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

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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

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

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform


5