LAG commissioned the disability charity Scope to research the impact of the proposed cuts in legal aid on benefits advice for disabled people. The report, Legal aid in welfare: the tool we can’t afford to lose, which is published today, demonstrates the serious consequences of the government’s proposals on disabled people and argues that taking benefits advice out of scope will undermine the government’s welfare reform programme.
In the report, Scope followed five typical claimants with disabilities as they negotiated red tape and bureaucracy to claim benefits, with and without legal aid. The final report, which is to be launched at an event in the House of Lords this afternoon, makes the following key points:
- Various reports in recent years show that the government has to make a quantum leap in order to improve the quality of decision-making in benefits cases.
- The government inaccurately portrays the benefits appeals system as easy to navigate.
- Removing benefits advice from the scope of legal aid at a time when major reforms are being implemented will have a 'knock-on impact on a tribunal system already stretched beyond breaking point'.
- The removal of legal aid 'will delay or even deny justice for many disabled people, and undermine the government’s ambitions to have a fairer benefit system that incentivises work'.
In his introduction to the report Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, says that for the government’s welfare reforms to succeed and to make sure disabled people get the right support, legal aid for welfare benefits appeals is vital. The report highlights the government’s inconsistency in seemingly making the judgment that benefits are not sufficiently complex to merit legal aid while Iain Duncan Smith MP, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is justifying his planned reforms by arguing for the need to 'cut a swath through the massive complexity of the existing benefit system'.
According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the introduction of universal credit is intended to lift 250,000 households with a disabled person out of poverty, but the report argues that many of these people will miss out due to a lack of awareness over what they are entitled to. Also, the move to transfer more people on to employment and support allowance (ESA) from the fit to work group is undermined by the DWP's tendency to get these decisions wrong: out of 122,500 appeals heard between October 2008 and February 2010 from people turned down for ESA, 48,000 were successful.
In LAG’s view a major goal of all government departments should be to try and get the vast majority of their decisions right first time. Withdrawing legal aid at a time of massive change in the benefits system will exclude many disabled people from claiming what they are entitled to. This report makes the case eloquently, through the experience of disabled people, as to why the government needs to think again. LAG and the other organisations supporting the Justice for All campaign will be working to persuade the House of Lords to amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to bring advice in welfare benefits appeals back into scope.
A copy of the report is available on LAG's website at: http://www.lag.org.uk/Templates/Internal.asp?NodeID=88856