Legal Aid bill set to compound welfare misery

Posted: March 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

While the Welfare Reform bill may have been grabbing all the headlines in recent months, it is unfortunately not the only legislative assault being waged on disabled people by the Government right now.

Where Iain Duncan Smith has succeeded in cutting large chunks out of disability benefits, Ken Clarke is now using the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders bill (about to begin its report stage in the House of Lords on Monday 5 March) to strip many disabled people of their access to justice too.

Disabled people – who are among the most economically impoverished in our society – make up 58% of those who currently receive legal aid for welfare benefits cases. Last year, 78,000 disabled people used this specialist legal help to challenge inaccurate benefits decisions that leave many struggling without the means to live. Yet the changes proposed in the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders bill, will remove this support entirely.

This is despite the fact that public authorities still fail to make accurate benefits decisions far too often. Currently 39% of appeals against WCA ‘fit-for-work’ decisions are upheld, while in thirty-eight per cent of appeals relating to the Disability Living Allowance tribunals find in favour of the claimant.

Legal aid in this area is therefore vital at the best of times, but absolutely essential when the welfare system is undergoing massive change.

In the next few years approximately 1.8 million people are being migrated from incapacity benefit onto employment and support allowance (ESA) or job seekers allowance; and the transition to universal credit during 2013 – 2017 will affect a reported 12 million people. Some 3.2 million will also be caught up when disability living allowance becomes the personal independence payment.

These sweeping changes will almost certainly go hand-in-hand with implementation problems and shortfalls as officials struggle with new guidance, new assessment systems and the pressure of reassessing tens of thousands of people every single week.

A system already prone to errors will be put under immense pressure, leading to more people being incorrectly denied support or put on the wrong benefit.

Ken Clarke’s bill will force tens of thousands of disabled people to take charge of their own cases, without any clue how to navigate nearly 9,000 pages of official guidance in what is a complicated and confusing appeals system.

Without access to specialist legal advice to present their case effectively, Scope believes many disabled people will end up staying on the wrong benefits or dropping out of the system entirely. The consequences of this could be stark. Analysis of data from the Civil and Social Justice Survey shows that 46 per cent of disabled people experience stress-related illness and 20.6 per cent of disabled people report physical ill-health as a consequence of welfare benefits problems.

Cutting legal aid from welfare benefits cases will save an estimated £25 million out of a total legal aid budget of nearly £2 billion. But research from Citizen’s Advice and the Law Society suggest it is likely to be a false economy, creating knock-on costs to the NHS and public purse further down the line.

And many Peers from all the parties agree. A critical amendment to the bill which would reverse this cut has now been signed by Tory grandee Lord Newton, Labour’s man on the front bench Lord Bach, tenacious Lib Dem Baroness Doocey, and canny cross-bencher Lord Pannick.

But Ken Clarke still refuses to listen. Please help us tell him he’s got this one wrong by joining our campaign while there’s still time.

ACTION: Lobby the Justice Secretary now

GUEST POST: Kathy Peach is the Head of Campaigns & Social Change at the disability charity Scope. In this role she oversees the organisation’s lobbying and campaigning activity, as well as its work to change attitudes and behaviour towards disabled people. Before moving into the disability sector, Kathy was Head of External Affairs at the international development charity VSO, where she led the UK campaign for the creation of a new UN agency for women. In what’s left of her spare time, Kathy is a co-founder of the ‘Women for Development’ network.

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