Cait Reilly wins again

A decision in the high court has upheld an argument made by Cait Reilly, that the DWP and the government have enacted unlawfully. After her initial victory, to the effect that the DWP was acting without sufficient statutory authority, the government introduced new legislation to fill the gap, and made it retrospective.  The court in this decision held that it was incompatible with principles of human rights for governments to change the law affecting a litigant while legal processes were in progress.  That decision is obviously right, but the DWP seems determined to expend the largest possible sum of taxpayers’ money challenging it.  Do they have a budget for legal fees that has to be spent before the end of the financial year?

The most bizarre aspect of the DWP’s strategy is that it seems to offer claimants the possibility of legal redress that otherwise they wouldn’t get.  The DWP has long operated a pernicious  ‘anti test case rule’: if a court finds that the DWP has interpreted the law wrongly, no redress is offered to people who have been wronged.   If the DWP had rescinded the initial decision that was made about Cait Reilly, it would have had no impact on other claimants; if they had not appealed the first case, they could have introduced the new regulations with no obligation to redressing the position of people who had lost out up to that point.  But the Department seems determined to lose the argument with a spectacular implosion of Hollywood-style destructiveness.  It would be no bad thing if they took the anti-test case rule down with them.

India’s right to food

It’s more than thirty years that Amartya Sen made the fundamental argument in Poverty and Famines (1981) that the problem of hunger is not about shortage of food, but people’s right to get to the food that was there. The Right to Food campaign in India seems to have won the argument.   A bill currently under consideration accepts the principle of a right to food, and aims to deliver it by subsidies of basic grains.

There are doubts, of course, about India’s capacity to deliver the right effectively.  And, as reported last month, a third of the world’s poorest people are in India.

Reclaiming individualism

Reclaiming individualismMy latest book, Reclaiming Individualism, has just shipped. At present it’s available only in hardback.

Individualism used to be a radical idea; it was a way of asserting the rights, dignity and value of each and every person. That was before it was dragged into a back alley and stripped of its valuables. For many people nowadays, individualism has become a defence of privilege – a cornerstone of arguments for unrestricted markets, privatisation and the commodification of everything. In Reclaiming Individualism, I make a case for a different balance, trying to show how individualism can be taken to argue for welfare, empowerment and government for the people.

Cuts in welfare rights

A briefing note from Citizens Advice Scotland expresses concern about the strategy to make benefits ‘digital by default’ – and it notes that this creates more demand for advice services. At the same time as this is going on, the government is taking steps to reduce the availability of advice services. The government has attempted to remove legal aid from first-tier appeals on benefits (a move previously rejected in the House of Lords), and now a further move has been made to cut legal aid for welfare rights advice. This is from a speech by Lord Bach in the House of Lords on Wednesday:

something very big is missing that was not missing when the 1999 decisions and appeals regulations were operated in practice. It is like the elephant in the room; we do not discuss it, but it is there. Has the Minister spotted it? Have his officials spotted it? Has the Secretary of State spotted what I am talking about? … after 1 April, for those who do not have the means to pay- the vast majority, I would suggest, including many disabled people – where will they get the legal advice they need? … Who will advise them on the intricacies of the social security system?

Legal aid has been important for law centres, Citizens Advice Bureaux and solicitors providing welfare rights. That means that the existing system of advice and support, which is already patchy enough, will have more large holes blown in it – at just the time when it will be most needed.

There is however a glimmer of hope. The Universal Credit Local Services Support Framework, published last week, has some positive ideas for local delivery partnerships. On page 12, there is the suggestion that local agencies can help prepare and verify a claim, encouragement for one-stop services and links with social housing providers. This might help people with online claims and flag up serious problems.The DWP is talking about negotiating payments for specific forms of local support. That could in principle lead to something more like the French system, where local agencies receive fees for completing processes that would otherwise have to be done by the benefits agency.

Empowering women

The World Bank has just issued a new report, Empowering Women, which reviews the legal rights of women in sub-Saharan Africa. The report is listed as being for sale from 15th October, but most World Bank reports are also available as a free PDF and I found the link here, in a 6 Mb download.

The report focuses on laws that establish the framework for other rights, including marriage and divorce, inheritance and property rights. The findings are depressing, though perhaps not as depressing as the book’s publicity suggests. The positive elements are that 45 out of 47 countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and if 21 out of 47 subject women’s rights to the authority of a head of household, that should mean that 26 don’t. The Appendix listing court cases also point to many examples of women’s rights being upheld or extended. The authors note, though, that the effect of common law, dual legal systems and the gaps between theory and practice all work to limit women’s rights, and that the effect of formalisation (e.g. in Kenya) may well be not to extend protection but to institutionalise disadvantage.

Liberty before liberalism

I am currently putting the finishing touches on a book considering the relationship between individualist thought and welfare policy. I’ve just attended two fascinating sessions given by Quentin Skinner, the intellectual historian, who explained what was, to me, a completely unfamiliar different way of understanding the idea of liberty. In Roman law, he explains, freedom was a status, not a course of action; the distinction between freedom and slavery rested not on individual choice, but on domination, dependency and subjection to arbitrary power. Within the neo-Roman or “Republican” model, people lose their freedom, not so much because they are interfered with by laws, but because they have a status which is subject to the decisions of others. There is, arguably, a lesson for contemporary welfare states in the construction of our social rights.

Kiss and tell

This is, admittedly, just a little out of my usual field.  However, I cover issues relating to human rights as part of work on principles in social policy, and privacy is also a vexed issue in social research, so the recent furore about privacy injunctions has piqued my interest. The central issue concerns a footballer who had obtained a “superinjunction” preventing a girl from revealing secrets about an affair, or even the name of the footballer from being revealed. There are two striking issues. The first is the issue of secret justice, which is no justice at all; the prospect of anonymous, unreported enforcement and legal sanction is repellent, and John Hemming MP was absolutely right to raise it in Parliament. The other issue is the interpretation of privacy by the courts.

Privacy is usually understood in one of two senses. The first, which is the interpretation given to privacy in legal cases in the USA, is that people have an intimate sphere of life which other people are not able legitimately to intrude on. The second, which is more prominent in social science, gives people control over information that relates to them. In the context of social research, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council explains:

“Individuals have a sphere of life from which they should be able to exclude any intrusion … A major application of the concept of privacy is information privacy: the interest of a person in controlling access to and use of any information personal to that person.”

The idea of consent in research is based on the idea that information is private, and that it needs the consent of the person who reveals it – the research participant. It’s not usually the case, however, that researchers are asked to get the consent of everyone mentioned in research. That, by contrast, is what journalists are now being asked to do.

Let me offer a little scenario: a man’s girlfriend goes to his wife and says, “I am having an affair with your husband”. If the husband has an intimate sphere which no-one can impose on without permission, the girlfriend has breached it – admitting the girlfriend to intimacies is not a licence to reveal those intimacies later. If he has a human right to control the information, the girlfriend has breached it. I find it hard to believe that either outcome is what the advocates of privacy laws intend; privacy may be a right, but it does not follow that secrecy is. An individual may retain control over information only in so far as that information relates solely to his private actions. A couple, a group, an association, may control aspects of information that relate to that couple – but they exercise that control jointly, not severally, and if they do not agree, neither retains the right. If one partner in a couple wishes to reveal all, the right does not pass to the control of the other person. The attempt to curb revelations by those who want to “kiss and tell” may be many unpleasant things, but it is not a breach of human rights. The courts have got it wrong.