We are in the middle of party political conference season. I find it very depressing to hear politicians in all parties trying to out do others in how tough they are and will be on benefits. I am all for initiatives that will create jobs and prepare people for work, but this is often trumped by what sometimes feels as callous disregard for the human cost of their rhetoric.
Does it matter that Joe Bloggs has to wait over 6 months for his benefits, or that Mrs Bloggs has to fight to show that she is not ‘fit for work’ whilst undergoing chemotherapy, or that Miss Bloggs loses her job unfairly and can’t get support to challenge this. I guess it doesn’t to a lot of people. The ‘benefit / scrounger’ rhetoric has made us a less caring, more callous society.
It is often a different matter when it is someone we know who is affected, not least if it is someone in our own family. One sign of a civilised society is equality before the law, but the trend of eroding access to and the funding of legal aid has been ongoing for well over a decade under successive governments.
The UK government’s latest statistics on activity in the legal aid system for England and Wales shows the most recent decline in the number of people being helped in various areas of social welfare law, often the most vulnerable in society:
At BHT we used to do all the above areas of law except employment. We currently retain a contract to provide housing advice and representation, although the number of matters (similar to a case) we can take on has been massively reduced. For example, in Brighton, the number of New Matter Starts was reduced in 2013 from 1,450 to 590 at the very time the service is needed more than ever.
It is, after all, a false economy, with people in temporary accommodation now at a five year high. It makes no sense that measures aimed at preventing homelessness are being reduced while more and more will need to be spent on dealing with the consequences – not just temporary accommodation, extra demand on health and mental health services, disruption to schooling, family breakdown, etc. In Hastings mortgage possessions are up by a third on this time last year.
My colleagues at our advice centres in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings are good at what they do. They still prevent homelessness; they used to be able to get landlords to make good any repairs that were needed. Now they have to wait until there is a serious risk to health or safety.
I previously posted that there have been underspends in the legal aid budget – the only area where the Legal Aid Agency overspent was in their own internal administration! There is room for a life line within the current budget, to either increase matter starts, or be a little more relaxed in the nature of cases we can take on, for example, allowing us to do primary welfare benefit work to reduce homelessness.
In Eastbourne and Hastings last year we used 100% of our matters, but we had more clients than matters. For a start the government could give more ‘matters’. If there’s not the need then they won’t be used, but if there is a genuine need (which there is) then, given the underspend, they can still be delivered within the budget set.