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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the reform of legal aid.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing that this important topic be debated prior to the closure of the consultation on proposals for the reform of legal aid in England and Wales. The consultation paper proposes to cut an estimated £350 million from the civil legal aid budget. Roughly two thirds of those cuts are directed at people who are currently legally aid-able, and one third will come from remuneration cuts to providers, who are expected to do the same work but for less money.
Some £279 million will be cut from civil legal aid, and about half a million people will lose their entitlement to legal aid. The majority of them come from low- income households, and the Ministry of Justice's own equality impact assessment acknowledges that they will be predominantly women, black and minority ethnic people and ill and disabled people. However, while the consultation acknowledges this, it also says that it is not just about cost but is the "right thing to do". I believe that I can demonstrate that both the cost argument and the statement that it is the "right thing to do" are incorrect, and that the implementation of these proposals to reduce civil legal aid will hit the poorest hardest, increase the cost to other public bodies, and have a potentially catastrophic effect on not-for-profit advice agencies, including citizens advice bureaux and law centres.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that one of the issues that should be addressed is poor decision making by public authorities, particularly in immigration, where the UK Border Agency fails to make good decisions based on good evidence? That is why people have to go to the tribunal, and that is why they need legal aid.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I will come to that later when I suggest some ways of saving money in the system.
Whole swathes of advice areas are removed from the scope of legal aid, particularly the social welfare law category. Welfare benefit is removed completely from legal aid. According to the Ministry of Justice's own equality impact assessment, 63% of clients who received legal aid in this category had a disability, 54% were female and 27% were from a black and minority ethnic background. However, this is justified by stating that the
"accessible, inquisitorial and user friendly nature of the tribunal means appellants can generally present their case without any assistance".
It also states:
"Advice and help are available from a number of sources including Job Centre Plus and the Benefits Enquiry Line".
So people who have had their claim refused by Jobcentre Plus or the Benefits Agency are to go to them for support in challenging the decision and they will help them. I have to say that that is not the experience I had when I worked for an advice agency.
On the basis of what the hon. Lady has said, which I support entirely, would she be interested to know that Brighton Housing Trust's Eastbourne advice centre deals with at least 800 specialist housing cases per year and anticipates that this will fall to about 100? Are we really expecting Jobcentre Plus to take up the slack?
Yes, I totally agree. In fact, my local citizens advice bureau has phoned the Benefits Agency 100 times and has had no response apart from saying that everyone is busy.
These issues are not considered of sufficiently high importance, but when a person is ill or has a disability one of their major concerns is having an adequate income to enable a decent quality of life. The early advice available under this funding can save money. Some 80% of social welfare legal aid cases have positive outcomes for clients. In the agency where I worked, 70% of our reassessment appeals were successful, and that negated the need for a costly tribunal.
I would like to debunk the myth that these cases are not complex. My own CAB in Wigan dealt with a case for three years where the Department for Work and Pensions asserted that a couple were living together as man and wife, despite evidence from a neighbouring local authority that Mr M was resident there and receiving benefits, and that he merely visited to look after his disabled daughter, assisting with her care on occasion. Mrs M was summonsed for benefit fraud, convicted, and ordered to repay £27,000. The CAB continued with the case, appealed three times, and went to the Secretary of State. At the final appeal, Mrs M was found to owe £236-a reduction of more than £26,500. Was that a complex case? Would it be suitable for a telephone helpline? I do not think so. That client needed the face-to-face help given by a skilled CAB adviser and was funded by legal help.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that the suggestion that legal advice could be provided over the phone fails to understand the level of support that is provided by many legal representatives, particularly when they are dealing with vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers and refugees-often people who face persecution, are separated from their family, and perhaps do not have English as a first language?
I agree with my hon. Friend. In times of stress, people often need the support of a friendly face.
For every £1 of legal aid expenditure on welfare benefits in the Wigan borough, £20.50 per year of additional benefit is obtained for clients. Nationally, for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on welfare benefits, the state potentially saves £8.80.
I would like to make a little progress, because the debate is quite late.
Debt is another area that will be removed from the scope of legal aid, except for cases in which the client's home is at immediate risk. The impact assessment shows that 55% of debt clients are female and that 30% are likely to have a disability. Yet again, the consultation paper states that, although debt problems are important to the individual, they are not important enough to warrant legal aid funding.
I have seen the effects of debt on individuals, and the cost-both human and to the state, including to the NHS-of not resolving debt issues at an early stage. A project that I was involved in used a recognised NHS scale to monitor stress levels before and after the advice process dealing with unsecure debts. The primary care trust believed that in the first nine months of the project, three suicides had been prevented. At what cost? In Wigan, the citizens advice bureau deals with 616 debt clients per year at a cost of £123,000 to the state. It reschedules £4.83 million worth of debt and writes off £3.47 million worth. For the expenditure of £123,000, £367,000 is saved.
I support the expansion of financial education into schools and communities, but that will not assist people who are in debt now. My experience is that when the issue is raised in schools, more parents arrive at the advice agency's door because they are made aware that there is somewhere to go. They almost feel that they have got permission to go there.
Every conscientious MP knows the value of citizens advice bureaux. Quite simply, without them, our offices would be swamped. That prospect awaits us. My hon. Friend has highlighted the situation in Wigan. Citizens Advice has highlighted that 730 fewer people will receive specialist debt advice in Stoke-on-Trent, 1,280 fewer in my area of Newcastle-under-Lyme, and more than 1,500 fewer in north Staffordshire. Does she agree that this is not only a false economy, but a heartless cut?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I will go on to give some figures on the impact that the proposals will have on advice agencies.
Agencies that provide telephone advice such as National Debtline have a great role to play, but they cannot replace face-to-face advice, as my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood said. The reality is that people need to sit down with an adviser. They need the reassurance and trust of a relationship that is built up over time.
There is a reason why social welfare law problems, including employment, housing, debt and benefits, were given primarily to advice agencies: the interlinking of those problems. Limiting the scope and the type of the problems that advisers can deal with limits their ability to deal with the whole person and with all their issues. For example, legal help might prevent somebody from losing their home because of debt, but it will not address the causes of that debt, such as unfair dismissal or a refusal of sickness benefits. I could give examples of many areas that are taken out of the scope of such help, but I believe that colleagues will mention them. The list is extremely long and access for the most vulnerable is severely curtailed in many cases.
I shall turn now to the effect on citizens advice bureaux and not-for-profit providers. The Ministry of Justice estimates that this sector will lose 97% of its legal aid funding. Currently, local citizens advice bureaux receive £26 million of legal aid funding, with the largest amounts being spent on debt and benefits. If the proposals are implemented, £20 million will go in one fell swoop and there will be a significant impact on the ability to deliver not only legal aid-eligible services but all other client services. A survey undertaken by Citizens Advice showed that if the proposal went ahead, 80% of local bureaux would have to withdraw specialist services, 85% would have reduced capacity to meet clients' needs and, most shockingly, 51%-more than half-felt that there would be a risk to the continuation of the whole CAB service in their borough.
Legal aid funding cannot be treated in isolation from other sources of advice funding, especially as the consultation assumes that people can access other services to pick up the slack. The free advice sector is suffering disproportionately from public funding reductions, and even agencies such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which have no legal aid funding, have approached me saying that they could not deal with any increase in demand for their services due to the impact of the proposals.
The hon. Lady is making an eloquent case, particularly on behalf of organisations that are currently giving evidence on these matters to the Select Committee on Justice. Does she recognise that there ought to be some scope for funding to be provided for an examination of the sources of some of the problems on which advice is being sought, whether they are public bodies that make poor decisions, as Keith Vaz rightly pointed out, or the banks?
I totally agree that there is scope for other funding provision, but that has not been available yet. In fact, provision is being withdrawn because of the withdrawal of funding for face-to-face advice from citizens advice bureaux.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that the need for advice is rising in the current economic climate, particularly on employment, social welfare benefits and debt?
I completely agree. This is a time of great change for many clients, and the need for legal help is even more vital.
The suggested resolution to the problem is the community legal advice helpline, the gateway to civil legal aid services that will offer non-eligible clients access to paid services. First, I wish to take issue with the premise that the legal aid scheme has expanded beyond its original intentions. Actually, the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 was promoted with very wide objectives, which were explained as being intended to provide
"legal advice for those of slender means and resources so that no one will be financially unable to prosecute a just and reasonable claim or to defend a legal right".
I am not convinced that a gatekeeping telephone helpline will promote that.
Access to telephone advice is important, and I would welcome any expansion of it, but it has to be implemented in tandem with face-to-face services. Clients need to have that choice. The community legal advice helpline uses an 0845 prefix, which is very expensive from a pay-as-you-go mobile. Many people with learning disabilities or mental health issues prefer to attend in person, to pick up on non-verbal signals and build the trust necessary to tell the advisers their problem. Citizens advice bureaux make a particular effort to reflect the communities that they serve, and that is why people use their services.
As an aside, I should like to mention volunteers, who are mentioned in the consultation paper as another way for people to pick up advice if the proposed changes are made. However, I do not believe that that is true. Volunteers work best and most confidently when they are supported and encouraged by specialists. It was only when that support was provided that the number of volunteers and the depth of the work that they undertook increased significantly in the bureau that I managed.
There are opportunities to save money in the justice sector without placing the burden on front-line services. The Ministry of Justice intends to reform the Legal Services Commission, and there is a large amount of bureaucracy in the administration of legal aid. I spent 60% of my time managing 30% of the money that I got. A lighter-touch procurement, auditing and payment mechanism could be found, and that needs to be considered seriously.
On the point about volunteers, many of my colleagues in my chambers, and in local firms of solicitors, volunteer their services to advice bureaux regularly. The incidence of that will diminish given the dreadful cuts to those firms' legal aid and the fact that they cannot take on trainees as a result of the cuts. Advice is diminishing drastically as a result of the Government's cuts.
I agree with my hon. Friend that pro bono advice provision is important, but it is not available in all places. In fact, in the conurbation that I served, there was no pro bono advice.
It is also important to decrease the need for civil legal aid by addressing poor decision making by public bodies and avoiding the need for tribunal. We should take the lawyers out of tribunals, make legal processes simpler and improve public legal education. Early advice saves money and keeps cases out of the courts. We should look to fund that kind of advice instead of salami-slicing and looking at administratively convenient categories of problems. Advice provision needs to be organised around people's real needs and their need to be treated as an individual, not as an individual problem.
Access to justice is one of the cornerstones of a free and civilised society. It is vital that everyone, particularly the most vulnerable, has equal access to the law, no matter who they are, where they live or how much money they have. The Government's consultation proposes to remove access to justice for the most vulnerable. Is that access to justice, or justice denied?
Order. More than 20 hon. and right hon. Members have applied to speak in the debate, as a result of which I have imposed a limit of five minutes on each Back-Bench contribution. I simply remind Members that they are not obliged to use their full five minutes if they do not wish to do so. I am keen to get everyone in, but Members need to help me to help them, and to help each other.
I declare an interest at the outset, because as you and others may know, Mr Speaker, until my election in May, I worked for 16 years as a criminal barrister in Nottingham and other places such as Leicester and Derby.
It is important to remember that there is a need to make cuts in public expenditure-that is common ground in the House. We have had many debates on where the blame for that lies, and we could continue them, but I suggest that that would not be helpful this afternoon. We are where we are. No Government Member welcomes having to make such cuts, but we have the largest deficit of any G20 country and, with considerable regret, the Government have been left in a position in which they have no alternative but to make severe cuts in public expenditure, including on legal aid.
Does the hon. Lady accept the Citizens Advice report that says that the Government's proposals will not only limit access to justice but increase public expenditure?
I do not know about the latter point. I have been in contact with the citizens advice bureau in Broxtowe, and I have made it very clear to Nottinghamshire county council that it is imperative to exercise great care in cutting back the budget of that CAB. The Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor have spoken about that and it is recognised that citizens advice bureaux do a magnificent job. Every Member of the House knows that, because their case loads would increase enormously without them. There is a danger that in these difficult times, they will have to deal with more cases, and it is imperative that they have the resources they need.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the role of citizens advice bureaux is preventive and enabling? They focus not on generating unnecessary litigation, but on preventing crisis. Therefore, properly resourced citizens advice bureaux will actually save money.
I ask the Minister carefully to consider these cuts in legal aid. Many would agree with me that it is imperative that we ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society do not suffer when we make these sorts of cuts. It is also important to protect the interests of those citizens who cannot protect themselves, and I have two examples regarding the reduction in eligibility for legal aid in the family division.
A father who is denied contact with his children will no longer be eligible for legal aid. I submit that that cannot be right, not only because of the father's rights to see his children but because of the rights of the children, who have no access to justice. Their interests must be protected by society-they need to see their father. Likewise, if a mother has separated from the father of her children and he then threatens to take them overseas, she too will no longer be eligible for legal aid. That is not only unfair on her as she will not want her children taken overseas, but not fair on her children who will want to have contact with both their parents.
Former colleagues of mine at the Bar have told me that they have many concerns, including in the area of housing. Somebody who is living in squalid housing conditions will more than likely have been eligible for legal aid in the past. That will continue to be the case in many circumstances. However, my concern is that legal aid will no longer be available so that people in that situation can force a landlord to make repairs-to begin to solve the problem before it becomes the sort of problem that would still be eligible for legal aid.
I am told-I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Buckland-that we are paying £24.7 million in legal aid for welfare claims. In my time in this House, it has struck me that one reason why so many people come to their MPs and to the CABs with their cases-and eventually have to go to the law-is the profound failings of the Department for Work and Pensions. One of the best things that we could do is ensure that that Department is working properly, efficiently and effectively, because that would save us considerable amounts of money. As a new Member, I found it astonishing that we actually have MP-dedicated hotlines for our caseworkers to ring to sort out problems that should never have arisen but have done so because of the ineffectualness of the Department. I urge the Government to ensure that we sort that out.
Finally, I make a plea for the Bar, which has had no increase in fees for decades. Yet again the criminal Bar is being asked to reduce its fees by 10%. Prosecuting counsel who are prosecuting a rapist or a persistent dwelling house burglar will be paid a fixed fee of £60. Sometimes members of the criminal Bar work for less than the interpreter in court, and invariably they are paid considerably less than the medical expert who may be assisting them in their work.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I am sure that the Minister will have heard all these points and I look forward to the action that will result.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue on introducing this debate. She spoke with enormous clarity and mapped out the ways in which the cuts in legal aid will have an impact on our constituents. I also congratulate Anna Soubry who made many points with which I agree, including a warning to beware labelling all lawyers as fat cats. Legal aid lawyers work extremely hard for relatively modest remuneration, and we should remember that.
I do not wish to repeat the key points that these cuts represent a false economy; that there are real dangers in taking whole areas out of the scope of legal aid because so many cases are complex, and cases such as debt and housing run into each other and cannot be separated out; or that there are limits to the value of phone advice. These are very important points, but I will not dwell on them further.
I want to make three further points. First, if there was ever a time to be scaling back on legal aid, particularly in civil and social welfare law, this is not it. We are seeing massive upheavals in public service delivery: in education, to which I will return; in housing, through the proposals in the Localism Bill, which will introduce short-term tenancies; in welfare, with £18 billion being taken out of the welfare budget through the cuts in housing benefit; in disability benefits; and, as mentioned, in rising unemployment and the broader economic context.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that the current cost of legal aid is unsustainable? We are spending £38 per head of population on legal aid, whereas in Australia it is £9, and in France £3. These reforms are therefore essential to get our economy back on track.
There are so many points with which to respond to that intervention. We cannot compare systems between countries. It is not helpful because the legal systems and the delivery of legal aid support are so different. The Labour Front-Bench team are willing to discuss the legal aid budget, particularly in some aspects of criminal legal aid. There are areas in which savings can be made, but I am particularly concerned about civil and social welfare law.
My second point, which was made strongly during an earlier Westminster Hall debate, concerns the impact of these cuts-given the speed and depth at which they are being made-on the legal aid firms, law centres, citizens advice bureaux and other advice agencies. In many cases, they draw on legal aid for part of their funding. The removal of legal aid funding is like a game of Jenga: we start pulling out the sticks and the whole edifice is in danger of collapse. I think we will see a massive, unplanned spate of service closures across the country, and we will not be able to control where they happen. There will be advice deserts, and many of our constituents will struggle as a consequence.
I will provide an example of what I am talking about. This reform is being delivered at the same time as cuts in local authority spending. The London grant scheme is being repatriated to the boroughs without ring-fencing, which means that advice services in London are at the whim of local boroughs that are themselves under pressure. Therefore, the grant funding that should complement the Legal Services Commission funding is unlikely to be there. That will clearly impact severely on citizens advice bureaux and law centres. As has been said, politicians will regret taking this decision. I am already seeing-I am sure that other hon. Members are seeing it too-people coming to me for what should be a legal advice and representation service that in many cases we are not qualified, and certainly not resourced, to provide. I predict with absolute certainty that our surgeries will be flooded with more and more desperate and angry people who cannot get the proper representation they should.
Finally, I want to touch on the disproportionate impact on women, children, people with disabilities and people from black and minority communities. We know from the scope of the areas affected that these cuts will fall most heavily on them. We have heard about family law and asylum-seeking communities, particularly asylum-seeking children, who will be left at risk because of these cuts. However, I want to make a particular case for education and special educational needs. In my borough there is a particular problem of children without school places-350 were without a place before Christmas. Those children and their families need advice and representation, and the parents seeking to take action against their local authority for denying them a statement of special educational needs are a particularly vulnerable group. We know from the number of tribunals that succeed that 82% of parents' appeals that reach tribunal are upheld. The removal of assistance from those parents, many of whom simply do not have the skills or resources to make their own case, will mean that their children will not get the education to which they are entitled.
I urge the Minister to rethink many aspects of the proposals, in particular the narrowness of the scope that is being applied to legal aid cases and the arbitrary way in which the services are being withdrawn.
I congratulate Yvonne Fovargue on opening the debate and on setting out her genuine concerns about the impact that some of the changes could have on her constituents. I accept that, as a new Member, she can to some extent deny responsibility for what came before, because she was not a Member under the previous Government. I look around her, however, and see ex-Ministers who know full well that they would have been taking the same decisions as we are, and I find their tutting and shaking of heads intellectually extremely dishonest.
I should like to reinforce that point. There were no fewer than 30 consultations on legal aid between 2006 and 2010, which gives the lie to the argument that there is a divide on this matter. Both parties were faced with the same challenges, so let us approach the debate on that basis.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds to that intervention, I hope that he will confirm to me that he is not accusing any Member of being personally dishonest, because we cannot have that in the Chamber.
Of course I am not accusing any ex-Minister of being personally dishonest.
I thank Mr Buckland for his intervention. I think that Members on both sides of the House regret the decisions that are having to be taken, but it is incumbent on Ministers and Members on this side to come forward with solutions. If the Opposition want to be taken seriously, they need to offer solutions as well.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the solution that the Government are proposing-namely, the wholesale removal of significant categories of social welfare law-is the most damaging and unsatisfactory way to proceed?
I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly, is listening carefully and that there might be some adjustments to what is being proposed. We need to hear solutions, however. We do not need to hear a list of concerns without its being followed by solutions. We all face this problem.
I want to use this debate as an opportunity to raise a couple of specific points, about which I have written to the Minister. I thank him for meeting me, Steve Triner and other representatives of my local citizens advice bureau to discuss their concerns about the proposals. I have also recently had meetings with three solicitors in my constituency office. Like other Members on both sides of the House, I too have received a wide range of briefings from various organisations. I received a briefing yesterday from the Equal Rights Trust, and I want to raise a specific point in that regard. I hope that the Minister will be aware of the points that have been raised with me, as I have already written to him about them.
The first point relates to medical negligence. There is concern about the impact that the changes could have, and whether particularly difficult and complicated medical cases for which the NHS would previously have taken responsibility might be passed over to social services, resulting in their having to take on the financial costs of, for example, the most serious obstetric mistakes involving brain damage in very young children. That is a very specific issue, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to it.
My second point relates to family law. Interestingly, in my meeting with the solicitors, they were not particularly concerned about the idea of a telephone helpline. They were, however, concerned about what would happen beyond that stage, in regard to referrals. They wondered whether there would be a means of identifying at the beginning of the process that someone could not be dealt with by telephone and that a face-to-face meeting would be required.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that people with mental health issues might not get equal access to justice when they are involved in family disputes?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point, and I hope that Ministers will listen to such points in the debate and during the wider consultation.
In family law, people are rightly encouraged to pursue mediation in cases that are currently supported through legal aid. During the meeting, the point was made to me that Government bodies and associated organisations are often unwilling to pursue a route that involves mediation. Government, Government Departments and associated bodies will be required to show a willingness to engage in mediation, if that is now the direction the Government are moving in.
I have already made a couple of points about telephone advice, but there are also concerns about whether any local knowledge will be embedded in any telephone advisory service, and about conflicts of interest that may arise as a result of that, particularly if there are a limited number of suppliers to whom a case can be referred.
During the meeting, CAB representatives expressed the concern that they would now be in the position of having to take up very personal cases, and therefore be very much in the front line rather than acting as an independent body, so they might end up having to represent a particular individual against the other party in the case. They are worried about how that would impact on their independence. They are also worried that a lot of court time would be lost, particularly if more people ended up representing themselves. There is a good job to be done in making that process clearer and simpler, so that if more people do represent themselves there is less risk that they fail to turn up with the right papers or on time.
The hon. Gentleman says these changes rely on people being able to help themselves, but what about people with learning difficulties or mental health problems, or people who cannot speak English very well, and what about people who are too frightened to face their opponent?
The chair of my local CAB has highlighted the fact that the financial inclusion fund will close at the end of March. I understand that transitional funding proposals are being looked at, and perhaps the Minister can respond on that point.
The Equal Rights Trust raised with me the issue of stateless people, who will now be unable to claim legal aid unless they apply for asylum. Some unexpected consequences may flow from that. I hope the Minister will respond to that point at the end of the debate.
This is clearly a very difficult issue for the Government, and I know the Minister will do everything he can to address it effectively. We do not like being in the position we are in, but we have to address this issue now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue on securing this important debate and commend her for her excellent speech.
Given the welcome fact that so many Members want to contribute, I will confine my remarks to the impact of the Government's proposals on my local citizens advice bureau in Exeter, whereby it would lose all its welfare benefits funding, and funding for debt cases would be restricted to instances where there is an "immediate risk" of homelessness. Taken together, my CAB estimates that the changes will affect up to 700 cases a year in Exeter alone. The director of Exeter CAB, Steve Barriball, has described as "perverse" the fact that the Government are proposing to fund debt advice only when the client faces an immediate risk of homelessness. He says:
As other Members have said, these changes represent a terrible false economy, and in the case of Exeter they come at the same time as the local authority, Devon county council, is proposing to cut its support to the CAB by a massive 20%, as part of its attempt to grapple with a 27% reduction in funding from central Government. Yet it is estimated that for every pound of public money spent on CAB services, the CAB saves the public purse £12.20.
I appreciate what my right hon. Friend is saying about his local citizens advice bureau. In Wolverhampton, the citizens advice bureau handles some 1,600 cases a year that are funded by such help, involving 26 employees. The local director has said:
"The CAB would effectively go back 20 years in its development" if the current proposals go through. In response to Tom Brake, who spoke a few moments ago, would my right hon. Friend care to contrast those proposals with the record of the Labour Government, who increased the funding to citizens advice bureaux when the recession was coming, precisely because we knew that there would be a greater need for debt advice as economic times got tough?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. Indeed, I was about to make the point-gently, I hope-to the hon. Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that it is not good enough for Government Members to excuse every cut that this Government are implementing by talking about the need for fiscal consolidation. There is a clear choice to be made about the speed and degree of fiscal consolidation, and there is growing evidence that the speed and degree of fiscal consolidation being pursued by this Government is not only damaging important services such as the CAB, but damaging our economic recovery. All hon. Members need to do-
No, sit down.
All hon. Members need to do is look across the Atlantic at the example of the United States under Barack Obama, who is pursuing a Keynesian economic policy, like the one that we advocate, where growth was 3.5% in the last quarter, as opposed to a 0.5% contraction here. So please, let us have no more lectures from Government Members about there being no alternative to these savage cuts.
For all the Government's rhetoric about the big society, the CAB is the big society in action. It is staffed mainly by volunteers, helping everyone, and in particular the vulnerable, and saves the state millions of pounds in the process by ensuring that people in difficulty do not fall into crisis, the fallout from which the state then has to pick up. The Government's proposed changes to legal aid and their impact on the work of CABs such as mine in Exeter will have a deeply damaging impact on the fabric of our communities and will cost us all far more in the long term. I therefore urge the Government to think again about this short-sighted and false economy.
I, too, thank Yvonne Fovargue for introducing this debate. In the spirit of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend Mr Buckland, I want to take part not in a partisan way, but on the basis of trying to progress the debate. Other Members have spoken about employment, welfare benefits, education and immigration, but it is on clinical negligence that I wish to express some of the views that I have encountered at my weekly surgeries.
The Government's view is that if legal aid for clinical negligence cases is removed, alternative funding will be available in the form of conditional fee arrangements, which will be funded on the basis of a success fee and after-the-event insurance. Under Lord Jackson's reforms, such fees will be unrecoverable from the losing party. The point that has been made to me, which I wish to highlight to the Minister, is that if legal aid is withdrawn and cases have to be funded by conditional fee agreements with insurance, there will be instances where the cost to the public purse may well be higher. For example, a solicitor at my surgery told me about a cerebral palsy case that settled for more than £3.75 million. The costs involved were more than £100,000. The case was legally aided, but if it had been funded through a conditional fee arrangement, with, say, a recoverable success fee of 60%, the total costs would have been £160,000. There would also have been a substantial after-the-event insurance premium, so the case would have cost the public purse far more than if it had been funded by legal aid. That is the position where cases are successful, and where the Legal Services Commission does not pay anything.
I appreciate that some Members may have not followed the full argument, and I apologise for using legal jargon, but the fundamental point remains that although we may be saving legal aid costs, we may end up paying more into the national health service budget to cover legal fees and insurance premiums. In essence, we will have public money chasing public money, in a circle that will not deliver legal justice on a value-for-money basis. The counter-argument is that if Lord Jackson's recommendations are implemented in full, there will be no increase in costs, as success fees and after-the-event insurance premiums will not be recoverable from the losing party. However, Lord Jackson has recommended that damages be increased by 10% to make up for the shortfall in solicitors' costs, with a 25% cap to be deducted from damages. In the cerebral palsy case that I have mentioned, that means that the damages would have increased by £375,000, which would be an alarming escalation in public funds paid.
I appreciate the difficulties caused to the Government by the escalating drain on the public purse, and I suspect that many measures relate to concern about the costs incurred by solicitors who are chasing ambulances or investigating spurious, unviable and unsuccessful cases. However, I will say to the Minister, who I know has a great deal of expertise in this field, that clinical negligence cases are now conducted by a small group of specialist solicitors who focus on dealing with complex cases. It is increasingly rare for solicitors to tread the old route of simply applying for investigative help certificates for every client who walks through the door with a potential claim, because the cases are just not viable.
The special cases unit of the Legal Services Commission, which is based in Brighton, now seems to apply a robust criterion to all applications for LSC funding in order to ensure that cases with merit are granted funding. David Keegan, director of the commission's high cost cases unit, has said:
"We need to ensure that access to justice is as wide as possible and it is in the best interest of clients."
I would add only that those objectives must be reconciled in the most cost-effective way possible.
I think it pertinent that Lord Jackson's objective in conducting his year-long costs review was to make recommendations for the promotion of access to justice. If legal aid is no longer available, the costs may become disproportionate.
I am acutely aware of the Government's laudable intentions, but I worry about unintended consequences. The point that has been made to me most forcefully, time and again, is that if we genuinely want to save costs, it is imperative for the national health service litigation authority to make early admissions of liability rather than protracting settlement of cases. What tends to happen is that no one in a hospital wishes to admit negligence, and a game of bluff develops. Solicitors and the NHSLA conduct a legal battle, which is often settled at the last minute. That is why we see headlines about cases involving liability claims amounting to tens of thousands of pounds running up legal bills of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Like most people, I cannot understand the logic of that. In such cases, early settlement would avoid a pointless game of poker with our money, the emotions of patients, and the good will of staff in the NHS.
I congratulate Yvonne Fovargue on securing time for this important debate. I declare an interest as one who has in the past undertaken publicly funded work both as a solicitor and as a barrister.
I am a member of the Select Committee on Justice, which is ably chaired by Sir Alan Beith and which is currently conducting research into this issue. We have received an unprecedented amount of evidence from concerned groups, and I shall voice some of their concerns in the limited time available to me.
I believe that the proposals in the Government's consultation document are unethical, and will have long-standing and drastic effects on the make-up of our legal system. They will effectively pave the way for the creation of a "market" for the supply of legal assistance, and I believe that the quality of the assistance that is available will decrease. As a result, the wealthiest in society will be OK while those who are not wealthy will not.
The consultation document notes-with, I believe, unintended irony-that
"access to justice is the hallmark of a civilised society".
We must do all we can to uphold that principle, but the proposed reforms will cause the legal aid market to be driven by cost rather than by the needs of clients and the quality of advice that they are given. I believe that a move to fixed fees for all cases will result in suppliers taking only the least complicated cases, which will mean that the most vulnerable will be more frequently left without legal advice. The need to generate profits will lead to firms taking on unqualified staff, which in turn may well lower the quality of service.
Gwynedd Law Society has written to me drawing attention to a real danger in Gwynedd and Anglesey, where, for a population of approximately 190,000, only 10 firms currently provide civil legal aid. There are no large firms in the area. Most of those firms assist clients in both Welsh and English.
The cuts in legal aid will be felt deeply in many areas of society, but the worst effect will be on the most vulnerable, which is extremely worrying. There is a letter in today's The Times signed by a number of experts in family law, among them Stephen Cobb QC, chair of the Family Law Bar Association, and David Allison of Resolution. I cannot read the letter into the record, much as I should like to, but I commend it to Members.
Family lawyers will undoubtedly be giving up in droves, creating advice deserts, and it is our children who will suffer. I have with me several case studies showing that under these proposals mothers will be able to do nothing where children are not returned to them in certain circumstances. I find it very worrying that legal aid will be removed for ancillary relief in divorce cases. Most pressingly, ancillary matters such as child custody and maintenance will not be dealt with sensibly, and it is difficult to overestimate the devastating effect this will wreak on children caught up in these disputes. Indeed, the psychological effects that can be wrought on children when care is not taken in resolving disputes can be deep and long lasting. The justice system has a duty to protect the most vulnerable in our society-that was, of course, one of the founding principles of legal aid. Who are the most vulnerable in society? I would say that it must be our children. Overwhelmingly, the impact of the proposals on the most vulnerable members of our society will be catastrophic. I am talking about people receiving advice on debt, housing and welfare, as well as children standing in the middle of these disputes.
We must not allow these changes to be made. In the name of decency, ethics and providing decent cover for those less able to look after themselves, we cannot allow them to be made. We must not hold such an integral component of our justice system hostage to efficiency savings. If we do so, the effects we will see will be brutal.
I ask the Minister to respond to one last point. I hope that this consultation will be a real one. The one on court closures left me underwhelmed, because it was deeply unimpressive, flawed and probably pointless.
It is a privilege to contribute to this debate. I wish to discuss the impact on rural areas, including my constituency in north Wales. I also wish to associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend Anna Soubry. I could just replicate a lot of what she said, but I wish to concentrate on the issues specific to north Wales.
One of the concerns among people in north Wales and certainly among people in my constituency is that these proposals have the potential to be another attack on services available in rural areas. Only one firm not based on the north Wales coast offers legal aid in my constituency. Therefore, inland only one firm offers such services. The consultation document would result in that firm giving up that provision, which would be a loss to the area, because people would have to travel to gain access to legal advice and legal services. In this age of high fuel costs and so on, there would, thus, be an added burden before people could even access services that might be available on the coast. People in rural areas are concerned about whether the proposals are, again, an indication of a Government retreating from offering services across the whole of this country, and that is an issue to address.
Another specific issue affecting my constituents in north Wales relates to the fact that they often try to access services in Welsh. This is a crucial point, because my constituency is fully bilingual. On the coast, 20% to 25% of people speak Welsh as a first language, but inland the percentage is significantly higher. When people are dealing with real issues of concern and are trying to access support at crucial times in their lives, their ability to access those services in their mother tongue is very important. The impact assessment highlighted that issue in relation to services in cities in England and in south Wales, but I wish to ensure that the Department is aware that there is an issue to address in relation to services provided in Welsh.
One of my concerns relates to the consultation document's reference to the need to provide a direct telephone line service. I am sure that Mr Llwyd is well aware that, although Welsh speakers would often prefer a service to be provided in Welsh, when they access services by telephone they almost feel that they have to speak in English first. When the service is available in their locality and they are able to walk into the offices of a firm that they know and have used in the past, they are able to talk to the solicitors in Welsh. The fact that we are proposing to offer so many legal aid services through the medium of a telephone line raises concerns about the provision of a fully bilingual service in a Welsh context.
Since I was elected in May, I have been astounded by the amount of quasi-legal casework. I find myself dealing with cases on which I am not qualified to offer advice or guidance. Before coming to the Chamber this afternoon, I asked whether my insurance as an MP would be sufficient to cover me when I am asked to offer legal advice and guidance. I have a real concern that as we are dealing with these significant changes to the provision of legal aid services, we are also looking at a significant reduction in the funding of citizens advice bureaux. As a result, MPs will end up dealing with cases that they are not qualified to deal with in a way that will be very unsatisfactory to the individuals seeking advice and guidance. That will also be very unsatisfactory for MPs, who could damage their reputation by offering advice and guidance that they are not qualified to give.
I recognise that the Government have to deal with the deficit. I am very pleased that the issue we are debating is currently under consultation, but that consultation has to be real. I shall certainly contribute to it, as will many members of the law profession in my constituency. My real concern is that if the proposals are not amended we will end up with a situation in which people in many parts of rural Britain and rural Wales do not have access to legal services. I am seriously concerned that some of the most vulnerable people in my constituency will have to access legal services only by telephone in a language that is not their mother tongue. I would find that unacceptable.
Order. I remind colleagues that Front-Bench speakers will be called from 5.38 pm or thereabouts, so there is real pressure on time.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue on securing the debate. Unlike her, I do not have any experience of giving legal advice or doing legal aid work, but I did benefit from the legal aid system many years ago when I successfully pursued maintenance payments for my daughter.
My reason for speaking in the debate is that I was alerted to the Government's proposed reforms by a constituent of mine who practises as a solicitor in a well-respected law firm in Newcastle upon Tyne. She spelled out to me just how devastating the cuts would be for many of my most vulnerable constituents who need legal aid now or might need it in future. The Government claim that they want to be fair, but removing the right to help with legal costs from those who need it to obtain appropriate representation when they are making a legal challenge is overtly denying those very people a right to justice. Indeed, the chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales, Nicholas Green, QC, has described the cuts as a "shrinkage of justice".
Like many MPs, I have been contacted by a number of organisations on this matter, each making a case for retaining the £350 million in the legal aid budget. They were all concerned about the range of areas being taken out of scope because of the huge cut in funds being made towards 2014. The Law Society has stated that
"the civil legal aid scope cuts, in social welfare law, appear to be targeted against areas of law, which are most relevant to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society".
That is borne out by the information I have received from the director of the citizens advice bureaux that operate across the borough of North Tyneside, serving the constituencies of both North Tyneside and Tynemouth. He advised me that the cuts to legal aid are a double whammy, as the Government have just announced the end of North Tyneside CAB's financial inclusion fund from April this year. So, with cuts to legal aid, North Tyneside's CAB will lose two and a half debt specialist posts and one and a half benefit specialist posts, and the end of the financial inclusion fund means that a further four and a half posts will go.
Last year, our CAB handled more than 72,000 cases. Staff dealt with cases involving £25 million-worth of debt, not including mortgages, and managed to write off £4.5 million-worth of that debt for local people. Furthermore, with work carried out on benefits this year, the CAB in North Tyneside is projecting benefit gains of nearly £900,000. In the light of those figures, it is easy to imagine the hardship that will be caused by the loss of funding that to date has made such a difference to constituents, whose only avenue of help is the legal aid route.
On page 5.5 of the 2010 Labour manifesto, on which the hon. Lady stood for election, her party committed to
"find greater savings in legal aid".
How does she intend to satisfy that commitment if she does not support the changes that the Government are bringing in?
The problem with the proposed cuts in legal aid is that they are wholly counter-productive. The Government may save money in the legal aid budget, but they will incur expenditure in other budgets. There are ways to save money in the Ministry of Justice budget, and I will touch on them in my speech.
Mark Almond made it plain to me that the work carried out by the citizens advice bureau with the help of legal aid funding definitely helps the most vulnerable-those whose lives are the most chaotic, or who have literacy and other language problems. Self-representation, as proposed in the Bill, is a non-starter for that group of constituents.
In debt advice, private debt advisers are not the answer. The Government's own study on private debt advice found that more than 80% of those businesses provide incorrect and inappropriate advice, often at a cost to the client, and that they refer clients to advisers who are, in fact, debt collectors. Do the Government really want to impoverish the poorest more by directing them down that path?
The most vulnerable would, again, not benefit from the proposed telephone helpline. In North Tyneside, it is estimated that less than 10% of citizens advice bureau legal aid clients would be able to access the system, because of literacy or language problems. Such a system could be considered only as an adjunct to the present system.
Through the work of Lord Carter's review, the Labour Government made efforts to find savings, always with the aim of striving to protect social welfare law. Labour Members believe that savings could be found in other areas to continue that protection. As the director of North Tyneside CAB told me, although losing jobs and expertise is a massive problem, his biggest regret is that the changes to legal aid will fail clients. The coalition Government need to take heed of this debate and of the views expressed by the many experts who are making the case for the 500,000 people who will lose out as a result of the cuts. The cuts are not fair and definitely not just.
It is interesting to observe in the remarks made by those on both sides of the House that we are not talking about lawyers. As Yvonne Fovargue said in her opening remarks, this debate is more about trained, local, part-time and sometimes voluntary advisers who step in to help the vulnerable in need of advice. They work in citizens advice bureaux and other organisations in the voluntary sector and, in my opinion, although often not lawyers themselves, they are a rare example of legal provision at a low cost to the public purse.
I accept that reductions are necessary in expenditure and in the deficit that is, as we know, costing us £120 million a day-a point well made by my hon. Friend Anna Soubry. I am sorry Mr Bradshaw is not in his place, as I am sure he would challenge me on that and we could have an interesting debate. However, as each of us has only a few minutes to speak, I will plough on. The problem with the proposed cuts is that they will be expensive in the long run and that, as set out, they will not do what the coalition Government have set out to do, which is to protect and help the vulnerable.
I represent a town, Hastings, that is wonderful in many ways but deprived in others. The unemployment rate is high at 5.6%, compared with a UK rate of 3.5%, and we need the support of agencies to advise those on low incomes and the unemployed. In my town, agencies have formed consortia to win social welfare law contracts. They have vocal and powerful advocates who have been to see me. I mention in particular Julie Eason and, from the citizens advice bureau, Dina Christadoulis. They have convinced me of the need for the service that they provide. The average cost of what they provide to clients is £200 or less. Even if what they do takes three times as long, that is the cost-it is really good value. We need to make cuts, but that area of the front line is not the place for them. We should not be taking social welfare out of scope.
I find myself in agreement with what the hon. Lady is saying. If legal aid is to be withdrawn as a source of funding for exactly the kind of work that she describes, does she accept that the Government really must find an alternative source elsewhere?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that comment. I am speaking up on behalf of the agencies in Hastings precisely because I value the work that they do in helping the vulnerable there. I also make the point, as several Members have done, that removing the funding is not efficient for costs. He is absolutely correct that we need to find another source of funding in order to continue to protect those services.
The advice from those agencies is crucial to the clients, who in many cases cannot represent themselves. The agency I spoke with had kept records that showed clearly that 56% of its clients have long-term illness or disability and that 68% have long-term mental health problems. I am worried that some of my most vulnerable constituents may really struggle to manage their casework and prepare for a tribunal hearing without the help of legal aid-funded services.
I welcome the simplified welfare system that the Government are working on. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has some excellent proposals that will be coming through, which I hope and believe will make the welfare system much simpler. Until then, we must recognise the situation we are in and acknowledge that errors are made and that vulnerable people who cannot represent themselves must be able to have some representation.
Another benefit of having agencies work with those clients is that they can recognise when there is no case. If we allow individuals to represent themselves entirely, some will clog up the tribunals. The agencies are very effective at discouraging people who do not have a case from progressing with it, so only the cases that merit the sort of attention that the clients are seeking actually get it. In Hastings, for instance, the consortia to which I have referred have not lost an appeal for a client for employment support allowance or incapacity benefit since last April, which is testament to their right choice of clients and their professionalism. Last year they provided a service to around 20,000 clients in my area, and collectively they have more than £270,000-worth of contracts, which represents more than half the advice sector in Hastings.
We all know that local government funding is under pressure, and a key element of the funding it provides is to citizens advice bureaux. Given the cuts to local funding and the proposals for legal aid, I am worried about the future viability of the agencies that do so much work and whose advice is critical in a town with above-average needs. The social welfare contracts account for only 4.5% of the total legal aid bill. The early intervention that they provide is critical; if the advisers get involved early, they can stop things escalating and stop individuals getting to the stage where they might lose their houses.
I urge Ministers to consider the costs and consequences of the proposed changes to legal aid. We need to find alternative sources of funding to support the agencies if they are no longer to receive funds from that source. I associate myself with the argument made by other Members that, unless we find alternative funding, those of us who, like me, are not lawyers will have to train up pretty quickly because of the size of casework that we will receive.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue on bringing forward this important topic for debate. For as long as I have worked in the community, legally aided lawyers and law centres have often been at the forefront of the fight for justice for marginalised groups who could not otherwise have made their voices heard. Those were often groups of people who were not necessarily getting help from their trade union, their councillors or their MP, because lawyers can often pinpoint issues, because of the cases coming to them, before they come to the attention of politicians. Because I know that so many legally aided lawyers and practitioners who work in citizens advice bureaux and law centres are often extraordinarily dedicated, I deprecate the tendency of Governments of all colours-my Government were just as bad-to talk about legal aid just in terms of the money going to lawyers. On the tendency to slide into talking about fat cat lawyers, I can say with confidence that, since the Carter reforms, nobody has made a fortune in legal aid law practice. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] I can hear hon. Members from both sides supporting me on that point.
Prior to becoming a Member, I was a criminal barrister for a number of years, and, to confirm what the hon. Lady says, I must say that as a barrister at Crown court one would earn £40 for a mention and could be there all day. The idea that barristers or lawyers are fat cats is completely wrong, and I fully support what she says.
But sadly, when Governments of all colours consider legal aid, they seem to zero in on the lawyers and the money that they make, rather than the millions of people whom they help.
I repeat what Opposition Members have said about the potential of the reforms to undermine totally the law centre movement. Nobody who has seen people queuing outside their law centre for help could support any action by any Government which undermined that movement. I must add, however, that the legal aid reforms will also undermine the practice of many high street solicitors, who are often close to and help their community. A disproportionate number of them are black and minority ethnic solicitors, and I do not believe that the Government have fully considered how the reforms will undermine the structure for providing the legal advice, help and support on which communities rely.
Earlier, a Member said that one reason why people have recourse to lawyers is the inefficiency of the Department for Work and Pensions, to which I should add the inefficiencies of local councils and the immigration service and the inefficiencies and, sometimes, unfairness of education authorities. But what are we to do? We acknowledge the systemic inefficiencies in many parts of the public sector, but are we going to leave tens of thousands of people to suffer injustice and unfairness in order to save money in the short term on the legal aid budget?
I also want to address the limits of phone advice. Talking down a phone might be all well and good for people in wealthier areas, but in the inner city too many people do not have English as their first language, and if English is their first language they might be inarticulate, afraid and inhibited. In 20 years as a Member, I have had to advise hundreds of thousands of people. Often, they come in and mumble about some issue or other, and only after carefully questioning them, looking them in the eye and showing them my sympathy do they tell me their real problem. If we submit such people to talking down a phone, we will find that their issues are completely lost. They will put the phone down, never having explained what they really wanted to talk about.
My hon. Friend's constituency and mine are different in many ways, but one similarity has been commented on repeatedly over the years: they both have high levels of deprivation. Does she agree that, if we take away access to organisations such as Kirkby Unemployed Centre, Merseyside Welfare Rights and Knowsley citizens advice bureau, those levels of deprivation-in her constituency and in mine-will go up?
There is no question but that they will go up, because we are talking not about frivolity, serial litigants or people who litigate for fun, but about people who have to go to law to obtain the basic rights and fairness that we in the Chamber take for granted. On the idea of people in communities in the east end of London picking up a phone, Ministers are not being realistic. They must not understand what happens in some parts of the country if they think that going on the phone is a substitute for dealing with somebody who is skilled, looks a person in the eye, can see that they are nervous, knows how to put them at ease and can really draw from them the issue at the heart of their problems.
Opposition Members understand the need to consider the whole administration of justice budget, and there is a lot to be said for encouraging people with marital disputes to try mediation first, rather than going to law. Indeed, I have never heard of a divorce case in which tempers were sweetened by the involvement of lawyers. I do not reject out of hand the notion of encouraging people in marital disputes to go to mediation, but there are other ways of saving money in the Ministry of Justice budget, notably the organisation of the courts. Hundreds of thousands of pounds are wasted every year when cases collapse because people do not turn up and things have not been organised properly. Let us consider saving money through the organisation of the courts before considering these ill-thought-out cuts in legal aid. Government Members have referred to the NHS. It is better to identify liability earlier and save all the costs in contesting cases where people know perfectly well that in the end they will have to settle in some form or fashion.
It is not enough for Ministers to say, "Labour's spent all the money and that is why we're doing this." They have to understand that if we are serious about a big society and the role of Government, we have to ensure that the most deprived and marginalised communities have minimal protection, and part of that, in my mind, is access to justice and the rule of law. I sincerely hope, on behalf of my constituents and Hackney law centre, which is a tremendous organisation, that this is a genuine consultation and that Ministers will listen to some of the things that they hear in this Chamber this afternoon.
I echo the comments of Ms Abbott in her very proper analysis of the issue. This is not about lawyers; it is about access to justice. I am glad to see the Minister agreeing with those sentiments in the sense that the Government are not indulging in character assassination as regards practitioners in law.
There have been some excellent speeches. I pay tribute to Yvonne Fovargue for getting this debate the time that it deserves. I was happy to support her in her bid. I wish there were more time, as five minutes can hardly do the subject justice. It was a pleasure for me to take part in the Westminster Hall debate sponsored by Ms Buck, who took part earlier. I do not propose to reiterate the points that I made in that debate.
I put on record my thanks to the Department for having answered some of the questions that I have been tabling about the breakdown of the costs of civil legal aid for the last year for which figures were available-2008-2009. The figure of £24.7 million in legal help for welfare benefit cases, as alluded to by my hon. Friend Anna Soubry, is startling, and we should pay close attention to it. There is no doubt, as other Members have said, that there are serious deficiencies in the decision-making processes as regards benefit entitlements. I am utterly convinced that that large amount of money could have been saved if that system were more sound. I urge the Minister to work as closely as he can with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that it starts to take a share of the burden of the cost of representation.
I am sorry, but I cannot take interventions on this occasion because I want to ensure that other speakers have their say. As I said, so much to talk about, so little time.
Let me pray in aid Wiltshire law centre in my constituency, which carries out debt, welfare and housing work. To put it bluntly, it is set to lose the vast majority of its income if these proposals are implemented. May I put in a plea to the Minister to work as hard as he can with all agencies of Government to ensure that places like Wiltshire law centre get some form of block funding to ensure that its valuable work continues? It is as fundamental as that. I am worried that if we lose that service, my constituents will have to travel a very long distance to get legal aid, because most private firms in Swindon now do not offer the services offered by the law centre.
I have spoken in the past about special educational needs and education law. I reiterate my plea to the Minister to ensure that when the education Green Paper is published in March the forms of alternative dispute resolution, whether it be mediation or other forms of ADR, are properly explored and set out so that the need for legal representation in those cases becomes a thing of the past.
I have drilled down as far as I can to find out why this country spends more per head on legal aid than other country. The National Audit Office paper on the procurement of legal aid observed that during its control period in the latter part of last decade, England and Wales prosecuted more than a million more people than any comparator country. We have to look at why we spend a lot on legal aid. I do not think that it is a problem. I think it shows that we take prosecution seriously. The only real comparison we can make is with other common law countries, and they do not prosecute as many cases as England and Wales. Comparisons with France are utterly irrelevant. The French spend five times more on the judicial system than us because of their inquisitorial process. We must focus on comparisons with other common law countries. The simple fact is that we litigate more in England and Wales. As I said, I make no apology for the fact that this country brings more prosecutions than any other country. That issue should be dealt with in other debates. It is a causal issue, rather than being about the symptoms that legal aid has to deal with.
On domestic violence, my plea to the Minister is that we work hard on getting the definition right. I suggest that it is not right in the Green Paper. We should be considering courses of conduct rather than individual incidents. I would be happy to work with him on that matter.
I join in the congratulations to my neighbour, my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue on securing this debate on an issue that will adversely affect so many of our constituents.
Before Christmas, a woman came into my surgery in desperation. She was trying to extricate herself from a violent relationship. As is normal with such relationships, although she is now safe, her ex-partner continues to manipulate her and to exert his power by agreeing to things and then going back on his word. Even though she earns only about £20,000, she had been turned down for legal aid and was in a terrible situation. She was paying for a solicitor, but it had reached a point where she could not ask them to do anything else because she could not afford to pay them. As an ordinary person, she was terrified of running up debt, so she made sure that she paid all her bills immediately, even though that meant that she frequently did not have enough money to be able to eat. Of course, celebrating Christmas was out of the question. If the Government go ahead with their plan to reduce civil legal aid, my surgery will be full of people like that.
Bolton citizens advice bureau sent me a snapshot of an ordinary day at its drop-in service. On
The stories of many of those people are heartbreaking and many of their cases involved an element of benefits, with claims being refused, delayed or wrongly calculated. Many of them did not have enough money to feed themselves or their children, such as the lone parent with three children who was receiving only £47.50 a week, or the lone father who had received no benefit for his 18-month-old and was told he would have to wait another four weeks for any money. A number of them were in imminent risk of losing their homes because of failed businesses. Some had employment issues and others had immigration issues. Whatever the issue, the common thread was that they went to Citizens Advice because they had nowhere else to go. They could not afford to buy legal support, unlike the people who were pursuing them. Their cases involved debt, wages that had not been paid and the refusal to pay benefits.
Surely, it is a mark of a civilised society that all people have access to legal justice. Surely, in 2011 we should not be returning to olden days when the poor simply had to accept what the rich and powerful did to them. Of course, the equality impact assessment states that females and black or minority ethnic people will be more adversely affected, and it cannot rule out a disproportionate effect on the disabled. The Government do not appear to be taking action to redress that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield talked about the financial cost of removing legal aid, but what about the other costs? What will happen to the lone father who is getting no benefit? Will his child go into care? What will happen to the person who loses their house? Will they go into emergency accommodation and have to be rehoused by the state? What about the long-term trauma of children caught up in the problems? Will they then fail in school and in their future life? The Government's proposal is wrong, morally, ethically and financially.
Citizens advice bureaux and community law centres are the Government's big society in action-a combination of volunteers and professionals working in partnership to provide a service for their communities. It is often the only service for those who are the most disadvantaged. Like every other voluntary group, however, the service costs. Even if projects are run entirely by volunteers, they still need funding for training and resources, premises and running costs.
I will not argue that legal aid needs no reform, but the proposed reform is supported by no one. Even the most commercial firm of solicitors says that it will have a detrimental effect on the most vulnerable in society. I say to the Government, please do not send us back to the days when justice was just for the rich and the privileged. I plead with them to rethink their proposals.
I had hoped to speak for about 25 minutes, but I find that I have to cut my speech down to four minutes, so I shall be to the point and abrupt.
I wish to make a plea to the Minister about lawyers who fight against corporate, local government and about Government bodies that are under serious pressure to make serious cuts and sometimes get things wrong to the detriment of the most vulnerable in our communities. I wish to set out a particular case to the Minister, because I believe that the Legal Services Commission is already taking action to cut expenditure sizeably, but should not be doing it in quite the way that it is.
I wish to talk about a company called Hossacks Solicitors, which is one of the 78 legal companies that fight on behalf of community services. It has done a tremendous job-I have been on the wrong end of it on occasions in the past. However, in 2010 the LSC, which had granted a contract to Hossacks to fight a legal matter, said that it had issued the contract in error. The company disputed that fact on the grounds that it had entered into a binding legal contract with the LSC. The LSC replied on
I really do not have the time.
I ask the Minister to come back to me on this matter, because it raises a considerable concern that affects many people throughout the country. If the LSC is acting prematurely, it should be stopped until the debate is over and the consultation is finished.
I have finished within the time you wished, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In the two minutes that I have, I shall concentrate on the citizens advice bureau in my area. I met the chief executive, Lesley Thornley, on Tuesday, and she highlighted the real problems that she thinks the CAB will suffer from. There seems to be a triple whammy. First, the financial inclusion fund will be gone. Some 50% of the advice that the CAB in my area provides is debt management advice, and she is concerned about what will happen to the people affected as a result of that cut. Secondly, there are the real-terms cuts to legal aid, and thirdly there are the cuts to the local authority, which she tells me will lead to 42% cuts to her CAB. She highlighted the fact that the Birmingham CAB is closing as a result of cuts, and she is very worried that the CAB in my area will also close.
I have spoken on numerous occasions to solicitors in my area, including very recently to Mr Waddington of Williamsons solicitors. He tells me that this issue is about access to justice. Publicly funded lawyers do not go into the job to earn big sums of money, just as teachers do not go into teaching to do so. Will the Minister ensure that he looks very seriously at the proposals? Vulnerable people will suffer as a consequence of the Government's programme.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Yvonne Fovargue on securing this debate, which has been an excellent example of Back-Bench debates focusing on an issue that is causing great concern in constituencies around the country. We have heard many good speeches from both sides of the House.
It is appropriate that Members on both sides of the House speak in defence of legal aid, because it was on the recommendation of a Committee headed by a Conservative peer Lord Rushcliffe that legal aid was first proposed in 1943, and it was a Labour Government and a Labour Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, who piloted the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 through Parliament. The Secretary of State for Justice says that he wishes to return to the original intent of legal aid, but the original intent of legal aid is captured in paragraph 40 of Magna Carta:
"To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."
Those were the very words that Sir Hartley Shawcross had in mind when he said on Second Reading of the 1949 Act:
"It is a Bill which will open the doors of the courts freely to all persons who may wish to avail themselves of British justice without regard to the question of their wealth or ability to pay."-[ Hansard, 15 December 1948; Vol. 459, c. 1221.]
The Government's Green Paper presents their plans as a return to the founding intent of legal aid, but they are in fact the exact opposite. They will remove the average person's ability to seek justice.
I wish to focus on the cuts that will cause most damage-those to social welfare legal aid-but that is not to say that there are no problems with other aspects of the Government's proposals. The narrow definition of domestic violence cases will leave women and children vulnerable and less able to seek help; the failure sufficiently to address the costs of very high-cost criminal cases is a mistake and a missed opportunity; and taking clinical negligence out of scope, alongside proposed changes to civil litigation funding, will end the ability of many people to challenge negligence and malpractice. However, it is the cuts to social welfare legal aid that we find most unacceptable. They will result in the complete collapse of the social welfare advisory sector, and do so, ironically, at huge cost to the state.
In the short time that I have, let me give five reasons why those cuts are wrong. First, the advisory sector will all but disappear. The Government propose to eliminate almost all legal aid for social welfare, including legal aid for debt, housing, education, welfare, employment and immigration cases. They will cut funding for many advisory services, such as citizens advice bureaux and law centres.
Is my Friend aware that the High Court this week found in favour of the Mary Ward centre and other voluntary organisations that were threatened with a huge cut by London councils on the ground that inadequate equality assessments were made in advance of the proposed cuts? That is a taster of what is to come if the Government try to put those cuts through.
The cuts to law centres and citizens advice bureaux come alongside cuts to the financial inclusion fund and local authority funding. Hammersmith and Fulham community law centre, where I have been a member of the management board for 20 years, has lost all its local authority funding, and will, if the Government's equality impact assessment is to be believed, lose 90% of its Legal Services Commission funding. Most law centres around the country and many citizens advice bureaux and private firms will be forced to close. Remaining citizens advice bureaux will find their ability to provide services considerably diminished, particularly those in areas of greatest deprivation. The knowledge, talented advisers and high-quality service provided at far below the market are irreplaceable.
The second point is that the most vulnerable will be hurt at a time of great economic turmoil. Let us consider the people served by those organisations I have just discussed. The Ministry itself estimates that 85% of legal representation and 80% of legal help is for individuals within the bottom income quintile. People with mental health problems and other disabilities experience much higher rates of unemployment, debt, homelessness and discrimination and will therefore be disproportionately affected. The disabled are twice as likely to live in poverty as the non-disabled. According to Mind, many callers are profoundly distressed and unable to explain their problems clearly. They find it traumatic to discuss those problems with a stranger over the phone and need face-to-face contact.
Thirdly, the Government overstate the ability of people to navigate the legal system without advice or guidance. The Green Paper misrepresents the reality of tribunals, and ignores the fact that the law is ever changing and highly complex. Without specialist advice, many claimants would be unable to prepare a case for first-tier, let alone upper tribunals. Representation before court and in court streamlines the legal system and makes it more efficient. These cuts will deepen the existing inequalities of arms and lead to injustice-and also to great inefficiency in the civil legal system. Without representation, appellants are more likely to request an adjournment, get things wrong, achieve less fair outcomes and therefore go on to appeal-all of which cause delays and costs.
Fourthly, the alternatives suggested by the Government are inappropriate or inadequate. The Minister says that people should seek advice from tribunals, respondent organisations themselves or the pro bono sector. The first two options have been greeted with incredulity. As for the last, the Free Representation Unit-the largest pro bono organisation in the UK-said in response to the Green Paper that it
"gives a misleading impression. It wrongly uses the role of FRU to support its conclusions. The work that FRU does can...be no part of the justification for withdrawing Legal Help in this area. FRU is in no position to replace the invaluable work of publicly funded solicitors, law centres and Citizens' Advice Bureaux in giving initial advice."
That is right. The pro bono sector cannot exist in its current form without the infrastructure of the advisory sector.
The fifth and final reason why these cuts are wrong is that the Government's sums do not add up. People who cannot resolve their problems often accumulate more problems and end up in cycles of decline, including social exclusion, eviction, unemployment, stress and depression, relationship and family breakdown. Children whose families are experiencing social problems are more likely to become involved in truancy, exclusion and offending. Early resolution saves time and money in identifying meritorious cases to take to court and preparing clients appropriately, and settling out of court where possible. Once someone is already homeless it costs the state tens of thousands of pounds to get them out of that situation. Just at first-tier tribunal stage, Government figures show that had the proposed cuts been in place last year, more than 51,000 cases that were successful would not have been, due solely to a lack of advice and representation.
The Green Paper is filled with inaccuracy, imprecision and outright fallacy. The sums do not add up, and it will lead to the disastrous loss of many of the CABs and law centres that are-to quote the excellent article by Mrs Grant in today's Guardian-the "last line of defence" against catastrophe for the tens of thousands of people they help every year.
Yesterday, someone who has spent much of their professional life providing legal assistance to those who cannot afford it asked me why no one has yet put this question in terms of the rule of law. A civilised society is one that encourages its decisions to be challenged and that understands that no decision can be beyond reproach. The legal aid system ensures that citizens can seek and gain justice, and that their lives are not placed into turmoil simply because they lack the means to challenge the decisions of large public and private corporations. That is the question that should haunt anyone who seeks to make such devastating cuts to a service that rightly makes us proud.
As for those outside this Chamber who have dedicated themselves to helping the most vulnerable navigate an often bewildering legal system, I join many of my colleagues in thanking them for all that they do for our country. They are the embodiment of the kind of civil society in which Labour has believed for so long. Many give their time for free. Others have accrued decades of valuable experience, with unique insight into the communities they serve, and I encourage them to make their voices heard. If their voices are not heard now, and if the stories of those whom they help are not heard, this Government intend to silence them forever. They should be assured that we will stand alongside them, our voices will join with theirs, and together we will resist these acts of sheer vandalism.
I congratulate Yvonne Fovargue on securing this important debate, in which we have heard many excellent contributions.
It has been helpful to hear first-hand from those who have contributed today, but before responding to some of the specific issues raised, of which there were many, I would like to reiterate the rationale and context of the reform proposals. I should say at the outset that the Government strongly agree with the views expressed by many Members today that access to justice is a hallmark of a civilised society, and that the provision of legal aid, in a targeted, focused and sustainable way, is a key part of ensuring appropriate access to justice. So I say to the hon. Members for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) that our aim is to direct our scarce resources towards helping the most vulnerable.
As hon. Members will know, the Government have pledged to reduce the budget deficit to deal with the acute financial crisis and encourage economic recovery. The Department has to reduce its budget by £2 billion by 2014-15, and legal aid, being one of just three big areas of spending in the Ministry of Justice, needs to make a substantial contribution of £350 million to that reduction. However, the need to make savings gives us the impetus and urgency for change and provides us with the opportunity radically to reform a system that, in many cases, needed reform anyway. To that extent, I agree with Mr Bradshaw that our policy cannot simply be determined by how we deal with the deficit.
In June, we announced that we would be taking a fundamental look at the legal aid system. Our aim was then, and remains now, to create a stable and sustainable system that ensures access to public funding in those cases that really require it, the protection of the most vulnerable in our society and the efficient performance of our justice system. This also reflects the aim of creating a more efficient legal aid system as set out in the coalition Government document. Since the modern legal aid scheme was established in 1949, its scope has been widened far beyond what was originally intended. By 1999, legal aid funding was available for virtually every type of issue, including some that should not require any legal expertise to resolve.
I would love to give way, but with so many points having been made, I cannot. I apologise.
I believe that that has too often encouraged people to bring their problems before the courts even where the courts are not best placed to provide the best solutions, and discouraged them from seeking simpler, more appropriate remedies. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Grant on her excellent article this afternoon.
Indeed, the scheme now costs more than £2 billion a year, making it one of the most generous schemes in the world, even taking jurisdictional differences into account. We need to understand that, even after the proposed reforms, we are still going to have one of the most expensive schemes in the world. The previous Government made many attempts to reform legal aid, conducting more than 30 consultations since 2006, but the changes were of a piecemeal nature and failed to address the underlying problems. Rather than continue with this "cut and come again" approach, we have gone back to basic principles to make choices about which issues are of sufficient priority to justify the use of public funds, subject to people's means and the merits of the case.
The Opposition's general position on legal aid is staggeringly inconsistent and opportunistic. Labour appears to be backing down on its commitment to support legal aid reform. In an article on Left Foot Forward, the shadow justice Minister, Mr Slaughter, wrote:
"It is nonsensical...to cut these long established public services."
The article seems to reveal a split between the shadow Justice team and its party leader, who said at a recent press conference that with regard to the reductions in legal aid
"Labour has shown it is ready to make difficult cuts which we believe are necessary for the long term health of our economy."
Its leader was, of course, reiterating the promise made in the 2010 Labour manifesto:
"We will find greater savings in legal aid".
It also contradicts the statement of Sadiq Khan offering support to the Government when the reforms were announced last year. He said:
"Let me be clear: had we been in government today, we, too, would have been announcing savings to the legal aid budget. That is a reality that we all have to acknowledge."-[ Hansard, 15 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 663.]
I think the Minister does, now that he has read out the central office briefing. I urge him either to read the shadow Lord Chancellor's article in the Solicitors Journal today, or even my speech in Westminster Hall before Christmas, which he would have heard had he turned up for it. If he does, he will see exactly where we would make the cuts and that we have made it clear throughout that we would not cut essential social welfare legal aid.
I am pleased to hear some clarification of what the Opposition are not going to do; perhaps the hon. Gentleman will come back to the House to tell us what they are going to do, so that we can take a view on where they are coming from on this issue, because they have been thoroughly unimpressive to date.
No, I will not.
The proposals in our consultation paper take into account the importance of the issue at stake, the litigant's ability to present their own case, the availability of alternative sources of funding and alternative routes to resolving the issue, as well as our domestic and international legal obligations. I should also point out that the consultation is still open, and that I am therefore here to listen to hon. Members' views rather than to agree or disagree with any particular view.
We propose to focus financial support, and legal advice and representation, on those who need it most. The proposed reforms involve significant change to the scope of legal aid funding. Having said that, I should make it clear that we are not proposing any changes to the scope of criminal legal aid, and that legal aid will also still routinely be available in civil and family cases in which people's life or liberty is at stake, or in which a person is at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home. For example, I can confirm to Ms Buck that we plan to retain legal aid for asylum cases, but not for immigration cases, except when the person is in detention.
Legal aid will also be retained for debt and housing matters when someone's home is at immediate risk, and for mental health cases. It will still be provided when people face intervention from the state in their family affairs that could result in their children being taken into care, and for cases involving domestic violence, child abduction or forced marriage. We also propose that legal aid should remain available for cases in which people seek to hold the state to account by judicial review for the most serious claims against public authorities. We shall also keep it for cases involving discrimination that are currently in scope, and for community care cases where the recipients are often very elderly and vulnerable.
Many hon. Members raised the question of telephone advice. Although that will provide a gateway, it will not stop face-to-face advice being given when that is appropriate. It will facilitate the more effective sourcing of services and help the disabled. People will be able to ask to be called back, as is currently the case, so the cost would be low. I should like to tell my hon. Friend Guto Bebb that we believe the telephone advice will assist people in rural areas, and that language translation will be catered for, particularly for Welsh speakers. The service currently has a satisfaction rating of more than 90%, so we see it as a very good service.
We recognise that there will be some cases, even within the areas of law that we propose to remove from scope, that international or domestic law will require to be funded by the taxpayer, or inquest cases where there is a significant wider public interest in funding legal representation. We therefore propose a new exceptional funding scheme for excluded cases. We also consider that the long-drawn-out, acrimonious nature of court proceedings too often exacerbates disputes rather than solve them. Alternatives often exist that are not only cheaper than rushing to court but faster and less contentious. So we will continue to provide funding for family mediation, to encourage people to use this more effective method to resolve issues between themselves, rather than using up precious taxpayers' money and the courts' time.
Of course, mediation is only one alternative to court proceedings. Work is going on across government to change our litigation culture and encourage alternative and less acrimonious dispute resolution. For example, the Government are currently seeking views on measures to achieve more early resolution of workplace disputes through ACAS conciliation, so that all parties have a chance to resolve their own problems in a way that is fair and equitable for both sides, without having to go to an employment tribunal.
Likewise, the Department for Education is looking into involving parents in early discussions and decisions about the special educational needs support that they need, so that they do not have to battle through the tribunal process. I think it was the hon. Member for Westminster North who said that 82% of appellants in SEN matters succeeded in their appeals. I should point out to her, however, that just 18% of parents are currently legally represented in those appeals.
On eligibility, we are not changing the criminal means-testing introduced by the previous Government. In civil cases, however, we believe that those able to pay for or contribute to the costs of their case should do so. This will help to ensure continued access to public funding, in those cases that really require it, for those who have little or no funds of their own. The consultation paper therefore includes the proposal that all clients with £1,000 or more of disposable capital should make a minimum £100 contribution to their legal costs, and that the capital of any prospective legal aid clients is taken into account when considering eligibility. We believe that this will encourage a greater sense of personal responsibility by giving clients a greater financial interest in the conduct of their case, as well as helping to discourage unnecessary litigation at taxpayers' expense.
Many Members, including the hon. Members for Makerfield, for Westminster North, for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), Amber Rudd and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), made points about the highly valued not-for-profit sector. Having frequently met the CAB, Shelter and other voluntary groups, I appreciate that the not-for-profit sector has particular concerns, but the important point is that this issue goes way beyond legal aid. Indeed, funding from legal aid represents a minority of many CABs' income-we believe only about 15% of CABs' income comes from legal aid-and many do not receive any legal aid income at all; the three CABs in my constituency receive no legal aid money, for example. That is because the basic role of CABs is to give general advice, not necessarily legal aid advice, as they have been allowed to do only for the past 11 years. The problem, however, for those that do give legal advice is that legal aid funding will often merge with other funding streams. CABs are funded mainly by local councils and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills centrally, and removing one stream could have a knock-on effect, but that does not make it wrong for us to be unwilling to pay legal aid for general advice.
The reality is that the funding streams have been in conflict for years, and effort and services have been duplicated and resources wasted, although the previous Government never sorted this out while their money machine was pumping away. We have recognised this problem, and I am pleased to be able to say that we are working closely with the Cabinet Office-based Office for Civil Society, which will look at this important issue across Government. To answer a question from my hon. Friend Tom Brake, I should say that transitional funding may be available.
We certainly see an important role for not-for-profit organisations in the advice sector. The coalition Government support such organisations, including CABs, and as my hon. Friend Mr Walker said, we hope that local government will share our view that they play an integral part in civil society. I am also happy to look at the issue raised by my hon. Friend Mr Binley.
The hon. Members for Makerfield and for Westminster North, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye and others spoke about welfare benefits. We recognise that some people find publicly funded legal advice and advice on welfare benefit matters helpful. However, the user-friendly nature of the tribunal means that appellants can generally present their case without assistance. More particularly, the issues raised are normally ones that should be dealt with by general advice, not legal aid. When I visited a law centre recently, I was shocked to hear that local benefits officers were sending people to the law centre for advice on what benefits they could claim. This is a bizarre situation, and it is not going to be solved by throwing legal aid money at the problem.
I am afraid to have to tell hon. Members that I have run out of time.
This debate will continue, as will the consultation. I can honestly say that we are looking forward to receiving the consultation responses of Members and all other respondees.
I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. Some good and passionate points were made on both sides of the argument. Legal aid has been called the fourth pillar of the welfare state, and I urge the Minister to listen and take on board some of the points that have been made, and not to cut into the legal aid budget so deeply that the whole building collapses, leaving Members to pick up the pieces in their surgeries.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the reform of legal aid.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, whose leadership heads the most incompetent quango in the country, has today published a "name and shame" of Members of Parliament who, in its mind, have made claims to which they were not entitled. Among those names is mine, but I have to tell the House that the payment was made to me in full on
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Speaker's Panel on IPSA, and I am almost tempted to ask him to refer this matter to himself, but I will not do that. He knows that the matter that he has raised is not a procedural point for the Chair, but he has put his views on the record and he knows that there are other ways of taking the matter further.