During the debate on the second reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced a fund of "up to £20million" to pay for Citizens Advice Bureaux and other not for profit advice agencies to provide advice on housing, debt, employment, benefits and other common civil legal problems (known as social welfare law). LAG welcomes this announcement, but has some concerns about the proposed fund and the provisions on legal aid in the bill.
Over recent months LAG, along with The Baring Foundation, has been working with the Cabinet Office to try and influence government thinking on social welfare law. Progress has been painfully slow. Hopes were raised when at short notice a summit was organised jointly with the Cabinet Office in February to look at the problems faced by the providers of social welfare law services. We were disappointed by the bland statement from ministers in response to the issues raised at the summit, but believed it was worth persevering as we were assured that these issues had been considered at the highest level of government.
We have been reassured by sources close to Ken Clarke that the cash announced today is new money, which will be available in the current financial year to help advice services such as Citizens Advice Bureaux, Law Centres and other independent advice centres. LAG is grateful to those who argued for this in government. Spending is tight and this is a significant sum of money which we estimate would pay for 500-700 posts in the sector and means over 100,000 members of the public will receive advice services.
However, it is only transitional funding and so not permanent, though Ken Clarke said that they will look at continuing the fund beyond this year. The common problems faced by people on low incomes are not going to disappear in a year. Legal aid for advice will though. Advice on benefits and employment problems will go completely by next year or, at the latest, 2013. This amounts to a cut of £26m which mainly goes to not for profit advice providers. A further £23m is being cut in advice on housing and debt cases. £12m is being cut from immigration cases. Again, this is mainly money which funds services in the not for profit sector.
LAG is concerned that many of the provisions on legal aid in the bill before parliament seek to restrict people’s rights to legal aid. The bill also gives too much power to the government to restrict access to justice with no vote in parliament. We believe the bill should be amended to restore people's rights to legal advice on common legal problems and to ensure that parliament is consulted before further changes to legal aid are introduced.
Delegates at LAG's conference on Monday (4 July) will get the opportunity to hear from justice minister Jonathan Djanogly MP about the government's plans for legal aid and from the Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan MP, as both are giving keynote speeches at the event.
Find out more about LAG's conference and book places