Issue 206 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review


Editorial, Rail privatisation, France, Liverpool dockers, Refugees, Albanian interview


The release of the Bridgewater Three after 18 years in jail is a vindication of all those who have campaigned for them against the most terrible odds. It is no vindication of the courts, the police and the bulk of the legal establishment. It is no vindication either of the successive Tory home secretaries who have been prepared to ignore new evidence and hinder any process of appeal for their own political ends.

If it had been left to any of these people, the three men would still be in jail. At every stage the authorities have obstructed the gathering of evidence, denounced the work of left wing lawyers and journalists and been contemptuous of those family and friends who have remained determined to secure the men's freedom.

We are always told that innocent people have nothing to fear from the judicial system and that even those wrongly convicted initially have an appeal process which will right any wrongs. The Bridgewater case ­ and the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Judith Ward ­ proves the contrary. Repeated police investigations of new evidence, plus a full court of appeal hearing in 1989, were used to confirm the so called guilt of the accused.

In the end it was the unofficial campaign outside the system which changed things. The same is true of other cases. The family of Stephen Lawrence, murdered by racists four years ago, has found that the police investigation and the legal system have failed completely, while those accused of his murder walk free.

At one time, only those on the left really believed that such miscarriages happened. Now, it is hard to find people who believe the police and the courts on such questions.

Perhaps the most appalling case of all is that of James Hanratty, hanged over 30 years ago for a murder he did not commit, whose family are still fighting for a pardon.

What is likely to change as a result of the Bridgewater case? The short answer is nothing. Already the line of the police and of apologists for the system, like right wing Tory MP Sir Ivan Lawrence, is that mistakes will be made in any system and that there is nothing which can be done. In any case, he claims, these mistakes are exceptional.

Unfortunately there have been enough cases of injustice in recent years to show that they are far from exceptional. It is estimated that hundreds more people are in jail for crimes that they manifestly did not commit. If anything, things will get worse. A new law, the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act will put the onus on defence lawyers to disclose evidence, while allowing the prosecution to hold it back. This will lead to more convictions of innocent people.

Those who hope that such miscarriages will become a thing of the past under a Labour government should think again. Shadow home secretary Jack Straw has not opposed these measures and Labour is supporting longer sentences and stronger police powers. Labour has not lifted so much as a little finger to help any of the victims of miscarriages and will do nothing to challenge the police or the legal establishment.

Yet even after all the publicity surrounding the recent miscarriages of justice, the same judges are still in place: unelected, unaccountable, subject to absolutely no democratic control, and replete with some of the most reactionary prejudices that it would be possible to find. These same judges will be making judgements against unions or campaigners under a Labour government. They, like the top civil servants, the chief police officers and no doubt future home secretaries, will do all they can to ensure that this rotten legal system is kept on the rails ­ regardless of the cost to its many victims.

The conclusions should be clear. Ordinary people, working without the resources that the police and the courts had at their disposal, were able to find witnesses, discover and analyse new evidence, because their aim was to find out the truth, rather than simply convict anyone who could be fitted up with the crime. At every stage they were held back by the forces of law and order. Such a system cannot be reformed: it has to be overturned along with the society that created it.

Rail privatisation

Sabby Sagall

The Tories are hailing tube privatisation is a vote winner. But experience on the railways suggests differently.

One year after the launch of the first privatised rail services, the balance sheet leans heavily on the debit side. Much of Britain's rail network is derelict and in urgent need of major investment. Yet since privatisation investment has declined by more than a third, from £1.56 billion in 1992-93, the last year before privatisation, to £933 million, in 1995-96.

According to the Save Our Railways campaign, Railtrack, the privatised company which owns the track, stations and signalling, has, in its first two and a half years, underspent by £783 million ­ despite a 77 percent increase in profits since 1994-95. It has underspent on its essential maintenance budget by £133 million, a shortfall of 25 percent. There is a backlog of spending on stations of £450 million.

The latest announcement by Railtrack of its intention to invest £15.9 billion is a sham. According to the rail workers' union, the RMT, included in these figures are day to day maintenance spending which, under British Rail, were not classified as new investment. As for new capital spending, this is planned to be only £1.9 billion over ten years, an average of £190 million per year. But to achieve current plans would require new investment of £473 million a year for 20 years.

There has been no comparable frugality on the money filling the wallets of the new rail executives. Among the passengers on the ever lengthening gravy train are the seven directors of Rail Prism who between them own shares worth £35.4 million. Another 'fat cat' scandal concerned the resale of Eversholt Leasing, one of the three privatised companies that leases rolling stock to the 25 rail franchise holders. The company fetched £726.5 million compared to the £580 million paid for it in 1995. Four directors between them made £42 million from the sale.

The sale of the three train leasing firms in 1995 illustrates the disgraceful undervaluation of state assets. Altogether, assets worth £3 billion were sold for £1.8 billion. Moreover, these companies continue to benefit from public subsidy. The privatised railway system is costing the taxpayer far more than British Rail ever did. £565 million was spent on start up and administration costs, while £2.2 billion went on debt write offs. Since 1994-95, the first year of privatisation, the subsidy has nearly doubled, rising from £1 billion to £1.8 billion in 1996-97. Meanwhile, rail workers and passengers have been paying the price of enrichment for the few. On some local lines there are now only between one to four trains a day (eg, Newcastle to Berwick, Goole to Leeds). In one case the service is down to a wild west level of one train a week, in one direction only!

A major casualty of privatisation has been safety. Since the 1988 Clapham disaster, the Tories have broken their promise to spend £170 million on rail safety, diverting most of the money instead into the privatisation sell off. And on the London Underground the management recently announced a cut in expenditure from £950 million in 1997 to £150 million in 1999. A further victim of privatisation has been employment. The number of rail workers has fallen by more than 40,000 from its 1992 level of 130,000.

In the meantime Blair and Labour's transport shadow spokesperson, Andrew Smith, make easy capital out of an obvious election issue, while refusing to even discuss the question of renationalisation under a Labour government. The rail union leaders have called for renationalisation but reject the idea of mobilising their rank and file. Instead they have clamped down on rail workers' struggles, even where ballots have shown clear majorities for strike action. It will be left to rail workers and rank and file campaigners to take up the battle after the election.


Gareth Jenkins

The fascist National Front's victory at Vitrolles, a small town near Marseilles, has sent shock waves through France. This was the first time the fascists had won control of a municipality with an absolute majority ­ 8,169 votes to 7,397 or 52.48 percent of the vote. The left wing parties could have mobilised their supporters to tackle the fascists head on. Instead they preferred reliance on electoralism. In the end the leaders of the Socialist and Communist Parties were reduced to begging the right to withdraw.

The winner at Vitrolles was Cathérine Mégret. But the architect of the victory was her husband, Bruno Mégret, disbarred from standing for reasons of financial electoral irregularity. He is number two in the National Front hierarchy. Mégret, who only joined the Front in 1985, had been a high up figure in the ruling conservative party, the RPR, and a top civil servant. A former top aide to the National Front has accused him of 'protecting nazis and admirers of Hitler's Germany'.

The National Front are using the municipalities to carry out harassment of minorities. In Marignane the town hall has instructed the main library to subscribe to extreme right journals and to put the works of extreme right authors on its shelves. It has told schools to include pork in the menus of Jewish and Muslim children.

In Toulon, the biggest city controlled by the fascists, the mayor, Jean-Marie Le Chevallier, has declared war on the Chateauvallon Theatre by dismissing its radical director. Le Chevallier had the support of the departmental prefect, Jean-Claude Marchiani, appointed by the conservative RPR government. Marchiani is close to Charles Pasqua, who as former minister of the interior viciously toughened up the law against immigrants. Neither prime minister Juppé nor president Chirac would remove Marchiani.

None of this has gone without protest. Recently 7,000 performers descended on Toulon to march to the town hall, led by famous arts people, including the film director, Bertrand Tavernier.

On the ground resistance is growing. Anti-Front organisations have sprung up in Orange and Toulon. In Vitrolles, the day of the first round of voting saw a march of 1,500 led by the Ras l'Front organisation. The day of the second round the protests were localised. The first council meeting one week later, at which the mayor was to be officially appointed, had to be abandoned because of the demonstration outside.

It is not just against the racism of the Front that the struggle is growing. The government's attempt to outflank the fascists by bringing in a bill to reinforce immigration control has encountered huge resistance.

The Debré bill is an attempt to build on measures introduced by Mitterrand's Socialist government in 1982 requiring notification of where an immigrant (or any visiting foreigner) is staying. What is now proposed is that the person with whom the immigrant stays must register the arrival and departure of the immigrant with the town hall.

On Tuesday 4 February Mme Jacqueline Deltombe was convicted of sheltering a Zairian friend. The same day 1,500 people demonstrated outside the senate. Then 59 leading film makers signed a protest letter making clear their disgust with the Debré bill. They pointed out that the wording of the new law was virtually identical to the 1941 Vichy decree controlling the movements of Jews.

Within days the protest movement snowballed, with thousands of signatures being added to petitions swearing defiance of the law and demanding the authorities prosecute them. At the end of February 121 people with 'difficult to pronounce' names marched from the Gare de l'Est in Paris to the police headquarters, suitcase in hand, to ask, when would it be their turn? This was followed by a mass demonstration of 100,000.

The protest against the Debré bill is joining up with the mounting resistance to the Front. Little reported was the 25,000 demonstration against the fascists in Grenoble back in early December. The counter demonstration to Le Pen's rally in Paris on 20 February shows that the mobilisation against the Front's national conference in Strasbourg on 29 March promises to be massive.

It is part of the fashionable pessimism to claim that opposition to Le Pen only comes from the chattering classes, with the bulk of the working class going over to the Front in droves. But most workers oppose the fascists. It is true that the Front has made racist ideas and immigration control much more acceptable. At the same time, the level of working class resistance to attacks on jobs and conditions has spilled over into numerous strikes by post office, transport and hospital workers. In town after town, including the south, where Le Pen has his biggest electoral base, these struggles are winning concessions.

The reality is that the left parties are offering no leadership, so that all kinds of apolitical or confused ideas surface to head these movements of resistance. But the resistance is there and growing. The key is to link the struggles against the government and the employers ­ and the growth in radical ideas which they have engendered ­ with a fight against the fascists.

Liverpool dockers

Lindsey German

The dockers' dispute has never been more popular. Thousands of pounds are raised for the strikers every week. Trade union branches up and down the country are pledging money.

The support epitomises the radical mood among many workers, who see the dockers as a symbol of workers fighting back and who support any cause which is against the Tories and the employers.

But the level of sympathy and support itself raises questions about the dispute. Why, after so long on strike, so much goodwill from workers in Britain and around the world and so much determination from the strikers themselves, have they still not won?

A large part of the reason for this must lie with the leaders of the trade union movement who are fearful of any breach of the Tory anti-union laws which they believe would endanger their funds, and who are unwilling to antagonise Tony Blair's New Labour. Had the TGWU's Bill Morris put even a small part of the union's resources behind the strike, dockers would not be having to rely on collections from rank and file supporters.

However the strategy and direction of the strike is also under question. At every stage, the shop stewards and most strikers have made the question of blacking of goods which go through the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company secondary to winning international support. Without blacking, the strikers have failed to really dent the profits of the company or to put pressure on it from other companies.

In turn, this has led the strikers down the path which their leaders now favour ­ of setting up a workers' cooperative to supply labour to the company. This has been hailed by many dockers and others on the left as a way of holding on to most of the jobs. But it is a backward move. Firstly it ignores the alternative strategy of forcing big companies such as Vauxhall to stop bringing their containers through the port of Liverpool. Secondly it will be majority owned by the very company the strikers have been fighting against. Most importantly, it means workers accepting worse conditions if necessary to 'sell' the co-op ­ yet they will have to compete with other workers in the capitalist market place. The most common experience of co-ops is that, although they compete successfully for a short time, they either collapse financially or get taken over by bigger firms.

The truth is the employers will regard such a move as an admission that the dockers feel they cannot win. Bill Morris is already using it to force another ballot on the strikers. The level of support shows that, if fought for, a strategy of blacking and solidarity could win. By settling for a co-op the dockers would be accepting much less than the victory which should be theirs.


Fran Cetti

When the Tory government introduced its asylum legislation last year it was inspired by the words of the former Central Office Research Director, Andrew Lansley: 'Immigration, an issue which we raised successfully in 1992...played particularly well in the tabloids and has more potential to hurt.'

This may be a desperate ploy to win the next election, but it certainly possesses a potential to hurt the legislation's victims. Refugees from war, oppression and upheaval are now criminalised or left destitute. The recent hunger strike in Rochester jail in Kent, where 17 men have been left to rot inside for up to three years, illustrates the effects of such laws. Their only crime is to be asylum seekers. The rationale of the Asylum and Immigration Act is clear. It has nothing to do with the number of asylum seekers. It has everything to do with racism.

Globally there are 27 million displaced people. Around one in every 15 people on this planet are forced into flight each year ­ not surprising when, according to Amnesty, torture is routinely practised in at least one country in three. Some, however, are not so much victims of direct terror as of the breakdown of society caused by war or oppressive regimes and the economic devastation of western imposed 'structural adjustment programmes'.

The majority of the world's refugees walk across borders into adjoining countries, many of them to be absorbed into sprawling, squalid refugee camps. In Zaire in 1995 there were 1.8 million refugees, in Sudan nearly 1 million. In 1995 as many as 215,000 people emigrated from Britain whilst 210,000 came in ­ most of this number being British nationals.

Since 1993 the number of refugees accepted into Britain has plummeted. Last year there were 27,885 asylum applicants to Britain and only 6 percent were accepted. The new asylum legislation aims to reduce this number even further.

The 'White List' of seven countries deemed 'safe' ­ India, Pakistan, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ghana and Poland ­ means anyone fleeing those countries will be presumed 'unlikely to be genuine applicants'. This list can be expanded at the whim of the home secretary.

Added to this, the 'third country' rule denies any appeal against expulsion. Most refugees are forced to arrive by roundabout routes. But if they have touched down in another country before arrival in Britain ­ be it Orly airport or a refugee camp in Sudan ­ they are deported there immediately. Most will inevitably end up back in the country they fled from.

Today, by persistently linking asylum seekers to the 'abuse of the benefit system' and other illegal activities, government ministers are attacking the idea that these people have every right to human dignity, civil liberties and a safe haven. The act has indeed created a new criminal offence: seeking leave to enter or remain in the UK by 'deception', that is either giving false information or travelling without legal documentation.

The initial decision on whether an asylum seeker's application is 'without foundation' is effectively taken by immigration officials at the port of entry. As the asylum seekers step off the plane they are subjected to hostile questioning by uniformed officials with little knowledge of asylum claims apart from the assumption that most are 'bogus'. Yet the idea that many refugees are 'bogus' was undermined by a University of East London report in June 1996. The survey of local GPs treating over 1,500 asylum seekers found 51 percent had been tortured and most were suffering from severe psychological trauma.

Yet 'illegal entry' is now treated alongside rape and murder as a 'serious arrestable offence'. The police have been given extensive powers to 'seize and search' anyone they suspect might be 'illegal'. The consequence is that many asylum seekers now find themselves in prison. Around 11,000 refugees are in detention, while their applications are processed. This can take from five months to three years. They are not brought before a judge, not charged with any crime, but they have no opportunity for legal advice.

The Tories are also attempting to install a system of internal controls. They want to co-opt employers and public sector workers, such as doctors, teachers and benefit staff, as immigration 'snoops' passing information on to the Home Office. They are encountering resistance. Many public sector workers are dismayed at having to take up the role of unofficial immigration officers. Due to the desperate state of the NHS, the temptation for hospital trusts to deny treatment is great. St Mary's Paddington hospital employed a full time worker last year to investigate the status of anyone thought to be an asylum seeker. If they cannot pay for treatment they are refused it.

The most vindictive new piece of legislation is the one social security secretary Peter Lilley tacked on as an amendment to the act. It denied any form of benefit to asylum seekers who do not make an immediate application at the port of entry and to those waiting for the outcome of their appeal.

Over 50 percent of asylum seekers make their application once they are in Britain. A Refugee Council survey shows 42 percent apply on the same day they arrive, 8 percent within a day of arrival and 31 percent within a week of arrival, hardly a picture of mass illegal entrance. There are valid reasons why an asylum seeker would not apply immediately. Vulnerable people, fleeing in haste, may not know the procedures involved in making an asylum application in the right way.

A high court ruling has since ensured that local authorities are forced to provide the bare necessities, a room in a hostel or bed and breakfast, plus some form of basic assistance. Last month the government was forced to back down from its refusal to provide funds for such services.

The number of deportations from European countries has increased dramatically over past years. An unelected, unaccountable EU body ­ the K4 committee ­ meets regularly in secret to draw up immigration controls. In 1995 at least 200,000 refugees were deported from Europe.

The machinery for deportation is becoming increasingly professional. Large bureaucracies run strings of asylum centres across Europe. Private companies, such as Group 4 in Britain, are making huge profits out of the business of deportation. Governments charter special planes from airlines, such as the French 'EuroCharters' which fly from country to country picking up refugees and deporting them en masse.

A multi-billion dollar industry has grown up. Refugees pay their life savings for passage to a 'free' country, packed onto leaky ships or hidden in the undercarriages of lorries. Yet these people have the skills, educational qualifications and creative abilities which would enrich any society. A Home Office report, presented to the government in 1994 and subsequently suppressed, shows that, of the large sample of refugees it surveyed, over one third had a university education or professional qualification. The same report also notes 'the high rates of physical and psychological suffering, largely as a result of the experiences that led them to seek asylum', and the fact that in Britain half reported verbal abuse and threats and 13 percent had been physically attacked.

Toughening immigration laws can only increase racism. The terrible murder of Turkish immigrants at Solingen in Germany took place just two days after the government passed a new Asylum Bill. Already the Newham Monitoring Project has recorded an increase in racist attacks which are linked to the impact of the Tories' legislation. This makes the Labour Party's attitude even more irresponsible. Rather than demanding that hunger strikers are freed, Labour's front bench is merely calling for an internal inquiry into the hunger strike. Labour consistently failed to take a principled stand against the legislation last year.

Today there are about 800,000 empty homes in this country and more people are made unemployed every day than are being granted asylum in a whole year. It is not so easy for a government that has spent years cutting taxes for the richand running down services to whip up a panic about overstretched resources.

There has been widespread disgust at the government's vicious treatment of the hunger strikers. Recent polls suggest a majority of people believe refugees deserve help when they arrive in this country ­ not incarceration. Hundreds have demonstrated outside Rochester prison every weekend since the hunger strikes have started. In Westminster council workers have voted to adopt Ben Betniche Harrid, one of the refugees. This kind of campaigning can force the likes of Widdecombe and Howard, and Straw if necessary, onto the defensive.

Socialist Review speaks to DB, a young ethnic Albanian from Kosovo in Yugoslavia.

Why did you leave Kosovo?

Kosovo is a police state. Once you have had experiences like mine you are always fearful of uniforms. Even when I first arrived in Britain I trembled when I saw a policeman ­ I could not look him in the eyes.

My father and I had to leave. We escaped hidden in the back of a lorry ­ we paid a lot of money to get out. It was a terrible trip. It took nearly five days. Eventually the driver put us on a train and we ended up at King's Cross. I didn't know where I was. It was the first time I had ever been out of my country.

What was it like arriving in London? Did you have any idea of the immigration laws that awaited you?

At first I felt relief. I kept thinking, 'We're safe! Perhaps life will be better now.' But then I started to feel very weak and lonely. It's hard when you don't know anyone. We just didn't know where to go. A black family saw us looking lost so they took us in for the night and helped us find a solicitor. It was then that we learnt that we should have applied for refugee status when we arrived. But we had been unaware of this. We didn't know who to ask.

How have you managed to survive up to now?

We only got benefits for two weeks. Then our benefits were stopped because another law came out that changed everything. We were forced to leave our room. We slept a couple of nights in Hyde Park but as it was cold we mostly walked around all night.

My father found us a place to sleep in the basement of an old church. There was only a chair to sleep in, so my father slept on the floor. We ended up staying there for two months. After that the social services found us a room in a bed and breakfast hotel. But the problem was I had started going to English classes and the hotel was on the other side of London. I had no money for travel. So we ended up back at the church.

What have been the effects of your experiences here?

I want to go to university. You need money to go to university. And it's so difficult to study when you have nowhere to live. We come to the Karibu Centre [a methodist mission run on donations] to get a meal and to be with other people. But my father is ill now and hasn't been able to come.

What do you think will happen?

I heard about the hunger strike in Rochester. I realise that people here do care about what happens to refugees and I think more would, if they knew. The politicians don't ­ they only care about votes. But there will be an election soon. Surely they will have to listen to the people who give them their votes?

Refugees are not committing crimes, so why do they treat us this way? We don't want to be here. Nobody wants to leave their home to come and suffer somewhere else. There was no choice.

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