2 Jun 2021

Fighting for social housing at the Elephant

2021-06-02T15:21:30+01:002nd June 2021|

In our latest guest blog Jerry Flynn, a social-justice campaigner from South London, reflects on the campaign against the redevelopment of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Through the 35% Campaign Jerry has sought to hold Southwark Council accountable for promises the local authority has made about the provision of social housing in new developments. PILC acted for Jerry in a recent case against Southwark.

The Elephant and Castle in south London is a key regeneration site in Southwark, a borough in acute need of social housing.  For a third of households, socially rented housing represents the only hope of a decent, affordable home. According to a 2019 report Southwark has 12,000 families waiting for new council homes.  Southwark council has promised to build 11,000 new council homes—but only over a thirty-year period.

Given these circumstances Southwark’s priority for the regeneration of the Elephant should have been simple: to build more socially rented housing now. In fact, Southwark only requires a small proportion—17.5%—of new Elephant developments to be social-rent housing units. This is less than the 25% required in most of the rest of the borough.

These percentages are supposed to be minimum requirements. In reality, more social units are built only in exceptional cases.  Developers often claim that they cannot provide even this modest amount, citing weak financial viability—which simply means they will not be making as much profit as they think they deserve.

Such was the position taken by Delancey, a big property developer active in the borough and the owner of the much-derided (but also much-loved) Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre. In 2016 Delancey, in partnership with Dutch pension fund, APG and the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, proposed demolishing the shopping centre and building a mixed residential development consisting of nearly a thousand homes for rent and about as much retail floor space as was in the shopping centre (dispersed across two sites)  There would be 35% ‘affordable housing’, but only 33 ‘social rent equivalent’ homes – ‘viability’ would not allow for any more.

By omitting a provision for affordable retail units which would have allowed for modest reductions in market rents, Delancey also made it clear that there would be no room in the new Elephant & Castle for local traders, most of whom are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, with many coming from London’s Latin American community.

Mounting the campaign

Our Up the Elephant campaign drew together all those who opposed Delancey’s proposals, which was just about everyone apart from Southwark council’s Labour leadership.  Campaign groups included: Southwark Defend Council Housing; Latin Elephant, a local charity that advocates for all local traders; the Elephant Traders Association; the Green Party; the 56a Infoshop, a radical social centre;  the anti- gentrification website Southwark Notes; and  Southwark Law Centre. The campaign also drew in local Labour and Lib Dem councillors, including those who had hitherto been supportive of the Elephant’s regeneration. It won notable support from Sian Berry, co-leader of the Green Party.

Students and trade-union support from the London College of Communication (LCC) was another important element in the campaign.  The LCC is gaining a new campus from the redevelopment after agreeing to give Delancey an extra piece of land in exchange. Yet the college was happy enough to mount an exhibition bewailing the iniquities of regeneration in other parts of the world—much to the disgust of many of its students and staff. Social media and communications work by activists and sympathetic artists was vital for campaign fundraising.

The Up the Elephant campaign orientated itself around the progress of Delancey’s planning application, but did not confine itself to simply generating objections: it protested, demonstrated and made sure that decision-makers were fully aware of the strength of feeling against Delancey’s proposals.  As a consequence, Delancey made a number of concessions for fear of not gaining planning permission.  They promised 116 social rented units and affordable retail units, built some relocation space for traders and funded relocation costs.  Southwark also found some funding to help traders and provided more relocation space on more generous leasing terms, courtesy of an intervention by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.  Delancey duly got its planning permission, but only just—by one vote and after three committee meetings.

The legal challenge

But Delancey’s proposal remained a bad one.  The shopping centre may have been shabby, but it housed one of the largest bingo halls in Britain, much used by older people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. The bowling alley next door was equally popular with younger people. Along with Ward’s Corner in Seven Sisters, the shopping centre had over decades become one of two social hubs for Latin Americans living in London.  Its other independent traders came from all over the world and had built successful businesses for themselves and their families.  All of this would be lost.  And while the affordable housing ‘offer’ was improved, it still did not meet Southwark’s minimum policy requirements.

After discussions with Southwark Law Centre, who put us in touch with PILC and barrister Sarah Sackman of the Francis Taylor Building,  a decision was made to challenge the planning permission by judicial review. Sarah enlisted David Wolfe QC of Matrix Chambers.  All worked ‘pro-bono’ and an Aarhuus convention cost cap limited our adverse cost exposure.

The main ground of our challenge was that the planning committee had been misled about the status of the funding for the social housing.  Delancey claimed it had a grant from the Mayor for this, while also committing to building the social housing without a grant.  We argued that if a grant was indeed in place, this gave scope for the committee to have sought more socially rented housing,  The judge found, however, that while there was ambiguity in reports to the planning committee, the committee was nonetheless sufficiently aware of the full funding situation and had therefore not been misled.

The judge also found that the reports only amounted to guidance and allowed council officers discretion in how the committee’s decision was put into effect in practice.  This had consequences.  Delancey’s simple undertaking—to either build the social housing or to give Southwark Council or housing association the ‘the land and sum of money sufficient for construction and completion of the social rented units’ to do so itself—became a more complicated arrangement, with three options inserted into the legal agreement for the development, two of which involved Southwark meeting upfront costs.  The judge ruled, against our arguments, that this was a fair rendering of the committee’s decision.

We also challenged Southwark and Delancey’s assertion that ‘social rent equivalent’ (with 3-year assured shorthold tenancies) and ‘social rent’ (usually with lifetime tenancies) were effectively the same. Once more, the judge disagreed and could not see any significant difference.

The court decision and lessons learned

The outcome of our appeal against the High Court decision was unfortunately no better.  The Court of Appeal found that while the funding position was ‘overstated’, it was not misleading, and that, in any event, no additional socially rented housing could have been sought by the committee because the scheme was not sufficiently viable (a routine, but effective, argument  against social housing provision) .  It also confirmed the High Court decision that the ‘instrument of delegation’—a very short document—rather than the committee report constituted the ‘resolution to approve’.

We are disappointed by this outcome, naturally, but not disheartened.  The legal challenge was an important part of our campaign, but not the whole campaign. The practical improvements described above would not have been gained if we had not demonstrated a willingness to overturn the whole scheme. We have also shown that, with will and determination, a broad-based local campaign can win concessions, even if not outright victory.

Our campaign will continue, because the regeneration of the Elephant is far from finished.  In particular, we will continue to support the many traders who did not get relocated and who are now negotiating for new market space at the Elephant.

The court’s decision raises the serious question of who is going to pay for the socially rented housing that our campaign’s hard work has secured.  Whatever the courts may have decided, we are pretty sure that the planning committee did not have it in mind that Southwark should meet this cost. Such an interpretation of the development’s legal agreement is one that Delancey may now seek to take advantage of.

More generally, the court’s decision demonstrates that not everything a planning committee thinks it might be approving gets into the finalised agreement—at least not in the way that it should.  If a planning committee wants to be certain that any particular measure or amendment is adopted and effected in a given way, it must be specified in the ‘resolution to approve’. This is a lesson both for campaigners and councillors who sit on planning committees.

 

11 May 2021

UCPI: Spy Cops in the Anti-Fascist Movement

2021-05-11T17:55:05+01:0011th May 2021|

On 12 May former undercover officer ‘Paul Gray’ is due to give evidence to the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI). Our latest blog from the inquiry tells the story of the Anti-Nazi League, which galvanised opposition to fascism in the late 1970s – only to be targeted by police spies.

In the mid to late 1970s the fascist National Front (NF) was a significant force in the UK. With tens of thousands of members, the NF was a serious threat to migrant communities, people of colour, trade unionists and socialists.

Although it stood in elections and occasionally obtained a sizeable vote, the NF was a street force rather than a major electoral presence. Its members terrorised minority groups and attacked socialist and trade-union meetings.

A major role in mobilising mass opposition to the NF was played by the Anti-Nazi League (ANL), a broad-based anti-fascist movement formed in late 1977.

Building the movement against fascism

The ANL was founded in the wake of the Battle of Lewisham in August 1977, in which anti-fascists disrupted plans by an insurgent NF to march through Clifton Rise, southeast London, which had a large black population. The counter-demonstration united trade unionists with the black community—and marked the beginning of a generalised campaign against the NF.

The ANL grew rapidly to become the NF’s most significant opponent. In its first year it recruited between 40,000 and 50,000 members, distributed over five million leaflets and sold around one million anti-NF badges and stickers. Such was the level of its popular support that the ANL was widely regarded as the largest extra-parliamentary movement since the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

As the ANL grew, trade unions began to develop anti-fascist workplace groups—Civil Servants Against the Nazis, Teachers Against the Nazis, and the like. On one occasion, thanks to the support of the National Union of Mineworker, some 60,000 Yorkshire miners went to work wearing ANL stickers on their helmets.

In April 1978, the ANL and Rock Against Racism organised a huge carnival in Victoria Park, east London. The festival, which attracted approximately 80,000 people, mixed political messages with music.

Mass events like these grabbed the imagination of many young people and increased their confidence to confront racist and fascist ideas. One result was School Kids against the Nazis (SKAN), a pupil-organised anti-fascist movement.

Resisting the NF as a street force

Many ‘official’ leaders of the labour and trade union movement preferred not to confront the NF. The work of the ANL was vital in challenging this passivity, and in galvanising people who saw the need to oppose fascists but had previously been uncertain about physically confronting them.

The late 1970s saw major flashpoints as the NF responded to its flagging electoral fortunes by taking to the streets to intimidate and attack black and Asian communities. The ANL came out in Leicester, where the NF had previously done well in local elections, to resist plans for a fascist march. Meanwhile, in Southall, the local council permitted the NF to use the town hall for a public meeting in the run-up to the 1979 general election. Thousands of anti-fascists poured into Southall to help the local community demonstrate its opposition to the NF.

On the day of the meeting, the police’s Special Patrol Group ran riot, injuring many people and killing teacher and ANL member Blair Peach.

Undercover police in the anti-fascist movement

During the late 1970s undercover officers from the Special Demonstration Squad infiltrated and monitored the ANL and SKAN.

PILC represents former leading members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who were central to the development of the ANL. In our submission to the UCPI we sum up the work of spy cops in the anti-fascist movement as follows:

“The closest ‘[Paul] Gray’ ever comes to reporting on violence is his note that a school-boy had a fight with his brother.

These children were either the children of Socialist Workers Party members or children who were engaged enough with their society to be part of the School Kids Against the Nazis […]

 In the course of ‘Paul Gray’s’ deployment, Column 88 [another fascist group] were threatening to burn down the homes of SWP members. The National Front were attacking Bengalis in Brick Lane, smashing up reggae record shops and graffitiing mosques. They were burning down Indian restaurants and murdering young men like Altab Ali and Ishaque Ali in Whitechapel and Hackney. Whilst they were doing that, Gray and his […] “exemplary” SDS colleagues were writing about what they refer to as [the] “jewish” finance of the Anti-Nazi League, a “negress” activist, an activist with a “large jewish nose”, and “coloured hooligans” […]

 Instead of investigating the racist firebombing that killed 13 young black people in New Cross, the Special Demonstration Squad were reporting on school children and providing MI5 with copies of Socialist Workers Party baby-sitting rotas.”

The above account illustrates something of the nature of undercover political policing in the late 1970s. As our clients testify, spy cops pored over the minutiae of the political activities of SKAN, ANL and the SWP—but were rather less interested in the racism and violence of the National Front.

The inquiry continues.

 

 

 

 

4 May 2021

Spy cops in the Troops Out Movement

2021-05-06T09:56:11+01:004th May 2021|

Our latest blog from the Undercover Policing Inquiry looks back at the infiltration of the Troops Out Movement, a campaigning organisation committed to bringing an end to British rule in the north of Ireland.

On 5 May 2021 our client Richard Chessum is due to give witness evidence to the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI). Richard was an activist in the Troops Out Movement who was befriended and reported on by Rick Gibson (real name Richard Clark), a police officer sent to spy on the organisation.

The Troops Out Movement was formed in West London in September 1973 by Irish solidarity activists, trade unionists, socialists and Irish people living in Britain. It was a campaigning organisation committed to bringing an end to British rule in the north of Ireland.

The movement had two stated aims. First, it campaigned for the withdrawal of British troops from Ireland. Second, it campaigned for self-determination for the Irish people. The movement also campaigned around related issued including justice, policing, equality, demilitarisation, employment discrimination, cultural rights and the Irish language.

Those who gathered at the founding meeting of the Troops Out Movement were appalled at the effects of British rule in the north of Ireland. They wanted to show their solidarity with the Irish people and their  opposition to the occupation. Within a year the movement had branches all over Britain.

The movement was not implicated in any public disorder. It was a democratic campaigning organisation, based in Britain and dedicated to raising concerns about human-rights abuses in the north of Ireland.

Opposing the occupation of Ireland

For people living in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s without family or cultural ties to Ireland, making the leap from vague disquiet about the British army’s actions in Ireland to committed activism was no easy step. As is often the case with the media and government today, the full picture of events in Ireland was not always given. Where political events in Ireland were not ignored, they were often seriously misrepresented.

There is nonetheless a long tradition in Britain of opposition to the occupation of Ireland. The Troops Out Movement could trace its roots back as far as 1647, when the radical group the Levellers published The English Soldiers’ Standard, in which they set out their belief that Ireland should be free.

In 1649, inspired by the Levellers, a group of English soldiers mutinied rather than go with Oliver Cromwell and his army to take part in the slaughter of Irish people. The soldiers published a pamphlet setting out their demands. They asked: ‘What have we to do in Ireland, to fight and murder a people and a nation… which have done us no harm? We have waded too far in that crimson stream already of innocent and Christian blood.’

Over the centuries various campaigns demanded independence for Ireland. The Fenian movement was strong in parts of northern England in the 1860s. There was support for a Home Rule Movement in the 1870s. The failure of the Easter Uprising in 1916 led to the development of the Irish Self Determination League, and later, in the 1960s, the Anti-Internment League.

Spy cops in the movement

Shortly after its formation, the Troops Out Movement was infiltrated by officers of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which dedicated significant resources to infiltrating mainly progressive and left-wing organisations. Officers using assumed names reported on local, regional and national meetings. One officer, Rick Gibson, took a leading position in the Troops Out Movement.

Like other activists involved in opposition to the British state, members of the Troops Out Movement have faced their fair share of police harassment, including when travelling to and from Ireland. In some cases—usually in the wake of IRA activity in England—members of the movement had their houses raided by the police. Police would comb through books, photographs and personal paperwork in an attempt to gather intelligence.

Despite the best efforts of political policing to derail the Troops Out Movement,  evidence suggests its campaigning was effective. Opinion polls taken in Britain have consistently shown a majority of the public in favour of British military withdrawal from the north of Ireland.

An opening statement to the UCPI on the activities of the officer who infiltrated the Troops Out movement can be viewed here.

 

29 Apr 2021

On May Day, we remember the dead and fight for the living

2021-04-29T16:57:43+01:0029th April 2021|

May Day is celebrated internationally on 1 May. It is a day to commemorate the struggles of working-class and marginalised communities against oppression.

In this special May Day guest blog John Bryan—retired building worker and blacklisted trade unionist—shares his personal recollections of battles over safety at work.

On this day I always bring to mind those workers physically and emotionally damaged by their work conditions—and by the stress of ‘blacklisting’.

When I started working in construction in the 1970s you always knew who the foreman and chargehands were—they were the ones with hard hats! Changing rooms were a wooden shed with a bench with six-inch nails knocked into the wall to hang your jacket and personal stuff. You had to hide your tools as best you could as there were hardly any lockups. Toilet facilities were large buckets on each floor or out on the scaffold. A labourer got 50p a day extra ‘dirty’ money to clean the buckets every day and disinfect them.

The only women on site were employed as secretaries. They had their own portaloos. You had to ask at the stores for safety gloves and a hard hat, which the storemen (company men) were always reluctant to give you. They acted as if the equipment was theirs.

On average, six building workers were killed on site every month. Others suffered injuries—many of them life-changing. The canteens were usually run by the partners or families of the site foremen, so if you weren’t hit on the head by a falling brick or a piece of wood they got you with norovirus! If you raised any of these issues with the trades’ foreman, they would come out with the old macho nonsense: “We are building workers, not office workers”. Even factory conditions were better.

I always tried to work directly for the company, but there were other ways of working, like the  self-employed ‘lump’. You could be ‘working direct’ for the main contractor at one end of the site. At the other end another gang would be doing similar work ‘on the lump’. The foreman would often try to stir it up between the gangs for fun and divide-and-rule.

Sometimes I had to work ‘on the lump’. I had a family and needed the money. To get paid I had to go to the pub of a sub-contractor’s mate and wait for him to turn up with my wages. I was spending money I did not have waiting for wages I might not get!

I would say to the other men, ‘We shouldn’t have to work like this’, and they would reply, ‘What can we do about it?’ When I suggested the construction workers union, UCATT, they would laugh, saying: ‘They are all bent!’

The construction industry was the original gig economy. The 1972 national building strike won a significant pay rise but did not deal with bogus self-employment or the blacklisting of trade unionists for fighting against poor conditions on site. The conspiracy trial of 24 building workers in Shrewsbury and Birmingham led to some being imprisoned. Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson spent thirty-one days on hunger strike protesting that they were political prisoners. Only recently, after forty-eight years, were they finally acquitted of any wrongdoing.

Fighting and winning

In 1978 I was working on a large government refurbishment job for Taylor Woodrow. who were a large construction company at the time. Two Northern Irish lads came up to me and said they were trying to organise a union shop on site. We talked about the issues on site, mainly the lack of safety, and I joined.

When I spoke to the older men on site, they said they liked what I was doing but that I would end up being blacklisted. I had heard of the Hollywood blacklist, but in my naivety I thought that the worst that would happen was that I would not work for Taylor Woodrow again. I did not realise that there was an industry-wide blacklist.

One of the main issues on the site was the large fixed crane on the seventh floor of the building. Siting the crane there meant that the driver in the cab could not see what was happening below on the site and on the street where deliveries were made. This resulted in several accidents, including one worker losing his finger.

In the end, we had to take strike action over the crane issue. We were on strike for ten days with full support of those on site, but Taylor Woodrow called the police alleging intimidation and threats. Despite this, we won the dispute: the crane was repositioned; a shop steward did inspections and checks; all workers had hard hats and safety gloves; and there was no ‘lump’ labour on site. We had the help and support of a decent regional union official, which was a rare occurrence in those days.

The mental toll of blacklisting

In construction you work yourself out of a job from the day you start on site. Eighteen months later the job was finished, and I was out of work. From then on, I struggled to get work from the big construction companies and only got short term work with smallish sub-contractors.

The toll on my mental health was considerable. I often went to large sites for work, was accepted by the foreman or site agent—only to be told to leave half an hour later as my name ‘didn’t check out’ with the company’s head office.

I was in and out of work for over twelve years. Friends and relations couldn’t understand why I couldn’t secure regular work as they could see tower cranes all over London. When I told them about the blacklist, I could see they didn’t believe me.

In 2009 the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided a nondescript office in Nuneaton after a tip off. They found 3,200 blacklist files in and around the main desks, with many thousands of others in the filing cabinets. The ICO took the files that were in and around the desks, but left those in the filing cabinets as they thought they had enough to justify the raid. One of the files taken was mine. The thousands of files left in those cabinets were sadly destroyed after the raid.

I subsequently got involved with the Blacklist Support Group. We fought a six-year court case against the big multinational building companies. They claimed my experiences and those of other trade unionists were down to an ‘over-zealous HR department’ rather than a national criminal conspiracy to blacklist activists who fought for better pay and conditions.

We secured compensation and an apology (for getting caught)—but no real justice. No-one appeared in court and no big company director was prosecuted.

Parallels with today

During the pandemic construction sites have remained open. Building workers have gone into work throughout Covid-19, nearly all using public transport. They have put themselves, their families and other people at risk. You cannot construct buildings working from home or in isolation: construction is a physical and team effort. There have been at least two thousand coronavirus-related deaths in the industry.

Of course, the directors of the companies live in their multimillion-pound houses in splendid isolation. Building workers’ lives have always been cheap.

There are construction sites all over London. With a mayor friendly to big business and multinational developers, who are these opportunities for? Not the local communities whose needs are being overridden for the sake of the greed and the social-engineering ideals of planners.

On May Day I like to think of the good union activists who are no longer with us. We need to think of the past and learn from it, but also fight for the present and the future. This means supporting young organisers like the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union in what is now the ‘new’ gig economy.

This is an adapted version of an article that first appeared on the website Left Horizons. It is reproduced here by permission of the author.

3 Mar 2021

Stop the War granted CP status in spycops inquiry

2021-03-03T14:53:20+00:003rd March 2021|

On 2nd March 2021 Sir John Mitting, Chair of the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI), granted core-participant status to the Stop the War Coalition (StW).

StW was founded in September 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. It has campaigned to prevent and end wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. StW opposes the British establishment’s disastrous addiction to war and the squandering of public resources on militarism. It is committed to supporting Palestinian rights, opposing racism and Islamophobia and defending civil liberties.

StW is a peaceful mass-democratic organisation. It has organised dozens of national demonstrations, most memorably on 15 February 2003, when up to two million people marched in London to oppose the Iraq War in the largest demo in British history.

Earlier this year PILC was instructed to apply for core-participant status on behalf of StW and some of its elected officials. It had become clear that StW was targeted for surveillance, monitoring and infiltration by the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), an undercover unit of the Metropolitan Police. We know of several officers who infiltrated the organisation.

In response to the decision, Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, said:

‘Stop the War, which has always been an open and democratic organisation, has engaged in mass mobilisation against Britain’s wars, particularly the war in Iraq. It is shocking that undercover spy cops were used against the biggest mass movement this country has seen.’

PILC senior solicitor Paul Heron said:

‘We welcome the decision of the UCPI to grant core-participant status to the Stop the War Coalition. StW led opposition to the Iraq War in the UK and has consistently opposed further intervention in the Middle East, including the disastrous ongoing war in Yemen. Its infiltration by undercover political police raises very serious questions.  Why was a mass democratic organisation infiltrated? Why does the state want to spy on and organise against those campaigning against war? Who gave the order to infiltrate the Stop the War Coalition? These issues must be addressed and those responsible held to account.’

17 Dec 2020

School attendance for C(E)V households in Covid-19

2020-12-17T12:29:08+00:0017th December 2020|

After requests from parents and campaigners, we are publishing the government’s response to our pre-action letter.

We have had a brilliant response to the briefing note on school attendance for vulnerable households during Covid-19, which we published on Tuesday.

The response makes clear that many parents, schools and local authorities were unaware that there was any local discretion in these sorts of cases.

We have therefore decided to publish the government’s response to our pre-action letter. We hope this will help vulnerable households when liaising with schools and local authorities.

The full response can be read and downloaded here. Parts have been redacted for confidentiality reasons.

What does the government’s response mean?

There are two parts to the letter.

Part 1: The government justifies the current guidance

Pages 2-3 of the letter restate the government’s guidance on infection control (i.e. the steps that schools should be taking) and school attendance during Covid-19. The Secretary of State restates his expectation that children should attend school even if parents are shielding/vulnerable.

The response seeks to justify that view by reference to medical evidence and guidance published by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England.

Part 2: The Government makes clear that, contrary to the published guidance, authorising absence during Covid-19 is a matter of local discretion

This is a really important concession. Previously it was believed there was no flexibility or room for local discretion in this area.

Pages 4-5 of the letter make clear that:

  • Whether leave of absence should be granted is determined by each individual school headteacher or local education authority. This is a matter of local decision-making and is made on a discretionary basis.
  • A child’s absence can be authorised beyond the examples set out in the government’s guidance. The categories of authorised absence contained in the Government’s guidance are therefore not ‘closed’. They are non-exhaustive examples.
  • None of the national guidance from government overrides local discretion and flexibility. Schools have the final say.

This applies to cases involving both clinically vulnerable (CV) & clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) parents. (The response refers to ‘the situation of [our] client’. One of our clients who received this response was a CV parent. The other, who received the same response, was a CEV parent.)

 What can CV and CEV parents do?

  • You can write to your child’s school and/or your local education authority requesting that they exercise discretion and authorise your child’s absence. Ask them to take into account any vulnerabilities and the impact school attendance is having/would have on your family. If possible, you should include supporting evidence, e.g. GP letter
  • You should make clear in your letter that the question of whether leave of absence should be granted is ultimately determined by each individual school head teacher and not central government. Authorising absence is a matter of local decision-making
  • You should also make clear that the government’s guidance does not override the existing school attendance provisions. Absence can be authorised beyond the examples noted in the guidance and can cover your situation (as a CV or CEV parent). You can cite the information outlined here, our briefing note and/or the government’s response to our letter.

The headteacher or local authority may, of course, decide not to exercise discretion in your case and may refuse to authorise your child’s absence. If that happens, their decision may be open to legal challenge.

What are we doing now?

The government is continuing to defending its current guidance, which states that vulnerable parents should still send their children to school. It has failed to make clear that schools and local authorities have discretion.

We will now be pushing the government to:

  • Amend its published guidance to reflect its official position on local discretion in such cases, so that schools can be made aware that their hands are not tied.
  • Change its guidance on school attendance and vulnerable family members. In our view the guidance is irrational and in  breach of our clients’ basic rights.

We will continue to provide updates about our legal challenge.

Thank you very much for all your support!

 

 

 

24 Sep 2020

Judicial review under attack

2020-11-16T17:01:14+00:0024th September 2020|

With an ‘independent’ review of judicial review underway, PILC senior solicitor Paul Heron blogs about the need to defend access to justice from ideological attack.

The government is at war with public law.

On 27th August, the Home Office complained that ‘activist lawyers’ were ‘delaying and disrupting’ the operations of the UK immigration system. The claims, made in a video that was later deleted, came in response to judicial review challenges brought on behalf of desperate migrants to prevent their potentially unlawful removal from the UK.

Even the Law Society, so often a poodle to the Ministry of Justice, was forced to yelp, reminding the Home Office that:

[s]olicitors advise their clients on their rights under the laws created by Parliament. To describe lawyers who are upholding the law as ‘activist lawyers’ is misleading and dangerous. We should proud that we live in a country where legal rights cannot be overridden without due process, and we should be proud that we have legal professionals who serve the rule of law.

The government does not seem to agree. By announcing a review of judicial review, it has signalled its intention to reel back access to justice by further limiting the power of the courts to hold public bodies to account.

Some believe this is the government’s revenge for the Supreme Court’s interference with Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament over Brexit. But while that may be a factor, it is not the only reason why judicial review is under attack.

Neo-liberalism and the law

The justice system does not operate in a vacuum. Law operates under the same socio-economic pressures as society as a whole. We live in an era of neoliberalism, during which access to justice has come under severe threat along with a range of other democratic rights.

Since the late 1970s, most of the Global North has moved from a position where state ownership undergirded national economies to one in which market forces hold sway. Under Thatcher and Reagan, radical economic reforms stripped away state support for industry while protecting private interests on behalf of the 1%. In the UK this meant bringing to heel the power of the trade unions. Collective bargaining and the closed shop were among the targets of a concerted assault on the power of organised labour. Over the past forty years, privatisation and deregulation have been the keynotes of economic policy in the UK, leading to mass unemployment, poverty, and a huge increase in the gap between rich and the poor.

Neo-liberalism was, and is, a political project carried out by the corporate capitalist class in reaction to the growing political power of the organised working class and other progressive forces. Its success as an economic and social ideology has been underwritten by counter-reforms and regressive legislation.

It is no accident that welfare provision, wages and the ability of the working class to organise have been simultaneously assailed.  Capitalist economics forms the foundation upon which legislative reform is based, as well as providing the framework within which it operates.

Defending an imperfect system?

The current system is far from perfect. The law courts are unfavourable terrain for socialist and progressive movements. To cite just one example, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents postal workers, recently had a democratic strike ballot overturned.

But the courts have been a vehicle for small and significant victories. In 2017, the Gureckis judgment overturned a policy that targeted EU rough sleepers for deportation, with the High Court finding it to be in breach of EU and human-rights law.

Perhaps in response to such challenges, the 2019 Conservative manifesto had judicial review in its sights:

After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.

Judicial review in its current form provides a fairly minimal check on the powers of government. Yet the government is apparently intent on reducing its influence further.

The terms of reference for the review of judicial review are as follows:

The review […] will consider whether the right balance is being struck between the rights of citizens to challenge executive decisions and the need for effective and efficient government.

The move delivers on a manifesto commitment to ensure the judicial review process is not open to abuse and delay.

Specifically, the review will consider:

  • Whether the terms of Judicial Review should be written into law
  • Whether certain executive decisions should be decided on by judges
  • Which grounds and remedies should be available in claims brought against the government
  • Any further procedural reforms to Judicial Review, such as timings and the appeal process

The review will be conducted by a nominally ‘independent’ panel, but there are doubts about how independent this panel will actually be. It is chaired by Lord Faulks, a Tory peer who was a justice minister during Chris Grayling’s catastrophic tenure as Justice Secretary. Lord Faulks has written critically on the subject of the role and power of the courts, including an attack on the Supreme Court’s ruling on the unlawful prorogation of parliament.

The panel also includes two barristers from 39 Essex Chambers, who have historically acted for the government in Judicial Review cases. Where are the barristers from Garden Court or Doughty Street, who typically act for claimants?

Judicial review in its current form is imperfect and exclusionary. There are major risks involved in bringing a case against a public body. Access to legal aid is severely restricted, with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) carefully scrutinising what they perceive as  ‘political cases’. The issue of costs can be prohibitive.

Judges, meanwhile, are often biased—not a great deal has changed since Ralph Miliband wrote, in 1969, that:

the judicial elites, like other elites of the state system, are mainly drawn from the upper and middle layers of society: and those judges who are not have clearly come to belong to these layers by the time they reach the bench. Moreover the conservative bias which their class situation is thus likely to create is here strongly reinforced by the fact that judges are, in many of these systems, also recruited from the legal profession, whose ideological dispositions are traditionally cast in a highly conservative mould.[1]

Reform of the legal system is long overdue. But the government’s ‘independent’ review is not being conducted with the aim of increasing access to justice. Any changes that come out of it are likely to hinder the work of social-justice lawyers while failing to protect claimants from excessive costs.

We must keep a watchful eye on the government’s review of judicial review— and be ready to fight, not in defence of an imperfect system, but for the expansion of access to justice for all.

[1] Ralph Miliband – ‘The State in Capitalist Society’ p124 (Quartet 1973)

 

27 Aug 2020

PILC report reveals human cost of NRPF

2020-08-27T10:49:49+01:0027th August 2020|

PILC, along with the Institute of Community Research and Development at the University of Wolverhampton, Project 17, ASIRT and Migrants’ Rights Network, has published a report into the support provided by English local authorities to people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our key research findings were as follows:

  • There was a lack of information available for people with NRPF on how to access support during the pandemic
  • People with NRPF who contracted Covid-19 were particularly likely to die or become seriously ill
  • People with NRPF struggled to access food and shelter during the pandemic, with local-authority ‘gatekeeping’ continuing to be a major issue

Local authorities have statutory duties towards two categories of people with NRPF: families with ‘children in need’ and adults with care needs. But there are significant variations in how these duties are implemented. Many migrants in need of support were unable to access their entitlements before Covid-19.

During the pandemic, local authorities were called upon by central government to provide support to a third group of people with NRPF who would not normally be eligible for assistance: single homeless adults without care needs. Our research shows that, while some councils put in place effective emergency support for this group, the England-wide response of local authorities was frequently characterised by confusion, a lack of information about support options, and gaps in essential provision (e.g. food).

Our research focuses on the period during which the UK was in ‘lockdown’. But the problems highlighted in our report continue. Local authorities continue to be underfunded and many people with NRPF still live in destitution.

It is unclear what will happen to homeless adults with NRPF who have no statutory entitlement to support as public-health concerns subside. No new legislation or statutory guidance has been introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic to amend the entitlement to local-authority support of people with NRPF who would not ordinarily be eligible.

The effect of the absence of new legislation or statutory guidance has been twofold. Firstly, the support provided to this group has been inconsistent and unpredictable both within and across local authorities. Secondly,  it has been difficult for individuals or their advocates to effectively challenge local authorities in cases where single NRPF adults have been refused support or accommodation or where the accommodation or support offered has been inadequate.

Our research indicates that while some local authorities are trying to respond in a way that respects people’s rights and dignity, others do not want to continue to support people with NRPF, with a number planning to resort to so-called ‘voluntary returns’ or ‘reconnection’. In the view of many of our research participants, only an urgent end to the NRPF system can adequately address the problems that have been highlighted by COVID-19.

18 Jun 2020

Local councils must take a stand against NRPF

2020-06-23T15:07:47+01:0018th June 2020|

Today we are joining more than a hundred charities, campaign groups, lawyers and councillors in urging local councils not to evict homeless people with NRPF from accommodation provided through the Covid-19 homelessness response.

An open letter has been coordinated by PILC along with Haringey Migrant Support Centre, Museum of Homelessness and others. The letter asks local authorities to commit to never sharing homeless people’s information with the Home Office without their consent.

Finally, we are asking councils to publicly lobby Home Secretary Priti Patel for an end to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) regime.

If the government won’t protect migrant lives during a public health crisis, local councils must take a stand and offer sanctuary!

11 Jun 2020

Another step towards justice for the Shrewsbury 24

2020-06-11T18:46:24+01:0011th June 2020|

With the criminal convictions of members of the Shrewsbury 24 set to be challenged in the Court of Appeal, PILC senior solicitor Paul Heron narrates the legal history of a decades-old miscarriage of justice.

Photo: Jess Hurd / reportdigital.co.uk

On May 26th 2020 the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred the convictions of Ricky Tomlinson and Arthur Murray to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration.

Ricky and Arthur are two of the Shrewsbury 24. This was a group of ordinary trade unionists who were arrested for their involvement in the national builders’ strike in 1972. In 1973 Ricky, along with Des Warren, was sentenced to prison for unlawful assembly, conspiracy to intimidate and affray.

The Public Interest Law Centre has been instructed by Ricky and Arthur to act for them at their forthcoming Court of Appeal hearing. We have instructed Piers Marquis at Doughty Street Chambers on their behalf.

In addition to Ricky and Arthur, the following cases were also referred by the CCRC on May 26th: Alfred James, Samuel Roy Warburton, Graham Roberts and John Kenneth Seaburg. All four men are deceased and applications to the CCRC were made on their behalf by relatives.

Earlier, on 4th March 2020, the cases of John McKinsie Jones, John Malcolm Clee, William Michael Pierce, Terence Renshaw, Patrick Kevin Butcher, Bernard Williams, Kenneth Desmond, Francis O’Shea and Dennis Michael Warren were referred to the Court of Appeal.

This new legal challenge to the convictions of Ricky Tomlinson, Arthur Murray and their fellow trade unionists would not have been possible without the herculean work of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign.

The National Builders Strike, the Shrewsbury 24 and a miscarriage of justice.

In the 1970s, working conditions on building sites were both unpleasant and dangerous. Basic facilities were lacking. Health and safety measures were conspicuously absent. On average one building worker died every day in the UK because safety equipment was either not provided or its use not properly enforced.[1]

Attempts by workers to organise union activities or raise health and safety concerns were frequently met with dismissal. Blacklisting was a common practice.[2]

This combustible combination of poor pay and horrendous working conditions led to a national builders’ strike.

The Builders’ Charter Group, a rank and file organisation, was crucial to construction workers’ organising efforts. It pioneered a strategy to organise builders for national action and helped galvanise the main trade unions, UCATT (Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians) and TGWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union), for action.

As a result, a National Joint Council was organised to make demand better wages and working conditions.[3] When these demands were rejected by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, a national strike was called for May 1972. Eventually, on September 14th 1972, a settlement was reached with the employers for an immediate increase in basic rates of pay.

The Shrewsbury pickets

Between May and September 1972, building sites were picketed as striking workers sought to force the issue.

On 6th September 1972, during the final stages of the dispute, builders from north Wales were asked to go to Shrewsbury to help on the picket line. Coaches were organised and activists visited a number of sites to ensure the strike was solid.

Union activists behaved appropriately in appealing to workers to shut the sites. Des Warren wrote in his account of the strike: “Toward the end of the day, Chief Superintendent Meredith shook my hand and congratulated me on the conduct of the meeting we held. He made no complaint about the activities of the pickets.”[4]

Arrest, Court and Conviction

Despite the words of the senior police officer on duty, some of those involved in the pickets were later arrested. These arrests took place months later, apparently as the result of pressure from then-Home Secretary Robert Carr[5] and the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, both of whom were keen to send a warning shot to the labour movement.[6]

Unusually, the trial of the Shewsbury 24 was split into three:[7] 

Trial 1 was held at Shrewsbury Crown Court and began on 3rd October 1973. Des Warren, Eric Tomlinson and John McKinsie Jones convicted of conspiracy to intimidate, unlawful assembly and affray and sentenced to three years, two years and nine months of imprisonment respectively.[8]

Trial 2 was held at Shrewsbury Crown Court and began on 15th January 1974. Nine trade unionists were charged with unlawful assembly and affray. Brian Williams, Arthur Murray and Mike Pierce were found guilty of both charges and were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for affray and four months for unlawful assembly.

Trial 3 was held at Shrewsbury Crown Court and began on 26th February 1974. A further nine building workers stood trial on charges of unlawful assembly and affray. Several defendants were given suspended prison sentences.

Initial appeals

Appeals against the sentences were submitted immediately. Applications for bail were initially refused by the courts, but later granted. The convictions for affray were quashed. However, the substantive offences were heard by the Court of Appeal.

In October 1974, the Court of Appeal heard the appeals against the convictions for conspiracy to intimidate. The appeals were dismissed. Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson were returned to prison. On 3rd December 1974 the Court of Appeal considered further applications for leave to appeal to the House of Lords but refused to refer the case.

The unsafeness of the convictions

There are at least three reasons why the convictions of Arthur Murray and Ricky Tomlinson might be considered unsafe.

  1. Lord Hailsham, the Conservative Lord Chancellor, abolished the right of peremptory challenge of jury members on the basis of occupation just weeks before the Shrewsbury trial.
  2. A TV programme, entitled Reds Under the Bed, was shown on ITV during the trial. This was highly prejudicial to the case.
  3. Original witness statements were destroyed and this fact was not been disclosed to the defence.

Further appeals and challenge to the CCRC

In 2012 the CCRC received applications from Patrick Butcher, John Clee, John McKinsie Jones, Arthur Murray, Kenneth O’Shea, William Pierce, Terence Renshaw, Ricky Tomlinson, Dennis Warren and Bernard Williams. The CCRC was asked to review the case and refer the convictions for appeal.

In October 2017, the CCRC refused to refer the case for appeal. But following a successful Judicial Review challenge, brought by the law firm Bindmans, the CCRC agreed to revisit its decision.

The matters to be considered by the Court of Appeal

i) new evidence, consisting of a note dated 17 September 1973 and revealing that some original statements had been destroyed. Neither this note, nor the fact that statements were destroyed, was disclosed to the defence at the time of the trial

ii) new legal arguments relating to the screening of The Reds Under the Bed during the 1972 trial, including an analysis, applying modern standards of fairness, of the way the airing of the documentary was handled by the trial judge.

We hope that the Court of Appeal will reward the valiant efforts of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign by correcting a decades-old miscarriage of justice.


Footnotes:

[1] Ricky Tomlinson, Ricky, Time Warner, 2004, p131

[2] Des Warren, The Key to my Cell, Living History Library, p11

[3] Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain, Blacklisted: The secret war between big business and union activists,  New Internationalist, 2nd ed, 2016, pp56-57

[4] Warren, p18.

[5] Warren, ch.4 ‘The attack on picketing’

[6] Smith and Chamberlain, p59

[7] ibid, p62

[8] Jim Arnison, The Shrewsbury Three, Lawrence & Wishart, p51 onwards