I last met the chief executive of the Legal Aid Board on Wednesday 26 February 1997. We reviewed the White Paper reforms, which will cash-limit the budget, set national and regional priorities, dispense legal aid through block contracts with high-quality providers, and tighten the means test to weed out undeserving cases. Good progress is being made, but some of these reforms require primary legislation.
In the meantime, we have reformed the way in which solicitors and barristers are paid, which gives us greater control and will reduce costs. We have set up a special investigations unit to crack down on bogus claims. That is already beginning to bear fruit. We have also introduced regulations to stop legal aid abuse by the apparently wealthy.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, as far as it goes, but I am sure that he is aware that many of my constituents read reports in the tabloid newspapers to the effect that large sums are being paid in legal aid to undeserving people who could well afford to pay. Are there any steps that he could take now to crack down on the abuse of legal aid?
My hon. Friend is right to press me on this point. Although our reforms are right and positive results and savings from the measures that we have already taken are beginning to emerge, it remains clear that too many cases that should not get it are still receiving legal aid. Accordingly, my Department is now looking at two further areas in which I want to make more progress.
First, we shall review the use made by the Legal Aid Board of counsels' opinions. We shall explore ways of cracking down on over-optimistic opinions from barristers that lead to legal aid being granted when it should not be.
Secondly, it is increasingly obvious that many of the cases that cause widespread public concern are decisions by area committees reversing initial refusals by the Legal Aid Board. We shall explore ways of bringing area committees more into line with public concern and common sense.
What action does the Minister propose to take to deal with the grotesque imbalance between public expenditure on civil legal aid for ordinary, hard-working, honest taxpayers, and on criminal legal aid for those who are convicted of crimes yet are required to pay nothing towards the cost of their defence? Is it not time to recognise the fact that, under the Labour Government, about 80 per cent. of households had access to civil justice, whereas under this Government that number has fallen to 49 per cent.? Is it not time to return access to the courts to the ordinary, hard-working British people?
Once again the hon. Gentleman appears to be calling for a change in the rules that will enable more people to claim and more money to be spent by the Government. He is a big-spending member of the Labour party—I do not mean just his suits. He does not seem to realise that the Government cannot spend money that they do not have. If we are to spend more, we must tax more. This is old Labour in a new suit: tax and spend.