Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Postcard for Dudi

My great grandfather was Spanish. Salvador was a railway engineer by trade, who rose to be a transport minister for the Republican Government of Spain in the civil war against Franco's Fascists. Dudi, as we call him, stands over our family like a colossus, spreading his shade.

Family history and myth relate the moments when he decided to flee Spain. His car was stopped by gun-men from his own side at a roadblock. After giving his name he was politely escorted to a bullet-pocked wall and relieved of his jacket. An overzealous official double checks his first name as the firing squad cock their rifles.

“I'm Salvador, not Andres” says Dudi. “Sorry comrade” says the official and sends him on his way.

Dudi took his Scottish wife and two daughters to England and became a refugee. Many years later, after he had settled in Switzerland and written scores of books, he found himself landing in an aeroplane in Franco's Spain due to weather conditions. He tells the air-crew he might be shot if he lands, so they keep him on board and hide his presence, while they take on fuel. Can you possibly imagine that this could happen post 9-11?

Fatma and her daughter were granted refugee status, and now the daughter teaches. Hussein who is gay receives his leave to remain, because he has a civil spouse and, if he was deported with his husband, why they'd both be lynched on a crane. Case after case, I've seen deserving families given succour. The great convention on refugees still stands to protect those who have suffered persecution (as long as they have a lawyer).

Sadly, swingeing cuts mean really great charities like the Refugee Legal Centre closed their doors this year after 40 years or so. They tried to re-brand, but to no avail. The public sympathy is against refugees.

At least 64% of people receiving civil legal aid will lose a service in Hackney. That's 5,000 people, one tenth of the 50,000 people in London who will lose out. Sadly, there will be no funding anymore for social welfare law in almost all cases, and immigration will be cut to the bone.

And so Dudi, you great European Liberal, your dream of rights for refugees is still alive, and the shade your generation casts means we still observe the Refugee Convention and the Human Rights Act.

Only 10 Lib Dem MP's rebelled against the LASPO Bill in the third reading in the Commons. That was 10 brave people. 51 Lords spoke against the bill. That was 51 experts giving the bill a real kicking. We shall see.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Walk the Line

3,000 people walked through our doors in the last year. That's at least a 40% climb in people seeking legal advice. There are a dozen salaried staff, many part time. Wonderful volunteers defend the parapets.

We run out of stamps, our photocopiers break down, and suddenly we find it is almost impossible to print a letter. Without the ability to print letters we are a little like Silvio Berlusconi, all fur coat and no knickers.

Staplers break, pens stop working. It's all a bit spooky.

Chorouk observes that when she tries to print a letter the little twiddly gears on the photocopier start to melt. For every page she prints or copies she has to extract 9 mangled pages from the bowels of the beast, one at a time. She's a trainee solicitor, with oak leaves.

The Xerox call centre in Manilla promises a speedy response when we pay our bill. The thing is, our Legal Aid funding was cut by 10% last month. So already the bills are a problem.

Paula arrives without 3 of her 5 children. The kids are beautifully behaved. She's homeless tomorrow.

Hossein who is mentally ill arrives distraught and he also is homeless tomorrow!

Rita, Sue and Bob come in to talk about housing, benefit and immigration rights. The money problems have to be put to the back of the queue. It's not nice because if your giro's stopped you're going to be upset and worried. However evictions and deportations top our resource-meter (to use management speak) because they are catastrophic events.

Emails are sent, writs are drafted in our heads and we generally run around like chickens doing the Legal Aid dance.

When the dust settles no-one is homeless tonight and no-one has been deported. Good result? I hope so.

Volunteer Miranda walks in while the dust settles with the client with no name we all forgot about. She's housed a person with a few phone calls and has no idea why we start to cheer.

Walk the line, do the right thing, fear no-one. It's getting to be so difficult. Which is why we're closing our doors to new clients for a month.