The dangers of a leaky roof…

Sadiq Khan

Imagine there is a small leak in the roof of your house. Not a big leak, but one sufficient enough to create a damp patch on the ceiling each time there is a downpour. Ideally, you should get the leak fixed as quickly as possible, minimising damage to your property before it next rains.

But perhaps you choose to ignore the leak. Instead, after every period of rainfall, you paint over the damp patch only for it to return again next time it rained. Moreover, because you’ve opted not to tackle the root cause – the hole in your roof – the recurring water damage might result in the need for more remedial work and the damp problem worsening. Obviously, allowing the problem to mushroom in this way will mean it becomes more pressing and more costly than tackling the original, small leak.

This kind of choice – one between tackling the root causes of a problem or instead ignoring the cause, and dealing with it only after it has escalated dramatically and can no longer be ignored – is the scenario we face as a result of the government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill, being debated today in the House of Lords.

The Bill proposes deep cuts in social welfare law legal aid – support on housing, welfare benefits, employment, debt and education to some of the most marginalised in society. Taking the form of early stage advice – delivered by Citizens Advice Bureaux, Law Centres and others – it often prevents issues from escalating, thus saving the taxpayer money down the line.

Citizens Advice research highlights that every £1 of state expenditure on housing advice saves the taxpayer £2.34, for debt advice the saving is £2.98, benefits advice £8.80 and on employment advice £7.13. Just yesterday, independent research published by King’s College London demonstrated the folly of the Government’s cuts – their proposals will lead to an increase in costs of £139million for the taxpayer.

If Labour was in Government, we’d have taken difficult decisions about spending – such austere times mean choices to reduce government expenditure and therefore the deficit are even starker than would otherwise be the case. Our March 2010 proposals – fully implemented – would have led to 10% efficiency savings from improving the way criminal legal services are contracted, generating sufficient savings to have funded social welfare legal aid, yet bizarrely overlooked by the coalition.

But this Bill’s problem isn’t that the government is proposing to cut the total legal aid budget but it is how they are proposing to do this and the knock on consequences in terms of human and financial costs. It’s possible to reduce the legal aid budget without reducing access to justice. However, one obvious way is to stymie at origin the flow of bad decisions from within Government departments that lead to people having to seek recourse to legal advice (i.e. fixing the leaky roof). Instead, the Government have opted for the line of least resistance – slashing money available for those bearing the brunt of their poor decision making.

The Prime Minister began 2012 by talking about ‘fairness’ but his government doesn’t appear to realise how unfair these proposals are. It’s a double-whammy for up to 750,000 people – legal aid being removed against a backdrop of huge flux in many of the areas affected (such as in housing benefit, disability living allowance and incapacity benefit), and a surge in demand for others (such as job seekers allowance).

Our CABs and Law Centres are non profit making bodies in the hearts of our communities with volunteers and low paid staff providing much needed advice and assistance to families facing difficult times – the ‘Big Society’ in action. Lawyers and advisors who work in these centres don’t receive huge salaries and yet many face the threat of redundancy because of these cuts. Potential closure of Law Centres and CABs won’t just mean these community champions losing their jobs but also advice deserts being created in many parts of our country.

Instead, what’s needed is a culture change within government to reduce the number of errors that generate demand for social welfare law legal aid in the first place. Delivering such a culture change could be achieved by incentivising government departments and agencies to realise the critical importance of ensuring that inaccuracies and mistakes are minimised.

This isn’t just my view but also the view of the Government majority House of Commons Justice Select Committee, which recommends a “polluter pays” model across all government departments and agencies whose decisions impact on courts and tribunals. By levying a charge based on the number of poor decisions escalating into legal issues, there would be a financial incentive to minimise errors. Fewer bad decisions mean less need for legal aid for individuals or families and reduction in expenditure.

However, the Government have dismissed this option, instead pushing ahead with their cuts to social welfare law – a genuine missed opportunity to save money. That’s why it’s important that the House of Lords oppose the short-sighted nature of the damaging cuts to legal aid proposed by the government. So far, the Government has simply dismissed out of hand alternatives proposed by Labour and others to deliver reductions, pushing ahead with its damaging and dogmatic cuts to legal aid. Society will be all the poorer as a result.

Sadiq Khan MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

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