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David T.C. Davies: I have not read the Hansard, but I have read a number of reports, which make it clear that warnings were given to Ministers that the cost of legal aid would increase. It is for Ministers, not the Opposition, to take such decisions, and today they have admitted that they took the wrong decision. All I want is for them to accept that they took the wrong decision.
The Government have said that money will be saved, and they have discussed the figure of £35 million. I shall echo the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and ask about the form in which we will see those savings. Will legal aid bills reduce by £35 million, or will the money simply be spent in different ways, in which case the legal aid bill may continue to rise?
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To pick up on a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), how will the Government police the mechanism for ensuring that people do not submit incorrect information when they claim legal aid? My hon. Friend has discussed the possibility of hiding funds in offshore costs, and it would also be easy for people to take out their savings, which is the asset that will be examined, to pay off the capital on their house or to buy a new car. What steps, if any, will be taken to police the mechanism and ensure that people provide accurate information? The Minister keeps saying that the Government will come up with an efficient system, but one cannot help but wonder whether the Government's definition of efficiency simply entails accepting on trust applications made by people who are already in the courts having been charged with other offences.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly drew attention to the point that one reason why legal aid bills are increasing is that the Government keep creating ever more offences. He discussed the example of a young lady who was arrested simply for reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq. I do not suppose that that young lady is a paid-up member of her local Conservative association, but I fully support her right to speak out. Apart from the increase in legal aid bills, I find it extraordinary that such cases are being brought. The Government are going to try to be tough on legal aid spending, but they are not going to be tough on the causes of legal aid spending.
The Government could dramatically reduce costs in one or two other areas. Returning to asylum and immigration cases, more than £200 million was spent on legal aid for such cases in the financial year 200304. All hon. Members believe that genuine asylum seekers should be given all possible help in order to stay in this country. As the Government's figures show, however, the vast majority of those who claim asylum are making false claims and are not genuine asylum seekers. It is unacceptable that £200 million is being spent in this way, thereby funding legal advice to people who are making bogus claims. I know that all Members, many of whom are lawyers, are honourable, in and out of the House. However, I am concerned about the immigration and asylum lawyers who are, frankly, filling their boots with taxpayers' cash by launching one appeal after another in cases that are demonstrably hopeless. I suggest that the Minister should consider how legal aid for asylum and immigration is funded and even explore the possibility of withdrawing legal aid from people whose claims will clearly be false because they come from countries where there should be no danger to their lives.
The Government should examine the way in which sentences are imposed. One of the reasons legal aid bills are so high is that we have a system whereby offenders are able to keep reappearing on various offences because they have never been sentenced properly in the first place. If people were given adequate prison sentences, they, first, would not be free to go around breaking the law and causing more misery to members of the public, and, secondly, would not be causing a rise in legal aid spending by reappearing in court and making the British taxpayer responsible for their defence.
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It is utterly perverse that those who are in prison are able to claim legal aid in order to get out on early release. There was much self-congratulation in the establishment a few weeks ago when the murderers of Anthony Walker were given the supposedly draconian sentence of two life sentencesa double life tariff. But if one reads the small print, it is clear that those two murderers will be out walking the streets within 15 to 20 years. By the time one of them is aged 35, he will be able to go before an early release board with legal aid in order to get himself out of prison again. That is outrageous. If such people were given the sentences that they deserved, they would never walk the streets again, and they would certainly not get legal aid in order to qualify them to do so.
The Minister has a long way to go before she solves the problem of rising legal aid. She said that she is going to come up with a new system that will be simpler, more cost-effective and more efficient. Those phrases were all used a few years ago when the Access to Justice Act 1999 was introduced. I was not here in 1999if I had been, I would be suffering from a case of déjà vubut I would not be at all surprised if in five years' time we were not back here again having found that legal aid costs have once again soared and that the whole system is falling apart, with the difference that I fully expect that by that time those of sitting us on the Opposition side will be sitting on the Government side, and we will have a Home Secretary who will be able to put in place a proper system that will last us for many years to come.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): I thank Members on both sides of the House for participating in a useful and constructive debate on this small but extremely significant Bill. I do not believe that there is a great deal of disagreement in the House about the key principle that lies at the heart of the Billthat those who can afford to pay for the cost of their own defence should in normal circumstances be invited to do so. I think that we are on common ground in seeking to ensure that the legal aid budget is managed on a sustainable basis.
Several Conservative Members, particularly the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), suggested that the reintroduction of a means test could threaten access to justice. However, it is not about denying the right to representation but about determining whether it is right and proper that the state should meet the cost of that representation in all cases.
That is my recollection, and I apologise if I am incorrect. A theme that ran through the debate was the concern that individuals could be denied access to justice in some cases, but we must accept that means-testing has been an integral part of the welfare state in ensuring that those who can pay do so. Successive Governments have tried to ensure that valuable budgetary resources can be accurately and fairly
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allocated to those who most need them, and that argument applies to the legal aid budget. Far from restricting access to justice, means-testing will actively help to promote access for all.
Several hon. Members asked questions about or doubted whether the savings to which the supporting documentation refers would occur. The calculation of a £35 million saving comes from detailed work, which shows published thresholds of £19,000 for a couple without children up to £34,000. Of the approximately 30 per cent. of people who currently receive legal aid, two thirds will be eligible and a third will not be eligible. It is then a relatively easy calculation to establish that, on current budgets, that means a saving of £35 million. The figure relates to thresholds in the supporting documentation. We accept that, as we progress through Committee and when orders are laid, the thresholds could be adjusted. That was one of the points that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made.
Several hon. Members accused the Government of a massive U-turn in the Bill, given that the Access to Justice Act 1999 abolished the means test. However, it is worth referring to the Second Reading debate on that measure. The Opposition tabled a reasoned amendment to Second Reading that did not mention means-testing in its lengthy objection or in the grounds that it set out for voting against the Bill. I have read all the speeches by Opposition Members and not one mentioned the abolition of the means test. My research so far suggests that, even in Committee, Conservative Members did not object to it.
David T.C. Davies: The Under-Secretary knows that I was not here in 1999 because I was serving in the Welsh Assembly. I can assume only that so much else was wrong with the Bill that Conservative Members had other things on their minds.
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