‘We need to come together,’ said Julie Bishop of the Law Centre Network in a speech to a packed meeting in Manchester organized by Access to Advice.
There were close to 150 people at the Legal Aid in Crisis event, mainly from the advice and legal not for profit sector, to discuss the way forward for an access to justice campaign in light of the coming LASPO cuts.
In a frank assessment of last year’s LASPO campaign, Julie Bishop paid tribute to its achievements including ‘huge support’ across the sector, 5,000 responses, support across the political parties in both houses, parliamentary defeats and important concessions.
‘But we lost,’ she said. ‘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 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. LASPO is part of a fundamental reform of UK society. We ignored the real fight. The fight against an ideologically-driven agenda to remove government responsibility for social welfare law.’
- You can read an edited version of Julie’s speech HERE.
- Pic from left to right: Yvonne Fovargue, Lord Willy Bach, Julie Bishop and Steve Hynes
- Thanks to Patrick Tornesy & iLegal for the video.
A theme for the day was the urgent need for a new-style, grass roots campaign to preserve the idea of social welfare law in the wake of the April cuts.
Speaking from the floor one legal aid lawyer (John Nicholson) said that his practice had had to survive the impact of fixed fees, followed by a 10% cut in wages and then cuts in scope to the legal aid scheme; however he went on to say:
‘We must make sure that we don’t just moan and agree with each other about how terrible everything is for lawyers. We need to have the biggest combination of people saying publicly-funded legal representation is part of the welfare state, it is what we need and what we must have.’
Steve Hynes, chair of the Legal Action Group, began the meeting by speaking of the LASPO campaign in light of a Coalition government with ‘its obsession with cuts and an ideology that does not believe in the legal services for ordinary people.’
‘When you are campaigning the focus becomes the legislation. The focus becomes Parliament and influencing parliamentarians,’ he said. ‘We did get some victories. There were 14 defeats and we won some important concessions.’ The then justice secretary Ken Clarke ‘wanted to create a legal aid system that was, once and for all, a rump system comprising of just basic human rights and nothing else’. He cited section 8 which allows areas of law to be brought back into the scope of legal aid.
The ‘big weakness’ of the campaign was its focus on legislation, Hynes argued. ‘We were focused on Parliament; we did try to reach out to people, to get people to lobby their MPs, to lobby the House of Lords; but we needed to do more than that.’
Another major barrier for any campaign was the scarcity of information at a local government level about local advice provision. ‘It makes us relatively powerless as a lobby. We have a proper understanding of what is out there and what is provided by the government.’
He also spoke about the role of the Low Commission, which plans to report in December. ‘It is to try and win the argument for advice services. Across the political parties we have lost the argument and we need to regain ground.’
‘We have to reach out beyond our natural constituency. This cannot be a lawyer-led campaign. There has to be a grassroots involvement to it.’
Another speaker from the floor made the case for better empirical evidence. ‘This government doesn’t recognize the language of “access”, “vulnerability” and “fairness”. It recognizes the language of money and cuts,’ she said. She called for robust data as to ‘how much money advice saves. For example, a housing case costs £174. How much does it save in terms of the costs of rehousing people?’
Shooting yourself in the foot
Julie Bishop spoke bluntly about the damaging impact of infighting within the sector. Recalling being asked by government whether ‘the failure of advice agencies to cooperate at a local level was a result of the animosity at national level’. ‘This is the view they have. They also are not entirely wrong,’ she said. ‘When it comes to the prospect of funds we are like the hoards of shoppers at the boxing day sales,’ she said.
‘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 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.’
There was also frustration at the £67m advice services transition fund backed by the Government and Big Lottery. The ‘tragedy’ was that the money was ‘about to be squandered’, reckoned Bishop. ‘Not because decent proposals haven’t been submitted – but because the fund is aimed at changing our organizations, not providing services or replacing the money that has been taken out.’ Steve Hynes pointed out only 25% of that fund at a local level could be spent on direct services to the public. ‘It’s a nonsense. At the time when the government is cutting £81 million out of social welfare law, at least that amount is coming out of local services across the country, and the government’s only solution to it is to come up with a transition fund that will only allow 25% for actual services.’
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