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16 Nov 2004 : Column 365WH—continued

16 Nov 2004 : Column 366WH

Asylum Seekers (Legal Aid)

10.59 am

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and to raise these important matters. This is not the first time that I have initiated a debate on legal aid in Reading in this place. In July 1999, I was fortunate enough to obtain a debate on matters relating to the management of legal aid in   Reading. At that time, my concerns were about pressures on office staff, which resulted in inadequate scrutiny of solicitors' claims. I was pleased when a reporter from the Reading Chronicle subsequently obtained work in that office and highlighted in even greater detail the concerns that I raised.

Today, I am talking about a different aspect of legal support for people seeking asylum in Reading, but it also relates to the quality of legal support that people receive for the money that we all pay. The subject of this debate is legal aid services for asylum seekers in Reading. Let us imagine that we are asylum seekers who have fled our own country and arrived somewhere with a different language and different customs. We have to go through a process that will decide whether we are allowed to stay in the country. Whom can we rely on to save us from being sent back to the place from which we have fled?

As a society, we see it as a mark of our humanity that we support those who are going through the process that will decide whether they should be allowed to stay in this country. We provide support so they can get effective representation, and we make money available so that they get legal assistance. The point is to ensure that any decision on whether someone can stay or is to be sent back is based on the actual information in the case.

I have sought this debate because I believe that the subject is important. I make no judgment in any of the cases that I shall raise. I will not say, "This person should be allowed to stay in the UK while that person should not." It is not my role to do that. My role is to make the law setting out in what conditions people may remain in the UK. Of course, like all hon. Members, I   then have a role as a constituency MP, helping to ensure that people who want to stay in the UK have the full opportunity to make their cases properly. It is an important part of British law that people get an opportunity to make their case, and that any decision is based on the full information in that case. Only in that way can just decisions be made.

Like a lot of MPs, I have a sizeable workload involving people who have come to the UK. This is probably among the most altruistic aspects of our work; the people whom we do the work for do not have a vote, and if their cases are heard and they are given permission to stay, become citizens and get the vote, most of us will probably be long gone by the time that they do so. It must be borne in mind that the people who I see are the ones in whose cases something has gone wrong. If everything goes right, someone makes an application and a decision is made, the constituency MP will not generally become involved. Naturally, I have more experience of dealing with the representatives of   Reading-based people seeking asylum than I have of   other such people, so any failings of Reading representatives are more obvious to me than those of people elsewhere.
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Through doing such work, we get a feel for the people,   for whether they are genuine or something is not quite right about their story and for the quality of representation that they receive. Together with our staff, we see the paperwork detailing the work carried out on behalf of the people seeking to stay in the UK—when their legal representatives send them with any. Before long, I and my staff dealing with people seeking to stay in the UK get a clear impression of the quality and amount of work carried out by legal representatives on behalf of those people, and particularly asylum seekers.

I recognise and appreciate the hard work carried out by many legal representatives in the field. I am not seeking to say that there is a widespread problem with the services received by asylum seekers; some legal representatives are very diligent and hardworking. I am seeking to highlight instances in which there have been problems with the service that has been provided. As I said, my staff and I soon get a feeling for the level of support offered to asylum seekers by those representing them. Although there are hardworking legal representatives who diligently carry out work for those whom they represent, they are, unfortunately, not the only kind. It is well known that some do the minimum work necessary to obtain the legal aid money and then send the asylum seeker to an MP, who carries out the rest of the work.

During seven years and more representing asylum seekers in Reading, I have come to know which companies, and even which particular representatives at which companies, carry out the full range of work necessary and which do not. The people who deserve to   receive the greatest support and to whose cases particular attention has to be paid are unaccompanied minors seeking asylum—people under 18 who have fled their country and turned up in a strange country alone and seeking help. In the late 1990s, a number of unaccompanied minors arrived in Reading seeking asylum from the former Yugoslavia, principally Kosovo. Work with people from that area who are seeking asylum is admittedly not straightforward. It involves ethnicity, religion and employment of family, and great attention needs to be paid to detail.

Whether through word of mouth from other asylum seekers from the same area, direction from formal agencies or whatever other way, a number of unaccompanied asylum seekers acquired the same legal   representative, Rodney Oliver, at one Reading company, Thompson Leatherdale. These were a representative and company of which my office was well aware. We had concerns about the quality of service provided to people on legal aid who were seeking asylum, but never were able to point to any hard evidence.

I pay tribute to the work of an organisation called SASIR—Supporting Asylum Seekers In Reading. In particular, that work has focused on Reading college and has been carried out by the Reading college chaplaincy team. I am especially grateful for the work of Harriet Townsend, who is a volunteer. Harriet has spent large amounts of her time accompanying people to see representatives, going though the case with them, identifying whether what has been put forward is the full case, and writing to the Home Office and to the people's legal representative. Harriet has also acted as a carer for some of those unaccompanied minors.
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Spending time on a regular basis with young unaccompanied asylum seekers has meant that that organisation has been able to get details of what happened to people and the level of representation that they have received—something that a busy constituency Member's office very often cannot do so easily. In fairness, a busy legal representative probably cannot do that either. The organisation's work threw up some worrying information about the level of service received by unaccompanied asylum seekers. I repeat that I do not make any judgment on the right or otherwise of the cases that I am about to mention. I am raising them solely because it is so important to ensure that people receive a fair and just decision and that their case is heard.

Let us consider the case of BD, who is very mentally damaged and ill. It is believed that he was exposed to serious trauma. The case is a matter for great concern because of the mental condition of the client, yet his case was not presented properly and his history was given incorrectly. I find it impossible to believe that, in respect of someone so mentally damaged and ill, no medical evidence was presented at the appeal, which was dismissed. The case is believed to be a serious one and is listed to be examined, prepared and submitted for an office for the supervision of solicitors investigation. I believe that that has not been done so far, because of limited resources. I made a call this morning to the OSS, and I got the response, "We can't tell you anything about any of your constituents, because, for us to talk to you, they need to write giving you authority." I understand data protection implications, but I find that a little bizarre.

The next case is that of VM, who is traumatised and has psychological problems, and who arrived aged 16, with no family left, having experienced two conflicts. The case was never properly presented, the statements do not make sense and, again, no medical evidence obtained. No case was prepared to present at appeal, even though a certificate of readiness was lodged by Thompson Leatherdale six months previously. There are events recorded on file that are not true. The appeal was dismissed, and from the determination, it is clear that the impact of previous legal representation was highly significant in the dismissal.

Many other problems have appeared as the OSS investigation progresses, including a statement by the solicitor that the client's asylum case was based on his religion, when in fact it was not. That is also being investigated by the OSS. The investigation has reached the stage of a report being prepared for adjudication due to serious problems having been identified.

EI is traumatised and also has psychological problems and a head injury. EI arrived aged 15 with no family left, having come direct from conflict. Again the case was never properly presented and no medical evidence was obtained. The case was not pursued and Thompson Leatherdale failed to discover that the Home Office issued a refusal due to late submittal of papers; that was discovered two and a half years later by social services. When they informed Thompson Leatherdale, no action was taken on the client's behalf, even though the client would be literally destitute from the day of his 18th birthday. Following representations to the then Minister with responsibility for immigration, his case was reopened; again, the OSS is investigating.
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The final example that I will give, although it is not the last of these cases, is that of RL, who arrived traumatised, having been beaten. RL was mentally ill and had no family left, and arrived as an unaccompanied minor aged 16, having experienced two wars. RL came direct from conflict. Yet again, the case was never properly presented and bizarre statements were submitted. The wrong geographical area was referred to. Again, no medical evidence was submitted. An appeal was lodged unnecessarily, because exceptional leave to remain had already been granted—a fact that was somehow missed. That was done without the client's instructions or knowledge.

Although I am not a lawyer, it seems to me that an appeal should be based on a client's wish to lodge an appeal and not on the arbitrary decision of a legal representative. The appeal in the case of RL was lodged unnecessarily and without the client's instructions or knowledge, and as a result, the adjudicator decided that   the appellant was untruthful. It was clear from the    determination that problems with previous representation were significant in the dismissal of the appeal. Documents were not submitted to the court by the deadline, and neither were they presented at the appeal, despite the fact that the form of reply stated that the case was in all respects ready for hearing and was submitted to the court a month previously. Again, that case is being investigated by the OSS and there is documentary evidence to support those complaints.

Those are four serious examples of the continuous failure of Thompson Leatherdale and, in particular, of Rodney Oliver, as the person preparing and carrying out the work on the cases, to do the work properly. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) is in a similar position, with a number of cases in his constituency where work was carried out by Thompson Leatherdale in a similarly incompetent manner or was not carried out properly. Those cases are now before the office for the supervision of solicitors. My hon. Friend and I have together had a number of meetings with those concerned, including volunteers who are seeking to help asylum seekers in Reading.

The problem is that the cases have been with the OSS for more than a year. The Government set up the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner to ensure that people who give advice in such circumstances do so properly. Complaints were made to the office, but it has said that it will wait until the OSS has completed its investigation. We are going around in circles. In the meantime, Mr. Oliver and Thompson Leatherdale have parted company, and the quality of the work done by the firm has improved. However, Mr. Oliver is still carrying out immigration advice work from his home in Reading.

Of course, the cases that I have mentioned are ongoing. Appeals are taking place, decisions are being made and more than one of those concerned have been told that they are liable to be deported. The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration has stated in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West that the existence of such independent bodies ensures quality of representation. In fact, under the Immigration and
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Asylum Appeals (Procedure) Rules 2000, the client is responsible even when the solicitor is at fault. That seems to me to be against natural justice.

It is vital that those acting on behalf of such people, particularly when they are vulnerable, unaccompanied and under 18, provide a proper service. It is also vital that when people representing asylum seekers are shown not to be doing the job, they are stopped from continuing in it. In Reading, we have a serial failure in one person representing a large number of people. People face deportation as a result of that person's incompetence.

I know that the Minister will not be able to give me answers about particular cases. I ask only whether the number of cases against Mr. Oliver currently with the OSS could be pulled together and looked at as a whole. Not only should the matters in each particular case be investigated, but the serial, continuous and widespread negligence and incompetence in those cases should be looked at together. Is it possible for the OISC to consider the conclusions made so far by the OSS and make an interim decision about the fitness of Mr. Oliver to continue to give legal representation? Is it possible to suspend any approval for Mr. Oliver to represent people seeking asylum until the cases have been investigated and a decision reached?

As I said in my introductory remarks, I sought this debate and raised these issues not to judge the worth of the cases of the people who seek asylum to remain in the UK. That decision is not for me. I want my constituents to have full and effective representation to ensure that any decision made about them is fair and just. In the case of unaccompanied minors from the former Yugoslavia, it is clear that they have been let down by Rodney Oliver. Their cases were not heard properly, and the decisions were not made with possession of the full information. I hope that the Minister will be able to look into the matters raised, and that some action can be taken to ensure that others do not fail to get justice as a consequence.

11.14 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie) : I    congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on securing this debate. I understand her motivation for raising these issues. They are certainly of importance to her constituents, and many other Members who deal with casework from similar backgrounds will also be interested in the supervision of solicitors.

As things stand, the legal profession is independent and self-regulating. It is therefore not appropriate for me to comment on complaints about solicitors in individual cases. The Law Society has responsibility for the conduct of solicitors. It has set up a separate body, which used to be known as the office for the supervision of solicitors or the OSS, as my hon. Friend called it, but is now known as the consumer complaints service or the CCS—I want to ensure that we get our acronyms correct—to deal with complaints about solicitors. In any case, where complaints are currently being examined, it is important that the investigations are allowed to proceed to a conclusion.

My hon. Friend asked about circumstances in which multiple complaints are lodged against an individual. In such circumstances, it will be up to the CCS to decide
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whether to pool the complaints and to look at them in the round or to scrutinise each in isolation. She also asked about the potential for suspension of a solicitor, perhaps when they are under investigation. Again, it is my understanding that that is a matter for the Law Society as the designated professional body; it has scope in those matters.

Where the Legal Services Commission—the body set up to organise the legal aid arrangements—receives a complaint about a supplier of legal aid work, it will provide advice on the appropriate complaints procedure. The LSC is not empowered to investigate the legal competency of solicitors, which is a matter for the Law Society, but under the terms of its contract, it may investigate suppliers' internal procedures and processes used in carrying out services, including those relating to customer services. It is a requirement of the LSC contract that all suppliers have an internal complaints procedure and that that is notified to clients.

The LSC carries out annual audits of suppliers where those procedures may be reviewed. Following an audit, it may register quality concerns and require corrective action as a condition of the contract. The LSC has also introduced a system of peer review, whereby it uses a select group of quality-assured solicitors to review the legal content of their colleagues' work. Where the outcome of an audit or peer review is poor, the LSC may intervene in the operation of the contract and impose further conditions or restrictions, and in some cases it may terminate the contract. Ultimately, the LSC may launch an official investigation, which is typically used in cases of fraud or criminality. That has more to do with the operation of the supply of legal aid work.

I should like to refer briefly to the changes to asylum legal aid that were introduced earlier this year, as they include new arrangements to improve the quality of advice given in asylum cases that are relevant to some of   the general points made by my hon. Friend. The Government are committed to the provision of publicly funded legal services as a means of promoting social justice and economic well-being, and tackling social exclusion. In respect of asylum and immigration, the Government are committed to protecting people where there is a real and immediate risk of loss of liberty or life. Our country has a long and honourable tradition of offering sanctuary to genuine refugees.

The Government are also under a duty, however, to ensure that the taxpayer receives value for money in public spending. Asylum legal aid costs have increased significantly over the past few years, from about £81 million in 2000 to £204 million in 2003–04. There are many reasons for that; the main one is the increase in the number of people seeking asylum. However, asylum numbers have fallen significantly, from a high of 100,000 to this year's predicted figure of 35,000, and further falls are likely over the next couple of years. It is necessary to bear that in mind when we consider issues relating to the supply of firms and organisations that undertake publicly funded legal advice on asylum and immigration. The Home Office issues statistics on the number of asylum applications each year and each quarter. On the basis of that information, there were just   over 80,000 asylum applicants in 2000, 49,000 applications in 2003 and almost 18,000 applications in the first six months of 2004. Again, the trend is downwards.
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The increase in costs, together with evidence of over-claiming, duplication and concerns about the quality of some legal work, meant that we had to take action. New measures were introduced in April this year to bring legal aid on asylum under more effective control and cut unnecessary expenditure. Costs are being limited and targeted on the most deserving cases, and quality advice and representation are being rewarded through a new, independently assessed accreditation scheme for solicitors working on publicly funded asylum cases, which will become compulsory from April next year. Following those reforms, most firms indicated that they wished to continue with legal aid work and many new firms applied for contracts. The concern that many suppliers would withdraw from the market once the new measures were introduced proved unfounded.

Where there is a particular need to increase legal aid services for asylum seekers in a particular area, however, the Legal Services Commission has taken steps to ensure that capacity will be improved, through either the awarding of new contracts or increasing the amount of work done by an existing supplier, which is known as case matter starts—the number of cases that the supplier is authorised to proceed with. Consideration can also be given to expanding the regional services provided by the Legal Services Commission's two largest contractors: the Immigration Advisory Service and the Refugee Legal Centre. Sufficient matter starts are allocated to each supplier by the Legal Services Commission to cover   the expected level of asylum work during the year, but there is flexibility to adjust the allocation if circumstances change.

On the specific situation in Reading, I reiterate that it is not appropriate for me to comment on issues raised by individual complaints, although my hon. Friend has aired the issues in this debate and no doubt the Law Society and its consumer complaints service will have noted her comments.

Currently, two solicitors' firms in Reading are contracted to provide asylum legal aid services. At the start of the year, 200 asylum case starts were available to those contractors, and to date 73 have been taken up. In   addition, the Legal Services Commission allocated 150 case starts for non-asylum immigration matters, and to date 53 of those have been taken up. When requested, the Legal Services Commission has increased the number of asylum and immigration matter starts for both firms. The firms are taking on new asylum cases, and there is every indication that capacity exists to meet need in the Reading area. My hon. Friend's concerns were about the quality of those services, but it is important to set out the context; there is scope for people to get support through the legal aid system.

Additional suppliers are contracted to provide legal aid services for asylum seekers in Slough, Oxford and High Wycombe. The Immigration Advisory Service also provides an outreach service in Slough from its offices in Hounslow. The local office of the Legal Services Commission is in regular contact with suppliers in the area, so that issues of concern can be identified and dealt with promptly.

I want now to give my hon. Friend more details of the accreditation arrangements that are in place for the new legal aid arrangements. We take the issue of good quality advice exceptionally seriously. It is important that taxpayers' money is not used only for general
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advice, but for the best advice that is available. Accreditation involves direct testing of each solicitor and advice provider to ensure that they have appropriate knowledge and experience of the relevant law and procedure. Applicants undergo practical assessments, for example, conducting mock interviews and drafting statements. They are required to submit a portfolio of their work for discussion at interview.

The standards to be achieved have been determined by the Legal Services Commission, following consultation with the Law Society and the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner. The assessment of individuals is carried out by external independent bodies, appointed and monitored by the Law Society. When the scheme becomes compulsory, individuals who are not accredited will be unable to undertake asylum legal aid work.

We want to ensure appropriate access to asylum legal services throughout the country to reflect the needs of those seeking asylum. Given the substantial reduction in the number of people claiming asylum, we intend to carry out a major national review of the future demand for asylum legal aid services. That will take account of the latest estimates of asylum numbers and the aim will be to ensure that suppliers of adequate quality are available throughout England and Wales in the areas where they are needed.

I understand my hon. Friend's need to raise such issues. I recognise that there are questions about how easy, simple and transparent the complaints processes are when people have a genuine grievance that they wish to pursue about advice that they have received from solicitors. That is something about which I and my colleagues in the Department for Constitutional Affairs are concerned. Several processes are under way that will touch on such matters, such as the Clementi review of legal services and the fundamental legal aid review. Both reviews are matters about which hon. Members have been in correspondence over the past few months.

We are especially keen to strike the right balance between access to free services and cost control, and the level of necessary regulation of those who give advice. We must achieve those important priorities. Having had the opportunity to hear my hon. Friend's worries, I shall certainly talk further to my officials about the lessons that might be learned from such cases. I hope that today's debate has been useful to those who are interested in such matters.

11.27 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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