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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

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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