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Social Welfare Law

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 29 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their proposals for the future of social welfare law.

My Lords, our proposals for the future of social welfare law were contained in our response to the consultation paper, Proposals for the Reform of legal aid in England and Wales, made on 21 June. We announced that we would retain legal aid for the highest priority cases, including cases where a person is homeless or at immediate risk of homelessness or to address housing disrepairs that pose a serious risk to life or health and for community care cases. We have decided that legal aid will no longer be routinely available in other social welfare law matters, except for claims currently funded relating to the contravention of the Equality Act 2010.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. A better name for social welfare law would be poverty law. Often through CABs, law centres and private solicitors, this legal aid goes to giving legal advice to the poor and marginalised on legal problems around housing, debt, employment and welfare benefits. The Government, as we have just heard, intend to decimate this type of cost-effective legal aid. Does the noble Lord agree with the reported remarks of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, that these changes will have,

“a disproportionate effect upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society”?

Does he also agree that this removal of access to justice—because that is what it is—is precisely what the late noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, meant when he wrote that,

“denial of legal protection to the poor litigant who cannot afford to pay is one enemy of the rule of law”?

My Lords, under our proposals, legal aid will be retained in the highest priority housing cases, where a person’s home is at immediate risk, for homelessness, serious disrepair, unlawful eviction, orders for the sale of the home, and asylum support cases relating to accommodation. Legal aid will be available in debt matters where a person’s home is at immediate risk. We will still be spending about £50 million a year on this section of legal aid.

I have read the comments of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale. I have said from this Dispatch Box that if you have a policy that is aimed at the poorest in our society and you cut the budget, of course there will be an inevitable impact. But in trying to develop this policy we have tried to minimise that impact and focus our resources on those most in need.

My Lords, would my noble friend like to take a short journey down to the Lambeth County Court and other comparable courts in London, Manchester, Sheffield and other cities, where he would find if he spent half a day there that the only way in which to get your house repaired is to sue the local council? All other measures to obtain house repairs are not succeeding. He would then perhaps realise that limiting legal aid to quite the extent which the Government are ambitious to limit it is going a step too far.

Well, I hear what my noble friend is saying. The department was faced with some very hard decisions on a £2 billion cut in a department which, as I have said before, has expenditure on only four areas—prisons, probation, legal aid and on the administration of justice. We have tried to focus where we can on areas of need. I was very interested in the editorial in the Guardian on legal aid, which was headed, “Unjust cuts”. In the course of that editorial, it said:

“It is now being examined for the eighth time since the Children Act 1989”.

The noble Lord knows very well that his own Administration were looking hard at legal aid and how to cut it. It went on:

“The need for reform, and for a more cost-effective system, is undisputed … Professionals acknowledge that too many of these cases come to court, and welcome the proposal for greater use of mediation … Change is needed. There are savings to be made”.

That is under the title of “Unjust cuts”. Those are the realities that we are facing.

My Lords, there is considerable disquiet among welfare law agencies about the impact of the withdrawal of legal aid from welfare benefits law at the very time when that law is to be changed significantly. Can the Minister therefore please advise the House as to what steps the Government will take to ensure there is adequate independent advice and assistance for all those affected by the welfare reform legislation?

The hope and the intention is that we can give further assistance to those who are giving advice. One of the analyses we make of this area of law—this goes partly back to the question asked by my noble friend—is that it is not necessarily legal advice that is needed. There may be alternative forms of advice to enable people to manage their way through these difficulties. These problems have been raised with us and we will continue to keep them under review. I take the point that the noble Baroness has made.

Will my noble friend kindly think again about this whole issue because it really is a case of penny wise, pound foolish? The citizens advice bureaux, which deliver help to 2.1 million people a year and are mainly volunteer manned, reckon that for every £1 of government subsidy they save the Exchequer £8 in welfare advice. How can it conceivably make sense, therefore, to go ahead with cutting their subsidy from £27 million this year to £7 million next year?

My Lords, perhaps I can answer both that question and the one that the noble Baroness has just posed by saying that the Government recognise the important role played by not-for-profit organisations and citizens advice bureaux. We are working with the sector, and across Government, to ensure that the implementation of government reforms helps to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of advice services available to the public. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor will by now, I hope, have announced in another place that we will be providing additional funds of about £20 million in this financial year to help achieve this. We will continue discussions with CABs and not-for-profit organisations about future funding.