Hastings councillors unite to blast legal aid cuts

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COUNCILLORS have united against the proposed cuts to legal aid, slamming Government plans as ‘catastrophic’ for Hastings.

In a rare show of solidarity, a motion to write to the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke opposing his reforms was passed unanimously at a meeting of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) on July 27.

The controversial Justice Bill aims to cut free legal aid to residents pursuing civil cases.

Advice on employment, debt and education will also be hit, as Government-funded agencies including the Hastings Advice and Representation Centre (HARC) and the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) stand to have their budgets slashed in half.

In the town hall Councillor Jay Kramer, deputy leader of Labour-led HBC, proposed the motion for the council to fight the bill.

She said: “This is a massive issue for Hastings.

“Legal advice is vital here. We suffer from high levels of legal aid claims, and this support will have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in our town.

“Our voice will make a difference. We can have an effect.”

Conservative members on the other side of the floor also rejected their party line as the motion was approved, with Cllr Andrew Gurney condemning the plans as ‘ill-conceived and financially illiterate’.

Cllr Matthew Lock, leader of the Hastings Tories, said: “This is an occasion where we put our political differences to one side for the people of this town.”

Tory MP Amber Rudd’s opposition to her Government’s plans was noted, as was her controversial choice to abstain from a vote on the second reading of the bill last month.

Speaking after the meeting, she said: “I oppose the Government’s proposals and will continue to fight to make sure we get sufficient funds.”

On her decision not to rebel in the vote, reported earlier this month by the Observer, Ms Rudd said: “On a three-line whip, abstaining is not an insignificant message to send. I spoke to the whips and abstained this time.

“I stand by the decisions I have made and I think they were the right ones for Hastings.”

She also praised Ken Clarke’s decision, announced last month, to put aside a £20million pot for advice agencies, but vowed to fight for more cash.

The bill will now be scrutinised by the House of Lords.