Writing for his own blog and for the Social Work Action Network (SWAN), a SWAN London member writes at length on his experiences of current social work / welfare related campaigns in the capital and of being SWAN member.
NB: Please join SWAN London at the Kilburn March for the Counihan Family – meet at Kilburn Square, London on Saturday 6th October at 2.30pm. Download the flyer at the bottom of this article. Please also sign the petition here. Read more about the Daniel Roque Hall campaign here and sign the petition here.
On 14th August 2012 Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group (KUWG) scored a major "coup" in calling a public meeting in South Kilburn which was to discuss the REAL impact of cuts and austerity on REAL people leading ordinary but REAL lives.
After introductions by us all, about 50 people in all, the chair of the meeting, Robin, a member of KUWG introduced 3 speakers: Anthony Counihan, father of 5 children between 4 and 15, and partner to Isobel Sanchez; then my friend and comrade, CJ spoke briefly about the suicide of Nigel Firminger and Anne, mother of Daniel Roque Hall spoke about the imprisonment of her son. From Anthony Counihan’s account, the gist of the Counihan-Sanchez family predicament is this: the family have had a long association with Brent going back many years and on the South Kilburn Estate in particular where they are a well respected family, who not only have support but have always, whatever their own difficulties supported neighbours and others in their community. Some years ago, they returned to Ireland due to Anthony Counihan's father’s illness, giving up their tenancy in the London Borough of Brent. The local authority had at that time failed to advise them properly that they could assist themselves by subletting to maintain their tenancy for up to a year. When they returned to Brent they were housed in property which it soon became clear was well beyond their income. The family were subsequently deprived of benefits and support entirely when, "too honest for their own good", they declared ownership of waterlogged land inherited from Antony's father following his death. This brings in a maximum of £18 per week rent but is virtually unsaleable particularly in the current economic circumstances. Rather than apply common sense, discretion or simply deduct income from benefits, however, the family were evicted and presented with a bill for around £56,000 despite the local authority’s denial of any responsibility for the family. Again the family were poorly advised to sell the land which would have been illegal as they would have been distributing assets. Now temporarily rehoused in and by Ealing Council, it seems that both that the Council and the local Tory MP have written to Brent advising that they should accept and address its responsibilities. In the meantime, Isabel Sanchez has postponed hip replacement because of the family predicament and delivers her 5 children to 5 different schools in Brent every day. I understand that in the last few days, some "special provison" has been obtained in Brent for Vinny's education, the youngest of their children who is autistic and whose behaviour is so affected by the families distress, that months of therapeutic work by therapists and the family have been undone in a few weeks over the summer. It is my view and that of others that throughout this debacle, this family have been poorly advised and indeed institutionally abused by poor service delivery from social services, housing and benefits departments, who have never exercised proper oversight, applied common sense, discretion or review. Advice and "help from" the local authority has often been bizarre and perverse. It is stretching the point to call it patchy. Unable to obtain help through "proper channels” a campaign was set up from the public meeting and community political pressure has been applied. In addition, in that public meeting CJ reported on the suicide of Nigel Firminger, a recent member of KUWG who it seems had been driven to suicide by the insensitivity of a number of government, local authority and third sector agencies, who took no account of the impact of their indifference on his increased anxiety. This is likely to have led to him accumulating rent arrears as he lost employment and was denied a return to benefits. In the wake of his suicide, some of those agencies are now "falling over themselves" to spout weasel words and to regret their insensitivity to his human needs. Ann reported that following the decline in health of her son, Daniel Roque Hall, over several months, he had made the mistake of committing a serious drugs related offence. He had made admissions from the moment he was apprehended for drug importation when he returned to England from a period abroad. Whilst not denying that the offence was serious, a man in the later stages of a very serious degenerative and debilitating disease was hardly in a position to run away. I do not know what consideration was given to alternative sentencing, however, a judge sentenced him to 3 years imprisonment having obtained specific assurances that the prison medical service would be able to meet Daniel’s health needs and to replicate the standards of the NHS (National Health Service). Within 2 hours of sentencing and incarceration, the absurdity of those promises became clearer, when he fell from a table to which he had been chained. As Daniel has virtually no control of most of his body, he could neither help himself from falling when he had an involuntary spasm, nor do anything to call out or to help himself. He should not have been left alone. As a result he sustained a serious head injury requiring hospitalisation, which was refused by staff at Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Unable to provide the care he needs in prison, which should include exercise programmes and special equipment, his health is in further constant jeopardy, he is in decline. This amounts to torture. I hear that when eventually hospitalised he was described as being at "death’s door". At a time when no expense is apparently spared for the Olympic and Paralympic elite, Daniel's experience of casual, institutional brutality could not be much clearer. Prison is no place for such a man. The public meeting went on to discuss the range of issues raised. Whist appreciating the presence and input of a one of the younger and more junior councillors, the meeting almost unanimously rejected his perspective that the local authority’s hands are tied by central government funding and the need for "legality". It would seem that everyone else views this as the outlook of a spineless, Labour-led council which is unwilling to defend its own community/electorate against public sector cuts. Members of the community attending the meeting were eloquent in not only refusing that view, but proposing an alternative of fighting for a budget which reflects the needs of the community in Brent. At least one person also made reference to George Lansbury who once led an east London council in the 1930s from a prison cell rather than carry out Tory, oppressive laws. There was some discussion about increasing the networking and engagement across London, regional and wider communities. This came in a clear second to a unanimously agreed proposal to support the Counihan-Sanchez family by establishing a campaign in the community. One activist pointed out that whilst networking campaigns had not rolled back any cuts anywhere to date, a campaign around one family in need would be emblematic and when victorious would give a clear demonstration and lead that cuts CAN be rolled back. From a personal point of view I attended the meeting partly on behalf of my comrades in Brent TUSC (Trades Unionists and Socialist Coalition), as a member of the ILN/International Luxemburgist Network (I also write on the Forum/Network website) but not least as an ex-social worker/probation officer. I continue to feel that I can be a "gamekeeper turned poacher" and use my insider knowledge to the benefit of this campaign. I am indeed a member of campaign committee. Over the approximately 6 weeks that has elapsed since, the Counihan-Sanchez Family Campaign / Counihan Battlebus has campaigned every Saturday at "Kilburn Square" and on the South Kilburn Estate. We have used every possible opportunity often alongside other issues, campaigns and activist comrades to obtain signatures to the petition and raise wider public awareness. That has included a lobby of the family's MP, Glenda Jackson, who when originally approached gave only the insensitive advice that “the family could not afford to live in London and should move to Wales." Not only do the family have no connection with Wales, but this sounds like the kind of "social cleansing" advocated by Iain Duncan Smith and Frank Field. At that lobby Ms Jackson continued to ignore the family, to treat with them with contempt that fits her high handed arrogance and to ignore everyone who wanted to speak about or ask questions about the campaign. Nothing seems to shift this millionaire from her groundless sense of superiority to her electorate. It is only similar lobbies of council meetings and other public events that have mounted pressure on Cllr. Mo Butts to compel him, as leader of Brent council, to meet with the family, although this has so far produced little result. He has however been rattled and dislodged from his previous confidence in his own secure, political future which is now much more open to question. Sarah, the 15 year old and eldest daughter in the family, has described disruption of such public meetings as only necessary as a consequence of the family being otherwise ignored. All these people need to realise that if we are to be treated with such complete contempt then they need to consider their own fates at the hands of an increasingly class conscious and confident electorate. Families like the Counihan-Sanchez family and the wider community will no longer accept being treated like a stage army to vote for such careerist, professional politicians. Campaigns like this, along with the SOS Brent Libraries/Save Our Seven Brent Libraries and the emerging education campaigns begin to pose the need for independent political representation based on rejection of all cuts, provision of full services and the restoration of an improved "Welfare State" and a needs-led budget. This campaign already has the confidence, courage and persistence to call out these politicians and to attempt to bring them to account. Family and campaign members have indicated that there was a helpful meeting between an allocated social worker and the family which in my opinion seems at least to have been some kind of improvement on previous meetings where social workers appeared to use every factor and piece of information both against the family and to pathologise it. So the children’s understandable anger and hostility, when they felt the social worker was “fishing" for information to turn them against their mother was not simply described as "adolescent attitude", which would be bad enough, but was turned on the family itself. The parents seem also to have been accused of "sharing too much" with their children. In other situations this would have been praised. I would ask what choice such a family have when they are going through such profound difficulties, which are in my and the Campaign’s opinion, the local authority’s institutional abuse and revictimisation of them. Isobel Sanchez was happy to tell me that some new assistance has been set up to help Vinny, her youngest child who is autistic, although this seems to have emerged from the sensitivity of some staff in a particular part of the "service" rather than as a result of pressure to resolve the whole burgeoning range of difficulties. Neither the council nor the council leader have "grasped the nettle". Advice from the various parts of the council then, continues to be perverse, bizarre and certainly unhelpful. The campaign has evidence that the latest advice from housing is that the family move to the waterlogged land in Ireland, which is isolated and without services. The implication is that Anthony Counihan should somehow continue to commute from the West of Ireland to Cricklewood Bus Garage to continue to work as a bus driver on a near daily basis Whilst the local trades union council umbrella community campaign to defend services and fight cuts has been helpful, it has nevertheless been a little like "pulling teeth", and their seems some over-orientation by Brent Fightback on uncritical relationships with the Labour Party and council leadership. Somehow it seems that although such co-operation makes absolute sense at times, this should not require anyone to remain silent in relation to cuts in general nor urgent need. I form a strong impression that there are times when this body expects community campaigns to come to it almost for validation and approval rather than there being any sense of outreach to pro-actively offer solidarity and support to them. I detect from some, an odd requirement that campaigns demonstrate some kind of ideological uniformity before they are worthy of support and if necessary critical assistance. Whilst I recognise that this is not Russia in 1917, I cannot help but feel that the then Workers Councils, a much more militant form of organisation that might in some ways be compared with local trades council organisations, rather than demanding that a "struggle" present itself to it, would instead have sent workers (and revolutionary soldiers) and leading activists to support and bolster such battles, and to hammer out positions and strategies to win! As a member of the campaign committee, I suggested that I amongst others would approach other organisations and campaigns I am in contact with to seek support. As an ex-social worker I had also recently become involved in the SWAN (Social Work Action Network) particularly in London, where currently I am involved in assisting to organise the SWAN 2013 National Conference scheduled for 12-13th April 2013. The London grouping, of about 500 on an email list, is part of a wider national network established in 2004. The founders include Michael Lavalette who is an independent socialist councillor in Preston and a social work educator. When I took the Counihan-Sanchez family campaign to the last London meeting of SWAN, the contrast with certain other meetings could not have been more striking. Whilst no-one revels in the misery of others, I felt when I spoke that I had the full and enthusiastic attention of everyone, about 20 people in all. Everyone was both eager to know more and to help. SWAN London will mobilise for the campaign demonstration in Kilburn on October 6th,and bring its banner. The call for support and further information will both go out to all on the London list and it could well be promoted via the SWAN website as a campaign SWAN will support and take up nationally. SWAN London will be invited to provide a speaker at the rally on 6th October. I hope that this article will serve those purposes. As I believe Michael Lavalette may be in London for a meeting with SWAN London on 9th October, I hope he might be available to attend/speak at the Counihan Sanchez campaign rally on 6th October. I am sure SWAN London will assist the campaign to make other links, such as with the Haringey Travellers Services Team dispute. I am sure that the Campaign will be able to speak and make a presentation at the SWAN Conference in due course, when I hope that we will be able to present both a victory and further developments in a wider campaign. Before I end this article, I want to make 2 more points. One is to observe that although sectarianism on the left and amongst activists is not dead, it is noticeable at least to me that in this and other campaigns I have personal knowledge of recently, that there is evidence of a different climate and that groups are making some considerable efforts to not behave in a sectarian manner. Old habits die hard, but I believe the intent really is there and I am finding genuine warmth, comradeship, friendship and greater openness than in the past. I am for example aware that in at numerous of our meetings and activities there have been members of at least 6 different groupings/currents who are able to acknowledge the valued contributions we all make as well as to hear and to learn from the many community activities who come from no particular political traditions. It is my firm opinion that we do not need to hide or be silent about our real political differences whilst continuing to work effectively together to a common and largely shared end. This is very important for me personally (I am a member of 2 "overlapping" organisations). We live in times where if we don't "stand together, we will fall apart". Sectarianism is itself an enemy and a luxury in the current political and social climate I would affirm we cannot afford. It is in my opinion better that we fight out the issues openly as they become relevant rather than by shunning each other and other organisations on matters which might have some relevance at some point but are often too abstruse, abstract and alienating. I recognise of course that the time of their relevance is itself a key question, but one which we should remain sensitive and respectful about. Last but not least, we are aware as a campaign of the dangers of appearing to personalise the issues around one family. But, that said, the family and the campaign are very well aware that whilst each family and individual need is special and important, this family are emblematic, and that a victory for one family will in turn enable us to push harder, more quickly and effectively for further change. We will then be in a position to generalise out from one success. We are already discovering that there is a vast range of need "out there" in our own and other communities. Most if not all of this is symptomatic not of individual or family pathology but of austerity and crisis compounded by institutional abuse. This in my opinion results from any casually brutal local state machine guided by the demands of capitalism, or indeed anything except a "moral compass" or a commitment to electorate or class. It is highly relevant to stress that this particular family are not just highly respected but also resilient and strong, which facilitates such a campaign. As CJ pointed out in the public meeting, however, it remains the case that if "you take away resources, you make people vulnerable". Past experience as an activist and as a professional social worker for most of my 42 year career, I am aware that there are dangers for activists being dragged into roles as alternative social workers/caseworkers/advisors/service providers. Having been involved in several discussions over recent months about these issues, I am forming the view that there is need to train activists, who in turn would be capable of training other in some basic skills to formulate enough of a "thumbnail" assessment of social need to direct those in need to appropriate services and to monitor those services as provided rather than substitute for them, although this cannot be an absolute and requires sensitivity to the needs of individuals, families and groups. Unfortunately this is NOT the 1960s-1970s when many "voluntary sector" services and campaigns grew up to meet such needs, but themselves have either been cut completely over recent decades or have been reduced to shadows of their former selves, often serving radically altered "ends". It seems to me that now we must seek to develop new alternatives and to demand proper professional and accountable services, rather than to substitute for them. Substitution places those engaged in it at risks - which were not identified in the 1960s-70s, and also deflects us form political activism. Activists, I suggest need to maintain an ability to generalise, organise and motivate, whist remaining sensitive to real human need and not to "pass the buck" as too many of the services I/we would criticise, now do. It seems to me that with the focus of the next SWAN conference, and the increasing demand amongst young social worker-activists to know what radical/transformative social work practice might look like, this campaign and others opens up a rich vein of opportunity to learn and to develop our thinking. Those of us now "outside" employment in such professions and the self-identified radicals and activists within have a key role to play. I am hearing of similar initiatives to focus on the real impact on real people of cuts and austerity in a number of places including Haringey and Luton. This makes the tasks urgent. They may not need addressing this minute but they do need addressing soon, in the next few months rather than years. I am optimistic that this task can be taken up in the forthcoming SWAN Conference and that I can begin to develop with others some kind of "rolling activist workshop/training in casework skills/issues for activists." We ought to win this campaign, and whilst the road will be hard for us and for anyone else in anything like similar predicaments, a victory here or anywhere should be maximised, generalised and shared. I would like to end simply by acknowledging the commitment, friendship, comradeship, support, talent, tenacity, endeavour and courage of many I am working alongside, although I have not named. My discussions with a number of them have contributed to this article. One of the key differences between achievement amongst OUR class and theirs is that we can share and collaborate. We do not need to make stars and celebrities from our shared activity. It does not mean that we should value each other any less. Individual genius is far too overrated. What is important is that we put the efforts of our heads, our hands and our hearts together in common endeavour.
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Social Work Action Network (SWAN)c/o Iain FergusonSchool of Social ScienceUniversity of the West of ScotlandPaisleyPA1 2BE
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