The minister for justice Ken Clarke should not make promises he can't keep. Clarke is desperately trying to hide the black hole in the middle of the Ministry of Justice accounts that will see him and his ministers thrown out of the 'Star Chamber' for cuts. The truth is if the Legal Aid Bill is passed we the taxpayer will be left with millions of knock-on costs. This is something Clarke and co. are desperate to keep away from peers and the public.
Instead Clarke, McNally and Djangoly are willing to put 650,000 women, children, families, the elderly, some the weakest in our society on the bonfire of the cuts. As the Legal Aid Bill returns, the ministers are frantically sending up 'concession'smoke screens from the MoJ. But the real problem they have is their story and their savings figures simply do not stack up and peers from all sides know it.
In June 2011 they put a bill before parliament promising savings for the taxpayer and legal aid to protect the most vulnerable. The impact assessment published with the bill contains the admission from government that they expect 'increase in criminality and significant damage to social cohesion'. At a time when prisons are full and police numbers are down this is a startling admission for the government to make. The impact assessments in support of the cuts contain 15 separate statements that the MoJ does not have evidence for its predicted savings and 30 admissions that they are based on speculation. This is extraordinary.
The black hole in the MoJ accounts is growing (last week they admitted they had blown £18 million on interpreters employed in courts) and the department has failed to have its accounts approved by the National Audit Office three years running, it has allowed spending on criminal legal aid to jump by 9% in a year and it has failed to collect £1.5 billion in fines owed by criminals. Now it is time for Clarke, Djanogly and McNally to stand and deliver on their promises. They have to present the evidence to parliament that they will save the taxpayer money and protect the most vulnerable. The fact is simple they cannot because they have not been straight from the start.
To understand the mess that Clarke and the MoJ are in means we must go back to the first days of the coalition. Ken Clarke like the other new ministers were making any saving cuts claims they could to climb into the 'star chamber'. Tucked away in a memoir by former Treasury chief secretary David Laws is the story of how Ken Clarke became the first cabinet minister to agree his department's cuts. According to Laws, Ken told him: "What are you asking for again? Three-something isn't it? Yes, absolutely, I'll look at it but I'm sure it won't be a problem." This discussion is the root cause of Ken Clarke Legal Aid, Sentencing of Prisoners and Offenders Bill (LASPOBILL).
Clarke has spent the last year misleading the public and parliament on the facts on the Legal Aid Bill. As recently as 21 February on BBC Radio 4's Law in Action, Clarke made his frequently repeated false claim that the UK has the most 'generous' legal aid system in the world. He attacked the Law Society and lawyers for being a 'powerful' lobby. Then he criticized peers for 'wasting taxpayers money' for opposing the bill and debating it in detail.
The claim that we have the most 'generous' expensive legal aid system, which is trotted regularly out by government ministers and bag carriers like Ben Gummer and Liz Truss, is not true. It is simply wrong and the figures from the MoJ itself prove we do not. It is stupid to compare with other countries because they do not have the same legal system as the UK. The devil is in the detail. One thing Clarke and his ministerial team do not like to do is to explain the breakdown of the legal aid budget in the UK.
The facts supported by the MoJ figures are that a third of the entire legal aid budget - around £700m - is spent on the most serious criminal cases, such as terrorism and fraud - which only account for 10% of all civil and criminal cases. Experts agree that Mr Clarke is hitting the civil budget "disproportionately".
Of the £2bn legal aid budget, £1.2bn is spent on criminal cases 'white collar' crime and cases such as Asil Nadir. These are the ones that the MoJ likes to brief to the Daily Mail. What they don't do is explain that the £985m spent on civil cases for women, children, families and the poorest in society, which according to MoJ figures has been dropping over the last year. Professor Alan Paterson of Strathclyde University is on the record in saying it looks like the government is targeting civil legal aid because it's an easier option.
Lawyers maybe a powerful lobby group but we need to be honest about legal aid lawyers. They make up 4% of the sector in the UK and are on average salary of £25k. They are not the magic circle corporate lawyers or the ones you might see in a John Grisham novel. These are not the ones working at the glamorous end of the scale dining in Chelsea and holidaying in the Hamptons. These are the ones that have chosen to take a vocation in life and working with some of the poorest people in our society. Having worked with them for a year I am amazed at the work they do and the hardship they witness on a daily basis. Neither I, nor I believe Ken Clarke, could do their job.
Clarke's attack on peers for 'wasting taxpayers money' in challenging the debate is just pure double standards. The peers who are opposed to the bill are doing it because they know the true social impacts and the economic cost to the taxpayer are huge. The peers opposing the bill are from all sides and there are former lord chancellors, masters or the rolls, conservative cabinet ministers, DPPs and leading QCs who are against Clarke's cuts. Clarke tries to make them sound old, dithery, unqualified and out of touch. In reality the thing that annoys him and the MoJ is that they know the law better than him. It is like Manchester United playing Plymouth Argyle with Ken being the manager for Plymouth.
There are three key amendments emanating from the Conservative peer and former Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, and the crossbench peer and QC Lord Pannick. One would force the government to ensure that legal aid is available for all who require it. If peers vote for this the bill and the cuts of £350m in legal aid will have to be scrapped.
Another calls for legal aid to be administered by an independent director - preventing the justice secretary Ken Clarke from taking direct control of the legal aid budget, which would allow him to block funding for particular kinds of action, such as clinical negligence, welfare claims or miscarriages of justice against the police. The bill would allow ministers to block claims against the government and the state by the back door. The third calls for a pre-commencement impact assessment for the bill, and, if passed would probably mean a long delay before it could come into effect.
If Clarke is worried about wasting taxpayers money he should listen to what Matthew Elliot of the Taxpayers Alliance recently said about the cuts in Legal Aid. "More than £500 million of Ken's original savings plan for this parliament has already gone up in smoke. First the £100 million a year he wanted to save by releasing rapists and violent criminals after serving only half of their prison sentences was over-ruled by David Cameron. Then in December Ken admitted his legal aid cuts would be delayed by six months, costing more than £200 million.
The Sound off for Justice Kings College report shows the cuts instead of saving the taxpayer £350 million - will actually cost the taxpayer and other government departments between £129 million and £372 million. Clear evidence for peers that there is no savings for the taxpayer.
Last Friday in a final deception, the blocking tactics of Clarke and his permanent secretary, Sir Suma, came to light when they blocked the calls for a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders impact assessments by the National Audit Office. The request was made after the Sir Suma turned up to the public accounts committee in January 2012. On this occasion he and said in effect he did not know where the money from the MoJ was going and that he would not have the accounts from 2009/2010 until 2015.
He told the public accounts committee that with the legal aid cuts there was a range of impacts that can be identified, but the MoJ cannot say how people's behaviours will change or what the financial consequences will be. He opaquely observed that the MoJ "does not try to monetise or measure the impact and benefit assessment" but it does "follow the government impact assessment guidelines." He then told the committee that they would not have the MoJ accounts for 2009/2010 until 2015. In plain English basically this means they do not have a clue where their budgets are today so they don't have a chance of saving money for the taxpayer in the future.
Sir Suma told the committee that he would ask Clarke to refer the Legal Aid cuts to a NAO inquiry. In the letter received on Friday Sir Suma explains his reason as "to scrutinise the impact assessment while the policy is still being debated will go beyond the accepted remit of the NAO, which is to consider value of money retrospectively". So in essence they are asking peers and the taxpayer to take a punt on their cuts without any analysis of the financial impact and cost to the taxpayer. They have the empirical evidence that these cuts are a disaster for the taxpayer and will inflict avoidable social hardship and in some cases death on the poorest in our society.
If passed, these £350 million cuts will see the most vulnerable Britons in our society who typically rely on legal aid the most - such as the elderly, homeless, single mothers, children, clinical negligence victims and victims of domestic violence - lose their voice in court, leaving them with no where to turn if they want to challenge unfair or unlawful decisions. In short, at least 650,000 people would have nowhere to turn for legal advice and counsel.
Please join the campaign and save Legal Aid for the most vulnerable in out society. http://soundoffforjustice.org/
You can follow the debate in the House of Lords on our Twitter on 5, 7, 14 and 17 March.