Archive for November, 2013

Department of Health spends £209,000+ on lawyers to close Lewisham Hospital

Written by Mike on . Posted in Lewisham Council

As a councillor, I was interested to find out exactly how much the Department of Health spent both on the original legal action fighting against Labour-controlled Lewisham Council’s judicial review of their unfair attempt to close Lewisham Hospital and the cost of appealing the Council (and the Save Lewisham Hospital) campaign’s victory. My freedom of information request has discovered the figure is an astonishing £209,000 excluding the cost of in-house counsel at the Department of Health and Lewisham Council’s legal fees which they bizarrely exclude from the request.

Clearly, the cost could be higher than £300,000, an outrageous waste of taxpayer’s money. That’s on top of the £5.1 million spent on the special administrator (who doled out £3.2 million in turn to consultants).

Here is the response I received:

Dear Mr Harris,

Thank you for your request of 29 October 2013 under the Freedom of Information Act (2000). Your exact request was:

“I would like to make a Freedom of Information Request to obtain the
following information:
a. What has the total cost of legal fees for Department of Health for the
above-stated legal case (GOVERNMENT vs. LEWISHAM COUNCIL &
i. Estimated internal legal costs (staff time, on board costs) for the
Department of Health;
ii. External costs for legal counsel for the Department of Health
b. What has been the cost of the challenge to the decision made by the
High Court by Judge Silber on 31 July 2013 in:
i. internal costs to the Department (as above);
ii. external costs to the Department.”

I can confirm that the Department holds information relevant to your request.
1. The estimated costs to the Department relating to the judicial review in the
High Court (between 18 March and 31 July 2013) totalled approximately
£117,000. This is broken down as follows:
• Treasury Solicitor’s fees charged to the Department –
approximately £41,000
• Counsel – approximately £76,000
• Disbursements – approximately £80.00
Up to 15 March 2013, legal services were rendered in this litigation by
employees of the Department of Health Legal Services – ie by in-house
solicitors. Information concerning staff members’ salaries is covered, and exempt from disclosure, under Section 40 of the FOI
Act. Therefore and outwith salaries, there was no cost to the
Department in this period.
2. The estimated costs to the Department relating to the appeal (from 1
August to 29 October 2013) totalled approximately £92,0000, broken down
as follows:
• Treasury Solicitor’s fees charged to the Department –
approximately £47,000
• Counsels’ fees – approximately £42,000
• Disbursements – approximately £3,000

Interestingly, the response goes on to say:

The Court is now dealing with consequential matters including both
respondents’ costs of the appeal. The levels of these are not yet known at
this time.

So, perhaps in excess of £300,000 and that’s without including the cost of Lewisham Council’s (and the campaign’s) legal costs which the Department of Health is now liable for.

Are we witnessing the slow death of Bonfire Night?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

The number of Bonfire Night celebrations looks to be on the wane. Local authority cuts combined with the rise of Halloween as an alternative, seems to have decimated our enthusiastic for the most British of traditions. Londonist has no events listed for Greenwich, Kensington & Chelsea, Hackney or Islington. Lewisham continues our lone support for the huge Blackheath fireworks display (after Greenwich Council helpfully pulled out). Once a festival mandated by law through the “Thanksgiving Act” of 1606, are we witnessing the slow death of Bonfire Night?

This could be a reaction against what is seen as an anti-Catholic festival, out of step with contemporary multicultural Britain. A point made by historian David Cannadine:

“But although it’s been around for much longer, the prospects don’t look quite as good for Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night once this anniversary is past. Britain is not the Protestant nation it was when I was young: it is now a multi-faith society. And the Americanised Halloween is sweeping all before it – a vivid reminder of just how powerfully American culture and American consumerism can be transported across the Atlantic.”

But is the modern Bonfire Night particularly anti-Catholic any more? My Roman Catholic primary school, for instance, celebrated Bonfire Night. As the BBC notes:

“Roman Catholic opposition to the event has never been very vocal – it’s not unusual to find fireworks displays run by RC schools or churches. In fact, fireworks night is for most people just another excuse for a party, and most of the event’s political connotations have been sloughed off. In this context, burning an effigy on a fire seems a bit, well, surplus to requirements.”

Not only do we increasingly celebrate the American importation of Halloween, the Hollywood version of Guy Fawkes has been imported back to our shores too. Guy Fawkes, the traitor who attempted to destroy our parliament, has been reborn as the heroic anti-totalitarian figure of ‘V’ from the film ‘V for Vendetta‘ (who wears a Guy Fawkes mask throughout the film). The mask, and by implication Guy Fawkes, is now a symbol of popular resistance, used by libertarian and anarchist figures from Julian Assange through to the hacking collective Anonymous. David Lloyd, the co-author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, argues: “The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.” If Guy Fawkes is now a hero, celebrating his death and the foiling of his plans, seems questionable.

Finally, there is what we think of the act of blowing up Parliament. When Parliament burnt down in 1834, huge crowds lined the streets and by the banks of the Thames to cheer the fire that engulfed and destroyed 500 years of parliamentary history. As chronicled by Caroline Shenton’s The Day Parliament Burned Down, popular opinion saw the destruction of parliament as visible punishment for the institution’s cruel Poor Law Act of the same year. Now, only 7% of the public trust politicians and as Russell Brand has highlighted, there is a serious democratic deficit. Perhaps, 400 years on, our lack of enthusiasm for celebrating the thwarting of this act of political terrorism, reflects on our lack of faith in the current political system.

Parliament burns down

Russell Brand speaks for his generation – and it’s problematic

Written by Mike on . Posted in Blog

Comedian Russell Brand declared all politicians liars. Sadly, few in Generation Y will raise an eyebrow.

On BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme, aimed squarely at Britain’s fusty establishment, Russell Brand let rip: “Politicians are all liars”. There isn’t much wiggle room in “all”. Yet, Russell Brand’s interview struck a chord. With over 6,000,000 views on Youtube (and counting), the interview and Brand’s petulant call for revolution was viewed across the globe. The commentariat quickly condemned Brand’s views as dangerous, or as the ever-prescient Nick Cohen noted “artists have always made a show of being drawn towards fanaticism. Extremism is more exciting and dramatic”. If we take Brand’s comments at face value, every single sitting MP in the House of Commons is a liar. If you accept this to be true, as many young people now do, then why retain parliamentary democracy?

Generation Y’s faith in democracy is limited, at best. Asked who they trust, two-thirds of British young people say they have “little” or “no” trust in politicians. Why would they? For a generation weaned on the quick-fix e-petitions, politics is a series of cocaine highs (“By signing this - You changed the law!”) followed by crushing lows (“Why won’t they listen?”). Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble identified the social media filter that surrounds young people’s conception of the political truth. A 16 year old rural Texan will, due to their friendship groups and habits, see a totally different series of news posts on Facebook than another 16 year old in New York City. Our polarised politics says these two truths can’t both be right, someone is lying.

Politicians have hardly helped themselves. Trust in the British political system has collapsed. The MPs expenses scandal exposed the fact our representatives were, alongside their staid day job of writing laws, finding common purpose in stealing lots and lots of our money. The Liberal Democrat party specifically ruled out raising student tuition fees in their election manifesto. Within a year of entering government in coalition with the Tories, they increased fees from £3,000 to £9,000. Meanwhile Britain’s housing boom (central London prices are rising by 10% per annum) is robbing a generation of any chance of owning a home of their own. As Jilted Generation co-author Shiv Malik points out, while the baby boomers got free university education, could easily get a free council house (state housing) and lived in an era of full employment, all of these things have been robbed from Generation Y.

So the anger mounts. As a councillor, I’ve experienced first-hand the hatred reserved for the political class. Public humiliation, being sworn at on countless occasions, threatening phone calls: having spoken to other young councillors it’s now commonplace to be subject to a barrage of abuse if you seek political office.  Why not – all politicians are liars, remember?

Russell Brand, a Hollywood celebrity, is no fringe figure fuelling this rage. He happily promotes HP touchpads – and Disney Parks. His personal wealth is estimated at $15 million. On Newsnight his rhetoric edged closer to that of a 9/11 truther than someone who has a sideline in promoting corporations. Brand said:

“I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system, so voting for it is tacit complicity with that system”


“I’m not saying – the apathy doesn’t come from us, the people. The apathy comes from the politicians. They are apathetic to our needs. They’re only interested in servicing the needs of corporations.”

The anti-politics mood fuels a strong sideline in fantasies. Whether the lone extremist such as Anders Behring Breivik, or connected conspiracists such as the LaRouche movement, the internet has allowed those on the fringes of society to connect globally and feed their conceits unchallenged. Some of this infects the body politic. When UKIP candidates (the party most likely to win Britain’s European elections) quote from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion* and describe the EU as the “EUSSR” and new Home Office Minister Norman Baker MP does a star turn on Alex Jones’ podcast to reveal he believes government scientist Dr David Kelly’s death was covered up by MI5, can we still say this is the fringe? Is Generation Y wrong to get tipsy on conspiracies when they work to elect a liberal President and he says nothing of note – nothing – when the most paranoid delusions of dystopia are made to look unambitious compared to the NSA’s system of mass surveillance buried deep in the Utah desert? Francis Fukuyama predicted the “end of history” when the Berlin Wall fell. Instead we got 9/11, Guantanamo, Iraq’s non-existent WMD and Wikileaks. My former hero Blair, promised democracy in Iraq, failed and now shills for a murderous tyrant in Kazakhstan. No wonder Generation Y is so confused.

Russell Brand’s views are merely the tip of an iceberg of hostility to the political class. The complexity of the modern world and the inability of the political system to adjust to the great leap forward of the internet and social media has led to widespread disillusionment. But they have also failed to wake up to the challenge they face. Politicians are distrusted; political parties are losing activists and money, the far-right is on the rise in continental Europe. Can we really say Russell Brand’s views are no longer the mainstream?