The Government has announced proposals to dramatically increase the deduction from benefits to meet fine payments for those convicted of criminal offences. At the moment the maximum deduction is £5 per week. The new proposal is to increase this to an eye watering £25.00.
Justifying the policy, the Prime Minister David Cameron said: ‘I do not want to be in the business of leaving people without any money to support themselves but, equally, individuals must know that they cannot commit crime that impacts on the livelihoods and the communities of hard-working people without consequences.’ You can read more here.
So if we have someone under-25 years old on jobseekers allowance their benefit would go from £53.45 to £28.48 a week. That’s a reduction of over 50%. For the over 25’s the reduction is about 37%. What is alarming is that the starting figures are supposed to represent the minimum required to live on. Equally those on disability benefits stand to lose a significant reduction in what is provided to mitigate the impact of their disability.
Now it is certainly arguable that this can constitute a double penalty. An offender is properly sentenced for the offence and addition has income reduced to well below subsistence levels.
But it is also potentially unlawful. The Human Rights Act 1998 says that it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right. So if the government enacts legislation or introduces sentencing guidelines which breach such rights they are open to attack. Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits ‘inhuman or degrading treatment punishment’.
If the state, on the one hand, says that a certain minimum weekly income is required for basic subsistence then to reduce that figure by over 50% it is not only disproportionate but also, in my view, inhuman or degrading. It might of course be argued that if the claimants got a job that they would be no worse off. But in the current economic climate that is unrealistic, especially for young people. The argument is stronger again for those on disability benefits who are unable to work.
The right wing press would respond that this is why they want to get rid of the Human Rights Act. But we are told that a replacement would be a British Bill of Rights. So is the plan to introduce a Bill of rights that would abolish our right not to be subjected to subject to inhuman or degrading punishment? Part of me dismisses that as unthinkable but who knows?
It would be interested to see how the courts would respond to this – provided anyone can get legal aid to access the courts following the government’s new legal aid Bill.
Steve Cornforth is senior partner of EAD Solicitors in Liverpool and Huddersfield. Steve is the current vice president of Liverpool Law Society and will become President in December 2011. He has established its Access to Justice Committee to focus on the impact of current and proposed cutbacks in legal aid.