Thursday, 16 December 2010

Cuts debate in House of Commons

At a well attended adjournment debate in the House of Commons last Tuesday (14 December) Karen Buck MP expressed her fears about the impact of the government’s proposed legal aid cuts: 'People with disabilities are likely to be disproportionately affected. For example, 63 per cent of legally aided clients in the sphere of welfare benefits assistance are disabled.'

Buck, who is the Labour MP for Westminster North and the former chairperson of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, initiated the debate. Adjournment debates give MPs the opportunity to discuss important issues outside the normal business of parliament. In the debate Buck argued that the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux is worried that if legal aid for social welfare law goes, alternative sources of advice are not available for most clients.

Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP for New Forest East, told his fellow MPs that his local Citizens Advice Bureau was afraid that cutbacks would lead to two part-time staff losing their jobs: 'It (the bureau) is wondering where its most vulnerable clients will go if that service is cut back in parallel with cutbacks in legal aid.' Buck welcomed his remarks and also quoted from case studies supplied to her by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, including that of a father fearful that he will lose contact with his daughter as his former partner intends to move to New Zealand. 'Even in cases in which domestic violence is not an issue, without legal aid there are real dangers that individuals, particularly those who have difficulty in being sufficiently articulate or confident to navigate the courts system, will lose access to children,' said Buck.

Flintshire Citizens Advice Bureau is in danger of losing £170,000 which pays for the equivalent of five posts, according to Mark Tami, the Labour MP for Alyn and Deeside. He said the bureau 'deals with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, who are often the same people who end up coming to see Members of Parliament. It is a worry that cuts will devastate the area'. Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne, believes advice charities in his constituency could lose funding of around £230,000-£250,000 per year which he said they use 'to support more than 1,500 of the town's most vulnerable residents with complex debt, benefit and housing problems'. He also fears that cuts in legal aid will reduce the number of solicitors firms in his constituency from the current nine to only two, meaning some of his constituents could face a 'round trip in excess of 50 miles' to get help.

Labour’s shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter spoke in the debate. He said that according to the government's own impact assessment of the proposed cuts, they would mean a 92 per cent cut in legal aid funding for the voluntary sector. Slaughter also said that the government is 'living in cloud cuckoo land' if it believes that people would be able to prepare their own appeals against decisions to turn them down for benefits: 'Some 40 per cent of cases going to incapacity benefit appeals are successful with no representation and 67 per cent are successful with representation.' He paid tribute to the former legal aid minister Lord Bach, arguing that while in office he had defended social welfare law in the legal aid system and that if Labour had remained in government it would have continued to protect it.

The Solicitor-General, Edward Garnier, replied to those at the debate for the government as the minister responsible for legal aid, Jonathan Djanogly, was unavailable to do so. Garnier acknowledged that 'in all our constituencies we find areas where there is a huge need for legal representation'. He stressed that while a constituency like his (Harborough) appears prosperous there is still a need for social welfare law advice and that there is the opportunity to express views about the proposals in what 'is a deliberately lengthy consultation process'. Garnier argued that 'to be in government is to have to make decisions and choices. The main factor that we have to address at the moment is the economic difficulties that the national budget faces'.

LAG is urging anyone concerned about the cuts in legal aid to join the Justice for All campaign (see previous blog). Please also write to your MPs and join the lobby of parliament planned for 12 January.

Picture- Justice for All Christmas card sent to MPs.

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