Today I heard some sad news. From April 2013 my local Citizens Advice Bureau will be without its caseworkers. The sole reason: Legal Aid funding will not be renewed. And why not? Because the Coalition cut the part of the Legal Aid scheme that funded social welfare law.
The caseworkers at my local CAB specialise in debt, housing and benefit issues and are vital to both the service and to the local community. They work hard to prevent bailiffs from forcing themselves into peoples properties, they work hard to get peoples benefits reinstated and fight hard to ensure that people keep a roof over their head. At a time where the welfare system is going through the biggest reforms known, the caseworkers have seen their caseloads increase and have been worked harder than ever before to protect the most vulnerable in society.
The fact that this free advice and representation looks to no longer be available to my local community actually scares me. At the beginning of 2012 Lord Newton cautioned that: “This process of change in legal aid is not taking place in a vacuum. It’s during turbulence in the benefit system.” And call me cynical but I very much doubt that this was a coincidence.
The reform to the welfare system, based on “getting people back to work”, is not only removing benefits from people but is successfully removing their right to appeal the decision. Okay people may still technically have the right to appeal a decision, but the average person may not possess all the skills and expertise necessary to fill in forms correctly, to write a submission and to represent themselves at a tribunal, and possibly even court. These are just the basic steps involved in appealing a decision made by the DWP and the whole process takes at least 8 months and anything up to 12. That is a long process to go through when you have the support of a free, highly trained service, nevermind when you have to do it alone. Figures show that appeals where the CAB are involved are more successful. 70% of decisions (regarding fit for work assessments) where the CAB are involved are overturned compared to just 8% where they are not, a stark difference. Benefit claimants tend to be the most vulnerable in society, from deprived areas and low skilled and rely on the safety net offered by charities such as the CAB to survive their everyday lives and without such crucial services justice is simply off limits.
What will people do without the free advice and representation offered by services and charities such as the CAB? Are they going to have to sit back and have their lives devastated by these reforms and just accept the outcome? Are they no longer going to be able to fight for their rights?
It seems the Coalition is succeeding in reforming the welfare system by removing the vital safety net so many rely upon. They are doing this whilst at the same time silencing those that are falling victim to harsh reforms and leaving them with less of a voice than they had before.
This is just another area where the poor and vulnerable are becoming excluded from society and transformed further into passive citizens.