Justice: Legal Advice — Question
2:54 pm

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Lord Bach (Labour)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to enable people to receive legal advice for social welfare law problems once they are not able to receive legal aid for that advice after 1 April 2013.

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Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, it is important to realise that legal aid has been retained for the highest priority social welfare law cases and we will continue to spend approximately £50 million a year in this area. We are also putting in place a new robust referral process to support relevant clients to resolve their problems by signposting them to suitable alternatives.

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Lord Bach (Labour)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that a fundamental test of any legal aid system is whether it gives access to justice to the poor, the disabled and the marginalised? If it does not do that, what is its point? It is agreed by everyone that many hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens will be deprived of legal help and legal advice from 1 April next year-rightly named All Fools' Day. Does he further agree that for this to happen at all, let alone in the middle of radical changes to our welfare system, is a disgrace and is certain to lower the reputation of our whole legal system?

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Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I recall some of those points being made during the course of the LASPO Bill. I rejected them then and I reject them now. We are continuing to spend a good deal on legal aid in this area, as I have pointed out, and we will be bringing in new measures to support advice services. Many of the areas covered are for advice rather than legal advice and we believe that if we can put in place proper advice services we can cover many of the fears that the noble Lord has raised.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, given that Citizens Advice has a wealth of experience in the area of social welfare law and, importantly, that it is not limited to giving legal advice but can also advise individuals in areas such as debt management, will the Government keep the funding of Citizens Advice under review to ensure that it can continue to provide its valuable and high-quality service?

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Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I pay tribute to noble Lords on all sides of the House who, during the course of the LASPO Bill, championed the cause of Citizens Advice and other advisory services. The Government are looking at the whole advice sector-the Cabinet Office has taken on that responsibility-and, in the mean time, the Government have put forward an advice service transition fund, worth £65 million over the next two years, to help promote collaboration and best practice in this sector.

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Lord Beecham (Labour)

My Lords in 2011-12 the Newcastle CAB advised on 8,000 benefits problems. It has now lost £150,000 of government funding and three and a half posts, including its specialist welfare rights adviser. Gateshead CAB has lost £500,000. What advice can the Minister give these and other hard-pressed bureaux about how they can beat the rising demand for welfare law and welfare rights advice?

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Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat)

I suppose that I can only give those in the voluntary sector the same advice as was given in my own department, which has had to take a 23 per cent cut in services. The reality, which it seems difficult for the Opposition to take in, is that we are all a lot poorer than we thought we were and a lot organisations are having to reorganise to be effective. As I said, we have set aside £65 million over the next two years-and I have not even mentioned the £25 million to which I used to refer during the course of the LASPO Bill as the £65 million is new money. We appreciate the benefit of Citizens Advice and we want work with it so that it can carry on its useful work.

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Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Conservative)

My Lords, can the Minister say what is the outcome of the discussions that were being held in relation to legal advice centres-not only advice but legal advice centres, of which there is a network-as a valuable way of giving legal advice economically?

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Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat)

We continue to support the concept of legal advice centres, but they too have had to make some tough decisions in these circumstances. I hope that we can retain a good network, but we have had to make tough decisions in this area.

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Lord Elystan-Morgan (Crossbench)

The Minister says that we are poorer, but we are not poorer. When legal aid was established immediately after the Second World War, we were absolutely skint. We had to negotiate a crippling American loan. The economic situation we are now in is infinitely better than it was then. Why is legal aid being sacrificed on the altar of economic need?

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Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat)

Legal aid is not being sacrificed on any altar. I pay tribute to the foundation of legal aid in 1948, but by the time we came into office, the legal aid budget was over £2 billion and the outgoing Government were already planning to cut it. I want to make sure that we maintain a legal aid system that will remain one of the most generous in the world and focus it on the most needy.