We published initial impact assessments, including equality impact assessments, with our reform proposals, including the proposal to establish the community legal advice helpline as the single gateway to civil legal aid services. Face-to-face advice will continue to be available where it is appropriate.
I am very interested in that reply. What does the Under-Secretary mean by "appropriate"? That seems to me to be a little get-out clause. I assume that he does MPs' surgeries. If so, he knows that people need face-to-face contact with their representatives-in this case, solicitors-to help them out. The measures will hurt some of the poorest families.
The hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate that we are not considering some future project-the advice line exists. It was used by 600,000 people last year and it is getting something like a 90% satisfaction rating. Poorer people can be called back so that they do not pay for the call. Those who live in remote areas often greatly appreciate the telephone call, and those who are disabled also much appreciate having access by telephone. I take the exact opposite position from the hon. Gentleman and say that the advice line will help vulnerable people.
Does the Under-Secretary accept that restricting advice on housing matters could result in more homelessness and additional costs to homelessness budgets in local authorities?
No, I do not, because we are not proposing to remove legal aid when imminent homelessness is a possibility. Legal aid will be retained in that situation.
Is the Under-Secretary aware that there is deep resentment in my constituency about the attack on the South Manchester law centre, which is hugely valued, and about the attacks on advice bureaux? Will he understand that the activities of the malign Legal Services Commission will remove access to legal services for people on limited means?
Just to be absolutely sure, neither my ministerial colleagues nor I, as far as I know, have attacked the South Manchester law centre in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. If he would like to give me details of exactly what he is talking about, I would be happy to take it up.
Many senior barristers earn hundreds of thousands-if not millions-of pounds from the public purse in the form of legal aid. What plans has the Under-Secretary to introduce a form of cap to stop the funds running to such sums?
We have no proposals to put a cap in place. The amount of work that is carried out will be just that. We are looking at the rates that are paid in certain circumstances, and people's eligibility to receive advice in the first place.
Citizens Advice, the main provider of face-to-face advice, faces cuts of up to 45% and law centres face cuts of 70%. Legal service funding is an essential part of the income of all law centres and most CABs, but, according to the Government's own figures, it is being cut by 90%. I welcome the Business Secretary's U-turn on reinstating debt advice for one year only. Will the Under-Secretary take the opportunity, in considering the many responses to his consultation, to perform his own U-turn and drop his plans to end social welfare legal aid? If not, does he accept that the whole country will become an advice desert, and that he will be known as the man who ended universal access to justice?
Anyone who suggests that there is universal access to justice in the context of access to legal aid has missed, for a start, the restrictions that the previous Labour Government put on access. We need take no lessons from the hon. Gentleman's party, which, on the day the election was called, cut criminal legal aid by 13%. We take no lessons from him.
We published equality impact assessments with our reform proposals. They considered impacts on the not-for-profit sector collectively, but not on individual types of not-for-profit organisation. We are working closely with colleagues across Government to formulate a coherent approach to that issue so that we can encourage and co-ordinate support for the valuable not-for-profit sector.
The reforms mean that people are now expected to represent themselves in an increasing number of proceedings. However, the Government's figures show that the success rate for people who receive proper legal advice and help before appearing in court is double that for those without representation, even though their cases have equal merit. Given that the Under-Secretary has already mentioned potential cuts for CABs and law centres, how does that fit with the principle of equal access to justice for all?
The hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate that the not-for-profit sector, while being valuable, often offers legal advice in circumstances in which general help is needed. There are many different funding streams, and we are talking about the legal aid funding stream, whereby CABs, for instance, receive only 15% of their funds from the Ministry of Justice. That makes it a cross-departmental issue, which we are taking up on a cross-departmental basis-something that the Labour party failed to do throughout its period in government.
I am encouraged by the Minister's emphasis on cross-departmental co-operation. Will he assure me that he and his colleagues will do everything they can to maintain the continuation of services such as the Wiltshire law centre and the citizens advice bureau in my constituency, which often find that legal and social issues cannot be distinguished?
My hon. Friend says that some centres find that legal and social issues cannot be distinguished, but that depends on how they are funded. For instance, only 50% of CABs receive any Ministry of Justice funding whatever. That very much depends on whether a centre offers general or legal help. However, I repeat that we realise that advice provision needs to be looked at on a cross-departmental basis. We appreciate that there is an issue for not-for-profits, and we are determined to address it.
Is the Minister aware that the other funding streams he talks about are often from local government to advice bureaux, law centres and CABs? All over the country, they are being decimated. Many valuable voluntary advice services that give not legal advice, but wraparound, general advice, face enormous cuts. Thus, people lose out on benefits and opportunities, and often end up homeless as a result of a lack of appropriate advice at the necessary time.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, and has clarified a point that I made earlier: there is a difference between general advice and legal advice. We appreciate that not-for-profits have an issue when we consider funding streams all added together. Those who attended the legal aid debate two weeks ago would have heard me make a plea to local government to support the general advice provided by their CABs. I repeat that plea today.