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Benefit sanctions are ‘Britain’s secret penal system’

war-on-the-poorStuart Rodger interviews Dr David Webster, the Glasgow-based academic who charts the full horror of Tory benefit sanctions – which fine more people for being poor than are fined in Magistrates courts

While the Tories like to prevaricate and evade on the causes for the dramatic rise in foodbank use in Britain over the past six years, the statistical evidence is unequivocal. 

The Trussell Trust – the leading provider of foodbanks in Britain – claim that the highest proportion of users, at 28%, cite benefit delays as their reasons for referral. Corresponding with the rise of physical hunger has been the level of psychological distress – with DWP staff now being given ‘suicide guidance’ when dealing with despairing claimants. 

The benefit-related problems in question are, in many cases, sanctions. These have long been part of the system, but the passing of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 brought in a much stricter regime, with some claimants being sanctioned for as long as three years. 

They soon became a common topic of discussion after the news of the death of David Clapson – a diabetic former soldier left with an empty stomach and a cut-off refrigerator where he left his insulin. With sanctions causing such widespread misery, no wonder the DWP issued fabricated personal stories promoting sanctions, in a Ministry-of-Truth like twist. 

One academic who has been taking sanctions to task, however, is Dr David Webster, of Glasgow University. He has memorably described benefit sanctions as ‘Britain’s secret penal’ system. 

His remarkable observation is that, once you crunch the numbers, the number of benefit sanctions being inflicted on claimants – at over 1 million – is now higher than the number of fines imposed by Magistrates and Sheriff courts throughout Britain, at around 850,000, and the amount of money is measurably greater. 

Meeting with Webster in his elegant, semi-detached Victorian house in Glasgow’s southside, he tells me that he regards this system as a ‘third-rate form of justice’. What stands out for him, he has written, is that the decisions are made in secret, without any open system of transparency or accountability: 

‘Decisions on guilt are made in secret by officials who have no independent responsibility to act lawfully – since the Social Security Act 1998 they have been mere agents of the Secretary of State. These officials are currently subject to constant management pressure to maximise penalties. And as in any secret system, there is a lot of error, misconduct, dishonesty and abuse. The claimant is not present when the decision on guilt is made and is not legally represented.’

Webster sees it as a basic violation of the principles of a liberal democracy: ‘The civil liberties alarm bells haven’t been triggered – because it’s been done step by step by step. But of course that’s what happens when liberties are taken away, they don’t all go at once.’ 

Talking about the historical development of welfare reform, he says ‘the biggest increase in penalties was the 2012 Act… That’s what created this anomaly where these secret administrators can impose penalties higher than the Magistrates courts.’ 

‘The trouble with the sanctions system is that it’s so vicious that it undermines people… It makes them ill, destroys their resilience in all sorts of ways, lose their self-confidence. It’s immensely damaging. So I feel very angry about it.’

But Webster argues that New Labour are similarly culpable: ‘What’s happened is that, step by step, the safeguards for claimants have been stripped away, in particular by Frank Field – he has a lot to answer for, personally. He – along with Harriet Harman – was responsible for abolishing Independent Adjudication in the 1998 Social Security Act.’ 

Dr Webster has spoken with a civil servant from the period: ‘I met the Bill manager in the DWP for the 1998 Act, and he told me that they presented this Bill to Harman and Field… in the expectation that it was going to refused. But they just put it through’ 

Reflecting on the driving forces behind welfare reform, Webster sees both a malign American influence and those of labour market economists. ‘Economists have got a lot to answer for here, because of their promotion of the active labour market policy. A lot of them are very arrogant. They think that the employment services offered by the state must be superior to the actions that individual citizens would take… Once you’ve accepted that the state knows best, that’s when you introduce the concept of punishment.’ 

He cites in particular Richard Layard, a favoured guru of New Labour: ‘The New Deal of Blair and Brown was drafted by Richard Layard. There was a lot of mistaken analysis behind Layard’s stuff…  They thought long-term unemployment just goes up and down along with short-term unemployment… So, mistaken labour market theories are one of the big reasons we have this punitive attitude to sanctions.’ 

On the US influence, Webster tells me that ‘Duncan Smith flies over to give speeches to the Heritage Foundation… He’s been going over there quite regularly… When he’s over there he boasts about how Britain is showing the way.’ 

Much of the intellectual agitation for reform comes from the Policy Exchange think tank, who in turn have a strong connection to US business interests. ‘Policy Exchange, they’ve been very busy promoting this welfare reform agenda. The have a whole page devoted to American donors. They actually have a couple of American billionaires on their governing body. They are advancing the right-wing, Republican agenda.’ 

He cites Lawrence Mead and Charles Murray: ‘Charles Murray is a really third-rate academic whose career has been purely created by big money.’

Webster expresses bewilderment at the choice of the likes of Lord Freud to oversee welfare reform. ‘David Freud is a banker by background. I don’t really know how he got into this welfare reform business….  

‘The trouble with these Thatcherite people, with whom I include Tony Blair, is this idea you go off to businessmen, to tell you what to do, on the basis that they are somehow very clever and they’ll take a fresh view and know how to run things. It’s just appalling – the idea that a Professor of Social Administration would be asked to do such a review is outlandish.’

Given facts like these – where business bosses are given roles designing public policy – the professor holds that welfare reform may have a role in disciplining labour: ‘These right-wing people – their argument is that welfare benefits are too high, which means people’s so-called “reservation wage” is too high, so they won’t take the jobs that are on offer… But of course, it obviously is in the interest of employers to encourage as much low-wage expectation as they can get. Employers will always be in favour of lower social security because it will cheapen the cost of labour.’

More broadly, welfare reform could be said to be about squashing dissent of any kind. ‘One definite motivation behind the sanctions regime is simply to prevent protest by the unemployed. Think back to the 1930s and the Jarrow Marches. Well we don’t have Jarrow Marches now. It’s because people get sanctioned, so they can’t go on a Jarrow March…

‘They are supposed to be spending 35 hours a week on Universal Jobmatch looking for jobs, so if they’re protesting they’re failing in their duty to society. So protest is completely killed off.’ 

His ideas echo those of economist Guy Standing, an academic who has observed the modern trend for precarious work. Standing sees modern social policy as deeply authoritarian, characterized by a drive to control and discipline. 

‘The drift to behavioural nudging (link) gives discretionary and arbitrary power to bureaucrats, commercial surrogates and “experts” lurking behind politicians’, writes Standing. ‘Social policy is becoming part panopticon’. (Link) 

Dr Webster himself argues: ‘I don’t think the state knows best. I think individuals know best what’s good for them… If the Jobcentre says you’ve got to go on this course or we’ll take your money away, that means you’ll be offered a lousy course – because the power to turn it down [is] absolutely essential to guarantee quality. In other walks of life, people would just laugh at this… They’d think, “that’s Stalinist”. But when it gets to employment services, it becomes a command economy’.

Asking Webster about the use of language around welfare reform, he sees in it an ‘Orwellian’ tendency to mislead: ‘New Labour are tremendously guilty of all this stuff… The re-naming of the Department of Social Security as “the Department for Work and Pensions”. That in itself is a typical example of an ideological statement being incorporated into the title of a department – you’re either at work or retired. There’s isn’t a category of people too ill to work, or who might be left unemployed by the economy… It is absolutely Orwellian.’ 

Recognizing that claimants are now referred to as ‘customers’, he says ‘It is ideology, isn’t it?… The customer is always right, but it’s always been completely hypocritical, because claimants are not treated as customers who are always right. Far from it.’ 

Dr Webster draws a distinction between sanctions and conditionality, two things which are often conflated. ‘People use the term ‘conditionality’. People ask me if I am in favour of conditionality? I say definitely yes. I think you should think of it as an insurance scheme, and any insurance scheme has to have conditions. 

‘But first of all I think that’s completely different from punishment. I don’t think the thing should be a penal system at all. I don’t think there should be any capacity on the part of the state to penalise anybody for not doing what they think they should do. Because the reason why people take jobs is to get the money. If they’re not being offered anything good enough then they’re unemployed and the state should pay out.’  

Dr Webster’s views reflect a different ideological understanding of unemployment. Traditionally, unemployment was recognized as a structural feature of capitalism, designed to control the price of labour (Karl Marx’s ‘Reserve Army’) – while full employment was regarded as a socialist policy. 

Fast forward to 2016, and we have David Cameron claiming that we are moving ‘towards full employment’, maintaining that unemployment is more often than not a personal failing. The statistics, however, are on Dr Webster’s side. The ONS recorded that in January 2016, there were 754 thousand vacancies in the economy, but 1.7 million unemployed people. 

Strikingly, Dr Webster thinks that the welfare reform warriors are themselves guilty of defrauding the system. ‘I think they are guilty of misconduct in public office, because they have deliberately set out to defraud people of payments they are entitled to… They are themselves guilty of fraud… The evidence is so overwhelming that they have issued instructions to staff, the inevitable result of which is that people would be wrongly denied payments. That’s misconduct in public office.’ 

In summer 2014, however, the government published the Oakley Review on sanctions. The review was in theory ‘independent’, but Oakley himself had connections with pro-Tory think tanks: ‘His background is Policy Exchange. He worked in the Treasury… At the time he was commissioned to do this review he was a researcher at Policy Exchange.’ 

The evidence, however, was so clear that Oakley couldn’t deny there were problems: ‘He couldn’t really wriggle out of the implications of what people were saying. I think his views changed as a result. I think meeting all these people from the voluntary organizations about the damage it was doing, I think that really shocked him.’

The impact of the Oakley review, though, was valuable but limited. ‘One of the things which is particularly irritating is that in line one, he says sanctions are essential. That was just his view… There was nothing else in the report which would support that conclusion… In the event, I think the Oakley review was definitely worth getting… If you look at the chart, the down-turn in the rate of sanctioning dates to the publication of the Oakley report. It does look as if the embarrassment caused by the Oakley report did lead to a reduction in the rate of sanctions.’ 

Looking beyond the dry statistics and policy papers, though, I ask him about how he feels about it all emotionally – the human stories and all the other David Clapsons around the country. 

‘I feel it’s kicking people when they’re down… The overwhelming majority of people claiming benefits are down on their luck… We should be treating people as part of the labour force that is in difficulties, and needs nurtured. 

‘The trouble with the sanctions system is that it’s so vicious that it undermines people… It makes them ill, destroys their resilience in all sorts of ways, lose their self-confidence. It’s immensely damaging. So I feel very angry about it.’ 

Comments (18)

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  1. Jim Ferguson says:

    Sanctions on benefits are not a ‘secret penal system’ they are simply penal. A straightforward punishment of the poor as a means of cutting financial support for unemployed people. Some people don’t bother to register as unemployed now as they are too scared to even get involved with that part of the DWP’s system. Benefit sanctioning is part of a wider penal system of wage slavery, coercion and thought control, a system that is in total a crime against civil liberties and human rights.
    Frank Field and IDS (and no doubt many others) are culpable here, no question.

    1. loobitzh says:

      My read of Secret penal system is that it refers to decisions being made in Secret, behind closed doors by an anonymous person.

      The Defendant (Social Security Recipient), is often unaware that a ‘Doubt’ (Allegation/Accusation) has been made against him/her or what the Allegation is.

      Even the Job Coach/Advisor (Policeman) submitting the evidence for the ‘Sanction’ (Punishment) may have no idea who the Decision Maker (The Judge and Jury) will be.

      The Decision (Sentencing) is often made outside the awareness of the Accused.

      The Accused are unable to represent or defend themselves prior to Sentencing. Or to face their Accuser Judge and Jury Directly. The system is purposefully built to dilute Justice, Accountability/ Responsibility in order to enable those having to administer it to feel less culpable or complicit.

      To me this is indeed a ‘Secret Judicial/Court/Penal System’ which flies in the face of British Justice.

      So in that respect it is a Judicial/Penal system which is operating outside of our Judicial Court System…

  2. C Rober says:

    One of the best subs I have read on BC.

    So much of this is already in my head , but I lack the ability to put it as direct as the author.

    Might I add some things though?

    Unemployment vs available jobs , there is a lot of variables within it , geographical and transport , zero hours and of course positions available being either temp , pt or full time. This skews the maths even further than just the numbers of Unemployed vs available jobs , much like how successive govts removed the long term “sick” unemployed to massage the figures.

    Of course the Geographical element is particularly important , for example travel costs and time , say for a shelf filler in a City or burb , where travel time can mean a doubled hours working week for the poorest workers.

    Another argument for this would be free transport , at least in the first year of employment.

    But we have a problem there as the supplied transport systems are not nationalised , but their operating costs are socialised with regard to rail for example. Free travel may mean the difference between being able to afford future personal transport , lowering the normal commute time with multiple modes and connections , thus making low waged employment more viable from yr 2 or 3. Meaning the argument of “worse off working” is reduced by assistance , not by punishment.

    Yet another problem appears with rural commuting towns , where housing prices increase.

    This is where there is very few local employers , other than in nearby shopping , and then the “local” element is also therefore priced out of housing as a result of new building. This is something that needs tackling , especially so in North Ayrshire , where the affordable bought housing is nearly double the median waged mortgage rate, ie 3 year income sub 75k , affordable housing 120k plus.

    However I do think there is need for radical implementation of new thoughts on welfare and benefits , a one cap fits all is not a solution , and as you mention neither is bankers or billionaires , whom merely seek to drive down wages , creating more wealth for the few.

    Allowing the media to do poverty porn is one of the best ways to divide the workers , creating hatred of the unemployed and disabled is misdirection away from Governmental accountability , ie low worker wages. This should also be tackled , but not in some sort of North Korean purge of the media towards an Orwellian one.

    I foresee benefits becoming locally devolved , after all “think local” works. Simply hoping that any government department . either Westminster or Holyrood , will do the best job is not , and never has been , a working option.

    From this local devolution comes the ability to create and nurture communities , to invest in people , not to punish them but to provide more than “bums on seats” courses , which only serve to keep the 2nd rate thinkers and educators in jobs for the boys(and girls) of the true middle classes.

    Lets just think about that for a second.

    Local authorities are already in the loop so to speak , with education.

    Combine this with , and I loathe to use the term , “work for benefits” , then we can see training in trades on the job , and of course a rebuilding program not seen since the 40s in housing becoming cost effective vs a private developer or “cough” PFI model.

    With the cost cheapened of course by low to no wages , adult apprentices if you will , whom will use those skills in the future , and live in the very communities they are “gentrifying” – and not for the wealthy to profit from through no skilled employment stacking shelves for them to have delivered.

    This then becomes a reduction in the costing of the Local authorities work force , ie carers on the job training , not everyone could really be a chippy , spark or bricklayer. Minor planning juniors without a need for 4 years at uni. Street cleaning and grounds works is also a high percentage of council tax costing.

    This would also reduce the level of council tax paid , to the level of which I see regularly on the continent , ie where there is higher levels of council workers , yet a council tax of just over half a grand pa or less.

    Of course we can exclude Greece in that “civil service model” as a bad example of how to do councils , taxation and benefits. However Finland , Sweden seems to get omitted for their positive variations on councils and benefits , which is a very good model to adapt if not adopt , as well as Federal Germany’s systems where there is a traditional low unemployment rate and last I heard near full wage temporary benefits structure.

    You are spot on with ignoring the American models completely , cyclical wealth creation , and of course a slave based working economy seen in their “true” penal system , of circa 2 million low paid criminals…. all making wealth for the wealthy , and not more importantly contributing to the society they perhaps maligned instead.

    1. Maria Nelson says:

      there were no mention of skill sets for these jobs and these days many jsa claimants are sick due to failing medicals n wca and many of jobs wouldn’t be suitable for their illness. its is a to create a Market called health to work or work to health programme, in the two docs i seen they admit only 5-6 percent wrag get work from these scheme, i’m 47, im single i’d rather physically die than go one a scheme that patronises my intelligent, i have a chronic recurring painful spinal problem. in the second of their documents they actually admit the wca is flawed but are doing nothing about it. in new ideas they have it is to get 1 million off the sick govs own docs these but yet they claim to mainsteam media they have no targets . i seen it with my own eyes google reform to work docs. most of that million who are disabled have chronic recurring illness, the wca doesn’t allow for this in their questioning. they claim they are going to use the legal definition of disability . but within that legal definition of disability their is a clause relating to chronic recurring and they have scope to tamper with that which is why they are telling msn they wont be doing medicals for certain people as in wca. basically health to work is a system of scheme which will create a 1.6 billion-3 billion market which will encourage social investment business from charities, they are garnering charity involvement to invest their funds into the schemes knowing they only get 5-6 percent into full time work and again we dont know past a year if they still have those jobs or the quality /pay of those jobs. this will in fact now ,ean unemployed cannot trust the charities they need to go to for help . mind for example their campaign boss has been invited to work for dwp for a year. maximus also a few years back offered work to a well known disability activist many of us give our personal info too. it is utter dirty trick. and in none of those documents 52 page and 88 page documents were the claimants themselves asked for input about how they found the scheme. we have been shut up , in so many because these schemes would be utterly slated and the true extent of prejudice revealed and bad unjust treatment. they have carte blanche to phsycologically torture/experiment with us without our permission surely this is against human right. god help them if i go on one of these schemes

  3. Ian Kirkwood says:

    These sanctions, along with austerity in general, are necessary in order to continue vesting free capital gains in one of the country’s already wealthy sectors: those who own land.

    The increases in site values generated by tax investments in amenities constitute public value. But Westminster privatised this stream of value, the country’s most productive, as the privilege of land owners.

    Extending the London Jubilee line, for example, added value to sites to the tune of four times the public investment of £3.9 billion. This ought to be claimed back to run public services. Then we would not require austerity.

    Austerity is a political choice made by government. AGR (Annual Ground Rent) is the simple fiscal reform that rejects austerity by collecting the value we all create together. Not only would its collection allow us to look after the vulnerable in our country, but it would also allow us to junk of the taxes that repress enterprise and employment – a far more efficient way of reducing our welfare bill.

    See http://www.slrg.scot

  4. Douglas Robertson says:

    The misery and brutality of this regime is illustrated in the evidence of personal experiences gathered for the Dundee Fairness Commission, which will report next month, and what it reveals is quite shocking.


    This report is based on 147 in depth surveys completed with people experiencing poverty in Dundee. The research was led by Craigowl Communities, Shelter, Faith in Community Dundee and the University of Dundee, and supported by a further 18 local organisations. Take time to read this.

    And there is also a short film on Sanctions

    The film by Art Angel portrays three people’s experience of being sanctioned. Art Angel are a local Dundee project that works with people experiencing a range of mental health issues, using the creative arts as a tool to help them cope better with day-to-day life

    1. Alf Baird says:

      7,000 folk on the Dundee housing waiting list and the powers-that-be spend over £80m on an iffy (UK Gov Department) museum for the bourgeoisie.

      1. Ian Kirkwood says:

        Our investment in the V&A will be sucked up into increased Dundee site values, providing more free capital gains for guess who? Land owners.

  5. Frank says:

    One of the best articles I have read in a while and a reminder of why I read Bella!

  6. Alf Baird says:

    “bewilderment at the choice of the likes of Lord Freud to oversee welfare reform”

    Tis not uncommon – just like asking an offshore tax haven ‘private equity fund’ millionaire banker Lord to oversee what tax powers should come to Holyrood.

  7. Assassin says:

    As someone who fights the DWP, I can state with confidence that the only way to deal with these benefit sanctions is through English Contract Law (ECL) and European Contract Protocols (ECP) as for any of the social security acts to apply you have to have a contract in force with the DWP.

    At every stage the DWP will lie and remove documentation, fail to supply documentation they are obliged to supply you with, and staff will lie to your face.

    ECL is very clear, to have a valid contract in force there has to be true and informed consent and a true intention to be bound, called a meeting of the minds; you cannot be coerced, threatened, intimidated, or bullied into signing any contract and if you are then the contract is called void ab initio. Any force or threat to make you sign any contract against your will can be rescinded and any rescinded contract is a void contract which under contract law is deemed as never coming into force, neither do its terms and conditions.
    Once again, only the terms and conditions in force at the time of signing the contract are valid, so if the DWP try to impose any other conditions on you AFTER you sign are retrospectively applied conditions and are invalid; the DWP do a lot of this.
    If the DWP try to impose such conditions they are retrospectively applying contractual conditions, this means that one party tries to impose additional conditions by its own violition and without YOUR consent which is illegal and unlawful and the conditions do not apply.

    1. Maria Nelson says:

      wouldn’t they just say if you dont ssign contract you wont receive your benefits???

  8. jon parker says:

    Have to say I agree wholeheartedly with the central message of this article – that the sanctions regime is an attack on the poor. If anyone wants any further evidence to support this idea, perhaps the following example from my own personal experience may serve as an illustration.

    Having recently become unemployed (after an extended period away from the workplace due to caring responsibilities), I made an application for Universal Credit, believing that this was now the default benefit which all unemployed people were required to sign up to. I then discovered a tiny and largely unreported quirk in the system – as a recent homeowner, I am automatically disqualified from claiming Universal Credit and instead have been directed to claiming its predecessor benefit for unemployed people Job Seekers’ Allowance. While the sanctions regime still applies to this benefit, my experience so far has been that the regime applied to Job Seekers’ Allowance claimants is considerably less onerous than that which is applied to Universal Credit claimants. eg I am not required to constantly keep my phone by my side and immediately call the JCP staff back if they call, if I do obtain work I will not be required to continue to visiting the job centre each week to update them on my jobsearch activity and/or apply for better paid work – both of which have been used as the basis for sanctions for Universal Credit claimants in the past I understand. This leads me to ask 1 fundamental question of the current sanctions regime – how have I managed to avoid the govt’s draconian regime simply be being registered as a home owner? The answer would appear to be simple – in the govt’s eyes home owners, by being, by definition, members of the property classes, are to be insulated from such a regime whereas the poorest members of society – those who do not own property – are to be actively targeted by it. Hence, we return to the central premise of this article – the govt’s current Welfare Reform Act and its draconian Universal Credit system is nothing less than an attack on the poor.

    1. r stubbs says:

      i to am an homeowner and about to sign on for jsa in theory i have 2 jobs both zero hours with 2 agencys and and have had no work for nearly 2 months I understand the reason why homeowners get jsa is becasuse universal credit has only been rolled out to single persons and eventually all of us will be moved over to unversal credit in the future the streets in our area are now filled with homless
      a problem i can only see getting worse as more and more sanctions are applied if you have no money for food or rent/morgage theres no where to go but the streets

      1. Maria Nelson says:

        i’m a single none home owner on esa support they still havent put me on universal credit, but then i think i’m in that 10 percent who would actually be paid more thab i get not much more but a little more, they’re waiting to kick me off support until next year because they know i wont be abled to fight their flipping system cos we wont have face to face appeals then i have chronic recurring spinal pain due to prolapsed discs nhs wont operate on because they neglected n refused to scan me for u7 years so i now have dehydrated discs and disc degeneration. of course its not so far life threatening but it is severe chronic recurring but i’m not on their list of to leave alones i don’t think, but i also have tennis elbow and pre velour patella bursitis or something similar. and a skin disease because my sweat glands don’t work and have an infection between layers of skin, but well i’m sure by next year i will be fair game for their psychological torture, i already suffer stress anxiety and have had anger /rage issues even when i was employed as a result of long term childhood bullying some of which was physical. i worked 20 years through it to burn out because i always had trouble fitting in , i think due to ptsd . but now i fight back through speaking out when i can n on line campaigning, used to do street stuff but get pain standing for hours, and need toilets to be available. but i had some guy claiming to work creating websites upon a comment in the local chronicle for temp jobs because i explained if a person is on universal credit they have to wait 6 weeks for rent thus many wouldnt be abled to take a temp job as they would have no money for 6 weeks upon return to benefits if they dont get kept on after christmas. i was then called lazy., and the guy said he had me n hoped i failed my medical. made me wonder if he was working for dwp , he was commenting how i was able to type so long if i was sick basically sick people are being intimidated not to tell their stories and speak out by right wing community members or they going to get benefits targeted. trust me i will campaign to death if thats what it takes. this system is against our human rights and has been proven to be so. bearing in mind my typings full of typos cos i rush due to pain

  9. Yan says:

    The sanctions regime and the implementation of working tax credits is a ratcheting up of the welfare safety net over the heads of the unemployed and non-working disabled. The good cop welfare reforms of the Left were policies orchestrated by the Left that in practise would become a socio-economic Dirty War against the working class unemployed, good to see this article recognise the political culpability of the Left.

    The culpability in destructive welfare reform and the sanctions regime has served to expose the contempt for the unemployed that is deep set in the ideology of the Left, a contempt they guard well from the mass of the working class.

    In all probability welfare budgets in Scotland will become nothing more than a plundering pot for the Third Sector there is already evidence that this is the case.

    1. Gordon Powrie says:

      Except that I’d hardly call an Ultra-Blairite such as Harriet harman of the ‘left’

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