Family courts: an important victory

Royal Courts of Justice (Photo: AFP/Getty Images
The family courts: a disaster area? (Photo: AFP/Getty Images

An important development tonight on an issue I’ve taken an interest in. As I revealed in the paper in August, England’s most senior family judge, Sir Nicholas Wall, warned in a leaked letter that massive cuts to legal aid could mean that some families whose children have been seized by social services are denied effective legal representation, or even have to represent themselves in court.

The cuts would have reduced the number of solicitors’ firms doing legally-aided family law work by about half – with some counties, such as Devon, only having one firm. Because each party in a case needs different solicitors, that would mean many families in such “legal aid deserts” having to travel as much as a hundred miles to find a firm that does legal aid.

Sir Nicholas also warned that some of the new firms being given the legal aid contracts did not have the necessary expertise in the field and “may not know fully what they are doing.”

Tonight, however, the Law Society has won a judicial review against the cuts, with the High Court calling the tendering process to choose the firms “unfair, unlawful and irrational.” It would, said the judges, prevent “the vulnerable and deprived from obtaining the services of very well qualified and experienced family lawyers.”

The family courts are a disaster area, with many key safeguards intended to protect children scandalously failing. But tonight’s is a good victory which will at least prevent some things from getting substantially worse.

Lutfur Rahman: is he really a solicitor? Neither he, or his firm, will say

In his biography on his (now sadly superseded) Labour campaign website, Lutfur Rahman, the fundamentalist-linked councillor seeking election as an independent to the mayoralty of Tower Hamlets, describes himself as a “senior solicitor.” The biography also says: “After studying law, LLB Hons, I qualified to be a solicitor.”

However, Lutfur’s entry on the Law Society register describes him not as a senior solicitor, but as an “assistant.” It states that he is a “manager who [is] not [a] solicitor.” It is not, in fact, absolutely clear whether this does in fact mean that he is not a solicitor. It may mean that he is an assistant solicitor.

For the last two days, I’ve been trying to clear up the confusion. I’ve texted Mr Rahman three times asking him to tell me if he is indeed a solicitor, and where he obtained the LLB Hons degree he claims to have. He has refused to respond. I’ve also asked his firm, McCormacks. They, too, have refused to reply to my enquiries.

Maybe there’s nothing in it – but why, if so, are they being so coy?

Richard Barnbrook reported for 'bullying'

A former staff member for Richard Barnbrook, the BNP’s former London leader and London Assembly member, says she has reported him to the GLA’s standards watchdog for his “unreasonable” and “bullying” behaviour towards her.

Tess Culnane, the “Nazi Granny” who was the BNP candidate for mayor of Lewisham this year, tells me she has made an official complaint to the City Hall standards officer, Ed Williams, calling for Mr Barnbrook’s suspension.

She says: “Richard Barnbrook failed to respond to requests for help from members of the public. When I did tell him about people who had come forward, he very often adopted a resentful manner towards me and threatened me with dismissal.

“His continual bullying manner and threats to sack me became intolerable. He would fall into a strop. He would make faces behind our backs when we were talking. He was a total embarrassment to those of us in his office.”

Mrs Culnane also says that Mr Barnbrook took out his anger on other members of his office, including another staffer, Emma Colgate. “She was forced to resign due to Richard’s perpetual hectoring manner,” she said. “At one point he followed her into the ladies’ toilet hectoring her.” Mrs Culnane says her complaint also alleges that Mr Barnbrook has been drunk during Mayor’s Questions.

Mr Barnbrook didn’t return repeated calls and text messages today to answer these allegations. They should be seen, of course, in the context of the fact that he has been in dispute with the BNP for some time. There may be an element of revenge here.

He resigned the BNP whip on the Assembly last month after the re-election of Nick Griffin as leader. Yesterday, he was thrown out of the party. He was also sacked as the BNP’s Barking and Dagenham organiser after the racists lost all their seats – his included – on the local council in the May elections.

A spokesman for the London Assembly said the procedure with complaints was for a sub-committee to decide whether they had enough merit to be considered by the full standards committee. Until then, he said, he could not confirm or deny whether any complaint had been received.

Ken Livingstone: more hostages to fortune

Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London. Pic: PA
Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London. Pic: PA

I had a little chat with Ken Livingstone on his LBC radio show on Saturday, discussing my view that the old chap has already thrown away his best card against the Tories – the cuts – by saying that there need be no cuts at all and that the deficit (in his words at the Southall hustings) is a “scare.” Neither proposition is remotely credible with the voters Ken is theoretically trying to woo.

Ken contradicted himself within the space of about ten minutes – first denying that he had said there need be no cuts (“it’s not my position”), then saying: “I’m planning to stop any more cuts… I will be seeking a mandate saying London’s had enough of these cuts, it has to stop.” In Monday’s Standard, he said something very similar to my former colleague, Pippa Crerar:  “It is vital that the Labour Party learns from the mistakes of New Labour and sets out a new direction. This means investing in public services and new jobs, fighting the cuts and building hundreds of thousands of new homes.”

As I’ve always said, the cuts could be a very fruitful issue for Labour: there’s a real question about whether the coalition is cutting too much, too fast and in the wrong places. But Ken seems quite determined to cede this essential ground to the Tories.

It’s not the only hostage to fortune Team Boris Johnson will gratefully stockpile from this week: at tonight’s Tribune rally at Labour conference, Ken wowed the faithful with praise of the unions. “We [the Labour Party] are all creatures of the trades unions again, thank God,” he said, to laughter and applause. Later: “The single most important right we have, after the right to vote, is the right to strike.”
Ken did add that the right to strike shouldn’t be “used casually” – but his backing for the recent Tube strikers (and his receipt of favours from them) won’t have helped his re-election chances. One of Ken’s key weaknesses has been that he is perceived as speaking for special interests, often rather unpopular ones, rather than for London as a whole.
Later on Wednesday- Ken’s big day on the conference platform. But for me, the King Newt moment of the week came during my interview on his LBC show, when he was forced to read out a promo for a competition to win “an amazing Sky 3D package… to celebrate the launch of the UK’s first 3D channel on Sky. Don’t miss it.”

Ken Livingstone as a salesman for Rupert Murdoch – now there’s something I never thought I’d hear!

Lutfur Rahman: Islamic fundamentalism's Dave Nellist moment

A fundamentalist-linked politician is bidding to become mayor of Tower Hamlets. Pic: David Rose
A fundamentalist-linked politician is bidding to become mayor of Tower Hamlets. Pic: David Rose

Back in the 1980s, Labour knew it had beaten Militant when its sympathisers left the party and stood separately in elections under their own label. They could then be easily and quickly thrown out: the one universally-accepted ground for expulsion from the Labour Party is fighting against a Labour candidate.

The decision by eight of Tower Hamlets’ Labour councillors to appear at a press conference backing the sacked fundamentalist-linked politician, Lutfur Rahman, in his Independent bid to become the borough’s directly elected mayor could be a similar moment. The eight are Oli Rahman, Lutfa Begum, Rania Khan, Alibor Choudhury, Ohid Ahmed, Aminur Khan, Rabina Khan, and Shelina Aktar.

Not all of these people are fundamentalist sympathisers – Oli Rahman, for instance, is not – but a number of them, just like Lutfur, are individuals with close links to the hardline Muslim supremacist group, the Islamic Forum of Europe.

Alibor Choudhury, for instance, is closely connected to the IFE, and a former employee of one of its front organisations. He is also a man with a troubled history. In 2006 he appeared in court on charges of violent disorder. The trial was stayed at the committal stage – on the grounds, he insists, of “abuse of process.”

Labour has been worried about some of these people for a while. Now is their opportunity to act against them. And if they don’t, it could encourage other people to feel safe in joining the Lutfur campaign.

Ken Livingstone: the antique's roadshow begins

Ken Livingstone in 2008 with his campaign poster (Photo: AP)
Ken Livingstone in 2008 with his campaign poster (Photo: AP)

Ken Livingstone’s victory in the race to be Labour’s London mayoral candidate is the best possible news for Boris Johnson and the Tories, but depressing for those of us who care about competitive politics.

I like Boris – but I wanted him to have to fight for re-election, to have to promise more than the minimum. Against Ken, the chances are that for all the sound and fury to come over the next eighteen months, Boris is reasonably assured of victory. Today, rather than the first Thursday in May 2012, will probably come to be seen as the day the mayoral election was decided.

The majority of Londoners have, I think, come to a settled view about Ken, and are unlikely to change their minds. Nor, more importantly, has Ken shown any sign of wanting to change their minds. His platform is a resurrection from the grave of all the policies and attitudes that turned middle-ground voters off. Elections are won at the centre, but he has turned sharply away from the centre since losing the mayoralty.

Perhaps that’s because he clearly expects to be swept back into City Hall on a tsunami of hatred against Lib-Con cuts. This could be a powerful issue for Labour, but it’s unlikely to work for Ken, for two reasons.

There is, I’m sure, a potentially fruitful argument Labour can make about whether the cuts need to be so big, and so soon. But the position Ken has taken – that there should be no cuts at all, and that the deficit, in his words at the Southall hustings, is a “scare” – just isn’t credible. Voters tune out. He has already, in effect, ceded this vital ground to the coalition.

Secondly, Boris is perfectly capable of separating himself from the government – just as Ken did from Labour, suffering no ill-effects from standing as a Labour candidate in 2004 despite the Iraq war.

Ken’s timewarp quality is also evident in the fact that he’s still running on his record. But if that didn’t work in 2008, it’s definitely not going to work in 2012. The record is in many cases an obstacle – Ken can’t attack Boris over ticket office closures and fare rises, for instance, without it being pointed out that he did, or proposed, exactly the same.

More fundamentally, people don’t vote in the mayoral election on policies. It’s a personality contest – and Boris is a far more likeable personality. Significant numbers of people hate Ken – a significant driver of voting last time. Relatively few hate Boris, though many are indifferent to him.

I can see only three ways Ken could win, all of them pretty unlikely. First is that some absolute catastrophe befalls Boris. Second is that such a perception of “foregone conclusion” takes hold that Boris’s voters don’t turn out – that is why the Tories have to behave as if this is a race. Third, most interesting, is the arrival on the scene of some dramatic third candidate whose transfers would go to Ken.

Conventional media wisdom has often been that Ken is a “wily” politician. Certainly, it was wily to get the Labour selection contest held so absurdly early that no heavyweight rival had time to enter it.

He’s good at that sort of party intrigue; but overall, I’d say he is perhaps the stupidest top-flight politician I’ve ever encountered. Ken’s besetting flaw is the sin of pride: an absolute refusal to admit he has ever been wrong about anything, and a stubborn determination to cling on to his mistakes (such as Lee Jasper) beyond the point of all political sanity. That’s what makes him such an ideal opponent.

The Lutfur Rahman Memorial Post

According to two sources, Lutfur Rahman is today submitting his nomination papers to run as an independent candidate for the Tower Hamlets mayoralty. He does have a vote bank – not all of it acquired legitimately, as we’ve seen – and his puppetmasters will run a well-financed campaign. But while all this was enough to win a Labour Party membership vote, in an electorate of 1200, it’s unlikely to be enough to win him the mayoralty in a much larger electorate. It will of course end Lutfur’s career in Labour – and with any luck it will also flush out other fundamentalist sympathising councillors, notably the former cabinet member for employment and skills, Alibor Choudhury – named as connected to the IFE by its then president, Mohammed Habibur Rahman.