How the Government’s legal aid cuts will affect victims of trafficking and domestic violence

Our system for dealing with these crimes is a shambles. In light of this, it is baffling that the Government is pursuing an approach to legal aid that even the Attorney General has refused to endorse.

We’re cracking down on immigrants. As I write this the UK Home Office’s Twitter feed is working itself into a frenzy over the arrest of some “suspected #immigrationoffenders”, posting invasive pictures of various people being nicked. And a few days ago Border Agency cops were accused of racially profiling people at tube stations.

The show of force will fizzle out. It always does, because the reality doesn’t match the perception. But while we have all this worthy endeavour, I trust we’ve not forgotten these words: “There are unacceptable levels of ignorance among police, social services and the UK Border Agency, which mean we fail victims of trafficking.”

Nor these: “An appalling outcome of such failure on the frontline is the fact that numerous victims of modern slavery are being prosecuted for offences they have committed as a result of being trafficked. This may include immigration offences or, in cases where people – often minors  – are trafficked into the UK to work in one of the thousands of British cannabis farms,  drugs offences...More must be done to ensure that vulnerable victims of modern slavery are not criminalised...Responsibility in government lies with the Minister for Immigration. This is wrong. Modern slavery is first and foremost a crime and not an immigration issue.”

These are the words of Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, which earlier this year produced a definitive report on this issue. As it makes clear (read from page 77 onwards), there is a massive conflict of interest in allowing the same authority to assess both whether someone needs help as a trafficking victim and how that person’s immigration status is going to pan out. It doesn’t help, of course, that victims of trafficking like women in brothels or children in cannabis farms, are often given false documents by their captors.

Our system for dealing with crimes like these is a shambles. Our Government has admitted there are failings itself, folding the wretched UK Border Authority back in house. It’s been the case for some time, but we’ve always offered some form of legal redress to those we’ve let down. In large part, we’ve been able to do this because we offer legal aid. But now the Government’s proposals suggest that legal aid for judicial reviews – which challenge the lawfulness of decisions made by public bodies – should be curtailed.

For charities working with victims of trafficking, the ongoing failings in the government’s approach are deeply worrying. Dr Russell Hargrave of Asylum Aid explains:

“Most victims of trafficking are terrified of the consequences if they ask for help. It’s difficult to exaggerate the hold that traffickers can have over them, so victims need to know there is support there when they need it. “But the current system falls way, way short. And instead of trying to improve the way people are treated, the government is restricting access to legal aid for anyone who needs to challenge the system’s myriad failings. I can’t see trafficking decisions improving, only more victims being abandoned to their fate”.

Trafficking is barely the start of it. Prossy Kakooza knows all too well how valuable legal aid can be. She fled Uganda after being horrifically assaulted due to her sexual orientation. She was violently raped by police officers and scalded with hot meat skewers. Her family bribed the guards to get her out of prison, but all of them apart from her mother wished to sacrifice her to “take the curse away”. Her mother managed to smuggle her to the United Kingdom.

The local GP in England was so horrified by the extent of her injuries that the police were called, and she received treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At first, the Home Office refused her asylum application: they acknowledged she was brutally raped and burnt because of the medical evidence, but have dismissed the appalling attacks as "the random actions of individuals", and stated she could be returned to a different town in Uganda. This ignored the fact that gay people throughout the country face the threat of life imprisonment, and that in Uganda a reference has to be provided by your previous village when you move: there would be no escape from persecution.

“The solicitor suggested to me by the Home Office was terrible,” she tells me. “She never picked up her phone. It was only once I got in touch with the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit that I got a decent service.” Prossy’s appeal was eventually upheld. The stress of the process combined with the trauma she’d suffered lead to a breakdown and suicide attempts, but she pulled through, now lives in Manchester, and is one of the volunteers who runs the Lesbian Immigration Support Group.

Prossy’s appeal process was supported by thousands of people who heard her story. But under these new proposals it would never have happened. The Government will no longer pay anything until a Judicial Review has been approved by the High Court. In practice, no lawyer could afford to prepare and bring a complex trafficking case without knowing if they’ll ever be paid.

Another issue with the proposals is that anyone who has not been legally living in the UK for more than a year will no longer have recourse to legal aid in civil cases. Grace’s tale was provided to me by the charity Save Justice.  She was brought to the UK as a dependent on her husband’s visa. Her husband subjected her and her children to horrific physical and psychological abuse. She managed to get away from him, but he tracked her and the children down. She managed to make an application for a non-molestation order in the Family Courts. Under the proposals, Grace would have not been able to receive legal aid to apply for the order within her first year of being granted refugee status by the Home Office.

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Last week, protesters gathered outside the Old Bailey for a noisy protest against what the Government is doing. Here are a few points the speakers made:

  • Sadiq Khan said without legal aid the Birmingham Six would be in prison, while the killers of Stephen Lawrence would be free.
     
  • Shauneen Lambe, a leading child welfare lawyer, said without legal aid hundreds of vulnerable teenagers will be at risk of harm or falling into prostitution. She invited the assembled to look at the inscription on the Old Bailey’s great facade: “Defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer.” “I’ve no doubt,” she said, “the Government are the wrongdoer.”
     
  • Anne Hall, the mother of Daniel Roque Hall (whose case I covered here), said her son would probably be dead without legal aid.

So you have to ask why the Government is carrying out a policy that even the Attorney General has refused to endorse. Last November, Chris Grayling ordered an “immediate examination” of the legal aid system following the trial of Abu Hamza. Since then Save Justice has been attempting to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out the terms of reference for it.

To date the MoJ has refused to answer the question three times using section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act - basically saying that the grounds for the formulation of the policy need protecting. A review by the Information Commissioner’s Office has now been requested. But this has been going on since November last year, so how much "safe space" does Grayling need? Shouldn't this investigation be happening by now? Did he opportunistically use Abu Hamza as a stick to bash legal aid without thinking about the implications of criticising, er, the right to a fair trial, which is a pretty basic tenet of our law? Surely not.

This is barely an issue of left or right wing politics. Contrary to the boneheaded wailing of some self-professed right wingers this is simply an issue of basic humanity in a modern, civilised, nominally Christian country that doesn’t wish to be a pariah state.

UPDATE 06/08/2013 08:00

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said:

This Government is determined to tackle the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable men and women. It is vital that victims of trafficking receive specialised support and counselling, which is why the Government now provides £3 million a year to help victims of this merciless exploitation. Funding these experts means that hundreds of trafficking victims have been given invaluable support and a real chance to recover, while our work to raise awareness of trafficking means we are getting better at identifying victims and going after those who profit from this human misery. The proposed legal aid reforms would not impact on trafficking victims in the way suggested. We are determined to bring down the cost of legal aid, but not at the expense of the most vulnerable. Contrary to suggestions here legal aid would continue to be available for the initial stages of a judicial review case, and where victims of trafficking were seeking to claim asylum they would be exempt from the proposed residence test. Those who did not meet this residence test would also be entitled to apply for exceptional funding. England and Wales has one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and our reforms intend to ensure we get best value for every penny of around £2 billion a year of taxpayers' money we spend on it. We have been very clear we are listening to views from the consultation and are now carefully considering all of the responses before taking final decisions.

The Ministry of Justice in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.