Tag: Access to justice

Labour party pledge to reinstate legal aid, restoring equal access to justice

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The Labour party will restore legal aid for people appealing against cuts to social security, such as Universal Credit and Personal Independent Payment, the shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, is to announce.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned last month that cuts to legal aid meant many could no longer afford “to challenge benefit denials or reductions” and were “thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy”. 

Back in 2012, I warned that without equal access to justice, citizens simply cease to be free. I strongly welcome this move from the opposition, in particular because I regard access to justice – a basic human right – as absolutely fundamental to a functioning democracy.

Those seeking to challenge decisions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on social security payments, many of which are incorrect and unfair, will be able to gain access to legal advice to help them pursue appeals, Labour has pledged.

Burgon argues that restoring such financial support would encourage the DWP to get decisions right the first time, thereby reducing costs for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

More than two-thirds of appeals against DWP decisions on personal independence payments (PIP) and employment support allowance (ESA) are successful, says the Labour party, adding that those decisions have affected thousands of vulnerable people with illnesses, disabilities or in poor health. 

Since the Coalition government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect in early 2013, the number of people receiving legal aid to challenge benefit decisions has fallen by 99%. The MoJ spends more than £100m a year on tribunals disputing appeals against benefit decisions.

In addition, the DWP has spent more than £100m on PIP and ESA reviews and appeals since October 2015. That means  the state is spending huge amounts of money to get its’ own way in imposing wrongful decisions, while ensuring those affected cannot easily challenge such unjust decision making processes, which become embedded into an increasingly punitive social security system. It’s difficult to regard this as anything other than a politically coordinated attack on the rights of citizens and the welfare state by the Conservatives.

Since the Laspo act came into effect, many expert social security lawyers have left the field because cases were no longer funded. The MoJ has experienced the deepest cuts of any Whitehall department since 2010; its budget is to shrink further over the next two years.

Burgon said: “People should never be expected to navigate a complex appeals process all by themselves. That can force some to give up their claim altogether after a wrong initial decision. Others endure months of stress trying to prepare their own case. It’s bad now but will be even more difficult after universal credit’s rollout.

“Cuts to early legal advice have been a false economy. Ensuring that people are armed with expert legal advice to take on incorrect benefits decisions will not only help people get the benefits they are entitled to, it should make it less likely that flawed decision takes place in the first place, which would be good for the individuals themselves, and help to tackle the tens of millions of pounds spent on administering appeals against flawed decisions.”

Unless, of course, the intention all along was to ensure that the state’s ‘incorrect’ decisions stand. I rather suspect that is so.

The number of people granted legal aid in welfare cases has plummeted from 91,431 in 2012-13 to 478 in 2017-18, according to Legal Aid Agency figures.

A 2010 Citizens Advice report (pdf) concluded that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice, the state potentially saved £8.80.

Labour estimates that to restore early legal advice to pre-Laspo levels for benefits cases would cost £18m a year and help about 90,000 cases.

The party has already pledged to restore legal aid funding for advice in all housing cases, reversing far-reaching cuts imposed by the government five years ago. It has also promised to re-establish early advice entitlements in the family courts and to review the legal aid means tests.

Burgon says “Cuts have left vulnerable people without the legal support they need when faced with a rogue landlord, a difficult family breakup, or Theresa May’s “hostile environment. 

“But of all the cuts to legal aid, the slashing of advice for ill and disabled people unfairly denied their benefits is one of the cruellest. It creates the shameful situation where people are first denied the financial support to which they are legally entitled and then must struggle through a complex appeal without legal advice, causing further stress and anxiety.”

He says that the Labour-initiated Bach commission on access to justice outlined the direction in which the government needs to go. The Conservatives’ review (due before Christmas) should follow its recommendation to boost funding for early legal advice. Instead, however, it’s likely to be ‘another missed opportunity’. 

As Burgon notes, next year marks the 70th anniversary of the Legal Aid and Advice Act of 1949. Too often, legal aid has been treated as the forgotten pillar of the welfare state. Access to health and education are rightly recognised as the right of every citizen. Access to justice should be too.

 

See also: Labour will restore legal aid so all citizens have access to justice – not just the rich


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Labour’s Disability Equality Roadshow comes to Newcastle

Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Rutherford and Debbie Abrahams, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, at the launch of Labour’s Disability Equality Roadshow. She is talking to people across the country about what disabled people want to see in Labour’s next manifesto. If you’re a Labour Party member keep an eye on updates from the National Policy Forum for more opportunity to get involved.

The Labour Party’s Disability Equality Roadshow was launched in Manchester in November and is set to go nationwide over the coming months. This democratic engagement process is the vitally important first step in developing policies which will address the structural (social, cultural, political and economic) issues affecting disabled people and their carers across the UK, as well as the challenges we all face in building a fairer, more equal society.

At the launch, Paul Rutherford said: “This initiative will enable Labour to develop real policies which will properly support disabled people, not punish and harm them, making their often difficult lives harder, which is what this government’s policies are doing.”

Debbie Abrahams added: “The roadshow will draw on the experiences and expertise of disabled people themselves who have been particularly affected by this Tory Government’s changes to social security.”

After six years of Conservative policies that have not involved any genuine consultation and engagement with disabled people in political decision-making processes, we have witnessed a raft of increasingly punitive measures and cuts that have been imposed on us, supposedly to “incentivise” the poorest citizens – presumably to be less poor – by imposing financial punishments and heaping stigma on them. Invisible bootstraps were included in the government’s basic incentives package.

The phrase “behavioural change” has become a euphemism for traditional Conservative prejudice, blaming individuals for structural barriers and politically constructed problems. “Incentivising” is another euphemism for discrimination and punitive state behaviour modification policies, such as benefit sanctions, for the poorest people. It’s also a fundamental part of a justification narrative to advance the dismantling of the welfare state in stages, a cut at a time.

The wealthiest people, however, have been presented with the deluxe package of Conservative “incentives”, which entail generous handouts in the form of tax cuts and endorsed exemptions. Such policies, which take lifeline income from the poorest citizens, including those in low paid or part-time work and award it to the very wealthiest, cannot fail to extend and accentuate growing inequalities and increase social and economic exclusion.

This topical comment was very welcomed on Saturday: 

“Tax justice means that supporting disabled people IS sustainable. This is our flag in the sand”. Grahame Morris, Labour MP, on Labour Party priorities at the Disability Equality Roadshow, Newcastle.

Debbie said: Firstly, an inclusive labour market is one that finds the right job for those who can work. The Tory government has focused solely on getting people ‘off-flow’, forcing them into any job to bring down claimant numbers, or none, for example, as a result of sanctions.

I believe there is a fairer way; a more holistic, person-centred approach that looks at people’s strengths and barriers to work whether this relates to skills or housing issues. We need to provide them with the best possible employment support but also opportunities to work.”

And on support for disabled people in work: “Ensuring that proper workplace adjustments are made to retain disabled people who are in work is a vital part of an inclusive labour market. These adjustments could be in the form of more flexible leave arrangements as well as extending Access to Work which currently only supports a tiny minority of disabled people, approximately 36,500 out of 3.7 million in work.”

The Roadshow is part of Labour’s commitment to transform our social security system, ensuring that, like our NHS, it is fit for purpose; there for us all in our time of need.

The Disability Equality Roadshow is using the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons as a framework to help develop a wide array of policies, not just those concerning social security, but also embedding the convention articles in education, health and social care, justice policies and many others.

The Labour Party has already pledged to scrap the discriminatory and unfair Bedroom Tax. Debbie Abrahams announced at Labour Party Conference that a Labour government will also scrap the discredited Work Capability Assessment. Debbie said she wants to replace it with “a system based on personalised, holistic support; one that provides each individual with a tailored plan, building on their strengths and addressing barriers, whether skills, health, care, transport, or housing-related.”

Debbie has asked for our help in exploring how this might be achieved.

Many of us welcomed the announcement from Debbie that a Labour government will get rid of this Government’s punitive sanctions too. As Debbie pointed out: “This will mean Job Centre Plus and employment support providers’ performance will not just be assessed on how many people they get off their books.”

She also discussed the need for a culture change regarding the prejudiced attitudes of many regarding people with disabilities and those out of work.

The event on Saturday was hosted at Unite the Union.

Saturday 3 December was also the International Day for Disabled People.

dis-eq-roadshow Democracy and inclusion in action: discussing social security

Some of the issues that we discussed:

  • We raised individual cases that demonstrated the terrible distress caused by the work capability assessment (WCA) and the serious impact that being told wrongly they are fit for work has on people who are very ill. Labour will scrap the WCA. We said that the evidence that should be considered in claims for disability related benefit should always be medical – presented by qualified doctors and specialists, not from “functional assessment” carried out by non-specialised occupational therapists and nurses employed by private companies hired to cut benefits and make a massive profit at our expense.
  • We must also move away from any process of assessment that is intimidating and distressing. People generally felt that the DLA system was much fairer, with provision for life long awards for chronic and progressive conditions.
  • Increasingly, private companies are taking up money from the social security budget, whilst those that the budget is meant to assist are seeing their support cut and their standard of living plummet. Many are now unable to meet their most basic needs – such as having sufficient income to meet the costs for food and fuel.  It was suggested that benefit levels are set by a specialised  committee, ensuring that the costs of basic needs can be met.
  • As benefits were originally calculated to meet only basic needs, the additional costs of housing and council tax were not included in the benefit level when it was originally calculated. It was assumed that people would remain exempt from paying any additional rent and council tax. That needs to be addressed, since benefits do not cover these or the bedroom tax (though Labour intend to scrap the bedroom tax).
  • The new in-work conditionality is likely to impact on disabled people, many of who may need to work part-time. Shorter and flexible working hours are a reasonable adjustment. Some of us have to also manage hospital appointments with more than one specialist and hospital based treatment regimes. The threat and use of sanctions aimed at part-time and low paid workers is incompatible with the aim of “halving the disability employment gap.”
  • We suggested that employers should fined for not employing a quota of disabled people, rather than being rewarded, as suggested in the government Green Paper, for employing disabled people, given that disabled people have a right to socioeconomic inclusion, including the right to work, without discrimination.
  • The Equality Act was not implemented in full by the Coalition. This limits redress for disabled people regarding:  
    • Dual discrimination: the government decided not to bring this into force as a way of reducing the cost of regulation to business. 
    • Socioeconomic inequalities under the Public Sector Equality Duty 
    • Provisions relating to auxiliary aids in schools
    • Diversity reporting by political parties
    • Provisions about taxi accessibility among other things. These omissions need to be remedied. 
  • Accessibility issues were also raised, ranging from the lack of provision and accessibility for disabled users of public transport and taxis to the lack of large print ESA forms available for people with visual impairments and barriers regarding the availability of home visits for assessments.
  • Run-on benefits for people starting work need to be reinstated, since people usually work a month at least before being paid a wage. Previously, housing benefit, council tax and other benefits were payable for the first month of employment.
  • We discussed the need for culture change to address prejudice, and the now commonly held negative perceptions and attitudes towards disabled people and those out of work.

There were three other task groups, some worked on addressing barriers to access to justice, others worked on disability and barriers at work, among other topics, all of who raised many other issues, which were also fed back. 

It was a very productive and positive event: an excellent opportunity for democratic inclusion in the decision-making process and to contribute positively towards progressive Labour policies.

Of course that process doesn’t stop with the Roadshow events, but in the coming months, if you can get to the Roadshow when it comes to your area, it’s recommended you do. If you’re a Labour Party member you can follow updates from the National Policy Forum, which also provides further opportunity to get involved.

“Nothing about us without us,” as Gail Ward reminded us on the day. This approach provides a solid foundation for democratic norms. Sometimes expressed in Latin, (Nihil de nobis, sine nobis) it is a slogan commonly used to communicate the idea that no policy should be decided by any representative without the full and direct democratic participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy. The saying has its origins in Central European political traditions.

Debbie has asked if I would contribute in a collaborative response to the government’s recent consultation and green paper on work, health and disability, which I’ve agreed to do. 

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. It’s very reassuring to know that the Labour party recognise this, especially in a context of an increasingly authoritarian government that isn’t interested in first-hand witness accounts concerning the terrible consequences of their draconian policies. 

Any consideration of future policy and its impacts must surely engage citizens in dialogue, on a democratic, equal basis and ensure participation in decision-making, to ensure an appropriate balance of power between citizens and government.

The Labour Party recognise that democracy is not something we have: it’s something we  must DO, and that process includes all of us. 

One final point that needs raising is that the progressive left – particularly Labour – do not find any favour with the mainstream corporate media, generally speaking. It is therefore down to all of us to bypass the constraints of media neoliberal framing, to ensure that news of Labour policies and events like this are shared widely. Otherwise genuine alternative narratives to the current socioeconomic paradigm and order will continue to be systematically stifled, at a time when there has never been a greater need for alternatives.

Upwards and onwards. 

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With Alex Cunningham, Debbie Abrahams and Gail Ward on Saturday at the Disability Equality Roadshow 

I’d like to thank Debbie Abrahams, Grahame Morris, Alex Cunningham, Ian Lavery, Ian Mearns, Emma Lewell-Buck, Richard Williams, Dave Allen, Labour North, Unite the Union, and every one who came on Saturday for an excellent and very productive, hope-inspiring event.