My Lords, it is clearly regrettable that the Immigration Advisory Service’s trustees have decided to place the organisation in administration. However, the IAS is one provider in a wider market of immigration and asylum advice. The Legal Services Commission is identifying alternative provision for the areas affected, as well as making the necessary arrangements for case transfers.
My Lords, the IAS had almost 25,000 new cases last year, of which 8,500 were asylum cases. That leaves about 10,000 live cases. What assurances can the Government give: first, to clients, especially those whose cases are at a critical time-limited point and who need information in their own languages about what will happen next; and, secondly, on practical matters, including the number of staff retained by the administrators to deal with such things as the transfer of files? My noble friend will know that a year after the closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice many files are still in storage, with the storage company looking for payment before cases can proceed.
The IAS was audited and the Legal Services Commission identified potential overclaims representing millions of pounds. That is what has led to this train of events. The LSC is working very hard to transfer cases and is prioritising the most vulnerable first, among them cases of unaccompanied children claiming asylum and cases coming up to tribunal immediately. A large number of people working in this area are prepared to take on this work, which is very encouraging for making a smooth transfer and making sure that clients are well looked after in this situation.
Is there not a danger that with the cutback in money for legal aid, it is not possible for other organisations to fill the gap left by the Immigration Advisory Service? Is not the real problem that asylum seekers will be caught in limbo, possibly becoming destitute because there is no one to represent them properly?
This is a problem in the IAS, which projected that it would have a return profit of £500,000 even with the proposed legal aid reforms. This is not an issue about legal aid reforms but a problem in the IAS: a large debt that it cannot address and which the Legal Services Commission has decided should not be written off. Many other organisations want to take on this work. Carolyn Downs, the chief executive of the Legal Services Commission, said in the other place yesterday:
“we have a huge number of people contacting us who are prepared to take on that work”.—[Official Report, Commons, Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill Committee, 12/7/11; col. 72.]
I declare an interest as former chief executive of the Refugee Council. Can the Minister assure the House that the quality of specialist immigration law that will be available in the future will be as good as in the past? Is she aware of the differential success rates of people getting very good legal advice? Does she accept that removing immigration law from the scope and cutting the budget of legal aid for asylum may make it harder? I am sure that most noble Lords would not dream of buying a house without decent legal advice, and certainly no one should be forced to defend their life without it.
The Legal Services Commission has a certain threshold for demanding the kind of quality that the noble Baroness is talking about. That continues to be the case, and we are encouraged that a large number of providers are willing to take on this work, which helps drive up the quality.
My Lords, will the Minister ensure that every case that is currently with the IAS will be transferred to a competent provider of legal advice and representation? I think she has already indicated that she will make sure that that happens. Furthermore, because of the Government’s proposals in the Bill, all immigration cases, except those of individuals in detention, will be outside the scope of legal aid, including cases of domestic violence. This means that in every case, however complicated, no legal advice or legal aid will be available. Does the Minister, who has a proud liberal reputation, not feel more than a little uncomfortable at depriving people of access to justice in this way?
How very kind of the noble Lord. On his first point, three IAS hub centres will be kept open for the moment: in Manchester, Birmingham and Bradford. They are facilitating the transfer of these cases. I am sure that we will have very interesting debates coming down the track on legal aid, but this has nothing to do with the proposed changes.
My Lords, will my noble friend say how many IAS staff will be retained in the three offices that she has just mentioned to deal with the transfer of files, and whether she considers that they will be able to do it adequately, bearing in mind that, as she has already said, there are still files that have not been transferred after the demise of the RMJ, even though there has been more than a year to do this? Does she agree that the number of matter starts given to the IAS is so large that they could not be taken up by other practitioners, especially in regions such as East Anglia and Yorkshire, where the IAS has either 100 per cent or most of the legal aid and asylum cases?
I disagree with what my noble friend says about adequate provision perhaps not being in place. I am very encouraged by what the chief executive of the Legal Services Commission said. The transfer of files is better organised than it was in the previous case that he referred to, and we are confident that this will be taken forward very effectively.