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Legal Aid (Immigration Appeals)

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 23 November 2010

In 2009-10, overall legal aid expenditure on advice and representation in immigration and asylum appeals was £85 million. I should, however, point out that it is not possible to identify expenditure for initial advice separately from expenditure before the immigration and asylum tribunal in cases in which both advice and representation are provided.

I thank the Minister for his response. Can he confirm that, under the coalition Government proposals, immigration cases will be taken out of the scope of legal aid?

Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we are consulting on removing all immigration matters from the scope of legal aid, other than for those in immigration detention. That means removing matters such as varying leave to remain—for example, if a foreign student wants to change their visa to get permission to work instead, or, indeed, to stay here for longer. Such cases will no longer be at the taxpayer’s expense.

One of the ways in which we can cut down on waste in the legal aid budget is to address no-shows by Home Office officials at immigration hearings. Can the Minister tell me the number of cases in which Home Office representatives do not turn up to these hearings and the cost of that to the legal aid bill, or will he write to me with that information?

I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with that information, but I can tell him that it is an issue. Defendants’ representatives not turning up for hearings is also an issue.

Responding to Lord Carter’s 2006 review of legal aid, the Minister said it put very vulnerable individuals at risk, that people were not being represented and that the structure was “being destroyed”, and he concluded:

“I would say it’s a meltdown.”

Carter reduced the budget by about 5%, whereas the current Government’s Green Paper cuts civil legal aid income by 42%. How would the Minister describe that?

The important point to make is that the last Government did, indeed, look at legal aid: they had more than 30 consultations over a five-year period, including Carter. The result of that was that providers and those in receipt of legal aid were lost within the system and did not know where cuts were coming from, and what we are doing now is putting forward a comprehensive review of legal aid, whereby providers and all stakeholders will be able to see their position within the system—and as a result the consultation will be accurate.

Well, we can all make what we will of that, but the fact remains that more than half a million people who may have unfairly lost their job, their income, their right to decent housing or access to their children—or, indeed, who may have been deported from the country, as the Minister has just said—will now go without advice or representation, whereas criminal legal aid and some of the high-cost advocates earning more than £900,000 a year are largely untouched. The Secretary of State said in his statement on these measures that it was important to strike a balance. Does the Minister not think that the balance has been got wrong in this case?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the consultation document, which has clearly got a section on very high-cost cases, and on which we have significant proposals. More particularly, the Labour manifesto said it wanted to cut legal aid, so if he is going to talk about our cuts, perhaps he might like to say where he would be making cuts in legal aid.