For a long time, the Labour Leadership contest was only of interest only to Labour supporters, the Party faithful and political anoraks. This has changed drastically over the last couple of weeks, with media and public attention turning on all four candidates. It's clear that this is a lot more than just a personality contest. All four candidates are rightly being scrutinised for what they can offer Labour members and, more importantly, what they can offer the British electorate in 2020.
I've been a member of the Labour Party for over 40 years, and I've seen it go through good times and bad. From this experience, my firm view is that Andy Burnham is the only candidate with that combination of strength of vision, competence and policies to lead the Labour Party back into Government. Just as importantly, I know that these policies will be based on Labour values. He's already coming forward with big ideas that can win back support from across the country, like extending NHS principles to social care and giving councils the power to borrow money to build new homes. And today's announcement on legal aid shows how he can combine Labour values with practical measures to promote equal rights and a more equal society.
When Labour left office in 2010, it had opened up the legal system to millions of our fellow citizens who needed legal advice at a difficult time in their lives. We built on the actions of the post-War Labour Government, which created legal aid as one of the key pillars of the welfare state. A record number of people were receiving early quality advice. Since then, the Tory-led Government has all but destroyed the ability of those without means to access legal support. They have removed social welfare law almost entirely from the scope of legal aid, meaning that those experiencing problems with debt, housing, employment, public services and the benefits system are left without recourse to advice or assistance. There is some marvellous pro bono help on offer, but it can only touch on the vast demand for legal advice.
If Andy becomes Leader, he has committed to an urgent review of civil legal aid, which I have agreed to co-Chair alongside Yvonne Fovargue MP, former Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, former Chief Executive of a local Citizens Advice Bureau and passionate campaigner for access to justice. The review will ensure that Labour's policies enable everyone to access quality legal advice on social welfare problems at the earliest possible opportunity.
Andy knows that Labour must rebuild our credibility on the economy, and he is unique in his ability to show clearly that compassion and competence can go hand in hand. Enabling access to justice in social welfare law is not just a moral imperative; the economic arguments are strong, too.
The Tories' drastic and devastating cuts to the civil legal aid budget have caused unnecessary suffering and shifted the costs of spiralling social problems onto other public services, from the police and courts system through to the NHS and social care. Research has shown that for every £1 spent on debt advice, the state saves £2.98. And among the excellent work being done already by the Legal Action Practitioners Group and JUSTICE, the Low Commission and the Advice Services Alliance recently reported that the provision of good welfare advice can lead to various positive health outcomes and can address health inequalities.
In the Manifesto that he's launching later this week, Andy will say: "I believe that it is the hallmark of a civilised society that everyone can access justice, defend their rights and receive help in navigating the legal system, regardless of their income." We're now in the desperate situation in which, for the most part, only those accused of serious crimes can get legal aid. How shocking is that? Without social welfare law remaining a financially viable profession for young lawyers, the legal profession will eventually be deskilled in this area, meaning that there will be very few lawyers available with the skills necessary to offer help pro bono.
Polling has shown repeatedly that Andy is the most popular candidate amongst Labour voters, the general public in every part of the country, Scottish voters and those who voted Tory, Ukip, Lib Dem and Green. In my view, he will unite the Party, prevent a return to the damaging splits of the early 80s, offer a bold vision that voters can get behind, and lead a stronger Labour Party back into government. He will rebuild the public's trust in Labour on key issues, such as immigration and the economy. And he will reverse the damage done over the last five years to that most fundamental of rights: access to justice for all.
Lord Willy Bach is the shadow attorney general