Category Archives: Bishops Pastoral letter

Legal Aid is vital to avoid transience within communities

Whilst visiting a local church in one of the poorest parishes in the Diocese, Brother Ivo enjoyed a conversation over coffee with a lady who was deeply involved in outreach to her local community.

The Church ran a cafe ensuring a good affordable hot meal on a daily basis in sociable surroundings. They were very supportive of debt counselling but struggling to find enough time and advisors to meet the need. There was good work offered to children and young people. They were perhaps the last stable institution staring in an impoverished areas and they were anxious to stay, and serve the poor the lonely and the outcast.

It is the kind of church which makes one proud to be. Christian.

They had built their presence thanks to the receipt of grants, including good support from the local Diocese, and the Local Council, yet therein lies the problems. All such grants are limited in scope and time. Having built a functioning project for the benefit of the poor, it was threatened by an approaching end to funding streams.

The church remained dedicated and optimistic and were praying for support.

Should they be forced to contract their activities, the church will join a long list of sectors to have withdrawn from the community.

Once, the parish had housed the skilled workers for a large local defence establishment. Decline in the areas began when that facility had been closed, sacrificed to sustain another community in another part of the country. Shops closed, mutual associations and friendly societies were raided by carpet baggers intent on short term profit; pubs disappeared, and with them, local sports and other voluntary organisations all of which ceased to be active. Little by little, the structures of society ebbed away, until only the Church remains.

It is not only the public infrastructure which has departed, so have traditional local families.

That had always been the case in a modest form. As families “got on” they tended to move up the hill to slightly better or bigger houses, and young people moved to other parts of the country after going to university, but this natural turnover became worse and accelerated faster.

When the local economy sunk into depression,  house prices dropped and were bought up by ” buy to let ” landlords. Their client group reflected demographic change. Set in an area close to London the community experienced a squeeze from two directions; from recent European immigrants arriving from the Channel ports, and from others moving out of London as rental costs continue to rise in the capital.

With a ready supply of poorer, socially disadvantaged, often unsophisticated renters available, absentee landlords have no difficulty letting sub-standard properties.  the Local Council has other pressing priorities and are slow to enforce the law. People don’t like living there and move when they can even though the “grass is not greener” in the next property.

It is in this context, that Brother Ivo draws attention to the recently published Theos report arguing that there is a need to restore Legal Aid. You may read the story here – http://www.solicitorsjournal.com/news/legal-profession/legal-aid/legal-aid-side-angels

It is precisely because tenants can no longer enforce the law relating to housing law, because Legal Aid is not available, that the quality of the housing stock has declined. If you cannot enforce rights and standards, your only recourse is to move on – if you can. you have no pride of place, few places of common ground, and frequently no common language or culture with those about you.

It is in transient communities that drug dealing, human trafficking, and many other anti-social activities can flourish.

In the 1990’s,  New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton pioneered policing methods which transformed first that city then Los Angeles, based upon the premise that dealing with the smaller problems of a local community paid huge dividends with the higher profile concerns. He famously demonstrated that by zero tolerance of petty crime, such as little , broken windows and graffiti, you established a social climate in which the murder rate markedly reduced.

Our Victorian forebears who founded such communities originally put it a different way. “Look after the pence and the pounds will look after themselves.’

The same principle applies with the building of community and Legal Aid has an important place which is easily overlooked in anti-lawyer rhetoric.

Stable community cannot be built out of transience, because so many other social problems flow from it.

This is not a party political issue. The savage cutting of Legal Aid happened under Labour after many years of persistent neglect. The Conservative/Liberal coalition has maintained that policy of deliberately ignoring the enforcement of the law by and on behalf of the poor.

Damage has already been done. Law firms have closed in such areas, as have Community Law Centres. The expertise which had been developed in earlier decades in specialist areas of law has already been lost.

In public finance terms, the savings are small but disproportionately harmful.

Community requires local identification because only if local people are cohesive and care for each other can they have the kind of society in which they demonstrate love for their neighbour by reporting the drug dealer, the violent partner, the neglected child or the exploited immigrant.

We need to identify transience as an important factor in righting these social problems, and whilst it is not popular to speak of the need for Legal Aid we probably cannot address many of the issues driving social exclusion adequately without it.

Enter the Bishop of Clacton?

The growing dispute over MP’s outside jobs and interests must surely be a suitable occasion to take up the challenge from our Anglican Bishops in their recent Pastoral Letter, in which they urged us to step aside from partisanship and to analyse exactly what it is that will best promote the public good.

Rarely can this be more important than when the free composition of our ancient Parliament is being considered, in the light of what may – or may not – be breaches of the rules by two senior Parliamentarians

The Bishops’ letter covers a range of issues but must be relevant in relation to this topical question about securing the best representatives and legislators to serve the nation. The Bishops encourage us, whether we be Christian or not, to engage in the conversation, so Brother Ivo takes up the challenge.

The exercise begins with the hope that at the end of the enquiry,  we shall be fearlessly represented by free men and women of character. competence, experience integrity  and dedication to the task. Ultimately securing that outcome can never be about the making of rules but the exercise of judgement by those choosing the representatives , whether for the candidates list or ultimately by the wider electorate.

How we shall best ensure that those representing us bring the necessary  qualities to their role is important. Breadth of representation by the most talented is also an important objective.

The exercise surely begins with personal responsibility, not of the would be politician but with the electorate. If we do not participate in political parties ourselves, not least in their selection committees and processes, then we can scarcely complain at the character of those in the House of Commons?

Jesus told us that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”, and there was a range of character and both his disciples and early followers so perhaps we should predispose ourselves to the idea that diversity has more to offer than uniformity of any kind.

Love them or loath them, Sir Nicholas Soames, Dennis Skinner, David Lammy, Sajid Javid, Nadine Dorries and Sarah Teather are vastly different characters, and yet each represents a part of British life that needs representing in the House of Commons. Some have outside interests or affiliations, some have independent means, others do not. All types of MP bring important perspectives to a variety of questions, social, economic constitutional, and religious. It is odd to outwardly promote diversity whilst simultaneously excluding those whose personal circumstances don’t match a 9-5 working mentality.

Flexible and creative minds are surely to be encouraged?

It is the function performed rather than the uniformity of the mould that best guarantees the availability of a multiplicity of skills from which the welfare of the nation may be formed.

Brother Ivo is frankly concerned that to restrictive a drawing of rules will compress the pool from which MP’s may be drawn. It is, after all, a bit rum, for the present Party Leadership to fulminate against those who have second jobs.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband are both wealthy and have high earning wives: second jobs were always irrelevant to them. Nick Clegg has been described as one of the few people who can make both look positively middle class, having both inherited wealth, and a rich wife. George Osborne, Harriett Harman and many others are similarly hardly dependent on Parliamentary salary; Gordon Brown and George Galloway have been amongst the richest of outside earners whilst advocating for the common man. Bans on outside work will not touch any of these but may deter political engagement by many ordinary folk considering putting their careers on hold to contest seats that may never offer job security for an income less than many secondary head teachers enjoy.

There was a time, paradoxically when the estimation of MP’s was higher than it is today; it was when we did not pay MP’s at all.

Even that had its merits: if a man owned half of Berwickshire he might not empathise much with the rat catcher of Romford ( a task once performed by Brother Ivo’s grandfather!) but at least one did not have to worry over much about his selling his opinion to the highest bidder.

On the other hand, the paying of MP’s enabled the curmudgeonly Mr Skinner to bring an entirely different approach to the steering of the ship of state.

Every solution to the conundrum of how to remunerate and constrain our legislators has pluses and minuses, but we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater just to satisfy political spitefulness or to solve a passing  problem of the moment.

An early question must surely be whether we want to promote a fully professionalised dedicated political class?

The polls suggest a public inconsistency, not to say immaturity.

At one and the same time. many of us seem to be simultaneously complaining that our MP’s are out of touch with ordinary life – whilst also insisting that they should spend all their time working in the Westminster bubble.

We need to flag up this weak thinking.

Neither do we seem to be entirely clear on what the task a “full time MP” might look like. Is it enough that they work 35 hours, 40 or 45 hours? If so, is it really so outrageous if they earn money outside of those times rather than say, watching Netflix? As Dt Jonson said, a man is never so innocently employed as when he is making money. This is, provided there is transparency. When that is missing, then impropriety arises soon after.

One of the prickly questions one might even ask is whether this ” full time commitment” is compatible with being the mother of young children? Brother Ivo accepts that it is, but wonders whether the pressures, distractions and crisis management inherent in the multi-tasking of such ladies is actually less of a distraction to them than a once a week Board Meeting of a family business?

The value of current and ongoing outside experiences brought by farmers, duty solicitors, GP’s and military reservists is surely much appreciated by the public when they hear their parliamentarians examining issues with real life understanding, rather than the reading of briefings from special advisors, time serving before their opportunity to step up another rung on the career ladder that began with the PPE degree at Oxford.

A Parliamentary salary is greater than many earn in the country. That is no reason to conclude that those of talent are grasping. exploitative, and “only in it for themselves”. The rules may need modification but ultimately does it not depend upon the character and caliber of those whom we ultimately have a responsibility to vet and hold to account?

It is transparency and accountability that was at the heart of Zac Goldsmith’s recall bill which was emasculated by the party hierarchies – the folk who are currently vying to occupy the moral high ground.

If the local electorate choose candidates in open primaries and can recall an MP via a by election triggered by a petition of 10% of the electorate, the behaviour of Messrs Straw and Rifkind are surely best judged in the court of their most local public opinion.

Brother Ivo finds the idea of artificially restricting outside activities deeply unattractive. Many of our best politicians have been polymaths, people of exceptional breadth organisational skills and energy.

A simple analogy to put before the electorate is that of professional football and the maximum wage.

Were we to return to the old days of the “maximum wage” and legislate that football players be paid only an MP’s salary with no International duties or outside sponsorships, can you imagine the uproar? Would not fans instantly see that it would result in an exit of talent, a “dumbing down” and a resulting mediocrity of journeyman without flair?

Brother Ivo does not want to be only represented by the very rich or those whose ambition is limited to holding onto a lifelong job on a respectable but not spectacular salary. He sees such MP’s as excessively prone to influence by the Whips Office: the model of those who have to hold onto their jobs through compliance, contrasted with those free from economic fear looks suspiciously like the old  “gentlemen and players” model of yesteryear: one we should be slow to go back to.

Nothing illustrates the distain of the patrician class for the ordinary folk more than the entry in the members Register of Interests, which records a gift to Andy Burnham of a day at the Wimbledon tennis from Harriet Harman. It cost £2000.

It may be a pretty gesture between wealthy friends, but it surely sits ill for them to then rail against the ambition of more workaday MP’s who want and can suitably work for their families to have what the richest MP’s can so easily take for granted. Think of that day, when criticising the MP who put 400 hours  at night and weekends as a duty solicitor on not much money for his firm

Brother Ivo wants representation by the businessman who knows whether regulation is ” just right” or holding back enterprise and job creation. He likes the awkward ex Union Official whose members may not be as monolithic – or PC – as the party hierarchy. He wants farmers to speak for the countryside. He wants the GP or that  duty solicitor who can talk to the drug addict, and Police Sergeant alike at 3 in the morning and encounter what it is like trying to get a bed for the mentally ill under those circumstances, rather than hearing a civil servant’s regurgitation of  statistics.

All this is applying the spirit of the Bishops’ letter to this current problem. They seem to be encouraging us to engage more, and put in another way, it reminds us that the real problem is not that MP’s are not paying enough attention to their job, but rather that it is the electorate which is sloppy, and under performing. WE should have been more outraged when the recall bill was defeated by party interests who wanted to keep their power over the people’s representatives and did not want the electorate to exercise the discipline over its MP’S

Surely Christians seeking to improve the body politic need to be saying -“get involved, vet your candidates before you elect them. Hold your MP to account for poor standards. If they let you down, don’t hold to tribal loyalty – ‘ throw the bums out!” -as our American friends say.

We soon reach one of Brother Ivo’s beloved paradoxes – or in this case, perhaps an irony.

In such encouragement to take responsibility for our democracy, the Bishops are aligning themselves intellectually with no one on the current political scene so much as Douglas Carswell of UKIP, who has written persuasively on the subject

Now, who would have thought that?