Social welfare advice was ‘not a high profile area of policy, so it often gets overlooked’, argued the peer in the latest newsletter from the Low Commission (download the PDF HERE). But it was ‘an essential area of policy’, Lord Low wrote, adding that it was ‘essential in the sense that Government needs it in order to make other reforms work, and citizens need it in order to be able access their rights’.
‘So to get it up the agenda, we must work towards a consensus that cuts across parties and the different public bodies con- cerned from local government to Justice and Benefits agencies and decision-makers.’
‘Hopelessly misinformed and inaccurate’
Meanwhile Lord Willy Bach in a debate in the House of Lords on the recent Queen’s Speech did his bit to push the issue up the agenda. The former justice minister called the removal of social welfare law from the legal aid scheme ‘one of the most pernicious and damaging policies that the Government have put into practice’. ‘Whether it be benefit law, debt law, housing law, employment law or immigration law, there are areas where millions of our fellow citizens, at some time in their lives, require some legal help, nearly always in the form of early, quality legal advice. Many who require legal help are, of course, disadvantaged, poor and disabled,’ he said.
‘When the Government came to power, this country enjoyed a system built up by Governments of both parties that meant that everyone who needed legal help could get it. It provided quality providers, whether not-for-profits such as law centres or CABs, or solicitors’ firms. However, it was not expensive—at around £150 a piece of advice—and used up only one-10th of the legal aid budget. That represented great value.‘
The peer pointed out that the number of cases that were helped under the scheme was had been in sharp decline under the present government’s administration from 485,000 when New Labour left office to 293,000 three years later. That was before LASPO came in last April removing legal aid from most of social welfare law. ‘The number of our fellow citizens who once received legal help but are now no longer able to do so is almost certainly over half a million.’
‘Yet this practical removal of citizens’ rights at a time of continuing austerity and radical welfare reform—both of which mean that more people need help—has received scant media attention and is largely not known about by the general public. Where there has been comment, it has been hopelessly misinformed and inaccurate.’
Meanwhile, the Low Commission also called on the Department of Work and Pensions for its support – flagging up the words of the work and pensions select committee in 2012 predicting ‘a significant increase in demand for advice services for claimants during the four-year period of Universal Credit implementation’. ‘We urge DWP to work with the advice sector to quantify and provide the extra resources necessary to fund retraining of advisers and the additional advice services which will be required to ensure a successful implementation of Universal Credit,’ the MPs said.
Whilst there was ‘wide political support’ for Universal Credit, the project had been ‘stalling’ and beset by the kind of problems social welfare advice services would assist with. ‘So we will be meeting with DWP Ministers and officials to see how they can assist with advice,’ the Low Commission added.
- JusticeWatch: LegalVoice to close - 20th March 2020
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- JusticeWatch: Legal aid’s failing safety net - 21st February 2020
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- JusticeWatch: Is the Justice System Failing Women? - 31st January 2020
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- JusticeWatch: ‘It’s payback time…’ - 17th January 2020