The government’s cuts to legal aid came under renewed fire this week - with the opposition led by Conservative and Crossbench peers, reports Shamik Das.
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• The government’s cuts to legal aid came under renewed fire this week – with the opposition led by Conservative and Crossbench peers.
The House of Lords delivered an eighth defeat to the government’s legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill (LASPO), with Tories Lord Newton, Lord Cormack and Baroness Eaton leading the rebellion.
As Jonny Mulligan of the Sound off for Justice campaign explained on Left Foot Forward, the cuts to legal aid the government are seeking to implement will impact the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.
Here are the details:
• Today 250,000 cases of divorce receive legal aid. If the bill is passed this will be reduced to 40,000. This will leave leave 210,000 families and women with no support. This will cost the taxpayer an estimated £100 million in knock-on costs.
• Today family mediation is provided to 80,350 families and couples to prevent divorce cases going to court. If the bill is passed this will be reduced to 35,350.
• 75,000 children and young people are set to lose legal aid – 6,000 children under the age of 18 and 69,000 vulnerable young adults aged 18 to 24 will lose access to legal aid in their own right as a result of bill.
It would cost just £10 million to protect legal aid for all children and £40 million to protect all young adults – figures dwarfed by the knock-on costs for government that will result from these cases being left unresolved.
• Today 32,250 elderly people are helped with legal aid every year. This will be reduced to no help if the bill is passed. So if you go to hospital and have the wrong hip replaced you would have to sell your house to fight your case.
• 2,307 cases of clinical negligence are supported by the legal aid budget every year. These are cases where the NHS has carried out an operation that has gone wrong or ended in fatality.
It could be a child who is brain damaged at birth, a pensioner who has the wrong hip replaced, or someone who is killed under local anesthetic in an NHS hospital. If the bill is passed this number will be reduced to 807. The government proposed saving is £10.5 million; the actual cost to the taxpayer will be £28 million.
• Today 135,000 welfare claimants use legal aid to gain access to their rights. If the bill is passed this will be reduced to none. The government’s proposed saving is £25 million.
Citizen advice has calculated that for each pound spent on the benefits advice the state saves £8.80. If this support is axed the cost to the state and the taxpayer will be £220 million per annum.
Tonight on Left Foot Forward, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan again called on Ken Clarke to listen to all those ranged against him and think again:
“Over the past week, outrageous plans to target advice centres, like Citizens Advice Bureaux, have been stopped in their tracks. What we’ve seen is an alliance across all political parties in the House of Lords – including one of Thatcher’s former cabinet ministers – working with campaign groups such as the Women’s Institute, SCOPE and Shelter.
“This alliance has blocked a bill which would have exposed victims of domestic violence, disabled people, those severely injured as a result of clinical negligence, children forcibly relocated by a parent, and victims of trafficking to no legal support.”
As Khan concludes:
“The question for Ken Clarke QC, a former barrister himself, is why go after those elements of legal aid which whack the most vulnerable in society when there’s a report collecting dust on a shelf in his office which would have prevented these savage cuts…
“I know Ken Clarke revels in being unpopular at the moment, but I urge him to break this habit, listen to the siren calls, and save this important area of legal aid threatened by his unfair bill.”
• As well as facing increased scrutiny over the legal aid bill, opposition to the coalition’s health reforms reared intensified this week.
Thousands rallied at ‘Save Our NHS’ gatherings across the country; health secretary Andrew Lansley was heckled on a hospital visit; it was announced there would be a debate following the petition against the health and social care bill in the Commons next Tuesday; the government offered further amendments to the Lords; and today, the government was told to publish the Risk Register “immediately” after losing an appeal.
Tonight, as Left Foot Forward reported, Lord Owen said that if the government continued to appeal the publication of the Risk Register, the bill must be paused, describing such a scenario as a “constitutional outrage” and calling on Lib Dem peers to stand up to the government and “stand by their principles”.
“Surely now Liberal Democrat peers, with a long and proud history of supporting freedom of information, will not go along with any attempt by the coalition government to continue with the third reading of this bill in the light of today’s Information Rights Tribunal on the NHS Transition Risk Register.
“If the government insist on appealing to the High Court then they must accept that the bill is paused until that judgement has been made…
“To go ahead with legislation, while appealing to the High Court, would be the third constitutional outrage associated with this legislation. The first was to legislate within months of the prime minister promising in the general election that there would be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS. The second was to implement large parts of the legislation without Parliamentary authority.
“The attempt to railroad this legislation through both Houses of Parliament has raised very serious questions about the legitimacy of this coalition government.
“Now at the last moment Parliament has a chance to assert its democratic rights and the many Liberal Democrat peers, who know in their heart of hearts that this legislative procedure is fundamentally wrong, have the opportunity to stand by their principles.”
Earlier today, former shadow health secretary John Healey, who first called on the government to publish the Risk Register, said the register should be published straight away:
“Ministers must now respect the law, release the risk register in full and let people make up their own minds on the NHS changes.
“Today’s legal judgement must put an end to the government’s efforts to keep this information secret. They have dragged out this process for 15 months, while Parliament has been legislating for their NHS plans. It’s near the end of the eleventh hour for the NHS bill and Parliament rightly expects this information before it takes the final irrevocable step to pass the legislation.”
Reports suggest the Risk Register will warn that the NHS shake-up will “endanger patients, lead to staff cuts and do lasting damage to the reputation of the service”, while the NHS London risk assessment (pdf) of the top-down reorganisation of the NHS warned of the damaging effects of the reforms on the health service in London.
On Left Foot Forward this week, read about the Save Our NHS rally in Westminster; and the latest from the House of Lords debates; and on policy, read about the debate on the clauses in the bill relating to public health; and the latest ideas relating to social care; and tomorrow on Left Foot Forward, we’ll have more on the Lib Dems – will they or will they not derail the bill?
• Yesterday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day.
On Left Foot Forward, former Solicitor General Vera Baird QC wrote about how the coalition’s cuts are affecting vulnerable women:
On a typical day 230 women, fleeing domestic violence, are turned away from refuges. The charity Eaves4Women estimates that happened only to one or two a month a year ago.
This was just one angering change we found, in three months, as we took Labour’s Women’s Safety Commission to 14 evidence gathering sessions in 10 towns and cities, talking to more than 100 organisations and experts, and studied upwards of 160 submissions to our website.
There is no doubt the government’s deep cuts, chaotic commissioning agenda and legislative changes like slashing legal aid have already left vulnerable women without the support they need and are cumulatively having an impact on women’s safety.
Refuges are facing huge funding challenges; women are having to be advised how to stay safe while sleeping on the streets; specialist providers are falling; Independent Domestic Violence Advisors are being cut; Specialist Domestic Violence Courts are losing their effectiveness; the health service reorganisation and cuts to legal aid are causing chaos and hardship; Sexual Assault Centres are under pressure; and the government is failing to address prevention of violence to women.
As Vera concludes:
Women are disproportionately affected by changes to welfare provision, with cuts to child benefit, childcare tax credits and the planned universal credit reducing the income they control within households, restricting their independence in a worrying, retrograde way.
We call urgently for the government to do its own audit of services for women victims of violence, to assess the equality impact of changes to community safety and to publish and learn from the result.
We have been shocked women’s services could be so quickly and radically cut back after 30 years of campaigning had brought them to the forefront of our mature welfare state. There is a need now for a national obligation to guarantee these services permanently, backed by a rapporteur to review provision region to region, nationwide.
Last week, there was outcry when a plane of refused asylum seekers was returned to Sri Lanka by the UK government, despite a growing body of evidence from organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom from Torture that returnees risked facing torture on return.
At the Refugee Council, a high proportion of women accessing our therapeutic services for survivors of sexual violence are from Sri Lanka. The vast majority have been raped or tortured. And yet almost half were refused asylum – they could have been on that flight.
This is a major concern for us – that women who have fled violence are being wrongly refused and then facing further violence: either when they are returned to countries like Sri Lanka, or disturbingly, here in the UK…
Women [refused help] are forced to find other ways of surviving: illegal work or begging, entering into exploitative or abusive relationships, engaging in transactional sex, or even resorting to prostitution, just to get a bed for the night. It is in these situations the women we work with are experiencing violence. It is an unacceptable situation for any human being.
It is never acceptable to use women’s immigration status as an excuse for failing to address the violence they experience.
This International Women’s Day we are publishing a briefing (pdf) calling on the UK government to change their asylum policies to ensure women are not only protected from being returned to countries where their lives are at risk, but moreover, while they are in the UK, they are protected from violence. Only then will the government’s efforts to tackle violence against women go any way to benefiting asylum seeking women living here.
Also yesterday on Left Foot Forward, Tasmia Akkas of the Young Fabians looked at the challenges ahead, at home and abroad; and George Readings reported on No Man’s Land, a book documenting the experiences of female journalists; and earlier this week, we reported the latest OECD data showing just how far Britain lags behind in terms of women in the boardroom – at 8.1 per cent the UK is below the OECD average and well below the leader in the field, Norway, on 38%.
Progressive of the week:
Former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, who this week urged his party to “ditch the health and social care bill”, saying the Lib Dem calls for changes “have been ignored” and that, “as NHS supporters, we must not support this legislation”.
On Tuesday, he wrote:
The changes the party called for would have reduced the marketisation of the health service, controlled the introduction of competition, brought some local democratic accountability, and retained commissioning as a public sector function. The terms of the motion would still have respected the Conservative policies (for example, a greater role for GPs in commissioning) agreed in the coalition programme.
The government subsequently embarked on a “listening exercise”, but those of us in the party who proposed the key amendments were very disappointed with the results.
It failed to deliver most of what had been called for in respect of competition, marketisation and undemocratic structures.
The pure raw politics of health should dictate to many Liberal Democrats – and even Tories in their more sanguine moments – that this bill be ditched. It has no friends among even the non-party-political royal colleges, and has no mandate in those areas where it goes beyond the coalition agreement.
The political impact will be to retoxify the Tory brand – which they are welcome to do, of course – but also, by association, to damage the Lib Dems.
Some damage is a logical consequence of a deal that involves deficit reduction. But this bill adds extra unnecessary political pain. Unless there are more last-minute changes to deliver what the party required, at this weekend’s party conference I urge Lib Dems to call for the plug to be pulled on this legislation – for the sake of the NHS.
Regressive of the week:
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who this week launched an angry tirade against government plans to legalise gay marriage. He said this would “shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world” and compared it to the legalisation of slavery.
Such provocative language is particularly unhelpful given the recent surge in anti-LGBT hate crime in Scotland, adding fuel to the fire of intolerance. His intervention is also entirely flawed, resting less on fact than age-old prejudice.
His claim that this ‘madness’ is unnecessary given the current legal equality of civil partnerships brushes past his earlier opposition to their introduction – going so far as to compare gay people to paedophiles at the time.
Ironically the representative of the most centrally controlled religion on earth went on to say that the laws banning LGBT discrimination at work and in public bodies were ‘totalitarian’…
The Cardinal is fighting a losing battle. Thirteen years of Labour social policy has changed even the official Conservative position on LGBT rights (if not all Tory MPs) and so much of the world seems to be moving, even if incrementally, in the right direction.
Social attitudes amongst British youth are also seeing a radical shift but we can’t take these positive changes for granted.
Interventions like this risk inflaming societal intolerance and contributing to the already startlingly high self-harm and suicide rate amongst LGBT people in the UK, let alone the gay suicide epidemic in America.
It may reflect an archaic opinion but it is no less dangerous.
Evidence of the week:
The Family Action “Family Fortunes” report (pdf) into the impact of austerity on family life, which revealed some families are having to get by on just £2 per person per day for food. Two. Pounds. In Britian. In 2012.
Family Action’s Anthony McCaul wrote about the findings on Left Foot Forward:
The fact that some families have £2 per person per day for food is a stark reality for many – but this hardship is lost on the government.
Whilst politicians are busy squabbling about whether to keep measuring child poverty, mums and dads are trying to feed family members on less than the cost of a cheap packet supermarket sandwich a day.
A few weeks ago I met with parents in this position at one of our services in Lewisham who were fighting to keep afloat.
The parents had multiple problems to deal with, including mental health, domestic abuse, poverty and social isolation. Yet they all wanted to get back to work when they were ready, able and stable.
With the budget fast approaching, Family Action are urging families up and the land to send a message to the chancellor; as McCaul concluded:
All our families gave a clear message to Mr Osborne to step in and protect their incomes as rising food prices fuel inflation, and barriers to getting back to work mean many parents fear for the future.
Families were united in highlighting unaffordable childcare as a major block to getting back to work and making work pay. Families want to save for their children’s future but balancing the household budget does not allow this.
Our #OiGeorge hashtag on Twitter is highlighting some of the key things our families wanted to pass on to the chancellor; here are just a few of the things our families are saying ahead of brandishing of the red box on Budget Day:
“I’ve had a savings account for nearly two years and I can’t afford to put anything in it.”
“Provide more, good quality, cheap childcare.”
“Come and live with some people on low incomes to see what it’s like.”
We hope the chancellor is a family man and is listening to their plight.
We will have more coverage looking ahead to the budget in the next few week on Left Foot Forward, and on the day iteslf we will be hosting a live budget webchat – more details later.
This weekend on Left Foot Forward:
• Jos Bell looks back at the week’s developments on the health and social care bill – including a look at where next for the Lib Dems.
• The Week Outside Westminster – sign up to receive it by email here.
• Yvonne Foley and Sonny Leong look at the relationship between the Chinese and British.
• Criminologist and GP Matt Follett looks at where the parties fit on the political spectrum.
• The World Outside Westminster – sign up to receive it by email here.
This week’s most read:
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1. The document A4E doesn’t want you to see – Left Foot Forward
2. What will happen to Rangers? – Stephen Henderson
3. A state free of religion is a core liberal belief – Mike Morgan-Giles
4. Britain 2012: Some families have only £2 per person per day for food – Anthony McCaul, Family Action
5. A history lesson for Cardinal Keith O’Brien – James Hallwood, The Fabian Society