The Lords must intervene on legal aid cuts

Access to legal advice is a vital part of the welfare safety net that could disappear if government

The government is pressing ahead with plans to cut legal aid that will result in the closure of law centres across the UK. With unemployment, debt and radical changes to the benefits system souring the public mood, increasing numbers of people are finding themselves in situations where they need legal advice, and need it for free.

Having inflicted defeats on the government over welfare reform, the Lords look up for a fight over this issue. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill recently passed through the committee stage in the Lords where it was met with hostility on both sides. The bill now faces the report stage for further line-by-line scrutiny and detailed consideration of the proposed changes. Peers have warned that if the planned £350 million cuts are implemented law centres will close, leaving many thousands of the poor and vulnerable marginalised and without access to legal help. The Shadow Justice minister Lord Bach believes that over half of all Citizens Advice Bureaus would be forced to shut permanently, whilst the Law Centre Federation is bracing itself for the loss of around 18 of their 56 centres.

For those centres that do survive, these cuts, combined with the recent decimation of local authority funding, will remove legal aid for medical negligence, divorce, employment and welfare cases, whilst also hitting areas such as debt and housing hard. The Lords are battling to include an amendment to keep legal aid for welfare cases. There is real strength of feeling on this subject. And here's why:

Legal Aid has been under great strain, it won't be able to withstand the purse strings being drawn even more tightly. As it is, law centres operate on an incredibly tight budget. A fixed fee of £150 is charged for meritorious cases, that is, those cases that hinge on complex legal issues, and in which an advisor must do far more than simple form filling. Appointments must be booked, and slots are limited. Progress can be slow - requiring a frustrating number of phone calls (the CAB national helpline charges 44 pence per minute from a mobile - an especially unwelcome addition for those with debt problems).

Under the proposed changes, the government expects more people to deal with problems themselves, via a centralised telephone line or the Internet. Just imagine how difficult this might be for someone with learning disabilities, who really needs to deal with someone face-to-face from the start. Or someone who cannot afford a telephone or the Internet, and therefore would previously have relied on walking to their local law centre. These people will still exist, but will have nowhere to turn.

Without proper access to legal aid, many people, discouraged and afraid - for the system is difficult and daunting even to those with advice and representations - may choose to allow actionable claims to go unheard and fundamental rights to go without enforcement. Disabled people will not get the support they need - at great cost to them and to friends, family, carers, communities and the taxpayer further down the line. In any event, vulnerable people are not wildly rushing to court to litigate. In fact they are slow to do so and it is often the last thing they want to do. And what's more, this situation is only made worse by a lack of awareness: too many people do not understand that the legal profession exists, in all its bewigged pomp and ceremony, to protect fairness for everyone.

Law centres have been prominent in the UK for over 40 years, and previous governments have understood and accepted the cost of publicly funded legal services if principles of fairness and access to justice are to be adhered to at all levels of society. These governments recognised that vulnerable people need accessible, early and high-quality advice to prevent their problems spiralling out of control. Without the help they need, these people will, at best, muddle through issues themselves; at worst, they will sit on problems, as their lives descend into chaos.

This isn't a risk worth taking, especially as legal aid constitutes just 0.04% of the budget, which is the cost of running the NHS for just two weeks. According to a recent King's College London report, these cuts will simply shift the burden onto other parts of the public purse - wiping out almost 60% of the claimed savings. Scrapping legal aid for social welfare law would bring an extra cost of £35.2 million against savings of £58 million. Essentially this means that people with troubled lives will be taking the hit for a fairly insignificant saving for the rest of us.

So without a convincing economic rationale, what is the real reason for change? Perhaps it's because the legal profession is, of course, an easy money-saving target, given the common misconception that they are all 'fat cats', purring atop mountainous fees. Well, hardly. Law centres are run by trained advisors, qualified lawyers and volunteers offering their time and services for modest or no recompense.

Perhaps it's about fairness? Yes, the system needs to be fair. And that means fairness for everyone. Fair to the vulnerable, fair to defendants, fair to practitioners, and fair to the taxpayer too. But this isn't a money-saving exercise. This is an attack on the welfare state.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.