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Legal Aid: Social Welfare Law

Volume 735: debated on Monday 5 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they are making to ensure that there are adequate numbers of police to deal with any consequences for social cohesion and criminality of the withdrawal of civil legal aid for social welfare law cases.

My Lords, it is incumbent on government to consider all eventualities when conducting risk assessments. Recognising risks does not mean that they will materialise. We are confident that the police will continue to have the resources and the numbers to carry out their responsibilities.

My Lords: Toxteth, July 1981; Brixton, September 1985; Tottenham, August 2011—have they not all got one thing in common? They all followed severe cuts in family welfare support systems for the most impoverished in society. Have the Government really thought through the consequences of their actions in denying people justice and making people angry?

I do not believe that the Government are denying people justice. As to the exact correlation to which the noble Lord refers, there will always be studies on these matters, and I am not going to predict whether we have seen the last of social disturbances—it would be very foolish to do so. His Question is about whether there are adequate numbers of police, and in my Answer I have explained that we will continue to have the resources and the number to carry out our responsibilities.

My Lords, the social welfare law is widely acknowledged to be too difficult for even the most eminent lawyers. Is there not an important argument for ensuring adequate funding for citizens advice bureaux, law centres and so on to deal with social welfare legal issues in the splendid way that we know they have been able to in the past?

My noble friend brings attention to a matter that has been raised a number of times during the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. She will be well aware that my noble friend the Lord Chancellor has made it clear that he believes that CABs and law centres play an important role. We have already made interim arrangements for funding and, as those who attend the LASPO Committee will know, we are in discussions with the Treasury and other departments, including the Cabinet Office, to see if such funding can be put on a more permanent basis.

My Lords, the Government’s impact assessment for the LASPO Bill accepts that legal aid cuts will lead to “reduced social cohesion” and “increased criminality”. Can the Minister remind the House how many Bills go forward when it is thought that their implementation will lead to “reduced social cohesion” and “increased criminality”, and why do the Government think that this measure will lead to “increased criminality”?

My Lords, one problem with treating Parliament as a group of grown-ups is that such exercises will be open to abuse. The Government have never said that this would happen. What the civil servants did, quite properly, in their impact assessment was put forward a range of possibilities. Throughout the Bill—and I presume now that we are moving to Report he will continue on his merry way—the noble Lord has been looking at worst-case scenarios, saying that worst-case scenarios are inevitable and therefore, “Woe is me”. That is not what the impact assessment is about. It is about trying to take an intelligent and rational view, but, as I have said before, a view that these are not inevitable. This impact assessment is not an almanac; it is a look at a range of options that could happen. As such, it was a reasonable way of approaching the task ahead.

My Lords, going back to the question of the risk assessment, does the Minister agree that the purpose of a risk assessment is indeed to look at the worst-case scenario under a number of headings, and to propose what should be done in mitigation should such a scenario eventuate? Can he say what measures the Government have in place should those worst-case scenarios eventuate? There is no point in writing them down if there is not at least some risk that they will.

That is why we have to take a holistic view of these matters. Much of what is being talked about here will be impacted by the reform and simplification of the welfare system that is being carried out, as well as a whole range of other measures, many of which we will be discussing in the next few hours, that will prevent the worst-case scenario from coming to pass.

My Lords, has my noble friend read The Spirit Level, which demonstrates that there is a close correlation between levels of serious criminality and inequalities in society? If so, will the Government put into practice the recommendations of the Equality Trust to secure greater equality in society and thereby diminish not only levels of criminality but many other social evils that follow from high levels of inequality?

My Lords, the Government get a wide range of advice, and The Spirit Level does make a strong case for the linkage between inequalities, poverty and criminality. Nevertheless, as I have said quite often from the Dispatch Box, poverty and criminality are not inevitable—people do have a choice. The range of measures that the Government are taking is aimed at dealing with some of the unfairnesses in our society and giving people a proper and rational choice in how they lead their lives.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the massive cuts in police resources and manpower are to be replaced by privatised security companies that will do the work of constables but with private personnel? Does he accept that this is more than an operational matter to be discussed with ACPO—that it requires discussion with this House and, indeed, with the community? Does he agree that the elections to be held in November for police and crime commissioners were specifically intended to serve as the voice of the community? The Government are rushing forward this decision before November and denying the people a say in this fundamental change in our police forces.

No, my Lords: the police forces can look at outsourcing various parts of the service but they cannot outsource the fundamental responsibility of the police, which will remain a public service. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Blair, said in today’s Guardian that police need to modernise their budgets and reduce unit costs. I am sure that the police commissioner for Hull will have that high in his or her priorities when he or she is elected.