Monday, 17 June 2019

Leadership contenders should be quizzed about legal aid

Tonight there will be an on-line hustings. I am not talking about the current "beauty contest on the Titanic", heavily featured on BBC TV, to select the next leader of the Conservative party* and, therefore, short of a successful Commons vote of "no confidence", our next prime minister.

No, I refer to the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, which party is, if current opinion research is to be believed, going to be at least pivotal after the next general election. I have not registered for the on-line stuff but intend to download the report later. One hopes that someone asks the question about the savage cuts to civil legal aid which were made under the coalition and what the candidates propose to do to reverse them. Perhaps if I can get over this current debilitating chest infection in time I can get up to Llandrindod Wells, where there is to be a live hustings, to put the question in person.

TA Law in Swansea is just the latest social welfare law firm to give up in the face of mounting costs and the savage cuts to fee income resulting from "the government removing vast swaths of social welfare law from the scope of legal aid in 2013" (Law Society Gazette). Helen Williams, the firm's managing director said

the firm endeavoured to fight the cuts and stay in business. It tried to diversify into private work. 'The problem we have is our clients, by their very nature, tend to be tenants or on housing benefits, or disabled, so they do not have access to private funds.' Pre-LASPO, the firm had around 100 staff. When LASPO came in, the firm had to restructure, relocate and make redundancies, going down to about 30 staff. Williams said the warning signs about the firm's future came quickly. 'Our staff are really committed and work very hard, but they have bills to pay. When expenditure continues to increase, yet fee income continues to go down, that's not really going to end well.'

The firm had a Civil Legal Advice contract for housing and debt. Initially work was paid on an hourly rate, which then changed to a maximum case cost fee, followed by the recent introduction of an upper and lower fixed-fee system, which has had a negative impact, Williams said.

Those providing face-to-face housing and debt work can claim an 'escape' fee. However, Williams said the agency refuses to introduce an escape fee for welfare benefits cases. 'You might do £3,000 worth of work but can only claim £208,' she said.

TA Law lost three members of its litigation team in close succession - one before Christmas and two in February. The firm tried to replace two 'but we cannot compete with the salaries of big corporate firms', Williams said. The firm has given notice to the Legal Aid Agency. It currently has 800 live cases and has asked to stop taking new clients in May.

As far as Williams understands, in relation to welfare benefits, TA Law is one of two firms covering Wales and the south west. She said she despaired at the loss of yet another social welfare law service to the wider community 'which I fear will cause far larger numbers of defenceless victims. I suspect though, as usual, no one is listening or cares'.

In February the Ministry of Justice published its review of LASPO's impact, and an action plan focused on trying to resolve legal problems earlier.

Williams said: 'We have always been a big supporter of preventative advice. You can save someone's home for £120, which is better than a costly court case which can run into the thousands. The government realises now, years down the line, perhaps we should have some preventative advice - it's so frustrating as we've been saying that since 2011.

'It's not just about the financial cost savings. As social welfare lawyers we have seen the human cost. Families in crisis, about to be made homeless - nine times out of 10 they have got other debts they're trying to manage. If you're able to go in early and avoid possession proceedings, and try to manage their debt, get some disability benefit paid (quite often, for instance, they go back to work), it avoids a downward spiral.'

Legal aid for welfare benefits has plummeted over a decade. There were 135,751 legal help matter starts and 51 civil representation granted certificates in 2008-09. These figures fell to 443 legal help matter starts and nine civil representation granted certificates in 2017-18.

Students are helping to fill the gap, just as they have over possible miscarriages of justice and cold cases. But how many people can access the University of South Wales service, which in any case has a six-month waiting list?

Now Private Eye magazine reveals the appalling anomaly that a PR firm received a fifth of a million quid for media-related work in respect of the Birmingham pub bombings inquest, "substantially more than  the combined costs of the two main legal teams representing the families of the 21 victims". The government needs to get its priorities right.

* One can imagine at least the leading contender dismissing reports of victims of the WCA dying for lack of legal support as "fake news" and living complainants as "wallowing in their victim status".

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Trains: Japan and nostalgia

Why is it that depictions of train journeys in Japan move me so much? I first felt the pang in Spirited Away, the award-winning Studio Ghibli feature, towards the end where the young heroine shares an otherwise empty train with a sad monster on a journey across a desolate landscape. It was not just the memory of similar lonely journeys returning late at night, which would have been nostalgic enough. I think it is more the sudden recognition of a common bond with an otherwise alien culture. 

I felt it again when I caught up with al-Jazeera's documentary, Off the Rails: a Journey Through Japan. This was a nostalgic return by a former teacher of English to Japanese students who had originally been attracted to the country by the publicity surrounding the first Shinkansen, but who came to love the many local train lines as well. Disastrous earth-movements apart, the threats to branch lines are familiar to British rail-lovers, as well as the affection which moves Japanese to preserve their rail heritage. But even in Britain, there is not a rail-line which has been saved by a station-master cat.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Liberals and Democrats in Europe need a receptionist

Image may contain: textOne of the outcomes of the surge in support for Liberal parties in the recent European Parliament elections is clearly the need for more support staff. Whether or not the UK contingent survives beyond 31st October, this receptionist post looks like an enjoyable billet for the next five years for the right person. 


However fantastic Franco Zeffirelli's productions may have been, he should also be remembered for shortening the life of Samuel Barber after his treatment of "Antony and Cleopatra".

From the New York Times description of the première:

"Barber never quite got over it, and for the rest of his life he virtually lost his will to compose.

"The major villain of the piece has always been Franco Zeffirelli, who not only designed and directed the production but also prepared the libretto, adapting it from Shakespeare’s play. Barber may not have written a perfect opera, but there did at times seem to be another opera hidden beneath all the blinding glitter of a heaving extravaganza obviously meant to be the last word in operatic spectacle."

Friday, 14 June 2019

Lib Dems in parliament become more diverse

The Streatham MP Chuka Umunna, who only four years ago was considering contesting the Labour party leadership, has applied for Liberal Democrat membership and been accepted. Apart from his personal talents, his appearance on the Lib Dem benches is welcome because it will show that the party is genuinely inclusive. There are many people of Afro-Caribbean origin working for the party and in elected positions in local government, but none has so far made the breakthrough at parliamentary level. For too long only the Irish unionist and the Nationalists have looked less diverse than the Lib Dems. Considering that one of its antecedents, the Liberal party, introduced the first MP of undisputed Indian origin, this is an unfortunate record. It should be noted, however, that the party leadership when it had the opportunity to nominate peers, made sure that Lib Dem barons and baronesses came from a wide ethnic and cultural background.

I was glad to see from the FT article that Mr Umunna has been critical of City practices, which is all to the good for the parliamentary party. The FT writers believe that his previous attack on the Lib Dems for participating in the Conservative-led austerity programme will be embarrassing for his new party, but he will find that there are many ordinary Liberal Democrat members and supporters who sympathise with him over that.

BBC archive goes to Aberystwyth

After a period of doubt, it has been agreed that Aberystwyth university will house the archive of BBC in Wales. A grant of £4.7m from the National Lottery has helped considerably. Six years ago,  Aberystwyth took charge of the film and video archive dating from 1958 of ITV in Wales. The virtual completion of a historical record of Welsh media coverage is great news. Newspapers of course were an early acquisition, now partly searchable on-line. And yes, blogs such as this have also been harvested by the university.

Now we need to be sure that it will all be looked after.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

EU Regional Support

The EP Research Service has issued another of its helpful explanations about EU facilities, this time about regional support.

The principal aim of the EU’s regional policy, also known as cohesion policy, is to address the territorial, social and economic imbalances that exist between the different regions of the EU. Regional policy covers all regions and cities of the European Union, helping to support job creation, business competitiveness, economic growth, sustainable development, and to improve citizens’ quality of life. To achieve these goals and address the diverse development needs in all EU regions, €351.8 billion – almost one third of the total EU budget – has been set aside for cohesion policy for the 2014-2020 period. This financial support is distributed through two main funds: the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Cohesion Fund (CF). Together with the European Social Fund (ESF), the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF), they make up the European structural and investment (ESI) funds, which provide support that can make a real difference to the lives of people in the EU’s regions.

With the current programming period (2014-2020) drawing to a close, work is now under way on planning the cohesion policy priorities for the next programming period (2021-2027). During its 2014-2019 term the European Parliament has been called upon numerous times to adopt new legislative acts, amend older rules and to provide opinions on many topics relating to the EU’s regional policy. Within the European Parliament, the Committee on Regional Policy is responsible for the Union’s regional development and cohesion policy, as set out in the Treaties.

In anticipation of its expected withdrawal from the EU, the UK, until now a net contributor to the EU budget, will no longer contribute to the post-2020 EU budget, which means that the EU will have fewer resources to allocate to its policies in the future, including cohesion policy. The European Parliament has, however, strongly advocated maintaining the level of funding for cohesion policy at its current level or even increasing it.

Wales is one of those regions which will miss out, being up until now a net recipient of EU funds. Do you believe Tory promises to make up the difference if Brexit goes ahead?