By Jonny Mulligan of the Sound Off for Justice campaign
This week Ken Clarke, Jonathan Djanogly, and Lord McNally will try and convince peers that their LASPO bill will save the taxpayer money and protect the most vulnerable. The reality, the facts, however, are simple: they cannot because they have not been straight from the start.
The truth is if the legal aid bill is passed we the taxpayer will be left with millions of knock on costs. This is something Clarke and co. are desperate to keep away from peers and the public.
But the real problem they have is their story and their savings figures simply do not stack up and peers from all sides know it.
In June 2011 they put a bill before parliament promising savings for the taxpayer and legal aid to protect the most vulnerable. The impact assessment published with the bill contains the admission from government that they expect an ”increase in criminality and significant damage to social cohesion”.
At a time when prisons are full and police numbers are down this is a startling admission for the government to make. The impact assessments in support of the cuts contain 15 separate statements that the Ministry of Justice does not have evidence for its predicted savings and 30 admissions that they are based on speculation.
This is extraordinary.
The black hole in the MoJ accounts is growing (last week they admitted they had blown £18 million on interpreters employed in courts) and the department has failed to have its accounts approved by the National Audit Office three years running.
The MoJ ihas allowed spending on criminal legal aid to jump by 9% in a year and it has failed to collect £1.5 billion in fines owed by criminals.
Now it is time for Messieurs Clarke, Djanogly and McNally to stand and deliver on their promises.
There are three key amendments emanating from the Conservative peer and former Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, and the cross-bench peer and QC Lord Pannick. One would force the government to ensure legal aid is available for all who require it. If peers vote for this amendments the cuts of £350m in legal aid will have to be scrapped.
Another calls for legal aid to be administered by an independent director – preventing the justice secretary Ken Clarke from taking direct control of the legal aid budget, which would allow him to block funding for particular kinds of action, such as clinical negligence, welfare claims or miscarriages of justice against the police. The bill would allow ministers to block claims against the government and the state by the back door.
The third calls for a pre-commencement impact assessment for the bill, and, if passed would probably mean a long delay before it could come into effect.
If Clarke is worried about wasting taxpayers’ money he should listen to what Matthew Elliot of the TaxPayer’sAalliance recently said about the cuts in Legal Aid:
“More than £500 million of Ken’s original savings plan for this Parliament has already gone up in smoke.
“First the £100 million a year he wanted to save by releasing rapists and violent criminals after serving only half of their prison sentences was over-ruled by David Cameron.
“Then in December Ken admitted his legal aid cuts would be delayed by six months, costing more than £200 million.”
The Sound off for Justice Kings College report (pdf) shows the cuts - instead of saving the taxpayer £350 million - will actually cost the taxpayer and other government departments between £129m and £372m. Clear evidence for peers that there is no saving for the taxpayer.
Last Friday in a final deception, the blocking tactics of Clarke and his permanent secretary, Sir Suma Chakrabarti, came to light when they blocked the calls for a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders impact assessments by the National Audit Office.
So in essence they are asking peers and the taxpayer to take a punt on their cuts without any analysis of the financial impact and cost to the taxpayer. Sound off for Justice have provided the empirical evidence that these cuts are a disaster for the taxpayer and will inflict avoidable social hardship and in some cases death on the poorest in our society.
If passed these £350 million cuts will see the most vulnerable Britons in our society who typically rely on legal aid the most – such as the elderly, homeless, single mothers, children, clinical negligence victims and victims of domestic violence - lose their voice in court, leaving them with no where to turn if they want to challenge unfair or unlawful decisions.
In short, at least 650,000 people would have nowhere to turn for legal advice and counsel.
Support soundoffforjustice.org against the cuts in civil legal aid.
• The insurance industry’s millions to the Tories are set to pay off – Alex Hern, January 30th 2012
• The principles of British fairness, the rule of law and Magna Carta are at stake – Jonny Mulligan, January 16th 2012
• Osborne’s slashing of legal aid: Another false economy – Dr Graham Cookson, January 10th 2012
• Disability minister ignorant on how legal aid cuts affecting disabled people – Alex Hern, January 10th 2012
• Women turned away from refuge shelters told to sleep in Occupy camps – Vera Baird QC, January 10th 2012