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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser