It was ‘simply not good enough’ for the Opposition to want to ‘sign every blank cheque and never tell us how they would save the money’, said Lord McNally in response to critics in the House of Lords yesterday – writes Jon Robins.
Lord Willy Bach, the Labour Peer and former shadow justice minister, was asking the legal aid minister why the Legal Services Commission was pulling the plug on vital funding for the Advice Services Alliance, the Law Centre Network and the Royal Courts of Justice’s Citizens’ Advice Bureau worth in total £650,000 per year – see HERE.
‘It needs to be emphasised right away that all three of these bodies enjoy the highest respect from all who work in our legal system – at whatever level,’ wrote Bach for www.labourlords.org.uk yesterday. ‘It is accepted that the work they have done for many years has been of huge and lasting value to many thousands of citizens faced with legal problems. It is obvious too that they would not have been able to perform in this way if it wasn’t for government funding grants, given without pause over a long period of time – 33 years in the case of the Law Centres Network. ‘
Lord Bach described the cuts as ‘crude and anti-social’. Lord McNally said that the projects did ‘not necessarily provide direct advice to the individuals eligible for legal aid’. ‘Following the Government’s legal aid reforms, the commission’s focus must be on providing advice to clients who qualify for legal aid through its contracted providers,’ he added.
The Labour peer replied that it was ‘rather depressing ‘that ‘three highly respected and proven organisations’ were being put at some risk ‘and all for £650,000 per year?’ ‘Is it just coincidence that these changes to legal aid are coming at precisely the same time as radical reform of the welfare system is about to begin or is it… a deliberate government policy to link these two things together so that if mistakes are made as a result of welfare reform-as they will be-there will cease to be any effective legal remedy for many people?’
Lord McNally said he was ‘always fascinated’ by the way in which Mach dismissed such sums ‘as a mere bagatelle’.
Baroness Butler-Sloss asked ‘whether he was aware or appreciated’ the significance of the RCJ’s CAB?
‘Having been a judge in that court for many years, I had personal experience of the advantages of the bureau looking after unrepresented families in my court. Does the Minister realise that taking away the core funding at this moment, when the Government are also taking away legal aid for private family cases, is going to leave the public and the courts in absolute disarray?’
Baroness Hollis of Heigham also commented on the likely consequences of introducing a ‘brand new architecture of benefits-universal credit’ to people who will ‘simultaneously be losing large sums of money’. ‘They are going to need extensive help, support and advice at the very same time as the noble Lord is taking 40% of funding away from CABs across the country,’ she said.
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