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Early Legal Advice

Volume 672: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2020

16. What recent assessment he has made of the ability of social security claimants to access early legal advice. (900826)

24. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of people able to access early legal advice. (900834)

In a nation of laws, access to justice is a fundamental right. Legal aid for early legal advice remains available in many areas, such as for asylum cases. In addition, legal aid is available under the exceptional case funding scheme in any matter where failure to provide it would breach or risk breaching someone’s rights under the European convention.

I spoke last night about the deaths since 2014 of social security claimants the Government had deemed to be fit for work. The number of social security claimants wanting to appeal a decision by the Department for Work and Pensions to stop or reduce their support who received legal advice fell from 82,554 in 2012 to 163 in 2013—I repeat, 163—and it has since remained at that level. What role have the cuts in legal advice to claimants had in failing to protect our most vulnerable citizens, including from the state?

Later this year, the Government will conduct a review of the scope of legal aid, but that will sit alongside a lot of work on scoping pilots to ensure that legal aid and support is provided quickly, because early legal support is much better than late legal support, that it is evidence-led on the basis of the pilots and that it truly goes to those who need it most.

Working in an advice agency, I saw for myself that many people have complex, interrelated problems and that access to early advice that covers all aspects is key to the prevention of often devastating and costly consequences, both to the individual and the state. Will the Minister look into extending the pilots to other areas of law, including family, housing and social security law?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work that she did in an advice agency. I entirely agree that if early support is provided, it can make an enormous difference in solving problems that would otherwise fester and become more difficult. A pilot is taking place on social welfare law that will consider housing and a raft of other aspects of law, and we will consider that evidence extremely carefully. If the hon. Lady would like to speak with me about it, I would be delighted to do that.

It is now more than a year since the Government published the “Legal Support: The Way Ahead” action plan as part of their response to the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Since then, hardly any of the deadlines for Government action have been met, including the promise to

“pilot and evaluate the expansion of legal aid to cover early advice in…social welfare”,

which was meant to happen “by autumn 2019.” Will the Minister confirm when we are likely to see the proposals on early legal advice and explain why the Government have completely missed the deadlines in their document?

Proposals for the early legal advice pilot will sit alongside pilots for co-located hubs and a legal support innovation fund. Those pilots have to be got right, so they are being considered together with academics to make sure that they will work precisely as required, because what is ultimately provided must be evidence-led and based on an exhaustive scrutiny of what works, so that it is sustainable in the long run. That is precisely what we shall do.

May I welcome my hon. Friend to his new role and suggest as his first piece of homework that he look at Law for Life’s Advicenow website, which provides early legal support for social welfare claimants? Will he make sure that that is rolled out to existing legal aid deserts, such as my constituency? Many of my constituents could benefit from Advicenow’s services but simply do not know that they exist in the first place.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s extremely distinguished service in the Department. On legal aid deserts, it is of course right that those who are entitled to legal aid support can always access it over the telephone—that is an important point—but none the less, I very much take on board his points and would be happy to discuss the matter with him should he wish.