The challenge of downsizing criminal justice

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On 21st May Richard Garside spoke at a People’s Parliament event on ‘Policing, Prisons and Probation: Current and Future Agendas. This is a write up of what he said first published on the Centre For Crime and Justice Studies website.

Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight at this important event.

Before I get on to the substance of what I will be saying today, a quick observation on the speech earlier today by the Home Secretary to the Police Federation annual conference.

There has been a lot of coverage of her announcement that the Police Federation will no longer receive public funding. She also listed a number of recent events that have contributed to what she described as ‘a time of great difficulty for policing’.

This is what she said:

‘In the last few years, we have seen the Leveson Inquiry. The appalling conclusions of the Hillsborough independent panel. The death of Ian Tomlinson and the sacking of PC Harwood. The ongoing inquiry by an independent panel into the murder of Daniel Morgan. The first sacking of a chief constable for gross misconduct in modern times. The investigation of more than ten senior officers for acts of alleged misconduct and corruption.

‘Allegations of rigged recorded crime statistics. The sacking of PCs Keith Wallis, James Glanville and Gillian Weatherley after “Plebgate”. Worrying reports by the inspectorate about stop and search and domestic violence. The Herne Review into the conduct of the Metropolitan Police Special Demonstration Squad. The Ellison Review into allegations of corruption during the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Further allegations that the police sought to smear Stephen’s family. Soon, there will be another judge-led public inquiry into policing.’

When I read her speech earlier today it reminded me of a famous remark made by Sir Robert Mark, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police during the 1970s:

‘a good police force is one that catches more crooks than it employs’.

Part of developing a future agenda for the criminal justice in general, as well as the individual agencies such as the police, involves ensuring these very powerful public bodies are democratically accountable. It is also important that they treat all those citizens who have dealings with them – whether witness or victims, suspects or convictees – with dignity and respect.

To achieve this our criminal justice agencies need to be operating at the right scale, and in the right ways. Currently they are far too big and intrusive.

There is considerable scope to downsize criminal justice. A reduction in criminal justice spending, if this reduction is complemented by a comparable reduction in the size and scope of the criminal justice agencies affected, a realistic, and important, policy objective.

There is significant research evidence indicating that levels of victimisation are related to underlying social arrangements, rather than to the interventions of criminal justice agencies. A big criminal justice system does not make us safer. Indeed, it can make us more vulnerable.

In essence, the question of the rates of harm and victimisation in society and the question of the size, scope, reach and operation of the different parts of the criminal justice system need to be separated.

Downsizing criminal justice

Current criminal justice spending reductions are being implemented following previous, and generous, real terms spending increases.

Spending on the police in England and Wales grew in real terms by 50 percent between 1999 and 2009.

In the case of the Prison and Probation Services there was a real terms spending growth of 36 percent between 2004 and 2009.

These generous spending increases financed growth in these services, though this growth was uneven. Police numbers grew significantly while their caseload stabilised. Prison numbers and probation caseloads grew more quickly than budget growth, putting significant strain on both services. Frontline probation staff numbers declined after 2006 while caseloads grew.

The current squeeze on public spending presents an opportunity to resize the various criminal justice agencies in a manner that delivers real social benefit and leaves those services in better shape.

There is little evidence of the current government, or the opposition, embracing this challenge. Both appear to favour maintaining the current size of the justice system, or even to expand it in the case of prisons, on shrinking budgets, while chipping away at legal aid in particular as a means of finding savings. The long-term effects of this on staff morale, system effectiveness and justice are difficult to predict, but are likely to be significant.

What reduces victimisation levels?

My starting point is that the main influences on levels of harm and victimisation are social arrangements – for example rates of wealth and poverty, levels of employment and unemployment, unequal power relations – rather than the criminal justice system and its individual agencies.

One of the clearest demonstrations of this comes from an assessment of homicide rates. There is a pretty clear evidence base that higher levels of homicide were associated with higher rates of poverty.

This is true both internationally, and within the UK. Research by Danny Dorling, for instance, found that the rising trend in the number of homicides between 1979 and 1999 was very unfairly distributed. Those living in the richest neighbourhoods saw their risk of being a victim of homicide fall. Those living in the poorest neighbourhoods saw their risk of being a victim of homicide go up sixfold.

In contrast, evidence for the effect of criminal justice interventions on official crime rates is poor.

The best case that can be made for criminal justice impact on crime levels is probably prison in relation to the United States. To achieve this, the United States has relied on policies of hyperincarceration and aggressive policing strategies disproportionately targeting black people and the most economically disadvantaged.

This does not mean it is not possible to make meaningful interventions in response to victimisation. They do, however, need to be the right ones.

For instance, our comprehensive review of gun and knife crime strategies for the Children’s Commissioner for England cast doubt on the effectiveness of police-led approaches and found that effective strategies typically were holistic, engaging with the big questions of disadvantage and social exclusion, as well as addressing individual, familial and neighbourhood problems.

Research published a couple of years ago found an interesting correlation between the early 1970s raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16 and reduced rates of property crime. The trend towards more young people staying on for longer in education is a good thing in itself. It might, incidentally, also result in fewer of them getting into trouble with the police.

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies’ 2012 report, Reducing the numbers in custody, compared a number of countries’ social and economic arrangements and their levels of imprisonment and victimisation. Countries with lower rates of poverty and inequality and more generous social safety nets were typically safer, had lower rates of violence and lower rates of imprisonment.

In essence

I am in favour of a criminal justice system that is responsive to the needs of victims and witness and treats suspects, defendants and convictees with respect and dignity. To achieve this, it needs to be smaller, less intrusive, more focussed on care and support over punishment.

The criminal justice system is good at punishing certain individuals and groups. It fails to prevent social problems from arising, or to resolve those that occur. It is possible to deliver lower levels of victimisation and a smaller criminal justice system at the same time.

Our current over reliance as a country on criminal justice interventions crowds out more innovative, just and effective policy and practice solutions to the problems our society faces.

Campaign to save the Independent Living Fund

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On Monday night the People’s Parliament hosted a debate on the cumulative impacts of cuts to disabled services which saw another packed and angry debate about the harsh consequences of the Governments attacks on disabled people and a wide ranging discussion on how people can fight back.

One aspect of the cuts to disabled services is the latest threats to The Independent Living Fund of which many disabled people rely on. Paula Peters writes for us here on why you should join the campaign to save the Independent Living Fund.

The money from the independent living fund helps pay for a personal assistant, and enables disabled people who need support to have a quality of life to do the same things everyone else can do. Live. The government says “ILF recipients will be reassessed by their local authority, and will be funded by the local authority”. The money given to the local authority to meet a disabled person’s support needs will not be ring fenced. The local authority can spend that money meant for disabled people and their support needs on other resources. Disabled people who need the support fear less or no support at all and then being placed into residential care, far from friends and family.

Imagine this; your local authority has cut your support needs. You would have to rely on the local pop in service from carers you do not know, to keep you clean, warm up a meal in the microwave, and convenient at the time for the carer but not a convenient time for you. If you need night care, you would then be forced to wear incontinence pads or even worse cathertised. You would then be only able to shower once a week, have no social life, have to perhaps use a hoist and then excluded from every day activities outside, forced to give up your pet if you had one, no garden, forced into isolation, having to sack the personal assistant you relied on for many years with no redundancy for them.

Now you are thinking you do not want to go on anymore. Its how do I go on like this with little support? Due to the lack of support you are now isolated at home cut off from society and from friends and family and as the lack of support means no independence, no social life, can’t work, no quality of life, it would make anyone feel down, and even depressed. It’s awful to contemplate isn’t it?

Disabled people want rights. Rights to live independently in the community, to have our support needs met, so we can have a quality of life, and do the same things as everyone else does. Live. 

Society forgets that we are human beings, people, we are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, neighbours, colleagues, but society sees the impairment, not the person we happen to be. We are judged, discriminated against, and called a drain to society. Well, we are not!

People can be born with an impairment, or at some point in their lives can even be struck down with a devastating illness, hit by a car, lose your mobility need to use a wheelchair to get around, have a breakdown, could lose your job and need to claim benefits to live. The social security system was put in place to protect those who needed the support, who may be too ill to work. You need the support every day to carry out the simplest of tasks. Life is unexpected, it’s cruel and its tough, it can change in a flicker of an eye lash, and it can happen to YOU.
Life is really hard living as a disabled person every day. Trying to manage life with all the same worries as non disabled people. Money, keeping a job, family life, health issues, how to get around using public transport. It’s bloody tough.

“I got up this morning, brushed my teeth, showered, ate breakfast, got dressed, checked my e mails, went to work, had lunch with colleagues, met with friends on the way home from work, popped in on my mum to see she was alright before coming home to do a couple of hours work on my open university degree before bed. I was able to do all this because of the money from the Independent Living Fund that helps pay my Personal Assistant to support me to do the things I can’t manage to do directly because I have a condition that means my hands do not work and I get around using a wheelchair” – ILF recipient

Our demand is to keep the independent living fund open, open it up to new claimants and open up independent living to all disabled people so we can keep our independence, and with support, have a quality of life and live. All I ask of you is for your help. Help us save the independent living fund from closing on 30th June 2015. As disabled people, we want rights to live independently as possible, having a quality of life despite what we battle with every day with our disabilities and illnesses.

Why? Because we’re worth it! We are human beings and we want to be treated as such, not the stock the government and great swathes of society think we are. We are worth it! Help us keep the independent living fund open and help us in the fight for our rights so we can have a quality of life living in society as best as we can.

Take part in the Save the ILF Campaign:

May & June Talks Announced

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Dear People’s Parliament,

We are pleased to announce a further grouping of talks to be taking place over the next two months available to sign up via our website. Further talks scheduled for July and beyond will be announced soon.

Video’s of many of the events to have taken place so far have now been uploaded to a new section of our website and can be seen here.

We hope to see you at a discussion of interest in the coming months.

John McDonnell MP & The People’s Parliament Team

Monday 12th May: The cumulative impact of cuts faced by disabled people

With Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), Francesca Martinez, Tracy Lazard (CEO Inclusion London) and chaired by Ian Mearns MP

Tuesday 20th May: What should the left be demanding of Europe?

From the TTIP trade deal, to fracking and the privatisation of our NHS, the EU too often operates in the corporate interest. In the same week as the European Elections we look at the possibilities for an alternative, democratic Europe

Wednesday 21st May: Policing, Prisons & Probation: Current and Future Agendas

With Richard Garside, Stephen Farrall & Joshua Skoczylis (all academics) and chaired by John McDonnell MP

Wednesday 4th June: What does resistance today tell us about life after capitalism?

With Luke Cooper, Simon Hardy, Lynne Segal, Maia Pal and chaired by John McDonnell MP

Monday 9th June: Right of Recall and the Need to Reform Parliamentary Democracy

A discussion with Zac Goldsmith MP (Conservative), Michael Meacher MP (Labour), Alexandra Runswick (Director of Unlock Democracy) & Michael Sani (Bite the Ballot)

Wednesday 25th June: Making Money Work For People and Planet

With Professor Tim Jackson (Author of Prosperity Without Growth), Ann Pettifor, Ben Dyson (Positive Money), Anastasia Nesvetailova (Academic specialising on banking) and chaired by Michael Meacher MP

Housing crisis requires bold action

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This article first appeared on Inside Housing

Are you a victim of high rents? If you live in London then most probably because the housing market is out of control. Everyone knows that now, and an unprecedented amount of coverage on the housing crisis means we no longer need to tell each other that we have a housing crisis on our hands in this country. The time is now to act on this. Fortunately, an opposition to the housing crisis is beginning to emerge.

Last night saw another packed out talk in the House of Commons as part of the People’s Parliament discussion series, organised by Labour MP John McDonnell, to liven up and provide political depth to the debate in the run up to the next general election. Last night’s discussion was on ‘the housing and homelessness crisis’, where it was immediately obvious that people have become bored of warning people about the housing crisis and are moving on to demanding answers.

The statistics are utterly staggering. Over 1.7 million households are currently waiting for social housing which to be honest just isn’t going to arrive. More than 2 million people find their rent or mortgage a constant struggle or are falling behind with their payments. Average rents in London are £1,417 a month, meaning people are spending a totally disproportionate amount of their income on securing a roof over their head. Even today we have heard that London house prices have risen 18% in a year. To exemplify how bad things have got, according to Anna Minton, author of Ground Control, apparently someone recently was even asked to pay rent to sleep in a fridge.

Yes, we must build more homes if the UK’s population continues to increase as expected but building more homes is not the solution. Boris Johnson and our other UK local authority leaders were accused last month by housing campaigners of ‘selling off our city to the highest bidder’ – in reference to their support of the MIPIM conference in Cannes, France.

What the problem boils down to, as spelt out by Danny Dorling in his new book All That is Solid is that no one should be able to make a profit out of housing. Housing is not like gold, or oil or anything else one might wish to invest in. Housing is a basic need for everyone to be able to have a roof over their head. Therefore, letting the market dictate are housing is not the right way to go.

In the last few months an organisation called the Radical Housing Network has emerged which is made up of groups fighting for housing justice across London who are attempting to harness all this housing anger.

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At the People’s Parliament a number of solutions were put forward. For a start we need rent controls and we then need a land value tax which would require ‘property owners to pay an annual levy based on the market value of the plot of earth beneath their home.’

We should listen to the Empty Homes Campaign by doing everything that is possible to bring empty properties back into use, of which there are still around 1 million across the UK. Bringing empty properties back into use also includes repealing the criminalisation of squatting as it’s become evidently clear that squatters do more good than harm.

The bedroom tax must be repealed and we should reverse the trend of selling off all our housing stock by investing in first class council housing instead. Housing experts are now calling for such measures up and down the country.

Over the weekend, we heard that housing policy could be the issue that decides the next general election and if true all political parties must get to grips with the crisis because currently none of them are proposing anything anywhere near bold enough.

At the sharp end homelessness has risen by 62 per cent in the last 2 years in London which can be directly attributed to government policies. Because housing involves us all, it’s the issue which defines this era. We have an opportunity now because housing is rising up the political agenda.

These discussions will continue at a gathering later this month where experts such as Danny Dorling and others will be speaking.

‘The demise of justice is happening – now’

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This was first written by Mary-Rachel McCabe for The Justice Gap

EVENT: ‘The legal aid world is, frankly, in crisis,’ warned Liz Davies, chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, at a lively debate on the state of the justice system last night. ‘I am pessimistic about the existence of legal aid lawyers in two or three years’ time. Civil and criminal legal aid is on its last legs. The demise of justice is happening.’

The debate was organised by the People’s Parliament, and was chaired by Labour MP, Dr Hywel Francis. Davies shared a panel in the House of Commons with veteran human rights lawyers Michael Mansfield QC and Gareth Pierce, and actions against the police lawyer Jules Carey.

Opening the debate, Francis, who also chairs the Joint Committee on Human Rights , said that he was ‘struck’ by the fact that when the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, gave evidence to his committee on the legal aid cuts, his responses to most questions were based on cost. Quoting Oscar Wilde, Francis said: ‘Grayling is someone who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.’

Michael Mansfield QC echoed Francis’ sentiments, arguing that ‘we are living in a morally and politically bankrupt society.’ ‘Most people are now unable to fight their corner because of the legal aid cuts,’ he said, expressing his outrage at the ‘dismissive attitude’ of MPs and the government’s ‘steamroller approach’ to defending ‘indefensible’ judicial review claims with public money, whilst refusing to pay for legal aid.

Mansfield said the government’s refusal to grant legal aid for an inquest into the death of mother of six ‘Cherry’ Groce, whose shooting sparked the Brixton riots in 1985, was ‘an absolute disgrace’. That inquest, he said, is ‘the simplest of situations where a family should have representation funded by the state’.

Jules Carey, formerly of Tuckers Solicitors and now at Bindmans, told the People’s Parliament that the ‘assault on justice’ started with Tony Blair. ‘New Labour messed with the meaning of justice,’ said Carey. By introducing ASBOs, dispersal orders and control orders, and expanding the use of Fixed Penalty Notices, they were the ‘architects of pre-crime justice’, he argued. (You can read the full text of Jules Carey’s speech HERE).

‘If New Labour’s assault on justice resulted from a lack of ideology; and I believe it did; then this government’s assault on justice is because of its ideology,’ said Carey. ‘The coalition has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not believe that we should ‘all’ have access to the courts or legal advice, or that we should be treated equally before a court, or have our cases heard in public.’

Carey also warned that the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta at the UK Global Law Summit next year ‘won’t be a huge celebration of justice’ because ‘our proud legal history is coming to an end.’

‘If the public do not unite to defeat these justice cuts, then we will lose justice, the government will lose the £3.5billion it makes from selling our legal services to overseas clients and the Global Law Summit next year will be nothing more than a ‘justice’ branded junket, offering Runnymede mugs and Magna Carta mouse mats.’

Gareth Peirce, who represented the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, was characteristically damning in her attack on the government, as she cited the ‘evolution of power’ as the principle reason for ‘the death of justice in society.’

‘In a truly just society, there would be no need for lawyers,’ said Peirce. But the ‘evolution of state potential criminality’ from the police brutality during the miners’ strikes to the killing of Blair Peach at a protest in Southall in 1979, to the Orgreave and Hillsborough disasters, has led us to a moment of ‘moral crisis’, said Peirce.

‘If this is a war, and the government is the enemy, you have to have some sort of armament to assert that what they’re doing is illegal,’ she said. ‘In that context, we ought to look at the death, the destruction of legal aid.’

Liz Davies – a housing and public law barrister at Garden Court Chambers – reminded attendees that they shouldn’t just concern themselves with the government’s latest round of cuts to criminal legal aid, as the cuts to civil legal aid that were implemented last year under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), were ‘just as pernicious as the criminal cuts.’

‘Legal aid is becoming less and less available,’ said Davies. When civil legal aid was introduced in the late 1940s, 80% of the population were entitled to it, but by 2008 that had reduced to just 29% of the population, she added.

‘Most wickedly of all’, LASPO has taken away legal aid for welfare benefits, said Davies, the effect being that people are being ‘formally excluded from going to court and defending their rights.’

After speeches from all four members of the panel, the debate was opened up to the floor. Rhona Friedman – a solicitor at Bindmans and co-founder of the Justice Alliance -issued a plea to the public ‘not to leave it to lawyers to save legal aid’, and encouraged attendees to do their bit by targeting their local press, writing to their MPs and signing the Justice Alliance petition.

When two attendees criticised the panel for ‘wearing their hearts on their sleeves’ and pontificating about what was wrong with the justice system without actually putting forward ideas on how to solve the issues, Pierce responded by encouraging them to come to her firm for a day to see the work that she – and other legal aid lawyers – are doing on daily basis.

Echoing Friedman’s plea for the public to join in the campaign to save legal aid, she said: ‘We’re battling the state but the people out there need more than us.’

Zero Books at the People’s Parliament

Reposted from The Strike Magazine website

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We have a big-time radical publishing crush on Zero Books. When we saw that they had an event at the People’s Parliament, we went down mob-handed – no fewer than three of the panel have had articles featured in STRIKE! (Rhian E Jones, Mark Fisher and JD Taylor), so it was always going to be an excellent evening.

And we weren’t wrong; this report is by David Charles

The People’s Parliament is defiantly held in the least democratic building in the United Kingdom: the Houses of Parliament. Every Gothic gargoyle, every vaulted ceiling and marbled floor, every gun-toting copper screams totalitarianism. My local Territorial Army base is more democratic than the Houses of Parliament. Never mind. Our parliamentary host, John McDonnell MP, flaps his hands in despair at the larger-than-life oil paintings of dead monarchs around him, glad that this feudal building is being used “for something worthwhile, for a change.”

We’re gathered here this Budget Day evening in Committee Room 8 with a roster of Zero Books authors to answer two lofty questions: How has capitalism got away with the financial crisis and why is politics scared of political ideas? I don’t think they mean dropping the Bingo Tax.

Tariq Goddard founded Zero Books in 2007, when capitalism seemed “unassailable” and the publishing industry was “impenetrable”. At the time, Tariq saw Zero as nothing more than a “romantic gesture”, but then the crash came and Zero were able to capitalise (excuse the pun) on the Left’s failure to take the political initiative and the publishing industry’s increasing obsession with celebrity cookbooks. Now Zero are turning their attention from publishing “dangerous and destructive” ideas to practical engagement. “We have something to offer politics,” Tariq says. “But I think politics has something we need as well: how to implement ideas and make them work to practice.”

Rhian Jones, author of Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender, accuses the Conservatives of pushing austerity as a “new normal”, switching the blame for the crash from the bankers to “scroungers” and justifying cuts by blowing up another housing bubble to manufacture ersatz economic growth. Meanwhile, why has opposition to austerity come almost entirely from outside parliament? For Rhian, the Left desperately needs an answer to the question: What kind of organisational framework can we create to support opposition to austerity?

Dan Taylor, author of Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era, replies by saying that we need a new kind of parliamentary democracy altogether. “Our parliament is a sham,” he says, “It’s failed to respond to the crises of the past few years. It’s done nothing to prevent another banking crisis, nor punished those who caused the first.” Dan wants to get militant. “Unpopular politicians are, to my mind, democratically illegitimate,” he argues, all but thumping his tub. “We need to start a fight for a new kind of parliament, one without political parties, one without jeering public school boys, without the risk of major party donors who take state decisions – a parliament for the people, made up of people from all walks of life.”

Alex Niven, author of Folk Opposition, takes a different tack, going back to class roots. “This is a moment of division,” he says, “a moment when that alliance between intellectual and working class culture is pretty much non-existent.” Alex uses football, “a barometer of the working class”, as a case study to look at the fragile state of this alliance. The twenty-five year campaign over the police, media and political cover-up of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster should have been “a massive cause for the London Left to get behind,” Alex says. “But, shockingly, there was a deafening silence from the intellectual Left.” Alex does see hope for the alliance, however, in the form of Football Supporters Trusts: “union-style organisations set up more or less spontaneously at a grass-roots level to directly oppose capitalist exploitation”. These trusts put football on the front line of contemporary politics and this organised working class opposition to capitalism, founded on popular culture and enabled by an institutional framework created by the Labour party, is one way we might start to re-organise the Left.

Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, laments the recent deaths of Tony Benn and Stuart Hall. The failure of their political projects mean that there’s a whole generation who have grown up without any sense of a worthwhile parliament. “Today, there is unprecedentedly low levels of class consciousness and no sense of political representation,” Mark says. “Things have got progressively worse and worse, to the point where, when the Blair government came in, they were, in most ways, to the right of Thatcher.” But we must not give up on politics; despondency only plays into the hands of the capitalists. “If we want to defend the NHS, we still have to defend it through parliamentary democracy,” Mark says. Otherwise the right will take both for themselves.

John McDonnell started these People’s Parliaments when he was in the old Greater London Council. Their motto back then was “In and against the state” (which was probably why it was abolished by Thatcher in 1986). But the People’s Parliament is back, with public debates in the House of Commons running up to the General Election in 2015. Get yourself down there, get yourself riled up and angry, get yourself political. John McDonnell MP isn’t joking when he says that the most important job he does these days is booking rooms in the House of Commons, inviting the public through these undemocratic doors, giving people the confidence to fight back and asking: “What do you want to replace this system?”

The feasibility of a Citizens Income

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report by David Jenkins @davidjjenkins (A PHD student in Political Theory)….

On March 4th, there was held an interesting and timely debate on basic/citizen’s income. The event, chaired by Labour MP John McDonnell, is part of a wider series of events that form part of a People’s Parliament designed to reconnect citizens with the political process. The speakers were Malcolm Torry, author of ‘Money for Everyone‘; Natalie Bennett, leader of the UK Green Party; and Guy Standing, author of ‘The Precariat‘ and long-time champion of basic income.

The discussion was wide-ranging. Guy Standing – a stimulating and provocative public speaker – focused on how basic income could help change the current distribution and nature of work within a globalised economy. It could prove – and indeed has proved in various pilot schemes – an effective way of helping individuals avoid the dangerous poverty traps developed under neo-liberal economic regimes. Natalie Bennett drew attention to the imperatives of environmental protection and the ways in which basic income can help adjust our economic priorities away from growth and toward sustainability, as well as protect the most vulnerable in our society’s (asylum seekers, for example). Malcolm Torry, drawing on work done by his team of researchers at the Citizen’s Income Trust, presented a ‘minor’ policy change that could fund a universal basic income at the current level of Job Seeker’s Allowance without costing any more in taxpayer’s money.

The following is only a brief summary of what I took to be some of the main points raised during the event. I hope that comments added to these summaries will help clarify, amend and advance the on-going campaign to bring this emancipatory welfare proposal into existence. As such, this article is intended as little more than a rough sketch of the current political landscape we have to confront and the moves we might make to help see across it.

Changing ideas of work

On a couple of occasions during the evening, discussants seemed to talk past one another. This was particularly pronounced on the issue and definition of work. Where one person talked about work in the garb of the traditional nine-to-five clock-punching employee, others used a more expansive notion of work which included the work of mother’s, care workers, community activists and – a recurring theme throughout the evening – poets of questionable talent. Given the changing nature of our economies – see below – we are faced with a choice: On the one hand, we can transform and reclaim the notion of work to include this more expansive definition. Unconditional basic income would be a way of paying for such work. On the other hand, we retain the current understanding of what work means but cease to demand it from one another. To continue to enforce conditions of work on people in situations where work is no longer available or desirable, is not an option we should countenance.

The wider question, raised by a number of people, is why markets and bureaucracies continue to enjoy such positions of privilege in deciding on matters of value? Are we really, in this age of technological advancement and efficiency, suggesting that our imaginations and ethics are unable to keep up with the pace of change? In terms of converting this recognition into strategy, an enormous cultural shift away from conservative visions of valuable contribution is necessary. Such a shift is already in the offing and indeed has always been a large part of capitalist economics. Workers have always been fed, clothed and educated through unpaid labour: The production of people by means of people. The time is ripe for recognising the value of this and all unpaid labour by supporting it, unconditionally, with a basic income.

Shrinking possibilities for work

Work is not what it used to be. In an economy characterised by rapid capital flows and international chains of production there exists an irreversible downward pressure on the wages of advanced economies. This is, in many respects, a consequence of economies in the Majoritarian world going through the processes of industrialisation, and the complex knot of contradictions that are their consequence. Couple this with the fact that increased technological efficiencies both reduce the availability of even minimally interesting kinds of work, as well as the time necessary to do the boring/menial/dirty/degrading work people really shouldn’t be doing in the first place, and one begins to appreciate the scale of change underway and the necessity for finding radical policies to confront it.work sucks

Basic income is the best – possibly only (civilised) – means of dealing with these shifts. The alternative is the regime of sado-sanctions favoured by the current coalition government that should appeal to nobody. What is surprising is that this change seems to be resisted across the political spectrum. Calls are still being made to create new (waged) jobs in order to soak up the unemployed. In the UK, During the campaign for the promotion of the European Citizen’s Initiative, campaigners spent a great deal of time outside job centres, in sometimes quite deprived regions of the UK. It was often hard work trying to convince people that the predicaments within which they found themselves were part of wider global changes that could not be resisted. Moving forward with the campaign, fostering an acceptance of these economic developments needs to be at the forefront of our efforts. The media in this country is responsible for creating a culture of blame and resentment. Solidarity will be hard won out of these kinds of teeth but it can be won if the hard, cold facts of economic progress – and it could be progress – are properly faced up to.

Myth of austerity

As part of this strategy for apportioning blame to those responsible for the current economic crises, the (real) world’s overwhelming productive abundance must be used to confront the dangerous and reactionary myth of austerity. When the richest 85 people own the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3 billion, one is confronted with the grotesqueness of the charade. We are not living in times of necessary austerity. It is a program enforced and sustained by those in positions of political and economic power, pushing millions into poverty, crushing vulnerable individuals and communities across the planet, and destroying our environment in the process. Linking basic income to this struggle against austerity, as an alternative to its imposition, is a crucial component of any future struggles.

An unconditional basic income acts as both a challenge to austerity and the articulation of a demand that it end immediately. While Malcolm Torry’s proposal is interesting for its cost-neutrality – although the exemption of housing benefit from its calculations is something that needs to be costed as well – we should not allow ourselves to be distracted from the wider need to increase taxes on the rich, to penalise polluters for their disregard of the planet, and to regain the wealth that although generated by the contributions of a great many people is being siphoned off by an increasingly delusional class of super-rich sociopaths.

Trade Union focus

In Eastern Europe – Bulgaria in particular – trade unions have so far paid a pivotal role in creating awareness of basic income as a genuine alternative to traditional (read: defunct) forms of welfare. Trade unions have been at the forefront of a great many movements of social justice – if you enjoy your weekends, remember that you owe them to trade unionists! Unfortunately, today they are being put increasingly on the back foot, and their very relevance is being under increasing attach. In many ways, given the pressures described above, the trade union’s relevance could be seen as waning: where we are no longer able to conceive of ourselves as workers, what is left for unions to do?

However, this need only be the case if they refuse to adapt to demands of the time, and persist in pursuit of the chimerical dream of full employment. In order to remain relevant and take steps forward toward greater social justice – something that historically, unions were in the perfect position to do – they need to retrain their sights on a new target, a new goal to achieve. It is up to campaigners to convince unions that basic income is the policy toward which they should aspire.

Feasibility

As John McDonnell suggested, it is up to civil society to make the issue of basic income ‘safe’ for the higher ups in (potentially) progressive parties (Labour/Green Party) to take into the national arena. To this end, Malcolm Torry’s costed proposals could prove incredibly useful. This issue of feasibility requires argument and empirical work on a great many fronts, both in civil society and much closer to the (current) corridors of power. Pilot studies – like those Guy Standing has set up in Namibia and India – are part of the growing empirical research on the issue. The results have been staggeringly positive. The next stage is to get something similar running in a Western democratic state. Switzerland’s referendum might well be interesting on this front. Pilot schemes are something the ECI demanded as part of its push for a European wide policy, and it should occupy a similarly large part of any future campaigning efforts.* I think that trade unions, despite their historical scepticism of basic income, would do well to get behind such pilot schemes as a way to contribute and affirm their part in the on-going search for alternatives that are being issued by people all around the world.

*An interesting practical point was made regarding how high the UBI should be. If set to low, the fear is that the UBI will be treated as little more than a state-sponsored shock absorber, allowing companies to pay lower wages since people will be buoyed by their other income. It will, in other words, lack the emancipatory aspect many of us feel is the very reason for supporting it. (Interestingly, this is a fear that has been voiced by certain trade unions in Belgium – a country with particularly high union-density.)

New Events Announced

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The People’s Parliament launched this month and so far the initiative has been a great success.

The three events hosted so far have been a forum for constructive and enlightening discussion. The probing, often original ideas put forward by the speakers and audiences have been well received with the committee rooms in the Commons, often at full capacity.

In John’s words the talks have been ‘creative, stimulating and hopeful’ and we would like to extend our thanks to all those who have taken part including the great line-up of speakers we have already heard from:

David Graeber, Caroline Lucas MP, Owen Jones, Ian Lawrence, Frances Crook, PJ McParlin, Keith Mallinson, Elfyn Llwyd MP, George Monbiot, Frank Hewetson, Jane Burston and Derek Wall.

To find out more about the talks which have taken place so far, here (http://www.leftfootforward.org/2014/02/peoples-parliament-week-one-revolution-and-prison-abolition) is a write-up of the first two events for progressive political blog Left Foot Forward. The audio of the first event on democractic engagement can be downloaded from here: https://www.mediafire.com/?bo1j4lao7x1c6nb

New Events

We are pleased to announce a further 5 events are now open to book with many more to follow. A full list of upcoming events is available here.

5th March: Universities and dissent since 2010: a new politics? which now includes Ian Lavery MP as chair, 3 Cosas Campaign, a member of The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain and speakers from Occupy Sussex and Defend Education Birmingham.

19th March: Zero Books Panel: How has capitalism got away with the financial crisis, and why is politics scared of ideas?

2nd April: Why the rich don’t pay tax: outlining a people’s tax system with UK Uncut, Richard Murphy, John Hilary and Dave Wetzel

29th April: Save our NHS with Steve Rotherham MP & campaigners

30th April: Green House: Post-Growth project with Professor Andrew Dobson, Caroline Lucas MP & chaired by Michael Meacher MP

If any of the announced events are of interest, please come along!

The People’s Parliament is underway

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The People’s Parliament is officially open. On Monday night we had a jam packed Committee Room 10 (the biggest Committee Room there is) and we had some brilliant contributions from Caroline Lucas MP, Owen Jones & David Graeber who were speaking on the question of “What sort of democracy do we need”?

We did attempt to film the event but unfortunately the quality was not good enough. However the audio of all the speeches is available to download from here: https://www.mediafire.com/?bo1j4lao7x1c6nb

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Caroline Lucas MP opened by saying “we need a democracy that is very very different to what we have today” and explained how since her time in office she has seen very clearly that corporate interests are embedded within the walls of Parliament.

David Graeber spoke very well on protest movements including the student protests of 2010/2011. “What’s wrong with smashing a few windows?” he turned and asked John McDonnell MP & Caroline Lucas.  He also made reference to “finance capital as the apotheosis of paperwork”. More on that here.

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Owen Jones was as passionate as ever and in a similar vein to David Graeber talked about how  “historically social justice & progress, including winning the vote, has been won by those from below, not above.”

He went on:

“The media and government have shifted blame for the current crisis onto ordinary people’s neighbors instead of those who have caused it.”

He ended by saying we need a “democratic revolution of wealth & power to ordinary people” which created a very hopeful atmosphere in the room.

What was also clear is that Russell Brands interview on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman has really shaken things up – every speaker referenced Russell’s comments on voting.

Instead of having a traditional Q & A session, John McDonnell, who chaired, gave the rest of the available time for the audience to speak out on whatever they felt necessary to say. In fact, this was probably the most interesting bit with lots of diverse opinions on display.

Someone argued for proportional representation, someone said we should scrap Parliament altogether and another person joked that for a start “we could try and change things so that we don’t have a situation whereby politicians all went to the same schools together”.

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On Tuesday night, despite the tube strike affecting numbers, we also saw a fascinating discussion around future prison policy in England and Wales. Experts from The Howard League, NAPO, POA & MIND spoke for 10 minutes each with the excellent Elfyn Llywd MP (member of the Justice Select Committee) as chair.

Opinions ranged a bit but there was an overwhelming consensus that we can and should have a lot less people in prisons. Frances Crook from The Howard League spoke most strongly about this and argued that most people in prison could be dealt with in there communities, if the same amount of funding that goes into prisons was redirected into community measures instead.

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Keith Mallinson from MIND said we must “scrap the private profiteer contracts” which hand over our prisons to be run by the likes of Serco & G4S. The most scary thing about this is that “G4S & Serco will never complain about overcrowding in prisons as it means more money for them” explained PJ McParlin from the POA. He represents thousands of prison officers across the country.

PJ McParlin echoed Frances Crook’s call for prisoners to be dealt with in communities instead. At the moment “we’re locking up the mentally ill, the vulnerable, people who made one mistake and also the innocent” he said.

All of the speakers were excellent, very knowledgeable and spoke passionately and we want to thank all the speakers who have taken part so far.

We have lots of events still to go and have been inundated with requests for future events so at the moment we’re scheduling new events all the way in July with about one event a week already scheduled until then.

Please come and join us to make the place a real “People’s Parliament”. As Ian Lawrence from NAPO said last night, “let’s remember this place is actually ours, and not the governments”. Amen to that.