Where do we go from here? Jun 25, 2011 21:24:55 GMT 1
Post by nickd on Jun 25, 2011 21:24:55 GMT 1
My thoughts on where we are and where we need to be going, please do feel free to express your own views on this thread.
There was a flurry of activity on Tuesday when the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Bill was published. There's no shortage of posts and articles on what transpired so I'll not duplicate what's already been said.
Although there was some debate last Tuesday afternoon after the Prime Minister took questions earlier in the day to a press conference, it's very evident that the legal aid bill was effectively buried by the sentencing part of these 'justice' reforms. Very little major exposure has been given to legal aid, indeed it's fast becoming clear that those involved in administering legal aid seems to be joining benefit recipients and public sector workers as an almost despised sector of society.
It's all a convenient mask which allows government to sneak the bill through by fast tracking it to a second reading next Wednesday in the House of Commons. It'll then be down to how MP's vote as to whether it proceeds to the next stage in the House of Lords.
It's almost unprecedented to see bills being progressed as quickly as this one. It makes me think Government are being very willful in actively wanting to ensure access to justice is denied to many, including the most vulnerable and needy.
Personally, I've asked my local MP to oppose the fast tracking of the bill, it seems sensible to split the bill and allow more time for the legal aid part of it to be constructively debated. 8 days between the publishing of the bill and the second reading is dangerous and can be guaranteed to create great room for error and thus the need for continual amendments.
Politicians of all sides (yes all sides) have spoken eloquently and passionately in opposition to these reforms and in that regard we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those who have listened to us and tried their level best to oppose this illogical and socially regressive demolition derby upon hard working legal aid practitioners, it's us who care passionately about the service we deliver and those we help.
The campaigns run by Justice for All and Sound off For Justice have certainly raised the profile, but the message hasn't yet got through to the wider public. Ilegal and Mylegal have played an important part in these reforms, you'd be surprised at how many ideas have been mooted on these forums and then appear in the Guardian or some other paper a few days later.
With so many reforms all going through at once, it's very difficult to get any media focus. The kind of stories which go to print are nearly always a condemnation of those at the bottom of society's big ladder, those at the top seem to be enjoying the view.
For me, the man of the moment is Lord Bach, he's impressed me all the way through this campaign with his genuine understanding of the need to ensure that access to justice in social welfare law issues is maintained.
Frankly I'm disappointed in the front bench Labour rhetoric these days, it seems Ed Milliband is trying to win public confidence by showing his almost distaste for those who have to rely on welfare support. It worries me that the Labour leadership appears to be abandoning socialist (and I mean that in a socially protective way) values in favour of gaining more public confidence with an electorate who seem to be more and more inclined to blame our economic crisis on a minority of benefit claimants who abuse the system, Ed Milliband appears to have joined a nation of 'benefit bashers'.
It seems contrary to the very good message he sent out in Hyde Park at the 'March for the Alternative' event on March 26th earlier this year when he pledged support for the vulnerable and highlighted the importance of organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau. In terms of meeting a big society objective, he said 'we are the big society'.
Well no we're not Mr Milliband, we're powerless to do anything to help society unless we get more support. We're a society which is being 'Shushed' to coin a well used phrase in these campaigns, we appear not to have been good advocates of our own case. It doesn't bode well that we've not been able to muster wider media exposure. I'm not being critical of the argument we've put forward sensibly and constructively, the problems is it's almost been too well argued to be appealing to your average tabloid reader.
What we need is an angle which the public can relate to, in social welfare law we should be seen as the good guys, like nurses in hospitals, teachers in schools or soldiers on the front-line. We're being tarred with the fat cat lawyer brush and yet it's eloquent lawyers who are lapping up the media limelight, it's alienating our public.
In no way has there been any lack of effort on our parts on these forums and out there in the campaign battle ground. There are some who have made fantastic efforts to get this out there and heard. The problem is we're not engaging as effectively as we could with the general public. We are not a newsworthy story as far as the tabloids are concerned. We score well in deprived parts of the country because we've got a captive audience. But the public we need to entrance are elsewhere.
The important thing to remember is that however quickly government tries to press ahead, these reforms are not yet legislation. There is time for intensive campaign and that's what we should do. There's a lot of work going on 'behind the scenes' I'm sure.
It is safe to say that if these reforms do go ahead, the imposition of a 10% reduction in fees from October of this year and changes to scope in October of next year will effectively bring about a crisis as far as the provision of social welfare law legal aid goes. The damage will come well before 2013.
I set up a post 'Advice Deserts Blossom - Justice Disappears' on here, it details the cuts and has been very dormant since Government granted a 12 month reprieve on Financial Inclusion Funding. It's clear to me that the recent setting up of the 'Money Advice Service' (which most of you will have seen on TV) at a cost of £44 million pounds is the replacement for the Financial Inclusion Fund (FIF). I cannot see any further FIF contracts being extended beyond March 2012, I also see legal aid providers pulling out as they realise the 10% cut in fees is unworkable. I suspect the posts on advice deserts will start to reappear later this year. We don't want to see that happening.
Government last Tuesday talked of some kind of compromise deal on funding, it seemed to be aimed at bailing out CAB but be under no illusion, if it's offered it will be as the replacement and substitute for legal aid funding. It is not what the our clients need or deserve; - it's bound to be a cheap sell. Although, I guess we have to wait and see what's proposed.
It's fundamentally wrong that the whole funding issue was ever mixed up with the legal aid argument, the two issues are distinct.
It seems to me that attempts have been made to secure future funding in the form of alternative solutions via the Business Skills & Innovation Department, it's a consumer model and I can't. for the life of me, see where it squares with an ongoing need for specialist advice in social welfare law matters. What's on offer from this sector is a marriage between provider sector providers with a few token Not for Profit providers thrown in for good measure, it's an Alternative Business Solution (ABS) but not one which marries well with the void left if these legal aid reforms go through.
In my view (and these are only my views) we should make no concessions on what we should continue to campaign for.
It is clear that government is not making cuts in social welfare law to help its deficit reduction policy, it is doing so because it is being idealogical in all of its aims. If it was concerned about deficit reduction it would be openly engaging with us on how we say the state can save £8.80 for every £1 spent, it has shown no inclination to conduct an inquisition in to how we can substantiate this.
Government is out to shrink the welfare state, there can be no other reason behind its plans to impose a 100% reduction in all legal help for anyone with a welfare benefit legal issue. These plans lack all logic when government has embarked upon a massive mission to reform the welfare system. It will mean millions of decisions will be made by the state and yet not one single person will be entitled to any legal help in contesting any of them, it's perverse, socially and morally wrong.
Personally, I think we should campaign for some criminal legal aid reduction (particularly high cost fraud cases) because I think the costs are disproportionate and fraud cases could in many cases be funded by the financial sector. I see that as right; - many will disagree.
It would be good to raise the profile of Mylegal to engage more with the public, a lot of what is said on here rebounds onto other campaigns. The domino effect could help us gain more media attention. But it does need to be the right kind of media attention. Should we perhaps be engaging with major disability charities or Trade unions to get some big publicity of our case in our right?
On my part, I'm continuing to do all I can on our Devon campaign and will certainly carry on posting on here. My hope is that we can pick this up and battle with an argument which the public sees some sense in. It means using more real life stories and trying to get some clients to promote the tremendous value of the work we do.
I was surprised that there was so much attention from providers upon publishing of the bill, it surprises me if some people were shocked that government had not moved an inch since last November 2010, did they honestly think government was going to have a change of heart?
Government has obstinately refused to listen to the views of many eminent, including judicial, bodies and leading lights on all things legal aid. Its' bill is riddled with flaws, but it doesn't care; -it just sticks to the same line. The flaws are yet to emerge, it's up to us to ensure they are not swept under the carpet.
This is the no longer the time to focus on internal debate, we've done all that, it's now time to be engaging with the wider audience. We can do so by joining various welfare forums, perhaps the unions and charities who fight for the disadvantaged and by finding stories which strike a chord with the public.
The perils of allowing ourselves to become resigned to what some may say is inevitable are that these damaging reforms will go ahead. I rather suspect that if we allow them to, we'll be seeing headlines of a very different and much sadder nature.
The headlines I see will be people being dangerously punished by an inability to challenge the state, they're the ones who'll be Shushed for good, for some being unable to access any proper help in times of crisis will simply become too much, let's not let that happen.