Speech – Housing Rights for Domestic Violence Victims & Survivors (4th Nov 2014, Full Council)

Text of speech below:-
Violence is at the heart of abuse of power. Abuse of power is at the heart of violence.

Domestic violence takes place in the home in a context of trust. It violates a safe space which is emotional as well as physical.
 
So when a woman’s access to a bank account is taken away, when a partner has been ‘persuaded’ into having sex or when vulnerable family members are systematically isolated, violence is already taking place within the home.

We cannot just understand violence as a single physical act giving rise to physical harm – sometimes there is no such act to speak of. Violence in the home must also be understood in terms of its effects and in terms of the attitudes that make it possible. 

 
The abuser is permitted to treat the victim, not as a human being but as a blank canvass and as an object. The abuser is permitted to behave in this way by wider society through a continued failure to intervene. And the permission given to the abuser encourages the victim to implicitly accept the abuse. In many instances the victim is silenced by a culture which shifts blame and responsibility on the victim, should she choose to leave her relationship or marriage.
 
To keep on surviving in an abusive relationship, the victim needs to disavow their humanity and experience of vulnerability. Many continue to do so over a period of years – placing cultural expectations, the interests of their children, and the interests of the perpetrator over and above their own basic human needs. 
 
Where the victim has experienced abuse for a long period of time, he or she is often also rendered voiceless by trauma.


So too are the children in a family who watch this behaviour even if they may not entirely understand it and are later unable to speak about it. 
 
So when a woman or man knocks on the door of a council and says that they wish to leave everything behind in pursuit of a new life, this is not just an act of last resort and desperation but also one of immense courage, resilience and survival. It should be recognized as such.
 
It marks a turning point where a victim realizes their own humanity and value is equal to that of others. 
 
It is a moment where a person shows determination and the will to vocalise their traumatic experiences.
 
It is a moment of opportunity, not just for the victim, but also for the council – to end patterns of conduct that are cyclical and result in huge cost to society. 
 
The council must in its approach be alive to the sensitivity of this moment, alive to the emotional ambivalence of the survivor, and alive to the power it has to support a new and different life for the survivor. 
 
That is why it is wrong to ‘gatekeep’ – creating bureaucratic loops for survivors to jump through before being rehoused. 
 
That is why it is wrong to wait until physical abuse has occurred before rehousing a survivor. 
 
And that is why it is wrong to push survivors to the back of the social housing queue. 
 
We have an obligation to create real choice for victims and survivors – so they are empowered to make the incredibly difficult decision to leave if they wish to do so. 
 
For these reasons I urge all of Council to consider how best they can help survivors to make genuinely free choices.
 
I thank Council for listening, for speaking and for responding on this important issue.

And I move this amendment in my name.


Not Just Child’s Play – Play Therapy

 

We all know that provision for children and for parents has seen deep cuts – and that over 400 children’s  SureStart centres up and down the country have closed down.

This is a real shame, given the effect that space for children to play, and support for children early on in life has on narrowing the gap for children with disabilities and children from low income families. I see this daily – many local residents tell me that what they see very little of is support for parents and children – and for families that are facing a real pressure in light of reduced real income, to balance work, life and the difficult but rewarding task of raising a young family.

That’s why ensuring that there is emotional and social support for children is particularly important, as is raising awareness of the need for mental health support as well as physical health support for children as well as adults, and why I’m really pleased  to support local counselling support charity Rephael House - which provides assistance across North London – including Barnet, Brent and Harrow and their fundraising drive for a play therapy room renovation.

Chief Executive of the charity Anesta Edge had this to say about the importance of play therapy;

Our play room offers some of them an opportunity to get back to play    and begin to understand emotions that they are unable to express in  words. This is why it is important for us to have a fully functional, inclusive space for them to use and explore in. We want our kids to be kids and explore all aspects of childhood and the challenges they face.

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

They’re using some newfangled platform called SpaceHive to do this – which is the world’s first crowdfunding platform for civic projects.  That means you can pledge whatever you’d like to contribute to this very worthwhile cause – and you can do it now.

They need 100 people to pledge a tenner (or whatever you can afford). Why not join me?

It’s not just child’s play – it’s so much more than that.


Asking for SafeRoads: Because Cats Have Nine Lives; Our Kids – Only One

funny-cats-with-9-lives

The first 20 mph zones were opened in Norwich, Kingston-upon-Thames and Sheffield in January 1991 to address the problem of child pedestrian casualties in and around residential areas. In a study of the impacts of 250 such zones, carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in 1996, it was found that:

  • Average speeds had fallen by nine miles per hour;
  • The annual total of accidents had fallen by 60%;
  • The number of accidents involving children had fallen by 67%; and
  • The number of incidents involving cyclists had fallen by 29%.

It’s been drawn to my attention as school governor of Hollickwood Primary School that there have been a number of road accidents involving young children as cars drive around fast through residential roads used as cut-throughs. You’ll also be supporting the parents of children at Coldfall  and Coppetts Wood primary schools, who have been campaigning for this to happen in their WalkSafeN10 campaign.

Remember, cats have nine lives but our kids have only one.

That’s why you should sign my petition for safer roads for everyone, including our children.


The One Barnet Ping-Pong – Cornelius’s Answer and My Response

His response to my open letter:-

Dear Miss Patel
Thank you for this.
In the interests of residents we will sign as soon as possible.  Think of the cuts that will have to be made because of the legal expenses and continuing delay. Legal costs £500k and missed savings of £700k per month.  No alternative to the plan suggested by anyone.
I do not agree with your selective reading of the judgement
regards
Richard
My response to his open letter:-
Dear Cllr Cornelius

 
It is nobody’s fault but your Conservative administration’s that you failed to take proper legal advice and/or follow proper legal advice when embarking on a project of this scale. This is what exposed you to the judicial review in the first place.
 
Also, in September 2012 I drew your attention to the legal duty to consult which is recorded in the public questions section of a Cabinet meeting and asked when it would be complied with. I even wrote a Guardian article about the situation. That question remained unanswered.
 
Any sensible Conservative administration that was paying even the slightest bit of notice to concerns raised by residents would have taken immediate steps to rectify this situation. That would have prevented a judicial review and the costs you claim are mounting.
 
Best wishes
 
Ms. Reema Patel
So that’s decided. The High Court decides Barnet Council failed to consult with residents but lets them off on a technicality. Instead of taking the hint, Barnet Tories decide they’ll continue to fail to consult with local residents.
Looks like the residents of Barnet won’t get much of a say until we get a change of administration, then.

One Barnet Judicial Review – My Open Letter to Leader of Barnet Council

Dear Cllr Cornelius,

I’m writing again in relation to One Barnet – in particular the so-called legal victory you describe (inaccurately in my view) as ‘clear and complete’. A few questions which I hope you’ll respond to.

I’ve copied in my local  Conservative MP Theresa Villiers as one of my questions is also addressed to her.

1) Firstly, the judge decided that your administration had not consulted, and never intended to consult on One Barnet. Are you, in light of his decision, now going to suspend the signing of the contract until effective and adequate consultation with residents has taken place?

Sarah Sackman and myself wrote the following article outlining why this consultation is so important. Essentially, the proposals to lock down the Council into a 10 year contract flies in the face of democratic governance of public services and will undermine local participation in the shaping of those public services. Residents are at the very least entitled to be aware of, and to have a say in such an important decision about where those services are based, and how they are administered.

The judgement in Nash v Barnet Council specifically tells you what this consultation should include. It says –

‘Because here the Council never set out to consult about its outsourcing programme at all, the present case is not a good occasion to offer guidance on the form that such a consultation might have taken. The essential is simply that the representatives should have been given the opportunity to express views or concerns about outsourcing the functions or services in question that could inform the Council’s decision-taking both on whether to proceed and on matters requiring attention in the arrangements eventually made.

As the council has not yet proceeded with the contract, it therefore follows that consultation is still possible, and in the light of this judgement, Barnet Council should invite residents to express their views or concerns about One Barnet, and should give those residents sufficient time to express those views and any concerns they may have.

2) Secondly, you will recall that  in September 2012 I asked your administration a written question at a public meeting (which was unspectacularly chaired by Brian Coleman) as to when it would comply with its legal duty to consult on One Barnet. Strangely, for the first time in the history of any such public meeting, no written answers were provided, and I was assured by the chair of that meeting, Brian Coleman, that this question would be answered ‘later on’ in the meeting. No measures were taken to ensure this question was answered, and you claimed in that meeting that ‘no decision had yet been taken’

I’m afraid this question remains unanswered. When will you comply with your legal duty to consult on both contracts? That the judicial review was unsuccessful because it was allegedly out of time does not mean you do not have a legal duty to consult. You could consult now if you wished to and it is clear from the judgement that you have a continuing obligation to do so.

3) Thirdly the judgement is extremely critical of Barnet Council’s failure to consult and engage with residents. Some time ago Ms. Villiers endorsed the Council’s decision to enter into the One Barnet programme in a letter to me, citing difficult economic circumstances. What is Ms. Villier’s position on Barnet Council’s failure to consult before entering into the programme; and is it congruent with yours?

4) A number of your councillors claimed that your Conservative administration had consulted.  In the High Court your barrister was reduced to having to claim there was no requirement to consult at all. The judgement is fairly clear that not only did you fail in your duty to consult, you never intended to do so at all.

Are you prepared to accept the ongoing dishonesty on your administration’s behalf which has been exposed by the court process?

I very much look forward to hearing from you on all four of these matters.

Yours sincerely,

Reema Patel


Update – Friern Barnet Library: What Community Looks Like

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog – mainly because I’ve been busy and other people have got there first… (revising for Bar exams, working with Friern Barnet Library as they get going,  following the One Barnet judicial review, picking up on pro bono casework…life gets busy as a community activist sometimes!)

Last Friday I was on an evening shift in Friern Barnet Library – occupied and then reopened by a community trust. It was featured on Newsnight on Friday  yet again – to my surprise the library remains in the national public eye as one of the most high-profile community run spaces in the UK; showing how the importance of public space is moving to the top of the agenda. Now, more than ever, we need our public spaces – they are what bridge links, provide support and build trust in the community. That’s why myself and Sarah Sackman (who grew up in Finchley and is a public law barrister), worked together on the legal team to ensure the library was listed under Localism Act and to help steer the community campaign into a position where the library could be saved and then reopened. This involved amongst other things a lengthy campaign struggle, followed by a lengthy litigation struggle taking up the best part of September 2012 – February 2013 which wasted Council resources on legal advisers.

So I was rather surprised to receive an email last week from Richard Cornelius, Tory leader of Barnet Council. It read as follows:-

‘You contacted me some time ago objecting to the closure of Friern Barnet Library.  The good news is that the library will continue but as a community library.  The facility does though need help in the way of volunteer support.  I am writing to you in the hope that having achieved this excellent result you might consider helping.

I look forward to hearing from you.’

I am pleased to note that Richard Cornelius thinks that the community library is an excellent result (so do I), but to present it as his ‘achievement’ is quite some cheek. The reality is that it is an achievement of a well-organised broad coalition of groups and campaign well-versed in the art of pestering Barnet Council (ah, the Big Society in action you say…but it’s not quite what Eric Pickles envisaged). It just so happened that when I read the email I was on my walk up to volunteer at the library. Perhaps he himself, and a few of his Tory colleagues might also learn a thing or two from the volunteering experience.

Volunteering at the library means that I see and experience the importance of these public spaces. I’ve met someone who goes to the library for social comfort and support because it’s the only way he can gain some respite from substance abuse that afflicts his home. I’ve met a couple who walked in and said they had nowhere in North London because they were homeless and proceeded to have a discussion between themselves about where they would be sleeping that evening. They described the good work churches did in housing the homeless in North London, but they also described the way in which 35 out of the 50 homeless who went to a church would have to be turned away, and inevitably sleep out in the March cold these days. I’ve met and read to children whose parents explain to me that they are grateful for this library because without it and without a car they would not be able to take out the books they are taking out for their kids. I’ve spoken to people who volunteer in the library and who are unemployed – who are gaining a sense of confidence from their interaction with others within the library and are using its facilities to go job-hunting. It’s these moments that confirm to me both the importance of those spaces, and the reason for why, now more than ever,with deep cuts facing all of our services, we must do what we can to keep them open and be open to new ways of innovating in response to the problems which confront us.

Access to public spaces where people can go to learn about each others’ experiences in this way is essential to understanding what social justice and inclusion is really all about. Social justice and inclusion are what form the basis of an argument for open spaces, and what they mean for transforming public service delivery-  which I wrote about recently with Christine Megson in the Local Government Chronicle.

The library itself is continuing to do excellent work – it is not simply a place where there are books but is rapidly becoming a space where information, thoughts and ideas are freely shared and expressed. It

- provides a free, safe and inclusive space to meet others

- lends books, videos

- makes available children’s toys for use, and has a chess table available for use

- has regular Open Mic nights on Thursdays

- runs Drama and Rhyme Time for kids, and Storytelling sessions by CRB checked volunteers

- runs exercise classes such as Yoga

- has knitting and book groups

- is  going to have an Easter Egg hunt this forthcoming weekend

- has regular open group meetings that enable trustees to feed back to, and consult with the wider community

The trustee group are moving forward extremely well on signing off their two year lease – this will be accompanied with a grant of £25,000 a year from Barnet Council.

The space is also available to hire for groups who are interested in making use of it in the early mornings and in the evenings.

If you want to run an event or host a session of some sort for free during the day – just pop in and have a word with a volunteer behind the desk. It’s your community library. It also meets regularly on Mondays where trustees feed back to interested members, and has a working fundraising group – both of which are excellent times to get involved.

There’s space for all, or any of your skills here. And finally, if you’re local, if you’re interested, if you can – I urge you join as a means of demonstrating your support and to volunteer.

That’s how you’ll find out what community looks like.


Final Note from the McKenzie Friend: Reflections on Community and Protest

I write this final note after a day of helping to put Friern Barnet Library in order to begin a new, exciting, dynamic and innovative chapter in its life. Tomorrow the Friern Barnet Community Library group (FBCL) will sign a licence with Barnet Council to run a community library and community centre from the premises. To track my note-taking throughout this saga of court hearings, see my first set of notes, my second set of notes and the witness statements in their entirety.

Friern Barnet Library, rightly, has obtained a reputation of being the library that refused to die – even as other similar libraries face closures across the country, and are fast becoming the symbol of the coalition government’s drastic and indiscriminate cuts to public services. The truth is that a library encapsulates much that is valuable and beautiful about humanity, and collective action. It encapsulates the significance that access to books, education and learning can have in narrowing an ever widening gap between the rich and poor in society. It also encapsulates a commitment to social justice and to community values – the first libraries were not state-provided but evolved out of mutuals and co-operatives; they stemmed from a community-based recognition that more could be achieved for those who struggled, who were on low incomes – collectively than individually.

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The library had been closed in April 2012, after a wave of protests by the Save Friern Barnet Library campaign (which had been running for over 2 years). The campaign group organised a number of innovative protests, staging a sit-in – their own ‘occupation’ – on the day of the closure of the library building. Between 5 April 2012 and September 2012 the building was left empty, and a promise of a new replacement ‘Landmark Library’ dangled in front of campaigners. That Landmark Library never appeared. On 5 September 2012 the Occupy movement reopened the library – prompting a chain of court hearings that culminated in a trial on the 18th/19th December 2012.

Many in the campaign know me as a ‘legal adviser’ – a McKenzie friend (I am not yet a qualified lawyer). This is my first significant court case – one that I feel so privileged to see through from 5th September up until now, where we have secured a concrete outcome for the community (a continuing library). From writing the defence, to drafting witness statements, to doing legal research on the Localism Act, chairing open meetings in the occupied library, to co-ordinating and working with the nine trustees of the new Friern Barnet Community Library, it’s been something of a rollercoaster ride lurching from one stop-point to another, sometimes without an end in sight. Much of this has involved just doing one’s best and trusting that eventually, insurmountable issues would resolve themselves. And by and large – they did. The final stage in my role as this McKenzie friend has included negotiating with the Council as advisor to the trustees in relation to the licence – again a strategic advisory role that had legal elements to it, but was not about legal expertise so much as finding a sensible solution for all parties.

I had not expected the court proceedings to last this long. I don’t think others did either – but that they lasted as long as they did is a testament to the perseverance of the campaigners. Friern Barnet Library to me is not just a local issue. It is symbolic of an awakening sense of community which has long been left dormant in Britain; a shift to a new culture and a new way of thinking about how human beings relate to each other. We have only to look at what made this campaign successful when so many others fell by the roadside to understand what is meant by this. The strength of this campaign comes from the fact that it has been deeply-rooted in the diverse communities that characterise Friern Barnet and its surroundings. Activists met in the library in order to save the library. They ran the library on a voluntary-basis – and their running the occupied library was in and of itself their protest against the council’s  closure itself.

When Occupy entered, they did so explicitly with the purpose of supporting the community in their protest. The community responded positively – so positively that the judge in the County Court had this to say during the Council’s protracted struggle to obtain a possession order against the occupiers;

  1. it is abundantly clear that the protest is still active and I am satisfied that the occupiers could make good use of the occupation in the future to promote their cause. I thus make a finding that the termination of the illegal occupancy will interfere with the defendant’s right of freedom of expression and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. ‘

and, where comparisons were drawn between a similar line of argument relied upon in the Occupy/St. Paul’s case,  (City of London Corporation v Samede) she said;

  1. In contrast to the St Paul’s protest there is no question of these defendants causing any breach of the peace or by putting local waste disposal systems under strain. To the contrary, the defendants have by all accounts been a welcome addition to the local community and there have been no complaints about their occupancy except possibly a report when the alarm went off after the protestors went into the building.
  2. The St Pauls protestors caused commercial damage to adjacent shops and businesses, restriction in their trade, no such complaint has been raised here. To the contrary, the positive activities at the library, including a wide-range of events have been well received by local residents. The local authority submit that the prejudice they will suffer by continued occupation relates not to these matters but to the future of this building and in particular the possible disposal of the building to a community group under the Localism Act’

The Court of Appeal declined to hear the case on appeal. So ultimately, Council might well have won in law but they had to jump through burning hoops in order to get a possession order which ordinarily should have been available summarily. To their credit, they ultimately opted not to enforce the possession order, instead granting a licence in exchange for a seamless transition over to the trustees of Friern Barnet Community Library.

The legal proceedings – including the fantastic pro bono work by Leigh Day and by Sarah Sackman who agreed to take up the case when I approached them months ago – have been instrumental, but not the only reason for the success of the campaign. Whilst the law is a fantastic way in which levers of social change and action can be achieved, it remains a tool and a platform. In this case, it gave voice and a platform to those who had been left voiceless by a Council that refused to listen. The  message was that the protest itself was the campaigners – and the campaigners’ alone. Our argument was that it was the community that was protesting – and the Council, a public body under the Human Rights Act 1998, had to be mindful of any infringement of those rights – that the burden shifted to the local authority to justify its infringement of those rights.

The energy that has surrounded the library in the last few weeks has been palpable – almost electric. Tomorrow’s licence-signing, farewell to the occupiers, and celebration will be the conclusion of what has been a story of conflict between Council and community.

I hope that it marks the beginning of a promising relationship between community and citizen.

It is with some sadness but also with some anticipation that I sign off this final note as FBL’s McKenzie friend,

(but most certainly not signing off as a friend)

Reema.


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