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Legal Aid

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implications of legal aid cuts for law centres.

My Lords, the equality impact assessments lay out the best estimates of the likely costs and benefits of the reforms. The equality impact assessment considers the financial implications for not-for-profit providers, of which law centres are an example.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Everyone agrees what a vital and civilising role law centres perform around our country. Everyone agrees that early legal advice solves problems, helps people, changes lives and often saves costly and unnecessary cases going to court. The effect of taking social welfare law out of scope will be to reduce the funding for legal help by law centres by 85.8 per cent. Law centres will inevitably close and many thousands of people, often the poor and marginalised, will be left without access to justice. Even the TaxPayers’ Alliance chairman wrote:

“Almost everyone who has looked at these particular cuts thinks that too many of them will end up costing taxpayers more than they save”.

Does the Minister agree with that analysis, and would it not be an absurd and wrong result if we should end up spending more public money in order to make our country less just and less civilised?

My Lords, the noble Lord will not expect me to agree with that analysis, which has been his constant theme during the passage of the LASPO Bill, and I suspect will continue to be, based on a worst-case scenario. We are restructuring legal aid and that will have an impact on the not-for-profit sector. We have never resiled from that. However, we also appreciate the benefits of the not-for-profit sector, which is why we provided £107 million in transitional funds and an additional £20 million to help the sector restructure for the new framework of legal aid and legal services that the reforms are intended to bring about. I do not accept the worst-case scenario that has been the basis of the noble Lord's arguments throughout the passage of the Bill.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the law centres are probably the most efficient and economical way of providing advice for those who are not particularly well off but who really need advice?

I thank my noble and learned friend for that helpful question—he is making a habit of helpful interventions. Of course we do, and nobody doubts that. That is why, as I said before, we have provided funds for this transitional period and why my honourable friend Nick Hurd is at this moment making attempts to identify funding that will give the not-for-profit sector a better long-term future. Nobody denies, underestimates or fails to appreciate the benefits of the not-for-profit sector. The key is how it will adjust to the new structure of legal services that we are bringing about by these reforms.

My Lords, is equality before the law not a basic liberal principle? Why has the coalition abrogated it?

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Law Centres Federation expects several urban law centres to close? Where are the distressed people who have hitherto got essential advice from those law centres going to go? Secondly, if the Minister is inclined to say that they can use the telephone helpline that we propose to set up, would he not accept that many of the people in most need of basic welfare law advice, which is often hugely complicated, are inarticulate and unable to access the advice they need on a telephone helpline?

Again, my noble friend quite often intervenes to ask a question and then provides part of the answer. Yes, part of the answer is the electronic means of advice through telephone gateways et cetera. I do not accept his definition of the capabilities of people to get advice this way. I think he is out of date in that respect—

People now use local library facilities, go online and use all kinds of ways. I repeat that we are looking at the not-for-profit sector to see how it will be able to help. We do not always preach the worst-case solutions and scenarios which, again, have been the common theme from my noble friend. We are reforming the legal aid scheme, as the previous Administration said they would. It will cause differences in structure for the not-for-profit sector. We are trying to help it to adjust in that transition and are urgently looking for a long-term solution as far as its funding is concerned.

My Lords, what impact does the Minister expect the cuts to have, in particular, on disabled people who rely very heavily on law centres for advice on housing and welfare issues? Might this not be a further blow to those who are already disadvantaged in making their case to tribunals?

We are having this debate more widely in the Bills going through the House. Some of the worst-case scenarios will not be borne out by experience. I think that the not-for-profit sector will adjust to these new circumstances. We have argued the case in the Bills for the changes we are making, which we think will not be borne out with some of the—I put it at its most gentle—worst-case scenarios that are put forward by those opposing us.