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House of Commons Hansard
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Welfare Benefits: Legal Advice
23 April 2019
Volume 658
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5. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of people able to access early legal advice for welfare benefits cases. [910422]

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22. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of people able to access early legal advice for welfare benefits cases. [910448]

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In the most recent Legal Aid Agency civil tender, the number of offices providing legal aid services on welfare benefits increased by 188%. In February, we set out our legal support action plan, which focused on the importance of early legal support. We will be establishing a number of pilots in a range of areas of law to see how best we can support those in need. It is critical that welfare decisions are made right the first time, and we are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to help ensure that.

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I thank the Minister for that answer, but she will know that the number of people receiving legal aid to challenge benefit decisions fell from more than 91,000 in 2012-13 to fewer than 500 five years later, which was clearly the Government’s plan. The Department’s own figures show that while 28% of unrepresented claimants are successful on appeal, that figure jumps to 90% for those who have legal representation, so literally tens of thousands of people have lost out on moneys to which they were entitled. Does she agree that the Government should consider restoring legal aid for social security appeals, so that claimants can get the support they need to win the money they deserve?

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Legal aid is available in welfare cases on points of law to the upper tribunal and the higher courts. A wide variety of considerable support is also available from some fantastic third sector organisations. I visited a number of them recently, and they are doing an excellent job. As I mentioned, we are also looking in our legal aid action plan at how we can provide people with support early on in a variety of areas, which may include this area.

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Recent BBC research found that 1 million people live in areas with no legal aid provision for housing, with a further 15 million in areas with just one provider. Does the Minister not agree that only rogue landlords benefit from this situation?

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The hon. Gentleman mentions housing. It is right that, across the country, some areas are quite sparsely populated, but people can always get advice on the telephone gateway. There are 134 housing and debt procurement areas, and as of 31 March 2019, there is at least one provider offering housing and debt services in all but five procurement areas. The Legal Aid Agency recently concluded a procurement process, and services in three of those areas will commence on 1 May. The agency is considering how to procure provision in the remaining two.

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Government cuts to legal aid have left tens of thousands of welfare benefit claimants without the ability to appeal flawed DWP decisions. We continue to see harrowing stories of those who have suffered after such poor decisions. Those cuts left tens of thousands of tenants unable to take on lousy landlords, and left migrants unable to fight back against the Conservative party’s hostile environment. Can the Minister explain why these vulnerable people are far too easily cast aside, while the private companies failing in our prison, probation and courts systems are too readily bailed out? Does this not sum up in whose interests the Conservative party governs?

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This party and this Government would like to support all people who need support, but we need to provide it in a way that is efficient, provides a good service and uses taxpayers’ money well. That is why we set out in our legal aid support strategy a variety of pilots that we will hold to help people in a variety of areas of law—housing, immigration—and all these can be bid for. We are putting forward £5 million for people to develop and put in place technology provision, face-to-face support and other support for legal aid.

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It is just not good enough because all too often the Government spin against legal aid, with talk of fat cat lawyers and unmeritorious claims, but the latest figures show that the number of not-for-profit providers, such as law centres, has fallen by nearly two thirds under this Government. Will the Minister follow Labour’s lead and commit to funding a new generation of social welfare lawyers that can empower communities to battle against injustice and a new generation of law centres that can empower people to fight back against cruel Government policies?

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While the professions and those who provide support are incredibly important—that is why, as I mentioned earlier, we have put £23 million more into criminal legal aid professionals—we would like to focus on helping those who need that support. That is why we are focusing on our £5 million innovation fund to find out what sort of support people need and how best to provide that support. We recommend and hope to support bids from legal advice centres as well as from professionals.