MPs in Westminster and members of the Senedd Cymru in Cardiff (MSs) are playing a “little recognised role” in providing access to justice for people with social welfare problems, academics have found.
But by the time constituents reached their MP or MS, their problems had often become “acute, complex and more difficult to resolve”.
They said: “What we have found, then, is that parliamentarians offer a safety net for a safety net for a safety net.
“The welfare state is supposedly every citizen’s safety net against vulnerability. The advice sector should function as a safety net to ensure citizens get the support they deserve from the welfare state. And now we have MPs and MSs taking on the role of helping those who cannot get access to the advice sector.
“This must be recognised as a deeply problematic situation that exposes the debasement of the state under austerity. It should not be celebrated but should be documented.”
In what they described as the first ever research of its type, Daniel Newman, reader at Cardiff University, and Jon Robins, lecturer at Brighton University, interviewed 15 MPs and five MSs.
They said the breakdown of those involved – one each from the Conservatives, Liberals and Plaid Cymru and the rest from the Labour Party – was not “ideal” but was “a starting point for understanding”.
Previous research, which was now over 15 years old, showed that 2.5% of those with ‘justiciable problems’ sought advice from an MP or local councillor, but subsequent studies indicated “an increase in people taking their legal problems to their parliamentary representatives over recent years”.
The academics said every interview “included detail on how there were less providers to consult with than in years previous and that their offices increasingly struggled to refer constituents on for specialist help”, with welfare benefits, housing and immigration the three main areas.
One MP commented: “I’ve noticed a very big difference in where we can signpost. There was a time when many people were able to get expert representation from people who really knew the rules inside out and knew how to help them.
“There are now far fewer people available and that’s because of austerity cuts to advice agencies.”
In a paper published by the Society of Legal Scholars, Mr Newman and Mr Robins said it was “possible that more parliamentarians could work more closely with the advice sector moving forward, in the way that we have found some MPs and MSs to have already done”.
They went on: “It may be the case that a more concerted effort needs to be made to link the expertise of the advice sector with whatever it is that an MP or MS can provide, to help mitigate some of the worst effects of austerity.
“But even if the role of parliamentarians was found to be advantageous, we do not want it to be advocated as any manner of replacement for a properly funded, robust advice sector. The MPs and MSs we spoke with recognised this.”
The research highlighted the value of specific legal expertise in helping people solve their problems around social welfare “time and again”– and this needed to be funded.
By the time constituents reached their MP or MS, the problems had often become “acute, complex and more difficult to resolve”.
It was also likely that only an “especially determined, specifically knowledgeable and particularly able cross-section of those with legal problems” would identify the potential for an MP or MS to help.
“And, in all likelihood, it is then only going to be a further sub-sample who do reach out.”
The academics added that further cuts to public services during a cost-of-living crisis could increase the number and severity of problems brought to parliamentarians, and there was a need to understand this more fully.
The pair called for more detailed research into the “potential of using this resource as part as some expanded notion of the public sector”, while looking at the limitations of parliamentarians performing this role, “such as the risks of allowing non-experts to provide these services and the question of which groups are less likely to approach their MP or MS for help”.