CUTS to legal aid which could decimate the free advice services on offer to the town’s most vulnerable people have been agreed in Parliament.
The Government’s controversial Justice Bill hit the headlines over plans to halve sentences for some serious crimes such as rape if the offenders pleaded guilty. Those plans were scrapped in the face of a public backlash but the bill will also slash the funding available for agencies like The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), The Hastings Advice and Representation Centre (HARC) and the Brighton Housing Trust.
Amber Rudd MP has been an outspoken critic of the Government plans and outlined her concerns in the House of Commons debate on Wednesday (June 29).
She praised the parts of the ‘tough but fair’ bill covering the rehabilitation of prisoners but rounded on the cuts to the ‘essential service of legal aid for the most vulnerable’.
“I wonder whether the cuts as currently set out fall too harshly in an area that has as its sole objective the support for people who are least able to speak up for themselves,” she said. “That area is not replete with fat cat lawyers; it is mostly populated by men and women who are committed to helping the most needy in their communities.
“This is about critical sums of money for families who need every penny,” she added. “Make no mistake: we need those services.”
She suggested that legal aid savings could be made from funding what she called ‘trivial human rights cases’.
“Can we have less legal aid for prisoners and more for the most vulnerable in our society?” she said.
But when it came to the vote, Ms Rudd abstained rather than voting against her own Government, and Julie Eason, manager of East Sussex Advice Plus which oversees advice in Hastings and St Leonards, said: “While we appreciated the excellent contribution made to the debate we were expecting her to vote against the bill and we were disappointed not to have seen that.”
And she vowed to carry on fighting the bill which will now be scrutinised by a committee of MPs and the House of Lords. “This is absolutely not the end,” she said. “We always thought we had a better chance in the Lords and attention nationally and locally will now go to influencing people on the bill committee and winning amendments in the Lords.”
Ms Rudd meanwhile defended her decision not to rebel, and said: “It is still a big deal not to vote with the Government and there was a lot of pressure. I agree with 80 per cent of it and the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke did say there will be money set aside for advice agencies. If that is the case I would support the bill.”