My Lords, the Legal Services Commission decided to cease the Community Legal Service grants programme following careful consideration of all the issues involved and a public consultation exercise. These grant-funded projects and activities do not necessarily provide direct advice to the individuals eligible for legal aid. Following the Government’s legal aid reforms, the commission’s focus must be on providing advice to clients who qualify for legal aid through its contracted providers.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, but is it not rather depressing that these three highly respected and proven organisations are no longer to receive any public funding and are being put at some risk, and all for £650,000 per year? I am sure the Minister will agree that they all have a superb record over many years of helping often poor and disadvantaged people to obtain access to justice. Is it just coincidence that these changes to legal aid are coming at precisely the same time as radical reform of the welfare system is about to begin or is it, as seems much more likely to some of us, deliberate government policy to link these two things together so that if mistakes are made as a result of welfare reform—as they will be—there will cease to be any effective legal remedy for many people?
My Lords, I am always fascinated by the way in which the noble Lord dismisses £650,000 as a mere bagatelle, but let us also look at the facts. This scheme for funding such bodies was introduced in 2000 and the three bodies in this consultation were awarded three-year contracts at the end of the previous Administration. Since then, we have twice extended their contracts by one year so that what was originally a three-year contract became a five-year contract. However, as I have explained to the House before, I am afraid that we have to concentrate limited funds on bodies that are giving sharp-end legal aid advice. These three bodies, particularly the Advice Services Alliance and the local Law Centres Network, are umbrella bodies that do not give such advice. Therefore, although in happier days they could win such contracts and do such work, there is simply no money.
My Lords, is the Minister aware or does he appreciate the significance and importance of the Royal Courts of Justice citizens advice bureau? Having been a judge in that court for many years, I had personal experience of the advantages of the citizens advice bureau looking after unrepresented families in my court. Does the Minister realise that taking away the core funding at this moment, when the Government are also taking away legal aid for private family cases, is going to leave the public and the courts in absolute disarray?
The CAB at the Royal Courts of Justice is able to apply for legal aid contracts in the normal way for the part of its work that is directly legal aid work. As regards broader CAB work, the Government have carried out a number of initiatives to provide funding while voluntary organisations make the transition to a much more difficult economic climate. I very much appreciate the record and work of the Royal Courts of Justice CAB in providing legal advice to individuals. However, I can only say to the House—as I have done frequently as we have gone through this exercise—that we are concentrating our resources on the sharp-end providers and will continue to do so.
My Lords, does my noble friend know of any organisation that provides legal advice more cost-effectively than these bodies do? Has the Legal Services Commission worked out what the effect would be in respect of their former clients if the funding were withdrawn from them?
My Lords, again, I emphasise that the RCJ CAB was able to apply to the Advice Services Transition Fund and this has helped it to continue. How many times can I say this? I look at a budget each day and I see that hard decisions have to be made. Hard decisions are being made by charities and we have tried to give them help in the transition. Quite simply, the days when large amounts of government funds were available for these bodies are over and we all have to face that fact.
My Lords, why do those hard decisions have to be at the expense of the very poor and those needing help and advice? As my noble friend Lord Bach said, from next April, and particularly from next October, a brand new architecture of benefits—universal credit—will roll out to people who will, simultaneously, be losing large sums of money. Moreover, their claims will not be paper-based but will have to be online, even though something like a fifth of claimants do not even have access to a computer. As a result, they are going to need extensive help, support and advice at the very same time as the noble Lord is taking 40% of funding away from CABs across the country.
The legal aid welfare spend will still be some £50 million. We are also in talks with the legal profession and with charitable organisations to help them with adjustments. The noble Baroness is right that we are talking about the poorest. Two years ago, when I announced this exercise, I said that if you cut a programme designed to help the poorest in our society then you will hurt the poorest in society. We are doing what we can to concentrate limited funds on the needy, but it is simply not good enough for the Opposition continually to be willing to sign every blank cheque and never tell us how they would save the money.