Guest post by Carita Thomas - a member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
It’s Christmas, and I don’t know about you, but pennies are tight, and I’m only halfway down my shopping list! Austerity Britain is not much fun at the moment, and all this talk of “tightening belts” and “tough choices” is not creating much festive cheer. Then I read that the City is due to take home £4.2 billion in bonus cash this Christmas, instead of saving that to stave off another bailout from the state.
Helping the City through the credit crunch has meant bankers now cost us more than bin men, so a nice bonus on top of all that seems a bit wrong. We are going through the worst cuts of a generation – doesn’t everyone have to prove their value for money nowadays? I’m sure those bankers will get a firm talking to in 2012…. But for now the Government has other priorities.
This week its plans to reform legal aid are in the spotlight. Like so many public services, the Government wants to cut free legal advice back as far as it can, and on 20th December, the bill containing the proposals will be debated by the committee of the House of Lords.
Now, some might ask why anyone would object to plans like these. The Government’s proposals for legal aid would save £350 million. Who can argue with that sort of money?
Well, that’s small change out of £4.2 billion. And I don’t believe these cuts will save money, at least not in the long term. Studies have shown that legal aid can save money for the state, with Citizens’ Advice estimating this could be up to £8.80 for every £1 spent. Getting help with a problem in the early stages stops things snowballing, leading to more public costs later down the line, like paying for homeless assistance if someone gets evicted because they get into debt and stop paying rent. Let’s talk one year after the cuts and see how bright the plans look then, when more people have had to turn to the state without basic help to let them fix their own problems.
Also, where is the talk of alternatives? The Government has either been unlucky in a game of cuts roulette or deliberately chosen policies that home in on people who have most to lose. At the moment, 80% of those who use legal aid are in the poorest 20% of the population, and 650,000 people will lose help each year if the cuts go ahead. You can do the maths about who is coming off worst. This bill is a travesty as it takes away the right to equality of arms from the poorest, making them stand alone against opponents who can pay for help, not least the state, whose pockets are deepest of all.
The Government admits the bill will have a disproportionate impact on certain groups, and one of these is disabled people. Just take benefits advice, which the Government wants to cut completely. 58% of clients here are disabled – which means 78,000 disabled people will lose out each year in this one area of law. Other important changes include a plan to only allow debt advice if your home is at risk. And for both debt and community care you will have to call a telephone line to get help, with no guarantee you’ll see someone face to face. This comes just as local authorities have to make tough choices about what they spend money on so it will be harder to get basic advice if you think you are not getting the social care service you deserve.
With all the other government “reforms” we have seen rolled out, it’s not a pretty picture …. Tanni Grey-Thompson got it right when she said welfare reform plus a lack of appropriate legal advice is a “double whammy” for disabled people.
If we go back to what is value for money, I’d say carers beat the bankers hands down. Care provided to family and friends saves the state an unbelievable £119 billion per year, which deserves more than just a pat on the back. Pat Onions said it best when she asked the Government to stand by its duty to disabled people and carers and review the cuts to benefits and services that will affect them.
There is a Christmas message for the coalition if ever I heard one – if you have not signed Pat’s petition already – do this today. (click here!)
People like Pat get my fighting spirit back. There is still loads we can do and lots of peers with principles who can be encouraged to stop the worst of the bill. If you want to take action against the cuts to legal aid, join the campaign.
You could take a seat in Scope’s “virtual parliament” or tell them your story about how legal aid helped you. Check out these websites for more ideas and information: Save Legal Aid, Justice For All and Sound Off for Justice.
You can still make a huge difference, so please get involved.