Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The cuts have been with us a while, and we shouldn't forget it

Last week, I joined the Justice for All campaign against legal aid cuts. You should too. In a nutshell, the government is proposing to drastically restrict the people and cases that qualify for legal aid, with potentially disastrous consequences for access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable groups: welfare recipients, people in debt, low paid workers contesting unfair dismissal, asylum seekers and refugees, and so on.

In fact, I couldn't put the case against cuts to legal aid much better than this blog on Left Foot Forward today by the Shadow Justice Minister, Andy Slaughter. I find this quite ironic, because one of the reasons I'm interested in legal aid cuts is that I spent quite a lot of time in my last job challenging legal aid cuts being imposed by, um, the last government. That would be the government that reintroduced means testing for Crown Court legal aid (with painfully stringent thresholds that left people of well below average income being expected to contribute to their own defence), and that proposed to scrap free advice to prisoners about the legality of their treatment. The demand for euphemistically named 'efficiency savings' from the Ministry of Justice is nothing new. And, as one of the biggest-ticket items of expenditure, legal aid's position on the chopping block is nothing new either.

Of course, what is new is the scale and ferocity of the proposed cuts. Tentative salami-slicing seems to have been replaced by taking a massive hacksaw to the entire edifice. Where one round of proposals in 2009 amounted to cuts of £23m, the package currently out to consultation plans to cut £350m by 2014-15. In fact, in some ways, I have a newfound respect for the MoJ as it was then: what looked to us at the time like petty and mean-spirited reforms that would barely save a bean now looks more like a department under huge pressure to make cuts, desperately trying to do so by shaving off a bit here and a bit there without slashing services for the most vulnerable. Now, it seems, services for the most vulnerable are the first to go. The axe is cheerfully being taken to legal aid as part and parcel of the war on benefits, and the idea that access to justice is a citizen's right seems to cut about as much ice as the rest of the welfare state.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that a lot of the brilliant organisations behind Justice for All – Citizens Advice Bureaux, Justice, Advice UK – were raising the alarm about legal advice reforms well before this government came to power. Nobody else gave a monkey's: after all, it's not exactly a sexy issue. Now, though, they are beginning to succeed in mobilising a mass movement in defence of legal aid – because now, it can be positioned as 'a cut'.

In itself, this is obviously fine. Anything that helps mobilise dissent against injustice is all to the good, and if that's a silver lining to the present situation, then hooray – God knows there are precious few. But I sometimes feel that the anti-cuts movement is a bit too ready to collude with the myth that all cuts began life on May 6, 2010. “Yes, Labour also planned to cut the deficit, but it wouldn't have done it till the economy had recovered”, etc. As far as I can see, this is just not true. Admittedly, my experience of the previous government is limited to the MoJ. But let's take that as a case study.

From 2008-2010, the MoJ was not just talking about cuts: it was very definitely cutting. £1bn over the next spending period, to be precise. So, to be clear, around half of the cuts being planned by the current government were happening anyway. Not just legal aid: courts were closing left right and centre; the probation service was being subjected to cuts of 20% (around the level of cuts the department as a whole is now being asked to make); officials admitted that they had gone as far as they could go with 'efficiency', and that any claims that further cuts could be made without affecting frontline services were disingenuous. In shadowing the department, budget cuts were consistently one of the major issues we dealt with.

It suits the Tories to ignore this, because they can blame the cuts on Labour's 'profligate public spending' and 'Whitehall waste'. It suits Labour to ignore it, because it means they can quietly deny responsibility and position themselves as the party of the anti-cuts movement. But it doesn't suit the rest of us. The argument against cuts is surely even stronger once you realise how much services were already being squeezed before 'cuts' became a household word. Maybe this is just one more area where grassroots movements need to reclaim the narrative and expose the political consensus for what it is: a convenient untruth.

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