We should not be shocked by withdrawal from EU court of human rights, attacks on immigrants and secret courts. This is a very right wing conservative party who have no respect for the rule of law or access the justice. Facilitated by some liberal democrats they have strengthened the power of the state over its citizens and stifled the voices of protest or opposition from within their own ranks. Last years cuts in legal aid have allowed the government impose changes to social policy and left the citizen with no rights nor the financial ability to defend themselves. This was the starting gun for the things that are happening today.
I worked on the 'Sound off for Justice' campaign and watched all of the debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords. One year on it is interesting to reflect on what the debate was all about. It was partially about budget cuts however in reality it actually reflects a significant ideological shift to the right in British Politics. One thing that was extraordinary was the split in ideology between the young conservatives MPs and Thatchers former cabinet ministers in the House of Lords. This ideological split and the shift to the right by the current crop are the reasons why the conservatives will find it hard if not impossible to get a majority in the next election.
The late Lord Newton of Braintree and Norman Tebbitt played significant parts in opposing their own party with nearly 200 changes proposed in the bill. I will be honest this surprised and challenge my understanding of conservatives. Here were two of Thatchers cabinet members speaking up for social justice and understanding clearly the impact of the cuts on families and the poor across the country.
They had living experience and understanding of society and the impacts. Listening to their arguments they had a clear understanding of the plight of poverty on people and how this impacted families and children. Yes they understood that savings needed to be made but not be moved from their conviction by government figures they did not trust. They understood the human cost and calculated it was to much to ask under any circumstances.
They had no sympathy with the current idea on the right that some people, the wealthy, deserve access to justice and some, the poor and desperate, do not. The legal aid debate in the lords and the debate led by these two old Tories shows the right has not always been in such a narrow moral decline. They do know about society. Dare I say they may have the potential to do good.
The arch-Thatcherite Lord Tebbit, infamous for the 'on your bike' quote was among a group of peers who campaigned successfully to save access to legal aid for children involved in medical negligence claims. This was an eye opener and a glimpse of a different type of conservative political thought. It presented a moral believe which I do not believe exists in the current party. It was however the Lord Newton who spoke with compassion and understanding of the poor, the ills of society, and how government should intervene and help to make society better.
In a breathtaking and noble speech on the the 7th of March 2012, very soon before his passing,Lord Newton delivered a passionate speech against the Government on key aspects of the Legal Aid Bill. (Watch it here) He was especially angry with the government for denying the right of funded assistance to anyone challenging decisions of the state, such as having their benefits withdrawn or being refused benefits to which they are entitled at the outset.
He was against the bed room tax which would impact 600,000 homes and the well over 1 million people impacted by the social welfare reform. He was concerned with the 2,000 people per constituency who would be impacted by the cuts in the welfare bill and the legal aid cuts. He challenged the governments depiction of welfare benefits as scroungers noting "There has been a slight flavour that welfare benefits and welfare law do not rank. No one who has been social secretary would harbour the illusion that the £10 - £20 that people could lose under the bedroom tax is a trivial sum. It is the difference between heating and eating. They will need someone to turn to for support."
He made it very clear that 80% of legal aid cases heard are related for disability allowance. 78% of these cases are the successful which indicated that the legal aid system worked.
In his final rejection of the governments bill two weeks before his passing he said "No one actually believes that the government will actually save the money they save. The governments savings are illusory".
In comparison the conservatives in the commons were led by MPs Jonathan Djanolgy, Crispin Blunt, Liz Truss, Ben Gummer and indeed Ken Clarke. All professional politicians and ideologues without the life experience of their counterparts Lord Tebbit and Lord Newton. The MPs, bar Clarke, are not old enough to have experienced the war and the relief of peace. The MPs come from a different time and were shaped by the futile ideology of Thatchers 1980's. However this makes the split more surprising as Newton and Tebbitt were in that government.
Gummer became famous for flouncing into debates and proclaiming on the Today program that the legal aid system "created perverse incentives to make false allegations of abuse and act as a disincentive to compromise through mediation by turning legal redress into a faint hypothetical. They [legal aid lawyers] Don't encourage out-of-court resolution of disputes, they will fuel the disputes" That is pretty perverse logic suggesting that women or vulnerable people create their own violent and desperate circumstances to receive legal aid support. The others would trot out the need for savings and the myth that legal aid lawyers were creaming the state. They don't and despite working ninety hours a week the average pay is £21,000.
One year on the Legal aid funding for a wide range of disputes, including some divorce cases and clinical negligence has been axed. Without doubt these cuts will impact the lives of the poorest and middle income and will save the taxpayer very little money. Families, communities and the vulnerable across the UK will be scarred by this bill for generations to come.
Lord Neuberger, President of the UK Supreme Court has spoken on the impact of the Legal aid cuts. He told the BBC "My worry is the removal of legal aid for people to get advice about law and get representation in court will start to undermine the rule of law because people will feel like the government isn't giving them access to justice in all sorts of cases. And that will either lead to frustration and lack of confidence in the system, or it will lead to people taking the law into their own hands".
Pushing the cuts in Legal Aid the coalition essentially ripped up Magna Carta. This British principle of 'fairness' and the right to 'access to justice' that has been safeguarded since 1215. This principle is enshrined in Magna Carta. This is a principe that british citizens hold dear and it is something the right has taken away. Liberal Democrats such as Tom Brake MP and Lord McNally can not escape this shame as they facilitated the passage of the bill at every turn.
My feeling is that this bill once the public understand the full impacts will come back to haunt the right. Swing voters in the centre don't like the poorest and the vulnerable being attacked. It is predicted that the Conservatives will get 30.3% of the vote in the next election. The Conservative vote has fallen progressively from its highest level to date, of 55% in 1931, to a post-second world war peak of 49.6% in 1955, to 41.9% the last time it won a majority of seats in an election in 1992, to 36.1% in 2010. Secret courts, attacking the poor, creating moral panic around immigration are all shifts which make them as a party unelectable and isolated. We do however need a coherent response from the left and progressives.
The Legal aid Bill gave the coalition government the most defeats of any bill in parliament for the last sixty years. In the end government only won by one vote in the house of Lords. A vote they would not have had if Lord Newton was still around to vote.