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Legal Aid (Social Welfare)

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2011

1. What assessment his Department has made of the potential effects on other Government Departments of his planned reductions to legal aid for social welfare law. (78951)

4. What assessment his Department has made of the potential effects on other Government Departments of his planned reductions to legal aid for social welfare law. (78955)

The impact assessment published alongside the Government’s response to consultation lays out the best estimates of the costs and benefits of the legal aid reforms. Ultimately, costs to other Departments will be driven by behavioural responses to the changes, and these are very difficult to predict with any real accuracy.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Is it his Government’s view that it is acceptable for a whole swathe of the population to have no access to justice in the area of social welfare law?

We are not denying access to justice for anybody, but obviously a huge swathe of the population find it expensive to obtain justice and we have to ask ourselves for which people the taxpayer should pay for access to justice. We have concentrated on the most important issues, in which there is a general public interest in having people represented. It is wrong to represent changes in the way we pay lawyers and the amount that we pay as if we are somehow barring people from access to their legal rights.

Does the Lord Chancellor not feel that the cut in the civil legal aid budget, which will clearly have a detrimental impact on the citizens advice bureau and law centre network, will hinder the notion of the big society?

Legal aid is not the principal source of public funding support for citizens advice bureaux, and legal aid changes will not take effect until 2013. Those and other voluntary bodies are taking a big hit from the reduction of local authority and other grants. For that reason, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has already announced £27 million of continued funding for citizens advice bureaux, and we have set up a transitional fund for the voluntary sector to manage the transition to a tighter funding environment. We have £20 million set aside this year to support voluntary bodies through their present difficulties, which are mainly because of local government cuts.

I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to the extra funding for welfare and benefits advice, but will my right hon. and learned Friend update us on what progress he has made with the Cabinet Office about the allocation of those funds?

My hon. Friend has rightly been chasing me on this subject, and with her I have approached the Cabinet Office. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, hopes to make an announcement shortly about the distribution of the money. As the sort of people we are talking about need the general advice offered by such voluntary bodies, I very much hope that he will soon make an announcement on behalf of the Government.

Is it not clear that what most people will need with these changes is well-supported advice services, a user-friendly tribunal system, and Government Departments that give people what they are entitled to in the first place?

Yes, I entirely agree. That is what I hope we can deliver. The number of mistakes made by bodies that distribute funds, which result in appeals to tribunal, is obviously far too high.

Last week the Secretary of State confirmed that he was taking legal aid away from brain-damaged children and disabled people unlawfully denied benefits. In answer to questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), the Minister with responsibility for legal aid, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), admitted that the Department of Health pays up to £183 an hour for legal advice, Work and Pensions pays £201 an hour and Communities and Local Government pays £288 an hour. Some of those well-paid Government lawyers will be up against our unrepresented constituents, especially on appeal. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that that is fair?

Most of those do not get legal aid now, and most personal injury cases are not brought using legal aid. They are brought using no win, no fee arrangements. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in the new proposals for how no win, no fee ought to work, we have made special arrangements for particularly difficult cases and the insurance of the costs of medical reports.