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Legal aid

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson.)

I am delighted to have secured this important debate so soon after the publication of the legal aid Green Paper. It is a mark of how significant such issues are that there is a good attendance in the Gallery and that a number of Members of Parliament are present hoping to make a contribution.

Members of Parliament have a particular interest in legal aid, particularly in the broader context of advice services, because we are part of the family of advisers. That was brought home to me during my first week as an MP when, at my very first surgery, a gentleman asked me for assistance in having his wife deported. I was not able to refer that case to a partner legal aid firm.

Over the course of 13 years, I have made extensive use of, and am enormously grateful to, private firms, law centres and other advice centres in my constituency and elsewhere, and I will pay tribute to them by name. Paddington law centre is an excellent local facility that has assisted thousands of people in the community. The London borough of Westminster is often used as a byword for prosperity and the great institutions of central London, but in fact it includes a number of the most deprived wards in the country. Westminster citizens advice bureau is another superb organisation and I had the pleasure of attending its annual meeting a couple of weeks ago. Other organisations include the North Kensington law centre, the migrants resource centre, the Mary Ward centre—that is not in my constituency, but it is an important local organisation—Just for Kids Law, to which I will refer in a moment, and many private practices, as well as the Central London law centre and the Brent private tenants rights group, which is just over the border and provides an important service to tenants.

Those professionals in the sector provide, for the most part, a service to many of the most vulnerable and distressed people in society, and they do so for what is a challenging level of remuneration in a professional context. We hear—sometimes rightly—about the eye-watering sums of money paid in legal aid in some criminal cases. I understand that such cases cause public concern, but as in so many areas of public policy, we are being driven by policy making by anecdote. We need to address extreme examples and issues, but, overwhelmingly, legal aid practitioners are not well remunerated and they do an excellent job at astoundingly good value to the public purse.

My hon. Friend says that those professionals are not well remunerated. Does she agree that they are not even as well remunerated as many of the senior police officers and teachers in our constituencies? Their average income is between £28,000 and £40,000 in London.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. It is true that legal aid practitioners who take on institutions in the public sector, and sometimes the private sector, are significantly less well paid than those professionals who make the public policy decisions that they challenge.

It is important to put on the record the fact that the previous Labour Government took decisions that bore down on legal aid expenditure. Not everyone will have agreed with those decisions—they may have challenged them—but there was a healthy debate. It must also be accepted that had Labour been re-elected, there would have been cuts in the legal aid budget. It is not the case, however, that the unfolding policy of the Labour party would have placed the pressure, which we now see emerging, on civil, family and social welfare law. Those are the areas of concern that I want to address.

It is critical to protect criminal legal aid. If it is not available at the right level and provided by quality professionals, justice will be denied. It is very important to protect a proper criminal legal aid budget. I pay tribute to Lord Bach, the former Minister with responsibility for legal aid, who looked at ways in which to bear down on exceptional costs in the criminal legal aid budget without sacrificing the principles of access to justice. I think there was consensus on that.

My concerns are about the manner in which the legal aid Green Paper attacks—and it is an attack—the legal aid budget. It bears down particularly severely on civil cases, including family and social welfare, and takes a number of areas out of the scope of aid entirely. Such areas include children and family cases in which domestic violence is not a stated factor, education, immigration where a person is not detained, clinical negligence, welfare benefits, employment, debt and some areas of housing. As a consequence, more than 500,000 people each year are less likely to receive help. Not only will that have an effect on those people unable to access legal aid services, but it will destabilise and possibly destroy such services in many areas and make it extremely hard for public services to be held to account when they are at fault.

My hon. Friend makes her case powerfully. The cuts are atrociously harsh on civil cases. Nottingham law centre in my constituency says that last year it helped 1,300 people avoid housing repossession. I am exceptionally worried about the impact on homelessness and the potential for people to lose their homes. This is important stuff.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point and I will return in a moment to the issue of housing and homelessness.

Funding for judicial review is retained within the legal aid Green Paper. However, in many cases it is not based upon the legal help that allows for an effective judicial review. I have been told that retaining judicial review but withdrawing so much legal aid is as useful as having a flight of stairs between the first and second floors of a building when there is nothing between the ground floor and the first. Judicial review emerges from a wider pool of cases and there will be inadequate tests of the law if legal aid is withdrawn.

As we know from the Green Paper, eligibility for legal aid is to be further reduced. Over recent years—this is already a trend—the proportion of the population eligible for legal aid on a sliding scale of contributions has fallen from about half of the population to about a third. The Green Paper further lowers the level at which people are asked to contribute from their assets, and increases the percentage level of contributions from earnings. Moreover, for the first time, those on social security benefits should, it is suggested, be subject to a full asset test. Will the Minister write to me and state whether the Department has calculated the cost of such an exercise? Taken together, all those measures prompt the question of whether even those who are potentially entitled to legal aid can afford to take up that entitlement, and what that will mean for access to justice.

Members of the public are being asked to insure themselves to cover future legal aid cases. However, since those who lose out are, overwhelmingly, low-income households, it is extremely unlikely that they will be able to find money for a hypothetical eventuality, rather than for the daily struggle to house, heat and feed themselves. There is nothing wrong with taking out insurance in principle—it should be encouraged—but is it realistic to ask low-income groups to insure against eventualities that are simply not as foreseeable as those risks that lead people to insure their homes and cars?

The loss of legal aid will mean that most, if not all, of the 500,000 people affected will lose access to advice and representation. That figure will include many of the most vulnerable categories of people. The legal aid consultation itself acknowledges that in respect of issues such as debt, welfare benefits and education, people with disabilities are likely to be disproportionately affected. For example, 63% of legally aided clients in the sphere of welfare benefits assistance are disabled.

The excellent briefing produced for this debate by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux states that

“alternative sources of advice are simply not available, suitable or accessible for the overwhelming majority of our client group”

and

“the voluntary sector and pro bono does not have the capacity to fulfil the need currently met by Legal Aid in terms of the volume of people or the specialism required for more complex cases.”

Will the Minister say, either now or later, whether the Department has carried out a full capacity assessment to assure us that voluntary and pro bono facilities are available to fill the gap that will be created by the proposals in the Green Paper?

In the context of my hon. Friend’s remarks about the impact of the proposals, does she agree that yet again we are seeing a disproportionate impact on women, especially, of course, in relation to family cases?

I do believe that the legal aid budget in this country is huge in comparison with those in other European countries, but I have had representations from the New Forest citizens advice bureau to say that it has two part-time caseworkers and it is wondering where its most vulnerable clients will go if that service is cut back in parallel with cutbacks in legal aid.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point; it will be one of the issues that I address. There is an argument in addition to the argument about how much we fund legal aid by. There is consensus that the budget cannot expand indefinitely, but there are still issues about the speed at which and the manner in which legal aid funding is withdrawn and the impact that that could have on providers.

I think that value for money was also at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. Is it not the case that expenditure on legal aid and advice services does provide value for money, because it ensures that public services and others operate effectively and well, that errors are corrected and that public law is constantly challenged? It also helps people to redress wrongs and ensures that the take-up of benefits and other services is done properly.

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, among other organisations, convincingly argues that there is a very poor business case for what the Government propose. Taking so much social welfare out of the scope of legal aid will undermine value for money. It is argued that between £2 and £10 is saved for every pound invested in the legal aid budget. An analysis based on data from the civil and social justice survey and on Legal Services Commission outcomes data estimates a saving of £2 for every £1 spent in relation to housing, £3 for every £1 spent on debt advice, £8.80 for every £1 spent on benefits advice and £7 for every £1 spent in relation to employment. That is besides the benefit to the individual; 80% of social welfare legal aid cases record positive outcomes for the clients.

It is impossible in a limited time—I want other hon. Members to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate—to pay proper attention to every area of civil law affected by the proposals, so I shall make just a few remarks on the areas that cause me greatest concern.

In relation to family law, no one disputes the value of mediation or the fact that in cases that go to court, the court action can have an extremely damaging impact on the families. However, relying on mediation is not always an option. It is not always the case that both partners are prepared to go to mediation. Also, it implies that there is a willingness to compromise and that the compromise should be somewhere around the middle of the argument about child welfare, maintenance or whatever. That ignores the fact that in many instances, one partner or the other has behaved excessively badly or is making unrealistic demands; indeed, it encourages them to make such demands.

Good and powerful cases have been raised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, and I shall read the details of two into the record as examples. One case study states:

“I am advising a client who is seeking contact with his children. The children’s mother has remarried and has a new child with her husband. She seeks to marginalize our client from the children’s lives, has denied contact, refuses to engage in mediation and has moved to a secret address. The case requires a preliminary application to ascertain the children’s whereabouts and once identified an application for contact. Clearly mediation is impossible and without early advice the client will have absolutely no idea how to re-establish contact with his children. His options would be to try to find them through any means available to him which would not be helpful or to give up which would deny the children the right to have a relationship with their father. With early advice, the application for disclosure would be made by solicitors and once the children’s whereabouts were identified a tactical attempt to negotiate and encourage mediation…would take place. This particular client has some learning difficulties and to navigate the court system as a litigant in person would almost certainly be impossible and any attempts made would be hugely time consuming.”

The other case study states:

“I am advising a client. He has 4 children and has shared residence for all those and is very active in their lives. We have helped him in the past with residence issues with the benefit of legal aid…He is now facing an application by one of the Mothers to take his 14 year old daughter to New Zealand where the Mother has a 2 year work contract. If this is allowed, from seeing his daughter half the week he will be lucky to see her in the holidays and will not be able to afford air fares…In future this client will have to deal with this on his own. This will lead to him probably giving up on fighting the application.”

Even in cases in which domestic violence is not an issue, without legal aid there are real dangers that individuals, particularly those who have difficulty in being sufficiently articulate or confident to navigate the courts system, will lose access to their children.

The hon. Lady is making a very powerful case, but given that she has said that civil, family and social law are bearing the brunt of the proposed cuts, I wonder whether she will comment—or the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), will comment later—on where her party would have made the cuts had it been re-elected. As she mentioned, cuts would have been made had Labour been re-elected. The cuts proposed are less than 20%. If criminal law is to be protected, where does she or the shadow Minister suggest that the Government make the cuts? The speed and manner of the cuts seem to be the main criticism. We would like to see more detail.

As I said, the previous Labour Government had already made cuts to the legal aid budget, which were highly controversial. Many hon. Members who are in this Chamber made fierce representations on that point. I have already said that there were areas, particularly very high-cost criminal cases, in which the Government intended to go further. Ministers were also examining ways in which the civil and social welfare budget could be protected within the global legal aid budget, because it was understood that in many cases, savings in that area would lead to a false economy. Therefore I will not be drawn into an argument about equivalence of cuts and into coming out with every figure, because I dispute the basis of what the hon. Lady has said.

One of my greatest concerns is about the proposed cuts in relation to education. The Government’s intention is to take education out of the scope of legal aid. Given the often unfulfilled statutory duty on local authorities to ensure that young people receive an education, that is bound to hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

I am indebted to Just for Kids Law, a specialist organisation in my constituency, for the information that it has provided and for its assistance with a number of cases that I have referred to it. Last year, Just for Kids Law took 34 cases, with two thirds having a satisfactory outcome. These are cases of children without a school place and cases in which there are serious disputes in relation to children who have or who require statements of special educational needs. Given that the latest figures for my borough show that we have 364 children without a school place at this point in the school year, the need for representation for parents is extremely clear.

I shall give a couple of examples of cases, from Just for Kids Law’s caseload, which would receive no representation in future.

“E…is a highly gifted boy who is on the autistic spectrum. His father was offered a job in New Zealand so the family emigrated and E…started Year 7 there. Regrettably there was no special educational needs provision for him and he was so severely bullied that, by August, his parents had withdrawn him from school and made arrangements for the family to return to the UK. They had kept in regular contact with their local authority, however, when they returned in January 2009, there was no place available...After six weeks at home with his mother he was provided with a Personal Tutor for two hours per week. His behaviour was rapidly deteriorating and he started self harming. He told JfK Law he…wanted to go to school like everyone else and didn’t want to end up”—

in a dead-end job. Just For Kids Law made representations to the local authority and, when that was unsuccessful, issued urgent judicial review proceedings. After two mediation meetings with the local authority lawyers, he was eventually offered a place at a specialist autistic centre that integrates into a mainstream school. Without representation at every stage, it is likely that that child would have ended up with no school place and no provision, with catastrophic consequences for him.

The second example states:

“R…was permanently excluded from school in 2006. He has special educational needs and had been receiving specialised support”

for his behavioural problems, which had been successfully managed in reception and year 1, but in year 2 his behaviour worsened. Instead of referring him for an assessment for a statement of special educational needs or asking for the local authority’s advice the school permanently excluded him. His mother felt that was because her relationship with the head teacher had broken down. Just For Kids Law advised the mother at the governing body appeal, which she lost.

“JfK Law then appealed to the Independent Appeals Panel…and made representations that it was not lawful to exclude a child because of the breakdown in relationship between a Head Teacher and the mother, the school should have dealt with the problem by way of a “managed move” to another school that could meet his needs….The IAP agreed with JfK Law’s representations”

and overturned the permanent exclusion, which is no longer on the child’s record. That is a case about a very vulnerable family.

We have referred to housing and homelessness. The Government intend to retain provision in cases of people at risk of imminent homelessness, but, perversely, they are taking debt and other areas of financial advice out of scope. Those issues are almost always the preliminary problems that lead to homelessness.

Brighton and Hove is expecting a reduction of 80% in legal aid cases—down to only 280 cases per year. Although we all agree that we should make some cuts, does the hon. Lady agree that we need to monitor that level of reduction carefully?

I absolutely agree. I am extremely concerned. In other areas of public policy, we are seeing reductions in housing benefit expenditure and entitlement, which are coming in next year. There is, apparently, a rise in homelessness. There are major changes in housing policy, some of which were announced yesterday, which will lead to homeless households being discharged into the private rented sector, with all the associated risks of that. Yet, at the same time, the representation and advice available to people at the most critical stage of their path through the housing system is being removed. I am sure that the consequences of those changes in policy and the reduction in legal aid representation will be catastrophic for highly vulnerable families, many of which include children with disabilities and special needs. I predict that the changes will explode the budgets associated with local authority responsibilities under the Children Act 2004, as many cases will be referred to local authorities. Once again, this is a false economy.

There are many other things that I would like to say, but I will conclude simply by referring back to the argument of the impact of the cuts on providers. Of course, we have to start from the point of view of the client. The client is the most important, not the provider. However, if a client cannot access a provider, if there is an advice desert and no one within 50 or 100 miles or a reasonable distance for people to afford to get to, then justice is denied to that person. If staff contracts are lost, money withdrawn from a law centre, firm or citizens advice bureau on the piecemeal basis indicated in the proposals, and services are removed—the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) gave a good example—at a time when local authorities are facing record cuts in expenditure, many such services will go under. They will collapse in an unplanned way. There will not be a coherent pattern of advice services, because no one has overall control of ensuring that that happens.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and apologise for my late attendance; I had dreadful problems with my computer. I received an e-mail from Flintshire CAB, which is very worried about losing the equivalent of five posts—a total of £170,000. It deals with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, who are often the same people who end up coming to see Members of Parliament. It is worried that the cuts will devastate the area.

That is absolutely right. I shall now sit down to listen to examples from, possibly, both sides of the Chamber. I urge the Minister to ask his colleagues to think again about how the changes are being implemented. The dangers are that they will lead to advice deserts and reduced access to justice for many cases—500,000—involving the most vulnerable people. They will lead to the perverse consequence of greater expenditure in many other areas of public services and, because the providers will not be held to account efficiently by lawyers, worse public services. I hope that the Minister will hear not only what I have to say but what other Members have to say, and go back to the Department to ask for an urgent review of the Government’s proposals.

I understand and appreciate that there is some merit in the Government’s decision to simplify legal aid and that the costs in recent years have spiralled and become unsustainable, particularly at a time like this. Considering what the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has said, however, I feel that the decision has not really been fully thought through. The impact to local legal services could be devastating. In my constituency, the changes will mean that only two legal firms can continue to provide vital, high-quality family law legal aid services—previously, it was nine. Those two firms will now be taking on the work that nine firms undertook formerly, so the effectiveness and speed with which sensitive family issues are dealt with will be compromised.

We will also lose expertise in what, from my perspective, is one of the most challenging areas of law—that which deals with divorce and child custody. From a legal aid perspective, people from disadvantaged backgrounds will be hardest hit, which will be a challenge in Eastbourne.

I recently met a constituent who was unable to find legal representation in Eastbourne, because, of the two remaining firms that would have been able to offer legal aid, one was representing her ex-husband and the other her son. Due to a possible conflict of interest, she had to look elsewhere, to either Rye or Brighton, which is a round trip in excess of 50 miles. That does not sound very far, but the constituent, whom I know quite well, is disabled and unable to travel by public transport. She would have had to travel by taxi; I do not need to tell anyone here that a taxi fare is not an easily affordable luxury for someone in receipt of disability living allowance.

As well as the threat to legal service provision in my constituency, I am profoundly concerned that the proposals include the removal of funding for large areas of specialist social welfare-related help and guidance. That is often delivered by local community-based charities, such as BHT Eastbourne Advice and the Eastbourne citizens advice bureau in my constituency. They complement that specialist help and guidance with a more general advice service provided by volunteers. There are such crucial service providers in every constituency. In Eastbourne, those charities risk losing in the region of £230,000 to £250,000 per annum of legal aid funding.

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s sympathetic comments, but what would he say to my constituents in the Bargoed area of the Rhymney valley, 375 of whom claim legal aid for welfare benefit issues and 450 of whom stand to lose access to legal aid for debt issues?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Although the overall legal aid budget has spiralled out of control, I have real concerns about the Government’s proposals—they are based on the previous Government’s proposals, which is one of the ironies—for changing legal aid. I do have concerns, which I why I am here this morning.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, and I agree with some of his points, but does he acknowledge that the previous Government reduced the cost of civil legal aid by 24% over 10 years? We have to disaggregate the civil and criminal cases and concentrate on where the Government’s cuts are having an effect—on the most vulnerable in our society.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. That is a fair comment, and I certainly will not dispute the facts of what she says.

I was talking about the upwards of £250,000 that the two charities in Eastbourne stand to lose. They use that funding to support more than 1,500 of the town’s most vulnerable residents with complex debt, benefit and housing problems, many of which have been alluded to. I and many others believe that the social welfare help that the Government plan to reduce is very much preventive and enabling; it is focused not on generating unnecessary litigation, but on preventing crises by solving complex problems at an early stage.

Does the hon. Gentleman not also accept that people face clusters of problems? Even if people can still access some legal help, removing some categories of legal help altogether will inevitably mean that there will be areas of difficulty where people can no longer get the help that they need.

That is a fair point, and I look forward to hearing exactly how the Minister will respond.

I recognise that these are difficult economic times and that the Ministry of Justice faces incredibly difficult budgetary decisions. However, I am concerned that without a clear alternative for resourcing and supporting preventive advice in particular, the proposals will increase the demands not only on the crisis-related legal advice services that remain, but on other public services.

As I indicated, legal aid cuts have a particular impact on housing. Over the past few years, legal aid has funded BHT Eastbourne Advice’s handling of 800 to 900 specialist housing cases per year. That was reduced to 530 cases per year for the most recent three-year forward contract, which commenced on 15 November.

It is estimated that the current proposals could reduce housing advice capacity by 20%, which will have a very detrimental impact on advice provision in my constituency and many other towns, at a time when such advice will be in high demand following the implementation of the housing benefit reforms. I agree that those reforms are necessary, but they will have a knock-on effect.

Advice is effective in preventing homelessness, especially if it is given early. The proposals to limit legal aid to those in imminent threat of repossession flies in the face of all the evidence that early intervention and prevention create long-term savings, as well as averting hardship for constituents.

I urge the Minister to revisit this issue to see whether the remaining funds can be targeted differently to ensure that legal aid—particularly for civil and family law cases—is more extensively protected.

It is a pleasure to be under your chairpersonship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing the debate.

When legal aid was first introduced in 1949, the late Arthur Skeffington said that the law at that time was like the Ritz, in that those who could afford to pay had access to it, while those who could not did not. Legal aid was introduced, and it is fundamental to giving everybody in this country access to justice.

When the Green Paper came out, paragraph 1.2 of the summary said:

“The Government strongly believes that access to justice is a hallmark of a civil society”,

which is great. The problem is the rest of the Green Paper; it starts well, but it is all downhill after that. We need to examine a number of issues relating to the Green Paper.

The background has to be that cuts were already being made in legal aid, and many of us in the Chamber who were in the previous Parliament were very concerned about that. Indeed, we raised those concerns consistently with Ministers, because the cuts were leaving the most marginalised, vulnerable people with no redress whatever through the legal system. That deeply concerns me.

The cuts have been accompanied by a series of ill-informed, unfair media attacks on the entire legal profession and the legal aid system, which have been led by the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Evening Standard. Those newspapers routinely print isolated and outrageous figures about payments to some barristers, while at no time looking at the reality of the number of legal aid firms that are paid so little that they can no longer afford to represent anybody and have gone out of business. In inner-urban areas such as the one that I represent, which is the eighth poorest part of the whole country, many people simply cannot get any representation whatever, because there is no legal aid lawyer to deal with them.

Let me quote from a letter dated 1 October 2010—many colleagues will have seen something similar at various times. It says:

“URGENT INFORMATION

CLOSURE OF

SHEIKH & CO SOLICITORS

Non practising as of Midnight on 30th September 2010”

It continues:

“We were unable to secure viable indemnity insurance despite our best efforts particularly in view of uncertainty surrounding the legal aid contracts and so it means Sheikh & Co cannot provide legal services any more.”

This was a busy local practice dealing with a whole range of issues, including housing, immigration and family and education matters, and its closure left thousands of people with no representation. Their files will be passed on through the appropriate body to another solicitor, but that solicitor may go under, and the files will then move on to somebody else and somebody else again. Along the way, they will be lost, which means that very poor and vulnerable people will be left without any representation whatever.

I am proud to represent my constituency in Parliament. I am also proud of Islington law centre, which does fantastic work. When I visited it a couple of weeks ago, the director told me that a

“10% cut across the board is being proposed”

in its Legal Services Commission contract funding and that

“we have been cut hard in both housing and employment, where, although we were ranked first in terms of our tender score, we have been given a much smaller contract from mid-November than we had previously”.

The director added that that will mean

“250 less employment clients per annum that we can help, and 185 less housing clients. I expect the total cut next year to be around £130,000,”

which is more than two full-time equivalent caseworkers. That is a busy law centre, which is doing its best. Such events could be replicated all over the country at hard-working law centres.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he will recognise the value of law centres and the need to give them support and funding.

I also hope that he will recognise that, without law centres and legal aid practices at solicitors, many of our most vulnerable constituents will simply go without any access to justice whatever.

Order. I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 10.40 am, and at least six other Members want to speak. If they can keep their remarks brief, I will get everybody in. I call Robert Buckland.

Actually, Mrs Riordan, I was giving way to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). I was not concluding my contribution. If you want me to conclude, I suppose I must, but I would be grateful if you gave me just a bit more time.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to you, Mrs Riordan.

I wanted to pick up my hon. Friend’s point about advice services. I wonder whether it struck him, as it struck me, that the Green Paper suggests that costly legal advice can be substituted with much less costly voluntary advice services. The problem is—and the author of the Green Paper does not seem to realise it—that most such voluntary services are themselves funded by legal aid, and that that funding will go if the proposals are implemented.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which is true. Legal aid funding goes through law centres, Citizens Advice and all kinds of other advice agencies, which will be cut. In any event, none of the advice services’ funding is ring-fenced in local authority terms. I have done a head-count audit of my borough, and there is probably less one-to-one advice available than there was 25 years ago. I suspect that colleagues could tell similar stories. We need fair access to justice.

The Law Society briefing for the debate is very good. It notes:

“The cuts in scope and eligibility for civil legal aid will mean that many fewer people will be able to bring cases to court”.

It continues by pointing out that

“solicitors will either find other areas of work or ‘cherry pick’ cases”.

We have many brilliant law students in this country—many brilliant young people who want to go into law and do their very best. They often end up, whether they want to or not, doing property and commercial law, because that is where the money can be made and where they can get work. They do not do legal aid because there is not enough money around to do it with. There are not enough companies doing legal aid work. So we have amazing levels of representation for well-off people, in commercial or corporate cases, but we do not have the same availability for criminal, housing, immigration or family cases.

There is a lot that I could say, but I take your earlier hint, Mrs Riordan—you do not want me to go on too long. It was very subtly put, if I may say so. I have two quick points that I want to make. The idea of separating family law cases so that legal aid will be given if violence is involved, but not if there is no violence, is utterly absurd. I am sure that we have all seen how families can implode under many pressures. The degeneration of a relationship into a battle and a court case can get very nasty. Mediation does not always work—of course we all want it to, but it does not always. That can degenerate into violence. If sensible, effective legal advice is available at a much earlier stage, much of that degeneration into something far worse can be prevented.

I am pleased that the Green Paper specifically excludes any cut in representation for asylum cases. I welcome that and pay tribute to the Minister for it. Those who face deportation in asylum cases, possibly with the prospect of death or torture on their return to where they have come from, deserve legal aid. I absolutely defend that, and I am sure—or at least hope—that every hon. Member in the Chamber would too.

However, in immigration cases, which are often very complicated, legal aid is limited; it is available for dealing with detention, but not for the case itself. A family who are put in detention—quite wrongly, in my view, if children are involved—can get legal aid to try to get out of detention, but not to deal with the burden of the case. That seems a non sequitur; either we support immigration cases or we do not. I hope that the Minister will recognise that the injustices surrounding that state of affairs, in particular with regard to applications under articles 6 and 8 of the European convention on human rights, are very important and that such cases deserve legal aid.

The late Sir Henry Hodge, who was a judge at the immigration appeal tribunal, constantly made references to the Legal Services Commission wanting sufficient resources to make representation available. An immigration appeal where there is no representation for the applicant, but there is representation for the Home Office, is unbelievably, blatantly and obviously unfair. It is not a credible way of doing things.

I urge the Minister to think again, seriously, about those aspects of the matter, and to remember the principle of access to justice for all. That will not be possible if the cuts go through.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for truncating his remarks. I shall follow his example and be as brief as I can. I should declare an interest: I was a criminal legal aid barrister for nearly 20 years, and am still in receipt of some payments for work done before the election. However, my remarks today are centred on what other hon. Members have discussed in the context of the reduction of the ambit of civil legal aid: community legal service funding for work by a number of providers, including law centres. In Swindon, the Wiltshire law centre does excellent work and provides advice for people with debt, housing and welfare benefit problems. I shall not repeat the points that other hon. Members have made. They are right about the important saving that can be made by giving early advice and help to people on welfare benefits. My remarks are focused on the detail of the helpful table towards the back of the Green Paper.

I want to preface my remarks about the Green Paper by saying that I hope it will be the last such consultation for a considerable time. The Lord Chancellor was right to note with some despair that there have been more than 30 consultations about legal aid since 2006. It led to practitioners, including me, getting our heads in a spin, when it seemed that almost month by month the previous Government—or the Legal Services Commission, to be more precise, because that was of course an arm’s length body, though it is now to come back into the Ministry of Justice—issued consultations on legal aid. We do not want permanent revolution. That has caused providers a lot of problems, and has led to some of the uncertainty about sources of work that the hon. Member for Islington North raised. The table at the back of the Green Paper is helpful, but in some cases it is unclear. I hope that the Government will take on board what is said today, and the written evidence that will be submitted by 14 February.

I want first to discuss family legal aid and what is called the domestic violence test. There is no unified definition of what is meant by “domestic violence”. Some might say that they know it when they see it, but questions arise about what the term means. Does it just mean physical violence where there is injury? I submit that that would be far too narrow a test. Does it just involve violence between spouses or partners, or does it include violence against children of the family, or in their presence? All those questions need to be answered. I have dealt with domestic violence cases for many years, and they take many forms. It is not just a question of physical violence. Often there is a course of conduct involving a mental process and psychological damage to a partner. I should like clarity about the meaning of the term “domestic violence” by the time the White Paper is issued.

To deal briefly with education, I noted with concern the suggestion that all education cases would be taken out of scope. We must not ignore the fact that soon the Department for Education will produce its own Green Paper on special educational needs. I know that Ministers intend to look carefully at reform of the current system of tribunals, and the adversarial system that is so often a barrier to parents and children with special educational needs. That is welcome news, and I hope that the Green Paper will contain a commitment to radical reform of the system, so that parents do not feel they must always fight for their children’s rights with respect to special educational needs. However, if that is not what happens, and the Government do not intend to reform the system for SEN provision, legal representation should not be taken out of scope—particularly at the upper tier tribunal level, where there is a lot of law and there are a lot of lawyers; that is a daunting prospect for any parent of a child with SEN.

The matter of clinical negligence in this context is often overlooked. There will be some cases of great complexity, such as where several different causes have led to the condition of the litigant—who will often be very vulnerable and ill, even at the time of litigation. That requires a large amount of work and costly medical expert evidence. It would be a brave set of solicitors that took on cases of such complexity on a no win, no fee basis. I ask that at the margins that aspect of the Green Paper be looked at carefully.

I end on this note: a lot has been said about legal help and representation for debt matters where someone’s home is at immediate risk. I simply ask, what does that mean? Does it mean immediate risk when possession proceedings have been commenced? Does it mean immediate risk at an earlier stage, when perhaps the householder has had a set of letters relating to unpaid debt and is, therefore, greatly concerned? There are a lot of words used, but frankly not carefully enough. I accept that this is Green Paper stage, but I ask for much more clarity when it comes to assessing the precise ambit of scope. As a former member of a funding review committee for the Legal Services Commission, I can say that these criteria are applied very carefully indeed. They have to be right.

Often for a practitioner, such as those who work in the Wiltshire law centre, a case will present itself, which at first blush will appear to be one type of problem, but will transmogrify into another, or a whole different range of problems. Therefore, questions of scope are not just academic; they are very important for solicitors and practitioners when assessing whether cases will come within or without the scope of legal aid. I urge the Minister to take on board hon. Members’ comments today, and to ask his colleagues to look carefully at the ambit of these proposals and to refine them in a way that helps not only litigators and solicitors, but, most important, those in greatest need.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this important debate. The changes and cuts proposed in the Government’s legal aid Green Paper are of great concern across the country, as we have heard this morning, but in particular in areas such as Wolverhampton, where there are high levels of deprivation. The only recourse to justice for people who are deprived and vulnerable is through the legal aid budget.

I would like to make two brief points. First, the legal aid system was instigated by the post-war Labour Government at a time of national deficit, and hot on the heels of setting up the NHS. The legal aid system has become a pillar of the welfare state. If these Green Paper proposals go forward, that pillar will be put at risk. We should not forget that before 1949 the only people able to access justice in our country were those who could afford it. I do not want to go back to that.

Secondly, I want to put on record my tremendous respect for the professionalism and work of citizens advice bureaux up and down the country, but in particular in Wolverhampton. Wolverhampton CAB deals with 14,000 inquiries every year, which is astonishing. Of those, 1,700 are legal aid inquiries. It is widely recognised by others in the region that Wolverhampton CAB is a beacon of best practice. Last year, it won the outstanding black country business of the year award, voted for by the black country chamber of commerce, for doubling its work load with the same resources.

As in Wolverhampton, in Swansea the CAB does a marvellous job. Its contract for legal aid for debt and welfare was terminated on 14 November and since then no one has had that contract. There has been a signal that it might get it again. Is it not appalling that there should be a hole in the budget flow, a change of provider and great uncertainty among very vulnerable groups? Does my hon. Friend share my concern about financial provision and continuity for the future for the CAB?

I could not have put it better myself. There are great concerns in the CAB in Wolverhampton. It is facing a cut not only in legal aid, but in the financial inclusion fund, to which I will refer briefly later.

I want to come on to the issue of the day. I know a lot of hon. Members are concerned about the cost of the legal aid budget. Let us not forget that the starting point for our debate today, as recognised in the Government’s Green Paper, is that half a million people in our country get help from the legal aid budget. That is a sign of a civilised country; it is something to be proud of, not to be attacked or ashamed of. Although we obviously have to look at the costs, I remind colleagues of my earlier point: the previous Government were looking at these issues. In the past 10 years, there was a reduction in real terms in civil legal aid of 24%. Capping the fees paid to solicitors and barristers was also being considered, as well as getting better value for money for the taxpayer by looking at how contracts were awarded and seeking economies of scale. That sort of rationalisation is a far cry from removing wholesale entire categories of legal aid from the budget. For example, family law, which other hon. Members have mentioned, welfare benefits, debt, housing and education.

I want to refer specifically to withdrawing legal aid in cases of welfare benefits. Around 80% of the social welfare legal aid cases dealt with by the CAB record positive outcomes for the individual involved. That goes to show that there are issues there. When the Government are bringing forward deep and far-reaching welfare reforms—I do not believe that they should—it is precisely the wrong time to be taking this area completely out of the scope of legal aid.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the poor quality of decision making in the social security system also creates an increased need for legal aid? We all naturally hope that that level of decision making can be improved, and I hope that the Government will give that attention. In the meantime, it is important for people to have that protection, particularly when we look at the high rate of successful appeals against decisions on employment and support allowance.

I could not agree more. Members of all parties know that such examples come up time and again in their surgeries. The other day someone came to my surgery who had been overpaid benefits and now has a massive sum to pay back, though the matter was not their fault. The state has responsibility to such people.

Is my hon. Friend as shocked as I was to hear from Nottingham law centre that 42% of the clients’ problems it helps to solve are caused by administrative or procedural errors by Departments or local authorities? Does she share my concern that many of those constituents who had help have poor levels of education and that some struggle with literacy? Without assistance from a law centre, they will not be able to resolve those problems.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. That goes to the heart of the argument. These cuts will affect the most vulnerable in our society; yet another example of Government cuts hitting the poorest hardest.

I want to refer to taking debt out of the legal aid budget. The Government have recognised in the Green Paper that many of the people who are mired in debt are ill or disabled, and that debt often afflicts the most vulnerable in society. Yet they are still proceeding to introduce proposals and measures that will deny those people access to legal advice and representation.

I will briefly mention something I raised in the House last week. I asked the Leader of the House what was going to happen to the financial inclusion fund, which is a great source of help for people with debt problems. In Wolverhampton, hundreds of people are helped every year by this fund. I was given wise counsel by the Leader of the House that I should raise the issue this morning. He was sure that the Minister would give me an answer. I know that the matter is being administered by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury, but I urge the Minister to give clarity on whether the fund is to go ahead beyond March. Again, the uncertainty that my hon. Friends have raised applies and it is not helpful.

I do not wish to be too long because I know that other colleagues want to get in. I want to add that, apart from failing the test of social justice, these proposals also fail on a cost-benefit analysis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North eloquently explained that the cuts will be a false economy in many areas. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux published a business case for legal aid this year. It said that for every pound of legal aid spent on housing advice, the state saves £2.34, and for every pound spent on debt advice, the state saves £2.98. It also stated that on welfare benefit advice, the state saves £8.80, and that on employment advice, it could save £7.13.

Have the Government looked properly at the savings that early intervention makes possible? Have they done a proper cost-benefit analysis of the costs of their proposals for public services down the line? I fear that this is short-sighted, and that the Government are seeking short-term savings that will have significant costs later. Other Members have made the same point.

The other thing that worries me is that the Government say in the Green Paper that other alternatives will be available. The document then outlines what those alternatives might be. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North has already mentioned this, but it is telling: NACAB says that the overwhelming majority of its client group will not be able to access the alternatives identified in the Green Paper.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although one alternative, the expansion of telephone advice, is welcome—I agree that not enough telephone information available—it is not suitable for the most vulnerable, particularly those in debt, as many who use mobile phones cut themselves off in order to save money?

I could not agree more. There is no substitute for face-to-face counselling and advice. As my hon. Friend rightly states, the cuts mean that the only recourse for vulnerable people will be some sort of telephone system, but they may not be comfortable with it and might not be able to afford it.

The proposals in the Green Paper will make the poor poorer and the most vulnerable more vulnerable. The cuts should fall elsewhere. There are other ways to reform the legal aid budget, and the Government should think again.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) for initiating this incredibly important debate, which cuts to the heart of the kind of society that we want to live in. It is important for the House to record that we do not want to go back to the time when this work was being done by volunteers. We talk about access to justice, but at its heart is social justice and the kind of society that we seek. I believe that we should live in a society where the most vulnerable have access to justice.

I speak as a former Minister with responsibility for legal aid. If we go back to the earlier part of the last decade, before the 30 consultations that we heard of, I was considering fixed fees and new ways of contracting, but that is a long, long way from the Green Paper.

I remind the House of what the Prime Minister said in the run-up to the election about family policies. He said that he wanted to make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe. Only a few days ago, he said:

“The seeds of so many problems, as well as success stories, are sown in the early years. Family is where people learn to be good citizens, to take responsibility, to live in harmony with others. Families are the building blocks of a strong, cohesive society.”

He cannot make such pronouncements and then run a coach and horses through family life in constituencies throughout the country.

The services that family practitioners provide for vulnerable families facing breakdown and for people having to decide who should have contact and how it is to be arranged, are essential in modern society. If we take that advice away, except in cases of domestic violence, we will see chaos. We will see people presenting at court as litigants in person. When those cases come to the county court, people will not be receiving advice from the court clerks or the judges; they will simply get a form to fill in. They will be on their own. What will happen? Families, but mostly women, will not get that advice. I ask the Minister to think hard about whether that is the sort of family that we want, and whether that is consistent with an undertaking to put families at the centre of British life.

I will not give way, as there is so little time.

It cannot be right that people will get a practitioner only if they already have an injunction. Are we really saying that a woman should pitch up to court on her own if she is concerned about her children having contact with her husband, who may be violent? Is it right that she should have to make her way on her own, in such vulnerable contexts, without access to legal advice? Are we really saying that when families are in dispute—perhaps one parent wants to take a child abroad—the parent fighting that decision should have to find access to justice on their own and without sufficient funds?

Are we saying—I ask as the Member of Parliament in whose constituency the baby P case occurred—to the many thousands of families affected by care proceedings that ultimately end in adoption, which changes the legal nature of the child’s relationship with its parents, that they cannot have legal aid to fight it or challenge it in court if they are concerned about losing their children? That cannot be right. That is not the kind of society that we want.

The policy is not consistent with the big society. Yesterday we saw the announcement of cuts of up to 40% in local government budgets. That will decimate much of the voluntary sector that the Ministry of Justice says people should rely upon. How can that be part of the big society? What will happen with welfare benefit cuts, given that many of the groups that support the most vulnerable—those with mental health problems, immigrants and those who have been without work for a considerable time—will find support withdrawn at this time of profound change? How can that be right?

In relation to immigration, the Churches consistently remind the state about its responsibility. We have pared back so much on legal advice about immigration and asylum matters that lawyers specialising in this area now help the system; they help constituents provide information to the bureaucracy—to the court system—that is easy to understand, which makes justice quicker. This Green Paper will drive those people underground; it will drive them into ghettos where they cannot be seen or found, as they will not have the right documents. That is the sort of thing that we see in other parts of continental Europe. We do not want that in this country.

The Green Paper is particularly worrying. It is possible to pass it off as unimportant, but we cannot call ourselves a civilised country unless we provide adequate legal aid. The previous Government stabilised legal aid. In that context, I contend that enough is enough. Now is the time to stand up and say what civilised really means. It is certainly not the time to walk alongside hypocrisy by suggesting that we can support families, that we can have a big society, that we can be fair in a civilised democracy and then run a coach and horses through the only access to justice that vulnerable people need.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Riordan, and to be opposite the Solicitor-General. It has been a privilege to listen to so many well-informed speakers from both sides. Although it invidious to pick out people, I will do so by saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) showed their decades of experience in dealing with such matters. I hope that the Minister will listen to them and to other contributions that are made during the consultation process, and realise that mistakes have been made in the proposals to cut legal aid.

I pay tribute, too, to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who is standing down as chair of the all-party group on legal aid, for her unrivalled record in pursuing such matters and for securing the debate today. Like her, I will mention my not-for-profit agencies. For the past 20 years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the management committee of Hammersmith and Fulham community law centre, which does a fantastic job. Threshold housing advice and the Shepherds Bush advice centre were also excellent but were closed this year because of the withdrawal of local authority funding. The law centre, too, has lost all its local authority funding and is therefore under threat. I am talking about a pattern that is all too familiar.

The practitioners of legal aid, many of whom are here today, will be among the most astute and trenchant critics of all Governments when it comes to supporting the service. Even they would concede that Labour Governments, over the 60 years since the service was introduced, have—perhaps by taking two steps forward and one step back at times—increased the scope and eligibility of legal aid. Having said that, and, to save the legs of any Members on the Government Benches who want to stand up and read the Whips’ briefing about what we would cut, I shall add, “Yes, we were in a period of retrenchment and yes, there would have been cuts.”

I will not give way because there is only a short time left. There would have been cuts under a Labour Government. In some respects, we would have made cuts to private family law, although we should look again at the definition of domestic violence, as the hon. Member for South Swindon said. We would, I think, have taken a much more forensic look at criminal legal aid, which has just been brushed over. However, we would not have made cuts to social welfare legal aid. I pay tribute here to Lord Bach who, over a period of years as Minister, supported, defended and spoke out for social welfare law, and, as a Government, we did a very good job in protecting it and we would have gone on protecting it. Given the short time that we have to debate this subject, I shall devote my remaining comments to that area and follow the lead given by Members speaking today.

The briefing from the citizens advice bureau states that

“proposals to exclude most social welfare law issues from scope will mean over half a million fewer people getting help every year”.

That is the first statistic. What types of people are we talking about? Many examples of them have been cited this morning, including parents going to special educational needs tribunals; tenants facing problems of harassment or disrepair; disabled people whose welfare benefits have been cut; and people who have been unfairly dismissed. In the vision section—I am sure that no irony was intended—of the business plan for the Department, it says the aim of the programmes is to have a legal aid system

“that supports those at greatest risk, not those who are most litigious.”

Rather than being the “most litigious”, I see such people as being the most vulnerable in society.

When the Lord Chancellor made his statement to the House on 15 November, he talked about the back-to-basics principle of the Green Paper. This is very basic indeed. A truer account was given in the Sunday Telegraph the day before—if one wants the fullest account of Government policy, one should always look in the papers the day before the statement is made to the House. The Sunday Telegraph, which is no great friend of legal aid, said:

“Legal Aid for civil cases will all but disappear.”

I do not think that that is an exaggeration. There are to be cuts of 23% in the Ministry of Justice, which is one of the highest cuts of any Department, and a cut of a third in the civil legal aid budget and a 42% projected fall in the income of legal aid practitioners. The impact assessment that goes with the Green Paper says that there will be a cut of up to 92% in the legal aid funding for the not-for-profit sector.

How can the Minister defend, or explain, cuts of that order, which effectively wipe out the not-for-profit sector? Effectively, there will be a 15% cut in the CAB’s funding. For law centres, there could be a cut of up to 50%. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) pointed out, the financial inclusion fund faces an uncertain future. What is the future of that fund in the new financial year, because it alone provides 10% of CAB funding? Moreover, it was praised by the National Audit Office very recently as providing good value for money and a high-quality service.

I do not have time to go through each area of practice. I am very grateful—and I am sure that the Minister is—for the briefings that have been provided by Shelter on housing, the Special Educational Consortium and many others because they highlight the effect that these cuts will have on issues such as disrepair, allocations and the challenging of rogue landlords. The SEC’s briefing gets rid of the idea that it is a litigious organisation or that it is intent on making mischief and going to court for no reason. It states that

“most parents win their appeals (82%) once they reach the Tribunal itself, and in 30% of registered appeals the local authority concedes before the case reaches Tribunal stage.”

That is very much the case as regards clinical negligence as well. We must look at the defendants in many of these cases and consider why they are fighting them. A highly respected practice of clinical negligence solicitors told me that once legal aid is withdrawn, it will not be economic for it to take cases in which damages will be less than £100,000.

In the few moments that I have left, let me run through a few of the practical problems that the Government have not addressed when they put forward their glib response to making cuts in this area of civil legal aid. Some 10 problems have occurred to me over the course of 10 minutes. Will other agencies pick up the cases that will no longer be covered by legal aid? The Government say that the Child Poverty Action Group, Age UK, Shelter and the Disability Alliance will, but have they been approached and what have they said in response? We have been told about other funding streams. I began my remarks by talking about what had happened in my own constituency and that picture is repeated all over the country. Other funding streams have already been cut. Law centres are surviving on funding from the Legal Services Commission, because local authority funding has already been cut.

Several Members have explained that such matters are complex and often inter-related. A debt problem often arises because there has been a benefit or employment problem. Tackling one but not the other is not an option. What about the economic viability of the not-for-profit sector? Is it feasible for the Government to make swingeing cuts but cherrypick the parts that will remain? I do not believe that it is, or that many law centres or private firms will survive under such a situation.

The issues of self-representation have been raised by Ministers in regard to this matter. In response to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), the Minister with responsibility for legal aid said:

“In most cases individuals will be able to”—

this is talking about welfare benefits—

“prepare their appeal to the First-Tier (Social Security and Child Support) Tribunal without formal legal assistance.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 115W.]

I am afraid that the Government are living in cloud cuckoo land, and their own figures do not support that claim. Some 40% of cases going to incapacity benefit appeals are successful with no representation and 67% are successful with representation. One of the solicitors firms that briefed us in preparation for this debate said that it had an 82% success rate in challenging employment support allowance cases, as against a national average of 40% where there is no representations.

The gateway has been mentioned. There is nothing wrong with telephone advice, but it cannot take the place of advice that is provided in person. With telephone advice, documents cannot be shown and people who have learning or language difficulties simply cannot use the telephone for that service.

Vulnerable people are not considered in this Green Paper. Unlike in the Bradley report in 2009, which dealt with people with learning difficulties and mental health difficulties in the criminal law system, no regard seems to have been given to those people in the Green Paper. Little regard has been given to the equality impact assessment, as demonstrated by the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North. The eligibility criteria are so restrictive that very few people will get any access to free advice in this sector at all. The cost issues have also been raised, including the fact that this change is, in effect, a false economy that will cost more in the long run than it saves.

Another point that has not been raised yet is the fact that courts and tribunals will be clogged by litigants appearing in person and legal practitioners—the Solicitor-General was a legal practitioner for many more years than I was—will realise that this change will be a nightmare for the judicial and court system.

Those are only a few of the issues that need to be raised. I hope that the Solicitor-General can respond to many of those points and if he cannot do so, I hope that he will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North and to other Members who have taken part in this debate.

This is only the beginning of the debate on legal aid; the debate will continue until the end of the consultation period, in the first instance. However, I hope that the Government realise that there are serious issues that have not been properly addressed in the Green Paper and they need to be addressed if we are to have a continuing civil legal aid system in this country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on introducing this most important subject to Westminster Hall this morning. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) has said, she is the founder and chair of the all-party group on legal aid and I am sorry to hear that she is stepping down from being chair of that group. However, I hope that she will continue to take a close interest in this area of public policy.

I am speaking in the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), but I think that it is fair to say that legal aid is an acutely difficult area of public policy. Everyone who has spoken today—those who have spoken directly and those, such as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who have intervened—approached the debate with no sense of political malice.

I think that in all our constituencies we find areas where there is a huge need for legal assistance; both legal advice and legal representation. My reply to this debate will be incomplete and will not come with the knowledge that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State would have brought to it, since I have taken on this—I was going to say “case”—reply for the Government from another Department, which is normally a rather non-speaking Department.

Nevertheless, I hope that hon. Members will understand that we are at the very beginning of the consultation process, which will end in February, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said. So I urge all those who have spoken in the debate and all those who have listened to it to participate in the consultation process. I also urge all those who have contacts with others outside Westminster Hall to encourage them to participate in the process, too. It is a deliberately lengthy consultation process, so that the Government can receive the benefit of the advice and the experience of those who know a great deal more about the matter than I do, and who provide advice and assistance.

The hon. Member for Westminster North and many other Members have today praised—quite properly and justly—the work of their citizens advice bureaux and not-for-profit advice providers in their constituencies. One that does not have to represent a constituency such as those of the hon. Lady or that of the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) that, on the face of it, is challenged economically and socially to know the importance of those providers. One can represent a constituency such as mine that, on the face of it, appears to be prosperous but that has pockets of deprivation and great need for social welfare.

I would like to associate myself with many of the comments that have been made, especially those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). However, one particular issue that concerns me as the MP for a very rural constituency is the real possibility that we will end up with the hinterland of my constituency of Aberconwy not having any legal aid representation whatsoever, with people having to make round trips of 40, 50 or 60 miles to access support. Will my concern be addressed by the Ministry of Justice?

I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, will ensure that the Ministry of Justice addresses those points and I am certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) will want to participate in the consultation process.

Another point that occurred to me as I listened to the debate is that none of the arguments that I heard this morning is new. Indeed, I was making some of them myself between 1997 and 1999 as the Opposition spokesperson for the Lord Chancellor’s Department, when Geoff Hoon was the junior Minister dealing with this area of public policy. He was introducing proposals that turned into the so-called Access to Justice Act 1999. At the time, I suggested to him that those proposals would have had Attlee spinning in his grave.

However, to be in government is to have to make decisions and choices. The main factor that we have to address at the moment is the economic difficulties that the national budget faces. Every day, we are paying £120 million in interest payments alone. Would it not be better if we could spend that money on legal advice and representation? However, we have to make choices and I do not think that the hon. Member for Westminster North ducked that issue. In essence, she said that she accepts that choices have to be made, and that reductions in public expenditure have to be made. It is the pace with which and the areas where the cuts are made that she finds controversial.

The Solicitor-General is right to praise the work of citizens advice bureaux. However, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux says that at the moment, a quarter of its funding nationally comes from legal aid. That funding will be entirely lost if these proposals go through unamended. Are the Government looking at an alternative way of funding welfare advice services across the country?

I want to make two points. First—yes, of course the Government are doing so, and that is the point of the consultation. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will participate in that consultation. Secondly, citizens advice bureaux are funded not just by central Government, but by other funding streams. Some are funded by as many as 15 funding streams.

That is not a complete answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will throw back to him, as a former Treasury Minister, a question: where do we find the money at a time when we are spending £120 million a day on interest alone? We have to make difficult choices.

I accept that none of the answers that the Government come up with during this period will provide anybody with complete satisfaction. Nobody will leave this debate and go home for Christmas dancing in the streets about what I have said. However, we have to be realistic and face the hard choices that the previous Government have left us.

I thank the Solicitor-General for giving way. I was in error in my introduction to the debate in not welcoming him, given that he has graciously stepped in to cover the Minister whose area of responsibility legal aid is, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly).

I would just like to ask the Solicitor-General to ensure, when he passes the message about this debate on to the Under-Secretary that he says that I would like an answer to one of the questions that I posed. The assumption underlying the Green Paper is that there is some mythical capacity in the voluntary and pro bono sector to deal with the areas of service where legal aid will be withdrawn. If we accept that there are cuts that will have a major impact on services, does the Solicitor-General agree that we have to be honest about the implications of those cuts and not effectively massage them away by saying that, somehow, somebody mythical will pick all this up? What estimate have the Government made of that capacity?

The Government have commissioned an impact assessment, which I believe was published at the same time as the Green Paper. However, let me do a deal with the hon. Lady. First, of course I accept that we are facing difficult choices and I do not shrink from them. Secondly, however, does she accept my point that not every problem in life that our constituents face and that we encounter as constituency MPs has to be dealt with by a lawyer? Not every problem—be it debt, housing, family-related or some other area of dispute—has to be tackled by a lawyer. We need to refocus our attention to find solutions.

I do not shrink from saying that this is a difficult area, or from saying that sometimes the state will have to provide legal assistance. However, we have to narrow the scope or ambit of the taxpayers’ responsibility for providing legal advice and legal representation. That does not mean that others in other parts of the community cannot come forward and provide the assistance that, as has been so clearly indicated by other Members, is so desperately needed.

I am sorry that this type of debate really requires rather longer time than we have had today. Nevertheless, I hope that the hon. Lady will take the debate outside into the wider community, so that the Government can have the benefit of hearing her views and those of her colleagues between now and next February.