With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendments 3 and 4, Government motions to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.
Lords amendment 5.
Lords amendment 24, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 1 and 24 impinge on the financial privilege of this House. I ask the House to disagree to them and will ask the Reasons Committee to ascribe financial privilege as the reason for doing so. Notwithstanding that, the House now has the opportunity to debate the substance and effect of the amendments, and shortly I will state the Government’s full reasons for rejecting them. Before I start, I remind the House of the statement that I made on Report on
I turn to the Lords amendments. Access to justice is of fundamental importance to our legal system and to this Government, but our legal aid system is by any measure extremely expensive and sometimes prone to aggravating disputes unnecessarily by pushing them into the courtroom. The question for the Government has never been whether to reform it but how, and our approach is one with a principled basis of focusing scarce resources on the most urgent and serious cases while seeking a broader shift to earlier resolution of disputes. We have always been happy to accept amendments that deliver on those principles, so it should come as no surprise that the Bill is much revised. The Government have listened and made significant concessions, and I am grateful to the other place for its concern to improve the Bill.
In another place, Lords amendment 1, tabled by Lord Pannick, was said to identify the aims of the legal aid system in our society. It would place a duty on the Lord Chancellor, reflecting the provision in section 4(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999, to secure within the resources made available and in accordance with part 1 of the Bill that individuals have access to legal services that meet their needs effectively. However, clause 1(1) already sets out a clear duty on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that legal aid is made available in accordance with part 1 of the Bill, so the Government are concerned that the amendment replicates what is already in place.
Worse than mere duplication, technical problems with the amendment risk muddying the waters, creating legal uncertainty and undermining the Bill’s clear purpose. Unlike the clear duty in clause 1(1), which relates to legal aid made available under part 1 of the Bill, with legal aid being defined in clause 1(2), Lords amendment 1 would impose a duty in relation to legal services. Despite the purported qualifications in the words in brackets, it can be read as imposing a wider duty on the Lord Chancellor than that intended under the Bill, in that it risks imposing a duty on him to fund legal services beyond the realm of legal aid provision.
We believe that there are potential additional costs attached to the amendment, which would create uncertainty. It runs contrary to the policy intention of creating certainty through the unambiguous description of services in schedule 1 and the clearly defined circumstances in which exceptional funding is available. Both the uncertainty that would be created and the possible costs are undesirable outcomes.
The problem with the amendment is that it conflates the two important but separate principles of access to justice and the provision of publicly funded legal advice. It could be understood in the context of the 1999 Act, which, because it was drafted on an exclusionary basis, specifies what services cannot be funded under civil legal aid but leaves rather vague exactly what the Lord Chancellor is responsible for funding. However, the Bill is carefully drafted on an inclusionary basis, which means that it is explicitly clear about what services can be funded, thereby representing Parliament’s view on services that should be provided under legal aid to meet people’s needs.
Lords amendment 1 risks providing the basis for myriad new legal challenges seeking to widen the scope of the Bill. The central purpose of our legal aid reforms is targeting resources where they really matter, not providing work for lawyers. We cannot accept an amendment that might prompt endless legal dispute and judicial review.
Lords amendments 3 and 4, which were tabled by Lord Pannick, and the Government’s Lords amendment 5 all concern the director of legal aid casework. Lords amendments 3 and 4 are born out of concern that the director’s decisions will be subject to political interference from Ministers. I reassure the House that the Government absolutely agree with Members of the other place that the Lord Chancellor should have absolutely no involvement in a decision about legal aid funding in an individual case. However, we ask the House to reject Lords amendments 3 and 4, because they would have the unwelcome effect of preventing the director from being appointed as a civil servant.
I must remind the House that we are abolishing the Legal Services Commission to improve the administration of legal aid, not to create greater fragmentation of responsibility and accountability.
Clause 4 provides protection to the director by creating, in clause 4(4), a statutory bar on the Lord Chancellor’s involvement in funding decisions by the director in individual cases. The Lord Chancellor may not give directions or guidance to the director about the carrying out of the director’s functions in relation to an individual case. In addition to that protection, the Bill imposes a duty on the Lord Chancellor to publish any guidance and directions that he issues to the director.
Lords amendment 5, which is a Government amendment, goes further by requiring the director to produce an annual report for the preceding financial year on the exercise of their functions during that period. That annual report will be laid before Parliament and published. We consider that further offer of transparency to be an important safeguard.
I am aware that the question of directorial independence was one that exercised the other place considerably. It is because we agree that that is a vital issue that we are happy to put the matter beyond doubt. That is why I am asking the House to agree to the Government amendment in lieu of Lords amendments 3 and 4. That will reinforce the protections already set out in clause 4(4) by requiring the Lord Chancellor to ensure that the director acts independently of the Lord Chancellor when applying directions and guidance given under clause 4(3) in relation to an individual case. That provides additional assurance on the director’s independence without compromising common-sense administrative arrangements designed to improve control and accountability.
Finally, Lords amendment 24 concerns the provision of advice over the telephone, on which I am afraid I cannot agree with many of the sentiments of the other place. The effect of amendment 24 would be to weaken a key measure to modernise the system and bring it up to date. The aim of the telephone gateway is to route access to legal aid, in the first instance, by the phone. That is not only much more efficient, enabling calls to be properly triaged, but simpler to access and generally of higher quality.
We have, and if one were to call the telephone hotline, one would be able to speak in any of 170 different languages, which is more languages than one would find used in a high street solicitor’s office.
It is fine for hon. Members to use telephone hotlines, but what about those with mental illness, special educational needs, learning difficulties or no English? What will happen to ensure they get legal advice and do not give up before they can get anywhere?
I confirm to my right hon. Friend that it will be possible for all such people to have face-to-face advice. If the people who take the call, who are expert in finding out whether a person needs face-to-face advice, feel that people need face-to-face advice, they will get it. I am not just speculating. We know that that is the case because a modern, phone-based service currently exists, namely the Ministry of Justice community legal advice helpline. Its record is one of excellent public service.
In 2010-11, more than half a million calls were made to it. More than 90% of respondents to the last survey who subsequently received advice from the specialist service found it very helpful.
Concerns have been raised about accessibility. However, contrary to the claims of those opposed to the reforms, phone-based advice has been shown often to be more convenient and accessible than face-to-face advice, particularly benefiting those living in remote areas or those who have a physical disability.
I simply disagree that face-to-face advice will be appropriate in all cases of disability—quite the opposite. In many cases, people with disability would prefer to use telephone advice.
Such advice is also high quality. Contrary to the assumption that face-to-face advice is always better, specialist telephone advice providers are currently required to meet higher standards than their face-to-face counterparts. That will continue under the new contracts required to implement the Bill.
Under our plans, an individual seeking advice will simply need to ring the community legal advice helpline. They will be greeted by a trained operator who will assess whether they are eligible for legal aid or not. Their goal will be to ensure that people get a high quality, accessible service that delivers the right help, either by transferring them to specialist telephone advice providers or face-to-face providers if telephone advice is not appropriate, or by signposting them to other possible support if their issue does not fall within the scope of the legal aid scheme.
We know from our own experience as Members of Parliament that many of our constituents insist on coming to see us in our offices and working face to face, because that is how they can best get across their grievances. Why are the Government insisting on denying people the right to see somebody face to face?
In many cases the support that my hon. Friend’s constituents receive will be better received over the telephone than face to face. Crucially, the staff concerned will be trained not just to help the caller identify the nature of their problem, whether it is in scope and whether they qualify financially, but to assist with the prior issue of whether they need support in accessing the service. That could include the operator calling them back to reduce the cost of the call, a third party, such as an available family member, assisting the caller with the call, or a very good telephone translation service, if a person has limited or no spoken English. With 170 languages available, a better service will be delivered than someone could possibly get in a law firm’s offices.
The hon. Gentleman said at the commencement of his remarks that this measure was about targeting resources a bit better. The Government’s impact assessment says that they might save between £1 million and £2 million under this unfortunate scheme. However, the cost will be three times that amount, in terms of people being let down, losing their homes, not being able to receive assistance, and so on, along with all the other problems that will flow from this. The cost will be far more than £1 million to £2 million.
The right hon. Gentleman’s points go more to scope, which is not the subject of this debate, than the telephone service.
Some in the other place raised concerns about the gateway being mandatory and what that means for access by particular categories of vulnerable callers. However, that is precisely why we are applying the gateway in a limited number of areas—debt, discrimination and special educational needs—but not community care, which we have agreed should not be available initially. It is also why we are building in strong safeguards. Not only will there be an exemption for emergency cases, those in detention and under-18s, but even where a case is in scope and not in those groups, face-to-face advice will always be available where deemed to be required. Although those seeking advice in the three areas of law will be required initially to contact the helpline to apply for legal aid, callers eligible for legal aid who cannot give instructions or act on advice given over the telephone will be referred to face-to-face advice. I should also emphasise that, in response to concerns raised in another place, a review of the implementation of the mandatory gateway, including the operation of the gateway in the three areas of law, will be undertaken, and the report of that review will be published.
In all those areas—a duty to provide legal aid, the independence of the exceptional funding scheme and the operation of the gateway—the Government’s priority is to protect access to justice while modernising the service and ensuring that it is affordable. We agree with the need to underline the independence of a funding decision in an individual case. However, we cannot accept measures that would create legal confusion about what services the scheme provides, nor can we agree that it is unreasonable to ask claimants in three areas of law to access the service by the simple expedient of ringing a phone line—a modernisation entirely familiar from other walks of life.
I ask hon. Members to support the Government on all these amendments.
We have the first set of knives at 5.30 pm, so we will have had less than 26 minutes to discuss the four amendments from the House of Lords in this group, and we will have less than five hours in total to discuss the 11 amendments passed in the other place—the 11 defeats for the Government.
Let me deal first with Lords amendment 1. This 23-word amendment was supported by a number of prestigious Members of the other House, for whom I have a great deal of respect. Some are Cross Benchers, some are members of the Justice Secretary’s party and some are members of my party. Many Government peers voted with Lord Pannick in the other place when he pressed the amendment to a Division, which was won with a majority of 45. The amendment was carefully drafted; indeed, I should point out that none of the technical deficiencies pointed out today was raised by Lord McNally when he responded in the other place.
The speakers in the debate in the other place included the former Leader of the House of Commons and former Cabinet colleague of the Justice Secretary, Lord Newton of Braintree, who sadly recently passed away. His last contribution in Parliament was on this Bill, and he spoke powerfully against many bits of part 1. I would like to echo the tremendous tributes that have been paid to him in the other place recently, and I am sure would all Members of all parties in the Chamber.
The Bill, as drafted, contains no duty on the Lord Chancellor to provide the services that the Bill permits. Lords amendment 1 would ensure that he had to meet the needs of citizens within “the resources available” and the scope of legal aid, as defined by the Bill. It would quite simply be a statement of legislative purpose at the outset of the Bill. The wording in the amendment has been included in legal aid statutes since the first Act in 1949. Even given the understandable budgetary constraints on the Government, a clause such as this would show that the Government recognised that legal aid was regarded as an essential element of access to justice. It would be modest and sensible, and it would not cost the taxpayer anything, but it would enshrine an important constitutional principle in part 1 of the Bill.
In fact, the amendment does not go as far as the House of Lords Constitution Committee wanted to go. Lord McNally stated:
“I also accept that the duty that the amendment would place on the Lord Chancellor would be qualified by the reference to the duty being subject both to the resources available and to the provisions of Part 1.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 5 March 2012; Vol. 735, c. 1569.]
It is therefore unclear how on earth the Government can claim financial privilege in relation to this amendment, or, more pertinently, why they are so unwilling to accept it. We shall oppose their attempt to overturn Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 24 seeks to ensure that the telephone gateway that the Government intend to create will not be mandatory, as proposed in the original Bill. This is important for many vulnerable groups, such as those with mental health issues or communication problems. The other place voted by a majority of 28 to support the amendment tabled by Baroness Grey-Thompson to remove the provision of a mandatory telephone gateway and the delivery of legal aid services exclusively by telephone. It is particularly disappointing that the Government are seeking to overturn this amendment as well. Without it, the Bill will give the Government wide powers to make legal aid services available exclusively by phone or other electronic means. For the avoidance of doubt, we accept that telephone advice might suit many people; we are not against its use. We are, however, against it being the only way of getting initial advice. This goes to the matter of access to justice, and the Government just do not get it.
It has been emphasised many times in our debates on social welfare law that it is often the most vulnerable in society who rely most on the support of social welfare—for example, those with learning difficulties, mental health issues or communication problems. Some in those groups already suffer from chaotic lives and find it hard to communicate complex, multi-faceted, challenging problems. I wonder how many of the Ministers on the Front Bench conduct their surgeries exclusively by telephone. Those people’s problems can be further compounded by having to explain them and seek advice over the telephone. Many do not have a landline, and others cannot afford the cost of using their mobile, with waiting time eating into their scarce credit.
The Government appear to agree with that. In response to a question about the impact assessment from my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart, the Minister did not give the entire information. The Government’s own impact assessment highlighted the fact that the disabled, and those whose first language is not English, would find this a particularly hard way of engaging with the legal aid system. I fear that the result will be that many vulnerable people are deterred from seeking support.
Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that call centres often have a time limit for handling people? Such a limit would put pressure on people who are already under pressure, probably for financial reasons, which would make it impossible for them to get the information that they need over the telephone. They need face-to-face advice.
My hon. Friend makes an astute point. We all know from our MP surgeries, including those of us not blessed with having been lawyers in our previous careers, that talking problems through with our constituents often gets to the core of their difficulties and saves a huge amount of time further down the road. That point has been made by Scope and other disability groups and campaigners. The irony of the proposal is that not dealing with such problems at an early stage risks escalation, with increased costs to the taxpayer further down the line.
Labour Members agree with the decision of the other place. We hope that Government Members, who voted half an hour ago to limit debate to less than five hours, will also support the decision to remove the mandatory telephone gateway and recognise that, for some complex and vulnerable clients, face-to-face support is the only effective way to access justice. We will also oppose the Government’s attempts to overturn Lords amendment 24. I do not know whether other colleagues wish to participate in the debate, but there are only five minutes left, so I will finish my comments there.
I was grateful for the Minister’s reassurance, but I have to say that I am not persuaded. Like any MP with a constituency containing people from many different races and backgrounds, with many different first languages, and with all the disabilities that any mixed community has, I simply do not believe that a telephone route into deciding eligibility for legal aid is right for everybody. It may be right for many people, and I understand that it will be a good service, but if we ask constituents such as mine whether they have always been satisfied with the council response line—whether under Labour now, or with us running it, as previously—the answer is always no. That does not change, irrespective of who is running the show. I understand the Government’s position, and I hear what they say about a review, although I add a request for the review to be regional as well as general, but I believe that the Lords who pressed for amendment 24 have a well-made case. I shall support the Lords in respect of amendment 24.
I have just one or two brief remarks. I am pleased that Simon Hughes said what he did, because Liberal Democrat Members in Committee did not make those points at any stage. In any case, I am glad that he said it, and I am sure he is sincere in doing so.
By definition, the people whom we are dealing with are likely to be the most vulnerable in society. Our system of justice is based on the equality of arms. Unless we have equality of arms, we will prevent certain individuals from having access to justice. I do not want to be part of any legislature that will do that. I come back to my intervention on the Minister. The Government’s own figures suggest savings of £1 million to £2 million. How many savings will be made when people are not allowed to be given basic advice about debts, housing, welfare and all the other problems they face? We should remember that people often face not just one problem, but five or six, as Sadiq Khan said.
Has the right hon. Gentleman had a chance to read the Citizens Advice report published today? The final paragraph on the first page states:
“A key message from this report is that early intervention in casework funded by legal aid works. In the absence of free legal advice, the risk is that these individuals will not only be out of scope, but out of mind.”
That is absolutely right, and I am concerned about it. I understand the need for the Government to look for some savings, but they are going after what they perceive to be a soft target. It is the wrong target. Even at the eleventh hour, I hope that they will think long and hard about it. Members in the other place argued long and hard; we were not allowed to argue sufficiently long in Committee or indeed on the Floor of the House, which is a disgrace in itself. Those who took time to go through all the available evidence concluded with an alternative view, and those people are right. If we have a vote, I will encourage all my hon. Friends, and any Member who has a conscience, to vote in favour of the Lords amendment and not to accept this mealy-mouthed excuse from the Government.
I encountered a Member of the House of Lords yesterday. She said, “I hope you will agree that we have done a good job on this Bill.” I said, “You have done a brilliant job, but it is all going to be overturned by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons tomorrow.”
The fact is that this Government, who do not need finance for their own legal aid, are forcing people to obtain legal advice by telephone operator. If they hold constituency surgeries, they will know that people cannot present a concise account of their problems. They have to discuss them, and when they have discussed them, it is possible to get to the core of what they need and help them—but these people do not care about that. I will say this, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is out of order in this House of Commons to accuse anyone of hypocrisy, so I—
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, this day) .
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Lords amendment s 3 and 4 disagreed to.
Government amendments (a) and (b) made in lieu of Lords amendments 3 and 4.