We ignored the real fight

The sector came together over the LASPO campaign. There was huge support across the sector. Some 5,000 responses to the Bill as well as support across the political parties in both houses. The government suffered defeats. Important amendments were won. But we lost.

  •  This is an edited version of Julie’s speech at last weekend’s Access to Advice meeting.

We did not succeed in winning support for the people we serve: the poor, the vulnerable, the disenfranchised, the unemployed and migrants. We didn’t succeed in fostering a better understanding of the vital importance of the sector to the whole of society. We failed to change the discourse about disputes – that the law which impacts on everyday life isn’t trivial and not simply in the self-interest of shirkers and/or greedy lawyers.


We did not shift the government’s ‘it’s all their own fault’ approach to public programs. All that is left is the absolute minimum of what European law requires  – and if we get out of Europe, that goes too.

We need to understand this to move forward.

My initial thought is we failed even though we did some excellent and tireless campaigning because we were arguing ‘rights’, ‘justice’, ‘rule of law’ etc.

We accepted the cuts paradigm. We talked about how to make better cuts.

But LASPO is part of a fundamental reform of UK society, not simply about cuts.

We ignored the real fight – to fight an ideologically driven agenda to remove government responsibility from social welfare law.

This is not some conspiracy theory. Nick Hurd, the Conservative MP and minister for civil society told a Westminster meeting that legal aid was removed from most of immigration because the government wanted to ‘control immigration’. That is why employment, welfare benefits and immigration were never going to be kept in the legal aid scheme.

£114m is to be cut from Civil legal aid (including Family). But £67m is to be put back in through the Advice Fund. We succeeded in getting government to realise the impact of the cuts on the advice sector. Half the money is from the Government and half from the Big Lottery – another success for the campaign (BLF had previously decided to not to fund the advice sector further).

The tragedy is that this £70m is about to be squandered – not because decent proposals that will be successfully delivered have not been submitted – but because the fund is aimed at changing our organizations, not providing services or replacing the money that has been taken out.

Why is this a tragedy? The government’s main ideological shift, and most critical reform, is their shrinking of government and stepping back from their responsibility to provide for all its citizens a safety net and from funding those that provide that safety net. They recognise that someone has to pick up the pieces – but it is not them.

Perhaps with a bit of money now, we can work out how to pick up the pieces without any government support in the future. If these projects do not succeed in developing new and lasting income streams then that is that.

The government will not step in.

Another tragedy is that out of the Advice Review came the view that the single most important transformation that the government needed to secure was to make advice agencies work together at local and national level. It was this conclusion that shaped the advice fund.

I was asked whether I thought that the reason for failure of advice agencies to cooperate at a local level was a result of the animosity between agencies at the national level? This is the view they have.

They also are not entirely wrong. When it comes to the prospect of funds we are like the hoards of shoppers at the boxing day sales.

We missed the opportunity to go to the Cabinet with a unified pitch to Government for the fund with our vision for the future.

Instead we undercut each other. We told tales. We said: “Give it to us, we will use it well. We will give a bit to the others.” And this behaviour has continued. We shot ourselves, not just in the foot, but may have lost a leg.

Come together

What has happened to legal aid is just part of it – free schools are part of this, localisation, universal credit, are all part. This deeply ideological agenda of government remains completely in tact.

We need to come together now. Our future campaign cannot be funding for free advice. It will be seen as self-serving. Funding always pulls us apart. It plays to our weaknesses.

It is not to say we do not need government funding. But we need another approach to securing it which will enable us to continue our work.

What we do brilliantly together is what we see today – we have come together on a weekend to fight for those we serve. We do work well together. We do know the solutions. We are great at spotting the problems and responding to them.

We do innovate. We are efficient and we do know how to get blood out of a stone.

When we talk about the people we serve, we talk with one voice.

So what is our campaign? What do we need to do?

We must remember that rational evidence-driven campaigns are often not successful.

Successful campaigns are ones that respond to emotional triggers. We do need data and the evidence but people will only take notice once they are emotionally engaged and feel that they have to act.

Our aim cannot be to influence or convince but to effect a change in behaviour.

In 1970s a survey in Australia found 5% of men thought they should share household chores and 1.5% actually did share. At the end of 1980s – after impact of feminism and campaigns to change attitudes – they reran the survey and found a huge 85% now thought men should share housework and a staggering 5% now actually did some of it.

Attitude shift is not the same as change. We must be clear on what is the change we want?

Shirkers v strivers
Somehow we have to intervene in this discourse on ‘shirkers’ and that the government has little role in the provision of a safety net. In doing so, we can change the welfare reform agenda. We can secure free legal advice services.

One focus could be to make free legal advice a mandatory local authority service.

Whatever, the approach the campaign must be shaped with full understanding of what is the government agenda.

There are 1 comments

  1. Avatar

    I think as a strategy the Law Society should never have had its own campaign, seperate from the one that LCF, CAB and Unite had organised.

    Most importantly, we failed to fully engage with the trade unions, the members and significantly the leaderships of Unite; PCS; RMT; in the vanguard of the fights against public sector cuts. The legal aid issue should be told in the language of public sector cuts, by having two campaigns (a very non political one from the Law Society) we failed to show it was an attack on the public sector….once again lawyers in ivory towers!


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