What goes around comes around: MPs and the legal aid cuts
It is a paradox that the rule stating people often rate their personal experience of something much more highly than the something as a whole does not seem to apply to politicians. Thus surveys can show disaffection with the NHS but great relationships with local GPs, or dislike of the legal profession but, amazingly, really good connections with individual lawyers.
But how many times have you come across someone saying they love their MP (it goes without saying no-one loves politicians in general)? Even when a local politician is popular, it doesn’t stop people voting in line with their feelings about the parties nationally (local elections are typically 85 per cent dependent on national issues). Or not at all, as happened in this week’s local elections .
The turnout, at about 30 per cent, was the lowest in twelve years. This represents a real crisis in democracy and while we can easily hazard a few guesses as to why this is happening, finding solutions won’t be as straightforward. Polly Toynbee suggested part of the reason we hold MPs in such disdain is because they are in our faces all the time, unlike fat cat lawyers or shadowy company directors.
So perhaps it’s not surprising, even less so after the expenses scandal, that many of us think MPs are motivated by their own personal gain rather than the desire to help their local area. This is emphasised by a media often more inclined to undermine and pillory our elected representatives than it is to highlight the challenging nature of their jobs, whether at a local or national level. Which is fair enough when they so often screw it up spectacularly at the national level.
It neglects, however, the very valuable job MPs do at a local level, whatever their political persuasion. The Hansard Society suggests MPs work on average 69 hours a week, without travel, and that even though they spend 63 per cent of their working time in Westminster, constituency casework takes up the largest share of their time.
So I find myself wondering how many of the MPs who helped to ensure the legal aid bill (Laspo) become law made the connection between the welfare advice they were getting rid of and the advice surgeries they hold? Maybe they did, or maybe they figured other organisations would step into the breach? They might have a shock. As Julie Bishop of the Law Centres Federation writes ‘Laspo becoming law is not just a cut, that would be manageable. It is the removal of free advice across the spectrum of poverty law’.
Those same MPs allowed the coalition government to cut their own number by 50, meaning bigger constituencies and so bigger caseloads. How will they manage? As the debates around Laspo demonstrated, it is peers who have the time, dedication and independence seriously to scrutinise legislation, but it is the MPs who have the power, relatively speaking, to enact laws.
Something will have to give, either their ability to hold the executive to account or their constituents. That’s without taking into account that there will be fewer MPs without a ministerial portfolio, meaning even less capacity for in-depth analysis of government proposals. And isn’t this what our MPs should be doing, not acting as caseworkers for those struggling with debt or discrimination?
Regardless of what the red tops would have you believe, being an MP is not an easy job. True, many of them have egos the size of their large houses and not all have the humility they should have on being elected to serve. But it must be challenging having to be a caseworker, local cheerleader, legislator and possibly policy maker all at once, particularly if those roles are in conflict: vote against the party and you’ll never get promoted; vote against your constituency’s interests and you lose your job.
There were precious few MPs speaking out against Laspo from the government benches when it was debated in the House of Commons. A cynic might suggest this was because those on the government side of the house, both Tory and Liberal Democrat, have less welfare casework than their Labour counterparts, so had little interest in deviating from the party line.
Nonetheless, some MPs are doubtless very good at casework and all of them take it seriously, but they aren’t experts and most of them probably start their parliamentary career not having much of a clue what they can and should do. That’s not their fault, as far as I know, having experience of welfare law is not one of the essential person criteria for getting elected.
I imagine, therefore, MPs rely on legal advice centres nearly as much as some of their constituents. Research by Young Legal Aid Lawyers found that over 71 per cent of MPs had to refer constituents to a legal adviser. With funding being cut from all sides, it may well be that MPs will soon find out it is indeed true that you reap what you sow; but it will be their constituents who suffer.