Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Big Society brings little aid

Jon Robins investigates what the cuts will mean for the vital advice that Citizens Advice Bureaux provide

May 22, 2011
7 min read


Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of www.thejusticegap.com


  share     tweet  

Bolton Citizens Advice Bureau is on the frontline of the credit crunch. During the past year, its advisers helped 14,000 people. It is one of the larger in the network of 394 bureaux, which last year advised 2.1 million people nationwide.

A sense of their diversity can be obtained from one random day in January, when 63 people were advised at Bolton. According to the notes made by advisers, they included: a family with two children under the age of four years old who lost their benefits (‘haven’t been able to afford to feed themselves’); a 24-year-old father of two, refused paternity leave and threatened with the sack after his partner suffered a stillbirth with no one to look after the children (partner is ‘currently unable to do so due to pregnancy-related health problems’); an asylum seeker with two children (‘no food and nowhere for her or her children to sleep’); and a young mum, 21 weeks pregnant, who, with her partner, was struggling to pay bills and was ‘very concerned about the baby’s health. Is there anything else they can claim or do?’

Citizens Advice runs on a volunteer army. Of its 28,500 workers, 21,500 are volunteers. It is ‘an absolutely vital part of the “big society”’, David Cameron has said. Yet his government’s proposals will ‘decimate’ Bolton CAB, reckons chief executive Barry Lyons. According to Citizens Advice, more than half of the bureaux it surveyed reckon that the government’s plans ‘pose a real risk’ to their continued operation.

Bolton is an illustration of what’s happening. Two-thirds of its income comes from legal aid. Ministers look determined to slash the £2.1 billion legal aid scheme by £350 million. They are currently consulting on their green paper. Many of the cuts (£279 million) are directed at civil and family advice. This represents a 50 per cent cut in civil legal aid services to the public. And it’s not just legal aid funding that Bolton CAB stands to lose. It has been told to expect a significant cut in its local authority funding (another 15 per cent of its income).

Two-thirds of Bolton CAB’s clients are there because they have debt or welfare benefits problems. Ministers want such cases to be removed from legal aid, dismissing them as ‘generally not of sufficiently high importance to warrant funding’. That shows a shocking disregard for legal aid’s demographic. According to the government’s own impact assessment, legal aid recipients are ‘amongst the most disadvantaged in society … 97 per cent of legal aid recipients were in the bottom two income quintiles with almost 80 per cent in the bottom.’

According to Bolton CAB, out of the 63 people it saw on that one day in January, around ten might receive help if the government’s proposals go ahead. This column is about the experiences of some of the ordinary people who will be affected by that decision.

When I visited Bolton earlier this year, I met ‘Joe’, a 48-year-old former roofer who arrived, as many do, with a shopping bag full of unopened correspondence. ‘I’m worried about the bailiffs,’ he told debt adviser Tracey. His debts – a court fine for unpaid car insurance (£415), an outstanding TV licence payment (£94) – totalled less than £1,000, but they were causing him huge anxiety. He had been in hospital at the weekend having suffered a second heart attack. Eight months previously, a shoulder injury stopped him from working. He was diagnosed with depression, put on medication, signed off sick and in October had his first heart attack. He was right to be anxious. Both the court fine and TV licence are ‘priority debts’ and, as Tracey explained: ‘Creditors don’t tend to mess around.’

Don’t panic, Tracey assured Joe. In less than 20 minutes she sorted out the fine repayment and reinstated a lapsed TV licensing payment scheme over the phone. Joe’s relief was obvious. ‘It’s the stress. The littlest thing just becomes the biggest thing when you feel like this.’ How did it feel to have these problems sorted out? ‘It couldn’t be more important. I can’t afford anything. I can’t afford to pay for advice.’ Citizens Advice reckons that for every £1 that the state invests in its legal help scheme ‘the state potentially saves £8.80’.

Commons testimony

A couple of weeks after Bolton, I was at the House of Commons at an extraordinary event organised by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the Young Legal Aid Lawyers and chaired by Michael Mansfield. A series of ordinary people, as well as expert witnesses, gave ‘testimony’ before a distinguished panel of non-lawyers on the value of publicly-funded law.

A woman (‘EP’) told the panel – former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, the canon of Westminster Abbey, the reverend professor Nicholas Sagovsky and Diana Holland of Unite – how her life and that of her partner and father of their child spiralled out of control as abuse and addiction took grip.

‘Over the next year things were awful. Child protection was working with me and my husband but, because of his drug addiction and my alcohol addiction, we were getting worse. I was so miserable,’ she said. Her husband was a City banker and enjoyed ‘quite a party lifestyle’, complete with a cocaine habit by the time they married in 2002.

He was (in her words) ‘older, very domineering and controlling’ and she was ‘naïve’. EP became withdrawn, spending all her time with their baby daughter. She began to drink heavily. ‘I was just giving up on life. I did not have the energy or the will to try and sort myself out.’

As the marriage fell apart, there was violence on both sides and the police were called. Social services became involved and proceedings to take their daughter into care began. At this point EP realised she need to escape an abusive relationship and approached solicitors. Did she have the money to pay for legal advice? asked Rev Sagovsky. ‘No,’ EP replied. ‘My husband had control of our finances.’

It was one of three testimonies dealing with relationship breakdown. This is significant because ministers propose in its green paper to scrap legal aid for family cases. Ministers insist it will be retained where there is domestic violence. However, there’s a catch. The definition in the green paper is ‘ongoing risk of physical harm’ – and even then it only applies in prescribed circumstances, such as where there is a protective order. As the support group Rights of Women points out, ‘Psychological, financial and emotional abuse are all serious forms of “domestic violence” that can have devastating long-term consequences.’

EP wouldn’t have received legal aid under the government’s proposals. What would that have meant? ‘I probably would have lost both my children and may well still have been an alcoholic and in a violent relationship,’ she said.

As it is, EP hasn’t had a drink for three years, while her husband sorted himself and now lives in Singapore. The couple have ‘an amicable relationship for the sake of the children’.

Both EP and Joe were the lucky beneficiaries of state‑supported advice which, if the government pushes on with its cuts, will be a thing of the past. The justice gap is about to get a lot wider.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of www.thejusticegap.com


Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally


5