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Legal Advice Deserts

Volume 651: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2018

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who chairs the all-party group on legal aid and has done a lot of work in this area. We recognise that in some sparsely populated areas it is more difficult to find service providers, but the Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews market capacity to make sure there is adequate provision across the country and moves quickly to fill any gaps that it identifies. At the latest civil legal aid tender, the number of offices providing access to advice increased by 39% for immigration and asylum, by 188% for welfare benefits and by 7% for debt and housing.

With homelessness up by 70%, with universal credit wreaking absolute havoc on housing costs and with 1 million properties unfit for occupation, why do the new figures reveal that there are 1 million people with no access to a legal aid-provided housing lawyer at all and 15 million people in areas where there is only one provider, raising huge issues of capacity and potentially conflicts of interest? Will the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, when we finally get to see it, address that issue so that people everywhere in the country can have access to the legal aid services they need?

The hon. Lady is right to identify the fact that dealing with housing issues is important. As at today’s date, there is at least one provider offering housing and debt services in all the 134 procurement areas except for seven, and the Legal Aid Agency is doing what it can to ensure that appropriate services are available in those seven areas. It is due to launch a further tender in areas where there is currently low access to services, and that tender will begin on 17 December.

Across Cornwall, access to a legal aid lawyer for housing and families is particularly difficult. I have raised that matter before. What can the Minister do to create a greater incentive for lawyers to take up that work?

Cornwall is a sparsely populated area and there are difficulties there, but there is always access to the telephone service. It is right that we should look not only at face-to-face advice but at where technology can help to deliver legal advice to people.

24. The United Nations special rapporteur’s recent findings were shameful and damning. They highlighted the fact that the “dramatic reductions” in the availability of legal aid since 2012 have“overwhelmingly affected the poor and people with disabilities, many of whom cannot otherwise afford to challenge benefit denials or reductions and are thus effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy.” When will the Government accept responsibility for the most vulnerable in our community, and will the Minister commit to ensuring that the overdue review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 will reinstate legal aid for early legal advice? (908268)

The hon. Lady makes an important point about ensuring that we have support for those who are most vulnerable, but I would like to make two points on welfare benefits, which she has highlighted. First, the most important outcome for benefit claimants is that the decisions on their claims should be right first time. This avoids the need to go to court at all, and my Department is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure efficient decision making. I have met the Minister twice to ensure that we get those decisions right first time. Secondly, while decisions on welfare claims significantly impact the lives of often vulnerable people, the claims are often not complicated. We are making changes to the tribunal system to ensure that those cases are handled simply, effectively and more quickly.

20. My constitu- ency has been rated by the Law Society as a legal aid desert. In all of Somerset, there is only one firm that is authorised to provide legal aid on housing. What specific advice can the Minister give to my constituents on that? (908264)

As I have recognised, there are areas of the country that suffer. The Legal Aid Agency looks at those areas, and re-procurement tender exercises are going out in seven of them.

Order. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) is seeking to take part in Question 12 or anticipating Question 13.

It is the latter. We will get there when we are ready, and we are grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm.

The Law Commission of England and Wales says that working people on low incomes are being systematically denied the right to a fair trial because of restrictive legal aid rules. When will the Government act in this shocking and shameful situation?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard that we are doing a review of legal aid, which will be published early in the new year. I was interested to read the recent Scottish Government report on legal aid, which implements a number of the things that we are already doing, including using technology to help our court processes.

The current Prime Minister unleashed the Home Office’s hostile environment against migrants, and the Windrush scandal shows just how easily people can fall foul of this Government’s complex and cruel immigration rules. It is even tougher for those who have to navigate this hostile environment without legal advice, yet access to legal aid-funded immigration advice has fallen by 68% under the Tories, from 120,000 cases in 2010 to 39,000 cases this year. So do the Government regret scrapping such publicly funded legal advice that can save people from unfair decisions and deportations, and if so, will they reinstate it?

The hon. Gentleman has not made that offer. The Opposition have made an offer in relation to welfare, but not, I note, in relation to immigration. Let me remind him that people can already get legal advice for asylum and non-asylum cases, and for cases involving detention, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, domestic violence and trafficking. I want to make it clear to the House and to everyone who is listening that people are often not claiming legal aid because they do not believe they are entitled to it, because the Opposition and some others suggest that it is not available.