If I had anything I wanted to achieve, my ability to start chatting to people might be useful. As it is, it is only pleasant. The conference is muted this year. Scores or hundreds of workers, now funded by the Legal Services Commission, will lose that funding at the end of March. Some will find funding elsewhere, some will lose their jobs. One woman said that in the past she had come to be inspired and go back for the struggle, but did not feel that boost this year. One woman said that the plenary sessions were poor, previously there has been the sense of being at the heart of the debate, now she felt merely talked at from the stage. It did not help that while I could hear the comments from the floor, spoken into microphones, people on stage could not: this speaks of alarming incompetence or terror.
I chatted to a man from the Specialist Support Unit, which answers technical legal queries, about the withdrawal of employee rights. I had not known that the discrimination questionnaire was to be abolished. That makes it far more difficult to prove unlawful discrimination. A legal right has no value if it may not be enforced. With the loss of their LSC funding their service will be scaled back. Some CABx will not do tribunals at all: there is a right to challenge a decision, without the ability to prove the claim. And there are large charges for the claimant to pay, to make a claim or to arrange a hearing.
Two managers talked of how they had wanted their staff to work a help line, but the National association had instead made a bid with another organisation which provided the workers. Why should they bid with us when the contract is renewed? What value do we bring apart from our name, for the initial bid?
We have been breathtakingly arrogant. One told me of wanting to give the funders what they wanted to pay for. Cardiff CAB had sought to take the money and do what they liked, and it had been closed down. Now the Vale of Glamorgan CAB is organising CAB services in Cardiff.
And I was inspired. I went to a session entitled “Influence the influencers”, on what social policy campaigns the national organisation should focus. I had no idea, but a debt worker with fire in her belly talked of meeting the head of the firm of bailiffs which collects for her local council, and challenging him on the affordability of his repayment agreements.
Carol, from the Bahamas, had worked in that offshore tax haven helping the rich get richer, and felt this was wrong, so gone to do development work in Frencophone West Africa. When she married and came to Britain she had not thought she could use those skills, and had been shocked to discover the deprivation of the Gurnos estate in Merthyr. We talked of the Valleys. Why come from the Bahamas to Wales? The Bahamaian Summer is like the English winter, she says, unbearably hot, and it is hurricane season.
One woman could show that while the Government said that housing benefit would pay for the 30% cheapest houses available for rent, in her local authority area it only paid for 4.7%. That is useful work, she can empower the politicians with such statistics, and the current funding for her job will be withdrawn. Will the LSC pay for any cases started before 31 March but not closed then? Different people have heard different things, and no-one knows.