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House of Commons Hansard
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14 January 2020
Volume 669
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1. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that legal aid is accessible to people who need it. [900150]

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It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber, Mr Speaker, with you in the Chair.

Access to justice is a fundamental right and the Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can get the timely support that they need to access the justice system. However, legal aid is only part of the picture. We are also enhancing the support and offer to litigants in person by providing a further £3 million of funding over the next two years to ensure that those representing themselves in court understand the process and are better supported through it. We are additionally investing up to £5 million in a legal support innovation fund alongside many other initiatives.

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I should declare my interest as a former legal aid barrister. One of the first emails that I received following my successful election as Member of Parliament for Derbyshire Dales was from a constituent about legal aid issues. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we do not waste legal aid on those who do not need it or on poor administration and excessive charges, and focus legal aid on provision for truly vulnerable people who really need it?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. She brings a huge amount of experience in family law to this place. She has made an important point. The Government have always made it clear that it is important that legal aid should be targeted on those who need it most. Applicants for legal aid funding are subject to a stringent merits test. We have begun a review of the legal aid means test to ensure that those who need legal aid, particularly the vulnerable, can continue to access it in future.

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Before asking my question I want to put on record the fact that my thoughts and, I am sure, those of the whole House are with the prison staff at HMP Whitemoor and their families after the horrific attack last week.

Over a year ago, the UN special rapporteur said that Conservative cuts to legal aid had

“effectively deprived”

people

of their human right to a remedy.”

Is it not the case that if the UN special rapporteur returned today they would make exactly the same finding because the Government have not done anything to address that? Is that failure to respond the result of incompetence or is it simply because they do not care?

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I do not accept the accusations made by the hon. Gentleman. I have made it absolutely clear that access to high-quality, early legal aid can be important in supporting people in resolving their problems at an early stage. Last year, we spent £91 million on early legal advice through legal help, and our total spend was £1.7 billion. We are in the process of launching a series of pilots offering support to people with social welfare problems such as housing. I believe in access to justice, which is a fundamental right, and the Government are committed to ensuring that everyone can have the timely support that they need.

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What people who are denied their basic rights need from the Government is action, not words. The UN special rapporteur said that the cuts had “overwhelmingly affected the poor” and disabled people. Labour is calling for the return of all legal aid-funded early advice, which would be a lifeline for the single mother standing up to a lousy landlord, the worker standing up to a bullying boss, or the migrant fighting cruel Home Office policies. Does it not say everything about whose side the Government are on that they are deliberately preventing those people from defending their hard-won rights?

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No, I do not accept that. I go back to my earlier point: we believe in access to justice, particularly early legal support for those people who absolutely need it. We have pilots, and the innovation fund is being introduced. The Government remain firmly committed to helping those people who need early legal support and legal advice.

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What can be done to stop millions of pounds of public money being spent on legal aid to support the defence of terrorist suspects who are accused of the most heinous crimes?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He makes a fair point, but this is about people having access to justice when they need it. As I said, the Government remain committed to ensuring that people have access to justice and support when they absolutely need it.

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In March 2018, 22-year-old Luke Morris Jones of Blaenau Ffestiniog was the first man to die in HMP Berwyn following a heart attack caused by psychoactive substance abuse. His family, who in this instance did receive legal aid, remain concerned, following his inquest last month, that electrical equipment in cells such as kettles can be used to create the spark needed to take Spice. Will the Minister commit to work with others in reviewing whether electrical equipment such as kettles should be removed from cells holding prisoners with a history of Spice abuse as a matter of urgency?

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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her question. Although prisons do not fall within my portfolio, I fully understand why she would be concerned about the issue and about the tragedy of the gentlemen who lost his life. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State would be more than happy to meet the right hon. Lady to discuss the matter further.

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What assurances can my hon. Friend give me that legal aid is reaching those who need it most—not only in my constituency, but across the UK—in order that they can access justice?

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I welcome another new Member to the Chamber today for MOJ oral questions.

We have made it very clear that we remain committed not only to providing legal aid to those who need it, but to developing further means of legal support including the expansion of early legal advice to help some of the most vulnerable people in society with social welfare problems such as housing. We are committed to finding effective solutions, because it is often early legal advice that makes the difference.

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Will the Minister share with us any plans she has to reverse the hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to legal aid budgets under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 that have been so destructive of access to justice in this country?

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I think it is fair to say that I have been setting out some of the action points that we are taking forward. We have had the post-implementation review of LASPO, and are looking at various means of legal support to help with social welfare issues. We could not be clearer that we support legal aid and legal support for those who need it, and we will continue to do so.