Report (2nd Day)
Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill
Lord Howarth of Newport (Labour)
My Lords, we have heard admirable and powerful speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, said that he was not going to get emotional, but his speech was moving as well as entirely persuasive.
Aside from the constitutional case, the moral and practical cases for keeping welfare benefits within scope of legal aid are overwhelming. We are moving into a period of major change in the social security system. A situation in which errors in the administration of the benefits system are likely to increase and, at the same time, the possibility of redress is to be reduced cannot be one that we can look forward to with any satisfaction or confidence. It is liable to create confusion, misery, damage, alienation and additional cost. There are going to be severe reductions in benefits and at the same time there will be the move towards the introduction and implementation of universal credit, which Ministers have been pleased to tell us represents the greatest transformation in the welfare system since Beveridge. I have seen very varying estimates of the number of people who may be affected by this between 2013 and 2017 but it could, I am told, be up 19 million.
The CPAG handbook, which sets out the regulations and the case law, consists of 1,620 pages and is going to have to be almost entirely rewritten. It will be a period in which there will be immense pressures on people in need and on decision-takers. Those decision-takers will typically be junior officials, and it is no particular criticism of them to anticipate that the error rate in their decision-taking will rise. It always has risen with significant changes in the benefits system. Therefore, the need for advice, assistance and representation is going to be acute. It will be a period of turmoil in which the rules will be almost continuously changing. For example, in the case of housing benefit, there are the present rules but there is to be a new set of rules that will come in in March 2013, and then there may very well be revisions to follow in 2014 or 2015 following the review that the Government have agreed to undertake.
Very sensitive and very controversial decisions are going to be taken as a new body of case law is developed. Let us consider the situation of disabled children. A child who is categorised as disabled will see their weekly benefit fall from £56 to £27 a week. On the other hand, a child who is categorised as severely disabled will see a modest increase in their benefit from £74 to £76 a week. Depending on which side of that definitional line the child falls, there will be a difference of £49 a week in household income, and that is an enormously important difference. There are going to be numerous households and families who are bitterly disappointed and, indeed, desperate in consequence of decisions that are taken in this regard. The tribunals will make these decisions, but surely it is wrong for parents not to have legal advice to enable them to decide whether they ought to challenge such decisions.
Alternatively, let us take the case of jobseekers. A new rule is to be introduced that if a jobseeker fails "for no good reason" to apply for or accept a particular placement, he or she may be sanctioned by the loss of universal credit for up to three years. That is a draconian sanction. In such a circumstance, the decision-maker and the claimant may have very different views about whether the reason the placement was declined was good or not. Can it be right to deny people three years-worth of benefit and, at the same time, deny them legal advice to enable them to judge whether they should contest that decision? There are other instances that I could give arising out of the prospective changes but I want to be brief.
I think that withdrawing legal aid from people in such situations is excessively harsh; indeed, it is reckless. A better thrust of reform would be to improve the quality of decision-taking. I just point out that the availability of legal aid enables well founded challenges to be made where there may be systemic flaws in the system, and it is for the benefit of the Government and of the administration of the system that people should be able to make these claims.
The amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, is a good one, I think, but I prefer the amendment that I look forward to my noble friend Lord Bach moving, which would take things rather further. I do not know whether Amendment 101 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will be moved, but I do not support it. It would allow the Ministry of Justice to provide discretionary funding here and there. I think that amendment is unnecessary because, as I understand it, the department already has such discretion, and, secondly, it is insufficient because we simply cannot rely on the use of such discretionary funding to ensure that people have the help that they should have.
I very much look forward to the speech of my noble friend Lord Bach and I hope that the House will approve Amendment 12. I also hope that it will approve Amendment 11.