Chris Grayling is Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice, and MP for Epsom and Ewell.
We always knew that in office, facing probably the biggest financial challenge that any Government has faced in peacetime, that we would have to take unpopular decisions. Tough decisions on public sector pensions, on police budgets, on defence spending, and on legal aid.
There was never any prospect of us being able to reduce the Ministry of Justice budget by around a third without tough decisions on legal aid, which amounts to about a quarter of the Department’s budget.
Ken Clarke made the biggest cuts, taking more than £300m from the legal aid budget through the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Last week the Public Accounts Committee accepted that his cuts had met their financial objectives – though they would have preferred them to be done in a more spread out way. When you face tough budget cuts, though, that is not usually an option.
I have had to take similar tough decisions – taking another £200m from the legal aid budget. Not surprisingly, it’s made me unpopular with the legal profession. But as Conservatives know, you can’t reduce budgets without cutting costs – something we are doing across the whole Ministry.
But yesterday’s article by Simon Richards on this site contained some obvious misunderstandings. Our reforms have been subject to extensive public consultation and detailed discussions with representative bodies, including meetings I have personally held with dozens of lawyers up and down the country. They have been modified on several occasions to meet concerns from within the legal world.
They do not restrict the number of firms who can do own client work representing legal aid clients who still get public funding for that work. Own client work is not the same as private client work which is paid for by the individual. But our reforms, which are still subject to challenge in the courts, would establish a new structure for legal shift work in police stations, so that we know that there are enough firms that are strong enough to do that work at lower rates, to ensure that everyone who needs access to a publicly funded lawyer will get one. No currently qualifying firm is automatically excluded from this process, though we expect smaller firms to bid in a consortium or to decide to merge to achieve economies of scale.
Not surprisingly the Labour Party has leapt on a bandwagon, saying that it won’t push through difficult change. But that’s the difference between us. Opposition is easy. You can just oppose everything. But trying to get into Government is very different. You have to have a plan for the future. And Labour does not. Not for the economy. And not for legal aid.
So we have a choice. Either we accept tough decisions that step by step are turning our economy round – even if they affect friends, family and supporters. Or we go back to the Labour way, of false promises and economic chaos. I know which I prefer.