Legal Aid Bill Speech

I begin by declaring an interest as somebody who used to work for Citizens Advice Cymru before being elected to this place, and who currently serves as the

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secretary of the Citizens Advice all-party parliamentary group. I shall speak to new clause 43 and amendment 162 in my name. They are probing amendments so I shall be brief, but colleagues in the other place might want to pursue the matter in greater detail, especially as the amendments carry the support of the official Opposition, for which I am extremely grateful.

The amendments are supported by advice organisations concerned that a strict interpretation of legislation may leave holes in the legal aid safety net. From a pragmatic and practical perspective, the intention of the amendments is to allow funding for the provision of advice from third-sector independent and impartial advice organisations to assist with understanding a case, without the requirement to provide formal and costly legal representation. That will help the Government achieve some of the savings aims in the Bill. In technical terms, the amendment would give the Lord Chancellor discretion to permit transfers from the legal aid budget to other funding streams for the provision of advice on issues to which schedule 1 does not apply.

If schedule 1 is to be the future shape of civil legal aid, the scheme needs to work alongside advice services which deal with other legal issues, such as debt problems, issues of benefit entitlement and appeals under social security law, employment rights and immigration decisions. On a practical level, it is a waste of resources if legal aid clients cannot receive holistic advice. I know that that is something on which Citizens Advice prides itself. There will also be many cases at the margins of the situations covered in schedule 1, and the Legal Services Commission’s response to the Green Paper highlighted the problem of what it calls boundary issues, warning that

“the administration costs of considering such cases could erode revenue savings that the Ministry of Justice has committed itself to.”

That addresses some of the points that Opposition Members have raised throughout the debate on the Bill and draws attention to the unintended financial consequences of what the Government are trying to pursue. I will close as I want to allow colleagues to speak about other parts of the Bill, but it would be helpful if, in response, the Government could explain how the concerns of civil society bodies about access to advice as a result of the prescriptive nature of schedule 1 will be addressed.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am conscious that we have had two hours of debate already and I am keen, as are other Members, to get through all four groups of amendments if humanly possible, so I will make only a few comments. It is appropriate that contributions from both sides of the House, including from the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), have made the case for the Government to proceed sensitively on this delicate issue.

My position is very clear: I signed up to the coalition agreement without reservation because it was the only realistic game in town. It was important to accept that one of the things that would drive Government policy was the need to reduce the deficit. That is right and necessary, so it is right that every Department should carry its share of that responsibility. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) made clear, the coalition agreement stated that there would be a review of the legal aid system to make it work more

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efficiently. If the Government are also to achieve their other objective, which is to ensure that the vulnerable are protected in a time of economy austerity and reduced spending, we must ensure that this part of public spending protects and assists them as much as possible. That is where the sensitivity arises.

Like other Members who have spoken, I am lawyer, but I am not here to defend the lawyers. We need good lawyers, such as the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and many others, who come to law not to be paid six-figure salaries in large commercial firms, but to be paid £25,000 or £35,000 a year, often working 40, 50, 60 or 70 hour a weeks, in citizens advice bureaux. There is a very worthwhile legal advice centre in my constituency, the Cambridge House law centre in Southwark, and many other such places. We are here to ensure that the issues they raise are on the agenda.

We are also here because in constituencies with high levels of unemployment and deprivation, such as mine, and in every other constituency, there are huge numbers of people who from time to time need legal support in the most difficult circumstances. We must ensure that the welfare net is protected. We have a very generous system, which cannot go on in the short term, but we must make the right decisions. All the attempts in the new clauses that concern me try to persuade the Government of that fact. I have five areas of concern and will flag up one relating specifically to the amendment that has not been spoken to already, but which I hope the Government will be able to respond to positively.

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