Pritchard to take
the lead).

No party in a generation had bounced back after one defeat, but he was determined to buck the trend. Britain did get better under Labour, and he would never deny our record, but mistakes were made. Internal squabbles and MPs playing the expenses system damaged politics itself. Members sent warnings from the doorstep about housing, immigration and scrapping the 10% tax band, and were ignored. The current consultation did not make easy listening, and showed we had lost touch with working people, who want those who do the right thing to be rewarded. Many of the three million affiliated trade unionists no longer voted Labour, and we must reach out to them and beyond them. Good ideas also came from outside the party, for instance “safe havens” in community centres and churches for young people worried about gangs and knives. Conference should be opened up, and local parties encouraged to build their own supporters’ networks. He confirmed his intention to appoint the shadow cabinet in opposition, as with ministers in government. This seems sensible, and feedback suggests that members are more concerned with frontbenchers’ performance than how they got there.

On pensions he blamed the government for handling the situation disgracefully, with Danny Alexander announcing conclusions while negotiations were continuing. His main concern was whether strikes would help or hinder in winning the argument. The public were now persuaded that it was unfair to delay pensions for women in their 50s, but too many still believed the myth of gold-plated public sector pensions and universal retirement at 60. The living wage was an exciting idea, and Labour would look closely at the recommendations of the high pay commission. Members also raised soaring fuel costs, the future of social care, compulsory sprinklers in new buildings (already law in Wales) and the new academies, including selective admission policies and what would happen if they went bust. Ed Miliband summed up Labour’s themes as the promise of Britain, the squeezed middle, stronger communities and life beyond the bottom line.

New Politics, Fresh Ideas III

Liam Byrne introduced his latest draft, following nearly four million contacts with the public, 70 shadow cabinet events, and thousands of members taking part in regional and local discussions. I’ve been to several and they were genuinely lively and engaging, but it’s hard to tell how far the paper represents Labour values or reflects the range of views of members, supporters and random voters. (Of 60 direct quotes four are from Ann in Brighton, with Kathy of Cheshire and Ian of Livingston getting two apiece.)

Forum members repeated, as we do at every level and every opportunity, the need for sharper attacks on the coalition coupled with clear statements of what Labour would do differently. Opposition should not be left to the archbishop of Canterbury. Voters want to know who and what we stand for, and cutting the deficit a bit more slowly is not enough, as Scotland showed. Some thought the current paper could have been written a year ago. No-one expects a detailed manifesto, but dividing lines and directions of travel derived from explicit values are desperately needed now, on the doorstep and in the media. Indeed the rolling programme of policy development seems designed more for government, where we control the agenda, than opposition, where fast, intelligent and well-informed reactions are essential. And I passed on messages from Reading: David Cameron should be congratulated for sticking to the target of 0.7% of GDP for international aid despite disapproval from his own backbenchers, and some of our attacks on Ken Clarke smack of opportunism rather than principle.


We had to choose three out of six topics: economy, growth and jobs; the cost of living crisis; the British promise; rights and responsibilities; Britain in the world; and the Partnership in Power review. No-one was clear on what these covered, so some of the conversations were at cross-purposes, but doubtless the hardworking policy officers will ensure that everything ends up somewhere. As last time some groups had more than 20 people, giving each of them just two minutes at race-commentator speed. This tends to produce lists of unconnected points and there is no chance to develop themes through dialogue, or establish which views attract consensus and which are just one person sounding off. We would never run a local forum with groups larger than ten.

The cost of living session was supposed to include transport, and a few points were made on travel costs and loss of bus routes making it difficult for people to get to work. Housing was still in short supply: speaking from Nottingham Christine Shawcroft said there were luxury city-centre flats, student accommodation and buy-to-let, but little that normal people could afford. But mostly we talked about the impact: citizens’ advice bureaux filled with desperate people, and many others only one step from disaster. The shock of suddenly having to exist on £65 a week was greater for those losing well-paid jobs than those more used to scraping by. One person thought the gap between benefits and wages was too small to provide incentives for work, but most were unhappy about portraying all claimants as scroungers, or assuming that disability allowances were generous. Many people were ashamed even to talk about not having a job, blaming themselves as failures. Members also argued that the private sector was unable to employ all the sacked public servants, and indeed businesses depended on the wages from public service employment to keep going. I added that pay for most public sector workers had been frozen for several years while inflation ran at nearly 5%, and any further increase in
pension contributions would mean cuts in cash terms.

Welfare also featured under rights and responsibilities, including an interesting discussion on the shift from contribution-based to needs- based systems. Even though childcare and in-work benefits go fairly high up the income scale (or did, until the coalition started hacking into them), separating them from payment into the system could cause resentment among those who paid but did not receive. Some suggested that taxes should be seen positively as part of a collective enterprise, but that may be too idealistic for 21st-century Britain. The group also touched on crime, including whether communities used to be more self-policing, and on whether it made sense to talk about “communities” at all, when they were so varied geographically, socially and economically, and overlaid by commuting and new technology. The best single contribution was a call to distinguish between listening and leadership: in the current consultation we should listen, but not succumb to populism, because people may be wrong: if 25 applicants are chasing every job, it is not fair to scapegoat those who lose out.

Deja Vu

The last session was on Refounding Labour, and specifically the review of Partnership in Power included within it. Those of us who joined the Forum in 1997 have been through this many times before. Representatives still cannot contact the members who elected them, or read comments and ideas from their own region. Forum dates are not planned far enough ahead and papers were again circulated late, despite the requirement for seven days’ notice. However keynote speeches are provided to the press, so at least we can read them on the way to the meeting. Most constituency representatives are still excluded from policy commissions, so the sum total of their participation has been six hours in Gillingham in November and six hours in Wrexham in June essentially repeating the earlier meeting. The format does not allow coherent discussion or summarising collective views. Was the whole thing value for money, above all for the members whose subscriptions pay for the Forum?

Interestingly a long-serving trade union member recalled that in 1994, when the Forum was a shadowy organisation existing outside the rulebook, there were indeed formal reportbacks from every workshop, with late-night negotiations, and votes on what had or had not been agreed. All that disappeared when it was opened up to ordinary members like your current elected representatives, but perhaps Peter Hain should learn from the Forum’s own history as we try for a fourth time to get this right."


Comments will be forwarded to Ann.