Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and initiating this important debate. I know that he is as pleased as I am that the LSC has reversed its decision on the specialist support service following the Constitutional Affairs Committee report. Does he think that that threat to the specialist support
27 Mar 2006 : Column 655
service showed the LSC's lack of understanding of the complex nature of the legal advice that is required? Citizens advice bureaux, other voluntary organisations and CLS direct need the back-up of the experts at the specialist support service to ensure that some of the most vulnerable people receive high quality legal advice.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend is right. As I have said, I believe that her leadership of the campaign resulted in the change. It is vital that we have a good consultation process, because if the consultation is good, the case will be made to keep the service going.

The second service that was meant to relieve pressure on the Community Legal Service is CLS Direct, which is a telephone and internet service that members of the public approach directly. In some cases, an individual will have a query that can be answered without the need to see a solicitor. Last year, more than 210,000 calls were made to the telephone service, with more than 500,000 visitors to the website. This afternoon, my office phoned CLS Direct on behalf of Mrs. Valerie Volpi, who has suffered a fall, to see where and how she could seek guidance. After two attempts, we got through the automated system and managed to speak to a human being. We were told that unfortunately it could offer advice only on debt, housing and welfare benefits, but that it could provide Mrs. Volpi with the telephone number for her local CAB.

The system is too bureaucratic. I have used the website and found it to be satisfactory in the way in which it provides explanations of basic points of law. With improvements, CLS Direct could be a very useful service, although there needs to be a campaign to raise awareness of its existence. I was very disappointed to find at a recent Select Committee meeting under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that the acting chief executive of the LSC was unable to recall the number of the service, which is, for the benefit of the House, 0845 3454345. Although those services complement the work of the CLS, they cannot form a mainstream option for the provision of legal advice, because they will not be able to cope if the number of legal aid solicitors continues to decrease.

The final area in which the CLS is under challenge concerns the clustering of legal problems. A survey showed that 46 per cent. of all respondents with justice problems reported two or more problems, of whom 47 per cent. reported three or more problems. Clustering can best be understood as a domino effect resulting from an initial legal aid problem. For example, a mother suffering from domestic violence due to her situation has a greater chance of becoming homeless, suffering poverty or experiencing other issues of family law. Of course, the longer it takes to deal with the initial situation, the more chance there is of its entering into other areas of civil, even criminal, law, requiring greater specialist knowledge, greater expense and the involvement of other authorities. Alternatively, situations can arise that immediately relate to several areas of law. It is incumbent on the Legal Services Commission to formulate a strategy that can quickly identify and deal with such cases to ensure a seamless service. That requires an holistic approach that has not yet been answered by the current network of CLS partnerships.

In the five-year plan for the CLS that has just been published, the LSC informs us that it will abandon those partnerships and look towards the establishment and
27 Mar 2006 : Column 656
use of community legal and advice centres, which are intended to bring together specialists from a variety of legal fields to create a one-stop shop for legal advice.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I understand that 12 of those centres are likely to be set up, including one in our own city of Leicester. Does my hon. Friend share my optimism about how they might operate, drawing on his distinguished service in the Belgrave law centre before he became an MP? Is he as happy as I am about the need to roll them out into the deserts that he mentioned? I am not sure that Leicester is necessarily one of those, but I am sure that it is a good place in which to pilot because of the multiple groupings of problems.

Keith Vaz: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. Leicester is a great place to pilot the new scheme. I am sure that that has nothing to do with the fact that I have secured this debate. One of the CLS's senior officials, the director of children's services, has said that it has had more pilots than British Airways. It is extremely important that we look carefully at the situation to assess whether the pilots are successful, but I am glad that they are coming to Leicester.

I seek an assurance from the Minister that there is no question of the funding for the Law Centres Federation being removed. She comes from a long and distinguished tradition of involvement in this movement, and I would be very sad if she, of all Ministers, decided that this was the time to take away funding from Citizens Advice or from the Law Centres Federation.

Civil legal aid is usually overshadowed by the criminal legal aid branch. However, the CLS fulfils a vital role in ensuring a just and equitable society. For the clients involved, civil justice problems can have a devastating impact on their life. It is extremely important that we proceed to map out a very careful plan for the CLS. The Department for Constitutional Affairs, under the current Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and an excellent team of Ministers, has modernised our legal process beyond recognition, and that will be one of the true legacies of this Labour Government. However, it should not take away the intrinsic elements that have made our legal system the envy of the world.

10.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): I thank my hon. Friend for choosing the important issue of legal aid as the subject of this debate. I congratulate him on his speech, which I will draw to the attention of Lord Carter and which will of course be studied by the Legal Services Commission as well as by other hon. Members.

I thank my hon. Friend for the warmth of the welcome that he gave me in my new portfolio of responsibilities. I particularly value it as it comes from him, as he has done so much in this House since 1987 consistently to raise the issues of access to justice and the vital part that good quality legal services play in that. I hope that he will bear with me, as I took over this portfolio of responsibilities only last week.

Like my hon. Friend, I am in politics because I want to be part of the effort to tackle poverty and social exclusion. Like him, I represent a constituency where
27 Mar 2006 : Column 657
there are still problems of social exclusion. Like him, I regard it as important to ensure that my constituents have not only good schools and hospitals and a job, but their legal rights. We have tried—indeed, he has been part of trying—to make the law fairer. We have brought in laws that make things fairer for tenants, for employees, and for people who face discrimination. However, like him, I believe that there is only any point in those laws—and all other laws that exist to make society fairer—if everyone has access to good legal advice and the law is accessible to all. That has been our concern since we came into government in 1997.

I acknowledge that, as my hon. Friend said, a great deal of unmet legal need continues to exist. Our concern about that was the basis of our introducing the Community Legal Service. Since then, I hope that there have not been too many legal initiatives, but several projects have tried to improve the quality of legal advice and assistance and get it to those who need it most. My hon. Friend mentioned CLS Direct. He is right that, as yet, it deals only with debt, housing and welfare benefits, but it already provides advice to 2,000 people a week. Many of those would not get legal advice in any other way. That applies especially to young people, who want to get advice and information on the internet. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that the service needs further publicity.

We are also finding new ways to provide legal services so that, for example, we take them to where people are. That includes providing them at county court, where people face, for example, actions for housing possession, instead of expecting them to go to the lawyer's office. That helps 400 people a week throughout the country. My hon. Friend rightly said that we need a seamless service instead of making people go from pillar to post. That lies behind the one-stop shop service in Leicester that he and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned.

The number of people helped with legal advice for civil matters is 20 per cent. higher than last year, especially with housing, mental health, debt and benefit problems. However, I am not here to tell hon. Members
27 Mar 2006 : Column 658
that all is rosy. We know that there is more to be done and that there are problems to tackle. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs highlighted those.

One of the problems is that less money is spent on legal aid for family and civil cases now than in 1997. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East said, the overall legal aid budget has increased from £1.5 billion in 1997 to £2.1 billion this year. However, that increase has been taken up with extra spending on criminal legal aid, which has increased from £734 million in 1997 to £1.169 billion this year. That is a 37 per cent. real increase against a background of a fall in the number of criminal cases.

However, the amount spent on civil and family legal aid has gone down from £755 million in 1997 to £722 million, which, when one takes inflation into account, is the equivalent of a £200 million—or 22 per cent.—real terms cut. That is one of the reasons why we have asked Lord Carter, to whom we are grateful, to review legal aid services. We are not simply waiting for his final report. We have already introduced the Criminal Defence Service Bill and tighter controls on the high cost criminal cases.

Our aim is to have a properly funded criminal legal aid system and to ensure that the civil and family system gets a larger share of the overall legal aid budget. My hon. Friend raised the important issue of specialist support services. He rightly paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who raised the matter not only in the Select Committee but in the Lobby with me on several occasions. She actively pressed that important point and I can confirm that the Legal Services Commission has committed itself to continuing to fund specialist support services while it undertakes a proper consultation on the future.

I shall, of course, ensure that I keep the House regularly updated on the progress towards our shared objectives and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, the Chairman and other members of the Select Committee, and many others who are interested in that important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Next Section IndexHome Page