Why is International Aid the “punching bag” of Austerity Britain?

As the debate on International Aid trundles on, and reports of its inefficiency fuel the fire, George Hopkin explains why foreign aid is a budget we cannot afford to cut.

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In Britain, international outlooks are not very popular. The common theme seems to be that we British should fight for our independence from the EU, battle against the stifling lawyers at the European Court of Human Rights, and make sure our borders – and trading regulations – are working harder for hardworking British people. With this kind of attitude, it is only natural that international aid is going to take a punch or two.

So, there it is. International Aid acts as the punching bag of Austerity Britain. But, as the sceptics try to pull the drawbridge up between the UK and the rest of the world, I wonder if they really know what aid is or why our government gives it.

Let’s investigate. 0.7% of the UK’s national income goes towards aid. £12 billion is a huge amount of money but, in current government spending terms, an amount that is fractional. This money goes to charitable organisations such as UNICEF, and the governments of countries that suffer from deep poverty—having many who struggle as part of what most people will only ever see as a statistic: the 1.4 billion impoverished worldwide.

Our government works hard to make sure that each and every pound we give is sent to the right organisations, with 4 out of 43 groups cut due to ill-performance. Nations that no longer need aid do not receive it—the Russias, Chinas, and South Africas of this planet with developed national governments and rising economies. Efficiency is at the heart of this process.

Looking at root causes of poverty, the aid does not just provide a temporary relief. International funding helps with infrastructure; it teaches better farming techniques; it makes sure that clean water is more of a constant, and not just a luxury.

And this is not just an issue of compassion. This is about humane, economic support of the kind that we should be expected to give in an increasingly globalised world. It is about advanced nations holding out a hand to bring others up with them—modern Britain with the old colonies is a good example of a duty-bound leader supporting those with fairly young systems.

We are lucky, in Britain, to have had two consecutive prime ministers who understand this, sometimes, difficult reality. First, Gordon Brown wisely ring-fenced our international aid budget, then David Cameron delivered upon that same promise by leaving it unharmed.

Cameron earlier this year stated his government’s position, declaring: “To those who are sceptical, I would say it is not only a moral obligation that the better-off countries have to tackle poverty in our world when we still have over a billion people living on less than a dollar a day, but it’s also in our interests that we build a more prosperous world.

“If we don’t, the problems of conflict, the problems of mass migration, the problems of uncontrollable climate change are problems that will come and visit us at home.”

In these words, there is caution enough for those whose minds are drawn to inward problems and who forget that there are people elsewhere that are struggling harder than us, with our way out one of the only ways available.

If we do not give what little we can, then the consequences of our actions will come back to haunt us in politics, economics, and social justice. We need to move away from the view that charity starts at home and realise that the ladder of prosperity must not be pulled up behind us.

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The death of “fair trials”: What is the true cost of cuts to legal aid?

The British government wants to cut legal aid by over a third, but Maya Esslemont asks: “can we afford to?”

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It is argued that the Conservatives won over the public with its case for cuts. It’s clear in every Yougov poll that, even now, the public stands behind a perceived need to lower funding in certain areas.
Yet, in 2011, the government proposed a type of cut which shocked members of the public and professionals alike. They began the process of cutting legal aid by nearly £350 million.

This was shocking for a lot of reasons.
For a start, the legal aid system had already been brought to its knees by a funding crisis.  Professionals in Not For Profit organisations, advice bureaus, and law centres have already been getting by on what little funding they receive, with a startling amount struggling to do more than break even in the past ten years. Coupled with the expected increase in convicted persons during the recession, these organisations which exist to fulfil a basic civil liberty would struggle on their existing budget alone.

It’s shocking, secondly, because of the ramifications this has on values we take for granted.
If I were to be arrested tomorrow, an unlikely but plausible scenario, I would feel safe in the hands of the legal system, knowing that I can apply for legal aid and be represented in some form.
If I were to be arrested after these cuts, it is much more likely that I would be either representing myself or represented by a lawyer juggling more cases than they have the time to deal with.
Jeanette Miller, head of J S Miller Solicitors, told the Guardian: “[Currently] Lawyers will not prepare a legal aid case in the same way as if you were funded privately.” Even in murder defences, she says, “it will be a case of the bare minimum being done”.

These cuts threaten to add yet another burden to the shoulders of already strained professionals and turn Britain’s wrongly or rightly accused into two-bit Erin Brockoviches, desperately trying to seek legal advice from other sources without the help of the system, potentially with catastrophic effects. As it is, poorer boroughs are notorious for their lack of available small-court support, with family lawyer Andrew Newsbury  calling it “virtually impossible” to find a family lawyer in Manchester who can provide legal aid.

Those who argue for cuts to legal aid say we spend much more on legal aid than other countries in Europe. And they aren’t wrong; the Telegraph recently reported that we spend five times more than the average EU country.
However, this argument fails to take into account how  much higher Britain’s rate of arrest is compared to other nations. We have the second highest rate of crime in the world, it becomes clear that necessity is the driving factor behind our current legal aid commitments, not governmental generosity.

Without a supported legal aid system, the chances of a fair trial are based on a lottery. “Benefits”, with all their contentious scope for individual spending, are picked over by various newspapers and members of the public to within an inch of their lives. And so they should be, many benefits are debatable. But legal aid? By Britain’s own self-proclaimed standing as a bastion for Western Liberalism, the right to fair trial is not debatable.
It is for these reasons Legal professionals have come out in droves to prevent the further erosion of legal aid, including one of the party’s own MPs, ex-lawyer Helen Grant.

Cuts will always be subject to political prioritisation; however, legal aid is not a service which hangs on either side of the political spectrum. It is apolitical, judicially necessary, and a mandatory component for the kind of basic morality we have subscribed to, without issue, since 1949.

Legal aid acts as protection for every civilian, ensuring that nobody is above or beneath the law. When it comes to cuts, the government can argue many things. They can try to argue that we need to decrease funding for certain schools, shut down hospital wards, and withdraw help for the elderly.  But, there is no economic argument powerful enough to justify the erosion of a civil liberty as basic as a fair trial.