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My Lords, I thank the Minister for moving these regulations. This is clearly an important day for the future of our social security system, and the House has heard why so many of us believe this to be a day of shame for our country and its reputation as a civilised and just place to live and work.
I rise, on this particular regulation, certainly as no expert in the provision of the regulations that have gone before but as someone who has an interest, as I hope we all have, in ensuring that everyone has equal rights before the law-in other words, some real access to justice. In the Explanatory Memorandum to the regulations, paragraph 7.1 states:
"The Department for Work and Pensions ... is introducing a new set of Decisions and Appeals Regulations to ensure that the decision-making and appeals framework which currently applies to all social security benefits applies to the new benefits introduced by the 2012 Act".
No doubt the intent behind the regulations-it is a virtuous intent, at least in theory-is that for those wishing to challenge or appeal a decision there is a procedure to go through, as there always has been.
So far, so good, but something very big is missing that was not missing when the 1999 decisions and appeals regulations were operated in practice. It is like the elephant in the room; we do not discuss it, but it is there. Has the Minister spotted it? Have his officials spotted it? Has the Secretary of State spotted what I am talking about? The enormous difference between the operation of previous appeals regulations and the ones before us is this. For those few with enough money to pay to appeal or challenge decisions, the position has not changed very much, if at all. They will be able to pay for legal advice and that advice will tell them whether they have a case or not. However, after
I am sure that it has not escaped the Minister, his fellow Ministers in the department or indeed the department itself, that legal aid for welfare benefit advice will be abolished. However difficult the case, however much it may rely on points of law, there will be no legal aid either before or at a First-tier Tribunal, let alone an application to the Secretary of State for reconsideration. I would ask this question of the Minister: does he think that that is fair or that it represents a just system of reconsideration and appeals? I hope that he will not suggest in his reply that somehow welfare benefit law is so easy and unlegal that legal advice is never justified. He knows better than that, as does the House. Nor, I hope, will he use the argument that it will save some precious public money. Everyone agrees that abolishing social welfare law will cost the state, and particularly his department, much more money when early advice is not available. People's legal problems, whether they are to do with welfare benefits, debts or employment, will get worse until one day, of course, the state will have to pick up the pieces from the broken lives that follow. It will be his department, not the Ministry of Justice, which has to pick up the pieces.
The Minister has a reputation for being considerate and caring, so I shall ask him the following questions which I will be grateful for a response to, however late it is. First, how can there be an acceptable decisions and appeals system when a large number of those affected will not be able to receive legal advice? Secondly, does it not follow that many hopeless appeals will be begun because no sensible advice will have been given; or alternatively, that proper, winning appeals will never be commenced? Thirdly-I hope that the Minister agrees with this-does it not make a farce of our reputation as a country with equal access to justice as a major part of our legal system that no such equal access to justice is available to millions of our fellow citizens who are in receipt of social security in one form or another?
I used to think it was just ignorance that had led Her Majesty's Government to abolish legal aid in welfare benefit cases. Now I am forced to the view, as I think are many fair-minded people from outside, that it is too much of a coincidence that these legal aid cuts come at exactly the same time as radical welfare reform. These things are connected-it must be a deliberate government policy to bring in radical and damaging welfare reforms at the same time as making it impossible for the vast majority to appeal against the decisions that affect their daily lives. I feel strongly about this, that it is a disgrace and a scandal and that it is something that has not been talked about enough. Not only is there the blow for people of losing benefits-if that is what happens to them-or of having their benefit reassessed so they do not know whether it is right or not; they have the added blow of not being able to go and get simple, quality and cheap legal advice to advise them whether they should ask for a reconsideration or for an appeal, which is not something they are qualified to do themselves. I very much hope that the House agrees with me and I look forward to the Minister's reply.