HC Deb 11 November 1970 vol 806 cc541-58

10.35 p.m.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

I beg to move, That the Legal Aid (Scotland) (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1970, dated 16th July, 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd July, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

It has been suggested that with this Motion we should discuss the next one: That the Legal Aid (Financial Conditions) Regulations, 1970, dated 20th July, 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22nd July, be approved. Is there any objection?

Sir Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

That will be convenient to the Opposition, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Gentlemen who wish to leave the House do so quickly and quietly? We have a lot of work ahead.

The Solicitor-General

I am grateful for the opportunity of dealing with both sets of Regulations together. Even so, I shall not venture to deal with the Scottish aspects of the matter, as I am hopeful that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture, Scottish Office, will catch your eye and be able to deal with the strictly Scottish aspects. Most of the Scottish, English and Welsh matters are being dealt with in precisely the same way under the two sets of Regulations.

The Regulations are made under Section 1 of the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1960, which for the first time since 1949 raised the limits for free and contributory legal aid and also gave power for that to be done again by regulation. These Regulations are therefore made under that power. They are the first to be so made. They increase for the second time since 1949 the financial limits within which people are eligible for legal aid with or without contributions.

There are three things with which the House will be familiar but which perhaps should be noted to begin with. First, the Regulations increase only the income limits for eligibility. They do not affect the capital disregards. Second, the Regulations must be read and understood together with the Legal Aid (Assessment of Resources) Regulations, 1970, which come into force on the same day—16th November, 1970—as these Regulations, unless negatived. Third, these Regulations take the place of corresponding Regulations laid by the previous Government in May of this year.

Before dealing with the details, I want to remind the House that the limits covered by these Regulations relate to what is known as the disposable income of the applicant for legal aid—that is, his or her income after deducting certain items in respect of maintenance of dependants, repayment of loans, tax, rates and other matters. So the gross incomes with which we are concerned are substantially higher than those dealt with in the Regulations.

The basic changes made in the English Regulations are these. Regulation 3 raises the ceiling of eligibility for free legal aid from £250 to £300 disposable income. Regulation 2 raises the ceiling for legal aid with contributions being made by the applicant from £700 to £950, again disposable income. These new figures of £300 and £950 must be considered alongside the Assessment of Resources Regulations, which will have the effect of increasing the figures that I have mentioned by an average of £50 in each case. The last Government's Regulations as they were laid in May of this year were different in the sense that they were not accompanied by any such change in the Assessment of Resources Regulations and they would have raised the limits to £350 and £1,000. That is £50 more, and that gap is bridged by the changes which are being made in the Legal Aid (Assessment of Resources) Regulations because those Regulations deal with the amounts which have to be disregarded by the Supplementary Benefits Commission in assessing the resources of an applicant for legal aid.

The Regulations which come into force on that front, on the same day as these, effect a change in the method of assessment and, in doing so, they implement a recommendation of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee in its last Report published on 28th May of this year. These Regulations, therefore, implement the recommendations of that Committee's Report of ten days after the previous Government laid their last Regulations.

One must bear in mind that under the former system, the Supplementary Benefits Commission was entitled to disregard in respect of an applicant's income such amount as is just and equitable in respect of any matter for which the person concerned must or reasonably may provide. That meant that an applicant who had continuing obligations, such as hire purchase or insurance commitments, was entitled to get those expenses disregarded and the average figure disregarded under the old Regulations was £54. The great majority of cases came at or near that average figure.

What is now proposed by the Legal Aid Advisory Committee is that that system should be changed because of the disadvantage in it that every applicant who had such additional expenditure had to prove that he was incurring such expenditure, which meant delay and inconvenience for him and additional administrative costs. The Advisory Committee therefore recommended that in the next revision of these scales across the board it would be convenient for the Supplementary Benefits Commission to disregard in respect of all applicants a given figure, and the Regulations on the assessment of resources, which take effect with the Regulations before the House, will have the effect of enabling the Commission hereafter to disregard, in respect of everybody, £104 of their income in any event.

This means that if somebody has the average additional expenditure of £54, he will have that disregarded, and £54 represents about the average. In the great majority of cases, with the additional £50 over the average of £54, these Regulations taken together have exactly the same effect as those laid by the previous Government, except that they do so with less inconvenience for the applicants concerned.

It is right that I should point out that if people have no additional commitments, then they are £54 better off on the assessment divided by three. How- ever,if they have the full £104 commitments, they are £54 worse off divided by three. This means that around the average, which is the predominant matter, there could be a fluctuation as a result of this simplified procedure to the extent of the perhaps inappropriately uncomfortable figure of 6s. 8d. a week either way. There is, therefore, room for a slight variation, but the improvement which will result will convenience the great majority of applicants.

The effect of the proposals will mean, first, a change on transition so that 50,000 people who are now in receipt of legal aid will have their contributions reduced; about 16,000 more people will get free legal aid; about 40,000 more will pay lower contributions; and about 7,000 additional people will qualify for help who would not otherwise have got it.

The cost of the matter will vary as between the short-term and long-term. In the short-term the additional cost of the lag between the contributions of applicants for legal aid and the outgoings to members of the legal profession will be £160,000 a year. In the long term, as a result of a net loss of contributions of £643,000 from people now exempt, and as a result of additional costs of £483,000 from people who come into the scheme who did not previously do so, the total long-term additional cost will be £1,126,000.

If the House approves the Regulations, which have similar effect both south and north of the Border, we shall be restoring the essential framework of the legal aid scheme and ensuring that access to it will once again be available for the proportion of the population for whom it was intended to be available by the 1949 Act. On that basis I commend the Regulations to the House.

10.45 p.m.

Sir Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

May I begin by congratulating the Solicitor-General on, I think, his first appearance on the Government Front Bench and wishing him every personal success? He will probably get a fairly easy passage tonight, but as I understand that he is one of the principal architects of the Government's Industrial Relations Bill I cannot promise him an equally easy passage hereafter.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must not widen the debate.

Sir Elwyn Jones

That was merely by way of a brief prelude, Mr. Speaker, to what was intended to be the merely congratulatory section of my submissions to the House.

We on this side of the House welcome the Regulations, as far as they go. It is rather like the pea which the Devil is said to have set before St. Anthony for his supper, about which St. Anthony said that it was good as far as it went. The fact is that the Regulations merely seek to cope with the decline in the purchasing power of the pound since, I think, 1960.

The figure of £950 appears in the Regulations, whereas when I made an announcement to the House in May the intention was to introduce Regulations raising the figure to £1,000. But the hon. and learned Gentleman has explained the matter to us in details which I confess I shall need to read in HANSARD fully to comprehend, and I accept his assurance that at the end of the day it amounts to the same thing, and that we are now at the level of £1,000 and £300 respectively.

But I hope that I shall be in order in saying that the matter should be considered against the background from which it emerges. If I recollect correctly my reading of the financial newspapers and others, then since May, when the figure of £1,000 was suggested, there has been an increasing volume of inflation, and it may well be that the figure of £950 now proposed already lags behind the realistic figure which would be required to cover the inflation since 1960. Therefore, I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to consider the position again in the very near future in the light of the inflationary tide which it seems the present Government are quite incapable of coping with. However, I must not widen the scope of the debate excessively.

The background to the Regulations is that in May of this year I announced on behalf of the then Government a number of legal aid measures, and in particular the proposal about the £25 advisory scheme. That has been commended and strongly recommended to the Lord Chancellor and the Government by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Com- mittee. The last recommendation was in May this year, when it was said: Until something is done to improve the existing Schemes a large proportion of the public will continue to be deprived of a solicitor's services and legal questions will only be resolved when litigation follows. Then there followed this important passage: Assistance will become even more necessary when the Divorce Reform Act 1969 comes into force on 1st January, 1971. Much more will then be needed by way of advice and negotiation before a petition is filed and the respondent becomes eligible for legal aid. We do again ask that these matters should receive urgent attention". Although the failure to do what was recommended may be a short-term gain in terms of expenditure, I am convinced, as I think was the Advisory Committee, that in the long run legal advice at an early stage will reduce the amount of legal aid litigation. Therefore, the Government's refusal to introduce the £25 legal advisory scheme is, from the point of view of public expenditure, self-defeating.

I could not help noticing that the Lord Chancellor went as near as possible to announcing a state of rebellion with his Cabinet when he said in another place: I think I can say, without either disloyalty to my colleagues or impertinence to the noble and learned Lord, that, of all the schemes which I have seen to fill an admitted need, it is the one which most attracts me personally".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 9th July, 1970; Vol. 311, c. 401.] It is obvious that the Lord Chancellor has been defeated in the Cabinet on this issue. I hope that the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General will put a little fire into the belly of the Lord Chancellor, if that is not too impertinent a suggestion to make about him.

While welcoming this modest Measure as far as it goes, we on this side deplore the Government's failure to do that which is only effective and practical in the circumstances which would greatly help a large number of people who are denied legal advice. I urge the Solicitor-General to apply his mind to the urgent importance of dealing with that which has been so strongly recommended from so authoritative a source—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that he cannot amend the Regulations. They deal only with extending certain financial limits.

Sir Elwyn Jones

I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Speaker. I think that I made my point while your attention perhaps was not entirely concentrated on what I was saying. Having made the point, I am content to leave it there.

Mr. Speaker

If there were an English word, I would say touché.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

When the question of legal aid was last debated in the House on 14th May, the hon. and learned Member for Stockport said: … it is our aim to extend legal aid. I feel that we are very mean about the administration of justice. We tend to think that we must be careful about every penny spent in the administration of justice and legal aid. I think the other way. Of course, we should practise economy. Of course, we should make sure that money is well spent, but this is one field in which we should be very careful not to be mean. I am sure that there is scope for extending the benefits of this system."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th May, 1970; Vol. 801, c, 1653.] I entirely agree with those words. But the words uttered by the Attorney-General only the other day in the House—

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

Were not the words which the hon. Gentleman has just quoted said by the hon. and learned Member for Southport—not Stockport?

Mr. Davis

That must be so. HANSARD has got it wrong.

We have had the washing overboard of the £25 scheme, and now the Government complacently rest their case on the introduction of this proposal.

It is as well to refer to the preamble to the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949: An Act to make legal aid and advice in England and Wales … more readily available for persons of small or moderate means, to enable the cost of legal aid or advice for such persons to be defrayed wholly or partly out of moneys provided by Parliament.… Advice has been virtually forgotten, for the scheme as at present operated is not successful. But we are not discussing the advice scheme or its inadequacy tonight. We are not discussing the inadequacy of the extent of the whole legal aid system, and the deprivation of people who wish to pursue a remedy before tribunals, where so many of the rights of citizens are nowadays decided. We are tonight discussing the inadequacy of the system for financial eligibility.

The proposal is that the limit should now be £950. How does this compare with the original figure of £420 in 1949, or the £700 in 1960? If there be any improvement at all, it is only marginal, and, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) said, one has to take into account in these matters the erosion of money values caused by inflation.

In 1967, the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee concluded: There is a large category of people who, if their means were assessed, would be adjudged incapable of finding money for their own litigation but who are refused legal aid because their means bring them outside the limits of the scheme". If that was true in 1967, it is even more true today, and the improvements suggested here will make only a marginal difference. There is still a law for the rich and a law for the poor in this country. There are too many people who will still be deprived of opportunity of pursuing their legal remedies or obtaining redress when they are wronged.

It is an assessment of joint disposable income, not an individual assessment, which the Law Society has to take into account. As a practising solicitor, one has many cases, for example, accident cases, which reveal the defects of the system. A worker who is foolish enough not to join a trade union, or who is dissuaded from joining a trade union, suffers a rather serious accident at work or, perhaps, a road accident. He finds that his and his wife's joint disposable income is such that he is unable to obtain legal aid, and for that reason he is unable to pursue his remedy against, in effect, an insurance company. He cannot on his own challenge the might of a substantial insurance company in the courts if he is deprived of legal aid. Insurance companies are not unmindful of this factor in negotiations.

The real question is whether legal aid is provided for sufficient people in sufficient courts, and whether these Regulations will substantially help in resolving that question. At present—it will still happen under the Regulations—free legal aid is available only to the very poor, and there is unquestionably a denial of legal aid to many people of quite moderate means in cases in which, on merit and leaving aside the question of financial hardship, they should be entitled to legal aid. Moreover, the contributions which are made in so many cases today involve real financial hardship for a large number of people.

I sincerely hope that the Government will say tonight that this will not be their last word, that they will not complacently say that this represents the totality of their thinking on legal aid.

I hope that the Solicitor-General can assure the House that the income limits, which have not been reviewed for something like 10 years, will not again be subject to a delay in review of that kind. I hope that he might be able to say that we could consider the situation annually or, at least, biennially. This represents not only an important feature in our social services but, more important perhaps, an important feature in safeguarding the individual liberty of so many of our citizens. I feel that the proposals that are before the House tonight are niggardly, and I hope that when the Minister replies he will be able to give us a satisfactory assurance on the lines I have suggested.

11.1 p.m.

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

I welcome the Regulations because they undoubtedly do much to extend the scope of legal aid. At the same time, one must recognise that the umbrella which is provided by the Regulations leaves outside its cover a vast number of people who might at sometime be exposed to the need to come before the courts and to pay for the expense of appearing before the courts.

It used to be a cry—an old-fashioned cry, no longer applicable today—that there was one law for the rich and another law for the poor. But although the Regulations, happily, go to some extent towards alleviating the need that existed, and exists, for extending legal aid, I submit that they illustrate the danger of a position, to which we might be coming, of having to say that there is one law for the rich and the poor and another law for those who are neither.

The Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee, in its Report published in 1969, observed that the most effective way of reducing legal aid costs was to simplify legal procedures or to avoid the need to litigate. I would add to that by saying that there should be a combination of both methods and that we ought to focus upon that solution. When however, one looks at the argument that it is wise to avoid litigation, an argument with which, I suppose, no one would disagree, in the light of the Regulations one must be driven to the conclusion that the most certain way of avoiding litigation is to ensure that people can be advised wisely to keep out of court.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are not discussing whether there should be legal aid and advice. That is provided under the parent Act. We are discussing certain income and financial considerations which are amended in the Regulations.

Mr. Gardner

I will not pursue that point, Mr. Speaker, and I will turn to another which is equally important and, I hope, within the limits of the Regulations. We are considering Regulations which allow financial assistance to individuals—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Regulations increase certain financial limits. Whether there should be aid to litigants is a matter under the parent Act. The hon. and learned Member must come to the Regulations.

Mr. Gardner

Perhaps I may put it this way, Mr. Speaker. If I cannot, I must turn to another point. Without being too ingenious and, I hope, with some rectitude, may I put the matter this way? The increase which is allowed under these Regulations not only fails to go to what ultimately and ideally must be the limits necessary to cover people who need protection, but it fails to bring within its ambit amenity and preservation societies which are finding themselves crushed under the financial burden of having to appear before public inquiries and in this Parliament to oppose Private Bills.

I ask my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General to consider whether it would be possible at some stage—I do not suggest that the moment is now—to bring within the ambit of Government assistance—and legal aid is Government assistance for the litigant—a society which, with the public good in mind, finds itself in the position of having to oppose proposals by local and central authorities both at public inquiries and in this Parliament.

Societies like the Council for the Protection of Rural England and others of that kind are bodies deserving of some consideration by the Government, because if they do not get legal aid, they may find themselves opposed to bodies which, out of funds which their members may be supplying by way of taxes, may have instructed counsel, the societies themselves being without funds to pay the fees for counsel who might act on their behalf as advocates. It would be for the national good, and this is something for the Government to consider for the future as being a benefit to the country at large, to extend legal aid to societies and groups of people—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have listened carefully to the hon. and learned Gentleman. He has been out of order for a long time.

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Kensington, North)

I shall not seek to follow the erudition of the hon. and learned Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) in taking the House as far out of order as he and my right hon. and learned Friend did. Like my colleagues, I want to express my welcome for the Regulations. I have some apprehensions about whether the average disregards which the Solicitor-General has outlined to the House will prove very satisfactory. I think that they are liable to be like the uniforms produced by the army contractor who produced uniforms for the average-sized soldier.

However, I am concerned that the changes are not to affect the capital disregards. Most of my hon. Friends who are practising for working-class clients would agree with me that the problems presented to a family with a few hundred pounds of savings and involved in litigation which has to be contested and facing the prospect, particularly when approaching retiring age, of using up those savings in the litigation, are very acute. Bearing in mind the high proportion of success in legally aided litigation, the cost to the Legal Aid Fund of increasing the capital disregards would be very small indeed.

I am sorry that I should probably not be in order if I expressed a desire to see the means assessments in criminal legally aided cases standardised. There is a wide variation, with magistrates assessing means in criminal legally aided cases by different criteria—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is quite right in ruling himself out of order.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I will content myself with saying that I welcome the Regulations, but I wish they went much further.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

Any increase in the limits for legal aid is welcome, so I welcome the Regulations. While this extension is designed to help people with low incomes, people in the £30 a week area will still not be eligible for legal aid, and they are one of the prime butts of the Government's economic policy. Life will be made even harder for those people, particularly as in England the loser is in normal circumstances made liable for the costs of the winner, and a person undertaking legal action knows that he will be stung at both ends if he does not succeed. There should, therefore, be a higher limit for people earning between £25 and £35 a week.

The Government talk about making good the reduction in the value of money but they are not using the same yardstick as they use in dealing with other matters. For example, in 1949 the limit of county court jurisdiction was £200; it is now £750. We were told that it was raised to £750 because of the fall in the value of money and the limit must be brought into line. If £750 now is worth as much as £200 was then, that represents a 350 per cent. increase since 1949. A different situation arises with legal aid. In 1949 the limit for legal aid was £420 disposable income; it is now £950, which we are told is really £1,000. That is an increase of about 250 per cent., which is about 125 per cent. less than the change in the county court jurisdiction for allegedly the same reason—to make good the fall in the value of money.

I ask the Government to come to the House again shortly to increase the limits for legal aid so that not only those on a low income will benefit but those who are rapidly becoming the new poor at the £25–£35 level.

11.14 p.m.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

I rise only because the debate is in danger of becoming niggly. The speech of the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) was all good clean fun, and he was good enough to say that he fully supported the Regulations.

The hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) was niggly. He said that he hoped there would not be similar delays in the future. If there has been delay, whose delay has it been? One cannot fault the Government for any delay; the Regulations have been laid speedily. He quoted what I said—I think "Stockport" was a misprint for "Southport"—and I seem to remember saying it. What I said from the Opposition benches as recently as May is borne out by what is happening now. I hope that it was our intention not to be mean about it. We realise that it is money well spent. It seems that the Order is proof positive that what I said then anticipated accurately what a Conservative Government would do if given the chance.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman suggesting that he is now completely satisfied that this is what he meant by an extension of legal aid? Surely he had something better in mind?

Mr. Percival

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. I think that this is a good step in the right direction, and one taken very early.

The hon. Member for Kensington, North (Mr. Douglas-Mann) asked what this has to do with people who practise in the sphere of working-class clients? I I have been a practising lawyer for 25 years and I do not know of any distinction between working-class clients and others. They are just clients. We hope that working-class clients will be given every assistance to pursue their cases. In my experience, they always have been, legal aid or no legal aid. But I am glad that the Government, which I am proud to support, are introducing a Measure which will ensure that they get the assistance which they have always had through legal aid.

I am sure that the mathematics of the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) were right. But so what? We are raising the limit from £700 to £950. I understand that if a man has a disposable income of £700 he cannot have legal aid. The Regulations propose raising the limit from £700 to £950, so why cannot this House simply accept that as very good indeed without all these niggles? I hope that the House will proceed quickly to pass the Regulations as making a significant contribution to the purpose for which we have legal aid without all this niggling about it.

Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)

Before my hon. and learned Friend sits down. Does he accept that the majority of the clients for whom all who practise in the profession appear on legal aid are working-class clients?

Mr. Percival

I repeat, I do not draw a distinction. I am not sure what a working-class client is. I think that some people who would not come within the generally accepted definition of "working class" are the hardest working. Certainly in all the years that I have been practising, this distinction has not been drawn. The profession does not talk about working-class and other clients. We hope that the necessary facilities will be made available to all clients, whether working class or not.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

Certainly we do not draw a distinction, but the situation is still as it has been for many years—that the courts are open to all in the same way as the Ritz Hotel. In many cases there are differences between the assistance which is available to the client who is in a position to pay cash, the client who has to find a lawyer who is prepared to accept him whether he can or cannot get legal aid, and the client who needs a solicitor who may be willing to fight his battle where legal aid is not available. I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to note that every hon. Member who has spoken on this side has welcomed the Regulations. It is not a matter of niggling. We welcome the Regulations, but we would like them to go further.

Mr. Percival

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's remark at the end of his intervention. I repeat, in my experience at the Bar I have never known this distinction. I think that the difficult area is that of those who are neither rich nor poor, those who are in neither the upper Mayfair bracket, nor in the working-class one. That is the difficult—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. I hope that the legal profession will not invoke the Chair's disfavour by trying to define its clients, because that is not really the subject of the Regulations.

Mr. Percival

I was saying that I welcome the Regulations because it seems that that is the area in which they lend assistance. This is the area where one is not talking about either the very rich or the very poor. I welcome the Regulations because I think that they will provide real help in that area where assistance is needed.

11.21 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

Although I cannot attempt to follow the characteristically charming point made by the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) when he kindly offered me his congratulations and personal good wishes but linked that with an obscure story about the diatetic and religious habits of St. Anthony, I express my appreciation none the less.

The points made in the debate have been of two kinds. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) steered himself narrowly within the rules of order and made a valuable point in suggesting that there are bands of citizens who, confronted with the somewhat protracted procedures of some of our planning inquiries could, as the hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) knows, look for help, but my hon. and learned Friend appreciates that that raises a problem of a different kind, so different that he almost trespassed outside the rules of order in raising it, but it is, nevertheless, important.

The point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) really went to the heart of the debate, because he took up a point made, I think, by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) to the effect that the legal aid scheme, even as extended in this way, does not really do enough to help those in the middle. I think that it is possible to underestimate the extent of the improvement being made by this uplifting of the disposable income. When one takes account of the matters that have to be disregarded the effect, if I may give the example of a married man with two children, is to bring him within the limits of the scheme now with a gross income of £39 3s. a week, that is to say a gross income of rather more than £2,000 a year, which is a substantial advance on the gross income before and it does, as my hon. and learned Friend said, take us quite a long way towards helping those people in the middle whom hon. Members have in mind.

The hon. Member for Kensington, North (Mr. Douglas-Mann) expressed anxiety about the principle adopted in disregarding capital. The principle is that embodied in the Report of the Rushcliffe Committee and endorsed by the Legal Aid Advisory Committee, that cash capital resources should be disregarded only to a limited extent in this connection as opposed to what happens with regard to the Supplementary Benefits Commission, but the committee made a separate point that a house should be effectively disregarded because to take that into account would work to the hardship of many of the people the hon. Gentleman has in mind. The Assessment of Resources Regulations, which come into force at the same time as this Order, increase the value of the house that has to be disregarded from £3,000 to £5,000.

Mr. Douglas-Mann

I accept that, and we are aware that the house is disregarded, but frequently the situation arises that a family has money put by ready to buy a house for their retirement. If that family is involved in litigation during the period when they are nearing retirement, that money is not disregarded, although if they had bought the house by that time the house would be disregarded. That situation can cause hardship.

The Solicitor-General

I know that there is force in that argument, but the Regulations to which I have referred come into effect at the same time as these Regulations and extend the size of the disregard for the house. The other point raised by the hon. Member challenges a principle which has so far remained substantially unchallenged from Rushcliffe to the last Report of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee, but it is, clearly, a matter he was entitled to raise and to draw to the attention of those who have to consider this.

The point made by the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) about the comparison between the county court jurisdiction and the variation in limits so far as legal aid is concerned fails to take into account, if my memory serves me aright, that the county court jurisdiction was fixed at £200 in 1949. My legal memory does not extend back to the right point, but I am assured that the limit was fixed in 1938. So it is not very unfair to compare £200 with £750 in that time span and £420 and £1,000.

Mr. Edward Lyons

Of course that point is perfectly fair, although it was still £200 in 1949, but is it right that the limit is going up any moment to £1,000?

The Solicitor-General

That raises a matter right outside the scope of these Regulations, and I should be out of order in answering the question; so I will not do so.

To come now to the slightly more tendentious part of the debate which, to some extent, has been on an even keel, the part which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport characterised as being unduly niggling. He was attaching that phrase to the word used by the hon. Member for Hackney, Central, suggesting that the changes being made were niggling. It is worth remembering that in fact the effect of the changes is precisely the same as that embodied in Regulations introduced by the previous Government. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Ham, South, drew attention to the remarks made by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor in another place, which, of course, indicated my noble Friend's acceptance of the £25 scheme as best to meet identified need, but to suggest that I, of all people, should begin putting fire into the belly of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, of all people, is really to take us into the heights of absurdity. There is no one less needing that kind of ingredient. It is equally absurd to suggest that he has lost any kind of battle in Cabinet.

The task which must regulate our approach to achieving any of these desirable aims is the task of stemming the fires—if I may mix my metaphor—which feed the inflationary tide which these Measures are meant to check, to remedy, to abate. It is worth noticing—I am sure the House will notice—that the period of 10 years since the last increase in 1960 may be divided into two halves, and the rise in the cost of living between 1960 and October, 1966, was 15.4 per cent., from October, 1966, to June, 1970, it was 29.7 per cent. So that it is that galloping tide of inflation which these increases being introduced by the present Government are designed to abate, so as to protect the people who require protection, by extension of the scheme.

Sir Elwyn Jones

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman deal with the point which appears to have been made by the Advisory Committee, that the introduction of legal advice would diminish the volume of actual litigation and, therefore, would constitute a reduction in public expenditure, certainly in the long run?

The Solicitor-General

The point made by the Advisory Committee is, of course, well in my mind, and indeed it was, no doubt, in the mind of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, but as has been made clear, any question of extension of that kind, however desirable, has got to be looked at, as it was by the last Government, in the context of the economic circumstances of the nation as a whole.

In this context I would invite the House to give its support to these Regulations, not looking a worth-while gift horse in the mouth.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Legal Aid (Scotland) (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1970, dated 16th July 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd July, be approved.