Friday, 17 May 2013

The government’s purge of legal aid crosses the border into authoritarianism and tyranny

The overwhelming majority of people in this country accept that in order to reduce the deficit, public spending must be brought under control. Where the cuts are made is the contentious issue. But one area where we simply cannot make cuts, if we truly are a liberal, freedom-loving, and civilised nation, is to the legal aid budget.

Yet this is precisely what this government are doing. The Coalition proposes to cut the legal aid budget by a third.

Cuts to the civil legal aid budget, which came in to effeect last month, mean many cases, including employment, clinical negligence and housing problems are no longer eligible for funding.

Now, whilst controversial and contentious cuts to for example health, education and welfare do not contend with the idea that we are a free country, cuts to legal aid sends out a horrific message to freedom lovers such as myself, and all who cannot afford to be tried fairly. The reality is only a few can afford the legal costs to enforce contracts and against criminal prosecution. This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of economic freedom- where we are free to legitimately pursue and generate wealth and enjoy the fruits of our own labour.

The only way to wed the pursuit of economic liberty with wider justice is by a basic notion of equality before the law, through the equal access to justice .This means that the state must fund the means of contract enforcement and free and fair trial-legal costs, for those who cannot afford it. If the state fails to fulfil this contingent function, then we simply seize to be free.

The Ministry of Justice spokeswoman, reported in the Telegraph, said: "At around £2 billion a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. We firmly believe it is an essential part of the justice system, but can never lose sight of the fact it is paid for by taxpayers and resources are not limitless.

"Legal aid will continue to be provided to those who most need it, such as where domestic violence is involved, where people's life or liberty is at stake or the loss of their home. But in cases like divorce, courts should be a last resort, not first. Evidence shows that mediation can often be more successful and less expensive for all involved”

This outrageously misses a very crucial point about legal liberty. Everybody has a right to take any grievances they have, which have invoked legal ramifications, to court. Everybody in a liberal system has an absolute, inalienable right to free and fair trial in a free and liberal country. It is not for the state to decide which type of cases constitute the in ‘most need, nor is it right to blanket legislate for access to legal aid for divorce cases to try and engineer other means of resolution.

In a free and fair country each and every single individual has equal legal worth and entitlement to opportunity to bring about legal justice. The government picking and choosing which cases are most worthwhile undermines this very premise of legal equality-So fundamental to the notion of liberty.

Having cut the civil legal aid budget by £320m, the Ministry of Justice proposes to cut the criminal legal aid budget too, by £220m. Legal contracts are to be based on competitive tendering. One of the outcomes of the reform and cut to the budget is defendants on legal aid will no longer be offered a choice for who can be their solicitor.

The right to a lawyer of your choice, regardless of your income, race, gender or nationality, is an underpinning condition of a free and fair justice system. Having both a sense of, and access to choice over ones legal representative, who is charged with fighting for justice is paramount to basic legal equality and liberty. When this choice is removed and legal representation is essentially imposed on a passive defendant by the state-and that is if a defendant can still access legal aid at all, our justice system becomes unacceptably authoritarian.

In fact, the potential of the extent to the erosion of legal liberty is even more dangerous. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s reforms allow in some cases for the sole choice of lawyer for a defendant on legal aid to also be a representative for the organisation with an interest in ensuring a prosecution.  The company Serco for example, provides prison security guards. Serco is one company bidding for the legal contracts with the Legal Aid Agency. Serco lawyers could feasibly be pressured to underrepresent their clients, for the greater gain of extra business for their security guards in prisons. The scope for such vested interests in the justice system, after Grayling’s reforms is incredibly dangerous. This is a scenario you would expect to see in a Middle Eastern tyrannical state, not in a championed beacon of Western liberty such as our great free nation
In an age to austerity cuts are both necessary and inevitable, but nevertheless, the very basis of our liberal and democratic country cannot be so savagely undermined and sacrificed in the pursuit of deficit reduction. We are talking about a budget of £2 billion in an overall public finance budget of £592 billion (£502 billion if we are to wipe out the budget deficit without an increase in revenue). That is less than 0.5% of our revenue-a price worth funding, perhaps more than any other, in the promotion of equal opportunity to legal justice-the bedrock of a free and democratic country.

Rebellion? What rebellion? Tory backbenchers support frontbench policy on Europe

The media have been building up the week’s events as a mass rebellion against the Tory leadership–a vicious assault on the authority of Mr Cameron. This could not be further from the truth.
Peter Bone (left) and John Baron (right) tabled the Amendment which supports Tory frontbench policy on referendum
On Wednesday over 110 Conservative backbenchers voted in favour of an amendment to the Queen’s Speech of the previous week. That is nearly half of our whole backbench parliamentary party.
The amendment to include laws guaranteeing an EU referendum by 2017 was not so privately supported by the frontbench. Mr Cameron has said he is “very relaxed about it”—hardly an attitude of a Prime Minister facing a mass rebellion in disdain of his leadership. The frontbench support is not at all surprising. After all, a referendum on Europe by 2017 is a Conservative frontbench policy.
On Wednesday’s vote, Cameron said that he doesn’t think “people can read in anything really to the scale of that free vote”.
Cameron is right. The vote and the imminent private member’s bill are actually putting increased pressure on our Coalition partners and Labour to get in touch with the country over Europe and to give the British public a say on our future relationship with Brussels. The level of support for the amendment demonstrates the growing public anxiety and appetite for a referendum, yet Labour continue to completely ignore public concern and their right to vote on our future relations.
Prime Minister David Cameron (above) has promised a referendum on Europe by 2017.
Whilst Labour are completely out of touch on the subject, at least they have been somewhat consistent in their hostility to an in/out referendum.
The Lib Dems, on the other hand, have gone back on their word. Their 2010 General Election manifesto pledged a referendum on the very issue. It said: “The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in / out referendum”. The Lib Dems since then apparently prefer to bury their heads in the sand and oppose any talk on Europe–even as the direction of the EU continues to fundamentally change, as they scramble desperately to save the Euro. A dramatic U-turn in Lib Dem policy has lost all shock factor in recent years.
Going forward, clearly it is only the Tories who are serious about delivering a referendum on Europe. This is a cause evidently backed by half of our backbenchers, in support of Cameron and his frontbench’s promise to give the British people a say on our relationship with an ever-weaker and remote European Union. This bodes well going into 2015, where we will be the only party in a secure and credible position to give the public what they want on Europe.
The Tories need to win in 2015 to deliver their promise of a referendum on Europe

Monday, 29 April 2013

Until the banks start lending our economy will continue to flat line and wealth will only be open to the few

When banks stop lending, industry becomes dominated by a complacent patrician elite. In the years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 in America, banks were heavily regulated. This led to fifty years of declining vigour in America, in which the aspirational were unable to access capital in a conservative banking system. If Britain is to avoid this fate, somehow we must get our banks lending to the aspiring wealth generators of tomorrow.
President Reagan left office at the end of the 1980’s having overseen a period of growth and prosperity unprecedented in the post-war era. It was no coincidence that this occurred as Reagan deregulated the banks and opened up capital to the ordinary aspiring entrepreneurs, previously only accessible to those already wealthy and to the old institutions.
The rigidity of an overly regulated and conservative banking system, resulting in the concentrated access to capital, meant very simply that America could not grow. These old elites failed to provide the growth necessary in the 50 years after the Crash. It wasn't until President Reagan in 1981 deregulated the system, and encouraged a culture of enterprise and lending, that this trend reversed.
Thatcher did the same in Britain. Never before were ordinary people so able to become very rich. Financiers like Michael Milken took on the concentrated access to capital of the established businesses and put it back into the markets, impelling the economic growth in the 1980’s. This was a key to prosperity and meritocracy.
It is with this in mind when I consider the difficult and sensitive subject of banking regulation today our banks.  If many had their way, bankers would be covered in tar and feathers. The EU has recently voted to cap bankers bonuses at no more than the size of their regular salary. Whilst such measures may be popular in the short-term, they do nothing for our flatlining economy and the people desperate to start and grow their businesses.
Regulation cannot come at the cost of encouraging bankers to do what they do best–and that is when they are lending appropriately and generating wealth. Regulation did not lead to a better America in the post war years. Only in a loosened banking sector can markets provide social justice and open access to capital for those who want to and can generate the wealth, indiscriminate of prior wealth and status.
The most important question going forward regarding banks has to be about how the government is to get our banks lending again, so as to continue the vibrant culture of UK industry.
Lending to small and medium sized businesses has fallen dramatically since the start of the recession in 2008
The government has tried to get the banks to lend but to little success. The Funding for Lending Scheme has failed. In the final financial quarter of last year, lending fell by nearly £3 billion. Despite this the government announced last week that it intends to boost funding into the £80 billion scheme. Perhaps it is time to consider more radical measures to get banks lending, to ensure growth, and to see that capital is not confined in access to only a small band of individuals through what is essentially internal protectionism.
One problem banker’s face is fear. Bankers since the Crash in 2008 have been paralysed by a tirade of public abuse. Far from being seen as virtuous wealth generators, the overriding perception of bankers is currently that of feckless, reckless and greedy evil-doers. The banks have withdrawn completely into their shell. In fear of fueling this perception, bankers have become overly cautious and overly prudent. Lending to small and medium sized businesses has rapidly declined since the crash in 2008. So reluctant are our banks today, they are neglecting to lend to the wealth generating small business entrepreneurs of the future.  This festers a culture of internal protectionism, in which those who have already benefited from deregulation face minimalized competition in industry. This leads to complacency. It is the whole country that suffers when banks stop lending. This cannot go on if we are to achieve economic growth and a free and meritocratic marketplace.
Bankers also lack incentive to lend. Interest rates are so low that bankers see no worthwhile return on riskier investments to justify lending. Interest rates have remained at 0.5% for the past 4 years. The death of interest rates alone has done little to kick-start the economy. Banks are at their best when they put their faith in our aspiring entrepreneurs, who simply want to grow successful small businesses and create jobs.
Interest rates have remained unchanged for the past four years, encouraging businesses to borrow
Statistical analysis by Michael Milken in the 1980’s demonstrated that bolder investments are worth making. Banks can demand a high rate in return for these investments, giving them the confidence to lend to individuals determined to grow a business. Milken claimed that although some businesses will inevitably not work out, with wise investment on average banks will make a fortune out of bolder investments. This boosts their profits as well as opening up and providing the opportunity for individuals to start up businesses and pursue their dreams. These are the necessary conditions of a vibrant market economy with open opportunity for those who dare to succeed.
The poor state of bank lending is quite a headache. How Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne goes about opening up access to capital in the coming months will be crucial to the prospects of growth in our flatlining economy. The pressure is very much on Osborne and the incoming Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, as they seek the growth necessary to avoid a triple-dip recession.

Monday, 15 April 2013

This overdue benefits cap may just restore credibility and faith in our beloved welfare state

Today the cap on benefit payments kicks in across London. This marks the beginning of a serious approach in tackling the worst cases of welfare dependency in Britain. It is the government which is ensuring, despite a tough economic climate, that it always pays to work, whilst also fostering the conditions which promote work.

The Coalition arrived in 2010 needing serious policies to address serious problems and injustices which developed in our welfare system. Whilst Labour buried their heads in the sand during their 13 years of government and escalated the problem of growing dependency and worklessness, Cameron and Iain Duncan-Smith are paving the way for a culture shift which gets to the very root of the causes of benefits and unemployment culture. They are promoting sustainable employment and opportunity by cutting government dependency and supporting the private sector to provide jobs. Over a million jobs have been created, and numbers of people in employment are highest ever since records began.

The rewards from working diminished under Labour. Labour hiked welfare spending by a massive 60%, whilst at the same time neglecting to link the minimum wage with inflation. This meant that the benefits of being in work reduced throughout Labour's 13 years, and the gap between those working and those out of work eroded. It became increasingly the case that people out of work were better off than those in work, trapped by wage depression. This injustice was confounded by Labour’s increased taxes on working people. This essentially meant that those on more modest income in work were subsidising the benefit rises of those out of work. This is hardly the legacy of a self-titled ‘One-Nation’ Labour Party. They left a nation divided between those who work hard and pay their taxes and those trapped into costly welfare dependency, with little incentive to seek work.

What this government has done is cut taxes for the least well off in work. The threshold by the time of the next election for those exempt from income tax will be £10,000. No longer will those on the lowest income but doing the right thing, subsidise those out of work-40,000 of whom claim more than double in benefits than what those on the lowest income bracket earn.  This is an admirable way of reducing the burden on people doing the right thing whist also addressing this bitterly-felt injustice.

The cap is not going to save significant money in the wider scheme of things- One hundred million pounds out of a cut to the welfare budget of eighteen billion pounds, but it does send out a strong and necessary message that the government is serious about ensuring that it always pays to work, rather than to stay on benefits. This has been too major a disincentive for far too long for many to go out and find work when they know they will be worse off in work than being on benefits. It is this emphasis that will reconnect the working man with the Tory party.

The cap of £500 per week for single parents and of £350 for single people without dependents makes common sense. The government estimates that 40,000 households will be affected when it comes into nation-wide implementation in July. The average loss to these 40,000 is estimated to be £93 per week.  This will be a difficult loss for these households but the reality is they should never have been trapped in such costly dependency in the first place. It is this dependency which is more costly to such people, who are limited in their aspirations, dreams and social capital which welfare dependency consumes. A £93 loss per week can be offset by increased conditions conducive to promoting work. It already seems like this is working.

The government claim that 8,000 people in households who receive in benefits more than the average pay have been moved into work. This is quite an achievement during economic hardship and one which surely increases the life chances of children in such environment, where worklessness is too easily normalised.

The strategy of making work pay is given further credibility by the fact the benefits cap will not affect those who are in work most struggling to make ends meet, but determined to do the right thing, like single parents desperate to ensure they bring their children up in a working household. For all of Labour's talk of concern for children being brought up by long-term unemployed parents, almost 2 million children were living in workless households during Labour's 13 years. The Coalition are promoting the rewards of work, a necessary influence to ensure that less children grow up in workless households, which increases their chances of being similarly dependent in adulthood, trapping them in welfare and cultural poverty .

This shift into work can only increase the respectability and life chances of children in such households longer term, beyond the challenging but necessary short-term cost of benefits cuts. Clearly this government is reversing Labour's legacy, but what about measures to ensure future generations are not lost and wasted in welfare dependency and worklessness?

Youth unemployment is one of the biggest crises in social policy we face in Britain. The young people most vulnerable to this are people brought up in workless households. A big obstacle to finding employment is lack of work experience. Employers prefer older candidates who have a proven record in the work place. Young people need work experience to improve their employability. Iian Duncan-Smith has introduced the Work Experience Programme. The Work Experience Programme is a scheme which gives young people the opportunity to work under an employer for 2 months. Employers are incentivised to take part in this or provide apprenticeships in the form of a Youth Contract subsidy. As of last year, half of the young people who took part were off benefits within 5 months of starting the programme.  This has so far proven to be a massive success.

The Conservatives are quietly tackling dependency and the causes of dependency with a serious programme of welfare and employment reform. They are addressing the inherent unfairness of an excessive and counter-productive welfare state which causes working people so much resentment, whilst at the same time has damaged the lives and capital of those trapped on benefits. I do not wish to celebrate the benefits cap for the sake of punishing the most vulnerable, but I cannot help but feel a great sense of optimism that this government is finally addressing a problem that for so long has just been talked about yet never acted upon. This could just save the welfare state from itself.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Spirit of ‘45? Cameron finds unlikely consolation in Ken Loach in lamenting social decline

Ken Loach’s documentary message is all too familiar to Ed Miliband and David Cameron but all three make the same mistaken assumption, and fail to grapple with the issue of declining community.

Yesterday I watched Ken Loach’s latest documentary ‘The Spirit of ‘45’ which on one hand celebrates British resilience and spirit at home in the face of two crippling wars, and on the other hand regrets the forces which Roach argues, thwarted and eroded the values of the common good and social responsibility. What Loach offers is a combination of nostalgia for this past sense of fraternity and community, with a misplaced and romantic attribution of this departure to the influence and policies of Margaret Thatcher and neoliberalism.

Loach makes this argument by juxtaposing the climate and the social attitudes in the face of fascism and poverty, caused by the crippling cost of two wars, with the post-1979 peacetime values which focused on prosperity, individualism, and moral decline. In doing so Loach feeds the same socialist myth that community died under Thatcher when in fact this decline happened far before Thatcher came to prominence.

Although some of Thatcher’s rhetoric and policy did not help to reverse this trend , the assumption is a staggering misrepresentation of history. The truth is the spirit of ’45 which Loach alludes to, declined in the years immediately after the war.

One consideration ignored in the documentary is that war united the country in a way which was very unique. In the years of peace which followed, the external threat of fascism departed and the force which instilled this sense of solidarity naturally declined. A second consideration neglected by Loach and others on the Left is that in the years post-1945, the size of the government rapidly increased. Government began to take over the responsibility and provision of services and responsibilities taken up by individuals and communities in wartime society. Inevitably the wartime national spirit naturally declined in the wake of these two factors.

So how can the spirit of ’45 be revised? This is something both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have talked about and have each respectably have talked big in the past about restoring, albeit by framing the problem in a different way, yet both have failed to varying degree to match this talk with concrete ideas and policy.

There is no doubt that the ‘45 spirit had vast benefits. During the war individuals and communities stepped up to the plate and to the challenges Britain faced at home. They took vast responsibility for the provision of services. Mutual aid and social solidarity in this sense, bought out the very best in the national community. Circumstance pushed wide scale civic association.

In this respect the biggest enemy to the ’45 spirit wasn’t the end of the war and the peace which developed, rather it was big government. With the rise of government into the social provision, people inevitably took on a smaller, more passive and less of a responsible role in the welfare and maintenance of communities. This, along with the declining relevance of other institutions which instil moral and social fabric, such as the Church, inevitably oversaw the erosion of the wartime civic association and prior community spirit which modern Britain was built upon.

In this respect civic association has been left in a miserable and powerless state. History determines that social trends cannot usually be reversed, but rather they must be transformed. It isn’t through looking to the past that the problem of civic association’s declining prevalence and influence over public life can be answered. New institutions and new ideas are needed to restore social cohesion in a modern world of secularism, individualism and passive consumerism. The only way to combat this going forward, surely is David Cameron’s Big Society.

David Cameron’s Big Society is an attempt to revive civic association and people power. Whilst the idea is spot on, the application has struggled to materialise. One reason for this is the Big Society has not been backed up with sufficient and meaningful policies. The agenda has been put on hold whilst the emphasis is on restoring Britain’s finances and faltering economy.

Another problem with the Big Society is that it is operationally flawed. This is because whilst the Big Society seeks to restore strong community, it is being driven as a central government initiative. A truly Big Society arises organically from the bottom up, not from central government downwards. David Cameron is in the wrong sector if he wants to achieve such social transformation.

The notion of the Big Society has in application been confused with localism. The Coalition has a wide-ranging programme which is devolving powers from central government to local authorities. Whilst this is a positive move, it is not the same as enabling freer license for individuals to assume increased responsibility over social provision. Returning powers to local government from central government still keeps provisions under the remit of government, not communities.

Social institutions have to be empowered, or more importantly, social institutions must not be further undermined and eroded by forces of central government, aggressive secularism and unchecked individualism. In a world where government influence is unaccountable to community institutions which prosperity and wellbeing were once built upon, government, whether socialist or conservative, is not where the solution to social decline lies. Community thrives in spite of government, not because of it.

So whilst the spirit of ’45 can never be revised in peacetime and prosperous Britain, civic association can grow again when fostered under the right conditions. These conditions have been eroded by the Postwar big government and by Thatcher’s centralised government and emphasis on individualism. As well intended as the Big Society is, it just simply cannot be restored through government initiative, a reality that both David Cameron and Ken Loach lament and share difficulty finding a way to explain and resolve.