Much as though the bulk of these debates and so forth are predominantly centred around urban areas, I was delighted to hear our own Bureau mentioned (South Hams in Devon) by our local Tory MP Sarah Wollason in relation to a question she posed over the 10% fee reduction and loss of between 55 and 65% of our funding.
This was an intervention whilst Tory MP Helen Grant spoke in defence of social welfare law services.
Overall the debating chamber, up until now, has been overwhelming in support of social welfare legal aid, support has come from both side of the house in what Pat Glass MP for North West Durham decribed as some of the 'most informed debates she's ever heard in the house'; - it's a pity Ken Clarke had left the House to listen to all of the good debate which followed after he left.
I am indebted to our local MP for raising a question on our behalf. Getting support from your politician is far from easy, especially when it's the party proposing these reforms.
But I've yet to hear Mr Djanogly speak, my delight may be short lived but I'll enjoy the moment!
Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I was a legal aid family lawyer for 23 years before becoming an MP, and my husband continues to run our firm in Croydon. I declare an interest in the debate.
The Government’s plans to reform legal aid are brave and bold. The consultation has been taken seriously and important concessions have been made, but I continue to have some serious concerns. The plans rely on people being able to represent themselves, but what about people with learning difficulties, limited English or mental health problems? Those people cannot help themselves; they cannot do it. The plans rely on our hard-pressed voluntary sector dealing with the fallout from the legal sector, but our not-for-profit organisations are already overstretched and under-resourced.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that many citizens advice bureaux—such as my own, South Hams—receive 55% to 65% of their funding from legal aid and are concerned about the time frame with the proposals being introduced in October?
Mrs Grant: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and change must be paced. Not for profit does not mean “No funds, please.” Those organisations still need cash just to stand still, let alone to deal with the massive glut of cases that will fall into their laps, but I am reassured and encouraged by what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice said about directing an additional sum of some £20 million towards them. That is very positive indeed.
I should add that the day before the legal aid debate., our local MP pressed for an adjournment debate on local transport difficulties in rural South Devon. We supplied a rural transport briefing paper to our MP and much of the information contained within the briefing was used in the debate.
"I thank you, Mr Walker, for chairing this debate on the important issue of rural bus services in south Devon, and I thank the Minister for his continuing interest in sustainable transport. I want to cover the three areas of the scale of rural transport poverty, the current reductions to services in Devon and, perhaps more importantly, the threats on the horizon: there is a perfect storm brewing for rural transport in my constituency. Finally, I have some proposals, put forward by my constituents as well as by people with transport expertise. I hope to persuade the Minister that doing nothing will be to abandon the transport poor at the roadside. I hope that he will accept an invitation to Townstal in my constituency to meet those who have been hardest hit by cuts to services.
Citizens Advice has found that many low-income families spend as much as 25% of their income on owning and maintaining a car; not through choice but through necessity. In addition, south Devon is one of the most expensive areas of the country, with high housing costs and low earnings, and employment that is often unreliable and seasonal. It has one of the highest insolvency rates in the country, and a high percentage of retired people, who are more likely to be dependent on public transport. It is not only the work that is seasonal; we also have a seasonal population. In summer our population expands dramatically, putting a further strain on services.
It is notable that the more rural an area is, the greater the number of cars and vans per household. Our services have become so infrequent and inconvenient that anyone who can use a car will do so, and those who have no access to a car cannot afford the full fare that is needed for the services to be run on a stand-alone commercial basis. South Hams, for example, has more than 12,000 more cars than households, which only underlines the relative transport poverty of the have-nots. Those have-nots are 14% of rural households in Devon—55,000 people who have no access to a car. Without transport, those people cannot gain access to hospitals, employment, education or even employment agencies or citizens advice bureaux.
The reason for that is clear. Under the comprehensive spending review, the Government grant to Devon county was cut by £54 million in 2011-12. Like all councils, Devon has statutory obligations, so it held a good public consultation exercise. However, unfortunately, people who never need to use public transport do not see it as a priority, so it emerged as a relatively low priority."
And following our Day of Action event on the 3rd June, our Mp raised concern over the question of clinical negligence legal aid burdening the NHS with additional costs. On the 21st June she asked Ken Clarke...
"On legal aid for medical negligence cases, can the Secretary of State reassure the House that he has made an assessment and we are not going to end up transferring additional costs to the NHS Litigation Authority?"
Kenneth Clarke (Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State, Justice; Rushcliffe, Conservative)
"Obviously, the NHS Litigation Authority has been involved in our consultation, but at the moment I see no reason why that should be the consequence at all. Indeed, I think—I hope—that the NHS will be spared some of the more speculative litigation that has taken place, whereby people really hope that somebody will pay a kind of settlement to avoid incurring the further costs of resisting the claim. In genuine cases, we have to ensure access to justice, of course, because clinical negligence claims are very important, and we think that the no win, no fee system, as modified, is the best way of doing so."
It's fair to say that all of the above points have been raised as a result of trying to forge a good working relationship with your local MP; - I'd encourage all CAB to try and engage their MP on the whole range of issues which we see
On the issue of involving your MP, as well as the above actions, we've also managed to..
(1) Ask our MP to intervene in the possible use of the now disused local Totnes Magistrates' Court. It's an ideal building, but it seems that Government would rather it collects green moss and becomes the proverbial white elephant, it's been hardly used for almost 2 years now and no-longer functions as a courthouse.
(2) Had some very useful discussions over the non-workings of the ESA assessment process.
(3) Showed our MP a copy of our DLA welfare reform consultation process and discussed the contents.
(4) Working on a suggested amendment to the DWP SMI mortgage interest rate when they were reduced last October from 6.08 to 3.64%. Our suggestion is that certain claimants on middle/higher rate DLA or otherwise being severely disabled/terminally ill should have their ACTUAL mortgage rate paid rather than the average rate used since last October.
(5) Involved our MP in a Q&A session at our well attended 'Day for Action' event in Totnes on the 3rd June.
(6) She's also fixing up a meeting for us to see Jonathon Djanogly to discuss our concerns over SWL legal aid and our funding plight, as well as helping us to arrange our Devon MP event.
(7) Plus we also have a mutual client exchange where we accept direct referrals from the MP