Report (3rd Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 12th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lords Spokesperson (Attorney General's Office), Lords Spokesperson (Wales Office), The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Scotland Office) 7:00 pm, 12th March 2012

My Lords, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, as indicated by many contributors to this debate, would bring legal aid within scope for all immigration cases. I readily understand why noble Lords have put forward the amendment and I am sure the noble Lord will accept, as I think he indicated in his remarks, that just because we seek to take many immigration cases out of scope does not mean that we do not value the contributions that immigrants have made. I think the noble Lord, Lord Bach, acknowledges that we certainly do.

To make a change to the Bill in a way proposed by this amendment causes us to look at the rationale and the basic structure of what underlines this legislation at a time of limited resources. As my noble friend Lord Boswell has just said, this is a time when difficult decisions have had to be taken and when there has been a need to focus legal aid on those who need it most in the most serious cases. My noble friend said that he hoped we would consider it. It can be taken as read that, in an area as sensitive as this, for the reasons that have been advanced by many of your Lordships in contributions to this debate, this is obviously a matter which has been given serious consideration. I am confident that all who took part in the debate will appreciate that this is not a blanket exclusion of immigration cases. We have made it clear in the immigration sphere that we are retaining legal aid for asylum cases, which we believe is absolutely essential because the issues at stake can, at times, be as serious as life or death. It is important, too, to recognise that we will protect legal aid for immigration detention and where there is domestic violence. We are also keeping legal aid for most immigration judicial review cases, which are very often the most complex cases.

This approach means that under our reforms we will continue to spend £70 million of the current £90 million budget in relation to immigration cases. My noble friend Lord Newton talked about a disproportionate share. I think that our reform, with an expectation that some £70 million out of the current £90 million budget will continue to be spent, is an indication that this has been examined in some detail.

However, the corollary of protecting legal aid, particularly in the key areas to which I have just referred, is that it is necessary to be more far reaching in others. At a time when our fiscal difficulties have been acknowledged by a number of contributors, I do not see how it is always possible to justify the extended use of limited resources; for example, for foreign students who may wish to study here but who do not have a connection with the United Kingdom. When difficult choices have to be made sometimes it is very easy to accept the principle that those choices are necessary but it is more difficult when you try to translate them into specific areas.

I shall pick up specific points made by a number of contributors, not least by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who acknowledged the accession to the convention that was recently confirmed. The noble and learned Baroness knows, because we debated it in Committee, that the Government provide £2 million per annum for support to trafficked victims to help to rebuild their lives and that can include information about legal rights. I think it is known by your Lordships that that £2 million is distributed by the Salvation Army. The convention requires legal counselling, including information about people's rights. There are no immigration applications as such that trafficking victims need to make. They are automatically granted 40 days' leave; then they may be granted 12 months' leave if they are assisting the police, or up to three years' leave if there are compelling circumstances to do so. That is decided on the known facts of the case and they do not need to apply for it.

As was acknowledged by the noble and learned Baroness and by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, we debated an element of trafficking last week when the Government accepted, in principle, much of what the noble and learned Baroness proposed in her amendment. We have agreed to return at Third Reading with amendments dealing with advice for victims of trafficking and we will certainly consider the points raised in this debate about including immigration advice with that. I think I indicated last week to the noble and learned Baroness that there will be engagement between her and officials in the Ministry of Justice.

In general, we believe that many immigration cases-I think my noble friend Lord Boswell touched on this-are relatively straightforward and individuals should be capable of dealing with their applications without the assistance of a lawyer. The issues raised are often not complex legal ones. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said in reference to that. I do not have before me the details of that or whether it might fall into one of the exceptions that would be within scope. Often they are about whether the facts of a particular case meet the Immigration Rules.

We have a tribunals system in this country where appeals are heard and interpreters are provided as necessary. Sharing some of the initial comments of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, I hope that we have not lost sight of the original point of tribunals which was precisely to allow the resolution of disputes by individuals without the need for complex and expensive legal advice. Indeed, when the noble Lord, Lord Bach, was making his case, I had a similar thought to the one that the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, expressed that perhaps one answer to this would be to simplify the legislation. However, as he rightly points out, that is not on offer today and I cannot make any commitment on that. I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said something very similar. It is something on which we, in Government, would do well to reflect. I am sure that many areas of administrative law-not just immigration-have grown in complexity over the years, as one layer of legislation has been laid on another.

I, too, agree that coming to or staying in the United Kingdom is of vital interest to those concerned, but practical, general advice and guidance can be available to help them. As we have already indicated, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will include details of substantial new funding for the advice sector when he announces the Budget. At a time of austerity, specialist legal advice on top of that is simply not justified. My noble friends Lord Newton and Lord Avebury spoke about the position of the citizens advice bureaux and the stringent regulations that were brought in by the previous Government. It is my understanding that the citizens advice bureaux can give immigration advice to level 1, which is low-level advice and assistance. Similarly, we will work with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner with a view to seeing whether we can exempt local authorities from regulation so that they can offer low-level advice and assistance as well.