Report (2nd Day)
Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill
Baroness Doocey (Liberal Democrat)
The amendment concerns the proposals in the Bill to remove legal aid for appeals against official decisions about entitlement to welfare benefit. These proposals will seriously inhibit claimants' access to justice, will not deliver the savings that the Government hope for and will create very serious problems for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
The amendment is more modest in scope than the one that I proposed in Committee. It would retain legal aid only for people with complex welfare benefit issues, to help them to challenge government decisions by appeal to a First-tier Tribunal. It would not retain the provision for legal aid to help with more general tasks such as form-filling, nor would it go beyond what is currently available.
Nearly six out of every 10 cases which currently receive legal aid for welfare benefit issues involve either disabled people or families with seriously ill or disabled children. The Government consider that these cases have a low priority when compared to safety, liberty and homelessness, but some disability benefits provide or protect liberty, particularly in relation to mobility and maintaining independence, which are so important. These benefits are crucial to many disabled people; they provide just enough money for those people to avoid poverty and to make some small contribution to the additional costs resulting from their disability.
The importance of maintaining legal aid for claimants can be judged by the fact that in six out of every 10 successful appeals against employment support allowance decisions, the claimants were originally deemed to have no factors affecting their ability to work. The Government's own equality impact assessment acknowledges that disabled people and individuals with specific disabilities are likely to experience a greater impact under some of these changes. The decision to press ahead with the proposals despite that assessment sends a very confused message to the disabled people that the Government have promised to protect.
Legal aid for welfare benefits costs about £25 million a year. Limiting advice to reviews and appeals, as proposed in the amendment, would save £8.5 million, which would reduce the total cost to £16.5 million a year, which is less than 1 per cent of the legal aid budget-but, crucially, it would help 100,000 people. If claimants are denied legal aid to appeal against wrong decisions, their situation will get worse, intervention at a later stage will cost much more and there will be a knock-on cost for other public services.
We are also likely to see a much greater backlog of tribunal cases because panels will be faced with clients who are unable to put together a coherent case because of their lack of welfare benefit knowledge. Tribunals were designed to be informal, inexpensive and accessible but for large numbers of people the very thought of attending a tribunal can be very intimidating. How can the Government seriously expect people with no legal knowledge to be able to negotiate the complex nature of welfare benefit law and to have the expertise needed to be able to decipher more than 9,000 pages of advice from the Department for Work and Pensions? These people are going to have major problems mounting an appeal because they will have no idea what to appeal against. As Judge Robert Martin said:
"If the tribunal is not supplied with the best evidence, the quality of justice is likely to suffer".
To make matters worse, the Bill is being proposed at a time when the Government are carrying out one of the most substantial reforms of the welfare system in a generation. This will almost certainly result in a huge number of mistakes and a similar increase in the need for appeals.
Surely our overriding duty in this House is to protect those people who are unable to protect themselves. The consequences of wrong decisions for disability benefit claimants can be catastrophic. This amendment would allow some of the most vulnerable people in our society to fight for the benefits to which they are entitled. I commend it to the House, and I beg to move.