Ken Clarke's Legal Aid Bill returns today to the House of Lords for its second day in committee.
The Bill - The Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Bill, to give it its full title - has already had its second reading and first day in committee. On those occasions peers made it quite clear the Bill is unacceptable in its present form, not because they oppose cuts wholesale but because the government has targeted the wrong areas.
Set up in 1949 as one of the core planks of the welfare state in a spirit of bipartisan consensus, our legal aid system is split into three broad areas: criminal legal aid, family law legal aid and social welfare law legal aid.
Criminal legal aid provides advice and representation to those accused of crimes by the State. It is an essential bulwark against miscarriages of justice. However, partly as a result of the success of the police in improving detection rates, the cost of criminal legal aid has been rising.
We have argued consistently that there are opportunities for cutting costs in this area; arguments that have been ignored by the Tory-led government. In March 2010, when I was Legal Aid Minister I consulted on ways to cut that Bill through improving how we tender for criminal legal aid providers (PDF). We believe that this is preferable to decimating other areas of the Legal Aid Scheme.
Family law legal aid provides advice, mediation and, where necessary, representation to those in family law disputes: divorce, custody and financial awards. This service is means-tested to target it to those that most need free help. The government proposes to limit the service further by targeting it to those that have suffered domestic abuse. We agree that if costs need to be cut, it is right to focus family law legal aid in this way. However, the way the government has gone about it is highly contentious.
The government have insisted that victims must provide evidence of domestic abuse before getting Legal Aid, but their range of acceptable evidence is far too limited. It's more limited than, for example, the evidence UK Border Agency will accept for the purposes of immigration.
Meanwhile, the Home Office is consulting on yet another definition of domestic abuse. Their rationale? They say that it is imperative government has one expansive and singular definition of domestic abuse. We agree. As do campaigners from the Women's Institute to Legal Action Group to End Violence Against Women, who state that it is imperative the government accept more types of evidence. I suspect peers will concur.
Finally, social welfare legal advice encompasses advice on debt, employment law and appeals against decisions of the state (and contractors like ATOS) on welfare benefits, schooling and housing.
This early advice is for the main part delivered through not-for-profits like Citizen's Advice Bureaux, law centres and specialist charities. Citizen's Advice calculated that every pound we spend on early advice saves the state substantially more by averting crises in citizen's lives. It represents possibly the most value-for-money of any area of government expenditure.
The majority of welfare benefits advice, as an example, is to support appeals against decisions for Employment Support Allowance, a benefit that helps disabled people to get back into work. It's cost-effective and very broadly supported. In fact, when he was Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron said:
"Disabilities of all types affect millions of families in this country...For the sake of these families' sanity we are looking at the evidence and considering doing something similar in the UK, pulling professionals like doctors...and benefits specialists together in one team to act as a one-stop-shop for assessment and advice."
In that context it is particularly galling that Ken Clarke proposes to end all funding for these specialists.
After today there are six further days in committee and then four days of report stage, where we are likely to see key votes take place. Is it too much to hope the government comes to its senses?
As the prime minister acknowledged this weekend, the past 18 months has seen a series of embarrassing u-turns, pauses and legislative chaos by his government, and that all Bills will be re-evaluated. So perhaps there is hope. But if they won't act, then some time before the Queen's Speech, all signs are that the Lords will take decisive action to protect the vulnerable from this government's folly.
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