JAD WINS LONDON PEACE AWARD
Jad Adams was given the prestigious Team London Award, directly sponsored by the Mayor, at a ceremony in City Hall on 21 August 2011, for his work with the homeless. He is pictured with another winner, Pauline Pearce, and Mayor Boris Johnson.
The Mayor said: “I have met some outstanding individuals this evening who truly encapsulate the spirit of London. There are many unsung heroes who work tirelessly to support their communities and whose hard work has been priceless in the aftermath of the disorder. Their stories are truly inspiring - from people like Pauline who had the courage to confront the extreme criminality that happened on our streets, to those like Jad who have helped people re-build their lives in the aftermath. There are many more people who helped restore pride in our city and to all of them I would like to express my enormous gratitude.”
A message to the Direct Action cohort November 2011:
Thank you for your support and your personal willingness to undertake civil disobedience to defy an unjust law.
The immediate pledge by so many of you to take direct action against Westminster was inspiring and a major factor in the council's defeat - we could have made the law unworkable by non-violent direct action on the streets.
We have not only helped the homeless in Westminster but have protected other soup runs, as had Westminster been successful, other councils would have followed the same route.
I was at the meetings where we discussed the negotiations with the council, but I did not attend any of the negotiation meetings themselves. I said we are not the people they see when they negotiate, we are the people they see when they stop negotiating.
Housing Justice played a major part in co-ordinating the campaign that brought down the Westminster plans. Soup run providers were involved, their activities were better co-ordinated to reduce disturbance to Westminster residents. A street party on 20 March this year in front of Westminster Cathedral showed the spirit of cheerful defiance Westminster could expect if they went ahead - it included a mass lie-down as everyone lay down in the square, an activity which would have been made illegal by the Westminster law if it were enacted.
Liberty became involved , making it clear that there would be a legal challenge over the proposals if they were enacted, over the human rights of the hungry to receive food and charities to distribute it.
Many of us wrote in the press and lobbied politicians to pay attention to Westminster's intended action. The political opposition did good work but, more importantly in this context, the Conservative leaders of the Lords and the Commons, and the Housing Minister and the Mayor all distanced themselves from Westminster when they were challenged. Westminster ran out of friends. Politicians had the sense to see this would be an unpopular issue that would polarise opinion and the supporters of Westminster council would not come well out of it.
The police representative at one of our meetings made it clear they did not see it as their job to enforce bylaws. Westminster were increasingly isolated, but kept blustering. In the end, though, they had cold feet and no friends. They just had to back down.
When I replied to your offer of help, it was to say I would only contact you with regard to direct action matters. I will now delete your contact details.
Thank you again for your willingness to put yourselves in the front line in this campaign; thankfully the threat alone has prevailed.
A message from Jad about Westminster Council's intended ban on soup runs in March 2011:
Dear Friend ,
I expect we all feel the same disgust at Westminster Council over their proposal to introduce a bylaw banning the distribution of food in a large area of the borough, and making it an offence to sleep out. This is a cruel and absurd proposal that is nothing but the criminalisation of the poor and those who would help them.
We have to believe that Westminster Council are serious about wanting to stop soup runs in the borough. You can help by declaring that if the law comes into effect, you will defy it by going to Westminster to distribute food to the poor. If Westminster’s proposal is clearly going to have the opposite effect from what is intended, and will increase rather than decrease the number of people distributing food, we can hope that wiser counsels will prevail and they will abandon it.
If the proposal is made into law, we will call on you to defy it. That would mean coming to the banned zone in Westminster and distributing food. There will be the danger of arrest, but it is likely that the police and courts would decide it would be a waste of their time to prosecute over something so ridiculous. Please send an email to us - email@example.com - indicating your willingness to participate in non-violent direct action should the need arise.
Use the message line ‘Direct Action’ and give an email address where we can contact you. Send a message to like-minded friends. Do not take any action until we ask you, the regular soup run volunteers will keep the service going as they always have, they do not need assistance immediately. Our action will be a co-ordinated and disciplined response with media coverage to shame Westminster if they persist.
Jad speaking at Westminster Cathedral Piazza street party 20 March 2011 Pic: Housing Justice.
I have worked voluntarily for the homelessness charity Nightwatch since 1979, and been chair since 1992. The Nightwatch website is www.croydonnightwatch.org.uk
Councillor, London Borough of Lewisham 1978-86; posts included Chair of Finance Committee.
Formerly member of executive of Greater London Arts Association and of Delegacy of Goldsmiths' College. Lobbied for public works of art in Lewisham.
Campaigned for right-to-buy legislation for leasehold flats 1987-93 (eventually becoming law as the Leasehold Reform Act) while fighting for the residents of Kings and Princes Garth to take over their property. Director K & P G Limited since 1991.
Has fought various campaigns against injustice in local government.
My contribution to the 2014 council and European Parliament elections, as written on the OUP blog:
My Democracy, Which Democracy?
I support democracy. I like to think I do so to the extent of willingness to fight and perhaps die for it. This is not so extravagant a claim, within living memory the men in my family were called upon to do exactly that.
Universal suffrage is consequently my birthright, but what is it that I am being permitted to do with my vote, when the political parties have so adjusted the system to suit themselves?
In the coming elections for local councils and the European Parliament, two relatively recent changes have stripped away most of the choices voters had and given them to the political parties. The Local Government Act 2000 and the party list system, introduced for European elections in 1999, are both triumphs of management over content. Both shuffled power from an aggregate of the electors to a small number of people running the party machines.
When I first saw local government in action, as a junior reporter on a local paper, I felt admiration for the range of abilities and oratorical skill that leading councillors brought to their posts. They were people who not only worked unpaid, but often made real financial sacrifices in order to work for their locality.
When I occasionally attend council meetings today I am struck by the poor quality of the debates, the inability to see the implications of policy beyond party advantage, the lack of intellectual rigour, the sheer irrelevance of most of this political process to the business of local government, which is now carried on by senior officers.
What happened in the interim? The Local Government Act 2000 did away with the old committee system that had run councils since 1835, through more than a century and a half of municipal progress.
The government imposed a 'leader and cabinet' system. Active local democracy was 'modernised' into non-existence: only cabinet members now have any authority and even their role is merely advisory to the leader.
The leader appoints the cabinet; the rest of the councillors are supporters or impotent opponents. There is no political brake on the leader's authority; but decisions can be criticised in retrospect by a 'scrutiny committee.' This is not local democracy but local autocracy.
Is it any wonder that people of quality are reluctant to come forward to be councillors when they have no influence except that can be garnered by toadying to the leader, who might then appoint them to the cabinet and put some money in their pockets? People of quality wanting to act in public affairs realise they could have more influence in pressure groups. Of course, there are still some meritorious councillors, just as under the old system there were some fools. My observation is that the balance has shifted and there are now fewer people of quality prepared to go through the system.
Voters were in fact given something of a choice over the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000: they could choose whether to have the directly elected mayor and cabinet system; or the leader and cabinet system. There was no option of retaining the tried and tested system of committees where every councillor had a voice. So it was a charade of a ballot where only votes in favour were requested and counted. This used to be called 'guided democracy' in east European countries.
As with every centralisation, those who already possessed power welcomed the developments of the LG Act with hands outstretched. It put more money into the system; gave senior officers more power (which, since it had to come from somewhere, meant commensurately less for elected representatives); paid councillors; and gave ever-increasing sums to cabinet members for special responsibilities.
In a few places the gimmick of directly elected leaders (confusingly referred to as mayors) was tried. The public were indifferent everywhere except London where candidates from both major parties have excelled as mayors, but London is more like a city state with a president than a municipal corporation. Elected mayors in four of thirty-two London boroughs have added to the cost of the process but contributed nothing to efficiency. Outside of London there are eleven directly elected mayors; with two other towns having tried but abandoned the system as an expensive flop.
This local lack of democracy is one of the ways in which the system has become fragmented, the responsiveness of the elected moving further and further away from those they are supposed to represent and towards their party loyalty.
On a larger scale, there is the other election we face this month, for Members of the European Parliament, which has been entirely taken over by political parties. A system in which electors voted for a local MEP was replaced in 1999 by the European Party Elections Act with a party list system with the additionally unfriendly title of 'closed list.' That means voters can vote only for a party, and the first candidates on the list chosen by the party will get in; even if that person is heartily despised even by their own supporters, so long as they are favoured by the party bosses.
This is not an arcane argument about supposed representation with no relevance to individuals. I have a property in Greece. I had a problem with the planning authorities there where I felt I was being discriminated against as a non-Greek. Contact my Member of the European Parliament, I thought. So who is that?
I found Greek MEPs with parties like the Popular Orthodox Rally or members of groupings such as the Nordic Green Left Confederation, but no member for the Dodecanese islands. After one and a half days of trying to make contact with people via the internet, Brussels and party offices, I finally called a London MEP who had a Greek name so I supposed she might know something. She was in fact very helpful, but is this any way to run a representative democracy? I did not vote for this MEP, at best I might have voted for a party list on which she appeared somewhere.
In the UK we now have this party list system; single transferable votes (for directly elected mayors); the mixed member system for the Welsh assembly (don't ask); regional proportional representation for the Scottish parliament and first past the post for general elections.
I still think I would still fight for democracy; but which democracy is that?
MY LOYALTY TO THE PARTY HAS REACHED BREAKING POINT
This was my contribution to the local government election in May 2006; published in The Independent on 21 April.
The local elections on May 4 will be a personal and sad occasion for me. On that day, I will be the first person in four generations to vote against Labour.
My family voted Labour for as long as they had a vote and there was a Labour candidate standing. But what the party has done with the town halls is such an affront to any conception of public representation that loyalty is stretched to and beyond breaking point.
It is often said that New Labour abandoned the socialism of Old Labour. In fact it only abandoned half of socialism: all that stuff about fairness and justice and equal opportunities, the revolutionary zeal to make the popular will manifest. Unfortunately, that was the bit I liked about it.
The New Labour project was to retain and surge forward with other aspects of socialist systems of government: the huge budgets on salaries and prestige projects; the centralisation of decision making; the suffocating bureaucracy; the reliance on managers and party apparatchiks (none of whom are ever responsible when things go wrong) the obsession with leaders.
Oh, the worship of leadership, ‘strong local leadership’ in the deputy prime minister’s words, as if politics consisted of nothing else. In the world of New Local Government manager shall mumble mealy-mouthed excuses to manager and each think themselves leaders of high calibre. I always thought local government was about representation - I should have been focussing on the leadership principle.
This government imposed on us, with no consultation with the general public, the 2000 Local Government Act. With this the division between elected councillors and appointed officials has been blurred to the extent that none of them, are representing the public, all are managers of the same system that pays all their salaries and supplies all their pensions. The ‘Local Leadership, Local Choice’ that John Prescott promised us is in fact a choice between identikit managers.
In the abandonment of socialism there is a supposed embrace of the market system that is carried out with every trick of presentation and jargon, with glossy presentational brochures, bar charts and focus groups. What is not done is the very reason the market system is in any way admirable in the first place: because it supplies value for money. Local government today does not do that, hence the council tax bill that has increased by 91 per cent in the past ten years over a time in which councillors have paid themselves vastly more for doing a job which used to be voluntary public service.
I have even witnessed that jewel of the old Eastern European justice system, a show trial: the humiliation of ‘working people and their families’ by a flagship New Labour council in pursuit of a dubious policy goal.
The council in question spent £600,000 to try to persuade council tenants to vote for their homes to be sold off. The local housing group, containing organisations representing council tenants and private tenants, campaigned successfully against the council: the sell-off was stopped when tenants voted against.
Instead of assessing the housing policy in the light of public mistrust, the New Labour response was to attack those who campaigned against its failed sell-off. Community representation was not a guide for future policy but an obstacle to their organisational plans.
The methods used were the manipulation of council procedures, unaccountable meetings, and bogus legal threats. The council tenants’ organisation was forced into liquidation. Once it used to be that canvassers could expect a welcome on any council estate, and tenants privately renting were natural supporters. The organisation representing private tenants (to which I had often acted as an advisor) had been set up by working class people to deal with their own bad landlords, they were a genuine indigenous, grass-roots organisation full of lifelong Labour people.
This private tenants’ group was ‘tried’ by a meeting at which allegations were made about the members of the organisation behind closed doors which the people accused were not allowed to know. In a Kafka-esque charade they were then invited in to give a defence to allegations, the terms of which they were ignorant.
The more cynical or conspiratorial folk believed the leading councillors involved were on the take, receiving a payoff from a housing company for selling off council homes on the cheap. I doubt this, I think they were just so blind to any concept of public service that their personal needs were perfectly satisfied with the pleasure of hitting a policy target. They had become management automata.
Of course, none of this ever went before a committee open to the public gaze and subject to questioning. Many councillors (who I suppose should be described as ‘Old Labour’) protested at the injustice of these procedures but to no avail, as back bench members they had no power.
While this all may seem like a little local story, it is not the scale of it but the mind set that it reveals which appals. The attitudes it displays, with the gaping hole where there should be natural justice or even compassion, are so widely repeated across the country that it is clearly a symptom of the system of local government that has been imposed on the town halls.
New Labour has lost the values that made the party worth supporting. It is simply no longer a vehicle for social progress. Indeed, there is evidence it is going in reverse.
Goodbye New Labour, now I’ll vote strategically for any candidate willing to do something to restrain council arrogance.
WHAT NEXT FOR COUNCILS OF DESPAIR?
I wrote a piece for The Times mentioning the LGOWatch conference in Croydon on 14 August 2005. The piece was published on 16 August , but somewhat reduced for space reasons. The following is the full text as I wrote it.
Angry voices are being raised about the state of local government, just two and a half years after the reforms of the Local Government Act 2000 completely transformed the way town halls operate.
An independent organisation, LGOWatch, is calling for the setting up of an independent local government complaints commission to bring order into a system it describes as ‘morally corrupt’ at its first national conference at a theatre in Croydon.
A strong warning light should be flashing in Whitehall, for the 2000 Act was supposed to herald a regime of quality, efficiency and leadership. In fact it has meant the introduction of the payroll vote and pork barrel politics into English local government, along with the acceleration of an arrogant, managerial style of operation.
One fact, glaring and inescapable is that the total council tax bill in England has risen by more than 40% in the years the Local Government Act has been in operation, from £14 billion in 2000-1 to $20 billion in 2004-5 (all councils had to have a new constitution in place by December 2002, though some had changed before that).
In the old system local decisions were made in – admittedly sometimes interminable - committee meetings by councillors informed by council officers. Council officers were paid experts with very limited decision-making powers. Councillors were elected representatives who were paid nothing but expenses and small sums, never enough to make a real difference to someone’s personal wealth.
The Local Government Act 2000 changed all that. Now councillors are paid and officers make decisions. The Act was lobbied for by those who would gain most: senior officers who would get enhanced power and prestige to justify salary increases; senior councillors who would get generous salaries and pension rights in place of their meagre attendance allowances; and private industry supplying local councils who would gain from an accelerated privatisation policy.
They worked together in organisations such as the New Local Government Network of ‘senior local government figures’ working with the private sector (so-called ‘corporate partners’) and seeking to ‘transform local services’. Well, they did that.
Councils were now going to be run by a mayor in concert with a ‘cabinet’ of senior councillors and a rump of ordinary members who were supposed to be operating a ‘scrutiny’ function over the mayor and cabinet.
The voters were, of course consulted: they were asked whether they wanted the cabinet system with a directly elected mayor or the system with a mayor appointed by the council. They were not asked if they wanted to retain the committee system that had maintained probity and gradual social development since 1835. It was the sort of ‘consultation’ we were going to get used to under New Local Government.
The word ‘leadership’ recurs in promotion of the supposed benefits of the new system, but how many people were ever looking to local councillors for ‘leadership’? (though perhaps it is more than were looking to local government officers for the same quality).
Slow deliberation in committees and public meetings on hot issues is now replaced by a series of ‘consultations’ on policy, though genuine consultation is utterly alien to the managerial mind and what in fact happens is the glossy presentation of decisions a few senior councillors have already taken.
Why is it all costing so much more?
One reason is the lack of financial brakes before decisions are taken. ‘Scrutiny committees’ supposedly examine council actions, but scrutiny after the act is no scrutiny at all, particularly as the majority party will almost never condemn the actions of its own cabinet members – or they might end up not only out of office but out of pocket.
We have had a class of paid politicians foisted on us, in place of local volunteers working for expenses, and it has completely altered the balance of local power.
Even the possibility of suffering personal loss through misconduct has now been removed from local government. Councillors used to be subject to having to make up financial losses caused through their personal misconduct. These ‘surcharge’ provisions were repealed and replaced by an obligation on councillors to sign a code of conduct. The Standards Board that enforces the code has no power to fine or imprison malefactors, the maximum penalty is now five years disqualification from standing as a councillor.
The proposals were promised to ‘combat local sleaze’ but introducing large sums of money into the system seems a bizarre way to achieve that.
The money councillors receive varies vastly according to no obvious principle. Thus the leader of Manchester City Council gets £48,765 while the mayor of my local council in south London (only one of 32 London boroughs, after all) gets £71,543. Ordinary councillors in Basingstoke, with no special responsibilities, get £5,556; in Lewisham they get £9,025.
The sums given to councillors are decided by the councillors bearing in mind the advice of ‘independent remuneration panels’. When I asked the press office at Lewisham town hall how the sums given to councillors were independently arrived at, I was told the only person who knew was on leave, and I was advised to put in a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister knows that this issue of the salaries councillors pay themselves, for work which was done on a voluntary basis a few years ago, is the hottest of hot potatoes. Asked if there are figures kept for payments to councillors nationally, or even guidance on a national scale of remuneration, they distanced themselves like an 100 metre sprinter: ‘It is for the authority to decide…the level of allowances paid to members. The ODPM has no role in providing guideline figures. Nor have we historically or currently collected information on levels of payments actually made by local authorities.’
By the way, the ‘bad news’ that Jo Moore wanted to bury after September 11 was about giving selected local councillors enhanced pension benefits.
The stricture for taking a principled line against your party over some issue used to be that the whip would be withdrawn and a councillor would be censured. The threat now is to lose endorsement as a councillor and therefore lose what may be a large percentage of their income.
Any sense of fair pay and openness seems to have left the town halls to be replaced by a management-style focus on achieving the goals and targets set by whatever the policy of the day happens to be. Community organisations that used to sit on committees along with councillors, and have the right to vote on policies, are now held in contempt by the handful of officers and cabinet members who make all the decisions. Or they are fobbed off with ersatz ‘consultations’ designed to produce the result already decided on. It is rule by the sort of people who think the solution to life’s problems is to introduce a management consultant.
A council I am familiar with decided to sell off some of its stock of council houses. In a consultation exercise the residents said no. Instead of examining its policy to respond more appropriately to the needs of the community, the council’s response was to attack the community groups who campaigned against its sell-off, using false allegations and the withdrawal of grants. The council of ‘strong local leadership’ (in the Deputy Prime Minister’s phrase) treated community representation not as a guide for future policy but as an obstacle to their organisational plans.
Examples of bad behaviour in local government, however, are by their nature almost always small fry. While local government seems small and uninteresting compared to the big questions of the day, in fact it is vast, employing 2.1 million people in England and Wales and consuming a quarter of all government spending. The local is national.
Have the changes of the Local Government Act passed even the electoral test and led to increased participation or voting levels? Again, to cite Lewisham as an example because its figures are easy for me to come by: turnout was 29.7% at the 1998 elections under the old system and 25.6% at the 2002 election with all the bells and whistles of a directly elected mayoral contest. No cheers for New Democracy there, then.
National government has created a system of local administration in which the arrogant abuse of authority is more likely, and probable. Tomorrow’s conference is a straw in the wind but a sign of anger by non-partisan citizens. It will start trying to re-establish accountability by first calling for the abandonment of the council-biased Ombudsman and the establishment of a genuinely independent Council Complains Commission. More power to them.
NO INDEPENDENCE IN THE INDEPENDENT LOCAL GOVERNMENT COMPLAINTS COMMISSION
I wrote an article which was published in The Times on 15 March 2005, criticising the complacent and partisan nature of the Local Government Ombudsman's office. It was reduced in length for reasons of space. The full version follows:
"Not before time, the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is today [Tuesday March 15] hearing evidence on the effectiveness of the Local Government Ombudsman.
This is welcome: anyone who does not feel a sense of injustice at the way local authorities routinely conduct themselves has, I would suggest, experienced so much shabby behaviour they have lost their sense of outrage.
The need for an effective body policing local government excesses is more important now than ever before. Who monitors the slowly unfolding disaster that is local government under the Local Government Act 2000 changes? These ‘reforms’ destroyed the distinction between local government officers and councillors. Officers used to be paid but had limited decision-making powers. Councillors were unpaid elected representatives. Now they are all paid and officers have greater authority.
The introduction of money into the system of local representation is an open door to corruption – this is not to say that corruption is invariably dining with your local council, just that the door is open, the lamps trimmed and the seat warm. Mr Graft will not be turned away.
The ballot box theoretically gives the public a choice, but no one gives the public to the right to vote for councillors who are not paid, or a council in which they can participate in public committee meetings. Now there are no unpaid councillors and most of the committee meetings have been abolished. An increasingly popular electoral choice is for people not to vote, to demonstrate their disgust with the system, or vote for a joke candidate such as a football mascot.
With both councillors and officers paid for participating in the system, there is no incentive for anyone to rein in its cost, or administrative excesses. Our one defence against misuse of local power is the Ombudsman’s office, set up in 1974 to investigate ‘maladministration’ leading to ‘injustice.’ The Act under which the Ombudsman operates does not define injustice, he has to do that himself, and define it he does.
Of 11,600 complaints sent to the LGO for England in 2003/4, only 180 cases, that is fewer than 1.6% of the total, were found to be maladministration. How is such an absurdly low figure of findings in favour of people who think themselves aggrieved reached?
I was given an object lesson in Ombudsman investigation when I represented a small community group in a London borough who suffered legal bullying culminating in a travesty of a hearing in which in which the organisation was called before a group of three councillors and three officers and accused of something written on a ‘secret agenda’ so they had to defend themselves from a charge which they did not know.
When this abomination was reported to the Ombudsman he found that the abuse of legal services to achieve a dubious policy goal was ‘not something in which the Ombudsman can become involved’ as ‘I believe that the Council is entitled to consult whichever officers it believes is appropriate.’ The Ombudsman’s officer claimed he could not question the decision to hold a meeting in confidential session and to deny the subjects of the meeting information about the charges against them as ‘this is a decision it [the council] is entitled to reach and not something that the Ombudsman can question.’
One wonders how much more glaring an injustice the Ombudsman has to see before taking action. The underlying problem is that the Ombudsman’s office is too close to the organisation it is charged with investigating. Two of the three current English Ombudsmen are former local authority chief officers, all three deputy Ombudsmen worked in local government before joining the commission. How can we expect impartiality from people who owe their status and their professional background to precisely the local government ethos they are called upon to investigate? Their automatic assumption seems to be that councils have acted in a fair and public spirited manner, and that the complainant is in the wrong.
Do these local issues really matter? Local government already suffers from a lack of scrutiny, as it is all just too little for national coverage and few local newspapers are up to the challenge of investigative reporting. Yet local government is not little, it is the biggest employer in the country, with 2.1 million staff in England and Wales, spending a quarter of all national government expenditure. The local is national and we should pay more attention to a fair system of complaints about it.
A local government complaints commission, on the same lines as the new Police Complaints Commission, would not be a solution to the abuses of local government, but it would at least prevent the obvious absurdity of the guardians guarding themselves."
The organisation campaigning for an independent Local Government Complaints Commission is LGOwatch. Their website is www.ombudsmanwatch.org
Published in the New Statesman 29 August 2005 as:
A Tale of Two Nephews
I have two nephews of roughly equal ages, in their early 20s. One is £17,000 in debt, the other has no debts.
However, the reason why one has no debts is not due to his financial probity or juvenile acumen, it is that his parents tear up the letters from credit card companies. The parents feel free to do this because he has Downs syndrome. That might not make him a very good credit risk, you might think. But as he is over 18 he is increasingly a target for finance companies who would like to take the waiting out of wanting and give him a few tens of thousands of pounds of debt on a rainbow array of cards. The benefits are unmissable, what’s stopping him from applying for priority handling? With money-back offers, it will pay him to add another card to his wallet, he could make money the more he spends, at around 15% interest.
He has his own bank account, which has a positive balance, and as he has the skills to fill in the application forms and return them with the Freepost envelope. If he did not live at home he could be out spending right now, with no possibility of ever paying off the high debts he would incur.
The indebted nephew had the opposite situation: instead of any guidance telling him it might not be a good idea to be heavily in debt before you are out of your teens, the government said the only way he could get an education was by borrowing, and the government even arranged the loan. It was an obvious next step for him to cover living expenses by incurring further debts with credit cards at absurd rates of interest.
Britain’s higher education is, we have recently been told, the most expensive in Europe and set to get more so. This suggests a gloomy future of indebtedness for young people way into their twenties and after. Results published last week for the big banks show provision for personal bad debts up by more than 20% over the past year.
There has to be a way out of the recurring nightmare of ‘unperforming debts’ as the banks call them. Bankruptcy is an obvious one which an increasing number of the under 30s are taking, with consequences for their credit worthiness that will dog them in the future. Even insurance companies asked for a quote for simple car insurance now demand to know ‘Are you currently the subject of a bankruptcy order or have you ever been bankrupt?’
A stern moralist might well say that getting into trouble will teach probity to the young by hard lessons (such as a visit from the bailiffs). But who is going to teach the same lesson in financial responsibility to the credit card companies that have loaned where there is insufficient income to repay the debt?
One way forward is the market solution: to let the finance companies which are responsible fail as bad businesses. They made loans they have little chance of recouping and they do not deserve to survive alongside more responsible companies.
When the credit card companies pursue my indebted nephew, his family does not tell them where he is. My family takes the view, which they express volubly, that no company which has sold their products so recklessly as they did deserves to be helped.
I was not brought up evading debt collectors and this is unusual behaviour for my family. It does not come naturally to us to run away from debt, and when I was growing up to incur debt in the first place was felt to be courting shame. However, I was not brought up in a world in which teenagers were expected to make major financial decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. The credit card companies will keep selling their products to the young until it becomes unprofitable for them, and the only way to make it unprofitable is to stop giving them any money.
Though I was a member of the Labour Party, I am critical of the direction the party has taken in recent years. I have said: ‘There is no New Labour, and there is no ‘old’ Labour, there is only the Labour Party with its history, its traditions and its responsibility to adapt to changing times. You cannot relaunch a political party like a domestic cleaning product, to attempt to do so was a confidence trick on the public that they were bound to see through eventually. Such tricks have a limited shelf life anyway, as nothing described as ‘new’ can stay that way for long: the concept of ‘New’ Labour always carried the seeds of its own destruction in the not-too-distant future.’
I left the Labour Party over the government's invasion of Iraq and the imposition of fees for higher education which I consider a betrayal of the young.
I presented an edited version of the following comments on BBC Radio 4's Four Thought programme on 14 August 2013:
Monetising the Homeless
have been volunteering with a homelessness charity, for more than
thirty years. You get used to a lot in that time, but you never get
used to the death of a healthy, young person.
suffered such a bereavement, a homeless man Sylwester Menzelewski who
had a wife and two children back in Poland. He died in a fire in a
derelict building where he and others had been living in squalid
conditions. He was 35.
We were particularly moved because our
local charity, Nightwatch, was started after the death from exposure of a
homeless man in Croydon in the 1970s. Local people got together to
take what action they could against homelessness in the borough. They
sought out homeless people living in squats, car parks, stations, found
out what they wanted, and organised services. Within ten years the
homeless population was down to less than a handful.
sort of squalor we used to see in the 1970s is back with a vengeance.
People are living in garages with mattresses thrown on the ground, with
no running water or electricity, a danger to their own health and that
of their neighbours.
Government figures say there has been a
doubling in the street homeless in London in five years and the line is
climbing. I have certainly seen that on the ground. This time just
last year I was seeing an average of 60 people a night coming for food,
now it is an average of 90.
So what happened? We had been
promised an end to street homelessness referred to as 'rough sleeping,'
by the end of 2012. No One Left Out, the national policy, was a
top-down model, proudly announced to have been set up by 'local
authorities, leading charities and central government.' It was
presented to us by zealous social administrators as a definitive
There is a saying that to a person with a hammer, every
problem looks like a nail. To a manager, it is believed that every
problem will respond to the mechanism of a flow chart. Given the
funding and the right number of people who have a Masters in Business
Administration, homelessness could be managed away.
problem was addressed with the arsenal of key performance indicators,
target values, inputs, outputs and throughputs, S.M.A.R.T. and other
managerial acrostics - methods that had failed in the world of business
and were then marketed to the voluntary sector so they could make a
similar contribution there.
Part of the failure of the current
policy is contained in the very use of the term 'rough sleeping'. It is
a description of those categorised as a nuisance, as if sleeping rough
is a lifestyle choice, a decision personally made. Here are the visible
homeless, take them away from their park bench or garage or wherever
they are, put them in a hostel, and we have no more homeless. Like most
simple solutions it is elegant: easily explained, engagingly direct,
It in fact is not only the visible, those sleeping in
shop doorways and park benches who are homeless. Sometimes the same
people will be homeless on the streets on some days of the week, and in
some kind of accommodation on another. Homelessness is a fluid state. I
knew a man who could stay with a friend during the week but at the
weekend his friend's girlfriend was there and he moved out to give them
some privacy. So how should he be described, three sevenths a rough
The overview here is that national government told local
government to have a policy on homelessness, and local government
contracted out their responsibilities to the big charities they like to
work with: the ones that mirror their power, finance and career
structures. Charities that behave more like companies, employing an
ever-growing number of people, ever eager to increase income and market
share, but without the restraint of having shareholders.
The people who run these services are not ill-intentioned and certainly help some clients.
there was an amazing correspondence between the way in which the best
help the big charities could give was also the most expensive procedure:
engaging the largest amount of property the largest number of staff.
procedure they erected insists on homeless people staying on one place,
linked to a complicated benefits system where they claim from the
address of the hostel. The hostel, and the charity that owns it, is
funded from these benefit claims. When a new resident comes in ,
someone will sit down with them, and whatever their need is:
reconnection with their family, loneliness, substance abuse, the one
piece of unadulterated help they will always get is filling in the
housing benefit form. Every person is claiming between one and two
hundred pounds a week on benefits for a hostel room. So the system is
based on a money supply of housing benefits administered by a team who
feed the money through the system to pay for staff and running costs.
They had, effectively, monetised homelessness.
If they were fully
effective, and clients were in and out in six weeks, this might not be a
disaster. But I see a lot of residents of hostels on a soup run
because they are not in and out fast, I see people coming out for food
who have been in hostels for five or seven years.
By the way
not all homeless people are equal, many are rejected from access to
hostels with the dreaded appellation No Recourse To Public Fund. That
means they don't have the right to access benefits, they are those most
unwanted among the homeless, those who cannot be monetised. Sleeping
out alone does not qualify.
The system requires a constant stream
of paid workers to run it, yet in more than thirty years of
volunteering with Nightwatch, of the many things I have heard homeless
people say about their needs, I am still waiting to hear one say 'If
only I had the services of just one more trained key worker I could
really turn my life around.'
As hostels have increased in number
they have not increased in quality. The best are very good, the worst
are dens of bullying and drug dealing. The things residents tell me
suggest the worst outnumber the best. Nor is the success rate even
remarkably good: a third of people are discharged and back on the
streets because of bad behaviour, or whatever. A third go on to their
own accommodation, which is a success; and a third are discharged to
other hostels - which also goes down in the figures as a success. But
that's the best the hostels can do for all the money: a third get
better, a third get worse and a third stay the same.
them government, housing charities and the housing market have created a
world in which it is not possible to be poor and recognised as such -
you must be in receipt of hundreds of pounds of benefits to afford even a
room in a hostel. It was actually easier to be a homeless person in
this country when George Orwell was down and out in London in the
1930s. He would be able to stay in Rowton House or other shelters for
the night. The official, London County Council figures for a street
count in February 1931 were 78 people sleeping out, fewer than a
hundred. There were a couple of thousand others who otherwise would
have been on the streets, but they were in overnight shelters. Just for
comparison, in the (admittedly much larger) London of today, official
figures say 6,437 people are out annually.
Being stuck in one
place, tied to a hostel linked to the benefits system, means people are
not able therefore to take advantage for example of seasonal work in
coastal towns or agricultural areas: they cannot tramp around looking
for work. I recently gave a Czech man a pair of boots he had asked for
so he could walk from south London to East Anglia to do farm labouring
When I take out students and other interested people out I
always ask: How was it for you? Is it what you expected? They so often
show surprise at how normal the homeless are, they are 'just like
That is why the 'rough sleeping' theory of
homelessness does not work - there is no disease entity or personality
trait you can isolate and treat to prevent repeat homelessness. The
homeless are us, just with less money. And more problems, you might
wish to say. Well, actually, no. All the problems I have encountered
with homelessness - drug addiction, domestic violence, marriage break
ups, alcoholism - I have also found in middle class families. The
middle class just conceal it better, and when something goes wrong, they
have a bigger, softer, richer safety net to protect them. Substance
abuse for example doesn't cause homelessness; there are plenty of people
using drink and drugs and making a very good living, not a few of them
in the City of London and around the Palace of Westminster.
most difficult thing I have to do as someone who sees street homeless
people at night regularly is to tell someone who is going to sleep out
that there is nowhere for them to go. There is no open access shelter,
that people could just walk in to, by self referral without the
intervention of a gatekeeper asking for the benefit cheque. You have to
apply for a hostel place Monday to Friday during office hours. When I
suggest at meetings, asking homeless people what they want I am answered
with a stony silence. Of course you don't ask them, they haven't done
4000 hours of social studies, how can they possibly know anything? I do
ask and I can say what people want - a warm dry place to stay for the
night, where they won't be attacked by thugs. Somewhere to sleep,
something to eat, washing facilities.
Sometimes, in recent
years, I can tell them there is such a place. In a spontaneous response
to the crisis of homelessness, local churches have opened their doors
to provide floating shelters. In London, where the scheme was
particularly successful, out of 32 boroughs, 26 had shelters this
Every year in winter, churches and other groups around
the country set up cold weather shelters, normally a different church
each night. It is along the pattern of soup runs and drop ins,
volunteers from the community doing what they can to address an obvious
need. Two things characterise these organisations and distinguish them
from existing provision: they are mainly or entirely run by volunteers;
and they are naturally generated from the community they serve, a
bottom-up model. Where local government has been involved it has been
with an enabling function - cutting through red tape to allow premises
to be used.
A way forward in homelessness would be for
government, including local government, to work with these services, not
against them, helping to provide open access homeless shelters all the
year round, that would be supported by faith and other organisations in
the community. They would be basic with sleeping, washing and laundry
facilities. This would not rule out professional intervention for
people who want to address their problems, they could go to a specialist
hostel, but shelters should be the first resort. The model of open
access shelters has been tried and tested. The good will and
willingness to volunteer to help is immeasurable - we turn volunteers
away, we have so many people wanting to help.
In the near
future there will be many more homeless people because of problems
associated with the recession, benefit cuts, people moving for work,
including moving from other countries. We will need to face that crisis
by mobilising the community.
I don't want more homeless people bedding down in wretched conditions or dying in them like Sylvester.