HL Deb 26 January 1993 vol 541 cc1136-8

3 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider the proposed reductions in eligibility for legal aid in the light of the widespread concern expressed by the legal profession and caring agencies.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, legal aid expenditure is expected to reach £1.1 billion in the current financial year, an increase of 130 per cent. over the past four years. Steps must be taken to contain that growth. I carefully considered the options which are available before arriving at the package of eligibility changes which I have announced. I believe that this package represents the most certain means of achieving the necessary control while at the same time protecting the position of the poorest in society. Even with these measures, legal aid expenditure will continue to rise by about 10 per cent. per year, reaching £1,528 million in 1995–96.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that response. Does he accept that examples such as that of the single parent with two children and an income of £8,000 a year who will have to make a contribution of £468 if his proposals are accepted have led to concern that access to justice will be denied to many in our society? Does he also accept that in criticising what they have described as "a lack of strategic vision" in the proposals, the legal profession and consumer and advice agencies are concerned that they will not be cost-effective? For instance, the green form scheme, which many regard as a useful preventive measure enabling disputes to be resolved more quickly, will be available only to those on income support—those with the very lowest incomes. Does he further accept that there will be a strain on agencies such as the citizens advice bureaux which are concerned for their own clients and for their own operations?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I think that in looking at particular examples, as the noble Baroness has sought to do, one has to take account of the allowances which are available to be set against income. One cannot determine the matter simply by looking at a household's gross income.

I am anxious to develop other ways of providing legal services, and the Legal Aid Board is in consultation with the law centre movement in the hope that we may in future be able to develop a better way of handling the type of advice which is presently covered by the green form.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that most people feel that the rapid increase in the cost of legal aid requires to be checked, and they therefore very much commend his proposals?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The rise, as I said, is very considerable, and I believe that rise has to be restrained. There is no question, as I made clear in my opening Answer, of cutting the amount of legal aid. The figures to be expended in the years to come are still rising. But I believe that it is right, having regard to all the commitments that the taxpayer has these days, to restrain the growth.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord confirm that he has received from the Law Society a set of constructive proposals for the way forward and for economies in his own field? Can he confirm that he has received that report, and has he sent a reply to the Law Society?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I confirm that I have received certain proposals from the Law Society and that I have sent a response to the president of the Law Society. I have carried out some examination of these proposals and I believe it is fair to say that they are not very new. They are proposals that I have seen in one shape or form over quite a long time. However, we are still considering them. I received a letter from the president of the Law Society shortly before I came to the House in which he asked to come and see me to consider the proposals further once more detailed costings of them have been carried out. I shall arrange to see him as soon as convenient thereafter.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that we are very pleased to hear that he is talking to the Law Society about the law centres? But will he remember that a lot of litigation never reaches litigation stage through the help of the citizens advice bureaux and other legal centres? All those voluntary bodies, given a little help, would expand and would deal with the question in a much more constructive way than by just reducing the opportunity to complain. I hope that the noble Lord will introduce changes and assistance to all those voluntary bodies, not after a long time but as part of his present work.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am the first to acknowledge the great help given by a number of voluntary bodies. The citizens advice bureaux have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, and I heartily endorse what he says about the value of the help that they give. So far as legal advice and assistance are concerned, that is rather a specialist area. What I am seeking to do at the moment is to develop between the Legal Aid Board and the law centres means of handling these matters which not only give the clients who require advice a good deal but which at the same time give the taxpayer a reasonable deal.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, bearing in mind that the noble and learned Lord has courteously agreed to receive a deputation from the legal profession in a couple of days' time, and that there is an Unstarred Question in the name of my noble friend Lord Irvine of Lairg for next Wednesday, would he keep his outstanding legal mind open in the meantime?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am looking forward to receiving a deputation from the legal profession, including the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in the immediate future. I am not sure that I necessarily share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in distinguishing between the legal profession and the caring agencies as she did in her Questions. But I shall certainly keep my mind open to any suggestions, as indeed I have done for a long time. My mind has been very open to realistic ways proposed by the legal profession for helping to restrain the rise in costs. The noble Lord will appreciate from the figures I have given that so far the suggestions that my mind has received have not been particularly effective in that direction.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord accept that it is strongly arguable that he has chosen quite the worse way of making savings in the legal aid budget? Eligibility cuts, combined with contributions from those who are near to the income support level, are well calculated to take almost 40 per cent. of households out of legal aid altogether. Will he look with very great care at the alternative savings package proposed by the Law Society and the Bar Council, and meanwhile postpone his cuts?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I intend to lay the necessary regulations in order to give proper time for them to be considered before they come into effect. In the meantime I am happy to consider carefully any proposals that are made. I certainly accept that these proposals should be looked at. But I have already indicated that, so far as I can judge, none of the proposals in the package to which the noble Lord referred is particularly new. I am therefore doubtful whether they by themselves will achieve the necessary restraint.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, we have now reached not only the 30th but the 31st minute of Questions. I suggest that this is an appropriate moment to move on to the Statement.