After the last disastrous 5 years of the Coalition Government which has seen vast areas of law taken out of scope for Legal Aid, restrictions on the ability of Legal Aid firms to take judicial review actions and a 10% across the board cut in Civil Legal Aid fees, it is vital that supporters of Legal Aid and Access to Justice use their vote in the upcoming General Election.
We have been through the manifestos of the 6 main political parties in England and Wales and have focused on what they say about the main areas that concern us namely: Housing Law; the law relating to Gypsies and Travellers; Legal Aid. Since it is possible that the Scottish National Party may enter into an ‘agreement’ with Labour if there is a hung parliament, we have also had a look at their manifesto. We make some comments ourselves on what is stated in the manifestos and those comments are in bold. Here is what the manifestos say (direct quotes in italics):-
The Labour Party
The Bedroom Tax is cruel and we will abolish it.
For the 11 million people who rent privately, we will legislate to make 3-year tenancies the norm, with a ceiling on excessive rent rises. A ban on unfair letting agent fees will save renters over £600. We will drive standards up by creating a national register of private landlords.
Homelessness is the ultimate symbol of the housing crisis. Labour reduced homelessness by 70% when we were last in office, but all forms of homelessness are back on the rise, with rough sleeping having increased by 55%. We are committed to reversing this trend by tackling the causes of homelessness and rough sleeping.
They don’t actually say how they will reverse this trend.
Thanks to the Human Rights Act, some of our most vulnerable citizens, including disabled people and victims of crime, have been given a powerful means of redress. The Conservatives want to leave the European Convention of Human Rights, and abolish the Human Rights Act. A Labour Government will stand up for citizens’ individual rights, protecting the Human Rights Act and reforming, rather than walking away from, the European Court of Human Rights. And we will make sure that access to legal representation, a cornerstone of our democracy, is not determined by personal wealth, but remains available to those that need it.
It is not clear what reforming the European Court of Human Rights means. Most unfortunately, apart from a passing reference in the Equalities section ( legal aid should remain “available to those who need it” – presumably just referring to equalities issues) there is no other reference to Legal Aid in the manifesto though there is a kind of oblique reference (see above). There is no mention at all of Gypsies and Travellers.
The Conservative Party
It is also not fair that taxpayers should have to pay for 18-21 year olds on Jobseeker’s Allowance to claim Housing Benefit in order to leave home. So we will ensure that they no longer have an automatic entitlement to housing benefit.
This policy may add to street homelessness as the reason why young people leave home is not always a lifestyle choice as this policy implies. Some young people leave home to escape abusive situations. They will leave anyway and end up street homeless.
We will extend the right to buy to tenants in Housing Associations to enable more people to buy a home of their own. It is unfair that they should miss out on a right enjoyed by tenants in local authority homes. We will fund the replacement of properties sold under the extended Right To Buy by requiring local authorities to manage their housing assets more efficiently, with the most expensive properties sold off and replaced as they fall vacant. We will also create a Brownfield Fund to unlock homes on brownfield land for additional housing.
We would say that it is madness, at the time of a shortage of social housing, to sell off social housing. Additionally we note that, when the Coalition Government loosened the right to buy for council housing in 2012, there was also a pledge about replacement social housing being provided but that pledge has not been fulfilled.
We have safeguarded national Green Belt and increase protection of important green spaces. We have abolished the Labour Government’s top-down Regional Strategies which sought to delete the Green Belt in and around 30 towns and cities and introduced a new local Green Space planning designation which allows councils and neighbourhood plans to give added protection to valuable local green spaces.
It is simply untrue to say that Regional Strategies were seeking to delete the Green Belt. Obviously there is no mention of the fact that Mr Pickles’ policy of recovering all Green Belt Gypsy and Traveller appeals was found to be unlawful by the High Court. There is also no mention of the fact that it appears that the Conservative Party intend to build a lot ofthe new housing that is required in the Green Belt.
We have stopped prisoners from having the vote, and have deported suspected terrorists such as Abu Qatada, despite all the problems created by Labour’s human rights laws. The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK. We will continue the 375 million pound modernisation of our courts system, reducing delay and frustration for the public. And we will continue to review our legal aid systems, so they can continue to provide access to justice in an efficient way.
Our experience of the Court system over the last 5 years has been that things have greatly deteriorated. Their promise to continue to review the Legal Aid system can only sound ominous given what they have done to the Legal Aid system over the last 5 years.
There is no mention of Gypsies and Travellers in this manifesto. However, given the approach of the Conservative Party to Gypsy and Traveller issues, this is probably a good thing.
The Liberal Democrats
• Improve protections against rogue landlords and encourage a new multi-year tenancy with an agreed inflation-linked annual rent increase built in
• Enable Local Authorities to operate licensing schemes for rental properties in areas where they believe it is needed
• Establish a voluntary register of rented property where either the landlord or the tenant can register the property, to improve enforcement and tax transparency
• Ban letting agent fees to tenants if the transparency requirements we introduced are not successful at bringing fees down to an affordable level by the end of 2016
• Extend the use of Rent Repayment Orders to allow tenants to have their rent refunded when a property is found to contain serious risks to health, and withhold rent from landlords who have not carried out court-ordered improvements within a reasonable period of time
• Introduce a new Help to Rent Scheme to provide government-backed tenancy deposit loans for all first-time renters under 30
• Conduct a full review of the help single people get under homelessness legislation.
It has to be pointed out that the Liberal Democrats have, of course, been part of the Coalition Government over the last 5 years and have not advanced any of these matters during that period of time.
• Protect the Human Rights Act and enshrine the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in UK law. We will take appropriate action to comply with decisions of UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights
• Block any further attempt to limit the right to trial by jury
• Pass a new Freedoms Act, to protect citizens from excessive state powers
Access to justice is an essential part of a free society and a functioning legal system. In this Parliament we have had to make significant savings from the Legal Aid budget, but in the next Parliament our priority for delivering efficiency in the Ministry of Justice should be prison and court reform, using technology and innovation to reduce costs.
• Carry out an immediate review of civil Legal Aid, judicial review and court fees, in consultation with the judiciary, to ensure Legal Aid is available to all those that need it, that those of modest means can bring applications for judicial review of allegedly unlawful government action and that court and tribunal fees will not put justice beyond the reach of those who seek it. This will mean reversing any recent rises in up-front court fees that make justice unaffordable for many, and instead spreading the fee burden more fairly.
This is all very well but the Liberal Democrats, as part of the Coalition Government, have overseen some of the most devastating cuts and reforms to Legal Aid since the introduction of Legal Aid in 1948. It may be thought that it is a bit late now to (apparently) suggest that they might have a re-think about some of this.
The Conservative threat to withdraw Housing Benefit from the under-25s may cause even more suffering. UKIP will:
• Scrap the ‘bedroom tax’
• Continue to pay Housing Benefit to young people under the age of 25
• Give tenants the right to request Housing Benefit is paid direct to their landlords, whatever benefit scheme they are on
Tackling homelessness starts with knowing who and where homeless people are, so they can be offered housing and other life opportunities. We will establish a National Homeless register to make it easier for those of no fixed abode to claim welfare entitlements; get access to medical and dental services; and enable support services to identify those at risk of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
UKIP will encourage moves by local authorities to prioritise people with strong local connections when making housing allocations.
We will relieve pressure on social housing waiting lists by preventing foreign nationals from obtaining access to social housing until they have lived here and paid UK Tax and National Insurance for a minimum of 5 years. This restriction will not apply to foreign nationals with current social housing tenancies.
These proposals are likely to fall foul of current anti-discrimination legislation, the rights of those granted status to remain in the UK, and EU law upon the free movement of people and rights of establishment in member states.
We remove ourselves from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights: the Strasbourg Court using interpretation of the European Convention of Human Rights has been known to put the rights of criminals above those of victims. Our own Supreme Court will act as the final authority on matters of Human Rights.
We will also repeal Labour’s Human Rights legislation. It has given European judge’s far too much power over British law making and law enforcement and prevented us deporting terrorists and career criminals and from implementing whole-life sentences.
Our human rights will be enshrined in law via the introduction of a new, consolidated UK Bill of Rights.
The Human Rights Act has proved essential in assisting homeless people, insecure tenants and Gypsies and Travellers. The removal of the Human Rights Act would be a disaster for these groups. Additionally UKIP are basing their assumptions on a misinterpretation of a minority of cases. See also: http://rightsinfo.org/infographics/the-14-worst-human-rights-myths/
There is no mention of Legal Aid.
There is no mention of Gypsies and Travellers.
We will strengthen tenants’ rights by ensuring that the Housing Act provisions reform tenancies and we will ensure landlord regulationS provide a fair service to tenants and landlords. We will establish a reasonable minimum tenancy length. This will be 12 months for those housed into the Private Rented Sector following homelessness.
Plaid Cymru will adopt a preventative approach to tackling homelessness, prioritising early intervention. This will enable us to phase out priority need and intentionality within the support system so that all people can be helped.
Obviously this is a radical proposal with regard to priority need and intentionality.
We support the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, and will oppose any moves by a UK Government to withdraw from those.
We will reverse Legal Aid reforms to allow fair access to justice and will monitor its implementation.
There is no mention of Gypsies and Travellers.
The Green Party
• Provide 500,000 social rented homes to high sustainability standards by increasing the social housing budget from 1.5 billion pounds a year to 6 billion pound a year in the lifetime of the Parliament, removing borrowing caps from local councils, and creating 35,000 jobs.
• Devolve Housing Benefit budgets to councils, so they can design packages that improve access to housing in their local market and enable them to provide more council housing
• End mass council house sales and the Right To Buy at a discounted price
• Provide more rights for homeless people, giving local authorities the same duties with regard to single people and childless couples as to families, and ending the practice of declaring people ‘intentionally homeless’. Aim to end rough sleeping completely, and give public authorities a duty to prevent it
• Oppose new arm’s length management organisations and ensure genuine tenant participation in existing ones
Obviously some very bold propositions here.
There is a place for a private rented sector. But experience shows that it needs to be well regulated and the difference in power between landlord and tenant corrected. We would:
• Reform the private rented sector by introducing a ‘live in rent’ tenancy (including 5-year fixed tenancy agreements), smart rent control that caps annual rent increases linked to the Consumer Price Index, security of tenancy and local not-for-profit letting agencies, and abolishing letting agents’ fees and insurance- based deposit schemes
• Set up a Living Rent Commission to explore whether controls could bring rents more in line with local average incomes
• Introduce a mandatory licensing scheme for landlords
• Abolish landlord perks, such as tax deductions against a variety of expenditures, including mortgage interest relief. Ending mortgage interest tax relief alone will raise 5.8 billion pound a year
• Increase the supply of small lets by raising the tax-free amount under the Rent a Room Scheme to £7,250 a year
• Abolish the ‘bedroom tax’, which will save less than 400 million pound a year. A Department for Work and Pensions report found that more than half of affected tenants have cut back on essentials, and only 1 in 20 has downsized
• Bring Housing Benefit for all age groups back in line with average market rents, so that it provides all citizens with the means to meet the housing costs, costing 2.3 billion pound a year
• Subject the Shared Accommodation Rate to a comprehensive review to ensure it reflects the real cost of renting shared properties
• Change the definition of affordable rented housing to depend on local median incomes and not on local market rent
As with Plaid Cymru, some would ask how these policies would be financed.
Put planning back in the hands of local government by:
– restricting the right of applicants to appeal only where there has been an error in the planning process….
This is a very disappointing regressive proposal amidst the Green Party’s otherwise very positive proposals.
We will…..Strengthen Travellers’ rights to sites and guarantee proper protection of the nomadic lifestyle of Travellers while ensuring that the lifestyle of the settled population is also protected.
This all sounds very well but is extremely vague and we note that it is qualified. However at least they mention Travellers!
The Green Party, amongst other things, states that they will:
Make equality before the law of fundamental constitutional right. But this is only a reality if all can afford to use the law. We would restore the cuts to Legal Aid, costing about 700 million pound a year.
This is the most dramatic commitment on Legal Aid in any of the 7 manifestos we have studied.
The Scottish National Party
We will vote for the immediate abolition of the unfair Bedroom Tax.
We will not support attempts to restrict housing benefit for 18 to 21 year olds and believe exemptions to the Shared Accommodation Rate should be extended, for example, to cover all ages.
Given the central place of human rights in Scotland’s constitutional settlement, and their importance at the heart of our politics, we will oppose scrapping the Human Rights Act or withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.
There is no mention of legal aid.
There is no mention of Gypsies and Travellers.
Community Law Partnership April 2015
See also the article on some of the manifestos by Steve Hynes, the Director of the Legal Action Group, in the New Law Journal: http://www.newlawjournal.co.uk/nlj/content/choice-yours