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Public Access Barrister Manchester Welcomes Justice News

The news about a partial but significant U-turn on changes to the legal aid system and criminal justice system more widely are welcome news for one of my clients a Manchester Public  Access Barrister

The changes to the legal system which have brought about the advent of the Public Access Barrister are part of a wider set of changes to the criminal justice system.

As the Guardian reports “Plans to award legal aid contracts to the lowest bidders following criticisms it would reduce justice to a “factory mentality” have been scrapped.

The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, ditched the proposals after drawing up the government’s latest legal aid reforms with the support of the Law Society”

MPs and others had been raising fears tendering for legal aid based principally on cost would allow multinational firms to provide justice with quality of service a distant second.

Discussions have been going on throughout the summer between the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, and Ministry of Justice officials in an attempt to modify the proposals.

The Ministry will begin a fresh consultation on a redesigned set of proposals. These will carry the same savings of £220m, which will be achieved via cuts to fees and other measures for example reducing pre-trial hearings that could be carried out by email or videolink.

Many barristers will welcome this latter move which will make their jobs and the running of the Courts more efficient.

It has been reported by The Times that  Christopher Grayling will announce the removal of legal aid in 11,000 cases brought by prisoners each year and an end to automatic legal aid for defendants with a combined annual disposable income of £37,500 a year and at least £3,000 in the bank each month after essential bills.

Steve Hynes, the director of the Legal Action Group, commented: “If the government backs down on competitive tendering, that’s a victory for the Law Society, but I would be extremely surprised if they back down on the volume of fee cuts.

“They will keep the existing number of suppliers in the system at a time when there’s a decreasing volume of work. You will get the same number of providers scrambling for a lower volume of cases.

The Guardian says that “the dropping of price-competitive tendering is the MoJ’s second climbdown over changes to legal aid. It has already abandoned proposals that would have prevented defendants from choosing which solicitor represents them.”

Defending the need for savings, the MoJ said: “At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. At a time when everyone is having to tighten their belts we cannot close our eyes to the fact legal aid is costing too much and has mushroomed into something far bigger than it was intended to be.

Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, commented: “Although I welcome reports the Tory-led government is about to abandon parts of its half-baked plans for criminal legal aid, I fear mark two will still deny access to justice to millions whilst reducing our justice system to a two-tier one with only the wealthy being able to secure a fair trial.

For more information about the Public Access Barrister system visit www.barristeraccess.co.uk

Twitter’s Self-Centred Response to Trolling

(This is a re-posting of the opinion piece I was asked to write for The Drum magazine. It can be viewed here)

This isn’t is a set of suggestions for how Twitter solves trolling. There are people with serious experience of designing systems to deal with this who have offered thoughtful suggestions.

The excellent Martin Belam is one, his blog is here. Another good piece by Sharon O’Dea is here and Charles Arthur and Jemima Kiss at the Guardian have summarised the pros and cons of different suggestions here. There are many others.

What seems common ground (and is not at all surprising) is that no easy answers exist and that a determined bedsit hardman will use all his ingenuity to defeat filters.

This consensus between experts is at the heart of Twitter’s PR problem.

Twitter knows that dealing with abuse is exceptionally difficult to automate reliably and after a poor response where their US head of news responded to criticisms by locking his account the company had the opportunity get ahead of the story by making a very clear statement saying three things:

1.       To acknowledge the seriousness of what had happened to Caroline Criado-Perez and others

2.       To explain clearly why problem is exceptionally hard to crack

3.       To announce what it was doing to bring experts together to share insights and move as rapidly as possible to the most robust solution

Instead the statement finally issued by Twitter late on Monday was disappointingly self-centred and didn’t really acknowledge recent events.

 The first paragraph reads like it came from the marketing department: “At Twitter, we work every day to create products that can reach every person on the planet…We want Twitter to work whether you are trying to follow your favourite musician, talk to others about shared interests, or raise the visibility of a human rights issue.” That will be a comfort to people being threatened with rape.

The next two paragraphs are just noise and it isn’t until paragraphs four that we get some sense that this isn’t a quick fix, wrapped in the excuse that there are a lot of tweets out there. Who knew?

This frames a universal problem as Twitter’s problem, ie that it could solve it if they put more effort in. This seems very unwise.

We also learn that iPhone users are able to report from the app, but not from Android or desktop. Note to Twitter – there are a LOT more Android devices out there than iOS. Are they second rate users?

It ends by saying “We are constantly talking with our users, advocacy groups, and government officials to see how we can improve Twitter” and they hope we can understand the ‘balances’ they have to make.

Three days to come up with something this lame and arguably counter-productive isn’t good, especially after the account locking by senior executives nonsense; the exciting new social way of saying ‘no comment’.

So Twitter, I’d suggest four things;

1)      1. Announce a meeting of all the experts in designing systems for dealing with online abuse and invite the media. Call it today and hold it this week. Make Twitter the meeting place for the best brains on this.

2)       2. Explain in mind-numbing detail as many times as you can what makes this a difficult problem, because at the moment your statement makes it an issue of Twitter’s willingness to commit resources.

(If you don’t do 1 you will find 2 is a long slog)

3)      3 Have a word with Mark Luckie

4)      4 Respond faster (right now if I go to your blog item one is from 22nd July about the Royal baby)

Good luck.

Is Social Media Crowding Out the Quiet Voice of Reason?

The furore over Philip Schofield’s interview with the Prime Minister where he handed David Cameron a list of suspected paedophiles he had collected in a couple of minutes came at the beginning of the day.

Yesterday was book-ended by the Guardian’s piece published late last night that the whirlwind of speculation about a senior Tory being at the heart of the North Wales abuse scandal might be a very simple but profound case of mistaken identity.

For what it’s worth I think Philip Schofield’s actions were a crude stunt and give succour and legitimacy to the amateur conspiracy theorists and trolls.

The Guardian’s story will have provoked a lot of soul searching at the BBC (again), especially at Newsnight whose interview just a week ago led directly to the two new inquiries announced by the Home Secretary this week.

If the Guardian is right, Newsnight will appear to have given undue weight and prominence to the information on which it based its decision to run its story last Friday. This editorial decision may well have been driven by a desire to recover some authority lost by its part in the Savile scandal, itself the subject of independent inquiries.

The various inquiries will run their course and hopefully will uncover the truth in their interlinked areas of governance and reporting.

But yesterday might turn out to be a key moment in the evolving relationship between journalism and social media.

Yesterday was the point where a flagship TV programme turned to web rumour to challenge a Prime Minister who uses an app which collates web and media sentiment to inform decisions.

For me the danger is that large sections of the community, who don’t use social media and who need mainstream media to question, investigate and filter information between fact, purported fact and downright lie are increasingly under-represented by media using less and less rigour to inform important editorial decisions.

Critical thinking and cool judgement are diminished and what replaces them is that elusive quality of sentiment, being fed straight to the Prime Minister’s ipad dashboard.

If anybody thinks that this is a good idea, please do let me know.

Ability Tec a new name in contract electronics manufacture

I have been busy in the last few weeks on a an interesting new project to create a new business out of the former Remploy Bolton factory, which closed in August.

I will acting as part-time marketing director for the company in the coming months and the challenge of being part of a new manufacturing business is incredibly exciting.

A new company, Ability Tec, has acquired the assets of Remploy Bolton, creating jobs for former employees at the factory which closed in August and has announced plans to create a training centre for companies who want to employ disabled people.

Ability Tec is thought to be the only new company to have been created following the closure of Remploy factories nationwide.

Ability Tec Ltd will run as a social enterprise, in contract electronics manufacture making high grade PCBs with a workforce of whom at least 75% are disabled.

The company is operating out of the former Remploy site before moving to new premises locally in January.

The factory will be managed day to day by former Remploy employees, with a board of directors overseen by independent trustees including Dr Brian Sloan, chief economist of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.

Ability Tec is the idea of entrepreneur Oli Randell who saw the potential for a sustainable business that reinvests profits for social good.

Randell says “The new company will operate on similar lines to John Lewis, with employees sharing the profits and reinvesting funds to create new jobs and new product lines. We have our first orders confirmed to get us off the ground but we need new customers who want to work with a business that makes quality products with a social benefit.”

Randell is the co-founder of Local Business Partners, which has a roster of experts who work as part-time directors of finance, HR and marketing and he has formed an experienced team to provide these services to Ability Tec at a discounted rate. Eventually the company will look to recruit these roles full time.

“We have been working closely with Remploy at the national level and we have presented them with a robust and lean business plan that allows us to operate without subsidy, make a small profit and then grow sustainably.

“Our job now is to seek new customers, pitching ourselves as a high quality supplier that happens to create social benefits for disabled employees. We believe that in a market where there is little to choose between suppliers we stand out for all the right reasons.”

“Our principal customer supplies energy saving devices to the social housing sector and we will be working closely with them to show to local authorities and social landlords that they can save their tenants money, reduce carbon emissions and provide secure employment to disabled workers who faced a difficult future after the closure of Remploy. Within Greater Manchester alone there are enough socially owned properties, to provide work to employ more than 30 disabled workers if they were fitted with the energy saving devices we make.”

The company plans to employ 30 disabled staff in the manufacture of printed circuit boards within three years, with about a dozen being employed during the start-up phase.

Part of the company’s plan is to create a skills centre to train other companies about employing disabled workers, using the knowledge acquired by former Remploy staff over the years.

“Disabled people bring special advantages to the workplace” says Oli Randell “There is growing evidence that disabled workers can be more productive and more motivated than their able-bodied counterparts. We will use that commercial edge to compete against ordinary rivals and build a sustainable business.”

Dr Brian Sloan, chief economist of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce said, “This new venture demonstrates the strength and diversity of business opportunities that still exist in our region. The Chamber is pleased to welcome Ability Tec as a new member and my role as a trustee honours our commitment to promoting socially responsible business in Greater Manchester.”

Alan Hill, Remploy Director of Enterprise Businesses, said: “This is great news for our former employees at Bolton and I wish the new business all the very best for the future.”

The Limits of Business Coaching

There is an interesting blog over on the www.localbusinesspartners.co.uk site by my business partner arguing that whilst business coaching has clear merits, for many SME owners it cannot answer the practical challenges that they face because coaching has to end at the point where the work of changing things begins.

My partner Oli Randell who is a well established coach so can see the issuefrom several angles says:

“Owning and running a business is a real challenge, especially for owners evolving from being a manager to a leader.

This often happens around the £2m to £3m mark, when the business may have 10 to 15 employees and when the original customer base must be widened and diversified.  The owner finds they can no longer see and touch every part of the business and it feels like it is starting to get away from them.

Owners find they are wearing too many hats to the point where improved business performance actually impedes growth.

The value of coaching in this situation is beyond doubt, helping owners to prioritise and organise their thoughts on how the business needs to develop. But after the coaching ends, who is going to turn an ideal into reality?

Growth poses simultaneous challenges in three areas, managing cash and profits; developing staff and skills; and presenting the right mix of products to an ever changing market.

The business needs not a better generalist but a specialist to take on finance, HR or marketing responsibilities.

But with a full time director costing perhaps £10,000 a month, it’s a critical decision that will also have immediate effects on the owner’s way of doing business and is beyond the scope of coaching.

A director should bring the experience of working for high performing companies as well as the passion of the entrepreneur for results. They should also provide intangible qualities like perspective and insight to spot potential.

To be successful, a director joining the company needs to be ‘joined at the hip’ with the owner but what if the chemistry turns out to be not what was expected during the interview stage?

Hiring someone who probably knows more about their area of expertise than you do isn’t easy and is something you might do only once or twice in a decade.

The alternative is to turn to a specialist advisory company such as a marketing agency or accounting practice but overheads and their need to focus on higher spending clients means that SMEs can be second tier clients when what is needed is committed, partner level support.

Faced with these cost and teamwork risks, a growing number of businesses are turning to part-time directors of finance, HR or marketing who operate as independent professionals, but it is a market that is not highly developed.

It may be possible to seek them out on LinkedIn or through one’s own private network, but you need on luck on your side to find the right skills available at the right time.

It is also possible to hire such expertise through an intermediary firm who take the risk out of finding and retaining the right expert. Such advisory firms should provide a quality framework, a substitute director if required and a diverse network of specialist experts who bring their own valuable local contacts.

As the founder of Local Business Partners I’d offer the following advice to business owners to help understand what they should expect from taking on a part time director of finance, HR or marketing;

Leadership: your focus should be leading your business not problem solving. Your job is now to add value long term by only doing the things that you alone can do.

Finance: You should no longer have to fret about the VAT return, instead you should have access to the management information to make decisive changes.

HR: Your business should develop a performance management culture that is easily understood by everyone and which guides how people are recruited, developed and how they leave the business.

Marketing: The sign of a high performer is to choose your customers, not to let your customers choose you. With a part-time marketing director you can reduce your marketing spend, develop more profitable customers and compete on level terms with bigger rivals.”