Rights and freedoms under attack

Media excitement over the Labour leadership means that other stories – about the party which is actually in power – may slip under the radar.  Here’s a reminder of just a few ways in which rights and freedoms are currently under attack.  As the Independent reported yesterday, magistrates around the country are resigning in protest against unfair new court charges, introduced to make criminals contribute towards the upkeep of the courts.  The way the charges are structured puts pressure on people to plead guilty.

The charge can be up to 10 times higher if someone is found guilty after pleading innocence, which magistrates say is undermining the justice system by encouraging innocent but impoverished defendants to plead guilty.

The number of magistrates to resign over the policy is now estimated to have exceeded 50, sources at the Magistrates’ Association told The Independent. Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the association, said: “It is deeply worrying that we’re losing such numbers of experienced magistrates.”

Cuts in legal aid are of course also taking their toll on the justice system.  The success of this volunteer law project, which assisted claimants making appeals against ‘fit for work’ rulings, demonstrates the huge problems with work capability assessment.

The programme was created by Avon and Bristol Law centre, two years ago using a handpicked team of law students to fill the gap created by legal aid cuts in 2013. Legal aid has all but disappeared for welfare benefits work.

The centre revealed this week that the students have won 95% of the appeals they took to Bristol’s Social security and Child Support tribunal, successfully reinstating £1m of benefits for ill and disabled clients wrongly assessed by the WCA as able to work.

Employment tribunals have been another target for cuts – and these have led to a sharp fall in claims.  Now a Trade Union Bill is due for its second reading – this will further undermine the rights of workers by making it far more difficult to take industrial action.  Here is a summary of the proposed changes:

• Lift the ban on using agency workers to replace permanent staff during strikes.

• Require unions to inform police and employers of all strike plans 14 days in advance, including any proposed use of placards or loudspeakers, blogs or social media.

• Insist the “lead person” on any picket line wears an armband and gives their details to police and employers.

• Introduce a 50% turnout requirement for industrial action ballots, and – for “important public sector services” – a requirement of at least 40% of all eligible voters in favour of action.

The planned legislation has been widely condemned by civil liberties groups and trade unionists, but also by employers’ associations, police spokespeople and the general public, three quarters of whom think the proposed changes would represent a waste of police time.