As a committed member of the Select Committee on Justice, the hon. Lady knows that we are spending £1.6 billion on legal aid and reviewing the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. She raises one of the issues at which we will be looking very closely. I am sure she will be interested to hear that, after the latest legal aid tender, the number of officers providing access to legal aid services has increased by 28% in immigration and asylum, by 188% in welfare benefit and by 7% in housing and debt.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but a Citizens Advice study estimates that, for every pound of legal aid expenditure spent on housing advice, the state potentially saves more than £2, and that savings are even greater for legal advice on debt and benefits. Will she commit to undertake independent research into the savings that the state could make by returning early legal help as a component of legal aid?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I have looked at that study as I have many other studies that talk about the downstream impacts of the lack of legal help at an early stage. As she will know, we are in the process of a LASPO review. We are looking at these matters, and I am interested that she highlights the need for further independent study.
Citizens advice bureaux do exceptionally important work in providing early advice and assistance, which is invaluable for my constituents. Will my hon. and learned Friend pay tribute to Cheltenham citizens advice bureau for its important work and ensure that it continues to receive the support and assistance that it requires to do it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that citizens advice bureaux across the country, including in Cheltenham, as well as many other legal help organisations, help to ensure that the most vulnerable people are getting the support that they need. This week, the Ministry of Justice brought together 200 organisations that help and support people in need to talk to them about what more we and they can do.
Investing in high-quality legal advice for asylum seekers at an early stage is critical if we are not subsequently to waste large amounts of public money supporting failed asylum seekers who perhaps do not have a case, but who have been misadvised. What can the Minister do to assure me that all asylum seekers will get the highest-quality legal advice through legal aid at the earliest stage?
It is important to highlight two things. One is that the Government spend about £100 million on early advice every year. The second is that there is a misconception about what legal aid is and is not available. In fact, legal aid is available for asylum work as well as for non-asylum work, including detention, Special Immigration Appeals Commission, domestic violence and trafficking cases.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. We have received a large number of representations from across the country about what we should be doing in relation to legal aid, and we are looking at them carefully. The Labour party has not put in any representations.
At yesterday’s Sanctuary in Parliament event, we heard about the huge importance of family reunion for refugees, but also about the complexity of the application process. Will the Government support the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), and restore legal aid in England and Wales for such applications?
Of all the cuts to justice, the slashing of legal advice for sick and disabled people who are unfairly denied their benefits is one of the cruellest. We now have a shameful situation whereby people are first denied the financial support to which they are entitled and then must struggle through a difficult appeal without legal advice. This situation is bad enough already, but it will be even tougher under universal credit. Under the Conservatives, legal advice for welfare benefits cases has been cut by 99%. Is the Minister ashamed that sick and disabled people are paying the price for this Government’s ideological cuts agenda, or was that the deliberate intention?
I am not aware of any representations from the Labour party in relation to any provisions that it would make on legal aid funding. This is an important area involving people who are vulnerable and need help. Prior to LASPO, people did not get help at the representation stage of welfare cases—only at the advice stage. We are making a number of changes to make the tribunal process that people go through much simpler and more straightforward.
Let us be clear: legal advice was given to 91,000 people in the year before this Government’s reforms to legal aid. How many was it last year? It was 478 people, not 91,000. Can the Minister honestly tell the House that the need for legal advice has reduced by such a degree, or should we instead conclude that—just as with employment tribunal fees, housing advice, employment advice and immigration advice—the cuts to legal advice for the sick and disabled are really about targeting the weak so that they can enrich the powerful?