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The real impact of the legal aid cuts

How the cuts to legal aid have affected asylum-seekers, migrants and the lawyers who defend them.

 

One morning in January 2014, Gloria Jackson was returning from the supermarket with her groceries when she saw five policemen standing near the door of her home in London. When she tried to pass and go inside, the officers told her that she was under arrest. Jackson, a 57-year-old NHS psychiatric nurse who worked with dementia patients, was searched in the street as her neighbours looked on, locked in the back of a police van and driven away.

She was in shock and confused. Until that day, Jackson says, she was unaware that she did not have the correct immigration status to live and work in the UK. Born in the Caribbean, she arrived in England with her teenage son on a visitor’s visa in 1999 to stay with her mother and sisters, who are British citizens. Jackson says that when she saw the education opportunities in Britain, she decided to obtain a student visa to study nursing. On qualification, she applied for a work visa through a solicitor. Her son, Joseph, joined the navy, got British citizenship and fathered a son. Jackson did night shifts in residential nursing homes and hospitals and loved her work. Their life in the UK was turning out well.

In 2012, after she had been working in British hospitals for a decade, people at the nurse bank that employed her made inquiries about her immigration status for the first time. The Home Office told them that Jackson was entitled to work. It was only two years later, when the police arrested her, that she was informed that she did not have the right paperwork after all. Her solicitor had failed to apply for the correct visa. Charged with fraud, Jackson faced up to three years in prison.

When her criminal case went to trial, Jackson was able to prove that she had been unaware of her true immigration status and the jury acquitted her. But her troubles were far from over. Unable to work and facing removal from the UK, she remains in limbo, living in her elderly mother’s spare room in north London, while she fights to remain in Britain.

“My head is just bursting. I just want to move on with my life,” she tells me, staring at the living-room carpet. “But I am so glad I have Ana,” she adds, looking up. “Why didn’t I know her all those years ago?”

***

Ana Gonzalez is an immigration and asylum lawyer at Wilson Solicitors, a well-respected firm in a field where unscrupulous practitioners have been known to take advantage of migrants and refugees. It is her job to help some of the most vulnerable and often demonised people in the country to stay here when the system moves against them.

Her caseload is large and varied. On the same day as an appointment with Jackson, she saw a victim of domestic violence from the Caribbean, a Somali asylum-seeker and a Nigerian woman who was smuggled into Europe by sex traffickers.

“We can get upset, we can get stressed out – but never bored,” Gonzalez says at her office in Tottenham, north London, when I spend a few days shadowing her.

More than eight million people in Britain – 13 per cent of the population – were born abroad. Net migration to the UK is at near-record levels, with a peak of 330,000 in the year ending March 2015. This was three times the government target and nearly twice what it had been in 2013. But as demand for legal services for migrants increases, the public funding for representation has been slashed and the pool of firms taking on such work has shrunk. In 2009, England and Wales had the highest legal aid spend per capita in the world, administered by the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Services Commission (LSC). Then the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force in April 2013, part of a plan to cut £350m a year from the £2bn annual bill. It replaced the LSC with the Legal Aid Agency, which is still part of the Ministry of Justice but makes independent decisions.

Under the act, many categories of criminal and civil cases no longer qualify for legal aid funding, including immigration cases involving clients who are not in detention, such as Jackson. Many who previously could
have claimed legal aid have been left unable to afford lawyers and have to represent themselves. Jackson would be in that situation, too, were it not for Joseph, now 30, who is paying her legal costs and joins his mother for the meeting at Gonzalez’s office.

Gonzalez is using Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights to argue that Jackson’s right to family life will be breached if she is forced to return to the Caribbean. Her entire family is in the UK – she has no one to go back to.

“Your case is very solid,” Gonzalez tells her. “It is very difficult at the moment for those without British children and British partners to get to stay in the UK if they haven’t been here for 20 years but you have your grandchild and your son. The ball is with the Home Office now. If they refuse you, which is likely, they will have to give you right of appeal and then we go before an immigration judge. I believe you will have a very good case in front of an immigration judge, because you are a very likeable person. You have no criminal convictions, you have given so much to this country and you would give more if you could.”

But Jackson looks defeated. She has been waiting for nearly six months to hear back from the Home Office. Gonzalez suggests that Jackson contact her MP to make inquiries that could speed things up.

“I don’t have an MP, because I don’t have a vote,” Jackson says.

“Even if you live on a bench, you have an MP. Everybody has got one.”

Gonzalez wants to find out if there is any new evidence she can submit to strengthen the case. “You’re living with your mum. What do you do for her? Shopping?”

“Actually, I’m her carer,” Jackson replies. “She had a shoulder replacement.”

“That strengthens your case so much more,” Gonzalez says, smiling. “It would be really good to get a letter from her doctor confirming that your mother has been relying on you for day-to-day support. If you were not there, the government would have to provide a social worker to come in.”

Jackson describes how much she misses her job. It’s the first time in her life that she has found herself sitting at home with nothing to do.

Gonzalez listens and then shakes her head. “They’re gagging for people like you in the NHS, with your work and experience,” she says.

***

Gonzalez is also a migrant. Born into a working-class family in a small town in Galicia, Spain, she studied employment law at a university near her home town. She came to London to improve her English in 1994, aged 22, working part-time as a waitress and office administrator. By chance, she started temping at the centre for Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ), which provided free legal advice and representation for vulnerable migrants and asylum-seekers. (The centre closed in 2010 after cash-flow problems caused by changes to the legal aid system.) Gonzalez loved the work at RMJ and was inspired to do a legal conversion course.

Since then, it has been an all-consuming vocation. In 2013 she found herself fighting Home Office removals for two of her clients on Christmas Day while her husband was stuffing the turkey. “I love my job dearly but it takes a lot out of you,” she says. “You don’t do this for the money. People talk about fat-cat lawyers – we’re very skinny here.” According to research by the Law Society, immigration and asylum solicitors earn £35,000 a year on average, compared to an average salary of £51,500 across the legal profession.

The legal aids cuts have prompted Wilson’s to take on work from ever more private clients seeking help with immigration matters. One of Gonzalez’s cases involved a wealthy British businessman based in east Asia whose fiancée’s visa ­application had been refused. Settlement visas are expensive: on top of the £956 application fee, applicants have to pay a £500 health surcharge, even if they never use the NHS, so they spend nearly £1,500 before they even see a solicitor. But the more money you have, the easier immigration ­becomes. If you can pay an extra £400, your application will be resolved on the day of your appointment. For £7,000, you get the Home Office’s “super premium service”: at a time and date of your convenience, a courier will collect your application documents and a staff member will then visit your home to obtain a signature, photograph and fingerprints. A decision is made within 24 hours.

Gonzalez accepts that the government wants to attract foreigners who can afford to invest. But many of her clients are women who first came in on visitors’ visas and perform jobs that are low-paid but essential to the UK, such as care-home workers and domestic cleaners. For them, official immigration can be almost unaffordable.

It has also become harder in recent years for asylum-seekers to obtain permission to stay in the UK – the cases that take up most of Gonzalez’s time. Although the number of asylum applications in the past few years has been far below the 2002 peak of 84,130, the government has been tightening the criteria for successful appeals. In 2014, there were 24,914 asylum applications. About 59 per cent were initially refused and of those cases that went to appeal 28 per cent were successful, against 40 per cent in 2010.

Asylum cases still qualify for legal aid, but at a reduced level. When Gonzalez first started at Wilson’s in 1999, solicitors were funded to attend asylum screening interviews. Now, they are funded to attend only if their client is a minor. She is used to having every legal aid expense quibbled over at the end of a case – not just her time, but also expenses incurred obtaining vital medical and psychological reports on her clients, even if the money has been pre-approved by the Legal Aid Agency. “Many really respectable firms have stopped doing legal aid and I entirely understand why,” Gonzalez says. “They make us fight for every single piece of funding and the bureaucracy involved is brutal.”

For each asylum case, solicitors are paid a fixed fee of £413. If their work costs exceed this, they won’t get paid more for it unless they incur expenses three times that sum. “It’s a ridiculous system,” says Gonzalez, whose costs can often be in the region of £600 to £700. “If the work has to be done, we just do it and we don’t get paid for the extra work. We can absorb that to a degree, because we’re a big firm, but that is something that we cannot keep on doing, because it’s not sustainable.”

***

Later that afternoon, Gonzalez has an appointment with Florence Abuku. She says that Abuku’s case is a “classic example of Home ­Office bad behaviour”. Originally from Benin City, the trafficking capital of Nigeria, Abuku, who is 30, was forced to work as a prostitute in Italy for two years before being sent to the UK in 2008. Her traffickers made her cash fraudulent benefit cheques here. She was caught and sentenced to 15 months in prison, before claiming ­asylum while in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Granted leave to remain in 2010, Abuku has just been notified that her settlement application has been refused.

“This is a copy of your refusal,” Gonzalez says. “I’m going to go through it with you.”

Abuku leans forward to read the letter, her black curls falling across her face. Gonzalez explains that applicants in Abuku’s position should be given indefinite leave to remain after five years so long as they have no
criminal convictions. But when the Home Office carried out a criminal records check, it threw up the pre-asylum conviction for fraud, so her application has been rejected.

“This is a very weird decision,” Gonzalez tells her. “The courts already knew about that conviction when you won your case. Had it not been for the trafficking, you would not have committed the crime.”

Tears well up in Abuku’s eyes. “They [the traffickers] made me go and do this.”

“It is very low of the Home Office to throw this in your face all these years later,” the lawyer says. “But I honestly believe this is a mistake by somebody who didn’t know how to do their job. We’re going to challenge this and we’re going to reverse it. My plan is to write to the Home Office and threaten them with litigation, with judicial review.”

Abuku was suicidal at Yarl’s Wood and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I was beaten by bad boys at the side of the river in Perugia,” she tells me. “I would stand by the side of the road and they would throw eggs and stones.” She was raped. “Now this. The stress is too much for me.”

“This is just a setback,” Gonzalez says, gently. “It’s a blow but it is fixable.”

She is right. A few weeks later, news arrives that the Home Office is giving Florence the right to settlement after all.

Gonzalez’s frustration at Home Office bureaucracy, and the ministry’s mistakes when it comes to asylum in particular, is not unique. In 2013 Mark Stobbs, the Law Society’s then director of legal policy, said that the government would get better value out of the system, were it not for the “inefficiency, delay and culture of disbelief” at the Home Office. As a result of its obsession with numbers and targets, the department is determined to fight even the most promising cases, Gonzalez says. Her next client after Abuku is Amal Mohamed, a Somali asylum-seeker, whose case has cost the taxpayer well over £10,000 in legal aid. Now, after two and a half years of going back and forth between judges, they are back at stage one: the Home Office has agreed to look at Amal’s initial asylum application again.

The biggest barrier that Gonzalez’s clients face is stigma from the media. “They always report on the family on benefits in a £1m home in west London with five kids,” she says. “After 16 years of doing this work, I know those people are a minority.” She tells me about former clients of hers who have won their cases and received papers to stay: the main buyer at a big department store in central London, a lingerie designer with his own thriving company. “The tabloids never report on those people.”

Gloria Jackson, the NHS nurse, hopes that ultimately she, too, will be allowed to stay. A month after her meeting with Gonzalez, she heard that the Home Office had given her the right to appeal, so she will be going to the high court to appear in front of an immigration judge. She is still waiting for the court date. Given the huge backlog of cases, Gonzalez doesn’t expect the hearing to take place for another nine months at least.

The names of all of Ana Gonzalez’s clients have been changed to protect their identity

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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