Clause 1 - Lord Chancellor’s functions
Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston, Labour)
There is clearly deep disquiet about the implications of the Bill for some of the most serious clinical negligence cases. I know that we will discuss that point further. My hon. Friend is right that public perception of the validity of the system is extremely important. We do the system no favours if we open up the possibility of people seeking to manipulate their access to legally aided categories of law, which he is right to highlight.
Those are my concerns about the possibility of increased costs in the legal system. I do not say that all those increased costs will arise. I simply ask in my amendment that the Government publish an analysis of the likelihood and potential impact of those costs before they proceed to remove categories of law from the ambit of legal aid.
In the context of amendment 83, I also want to expand on a point first made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North. He raised the wider cost to society when legal aid is not available and social problems are therefore displaced to other parts of the public purse. When working well, social welfare legal funding should create a virtuous circle. As the hon. Member for South Swindon or one of his colleagues suggested, part of the problem is not to resolve it by legally aiding people to challenge bad decisions, but to get good decisions in the first place. That is absolutely right. The example that was given of the exceptionally high success rate of appeals on welfare benefits absolutely makes the point. The ideal is, of course, to improve decision making within the social welfare benefits and other systems, and not to have to keep on relying on ratcheting up legal costs.
Two things about that high figure cause me concern that costs could continue to increase. The first is that the “polluter pays” concept is now completely lost, but has been of interest to hon. Members of all parties for some time. One way of encouraging Departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, to improve their decision making is to make it costly to keep dealing with legal challenges and tribunals. Why is that concept no longer attractive to Ministers? It certainly merits some exploration and analysis. Again, I ask Ministers to bring forward that analysis during the Bill’s passage.
Secondly, additional challenges to decision making and the public interpretation and understanding of such decisions increase at times of significant policy change, such as we are about to see in welfare benefits, and are currently seeing in housing benefit and policy. There is a real question during periods of transition, when we can expect higher levels of challenge to a new system as people test its application and boundaries: would it not make more sense to smooth the passage of policy changes in other Departments, while ensuring that, at least during the transition period, the possibility of funding to make quick, focused legal challenges is not removed? That is a view that Government Members have expressed in the past. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that.