As austerity bites harder, legal services are vital to ensure the state meets its duties to vulnerable people
With the cuts in public services set to continue, the role of legal and advice services in holding the state to account can only become more important, as budget reductions increasingly risk undermining people’s rights.
In his July 2015 budget announcement, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne revealed details of the further £12bn in welfare cuts that had featured in the Conservatives’ election manifesto. These include a reduction in the household benefit cap from £26,000 to £20,000 (£26,000 to £23,000 in London) and a two-child limit for tax credit claims for children born after April 2017. The proposed package of benefits cuts will hit the working poor hard and lead to an increase in housing, and other, problems. LAG believes low-income households are bearing a disproportionate burden of the government’s continuing austerity policies.
Hot on the heels of the summer budget announcements, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) published plans to close 91 courts and tribunals across the UK (see page 4). Justice minister Shailesh Vara argues that, after the closures, 95 per cent of people will still be within an hour’s travel of a court and 83 per cent of tribunal users will have less than 60 minutes’ travel time. This does not stand up to the most cursory analysis of the proposed list of closures. Concentrating courts and tribunals in urban centres such as Birmingham and Manchester means that journeys of those travelling in the rush hour for 10 am hearings will inevitably take longer than an hour. LAG urges readers to use their local knowledge of the difficulties the proposed closures will cause to respond to the government’s consultation (Proposal on the provision of court and tribunal estate in England and Wales).
A faint glimmer of sunlight in the otherwise cloudy outlook has been the lord chancellor’s early assertion that he has ‘no plans to cut legal aid further’. It is to be hoped that he sticks to this and we are not presented with more fee cuts (or worse, another legal aid bill) later in this parliament.
The spending cuts mean local and central government are increasingly treading a fine line between providing the services they are required to do by statute and toppling into illegality. For example, through a combination of housing benefit cuts and the lack of affordable rented accommodation, especially in London and the South East, many local authorities are failing homeless people. Tightening budgets in the NHS and cutbacks in sums allocated to local council care also mean many vulnerable people are being refused the support they need.
‘The spending cuts mean local and central government are increasingly treading a fine line between providing the services they are required to do by statute and toppling into illegality.’
In local government, if ring-fenced services such as education are excluded, grants from central government have been cut by 36.3 per cent over the past five years, with a disproportionately higher impact on poorer areas of the country.1Central Cuts, Local Decision-Making: Changes in Local Government Spending and Revenues in England, 2009–10 to 2014–15, IFS Briefing Note BN166; Election 2015 Briefing Note 8, 6 March 2015.
Further big reductions in local government spending are planned in the present parliament. Legal and advice services, while equally caught by the squeeze on public expenditure, will therefore increasingly find themselves on the front line of trying to ensure the state meets its legal obligations, especially to the poor and vulnerable.