One of the unfortunate aspects of politics over the last 20 years has been ‘Government by Anecdote’ where a handful of extreme cases are used to justify fundamental changes to the welfare state. For example, we have heard a great deal in recent months regarding people on housing benefit claim over £100,000 per annum. In reality, this has happened on just three occasions. I would agree that this is three cases too many. Unfortunately, such anecdotes are used to justify the wholesale changes to housing benefit provision currently being introduced.
Similar stories have been told regarding ‘fat cat’ lawyers getting rich on legal aid. The reality is that most legal aid practitioners work for far less than they could earn if they were in private practice. So why do they do it?
People sometimes have complex problems and sometimes they need technical and practical assistance to give them breathing space to get on with their lives. Such technical and practical assistance often comes from legal aid practitioners. They do it because it is the right thing to do, not because of the money.
If this specialist advice was to be lost, more individuals would flounder, with consequences for their health, their mental well-being, their homes, and their families. For society, the financial costs can be enormous. The cost of legal aid is small by comparison.
I believe Parliament has been short-sighted in deciding to restrict the availability of legal aid. But we are where we are. Legal aid is being restricted, saving the Treasury just £450 million a year. This saving may well be exceeded by the fall out of not ensuring that people are properly advised and represented.
One consequence of changes to legal aid provision is to put in jeopardy independent advice centres up and down the country. Shelter, for example, has recently announced that it will be closing eight of its legal aid centres.
BHT’s own legal aid centres in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings have an uncertain future. Our legal aid funding is likely to be reduced by about 40%, thereby undermining the financial viability of these services. Already they run at a loss of over £200,000 each year.
One of the tough decisions for local councils is to decide whether to fund such services. Everyone knows that local government is having to make huge savings from their own budgets. To expect them not merely to maintain their investment in advice services but to increase it might appear, on the surface, to be unreasonable.
Yet there is a strong case for increased investment. Take BHT’s Brighton Advice Centre. It advises and represents 4,500 residents of Brighton and Hove each year and prevents 2,500 households from becoming homeless.
BHT does its part. We bring into the City over a £1 million from the Legal Services Commission, Big Lottery funding and funding for work in the private rented sector.
So what does Brighton and Hove get from this investment? First and foremost it ensures that its residents have a first rate legal aid centre so that those who might otherwise flounder, who need breathing space, can have their complex problems dealt with through specialist advice and representation.
Using the concept of the ‘Local Multiplier’, the £1.5 million cost of our Brighton legal services is worth over £4 million to the local economy. The Local Multiplier has it that investment in jobs within the local economy sees that investment recycled within that economy to the factor of up to 3 times.
All of this leads me to say how delighted I am that the draft budget for the City Council is seeking to invest in advice services provided by BHT and others. This is a matter above party politics and I hope that there will be all-party support for this part of the council’s budget.