Mr. John M. Taylor:
Almost half the households in England and Wales currently qualify for civil legal aid. In serious criminal cases, anyone who needs help meeting the costs may qualify. The Lord Chancellor reviews legal aid financial limits each year and will shortly be considering what changes he should make in April 1995.
Is the Minister aware of the rapidly increasing number of people on low incomes who now find that they cannot obtain legal aid and therefore cannot obtain access to the courts? Only this morning I learned of a woman in my constituency whose only income is invalidity benefit and who has lost her job through ill health. Her marriage has broken up and she has been asked to contribute £90 per month under the legal aid scheme for legal representation in the divorce proceedings. She cannot afford that money, so she is not represented. What plans do the Government have to re-widen the scope of legal aid so that people such as my constituent are properly represented in the courts?
The legal aid system in this country is a generous one. Hon. Members do not have to take my word for that. The Labour spokesman in the House of Lords said it recently on the record. In Britain, 48 per cent. of households are eligible. The point about invalidity benefit is simply that although some welfare benefits enjoy an automatic passporting into legal aid, invalidity benefit does not because it is not means-tested. If the hon. Gentleman would like me to have a look at the case to which he referred, I will certainly do so.
When will the Government end the generosity and scandal of a legal aid system which allows millionaires to loot huge sums of money on the pretext that their financial assets are temporarily frozen when Mr. Ray Murton, a low-paid labourer living in a council flat, was denied legal aid in a case of alleged medical blunder in which he lost a leg? Why is it that 75 per cent. of households enjoyed legal aid in 1979, but more than half the households in Britain are now denied access to justice in a system that is increasingly discredited, wasteful and unjust?
I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the Lord Chancellor is shortly to issue a consultation document called "Legal Aid for the Apparently Wealthy". Hon. Members who have misgivings on the matter can certainly register their views. I imagine that they would like to register their views.
Does my hon. Friend accept that disabled people on low incomes are particularly disadvantaged in sustaining their legal rights? If we are not to have a disability rights commission, an omission which I would regret, will my hon. Friend consider sympathetically and constructively the case for extending legal aid to enable disabled people to avail themselves of the new rights that the Government propose to establish for them in employment and other areas?
I will gladly discuss the matter personally with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth). There is an extremely complicated set of interrelationships between the welfare system and the legal aid system. A fundamental review of the legal aid system is going on now. We shall consider all these things and I shall remember what my hon. Friend has said.
Will my hon. Friend accept that the vast majority of my constituents are perfectly happy to pay for the half of the households in Britain who are eligible for legal aid, but far from happy to have to pay for legal aid for illegal immigrants? We are the only country in the world that would dream of paying legal aid for such persons.
My hon. Friend's constituents have many reasons to be extremely happy with their lot. She mentioned one way in which they are not. That matter would come squarely within the ambit of the Lord Chancellor's consultation document, "Legal Aid for the Apparently Wealthy". I remind this honourable House that in this country all people are equal before the law courts, even if they are foreigners.
No Opposition Member would describe the legal aid scheme as generous—on the contrary. How does the Minister justify the fact that people whose immense wealth is shielded by family trusts continue to receive legal aid while many people of modest means are denied it altogether, such as the pensioner on £343 a month who lost his voice box as a result of medical negligence at St. Mary's hospital and is required to pay an additional £44 a month towards the cost of legal advice and assistance? How can that be just? When will the Government understand that the people of this country do not want more consultations, reviews and Treasury-led solutions, but justice?
In any changes that he may make, will my hon. Friend bear two things in mind? First, there is far too much litigation in this country; we do not want to go down the same road as the United States. Secondly, will he bear in mind the risk that a recipient of legal aid can, by blackmailing, spell ruin for people who are just above the level for receiving such aid?