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12 July 2007 : Column 505WH—continued

My constituency of Torridge and West Devon is very rural. It consists of scattered villages, widely dispersed rural communities and a number of market towns. In those towns, there will be perhaps one or two
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long-established family firms. Often they do a small proportion of legal aid work, to the best of their ability and with extraordinary professional integrity in the service of their communities. They are not well paid for that work. Those firms—certainly the legal aid side of their practices—are going to face the axe. Many have written to me expressing their real concern.

If a person lives near Holsworthy or Bideford in my constituency and the one or two legal firms stop taking legal aid cases, they will have to travel 50 or 100 miles to reach somebody who will give them the service. What type of service is that for the elderly, infirm or learning disabled? How will they gain access to those services? I tell the Minister that that is a real problem even now, although the one or two firms in my area at least give me somebody to whom to send such cases.

However, if those firms’ legal aid sides go out of business, to whom will I send such cases? Thankfully, Bideford has a citizens advice bureau, which has a franchise from the Legal Services Commission, and I pay tribute to the extraordinary work that it does. If it were not for that bureau, there would be a desert of legal services in my part of northern Devon—there would be none. People would have to travel to Barnstaple, which could involve a journey of as much as 50 or 60 miles there and back, or to Exeter or Plymouth to receive the services that they needed.

I urge the Minister to understand that the measures will have a direct human impact on people whom I understood it was part of her political philosophy to defend. She will be hurting those people; this Government will be hurting those people. I find it inexpressibly sad that the measures are being rushed through. They have been introduced speedily, with no allowance for adjustment and no pilots that could have shown the effect that they will have on the fragile, rural legal services framework—and, I accept, other services in urban areas. We have not been able to see how they will work before they damage people.

I appreciate that there must be a proper concern for economy and for saving money. The legal aid budget has risen, and I completely understand why the Government wish to save money. However, they must balance that against the hurt and damage that they will cause, particularly to those vulnerable sections of our community. I speak particularly for those in rural areas.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): The budget for criminal legal aid has risen by 37 per cent. in real terms in the past 10 years. Why is the legal profession providing a poorer level of service—the hon. and learned Gentleman says that firms are closing down and that it is harder for clients to get the advice that they need—when the expenditure has risen by a third in real terms?

Mr. Cox: That is a question to which I shall return this answer. First, I do not believe that a poorer level of service is being provided. Secondly, this Government, of whom the hon. Gentleman is a Member, have created several thousand new criminal offences. They introduced the Human Rights Act 1998 and presided over the largest avalanche of legislation in the criminal justice system that we have ever seen. There are 379 sections in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 alone. There are hundreds and hundreds of provisions.

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I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not surprising that the legal aid budget has risen in the criminal courts, given that thousands of new offences have been created. Furthermore, a whole layer has been added by legislation such as the 1998 Act—with which, I should say, I have no personal grouse. If the Government introduce such a measure, they must be prepared to pay for it. People will take advantage of their rights and bring cases for judicial review that they would never previously have been able to bring. The whole purpose of the 1998 Act was to repatriate rights. That meant that, rather than going to the European Court of Human Rights, people could go to the courts in this country—and they have, in their droves.

Hugh Bayley rose—

Mr. Cox: No, I shall not give way at the moment. The studies on the criminal legal aid system show that the unit cost of the individual case has not risen. What has risen is the volume of cases that have come before the criminal courts. I suspect that the reason for the rise in volume has been the massive rise in legislation, creating new rights of which people were bound to take advantage, and new offences.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. The fault is not with the lawyers. Legal aid payments to solicitors have been almost static for several years; the last pay increase for criminal legal aid was in 2001. The rise in costs is due not to lawyers claiming more money, but to the plethora of new offences created by this Government.

Mr. Cox: As a lawyer, I am willing to accept almost any fault. I am certainly not going to defend lawyers. There will always be two factors in debates such as this: the factor of professional interest and of a profession defending itself, and the genuine question of the impact on human beings. I have been trying to address the Minister about the latter one. I ask her to accept that there will be that impact, particularly in the rural areas that I represent. Small firms will go out of business. They will not find that, by merging, the access to rural legal aid services will increase. It will diminish. That is why I ask the Minister, and I know that she has been in the profession, to think carefully about whether some amendment, or pause for thought at least, could be introduced even at this stage.

My concern is for those who will be damaged, not really for the effect on the profession, which is a by-product. Large firms will be unable to take the care, trouble or time over individuals that those firms with which I have been familiar for more than 25 years have habitually done. It is on the professional energy, dedication and commitment of such firms that much of the integrity and quality of our justice system is based. If that is attacked, one of the foundations of justice in this country will be eroded and undermined. Although I appreciate that the Government do not see it as an attack, it is perceived as such across the profession. I have never known the profession in such a state of trouble, indignation and general anxiety for the services that they will be able to provide. The measure is perceived as something that will degrade the system of justice, and I urge the Minister to pause and to think again.

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4.1 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), as chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, and all the members of the Committee on producing a detailed, common-sense report.

I welcome the Minister to her new post and I hope that she took volume II, in particular, to bed with her as bedside reading. Anyone who has read all the details of the evidence that was given by people who know what they are talking about—I am not a lawyer, so I will not profess to have the detailed expertise of many of those people—can see that the Government response to that well-documented, detailed report is wrong and almost disgraceful. I am disappointed, too, that although a few minor changes were accepted and made, the report did virtually nothing to make the fundamental changes that would have made a difference. Fundamentally, nothing has changed about the underlying flaw in the way in which the fixed fee system will affect the most vulnerable in our society.

We have heard a lot today about rural areas, but I want to point out—as I and many other London MPs did in an Adjournment debate on the same topic in this Chamber on 11 January—the particular difficulties and issues in London. We asked the Minister then to consider London in a different way. I looked back on that speech and read the whole debate, and I remember that we went away hoping that there would be some changes in the light of the fact that Members from all parties expressed concerns about the changes and the way in which they were being implemented. We felt that some changes would be made and that the Government would listen. We then saw this report and that little had been changed as a result of it. It has led not only the legal profession but many MPs to question who is ultimately supposed to make such decisions.

I am distressed to discover that as an MP for an inner-city seat, where I rely so much on the valuable work done by my law centre and the many solicitors’ firms that work in legal aid, I will end up representing people who will be affected by these changes without having had a chance, in our democracy, to make my views known through a vote. That is wrong, no matter what the rules are about the Legal Services Commission and its being a quango. Ultimately, Parliament should decide on the matter, but it has not had the opportunity to debate and vote on the matter.

The Minister’s boss, the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, comes from a background that leads him to know a great deal about inner-city areas and the particular and special nature of their multifaceted problems: people with concerns and issues that need legal advice and aid are linked to people with mental health problems, immigration problems and housing problems, which lead to all sorts of other problems. Those are the sort of people who will suffer in inner-city areas such as mine.

I want the Minister to tell us, in particular on the question of London and other inner-city areas, whether she thinks, having listened to what everyone has said and having read the report, that she can be absolutely confident that the changes will not affect the most vulnerable. I certainly think that they will and I know that the people who have the experience in my constituency think that they will.

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Let me repeat what I said in January about the overall legal aid budget. Of course, more money has gone into legal aid. Although a few people laughed, the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) is right. There are some 3,000 more offences. Many of the people involved in those criminal offences have also been caught up in the net of some of the other issues to do with immigration and mental health problems. Of course that has led to more demand for legal aid. Legal aid solicitors are not being paid more and making huge amounts of money. There is more work—we know that from our surgeries. There is more work, and that relates specifically to some of the changes in the law and the Human Rights Act. It does not mean that we are against the Human Rights Act if we simply point out that it has led to more cases.

Ms Abbott: My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) sought to imply that the rise in cost was wholly down to solicitors making more money and, perhaps, charging inflated fees. Is it not a fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has said, there has been much more immigration work? My immigration caseload has gone up three times in recent years. There are also the increased costs of specialist witnesses and those caused by bad organisation and waiting times at court.

Kate Hoey: My hon. Friend is right. We have a similar caseload. All London MPs who represent inner-city areas know that the volume has increased. It is not fair and not right to put the blame onto somebody else for causing the problems.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): I have heard what various hon. Members have said about increasing expenditure being down to volume increases. Obviously, there is some element of that, but it is not the whole explanation. Child care case costs, for example, rose 24 per cent. in real terms over the past five years. Private law children’s cases rose by 5.75 per cent. in real terms. Crown court cases expenditure rose 65 per cent. with little change in case volume. Although case volume has some part to play, it is not the whole explanation.

Kate Hoey: I do not think that any of us said that it was the only explanation, but it is a major aspect. The Minister’s figures show that. If we are serious about access to justice for those people who need support and legal aid, we should all agree with the previous Lord Chancellor, who said at the Law Society on 13 October last year:

If we all share that view, which I hope we do, we have to face the fact that maybe the cost will have to increase. I am concerned that the cost will continue to rise because of the factors that have been mentioned, but that the quality of service will be greatly reduced. The cases of the people whom I represent, who need specialist help, will take a lot longer than those of people who do not need extra help and support. They will therefore be more costly. Many solicitors’ firms in my area have already had to stop doing legal aid cases,
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because some of the smaller firms just cannot afford it. There will still be some solicitors and support available, but not nearly as much as is needed, and they will not necessarily give good value.

Of course the Government want to streamline the legal aid system and make it financially workable, but under the proposals fewer cases will be taken on. Solicitors taking them on will want to turn them over as quickly as possible and get on to the next one, and individual need will not be considered. Rather than create access to justice, the proposals will create an even greater underclass in our society, consisting of elderly, sick, disabled and illiterate people, many of them from ethnic minority backgrounds. They will simply not be able to obtain access to solicitors. In the words of one legal aid solicitor in my constituency:

There is a theme running through some Government comments. They almost imply that any solicitor is just out to make a huge fortune and that they are all fat cats. A solicitor in a practice in my constituency wrote to me, saying that he trained in the City and took the conscious decision to work in legal aid to help other people. His colleagues in Lambeth are like-minded and he says that

Those dedicated public servants, who do a job that we know is necessary, are going to feel very much let down by the Government if the Government do not listen. There should be a vote in the House and some radical changes, which should be on a much longer time scale so that, as the Committee has said, we can test them properly and evaluate what they will mean.

I urge the Minister to be brave and do what the Prime Minister did on Wednesday. He came to the House and said that he has, quite rightly, changed his mind on large casinos, a policy that a few Labour Members and Opposition Members opposed. We got into trouble with our Whips for opposing Government policy on super-casinos, but we were right all along. I ask the Minister not to let legal aid be an issue on which the Government ultimately have to change their view when they see the catastrophe that it will cause in constituencies such as mine. They should change their view now and use the opportunity of a new Prime Minister, a new Lord Chancellor and a new Minister to listen to the people who really know what is going on.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): A considerable number of Members wish to speak, so if hon. Members keep their speeches short we may get them all in.

4.13 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I will be brief, because I want to ensure that everybody gets in. The attendance here, the volume of correspondence and the briefings that we have had indicate just how much of a crisis currently surrounds legal aid. Crucially, the issue is access to justice for the very poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. The comments of each Member who has spoken have reflected that point.

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I start from the point of view that if we deny people access to justice because they cannot get legal aid, and if they do not get a fair hearing in divorce, immigration, housing or criminal cases, we are effectively saying that they are not good enough to get any kind of justice. If we believe that the law is there to bring about justice and should have some degree of equality in its operation, we must be prepared as a society to spend a great deal of money on legal aid to ensure equality of representation when a case finally gets to court.

I represent an inner-city London constituency, which, like those of my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), has the perverse characteristics of fantastically fast-rising house, land and business prices, very high costs of running any business and an increasing sense of isolation and deprivation among many people. In the midst of all that, legal aid firms face a combination of factors. One is lower income, another is greater demand on them and yet another the people who end up in our advice bureaux. I was doing an advice bureau this morning for people with really serious problems. I am sure that all Members do this: we ask someone in an immigration case who their solicitor is and they say, “Haven’t got one. Don’t know where to get one. What can I do about it?” I sometimes then start ringing round local solicitors to get them to take cases on. It is not the function of an MP to go round finding solicitors for people—it ought to be a relatively simple process.

I would be grateful if the Minister considered in her reply the related issue of access to the advice that goes with legal aid. She can write to me on it if she prefers. I find that people increasingly get into all kinds of serious legal problems on housing, immigration, divorce and so on because they do not have adequate access to basic advice in the first place. Funding for people’s rights groups, citizens advice bureaux or whatever there happens to be in a given locality is important.

The Select Committee described well in its report a lot of the issues involved. Its points should be read carefully, such as the one that it was breathtakingly risky to go ahead with the reforms. I took part in the debate in this Chamber a few months ago, and in today’s debate there is a sense of déj vu plus. We are all making more or less the same speeches, but we are six months further on and have the experience of what has happened in our communities as a result of the changes.

I shall quote from a letter that I have received from Islington Law Centre, which shows one of the reasons why legal aid is at crisis point. The letter urges me to get involved in the debate, which I am happy to do. The law centre is very good and the people there work incredibly hard. Nobody there is particularly well paid and they are totally dedicated, just like most legal aid solicitors all over the place. I do not draw a distinction between somebody who works in a law centre and somebody who works in a legal aid firm—they usually have an equal commitment to the community. The issue of funding is serious, and the letter states:

Ruth Hayes, who wrote the letter, says:

I know that, because I ring up the staff to ask them to see people who cannot get a lawyer anywhere else, and they have a problem dealing with such cases. It is up to Parliament to do something about that, and I hope that the Government are listening to such concerns and understanding them.

I have a letter from another firm, which is quite well known and not local to me. It points out:

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