[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered housing and access to legal aid.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. Before I start, I want to thank the House of Commons Library, which provided me with advice and information for the debate, and the Ealing law centre.
Having been an elected councillor for 25 years before coming to this place, I know how important good-quality, early professional help is in preventing so many issues, but particularly homelessness, indebtedness and other related problems. I also know how important early advice is in preventing problems from escalating, which causes stress to families and costs to the public purse. The sooner and the earlier, the better and the cheaper.
Legal aid for housing advice was withdrawn by the Government between 2012 and 2013. At that time, we saw problems that were already there begin to escalate. More and more people were having problems trying to keep their home and to keep it safe and warm. Demand for social housing was increasing but there was an acute shortage, owing to the right to buy and the ending of Government funding for new council and other social rent housing.
Related to that was the escalation of private sector rents beyond the means of average wage earners, let alone those on low and minimum wages. In my constituency, private sector rents are three to four times those of council rents. There is also the related use of one-term tenancies, as landlords can afford to gain possession of a home and then rent it to someone else who is able to pay a higher rent in the inflated west London housing market. The escalation of zero-hours work and low-paid self-employment also affects the ability of many people on low incomes to pay their rents, while for many people, some of whom are working and some of whom are not, cuts and changes to many benefits and tax credits mean that there is less to live on. Finally, the draconian universal credit rules were introduced, which—apart from providing less to live on than legacy benefits—expect claimants to wait for five weeks with no money at all. In my constituency, five weeks of rent for a family can be anything up to £2,000.
It is therefore hardly surprising that more people need more help with housing and debt, or that landlords can get away with providing more substandard private sector housing, where repairs need catching early before they make homes dangerous. MPs and councillors offer advice, but too often it is left to underfunded organisations and their many advisers, who might not be legally qualified, to help; they might be willing and able, but one often needs legally qualified people, even at an early advice stage.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that there has been a serious decline in the number of providers of housing legal aid? In my area of Barnsley there are only two, which is simply insufficient. It leaves those most in need isolated and often without the help they need.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are parts of the country with no appropriate legal advice services. For people in rural areas, having to travel tens of miles to find the appropriate advice, when they are already on a low income, is shocking.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. North-west Wales has only one provider of housing legal aid for a population of more than 300,000 people. Travel has already been mentioned, but we should also note that a single provider might not have the capacity to deal with the needs of all its potential clients, and may well have to put people on lists based on their needs. Some people who need urgent help might not be reached. Secondly, that single provider may also—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Lady is not making a speech. There should be no first and secondly; there is one intervention.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. The other problem if there is only one legal aid provider is that both parties might go to them. There are then problems, because to whom should it offer help and advice?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Even when there are providers that can provide legal advice, such as Citizens Advice, cuts to their financial situations mean that it is thrown on us to help people out.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The cuts to local authorities and other parts of the public sector have affected the voluntary sector, which has so often been the alternative provider of professional, consistent, good-quality advice and support to people who need it.
There is currently no law centre in my area. When I was a lead member on Hounslow Council in 2010, we increased the funding for the citizens advice bureau, but demand for the local CAB escalated well beyond that. The philanthropic centres and foundations—the Big Lottery Fund and so on—are often left to pick up the pieces, but pressures on their funding are getting greater. Overall, less good-quality professional help and advice is available in the sector, and I urge the Government to address that as part of their review, which I will move on to in a moment.
As I was saying, MPs and councillors are not professional legal advisers. At best we should signpost and provide basic advice, but we do not have the capacity or skills to provide the detailed advice that people need, even at the early stages of problems arising. I will give a couple of examples that Vicky Fewkes of the Ealing law centre provided me with. They concern people who much of the time were not eligible for housing legal aid. In all cases, the welfare and benefits work that was done was under grant funding, not legal aid.
First, a constituent was in substantial rent arrears due to universal credit issues. Her tenancy was jointly in her name and that of her partner. However, she had been abused by her partner, which led to their separating and her partner moving out. Universal credit would not pay her full rent due to the tenancy being in both names. She was given time to transfer the tenancy into her name and resolve the universal credit issues. The adviser worked with her and managed to resolve the matter, and to retrieve about £5,000 in universal credit housing payments. She kept her home—at substantial cost to the public sector, of course. That case was not funded through legal aid, but I believe it should have been.
In another example, a constituent was in arrears of more than £2,500 following the stoppage of her employment and support allowance and housing benefit. She had four children, aged between 11 and 19, and she suffered from depression, anxiety and physical problems. Her housing benefit had been cancelled due to the required information not being supplied. The caseworker worked with her and her husband to claim backdated housing benefit. The caseworker liaised with the council and worked with the husband to answer all the council’s questions and provide the required evidence. The hearings were adjourned until the ESA and housing benefit issues could be resolved. The ESA decision was appealed and overturned, meaning that she eventually got a backdated ESA payment and £4,000 in housing benefit being paid into her rent account, meaning that she kept her home. She was a council tenant. If she had been a private sector tenant, that landlord would not have waited for her income situation to be resolved.
Vicky says of the crisis navigator role at the Ealing law centre:
“The Crisis Navigator is part of a Big Lottery funded Help through Crisis Project. This work is essential and is not being funded by Legal Aid as it stands at the moment. A lot of problems arise from insecure work (variable hours/zero contracts). These then impact benefits and rent arrears as a result. If clients are evicted if they are housed by local authorities, then the temp accommodation rent is so high and Housing Benefit is being paid for this.”
In my area, west London, housing benefit caps are well below the rent even for poor-quality private sector housing. Finally, Vicky says:
“It really would make sense to provide benefits support at an early stage.”
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which I will refer to as LASPO, made fundamental changes to eligibility for legal aid. Under LASPO, applicants must pass three basic tests. The case must be within the scope of the legal aid scheme; there is a financial means test to pass; and there is a merits test, looking at the applicant’s chance of success in the case and a cost-benefit analysis of providing legal aid funding. Matters that are included in the scope of legal aid are homelessness; allocations; accommodation for asylum seekers; repossession of a rented home, but only when the loss of the home is imminent and the landlord has sought an order for possession; lawful and unlawful eviction from the home; injunctions relating to harassment; antisocial behaviour cases in the county court; disrepair, but only when there is a serious risk of harm to the health or safety of the occupiers; and judicial review. Areas that are no longer eligible for legal aid under LASPO are rent and mortgage arrears that may ultimately result in possession proceedings; early stage disputes between landlords and tenants—
My hon. Friend mentioned early legal advice. Of course, one recommendation from the Bach commission is that early legal advice can help to save money in the long run. The Law Society estimates that the cost of early legal advice on housing benefit claims would be £1.7 million to £2 million each year, but the costs through avoidable evictions are often far greater for individuals, councils and the NHS. Will—
Order. Would the hon. Lady sit down? There is plenty of opportunity to speak. These are not interventions when they are of such length. Please form a question quickly to the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury).
Does my hon. Friend agree that reintroducing early legal advice would help to solve the housing crisis?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend anticipates what I will come on to in a minute.
Not only are early-stage disputes between landlords and tenants no longer eligible for legal aid, but housing benefit advice is no longer eligible. That is particularly worrying because of the many changes to the benefits system, to which I have referred. As I said, when people transfer to universal credit, there is no payment for up to five weeks. That is a lot of money and a lot of heartache, particularly for tenants in the private sector whose landlords are not prepared to wait until things are resolved. However, the situation is worrying even for housing association or council tenants. I try to reassure them by saying, “Don’t worry. The council will not evict you on this basis.” However, it is still stress and worry that people do not need, and many people go and borrow money, which they can ill afford to repay, from friends, relatives and payday lenders. It causes massive problems.
Since LASPO was introduced in 2012-13, there has been a 58% fall in legal help for housing cases in England and Wales; the number has gone from just over 85,000 per annum to just over 35,500 per annum. As we have mentioned, LASPO has caused a critical decline in the number of housing legal aid providers, from 646 in the year before LASPO to 427. The Law Society found in July 2016 that one third of legal aid areas have just one solicitor providing specialised housing advice through legal aid. Areas such as Surrey, Shropshire and Suffolk had no legal aid provider specialising in housing. That is shocking.
A review of LASPO in respect of legal aid for housing advice and aid is urgently needed, but I want to focus now on the area raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves)—early legal advice. Without early legal advice, a problem can escalate, which costs the tenant stress and possibly the loss of their home. That causes knock-on costs for the public purse, poor health, homelessness and debt. I have met several families in my surgery and in my work as an MP outside the surgery who did not seek early advice. They left their home when the landlord asked them to; they did not wait for the court order, let alone the bailiffs. As a result, they were deemed intentionally homeless, so the housing department was able to discharge its duty to house them. How many people know the ins and outs of housing law sufficiently to know what I know, which is, “Wait until the bailiffs arrive”? Most people want to do the right thing. They are scared by their landlords. They think that they can sofa-surf for a while and sort something out. Reality is not like that, particularly in the very high-cost areas of west London that I represent.
As I said, if people are deemed intentionally homeless, the housing department is able to discharge its duty to house them. If they have children, then under the Children Act 1989 social services, quite rightly, have to find them a home. That is yet more work and costs for already overstretched social workers, who are not housing specialists, and it means that social services are competing for the small amount of private sector accommodation from which the housing department is seeking temporary accommodation. And there are all those people who come to live and work in London, who are also looking for accommodation.
Under LASPO, legal advice is not available for disrepair until it affects the tenant’s health, or for possible eviction unless a possession notice has been granted. In November 2017, the Law Society called for legal aid to be reintroduced for early advice in respect of family and housing law, saying:
“Everyone knows that if you catch a problem early, you’re more likely to stop it getting worse.”
The Law Society research showed that, on average, one in four people who received early professional legal advice had resolved their problem within three to four months, but for those who did not get any legal advice, it was not until nine months after the issue first occurred that one in four had resolved their issue, and those getting no early advice were 20% less likely on average to have their problem resolved.
The Law Society, in making its report, was not angling for more work for its members—in fact, probably the opposite, as it recognises that legal problems, like so much in life, are easier and cheaper to deal with early on. The Law Society estimates that restoring housing benefit advice to the legal aid system could be done for about £2 million a year. That is based on the cost of pre-LASPO advice in relation to housing benefits. It also suggests that restoration of early advice on mortgage arrears, which is now outside the legal aid remit, could prevent escalation of arrears and further costs of possession proceedings and, by the way, reduce some of the additional costs arising from legal aid cuts.
I am really pleased that in April, the Labour party announced its new policy to restore legal advice in all housing cases. That came from one of the recommendations of the justice commission chaired by Lord Bach, which was established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) when he became leader of the Labour party; it was one of the first things he did in that role. The Bach report estimates that restoring legal advice funded by legal aid could help up to 50,000 households a year to enforce their housing rights.
By responding to Labour’s announcement and starting to provide funding for early professional legal advice for housing matters, the Government would really be making a difference to many people in our constituencies. That would almost certainly mean a lower volume of cases going to court, as they could be resolved earlier. Wider benefits and savings would include avoiding health issues caused by significant disrepair; not having to pay housing benefit for high-cost temporary housing; fewer people becoming homeless; and fewer leaving rent arrears and mortgage debts unaddressed.
Everyone should have the right to a safe and decent home, so I ask the Government to take the opportunity presented by the review of LASPO announced last October to recommend returning to the legal aid scheme the ability to obtain legal advice for housing matters, and to have a fundamental review of legal aid as it applies to housing issues. I look hopefully at the answer that the Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on 23 January this year on this very issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on bringing this issue forward. It is a pity that there are not more hon. Members here, but there are debates in the other Chamber and I suspect that is where most are.
We live in a time when there are more breakdowns in the home. The family home no longer has the nuclear family. This sad breakdown has life-changing aspects for the children. It also puts more pressure on housing, as more houses are needed. The necessity of legal support is a by-product of that. The hon. Lady outlined the issues we experience every day in our constituency offices, dealing with those going through a family break-up. The Relationships Foundation, in a report which I hope others have had a chance to look at, calculates that the annual cost of family breakdown has risen to an all-time high of £51 billion. That gives us an idea of the financial cost involved in the breakdown of couples and their lives. That figure—up from £37 billion 10 years ago—takes into account the cost to the taxpayer of families splitting up across areas including tax, benefits, housing, health, social care, civil and criminal justice, and education.
A BBC poll from the week before Christmas found that one in 10 of 16 to 25-year-olds had spent at least one month sofa-surfing, and it has been said that up to 60% of youth homelessness is down to family breakdowns. We want to address the issue of legal aid, and we would also address some of the issues of homelessness by doing so. Every one of us is concerned about homelessness. We cannot not be concerned, if we look at what is happening in our constituencies and further afield. Almost half of 15-year-olds do not live with both parents, which is double the OECD average. We also have one of the highest percentages of lone parents in Europe. These stats show not only the extent of relationship breakdowns, but the impact of those breakdowns upon housing in particular, and why we need to focus, as the hon. Lady said, on how we address those issues.
Family breakdown has put a lot more pressure on so many aspects of life. Further, with this amount of separation and difficulty, people need access to sound advice; moreover, they need help. This is about giving the right help at the right time to those who need it. It is up to us to ensure that there are mechanisms in place to provide the help and support that is needed for people to live their lives.
I do not watch much TV, but I do get the chance when I get home at about 11 o’clock or 12 o’clock at night, when “Can’t Pay? We'll Take it Away!” is on. That programme shows people in the most desperate circumstances. In some of those cases, the people have brought it upon themselves, but in many cases people find themselves in difficulties because they do not understand the legal system. They do not understand what the power of eviction means when the enforcement officers come to change the locks on the doors or ask them to leave. There are some important things to address there.
We need to put on the record our thanks to some of those charitable groups that step in to help those who are homeless and who have problems. There are many good people out there from church groups and community groups—all round good people, who do charitable work. I have had men in my office who have made personal mistakes. I am nobody’s judge in this world—far from it—and I never will be, but sometimes things happen and relationships break down. That is the nature of where we are. I can, however, do one thing, and that is to help that person. Those people have had to leave their family home and they have no idea of what to do next. They do not know what the Northern Ireland Housing Executive or housing associations are in Northern Ireland. They do not know how to change their tax code, address the issue of benefits and many other things. That all adds to the stress of the marriage breakdown. People have no idea of the help that should be received and often end up paying over the odds for sub-standard housing, which they feel they are unable to fight against and change.
The beauty of legal aid is that it allows people to understand the bare minimum they can expect of a landlord or a housing body. I have seen the look of fear on the faces of people who come to me. I have to refer them on for legal advice, as the hon. Lady mentioned, because I am not legally qualified. When they ask me about a legal matter, I have to say, “I do not have the capacity or ability to respond to that, but I can point you in the direction of someone who can.” It is our job to point them in the direction of someone who can give them legal advice.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to have a good relationship with the solicitors in the main town of Newtownards, where I have my advice centre. I can often phone up and ask them—without any charge— “What advice would you give to someone in these circumstances?” That is a rudimentary thing. They say, “Well, I suggest you do this, that and the other.” There are many people out there who would like to help. It would not be legally correct for me to give them advice. When I know that someone does not have the money for legal advice, I make phone calls to the solicitors that I know in town.
Legal aid is a way of enabling those who work, but cannot afford a legal battle to know their rights and, more importantly, to have access to justice. We have to have access to justice to help the people in the greatest need. The Independent recently produced an article, which I will quote for Hansard:
“Households earning more than £2,657 a month before tax are excluded from legal aid, while many that earn substantially less than this are only eligible for partial financial help…Some of those who qualify for legal aid but are not on state benefits still have to make a contribution towards the cost—at a level which is often far beyond their means.”
That is what I see in my office and, I believe, other hon. Members see in their offices and in their contact with their constituents.
Although I disagree with legal aid funds being used for multimillion-pound test cases—I do not want to see that money going there—which has become all too common, I firmly believe that legal aid access must be expanded to those who work but who still live hand-to-mouth. Let me back that up with some figures. It has been stated that 60% of families living in poverty in Britain have at least one member of the family working. They work to live and cannot afford the luxury of legal advice. As the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said, many of the people who come to me have a low wage and are unable to afford legal aid. They are in a grey area that, unfortunately, precludes them from seeking legal advice. It is also telling that of that 60%, the majority live in private rented accommodation and therefore may need access to legal advice, and yet are precluded from that as well.
I look to the Minister for some help, ever mindful of this debate. I presume the shadow Minister’s contribution will be close to what we are all saying. We look to the Minister for a response. We need to look again at the perameters of legal aid and stop those who use public money to fund their personal agenda, while still allowing those who are being treated unfairly, yet cannot afford to pay the price of justice, to access legal aid, especially in the realm of housing.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this debate. It is one in a series of debates we have had in Westminster Hall on access to justice and legal aid more generally. That is essential, as we keep pressure on the Government during their internal review of the operation of LASPO.
From the outset, the hon. Lady identified the clear importance of early advice and the benefits that can bring in avoiding the escalation of difficulties and challenges into outright crises, and also in terms of cost. She put the debate in the appropriate context of a crazy housing market, austerity and cuts, challenges posed by universal credit and the complexity of housing law. All of that means that good and early advice is absolutely essential, but unfortunately it is becoming increasingly difficult to access. I join the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in paying tribute to those who are doing immense charitable work to support homeless people who have fallen foul of the challenges identified. They are overworked and under-appreciated. As he recognised, the key is to deliver advice that can prevent homelessness in the first place.
In my view and the view of my party, LASPO was a disastrous piece of legislation based on the utterly ill-conceived idea that taking whole swathes of civil law outside the scope of legal aid would be key to cutting costs, but would have no impact on access to justice. From the Justice Committee to the National Audit Office, from the Public Accounts Committee to the Lord Chief Justice, from the legal profession to third sector organisations, nobody has a good word to say about the changes introduced by that Act. The Justice Committee found that LASPO had unambiguously failed in three of its four stated goals: targeting legal aid towards those who need it most; delivering better overall value for money; and discouraging unnecessary and adversarial litigation. In relation to the fourth target, the Committee stated that,
“while it had made significant savings in the cost of the scheme, the Ministry had harmed access to justice for some litigants”.
Housing is an area of law that highlights many of the Committee’s points. Although a handful of housing law elements remain in the scope of legal aid, the absence of funding for early legal advice illustrates everything that is wrong about LASPO. Allowing legal aid for those who are about to lose their house but not those who are in rent arrears or struggling with housing benefit, is frankly absurd. It does not target legal aid at those who need it most. It provides legal aid to exactly the same people, but only after the crisis has become full-blown and perhaps impossible to resolve, instead of in its early stages when resolution would have been much easier. Nor does it deliver better value for money, because to fund someone defending eviction proceedings in court is clearly significantly more expensive than giving a small amount of advice earlier in the process. Self-evidently, it does not help to discourage adversarial litigation, except in the sense that some tenants will simply not manage to challenge rogue landlords, which I will come back to later. The Justice Committee pretty much says that in express terms, stating:
“The Ministry’s efforts to target legal aid at those who most need it have suffered from the weakness that they have often been aimed at the point after a crisis has already developed, such as in housing repossession cases, rather than being preventive.”
As regards cost savings, it would be interesting to see a detailed analysis of the impact of removing many elements of housing law from the scope of legal aid. We should include in that not only the extent to which costs are moved from the provision of early legal advice to defending evictions in court and other such crisis procedures, but the financial impact on other services such as those relating to homelessness, housing, social work and health.
Instead of achieving the goals set for it, LASPO has left advice deserts, as was highlighted in several interventions. One third of legal aid areas have been left with just one specialist housing solicitor to provide legally aided advice, and some areas have none at all. The overall number of providers is down by a third, and it is actually a surprise that it has not fallen further, given the 58% fall in the number of legal help matters started for housing since LASPO was introduced. In 2016-17, there were almost 50,000 fewer cases than before the Act came into force, and that is a year in which exceptional case funding for housing and land law reached a record high of seven successful applications out of 48.
We need to ask who benefits from the system. In this area of law, it can only be those rogue landlords who breach tenants’ rights and who will increasingly be left unchallenged. LASPO can only have encouraged a culture where a lack of access to easy legal redress leads to more problems with rogue landlords across England and Wales. According to the Law Society, advice on housing benefits, rent arrears and other housing issues could be restored for as little as £2 million. It is an absolute no-brainer. The Government do not need to wait for any review to get on with that.
None of that is to deny the pressures that the Government face in terms of spending and ensuring that the legal aid budget is sustainable. However, my party does not believe that taking vast swathes of important legal advice outwith the scope of legal aid is the answer; in fact it can be utterly counter-productive, as this debate has shown.
That is why, in government in Scotland, we have continued to fund a legal aid system that is comprehensive in scope, including housing law, and generous in its eligibility criteria. The Scottish Government are considering the recommendations of the independent report that they commissioned to ensure that the system is made sustainable for the future, not through crazy cuts to the scope of legal aid, but through innovation, enhancing fairness and flexibility.
LASPO should be scrapped by the UK Government and they should go back to the drawing board. That is almost certainly what any independent report would tell them. If the Government’s internal review merely seeks to tinker around the edges, it will be seen and called out as the whitewash that that would undoubtedly represent. As I have said, there is no need to wait. The case for comprehensive legal aid for housing issues is overwhelming.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important debate. I confess that I feel a heavy sense of déjà vu standing opposite the Minister once again: it is another week and yet another debate on the devastating impact of the Government’s cuts to legal aid. This time the issue is housing.
Most of us expect the right to a decent home that does not suck in two thirds of our income each month, that does not give us health problems and that does not endanger our safety. For too many people across the country, however, that expectation is simply not a reality anymore. We have a housing crisis in this country. Home ownership among young adults has collapsed. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that the chance of someone owning their own home has halved over the past 20 years. The number of council houses is at a record low. The Government have overseen the lowest rate of house building since the 1920s, which pushes more and more people to spend years in the private sector, but they have not made it safer or more secure to be a tenant; they have made it much harder.
Because of the cuts in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, it is now more difficult to challenge a rogue landlord, to obtain compensation for damages to health and property because of poor living conditions, or to access basic advice that could prevent someone from losing their home down the line. New figures that we have uncovered show that 4,815 fewer people a year are being granted civil legal aid for representation on housing matters, including faulty repairs and poor maintenance of a property by landlords, as well as more serious issues such as possession of a home or where a tenant’s health or welfare is at serious risk. That is a drop of one third over the past five years—close to 5,000 more people a year are being denied the right to challenge poor living conditions and unfair treatment. Does the Minister recognise that there is a crisis in access to legal aid for housing issues?
The Government have set the bar so high for legal aid that housing lawyers warn that it is
“very difficult for a tenant to obtain funding in order to bring a claim against their landlord.”
Legal aid is available in disrepair cases only where it can be proven that there is
“a serious risk of harm to the health or safety of the individual or a relevant member of the individual’s family”.
That bar means that a persistent cough that is likely being caused by mould or damp, or risk of accidental injury because of shoddy work, is often not enough to qualify for legal aid. If someone develops serious health problems as a result of poor living conditions that landlords refuse to sort out, the Government have taken away the legal aid to obtain compensation.
Ministers might argue that for the most serious cases, legal aid may still be available through the exceptional case funding scheme, but only 13 cases have been approved for exceptional funding since the legal aid changes were introduced—out of 211 applications. The truth is that people are simply being denied access to justice and have nowhere else to turn. It is the same old story of a two-tiered system; justice in this country is available only to those who have the money to pay for it.
That is not just the case for taking a claim to court. Many housing issues can and should be resolved at an earlier stage by people getting the right advice about their rights, but the Government’s cuts to housing legal aid included the removal of early legal advice. The effect is that tenants must now wait for a minor damp problem to have a serious effect on their family’s health before they can challenge a bad landlord and force repairs to be made. Rather than resolving a dispute with a landlord early with good legal advice, tenants face the point of being made homeless before they have access to legal aid. Since the introduction of LASPO, the number of cases of legal advice for housing has more than halved. It is not just housing cases; overall, the total number of legal advice cases has fallen by three quarters, which means that more than 400,000 fewer people are getting housing advice. That is not just bad for tenants; it is short-sighted policy making that will ultimately cost the country more.
The vice-president of the Law Society, Christina Blacklaws, has said:
“The current situation is unsustainable. If early advice was available to those who need it, issues could be resolved before they worsen and become more costly for the individual – and the public purse.”
The charity Citizens Advice estimates that every £1 of legal aid spent on housing advice has the potential to save £2.34 to the public purse. Lack of support to resolve a case early means potentially far more costly court proceedings down the line.
It is not just by helping to avoid court that early advice benefits the public purse. Social problems such as homelessness and debt, and health problems that come with not sorting out housing issues early, are a ticking time bomb for the Government. At the end of last year the Law Society published research that found that a quarter of those who received early advice resolved their problems within three to four months, compared with an average of nine months for those who did not receive early advice. Those costs must be factored into any assessment of the savings realised from cuts to legal aid. Will the Government, as part of their review of legal aid, publish their own cost-benefit analysis of the wider impact of reducing early legal advice?
Labour Members agree with the President of the Supreme Court, Lady Justice Hale, who described the Government’s legal aid reforms as “a false economy”. That is why we have announced that a Labour Government will restore early legal advice in housing cases to prevent small problems escalating into big ones. The impact of the Government’s cuts is not only being felt in cases where legal aid has been removed. Even in cases where individuals should still be entitled to legal aid, such as risk of homelessness, tenants are finding that support is not available because lawyers in their area have had to close up shop.
Hon. Members have already referred to the legal advice deserts, so I will not repeat those findings, but I will say that figures uncovered by the Bach commission on legal aid confirmed that, finding that the number of civil legal aid providers specialising in housing has declined by a third, from 681 to 449. What urgent action are the Government taking to reverse those trends to ensure that no area is left without a single legal advice provider?
The Government’s changes have made it simply not possible to operate for such a narrow category of cases, and the impact has been devastating. We are living through a time of high repossessions of homes and homelessness has risen by 78% since 2011. Yet at the same time there has been a steep decline in the number of challenges brought against eviction, according to figures from the Legal Action Group. Charities such as Shelter have warned that thousands of people a year are being made homeless because they cannot find lawyers to help them prevent eviction. The Government’s changes to legal aid have brought nothing but misery and pain since they were introduced. We have waited six years for the Government’s review into legal aid, but victims cannot wait any longer. I urge the Minister to heed the advice of the Law Society and legal professionals across the country and reinstate early advice for housing matters and take action now to prevent any more families being forced into destitution because of the lack of legal aid.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to a debate on such an important issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing it. She is highly committed to this issue as she was a shadow Housing Minister. I offer my congratulations to her on completing the London marathon at the end of April, raising money for two causes, including the housing charity Shelter, which does excellent work.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the importance of the work that third parties do to support people in society, such as the work of the Law Centres Network and the CAB. There are many pro bono organisations put forward by the legal profession and, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, church groups. I, too, would like to add my support for the work that they do.
I want to emphasise the importance of the legal aid system. The Ministry of Justice spends £1.6 billion a year on legal aid, one fifth of the Ministry’s overall budget, which is not an insubstantial sum. It is right that we spend a significant amount of money on legal aid, but there are not unlimited resources available to the Government, so it is right that we spend the money on the people who need it most: those who are the most vulnerable, those who face the most significant issues in their lives and those who have no alternative to legal support. Those principles are fair. It is right to recognise that this debate takes place in that context.
The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth suggested there is not enough legal aid support for legal advice. I will identify and correct some apprehensions about legal aid and housing. As many hon. Members have identified, legal aid for housing assistance is available. Legal aid, including early legal help, is available to help those who face homelessness to access accommodation and assistance. It is available to defend individuals who are being evicted from their home or having it repossessed; to ensure that homes are safe for habitation; and to obtain injunctions preventing harassment from landlords and others.
Legal aid is available for judicial review if a local authority subsequently fails to take action or those affected wish to challenge the conduct of the local authority. For example, if the rehousing proposed is not suitable, legal aid would be available to bring a challenge. It is available if there has been a significant breach of convention rights or abuse by someone in a position of power. Legal aid is also available to bring a damages claim. As I have mentioned, the Government have protected legal aid for those facing the most challenging situations in their lives, whether that is the threat of homelessness or dangerous conditions that pose a risk to the life, health or safety of their families.
I note what the Minister says about situations where legal aid is available, but does she not accept that, since the LASPO reforms, housing cases have fallen by 50%? That is a huge increase in the number of people not getting access to justice in housing cases. Does she agree that the review of LASPO should reverse that?
As the hon. Lady has identified, there is a review into the changes that were made. The Act aimed to cut legal aid, so availability was reduced in many areas. However, the fundamental principle behind the changes in the Act were to ensure that those who most needed help and could not get it from any other sources retained the ability to get legal aid. As I have mentioned, that is being reviewed.
I have identified the areas where we provide legal aid in housing, but we need to look at how it is provided. As the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth identified, it is important that we have early legal help. Last year, we spent nearly £100 million on early legal advice across all categories, including housing. Advice for housing is available through face-to-face meetings or through telephone advice. The telephone service offers services beyond that which can be provided at local centres face to face. For example, the telephone service can offer interpretation in more than 170 languages, including British sign language via webcam, which operates over the weekend. Last year, there were more than 20,000 instances of advice provided by that system. It allows individuals to access advice quickly and easily.
Legal aid is also available for representation at hearings. People can access representations from individuals already engaged in their case and giving them legal help. In addition, the housing possession court duty scheme is a vital service that offers on-the-day advice and advocacy at court to anyone facing possession proceedings. Individuals in danger of eviction or having their home repossessed can get free legal advice and representation on the day of their hearing, regardless of their financial circumstances.
The hon. Members for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) talked about gaps in advice, which they called advice deserts. We in the Ministry of Justice are committed to ensuring that everyone has sufficient advice to help, wherever they live. I should make it clear that the Legal Aid Agency regularly monitors market capability to ensure that there is adequate provision around the country, and moves quickly to ensure that face-to-face advice is available to prevent gaps appearing. Of the 134 housing and debt procurement areas for legal aid across England and Wales, all but one currently have provision. The Legal Aid Agency has recently secured provision for the remaining one and services will commence there shortly.
On the procurement of legal aid services, the Legal Aid Agency has recently re-tendered for new civil contracts to start in autumn 2018. The procurement includes contracts for both face-to-face advice and telephone advice for housing matters. I am pleased to say that the Legal Aid Agency received tenders from more than 1,700 organisations wishing to deliver face-to-face civil legal aid work. Those organisations submitted over 4,300 individual bids. Successful applicants for face-to-face contracts were notified in January. The new contract encourages providers to be flexible as to where and how advice can be delivered, including making better use of technology. A good level of response was received, with an overall increase in the number of providers wishing to do the work. In areas where an access gap is identified, the Legal Aid Agency will take steps to secure provision. In addition, to reflect the nature of today’s society, we have developed a user-friendly digital tool that makes it clear to people when legal aid is available to them. If someone is unsure which organisations offer legal aid in a given area, they can use the “find a legal aid adviser” tool on gov.uk to find the 10 nearest organisations to them that have a contract to offer advice and assistance through legal aid in that category of law.
A number of hon. Members raised issues that went wider than legal aid for housing. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth spoke about welfare claims. We work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that it gets decisions right first time and they do not end up in a tribunal. We are making changes using technology to improve the social security tribunals. The hon. Member for Strangford rightly identified the consequences of family breakdown. At the Ministry of Justice we are looking at ways to avoid the impact on families of conflict resulting from breakdown.
The hon. Member for Ashfield made some broad points about the Government’s record on housing and I should like to clarify the position. The Government have done a significant amount to improve the housing stock and to help first-time buyers and people who want to leave home. We have built 1 million homes since 2010. House building is at its highest level since the crash. We have abolished stamp duty for 80% of first-time buyers and brought in landmark legislation—the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—to improve the life of people who have no home and sleep rough on the streets. Fewer than 3,000 local authority homes were built under Labour from 1997 to 2010. Since 2010, nearly 11,000 homes have been built.
Many hon. Members mentioned the LASPO review. The reforms in question were made under LASPO, and I have said that they were founded on the principle of ensuring that legal aid will continue to be available for the highest-priority cases. It is important that legal aid should be focused on those least able to pay for representation. The changes were subject to a significant amount of scrutiny in during the passage of the legislation through the House of Commons. They were debated extensively and amended before they were approved by Parliament.
As the Scottish National party spokesman, hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), pointed out, we are in the process of a broader review of legal aid. Matters covered by the review will include housing advice changes and early legal advice. Given that there is an outstanding review, the debate is a valuable opportunity to listen to the many thoughtful points made by hon. Members. We are currently engaging with a wide range of stakeholders across the legal sector, individually and in consultative groups. The first round of consultative group meetings took place last month, and they were well received. We are keen to hear from as many interested parties as possible, to establish the impact of the changes.
As well as looking back over the record of LASPO and some previous decisions, it is crucial that we look forward to ensure that access to justice, to which legal aid makes a hugely valuable contribution, will be maintained and will meet the needs of a modern society. We are investing £1 billion to transform courts and tribunals and build on our world-renowned justice system, so that it will be more sensitive to victims, more modern—so that it works more efficiently and swiftly—and more accessible. As part of that we shall digitise our services to make them easier for the public to use. It is essential that we continue our work to ensure that legal aid is made available to the most vulnerable, as part of that wider approach to making the justice system fit for the 21st century.
I thank hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) made valuable points supporting the gist of my reasons for bringing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), from the Opposition Front Bench, committed a Labour Government to addressing the issue of early legal advice on housing. I thank other hon. Members who are no longer in their places but who made valuable points, drawing on their experience in the House.
The debate is about a fundamental issue of access to justice. I felt that the Minister made positive points about the amount of money going into legal aid and early legal advice, and new initiatives to make such advice and support more accessible, but I am concerned that, when the situation is looked at from the ground, there are still massive gaps, and there is inadequate provision, given the level of need in the country’s housing crisis: £100 million for early advice does not go very far, because I assume that it would include translation costs, which the Minister mentioned, representation in court and so on. It is good to know that the existence of deserts of provision is being addressed, with one new contract being let, but that still does not deal with the number of people queuing for advice and being turned away because there is not adequate provision. Organisations and legal firms are also going under, or ending relevant work; those skills and that knowledge are being lost for lack of funding—funding that would be for people who would never be able to pay for legal advice and assistance.
The Minister asserted that a not insubstantial sum is being paid through legal aid for housing matters. As hon. Members have eloquently said in support of my arguments, that might be compared with the cost to the public purse of homelessness and the sort of disrepair that means people, including children, must go into hospital with severe asthma due to very bad damp in their accommodation. If people in those situations were able to obtain early legal advice landlords might be forced to address the issue before it became a health crisis. That is the cost to the public purse of homelessness—and there are social care, stress and mental health costs when families are in acute housing need.
The Minister talked about new housing. We have said time and again in the House that the level of funding for truly affordable social rented housing from the Government is nothing. What is being provided is coming from local authorities and housing associations, from other resources—capital that should be spent in other areas. It is the first time since the early 1920s that a UK Government have spent nothing on social rented housing. By the way, the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 does not address street homelessness. It provides, without any resources, for additional local authority duties that may help to prevent homelessness. In itself it is no bad thing but it does not address the present crisis. I ask the Government, so that we may address, substantially, the fundamental issue of the lack of access to justice in housing, to reprovision early advice under legal aid, and carry out a serious review of all legal aid for housing issues.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered housing and access to legal aid.