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Legal Aid

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

I welcome the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) to my Front-Bench team. I also inform the House that Lord Faulks has joined my team in the House of Lords. I pay tribute to Lord McNally, who has left the Front-Bench team, for the excellent work that he did on behalf of the Government.

I will shortly publish final proposals covering the two areas that are subject to consultation in the “Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps” document: the procurement of criminal litigation services and reform of the advocacy fee scheme. I anticipate that the total saving from the transforming legal aid proposals will be £220 million per year by 2018-19. That is in addition to the £320 million that has been saved as part of the Government’s previous reforms, which were enacted in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Trafford law centre closed last week, Barnet law centre faces closure in March, and many more advice agencies and citizens advice bureaux face closure or redundancies, which will reduce services for the most vulnerable. What assessment is being made of the impact of those closures, which have been caused by the cumulative effect of cuts to civil legal aid and other cuts, through an increased demand on other public services, such as the health service?

We will clearly continue to review those matters. The decisions that we are making are of course difficult, but we have to make them because we have to bring down the cost of legal aid to deal with the enormous financial challenges that we face. We would not have wished to take these decisions, but given the inheritance that we received from the last Government, there is no option but to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the reforms are designed to impact on those who receive the most in legal aid fees, while protecting those at the lower end of the scale?

I can confirm that. In taking a range of difficult decisions, we have sought to ensure that the impact is felt most significantly higher up the income scale. I am well aware that people at the junior end of the income scale face considerably more financial pressure than those who are further up. We have sought to put together a package that has a disproportionate impact further up the income scale, for example through our changes to very high cost case fees.

The Justice Secretary’s plan A of dismantling the independent legal Bar seems to be going very well. Will he tell us about his plan B and the public defender service?

I am having to take difficult decisions on the fees that we pay for the independent Bar, but I have absolutely no intention of dismantling it. It is an important part of our justice system and will continue to be so.

My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on trying to get the costs of legal aid down. He knows that I have concerns about the impact on the criminal Bar. What alternative funding has he looked at or will he be looking at to get costs down?

We have looked at a variety of ways of minimising the impact on different parts of our justice system of the difficult decisions that we have had to take. I reassure my right hon. Friend that the decisions that we are taking on legal aid are in proportion to the decisions that we are having to take in the rest of the Department—the legal aid budget is coming down by the same proportion as the overall departmental budget. In relation to the Bar, I have sought, where I can do so, to put in place ameliorating measures, such as the offer to introduce a staged payment system, which at the very least will improve the cash flow of working barristers, even if we have to take tough decisions about the amount that we pay.

I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) to his position and congratulate him on his promotion.

The Government’s salami-slicing of civil legal aid over the past three years and of criminal legal aid over the next 15 months will, according to independent experts, deny hundreds of thousands of citizens access to decent advice and representation. Law centres and high street firms are closing down, as we have heard, and junior barristers are leaving the profession. That should worry us all. If the Justice Secretary was provided with costed proposals that would make similar savings over the next 15 months but without the devastating consequences, would the Government reconsider their plans?

I sometimes find the Opposition’s attitude completely breathtaking. It is but two and a half years since they attacked our proposals to reform civil legal aid, saying that the savings should be found from criminal legal aid instead. Now they appear to have done a complete U-turn. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to commit in the House today that if a Labour Government are elected at the next election, they will reverse the cuts? I suspect that the answer is no.