HC Deb 01 July 1996 vol 280 cc547-50
31. Dr. Spink

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what action he is taking to reduce spending on the legal aid fund. [33689]

Mr. Streeter

My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor expects shortly to announce his proposals for reform of the legal aid scheme. It would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt that announcement. We are already taking steps to control the costs of the legal aid scheme, such as measures to investigate the means of apparently wealthy applicants and the introduction of graduated fees in the Crown court. The White Paper proposals will take us further.

Dr. Spink

Does my hon. Friend share my constituents' concern that a man who was dying of cancer and had his life saved by the excellent national health service against all the odds should seek to use public funds to sue the very doctors who saved his life rather than allowing those funds to be used in the health service?

Mr. Streeter

I share my hon. Friend's concern, as do most British taxpayers. My hon. Friend is a champion of the interests of the British taxpayer in relation to legal aid. He will be encouraged to know that under our proposals, to be issued tomorrow, we intend to take positive, radical measures to crack down on the weak and trivial cases which are making all too frequent an appearance in the local newspapers. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that, when I heard about the case that he has mentioned, I asked the chief executive of the Legal Aid Board to come to see me on Wednesday to explain how on earth legal aid could be made available in such a case.

32. Mr. Gordon Prentice

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department how many people were eligible for legal aid in 1979; and what is the current figure. [33690]

Mr. Streeter

We estimate that in civil cases 74 per cent. of households qualified for legal aid in 1979. The figure for civil legal aid today is 48 per cent. There has been no reduction in the number of people eligible for criminal legal aid since 1979.

Mr. Prentice

Is it not appalling that the number of households eligible for legal aid should drop from more than three quarters in 1979 to less than half now? Is it not an incontestable fact that the only people who can get legal aid now are those on the breadline and that the income cut-off is £7,400? Is it not a case of justice denied when the only people who can get access to the courts are those whose wallets or purses are fat enough?

Mr. Streeter

I believe that the hon. Gentleman lives on a different planet from me. Although the number of households eligible may well have fallen in the past 17 years, that is partly a reflection of rising living standards. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that acts of assistance have risen from 1.9 million to 3.5 million today. Legal aid funding has risen in the past five years to £1.4 billion. The hon. Gentleman clearly believes that that is not enough. If £1.4 billion is not enough, it is incumbent on him and his party to tell us today how much we should spend and where the money should come from.

Mr. Congdon

Is my hon. Friend aware that, far from being concerned about restrictions on legal aid, my constituents are concerned about its generosity, particularly in civil cases? Does he share my amazement that this country should grant civil legal aid to someone deported as an illegal immigrant who wishes to pursue a civil case in the courts of this country?

Mr. Streeter

Once again, my hon. Friend is on to a good point, which we will talk about in more detail tomorrow when the White Paper is issued. He should know that every working person in this country contributes £60 a year to the legal aid fund. I think that is enough. If the Opposition do not, they should tell us how much it should be.

Mr. Boateng

Given the ever-increasing cost of the legal aid fund to the public and the ever-reducing number of the public who are able to benefit from it, when will Conservative Members and their Government stop hitting the hard-pressed litigant, who happens to be funded by the public, and start dealing with the restrictive practices of the legal profession? Why do we hear so much about the litigant and so little about the lawyer? When will the Government tackle the restrictive practices in the legal profession, because if they do not, we will?

Mr. Streeter

Even I think that that is a bit rich coming from someone who makes his living out of the restrictive practices of the legal profession. The hon. Gentleman has failed to tell us whether a budget of £1.4 billion is enough. He says no, so how much more should be spent, and where will it come from?

Mr. Jessel

Does not my hon. Friend's figure of £1.4 billion suggest that litigation is one of the fastest growing industries in Britain? Is it not growing much too fast onward and upward? Surely it is self-evident that, if people want to have a divorce, they should not have it at the expense of their fellow taxpayers. We are getting much too much like the Americans and it is time that something was done about it.

Mr. Streeter

I have a great deal of sympathy with that question. If we have a free market it is not for us to say who should or should not litigate, but we can control the extent to which the British taxpayer funds such litigation. We will bring forward legal aid reforms tomorrow to ensure that the British taxpayer gets more bang for his buck.

33. Mr. Janner

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if he will arrange for legal aid to be extended to industrial tribunals. [33691]

Mr. Streeter

We have no plans to extend legal aid to industrial tribunals.

Mr. Janner

Does the Minister understand how important industrial tribunal cases are? Does he understand that it is wrong that there are no circumstances in which any litigant in any industrial tribunal case can get legal aid, even though the Government have rightly moved wrongful dismissal cases up to £25,000 to tribunals at the request of the litigant and even though there are no upper limits on compensation for sex, race or disability discrimination cases? Will he please have another look at the matter and consider whether those cases should not be included for proper legal aid help?

Mr. Streeter

Thousands of cases each year come before the industrial tribunals, and I believe that most of them are informal, well run and produce the sort of justice that we want to see. Once again, an Opposition Member has stood up in the House and called for more public expenditure. It really begins to stick in the throat when Labour Members call for more public spending in the House and then rush out to the television cameras to say that under a Labour Government there would be no more spending and no more taxes. Which is it?

34. Mr. Llwyd

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department how much was paid out of the legal aid fund in green form costs in each year since 1992; and if he will make a statement. [33692]

Mr. Streeter

Between 1991–92 and 1995–96, the gross cost to the legal aid fund in respect of green form advice for each year was as follows: —£100 million; £125 million; £147 million; £141 million; and £145 million. Over the same period, total legal aid payments have risen by £688 million from £1,097 million to £1,784 million.

Mr. Llwyd

I am grateful to the Minister for such a detailed reply. May I impress on him the need to ensure that those people who do benefit from green form legal aid, advice and assistance continue to do so in any forthcoming review of legal aid? The people who bring that type of work to solicitors are very often the most needy in society, and are definitely unable to afford to pay for work privately. May I impress on the Minister the need to ensure that this core necessity remains?

Mr. Streeter

At last a sensible and reasonable question from an Opposition Member. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. There will be a radical reform of the legal aid scheme under the proposals to be announced tomorrow but, whatever we do, we will ensure that those who really need access to justice and cannot afford it will be adequately catered for under the new regime.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

How confident is my hon. Friend that the green form scheme is not being used to lure ordinary members of the public into a legal morass, more for the solicitor's benefit than for that of our constituents?

Mr. Streeter

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He will be interested to know, as I was this morning, that the Law Society has come out against our legal aid reform plans, even though it does not yet know what they are. The Government are increasingly able to be guided by the principle that, if the Law Society is against it, it is pretty firm evidence that we are on the right track.