Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/483/2324
Cuts reduce advice for the people who most need help
THE ARTICLE in last week's the socialist by John Greene, on legal aid cuts, highlighted a growing problem that faces millions of working people - and not just in the areas he mentioned, but also in their claims for welfare benefits and help with debt and housing.
Tony Aitman, UNISON shop steward, voluntary sector (personal capacity)
Since the government changed the system of legal aid some years ago, it has been harder and harder for many of the poorest sections of the working class to get the advice - and therefore the help and benefits - they need.
The complexity of debt, housing, welfare benefits and other advice has meant that advisers in these areas now have to be trained, paid employees. Private solicitors and voluntary agencies are competing for government franchises.
The paucity of government grants for this work, though, has led many solicitors to withdraw from giving legal aid advice, so that many parts of the country are 'advice deserts', with no advice at all available to those most needy.
For those in voluntary agencies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), the picture is one of crisis. As charities, they rely purely on grants and donations to operate. Many thought the money coming in from the government legal aid franchises would finance other work. The opposite has proved true, with many agencies finding that their general work is suffering in order to meet the government's demands.
Taken with cut backs - readers may remember the report in the socialist of the one day strike in Liverpool last year when the council cut over £1 million from the agencies - this has forced many agencies to close, as has happened in Manchester. In those Bureaux still open, staff are under enormous stress. The government has refused to increase the portion of grant money allocated for wages for over five years, while work increases all the time.
More and more, people are being forced into the most horrendous debt. Nearly 1.5 million people with debt problems came to the CAB last year; over 300,000 have been driven into bankruptcy.
The average client has £10,000 worth of personal debt, not including mortgage arrears. Unlike countries such as Germany, there is no limit on interest charges on debt in this country, so a typical doorstep lending agency can charge hundreds percent interest. And still the credit card companies tempt the poorest with even more debt.
I know of one person paying one pound a month repayment to Capital One on a £10,000 debt, and they still send him letters saying he has been pre-selected for a £2,500 loan!
While the banks make unprecedented profits, they are now talking of charging £25 if a client does not use their credit card!
Meanwhile, the government has reneged on its promise to regulate bailiffs, and instead is pushing a bill through parliament which will allow courts to authorise bailiffs to force entry into a person's home, an action which is at present illegal under most circumstances.
The new legal aid proposals will mean a worsening of the service given to those most in need. As John's article said, the government are proposing a flat rate fee per case.
This fee has to cover the wages of two people (a case worker and their assistant), overheads (postage, computer equipment, etc) and a contribution towards the wages of their managers and the running of the Bureau.
The case has to be dealt with in a fixed period of time to be paid this. If it goes over, you don't get paid. How can anyone say to a client claiming Disability Living Allowance that their case has gone over the allowed time and will be closed?
Further, you are set a target of new cases to be dealt with each month, which means that current cases will have to be stopped to have the time to open new ones. If you don't meet the target, you don't get paid that month, as happened to a Merseyside CAB which was recently forced to sack all its debt and welfare benefits workers when the body administering legal aid arbitrarily removed their grant money. They have now been re-employed on a week to week basis! At the same time, they have not received either an annual incremental or negotiated pay rise for over five years.
The net result is a massive increase in stress related illnesses amongst CAB staff, staff taking work home or coming into work at weekends - for no extra pay - to make sure that clients' needs are met and government demands satisfied.
The government is also trying to take more work away from trained civil servants and push it into the voluntary and private sectors, using the jargon of 'partnership'. In effect, private companies will be paid by the government to force people into work, with the complicity of some of the voluntary agencies, putting a big question mark over their so-called 'independence' and 'impartiality'.
Not surprisingly, when the national CAB organisation started negotiations on this, it was kept secret even from the top regional officials, as they knew what grass-roots reaction would be. They have now "withdrawn" from this, on the grounds it was not "financially viable".
A major injection of funding is urgently needed into welfare advice services. John's article pointed the way forward: joint action by public and voluntary sector workers, together with the service users. If we unite together in action, the government would be forced to act.
In the long term, the answer is a society where those with disabilities, single parents etc, are not treated as criminals and where people receive either a decent living wage, benefit or pension.
The question also has to be asked: who are the real fraudsters - the people in the TV ads, branded as thieves for desperately trying to make ends meet, or the banks making millions out of the financial misery of their customers? I await the government campaign against doorstep and high street money lenders with anticipation - but I am not holding my breath!
In The Socialist 19 April 2007:
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party editorial
Campaign for a New Workers Party
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party news and analysis