HC Deb 30 January 1995 vol 253 cc678-81
36. Mr. Brazier

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what measures he plans to restrict the scope of legal aid.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor)

The Lord Chancellor does not plan to restrict the scope of legal aid. New proposals for legal aid will be the subject of a Green Paper later in the year, as anticipated in the Lord Chancellor's recent speech to the Social Market Foundation.

Mr. Brazier

Is my hon. Friend aware of how welcome are the proposals which my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has outlined for setting up limited budgets to many hard-pressed taxpayers? Given the considerable powers which officials in area legal aid offices have, and given that those powers are likely to be extended, is there not a strong case for having some voluntary oversight?

Mr. Taylor

The board can refuse legal aid on the grounds of merit and, if so, an applicant can appeal to an area committee, whose members are independent legal practitioners not employed by the board. In addition, complaints about the board's administration are susceptible to investigation by the ombudsman.

Mr. William O'Brien

Does the Minister agree that it is important that people who rely on legal aid to obtain justice should have the same level of representation as the Crown Prosecution Service at any appeal to a court or to the Lord Chancellor? Will he ensure that there will be that equality of representation?

Mr. Taylor

I want to give a serious answer to a serious question, but I should have thought that most advocates in the private sector would consider themselves to be every bit as good as the advocates in the Crown Prosecution Service.

Mr. Stephen

Can my hon. Friend confirm press reports that the Legal Aid Board has granted legal aid to Winston Silcott to enable him to sue the police? Is my hon. Friend aware that Mr. Silcott has received £17,000 compensation from the Home Office within the past six months? How can it be that people can give money away to friends and relations, as Silcott has done, and then claim to be too poor to pay their own lawyers' fees? Does not that make a mockery of the legal aid system?

Mr. Taylor

Although I cannot comment on the details of any individual case, I have no reason to believe that Mr. Silcott's application has been dealt with any differently from anybody else's.

37. Mr. Mudie

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what proposals he has to deal with abuses of the legal aid system; and when he will bring them forward.

Mr. John M. Taylor

The Legal Aid Board has made a number of proposals in relation to the green form scheme, which are being taken forward now.

Mr. Mudie

The Minister will be aware that the Lord Chancellor has suggested cash-limiting the legal aid budget on a regional basis. Is the Minister aware that where that has been tried, in the social fund, hundreds of thousands of genuine claimants have been refused aid because the money has run out? Does the Minister agree that it would be intolerable for that to happen in justice? Will he ask the Lord Chancellor to think again? If the noble Lord wishes to persist, will the Minister ensure that there are proper safeguards to protect innocent people?

Mr. Taylor

That matter is so far only the subject of a prelude speech by the Lord Chancellor. A Green Paper will be issued. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's question will be taken into account. For the moment, raising the spectre of cash running out is scaremongering and we certainly want to ensure that that does not happen.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

When considering changes to the legal aid system, will my hon. Friend consider those cases in which someone assisted by legal aid can pursue a civil claim against a business, which is not able to claim such aid? The case can bring the business almost to the point of bankruptcy and, even when the business eventually wins, it is unlikely to be awarded any compensation by the courts.

Mr. Taylor

It is part of the original sin of legal aid—if that is the correct expression—that, in civil cases, one encounters disputes in which party A has legal aid and party B does not, whether the latter is a limited liability company or another citizen. As long as resources are not infinite and there has to be a cut-off point, as there does with many such welfare schemes, it is almost inevitable that one party will be legally aided while the other is not.

Mr. Boateng

We have heard a lot from the Minister about cuts that affect the consumers of legal services. What are he and the Lord Chancellor doing to deal with the scandal of restrictive practices within the legal profession? Have they met the Bar and the Law Society to deal with how lawyers might put their own house in order, so that more consumers can benefit from legal services at a time when those are being cut?

Mr. Taylor

That was an interesting question. I am no more in favour of restrictive practices than the hon. Gentleman, but he knows as well as I that the legal professions are self-regulating. Obviously, we view any abuses of public money with the greatest possible concern because that is what the House would want us to do. Meanwhile, I think that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the fact that the Lord Chancellor wants to widen the categories of people who dispense legal advice. It need not be solicitors and barristers only, but could include citizens advice bureaux, as supported by me, and law centres, as supported by him.

38. Mr. Hawkins

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what further changes are planned for the legal aid system.

Mr. John M. Taylor

New proposals for legal aid will be the subject of a Green Paper later in the year.

Mr. Hawkins

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that one of the great concerns about the system has been the large number of people on modest incomes who have not been eligible for legal aid? That was one of the concerns highlighted in the excellent debate in the House last Wednesday morning, to which my hon. Friend replied. Will he reconsider the position of the so-called MINELAs—middle income, not eligible for legal aid?

Mr. Taylor

Yes. I am probably in that category. I want to share with my hon. Friend the emergence of the regime of conditional fees—no win, no fee. Many cases, especially personal injury cases, will be susceptible to that scheme. Although the idea is in a fledgling state, there is also a possibility of people obtaining legal expenses insurance, as many of us do in respect of our motor policies.

Mrs. Roche

Given that the Lord Chancellor removed legal aid from 14 million people in 1993, is it not about time that he and his Department started to make the legal system more accessible to ordinary people and more efficient, rather than clobbering them time after time?

Mr. Taylor

I have never understood how 14 million people could fall out of a scheme used by 3 million people. We want to widen access and some of my suggestions to the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) were along those lines.

39. Mr. John Marshall

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what representations he has received about the provision of legal aid to the apparently rich.

Mr. John M. Taylor

The Lord Chancellor and I have received a number of representations on that subject and it was for that reason that the Lord Chancellor issued the consultation paper "Legal Aid for the Apparently Wealthy" on 20 December 1994. Responses are required by 1 March.

Mr. Marshall

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is unprecedented public anger that people such as Mr. Ernest Saunders, Mr. Roger Levitt, Mr. Gordon Foxley and Mr. Hashim should get legal aid? Does not that roll call of wealthy parasites, including Mr. Asil Nadir, underline the need to deprive the apparently wealthy of access to the taxpayer's money?

Mr. Taylor

To his credit, my hon. Friend was successful in securing a debate on that subject on the Floor of the House last Wednesday morning. He was eloquent then and was equally robust and clear in the point that he has just made. I am grateful to him.

Mr. Skinner

What is the answer, then?

Madam Speaker

Does the Minister want to go further in answering that question? If so, I must allow him to do so.

Mr. Taylor

I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, because it was clear from sedentary interventions that certain hon. Members thought that my reply did not hit the nail on the head. The answer is, as some hon. Members know already, that we have produced a consultative paper entitled "Legal Aid for the Apparently Wealthy" which deals, among other things, with exactly the points about which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) is concerned.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that not only did Asil Nadir get legal aid but it has now been proved that the money handed over by Asil Nadir to the Tory party, amounting to £440,000, had been stolen? The Tory Minister dealing with the matter at that stage said that if the money were found to be stolen, he would ensure that it went back to its rightful source. Has that been done?

Mr. Taylor

Do you know, Madam Speaker, the extraordinary thing is that there is nothing in my file about that?