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Social Welfare Law — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 25th February 2014.

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Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench 7:30 pm, 25th February 2014

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to Tackling the Advice Deficit, the report of the Low Commission on the future of advice and legal support on social welfare law in England and Wales.

Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench

My Lords, I am very pleased to have this opportunity of introducing the report of the commission, which I was honoured to be asked to chair, on the future of advice and legal support on social welfare law in England and Wales. I am grateful to all those who have put their names down to speak—it is quality more than quantity tonight. I am particularly honoured that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough should have chosen to make his maiden speech in this debate and I am sure that we are all looking forward to what he has to say with eager anticipation. I am also looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say with eager anticipation. I must place on record my appreciation of the contribution of my fellow commissioners and our hard-working secretary and researcher, Richard Gutch and Sara Ogilvie, for this was truly a team effort and we had a brilliant team.

As part of the Government’s austerity measures, there have been significant reductions, estimated by the Government to save £89 million a year, in the scope of legal aid for issues of social welfare law. These are for things such as benefit, debts, employment, immigration, education and many aspects of housing. This is compounded by reductions in local government funding for advice and legal support, which are likely to amount to at least a further £40 million by 2015. Some local authorities are cutting virtually all not-for-profit provision in response to the cuts in funding from central government approaching 40% by 2016.

Services are closing or retrenching on a significant scale, yet the demand for advice and legal support has never been greater and can only grow further as the Government’s welfare reforms are rolled out. I could tell your Lordships harrowing tales of the serious consequences for the advice sector, and therefore for individuals needing support, of the almost complete removal from scope of welfare benefits advice. However, partly because of time and the need for brutal summary, I prefer to concentrate in a more dispassionate way on what we are suggesting to address the problem. I do not think that anyone doubts that the austerity measures, however necessary, have left us with a real problem.

We were under pressure to recommend simple reinstatement of the cuts from two quarters: from lawyers, of course, who thought that our recommendations focused too much on the front end of the legal journey and insufficiently recognised the importance of legal interventions for resolving social welfare problems; and from those who resist any change in patterns of funding for public services, such as the introduction of the market. However, in a situation where we have to accept that there will be less money for legal help and representation, we were anxious to develop a fresh approach which, through measures to reduce the need for advice and legal support in the first place—developing more cost-effective approaches to service provision and drawing on a wider range of funding sources than hitherto—ensured that people could still meet a lot of their needs through a greater emphasis on information and advice, while ensuring that there is at least some money available for legal help and representation.

Rather than recommending simple reinstatement, we preferred to think in terms of a continuum of provision including public legal education, informal and formal information and general advice—often provided by local authorities—specialist advice, legal help and legal representation. We took the view that it was important to tackle the whole of this continuum in an integrated fashion and that legal aid should be seen as just one part of it, not in isolation as a stand-alone funding mechanism. We do not underestimate the importance of legal interventions for solving people’s problems. Sometimes it takes a lawyer to bring a recalcitrant defendant to the table. However, with cuts of the order of £100 million a year in legal aid, it seemed clear to us that the advice end of the spectrum was going to need to take more of the strain. The more we can do at the beginning of the process, we reckoned, the less we may need to do at the end. However, we are absolutely clear that there needs to be provision for legal help and representation at the legal end of the spectrum.

Of course, the advice sector is not beyond improvement. There was a general perception that it is too fragmented and could benefit from rationalisation from closer working together and a greater spirit of collaboration. We would also like to see the national umbrella bodies, such as Citizens Advice and AdviceUK, working more closely together and sharing their resources and experience more widely. AdviceUK told us about a system in Portsmouth based on what it calls “systems thinking”. It moved from a system that involved waiting for two hours, seeing a volunteer for 20 minutes then making an appointment to see a specialist—altogether potentially involving 13 steps before seeing an adviser who would help you—to a system that dispensed with triage or rationing, put specialist staff in the front line, with expertise in one area but able to pull in others as necessary rather than simply referring on, enabling you to see someone within 20 minutes. It has shown that approaches such as this can achieve savings of at least 30% and sometimes, as in its work in Nottingham, as much as 95%. Although it may seem like a Rolls-Royce service it can end up costing less in the long run.

Our report contains 100 recommendations but the six most important are: first, that public legal education should be given higher priority, both in school alongside financial literacy and in education for life, so that people know their rights and where to go for help. Secondly, though there are certainly factors making for increased demand in the welfare reforms and other austerity measures, we are convinced there are also ways of reducing the need for advice and legal support in the first place. For example, the DWP could be incentivised to get more decisions right first time by being required to pay costs on upheld appeals. Thirdly, we suggest ways in which courts and tribunals could be made to work more efficiently. Fourthly, the next UK and Welsh Governments should develop national strategies for advice and legal support, preferably with all-party support and there should be a Minister with responsibility for advice and legal support within the MoJ with a cross-departmental brief for leading the development of the strategy. Fifthly, local authorities or groups of local authorities should coproduce or commission local advice and legal support plans with the local not-for-profit sector and commercial advice agencies. Sixthly, we estimate that a further £100 million a year is required to ensure a basic level of provision of information, advice and legal support on social welfare law.

We are calling on the next UK Government to provide half of this by establishing a 10-year—to enable long-term planning—national advice and legal support fund for England and Wales of £50 million a year to be administered by the Big Lottery Fund. We aim to spread the load so that no part of government is asked to bear too great a burden. We therefore propose that the fund should be financed by the MoJ, the Cabinet Office and the DWP, as the main creator of the need for advice and legal support. Some 90% of the fund should be used to fund local provision in line with local plans, with 10% for national initiatives. The Big Lottery Fund should allocate the 90% share of the national fund to local authority areas, based on indicators of need using joint strategic needs assessments and health and well-being strategies. We have also identified other national and local statutory, voluntary and commercial sources of funding that we believe could contribute an additional £50 million a year to match the national fund.

Greater use needs to be made of new technology for the section of the population that is increasingly digitally literate. This will free up resources to enable more face-to-face, in-depth and intensive support to be targeted at those most in need. In addition to the current range of specialist lines, there should be a one-stop national helpline providing a comprehensive advice service to the general public and able to act as a safety net for those who have nowhere else to go.

Although I said that we were not arguing for a simple restoration of the cuts, that does not mean that we would not like to see any of them reversed. We would like to see funding reinstated for housing cases, for instance, so that people can get help before they reach crisis point and face imminent eviction. The scheme for the funding of exceptional cases under Section 10 of the LASPO Act needs to be reviewed, because as things stand it is just not working. This was intended to act as a safety net for funding cases that would now be out of scope of legal aid but where either human rights or EU law required the provision of legal aid. During the passage of the LASPO Act, it was estimated that there would be between 5,000 and 7,000 of these cases a year, but a Parliamentary Answer on 11 February this year stated that the total number of applications so far was only 1,030, of which only 31 had been granted.

In summary, our strategy is to suggest ways of reducing preventable demand, simplifying the system and enabling it to work better, putting more weight on the advice end of the spectrum and suggesting ways in which it could work more efficiently. We believe that by investing in a wider range of information and advice, with some legal help and representation, many of the undesirable consequences of the LASPO Act can be avoided and we will actually end up saving money. I hope very much that the Minister will find not only that there are things in our report with which he can agree but that it makes a useful contribution to the stabilisation and rehabilitation of our system of advice and legal support on social welfare law.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 7:41 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Low, on securing this important debate. As he said, he has attracted an impressive list of speakers, not least the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough, whose maiden speech we are looking forward to hearing. I hope very much that the Minister can respond to the debate in a positive way.

In my view, the Low commission report is the first positive, the first piece of good news and the first chink of light, if I may call it that, that we have seen for some time in this field. Considerable congratulations are owed to the noble Lord himself and to his fellow commissioners on producing this excellent report and on perhaps cheering us all up a little bit. I hope that the House will forgive me if I pick out one of the noble Lord’s fellow commissioners. Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, played an important part in setting up the commission, and the leading role he has played in the field of social welfare law over many years has, in my opinion, been outstanding.

It is important to have some good news because for years now the position has looked bleak and depressing, getting worse month after month. The truth is that social welfare law has been decimated over the past four years. That is because the Government seem to have decided as a matter of policy that access to legal advice for some people—often the poor, often the disabled, often the acutely vulnerable—in order to deal with those areas of law that affect everyday life, such as housing, debt, welfare benefits, employment and immigration, is not even a necessity, let alone a priority. This government policy is seen most obviously in LASPO itself and its implementation since 1 April last year.

However, the decision to downgrade this part of our legal system was taken well before 1 April 2013. How else can the following information set out in paragraphs 1.10 and 1.11 of the report be explained? I quote:

“Eligibility levels and the number of cases in social welfare law then increased between 2007 and 2010. This was due to three factors—the recession, which meant more people were potentially eligible for legal aid; a decision by the government to bring more people into scope; and an increase in the budget to allow more civil law cases to be paid for by the legal aid scheme.

When Labour left office in 2010, social welfare law legal help cases had peaked at 485,664 for the year 2009/10. However, by last year, 2012/13, the numbers of social welfare law cases had fallen to 293,319, due to decisions made by the coalition government to reduce expenditure on civil legal aid”.

That is a drop of nearly 200,000 cases annually—around 40% of cases—and all before LASPO ever came into force.

Another example is public legal education, mentioned in the report and by the noble Lord, Lord Low, in his speech today. Following the general election, not only was the outstanding committee that had advised the Ministry of Justice on this vital subject summarily disposed of, but the budget for work on public legal education over the next number of years was suddenly no longer. Now, 11 months after LASPO came into force, the position is much worse and gets worse with every announcement of a closure of a not-for-profit provider, or of redundancies and closures having to be made by big players in this field, such as the CAB and Shelter.

A lot of income from very modest legal aid payments is resulting in a sharp decline in the number of providers of these crucial services. Many fewer people are receiving legal help than deserve to. We know, as the noble Lord has said, that a pathetic, miniscule number of exceptional cases have been allowed through, even though the Government—perhaps laughingly—claim the scheme is working effectively.

This week’s news sums it up. On Friday, RAD Deaf Law Centre, with offices in London and Newport, is closing its doors. Its chief executive has said:

“Funding cuts have had a profound effect on RAD”.

Have we really, as a country or as a society, come to this: that the law centre that helps deaf people in our country has to close because the Government have abolished the meagre legal aid that went to provide important funding so it could do its vital work?

Last Friday, a newspaper reported that the Government are thinking of charging people making appeals against DWP decisions to social security tribunals. Is this a serious proposition, I ask the Minister? How much in charges do the Government think they will get from these appellants? Will it be more than 1% or 10% of the administrative cost involved in setting up these charges, or is it—this is what it seems like to me—just a rather crude attempt to stop people appealing at all, bearing in mind that in recent months 58% of those who wanted to overturn DWP-sanctioned decisions in tribunals have been successful?

The position is grim indeed, and that is why the report is so timely and so welcome. The report does not call for a return to the system that has been wiped away; it looks forward and recommends a number of modest, practical measures that will make it possible once again for everyone to obtain the legal advice that they need, when they need it. The report argues convincingly that, by modest expenditure, by spending a bit of money, the state will save money as all the evidence shows that early intervention in the sorting out of legal problems saves costs, both in human and financial terms in the long term.

The report starts with the premise that access to justice for all has to be the starting point for any proper legal system. It challenges the political parties in this country to disagree. Surely, none of the political parties do so. With a general election looming, that is why this report is so timely. It asks us in the political parties to take this issue seriously and develop policies accordingly. That is why we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low, and his fellow commissioners. We must not let this opportunity go to waste. We would not be forgiven easily if we did.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat 7:50 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Low, both on securing this debate but, more importantly, on the outstanding report that he and his commissioners have produced.

Many of us in this House, not least the noble Lord, Lord Bach, who has been at the forefront of the argument, warned the Government about the deficit that would arise through the cuts arising out of LASPO. In the debate instituted by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, in December 2011, I asked,

“where is the funding for the specialist advisers of the CAB”,

and advice centres,

“going to come from when those legal aid contracts disappear?”.—[ Official Report , 8/12/11; col. 909.]

The noble Lord, Lord Low, and his commissioners have been ingenious in their recommendations in seeking out funding streams from a number of sources. I fully support the concept outlined in the report that there should be a national strategy for advice and legal support in England, and hope that the current Welsh Labour Government will develop a similar strategy in Wales, although their general lack of vision does not make me too optimistic.

Noble Lords will also recall that we on these Benches warned the Government that their cutbacks in the LASPO Bill would result in advice deserts. My noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, who spoke in the debate of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, warned that,

“the present proposals risk creating advice and representation deserts where no appropriate legal advice or representation is available. This the Government have recognised, but the proposals also risk creating specialism deserts. The danger of advice deserts could be addressed by increasing the number of providers in more sparsely populated areas. The specialism issue is more difficult”.—[ Official Report , 11/7/13; col. 453.]

In that context I will draw your Lordships’ attention to Wales. I am impressed that a member of the commission was Mr Bob Chapman, a member of the committee of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council in Wales and chair of the trustee board of the Swansea Neath Port Talbot Citizens Advice Bureau. It is clear from reading the report that Welsh issues have not been overlooked.

The report points out that the Independent Advice Providers Forum has collected evidence that £4.1 million-worth of cuts in Wales kicked in from April 2013, £2.4 million of which were from the loss of legal aid contracts, and the rest from reductions in Welsh government, local authority, European and other funding from corporate and charitable sources. In its place the Advice Services Transition Fund intends to put just over £1 million back into advice services in Wales. I fear that even that dire conclusion may be too optimistic.

On this very day, Powys County Council is meeting to consider its budget. It will be considering the recommendation of its cabinet to cut funding to citizens advice bureaux throughout the county. At first the cabinet said that it would be cut entirely, but last week it compromised. The proposal that is being debated today is to cut funding for the CAB by half in the current year and reduce it to zero in the following year. The chairman of the trustees of the Powys CAB, Chris Mann, says of this:

“Without core funding from the County Council, Powys CAB will lose all other sources of grants. These pay specialist and professional advisers on debt, welfare benefits, employment and housing and allow our volunteers to assist clients on a range of pressing social issues”.

The other sources of grants to which Mr Mann refers are contracts worth some £336,000 for the provision of essential services to the residents of Powys. Without core funding from the council, the highly skilled paid staff will lose their jobs, and the volunteers, who are so vital to the CAB, will be unable to continue.

The recent history is that in 2013 Powys CAB dealt with 21,000 advice issues, assisted more than 6,000 clients and secured £2.2 million in welfare benefit income for its clients. As Mr Mann points out, this money does not disappear into the air but is spent locally and supports the local community. It is true that the council has a small welfare rights unit but it cannot possibly cope with the work level if the CAB has to close. This is a large area of Wales, where poverty and rural deprivation are endemic. It is precisely the sort of area of desert that we foresaw when we were discussing the LASPO Bill. That is only one example, but it is significant in this context that, according to the CAB, £71 million—43.8% of its funding as a whole in 2012-13—came from local government. In the current year, it expects the percentage to increase to 46.2% from local government, as funding from legal aid drops from £21 million to just £6.5 million. This is a tragedy that is going to happen in vast areas of the country.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the commission’s report is that it does not seek to wind the clock back to the pre-LASPO position but recognises realities. Suggested funders include the Money Advice Service, the Department for Work and Pensions, the NHS, local government, trusts and foundations, as well as the legal profession through pro bono and dormant funds. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that all political parties, in fashioning their manifestos for a future Parliament, should take all the commission’s recommendations on board.

Finally, I very much look forward to the contribution of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough. He spent eight years as Archdeacon of Chester, so I can greet him almost as a neighbour, even though he was on the wrong side of the border. I also welcome him as a graduate of Peterhouse in Cambridge to join our hardcore Petrean group in the House of Lords, with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and others. I am sure that he will add lustre to our deliberations.

Photo of Lord Woolf Lord Woolf Crossbench 7:57 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, for arranging this debate and I join in the chorus of congratulations to the noble Lord and his fellow commissioners on their excellent report. I am not surprised that the report should be excellent; I use that word in referring to it because, having regard to the commission’s membership, about which comment has already been made, I expected no less.

The person whom I wish to single out is Amanda Finlay. Not only was she vice-chairman of the commission, she was a most valued member of the team which worked on my report on access to justice in 1998. I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I make a comment or two about the relevance of my report in the context of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Low, because there are similarities. His report covers some of the same ground, although my report was primarily concerned with the procedures in courts that were making it difficult for the majority of litigants to obtain the access to justice to which they were entitled if they were going to be engaged in litigation. The Low commission’s concerns, as we have heard, were much wider. It was concerned with courts and tribunals, but I think that was a minority part of its report.

The Low commission’s main concern, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Low, is the stressed position of those who need assistance in obtaining the help that they are entitled to under the welfare provisions of the law. As we have heard, it is a section of the community in the greatest need of help, and the state is under a fundamental and basic obligation to ensure that, so far as possible, its needs are met. As we have heard, the people in this group have been doubly disadvantaged: first, because of the pressures that have made them resort to the state to provide them with the means of meeting their basic needs; and, secondly, because their ability to receive the assistance that is necessary to ensure that they obtain the benefits to which they are entitled in law has been substantially reduced because of the cuts in legal aid and the reduction in funding that has occurred due to the need for austerity.

However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that when one looks at the contents of the report as a whole, although it reveals an extremely worrying situation, there are signs of good news. Those signs confirm what I believe to be the case—that if we take a broad, holistic view of the situation, there are ways in which the effect of the deficit in assistance, which is inevitable in view of the cuts that have been made, can be mitigated by appropriate action. The noble Lord, Lord Low, has referred to the type of action that is required. Of course, we have heard the clamour in the media over food banks. That has vividly demonstrated that the conferring of rights on members of the public is of little value if those rights are not complied with in a way that enables them to receive the benefits to which the law entitles them.

I hope that I can claim that, to an extent, the problems in the courts to which I have referred were mitigated by the steps taken in consequence of my report. They included a change in culture on the part of the judiciary and the legal profession over the past few years, which has meant that the needs of the less fortunate members of the community are taken care of in a way that was not always so obvious in the past.

I suggest that the Low commission’s report gives the Government an opportunity to secure a substantial improvement in the situation regarding welfare benefits. Even in these days of austerity, they should be able to take advantage of that opportunity in a way that will benefit the section of the public to which I have been referring. If that is to be done, it is essential that we take advantage of all the new methods of communication that now exist. Those methods enable an amazing amount of information to be provided, which could be very helpful to those who seek the benefits to which they are entitled.

In different areas of the country there have been experiments that have demonstrated beyond doubt what can be achieved. They are set out in the Low commission’s report and are prominent in the 100 recommendations the commission makes. The core of the majority of those recommendations is that they are designed to meet the need for advice. I have no doubt that the national advice helpline that the commission recommends would be of value, as is the kiosk that exists in Cambridge, which was used by 65,000 people in 12 months. Those sorts of initiatives have got to be extended. I hope that, in setting out these various trials, the report will help the Government with what surely must be the objective of any Government—namely, to do what they can to ease the problems of those members of the community most in need of assistance.

The commission also stresses the importance of education. Increasing the use of education will not change the situation overnight, but in the long term that must be very important as well. I suggest that the position is extremely urgent; no delay should be allowed to occur. The report deserves, and should receive, an immediate and strong endorsement by those in charge today. The present Government cannot hide behind the fact that there is going to be an election in a few months’ time. Action can start to be taken now and plans can be made. That applies to the Opposition as well as to the Government. I look forward to the responses from both the opposition spokesman and the Minister to what we are hearing this evening. Like other noble Lords, I, too, very much look forward to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough.

Photo of The Bishop of Peterborough The Bishop of Peterborough Bishop 8:07 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, as I make this maiden speech I am delighted to have the opportunity to thank the many Members and staff of your Lordships’ House who have made me so very welcome here. I am also most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Low, for initiating this debate, and for producing with his colleagues this excellent, wide-ranging and challenging report.

I suppose it to be inevitable that cuts in government spending, however necessary they may be, will always hit the poorest most. It is therefore all the more important to give attention to ways of helping the most vulnerable to claim and receive the support to which they are entitled and the professional advice they may need. This report does that: I welcome it most warmly and hope that Her Majesty’s Government can do so too.

Three particular themes of the report resonate with me. The vision of equal access to justice, with the recommendation of a national strategy for advice and legal support agreed by all parties, is most welcome and would make a real difference. The vision of holistic systems thinking, with its direct addressing of poor and disconnected services, such as those described in the Nottingham study, makes complete sense. The emphasis on local provision, including from the voluntary sector, but requiring better training and co-ordination, is absolutely right. Those three themes, if implemented, would lead to better governance, fairer access and a less divided society.

I regularly meet some of the most needy members of the community. The diocese which I serve includes the lovely and relatively prosperous counties of Northamptonshire and Rutland. It also includes most of the rapidly growing city of Peterborough and other urban centres which are home to many vulnerable people and groups whose lives can so easily break down without the help and advice of the sort described in the Low commission’s report. The migrant communities of Northampton and Peterborough include many—especially older women—whose English is poor and not up to technical explanations or form-filling. The rural poor, not all of whom have access to dependable broadband or the skills to use technology—even if they had easy access to libraries, which they do not—frequently miss out.

I am privileged to be a trustee of the Farming Community Network, formerly the Farm Crisis Network, and am well aware of how difficult it is for some struggling farmers to access advice through the statutory channels. Our towns in the diocese I serve, including Corby, Kettering, Northampton, Wellingborough and the City of Peterborough, have their fair share of poor, white, excluded communities, many of whose inhabitants would benefit from supportive advice and advocacy. I spend time visiting our prisons, and am excited by the activities of charities which help prisoners to find housing or work when they are released. However, I am only too conscious that for many their functional illiteracy and innumeracy, and their all too common psychiatric disorders and behavioural problems, place them at a huge disadvantage in trying to become contributing members of society. I also visit and take an interest in psychiatric hospitals where I meet both in-patients and out-patients who need help and advice to cope with the pressures of life. At Peterborough Cathedral we have regular meetings for Armed Forces veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; again good people do their best to support them, but the necessary legal and other professional advice seems to be in short supply. All these people and groups need to know that they are valued, that society cares for them and wants to help them and that our affluent country has time and resources for them.

I notice that one of the bodies listed as having made a submission to the Low commission is the Peterborough citizens advice bureau. My chaplain is a trustee of that charity, and I follow its important work with some interest. Thanks to the collaborative partnership-working instigated by Peterborough City Council its funding has not been as badly affected in recent years as some other CABs. However, I notice the very significant increase in the number of cases it has had to deal with. Unique client numbers have risen from 7,190 in the year ending March 2012 to 8,744 for the first nine months of the current year, with an estimate of 12,000 for the full year. If this is typical of other CABs across the country we can see something of the growing need, brought about, according to Peterborough CAB, by a combination of the recession and welfare reform.

I am still very new to the customs and conventions of your Lordships’ House. Please bear with me as I learn from my mistakes. I take it that it is acceptable here for us, not least Bishops, to do God. One of the tests of a civilized society is of course the way in which it supports its weakest and most vulnerable members. I would go further than simply stating an ethical principle, however important. The bottom line for me is the calling of all who think of ourselves as children of God to develop in ourselves, and demonstrate in our words and actions, his especial love for the poor and needy.

Photo of Baroness Grey-Thompson Baroness Grey-Thompson Crossbench 8:14 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, I welcome the debate tonight. It is a privilege to speak after the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough. I congratulate him on his fine maiden speech; he has chosen an interesting debate to start his career here. As these things work out, it is perhaps perfect timing. Over the weekend I started a hashtag, which was very complimentary on social media, entitled “Bishops”. I am not sure if I am the first to do this, but I will be adding to it happily later tonight after his fine maiden speech. I warmly welcome the right reverend Prelate to your Lordships’ House and look forward to his many future contributions.

After spending a significant amount of time working on the Welfare Reform Bill and because of the consequences of that, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, I am grateful for what my noble friend Lord Low has done in this area and congratulate him on his commission’s work. On 21 January 2014 the New Law Journal stated that the Low Commission shines,

“much-needed light on the impact of the LASPO cuts on those largely poor and vulnerable people who up until nine months ago had legal aid as some kind of safety net”.

I do not think that anyone would have said that the system was perfect, but for disabled people it offered considerable help and support. That safety net is disappearing.

My noble friend’s work has not just shone a light on the system within which we are now operating, but has shown how real people are affected by legislation. I accept that when we are debating Bills it is hard to know how every person will be affected, but we are now starting to see it. My noble friend has provided some realistic and sensible proposals. He has not looked back to what some might call the halcyon days of legal aid, but importantly has looked forward. I hope that the Minister will look favourably at the suggestions that have been made. The Law Centres Network is just one organisation that has called for the recommendations to be implemented.

In the past two years we have seen what I believe are some of the biggest changes to the welfare system since its inception. Disabled people have been repeatedly affected by the changes, and not just in one area but in several. They are complex changes at that. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Freud, explaining to me during the Welfare Reform Bill that the new system around universal credit would be simpler, but it is by no means simple. While I have been disappointed that in this area there has been a continued failure to conduct a cumulative impact assessment, I understand why there has not been one. It would have made uncomfortable reading about how some of the most vulnerable people in our society are being treated. I accept that we are in tough economic times and agree that there was a need for looking at doing things in a different way.

One of the consequences of LASPO on disabled people, which has been raised with me by Unity Law, is that it has shifted the costs of civil litigation in respect of personal injury cases to the defendant company and done away with recoverable insurance premiums for claimants as a result. Because Equality Act cases do not include a claim for personal injury, but rather compensation for injury to feelings, and a request for reasonable adjustments, these cases are not cost-shifted and the insurance premium is needed to protect disabled people against the costs of losing.

I have met Chris Fry from Unity Law several times. He believes that if cost shifting applied to Equality Act discrimination claims, the legal aid budget would stretch further, because there would be no liability to third-party costs in failed cases. I realise that I am talking to many lawyers, and not for the first time do I regret studying only politics at university and not law. At this stage I will not go into further detail, but there are some really positive things that we can do in this area to mitigate some of the challenges that we are facing.

We are where we are, but the legislation has fundamentally changed how disabled people are able to access justice. Access to advice is important. As Citizens Advice describes it:

“Impartial advice is a fundamental ingredient to a healthy democracy”.

I know that Citizens Advice has offered me invaluable advice, but it has also worked with a significant number of people who have approached me for help and support. In the past year or so the largest number of e-mails that I have received have been from members of the public on this issue. The vast majority have been from disabled people asking for help in steering their way through the complicated system; I do not know whether this is perhaps because I am disabled or because I talk in this area. They are just not sure where else they can turn. Changes have occurred at local levels to advice services and those changes are not the same in every area. The number of people asking for help within this incredibly pressurised system is worryingly rising. One of the most recent cases to come to me has been from a deaf man who has repeatedly received letters directing him to a phone number. Obviously that is just not possible.

During our time debating LASPO, I spoke several times on the telephone gateway and repeatedly said that, while signposting people to a phone number may work for some, it would not work for all. I have also been contacted by someone with autism, who even more worryingly has said that he has absolutely no one around him to help him make this essential phone call, and he did not know where to turn. I was his last resort. He has tried to write letters, but received no response. He told me that he went to his local advice centre and was informed that the waiting list for an appointment was several weeks. Cases are being pushed to services that were previously stretched but are now more so.

In the area of appeals and tribunals, there is much work to be done to ensure that we have better decision-making in the first place. That sounds terribly easy, but I know that it is not. Reading through some of the social media streams this week, I hope that there will not be a regime for charging individuals for benefits appeals. I wonder whether the Minister would like to comment on this. If this were to be the case, it could be seen as yet another way of penalising disabled people.

The support that disabled people get is crucial. Within my noble friend’s report, I very much liked the proposals to embed information in GP surgeries or the places where people are every single day. I thought that was simple but brilliant. Educating young people as to their rights is something that should be on the curriculum right away, along with good sports provision—but that is another matter. The idea of a phone number and simple website is also an excellent idea to act as a triage. We perhaps still need to do more to ensure that disabled people have adequate access to the internet, but that is an aside. Whatever we do, I believe that we have a duty to provide adequate guidance, assistance and support to everyone, and I commend the work of my noble friend.

Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Judge 8:21 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, it is a very real pleasure to follow the noble Baroness and her very thoughtful speech and to follow the right reverend Prelate. I join with the noble Baroness in congratulating him on his maiden speech. My impression in listening to both of them is that they contribute real value to this debate because they have experienced at first hand the problems that we are talking about. Some of us who are lawyers, such as myself, do not have that privilege, although of course we encounter many of those who are in trouble. But it is the real value of their contribution that needs to be studied very carefully, based on their own first-hand experience of the problems that we are talking about.

As for the report of my noble friend Lord Low, I express deep admiration for what he and his commission have achieved. I confess that I read the report with a mixture of despair and relief, rather like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who talked about a mixture of feeling worried and encouraged. The element of despair comes from the appreciation that the report brings of the state in which we now find ourselves. Step by step, we have got into a position of real difficulty, in which so many gaps exist right across the system where legal advice and support are not available. It would be wrong to say that we have sleepwalked into this problem, because so many people have been advising Governments, particularly this one, time and again, that cutting back so much on legal aid, for reasons that we all understand, would add to and create this problem.

The relief and encouragement comes partly from the way in which the commissioners have gone about their work and the integrated approach that they urge the Government to adopt, and also from the various signs throughout the report of what is going on elsewhere in other sectors. The point that I wish to draw to the Minister’s attention is the need in this integrated approach to support what others are doing to fill the gaps.

Let me give one particular example based on my own experience in dealing with students in two of the Scottish universities. I know that the report deals with the position in England and Wales, but Scotland is not all that different; the problems are very similar. One thing that has been growing, both in Scottish universities and certainly in the universities in England and Wales as well, is an appreciation by students of the gaps that emerge and the part that they can play in filling them by providing legal advice where it is needed. There are two particular projects that I know about, one of which was started in 2003 by the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic, which is the largest of these institutions in Scotland, with 195 student advisers, and more recently the Aberdeen Law Project, which started in 2009 and has much the same ambitions, conducting much the same kind of work.

These projects are guided by lawyers within the academic community. They are also funded, to a very substantial degree, by law firms. It is a pro bono exercise. DLA Piper provides funds for the Strathclyde clinic; Pinsent Masons provides funds for the Aberdeen Law Project. This is greatly welcome, for, while the universities themselves would like to provide financial support, it is very difficult for them to do that, given the pressures on their own funding.

There are ways in which the Government can encourage these projects, one of which was demonstrated by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, when she was in government. She encouraged and participated in an annual awards scheme to student organisations of this kind. It so happened that Strathclyde won the competition in one of the years I was chancellor. She was there, she encouraged what they were doing, and she gave the feeling that the Government were behind what was being done by these student bodies. That is valuable encouragement. It helps those who are thinking of providing funding to feel they are doing something which is in the broad public interest as well as in the interest of the students themselves.

The other aspect of the problem is the work done by the courts. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, made major strides in simplifying the way in which the courts go about their work. One point, which I particularly emphasise, is the way in which he educated us all in the need for case management, a phrase that I did not encounter in the early days but is now on everybody’s lips, and it works all the way down through the system. It is a means of simplifying issues, working with the litigants in person to be sure that as little time as possible is wasted and people identify the issues as soon as they can.

There is the emphasis in paragraph 5.27 on the need for independent advice. I thought that was a valuable point, partly because I have been serving on a Select Committee on personal service companies, a rather complicated tax matter. Part of the evidence that we have been hearing comes from people who have been trying to use an advice system that the HMRC provides for people who think they are in difficulties. The HMRC says that the advice system is completely independent and that nothing will be communicated to the tax inspectors. People do not believe it, and it is underused. There is, therefore, something to be said for the point drawn attention to in that paragraph—for the Government appreciating that there are independent advisers who need to be supported, as well as government-based advice systems.

The other point worth stressing, as others have done, is the way in which modern technology can be brought to bear to encourage people to seek advice. Younger people than I have apps attached to their iPhones which have access to all sorts of things. I have just acquired an iPhone, and I have been discovering its wonders. Surely there are things the Government could do to increase the accessibility of advice—of knowledge of how systems should be made to work in people’s interests and of the complex system of social benefits. There are avenues to which this report draws attention which are well worth pursuing and should not cost a great deal if proper advice is obtained.

I endorse the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach—that there is an opportunity, because of the timing of this report. As he said, we should not let the opportunity go. I would warmly endorse that and all the recommendations made in this excellent report.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 8:29 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough on his excellent and moving maiden speech.

Like all noble Lords who have spoken so far, I welcome this comprehensive and insightful report which the commission led by my noble friend Lord Low has published. It could not have had a better or more insightful chairman.

Reductions in legal aid and other funding for advice and legal support are having a serious impact on the ability of poor and vulnerable people to access justice. It is this theme on which I wish to concentrate in my contribution to this debate today. The Low commission report highlights the plight of a number of members of the public hit by the loss of legal aid to assist them. They face the kind of everyday legal problems which loss of a job, disability or other crises can throw at them. Examples given in the report include a young couple who were unable to get their landlord to undertake essential repairs; a person in debt who started suffering from severe anxiety and depression and is in danger of losing their house and job; and a disabled person who lost their benefits after being wrongly assessed as fit for work.

In the Government’s latest equality impact assessment, published after the changes to legal aid were introduced last year, a disturbing picture is painted of how these changes will impact on people who are protected by equalities legislation. Around 19% of the general population can be classified as disabled, but 54% of the people who sought advice under the legal aid scheme for benefit problems were classed as disabled. All but a small number of benefit appeal cases were cut from the scope of legal aid. This will mean many of thousands of disabled people going without the legal help they need. In housing cases no longer covered by legal aid, 61% of the clients are women. Organisations opposed to the changes in legal aid, such as the housing charity Shelter, point out that higher numbers of women seek housing advice as they are often left on their own to provide for children or have been forced to move from the family home because of violence or other abuse. Disabled people are also much more likely to face problems with disrepair due to poor housing conditions. Disrepair cases are often small in value and therefore not suitable for no-win no-fee arrangements. However, if they go unresolved, this can have severe consequences for family health.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are more likely to face all of the social welfare problems with which the Low commission report deals. Some 86% of immigration problems previously covered by legal aid involve people from BAME communities. Often they face problems such as proving their status to claim state benefits such as their pension after a lifetime of working legally in the UK—an issue which will be publicised by a report soon to be published by the Legal Action Group. As the former vice-chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the discriminatory impact of the changes to legal aid on people protected by equalities legislation is of particular concern to me.

Aside from these concerns over equality, there are practical considerations. When people get into difficulty in their daily lives, they need to be able to get the right information and advice as early as possible. If this information and advice is no longer available, they could become unemployed, homeless and/or in debt. Then not only will they suffer distress but the state will incur increased costs. Where legal support—whether in the form of legal help or legal representation—is also not available, the number of people who will then try to represent themselves will increase and the courts and tribunals will have to adapt to deal with this increase in unadvised and unrepresented litigants.

Likewise, when systems that are supposed to support people fail to function effectively, those individuals require extensive help, often including specialist and legal skills, to have their needs met. In its paper, Towards a Business Case for Legal Aid, Citizens Advice argues that the state has to pick up the cost of homelessness, poor health and the other consequences of people not receiving early advice on civil justice problems. It estimates that £1 of expenditure on legal aid saves the state around £6 in other spending.

I am sure that all my fellow Peers are heartened by the recent evidence of some upturn in the economy. However, if the experience of previous recessions is correct, it will be some time before the advice needs of the sort of people I have referred to will reduce. Many advice agencies are reporting an increase in demand for services while they are being forced to cut back due to cuts in legal aid and other public spending. For example, in April 2013 Shelter reported a 40% increase in the number of callers to its advice line seeking help with housing-related problems. I also note that, in a recent report, the Cabinet Office accepts that,

“there seems to be a pattern of rising demand”,

for advice,

“during difficult economic circumstances”.

This is hardly surprising.

It is for this reason—the increasing demand for advice and, above all else, the need to assist the sort of people facing the difficult circumstances I am describing—that I urge the Government to look seriously at implementing the recommendations of this excellent report. Everyone, regardless of their sex, ethnic background or disability should have the right to equality before the law. There are some excellent suggestions in this report which will certainly help, but I am deeply concerned that the reduction in the availability of legal aid, as well as other advice services, is putting the fundamental principle of a democratic society at risk.

Photo of Lord Gold Lord Gold Conservative 8:37 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, I am most grateful to be allowed to say a few words, even though I am not on the speakers list. May I first—

Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat

I gave my details in at 12 o’clock today.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lords Spokesperson (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

If the noble Lord could take his seat. If both noble Lords intervene for just two minutes we should be able to fit both in. I was certainly not informed that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, intended to speak.

Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat

I gave it in at 10 o’clock.

Photo of Lord Gold Lord Gold Conservative

I will be as quick as I can be. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Low, and his team for producing such a thoughtful report. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough on an excellent maiden speech.

Although I accept, of course, that LASPO has reduced the scope for legal aid, it is not a new problem that there is a gap between what legal aid will support and the needs of those who have claims or grievances. One has to draw the line somewhere and there will always be deserving cases that cannot attract funding. The reality, as we all know, is that there is a finite fund of money available. The report identifies a number of ways in which this problem might be addressed, including recommendations for further government funding. The Minister will, no doubt, tell us what government support there might be for the Low funding proposals, including the Government’s view on taxing pay-day lenders. However, at a time when the Government are still looking to cut expenditure, I am not optimistic that further funding will be available. I would therefore like to propose that much more might be done by the private sector on a voluntary basis.

Now that I am no longer part of a large legal firm, I feel better able to offer others assistance. Paragraph 8.19 of the report rather delicately suggests that law firms might consider offering some funding support. I would suggest another course, similar to that suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. Solicitors’ firms which undertake litigation work have been concerned for some time that, in training their young solicitor advocates, they have not been able to find sufficient cases where they can develop their skills. I know that all large firms encourage their solicitors to undertake pro bono work and a great number of legal advice centres are part-manned by young solicitors wanting to put something back into society. That could easily be extended to provide much assistance in both advisory work and, where necessary, through court advocacy, by tapping into what I think would be a willing resource. Many sets of chambers would welcome such an initiative and I am sure that the Bar and Law Society will support that.

I know that the Low report suggests that it is unrealistic to consider that pro bono help could replace publicly funded legal help, particularly as the laws and regulations can be complex. However, it is the lawyer’s stock in trade to run with something new and complex, and I have no doubt that there are sufficiently talented young lawyers around willing to help that those requiring assistance may well find themselves better represented than they might otherwise have been.

Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat 8:40 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, I join others in congratulating the right reverend Prelate on his maiden speech, which, if I may say so, was wonderfully down-to-earth. I encourage him to go on doing God if he can relate the good Lord so closely to what I suspect most of us feel.

I congratulate the Legal Action Group on instigating the Low commission. I should declare an interest as one of the founders and first chair. Above all, of course, I identify myself with the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Low. It is a formidable piece of work in a relatively short space of time. I wish the commission as much success in pushing forward the 100 recommendations as in putting them together.

I shall concentrate on the first of the six overarching recommendations in the report. I refer to public legal education which, the report states, should be given higher priority both in school and in education for life. I fear that I shall be a bit tetchy as we have so many fine words emanating from this place and so many fine pieces of legislation hitting the statute book. Indeed, we are inundating the people of this country with laws with almost the same effect as the floods in the Somerset Levels. The truth is that so much of what we do with the best intentions ends up unimplemented, misunderstood or not understood at all. The provision of education in schools is declining and not improving. Citizenship education is not part of the inspected curriculum. It is part of the curriculum overall but it is not inspected by Ofsted. Citizenship does not have to be taught at all by academies and free schools—roughly half of schools. The number of teachers training to teach citizenship is declining rapidly, as is the number of pupils taking citizenship. That is down to 2% for GCSE citizenship and only 8% for the half GCSE. The situation could not be worse.

Section 1 of the Legal Services Act 2007 states that there should be a regulatory objective of,

“increasing public understanding of the citizen’s legal rights and duties”.

That is honoured in the breach. The citizens of this country are falling further and further behind what we legislate in their name and, often, for them as individuals. We kid ourselves unless we own up to that and put as much energy and enthusiasm into implementation of the excellent ideas behind the report as we have put into this debate.

There is so much to do to give, in particular, the poorest and least capable any sense of what is available for them by way of the law. I entirely agree with the comments made about the crucial, essential need for advice on where it is most needed. We are hypocrites if we do not ensure that. Again, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Low, and his excellent commission and hope that this is a beginning, not an end, a determination, not an elegant manifesto.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 8:45 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, I join previous speakers in congratulating the right reverend Prelate on a notable maiden speech and in expressing profound gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Low, and his colleagues, for their comprehensive and lucid analysis of the problems of accessing advice and legal support in this critical area of social welfare law, and for the constructive proposals contained in the report.

The landscape the report describes is changing as a result of changes in the financial and, I would argue, political climate. Where once a thriving network of advice services, citizens advice bureaux, law centres, voluntary organisations and professionals was able to support people in times of great difficulty, we are now seeing virtual advice deserts—to use the phrase deployed by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas—within which an occasional oasis can be found, struggling with soaring demand and diminishing resources. As the report demonstrates, and as we have heard today, a number of law centres have closed, with more to come, while the survivors operate with reduced staffing. CABs, serving more than 2 million clients nationally, face shrinking budgets, while the impact of reductions in legal aid and advice increases pressure on them.

Many Members of your Lordships’ House have a long and active relationship with the voluntary sector, especially the advice sector. As a solicitor, I undertook legal aid work. I did pro bono advice sessions with the Newcastle CAB. I helped found the Wallsend CAB in 1973. I initiated the Newcastle Welfare Rights Service as chairman of social services in 1974, and as council leader supported the creation of the Newcastle Law Centre in 1978. The situation of that law centre, the only one between Kirklees and the Scottish border, is dire. From a staff of 14, with five qualified lawyers, it is now down to one solicitor and one adviser, with three staff. It does not undertake legal aid work.

The Newcastle CAB faces similar difficulties. It no longer has any legal aid funding. Its brilliant chief executive, Shona Alexander, has set out in the starkest terms the current position that she, her staff and volunteers, and, most importantly, her clients, now face. Staffing has fallen from 26 to 19, none legally qualified, and 11 of them on contracts expiring in March next year. Funding for a debt adviser by a local charity is ceasing and a full-time adviser and part-time administrator will be made redundant. The bureau’s opening hours have been reduced and demand is such that the bureau closes its doors after half an hour because it cannot accommodate in its waiting room the many people who wish to attend drop-in sessions. The average time taken to advise each client has increased by 50% or more because of the triple whammy of legal aid disappearing, welfare changes and cuts in public services. There is now no funding for interpreters or medical reports, and recently there has been difficulty with deaf clients, with interpreters charging the bureau £70 for an interview. Shona Alexander says:

“Just about every private law firm in Newcastle is referring clients to us because of legal aid cuts”,

and increasing numbers of clients need crisis intervention, especially because of benefit sanctions. She states that, ironically,

“every Government department website or letter refers clients to their local CAB”,

but of course, without providing any direct funding.

As if all this were not enough, there is the difficulty, mentioned in the report, of clients obtaining telephone advice from government departments at premium rates. The Newcastle bureau can deal with only 38% of incoming calls, while clients, some of them specifically referred to the bureau for the purpose by government departments, seek to use the CAB’s own phone lines.

Finally, Shona Alexander refers to two areas of high demand: welfare rights and employment. On the former, hundreds of clients seek advice, for while the city’s service is fully stretched, the CAB caters for non-city residents from the surrounding area as well. The part-time specialist worker is fully booked dealing with complex cases and coaching staff and volunteers with more routine work. In employment, the CAB relies totally on pro bono work from local solicitors, the very source referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Gold. However, there are,

“serious cases of discrimination, health and safety issues and other illegal work practices which are now going unchallenged”.

None of this catalogue of difficulty is unique to Newcastle, as the report makes clear, which is why there is such widespread interest in, and support for, many of the commission’s proposals, as evidenced by this debate. I hope that the Government will respond positively to the constructive proposals in the report. Like others, I was particularly attracted to the idea of public legal education that the commission seeks to promote. Will the Government revive the programme initiated by the previous Government, which, as my noble friend Lord Bach reminded us, they abandoned some four years ago? Will they review urgently the areas of welfare law now excluded from legal aid, particularly those highlighted by the commission in its report—again, this was stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Low, tonight—in relation to housing disrepair, harassment and eviction and disbursements for benefits advice? Will they fund the advice required for applications for exceptional funding and revisit the imposition of fees for employment tribunal applications? For that matter, will they disavow any intention of charging claimants fees to access decision-making and appeals processes, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Bach and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson?

I hope that the Government will endorse the suggestion of local and national advice plans, adopt the proposals to ensure quality of provision and support moves to share services across the sector and promote pro bono services, recognising that the latter must be seen as supplementing and not replacing properly staffed provision. Will they also look again carefully at the online and telephone gateway services, as others have mentioned, not least in respect of cost?

The report makes relatively modest demands for additional resources but I am slightly apprehensive about the call for local government to fund an extra £50 million. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, pointed out, councils already contribute 46% of the funding to CABs—some £73 million nationally. Many, including most of the areas where demand for advice and assistance in welfare matters is most acute, are facing unprecedented cuts in funding for mainline services, including statutory services. Requiring additional expenditure would constitute a “new burden”, which, under the Government’s own new burdens doctrine, should be funded by government and not by further cuts to existing provision.

However, I have a suggestion to make. Many people, alas, have suffered terribly from the recent floods. I hope that that damage will be made good by insurance; according to the industry, the cost will apparently be some billions of pounds. Most of us pay insurance premiums. Funding the commission’s proposals in this report would represent a mere fraction of the cost of repairing that flood damage. Could we not, as a society, treat the emergency situations that so often overwhelm our vulnerable fellow citizens—including many disabled people, as the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, pointed out—in the realm of social welfare law as something that we could collectively insure via a modest hypothecated surcharge on our insurance premiums? I invite the Government to consider and cost that suggestion, which may be a better way of helping to make good some of the resource that has been lost in the past year or two.

I spoke earlier about my early involvement with this topic of advice and legal aid. By chance, I recently came across a scrapbook that my father kept of my early years in local politics. It included a letter of mine about legal aid published in the Times in 1971. The Timeswas the beneficiary of my epistolary contributions as, at that point, I had not taken up reading the Guardian. The letter concluded:

“Is it too late to hope that some of Lord Hailsham’s undoubted energy will be applied to broadening, rather than restricting, the scope of legal aid?”.

This was at a time when Lord Hailsham was mooting changes to the availability of legal aid. I ask tonight: it is too late to hope that the Minister’s undoubted energy, ability and empathy will be applied in restoring the accessibility of advice and legal support for social welfare law, which is a potential life-saver for so many of our fellow citizens?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 8:53 pm, 25th February 2014

My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Low, on securing this debate and restating my belief, and the Government’s belief, in publicly funded legal services as an integral part of the justice system. All speakers have made valuable contributions to this debate but I am sure that noble Lords will forgive me if I single out the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough for his excellent maiden speech. It is clear from his description of the wide variety of people and situations which he encounters in his diocese that he will be able to bring many valuable insights into our debates. I am very glad to welcome him.

Notwithstanding the Government’s continued commitment to the justice system, any discussion on legal aid funding must focus on the spending that taxpayers fund and must recognise the financial realities we continue to face. As noble Lords are aware, legal aid was introduced more than 60 years ago. It has expanded very considerably in scope to become, arguably, something it was never intended to be. The Government were, until recently, spending scarce resources—in effect rather encouraging people to take their problems straight to court rather than trying to achieve successful and often enduring resolution of disputes in different ways.

The Government were forced therefore to take a fresh look and did not embark on the reform programme lightly. However, the fiscal challenge and the spending review settlement required all departments to look critically at where they were spending money, the effectiveness of those interventions and whether they could continue to be justified. A conscious decision was taken, following the public consultation that led to the LASPO Act, that spending the limited taxpayer funding available to the Ministry of Justice on social welfare law matters, when the majority of problems in this area did not require legal expertise to resolve, could not be justified. This and other difficult choices were scrutinised, amended and debated by Parliament after a thorough and wide-ranging public consultation.

People do not always need lawyers in cases involving divorce, employment, education disputes and debt problems, and courts should be a last resort rather than a first one. These are the types of problems that can and should be resolved before tribunals or similar bodies, which are designed to be accessed by unrepresented individuals. However, with the introduction of the LASPO Act—and this is often forgotten—we safeguarded legal aid to ensure that it was targeted to those who needed it most, for the most serious cases, in which legal advice or representation is justified.

We estimate that following the introduction of LASPO around £50 million will still be available in legal aid for social welfare law, which will fund community care and other high-priority debt and housing cases. For those who need or choose to go to court, but who fall outside the scope of the legal aid scheme, there are other resources available in other forms. There are a diverse range of services available that recognise and match the differing needs of individuals, helping them to navigate the system and resolve their problems. I accept that the challenge is to ensure that relevant services continue to be available in a sustainable way. We have seen industries innovate and modernise to address changing needs and environments. It is essential that the advice sector does so too. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, spoke of the increased use of technology. There is also the support for legal initiatives. My noble friend Lord Gold referred to pro bono contributions from young solicitors.

However, the Government have recognised the various pressures that the not-for-profit advice sector would face, as different funding sources were affected as a range of organisations reviewed their funding positions in the light of the changing fiscal environment. That is why the Cabinet Office led a review looking at the long-term sustainability of the not-for-profit advice sector. The Advice Services Review report, published in October 2012, acknowledged that the Government have a role in supporting the sector to adapt to the new funding realities but also made it clear that advice providers would need to take the initiative and change the way they work, adopting often a more collaborative approach with partner organisations across the sector to ensure the long-term sustainability of supply.

In fact, the Government did not wait for the outcome of that report. Since 2010 the Government have provided significant additional support over and above their usual funding to a range of front-line advice organisations such as Shelter, CABs and law centres that provide direct advice to clients on matters such as social welfare law, to help them adapt and make the transition to the new funding climate. This includes providing half of the £68-million advice services transition fund, launched in November 2012 and administered by the Big Lottery Fund, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Low. This fund has provided a total of 228 grants of between £50,000 and £350,000, which are specifically available during 2013-15 to help the sector to address immediate need and help to strengthen organisations for the demands that lie ahead.

The Ministry of Justice itself has worked collaboratively with relevant partners in the sector to ensure that clients continue to be supported even after the introduction of LASPO. In the lead-up to the introduction of LASPO, the MoJ developed a targeted communication strategy to raise awareness of legal aid changes and, in particular, to signpost clients not eligible for legal aid to relevant alternative sources.

My officials also worked closely with other government departments, legal aid providers, advice organisations and relevant third-sector partner organisations to raise awareness and enable them to provide effective information about legal aid changes themselves and details about alternative sources. As part of this, we developed and introduced a new and simple online service. Those words are easy to utter but, having actually tried out this service, I can confirm that it is genuinely simple and can be accessed by those who are not sophisticated in these matters. It is considerably simpler than, perhaps, buying an air ticket from a budget supplier. People can check whether they might be eligible for legal aid. Where they might not be, this service will signpost them to alternative sources. To date, over 194,000 clients have used the site to look for assistance, and we continue to work with legal aid providers and advice organisations on improving awareness.

I turn to the excellent report itself, provided by the noble Lord, Lord Low, and his committee. I have read it with great interest. There are a number of important factors about it. I particularly applaud that it does not simply seek the reinstatement of the status quo ante but rather explores a range of different possibilities. It will be a considerable source of assistance to all the parties as they prepare for the election. The colleague of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, Andy Slaughter, has said that he will be mining the report for ideas. I know that there have been meetings at No. 10 and that there the noble Lord has met my ministerial colleague with responsibility for these matters, Shailesh Vara. It is an important document that will provide food for thought and inspiration for the way forward.

I welcome the fact that the report does not duck the fact that there are fiscal challenges facing this Government, which necessarily means that fewer resources are available and that hard decisions will have to be made about how they are spent. I also welcome the recognition that the advice and legal aid services sectors are in a period of transition and innovation, which, as the report states, offers scope for agencies to work more collaboratively and in more cost-effective ways in order to help their clients’ needs.

I assure noble Lords that the Ministry of Justice recognises the importance of encouraging decision-makers to get it right first time—a point made in the report and by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, in the course of her speech—and of ensuring that we continue to innovate and improve the current system, as suggested in the report. I can confirm that the Ministry of Justice works closely with other government departments to improve decision-making. We are also considering the recommendations referring to the way in which Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service hears appeals. The Ministry of Justice has published a strategic work programme for those tribunals that describes how we are working to improve the system in line with efficiency, fairness and accessibility.

We have also established the Administrative Justice Forum, an independent body made up of a range of people who have direct contact and can represent views. We have made considerable progress in the improvement of feedback mechanisms on decision-making to the Department for Work and Pensions, with the introduction of telephone case management and the employment tribunal.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, drew an appropriate analogy to his work on access to justice and how that changed the culture and the way that we looked upon the resolution of disputes. That was referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, as well. I am glad to see that the judiciary is referred to specifically in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Low, as providing significant innovation in dealing with litigants in person, which are a reality that we have to face. I refer in particular to paragraph 4.12 of the report. This is the world in which we live: judges would no doubt prefer not to have litigants in person, but they are responding well, using modern technology in assistance to make the system more user-friendly for those who do not have the benefit of legal advice.

There was a great deal of complaint made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, who I recognise has been a persistent champion of those needing social welfare law. He has also opposed almost every other cut, but I accept that he has made a particular feature of this area. He was critical of the use of the exceptional funding scheme and said that the Government were not, in fact, providing exceptional funding in the way that it was envisaged. I endeavoured to answer questions on that when they were raised in a Parliamentary Question recently. The position is that we think it is working; no doubt the forms might be improved, but we have to provide funding where there is a potential breach under the European convention or EU law. That is the position; that is what is provided by the Act.

There are many other features to which I would like to respond, but time does not permit me to do so. We acknowledge the many useful observations made during this debate and there is a great deal of value in what was suggested in the report itself, particularly in regard to the administrative justice and tribunal system. The Government will, of course, carefully consider these suggestions in the future and continue to incorporate them into our strategic work where it is appropriate to do so.

Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat

Can the Minister give any reassurance at all to the many who have spoken about public legal education, particularly in schools?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I cannot give any formal reassurance as to whether public legal education will be part of any schools curriculum. It is clearly an important feature in the report and is something that will be considered along with other matters.

House adjourned at 9.07 pm.