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Justice Questions


15th February 2011

Jonathan Djanogly answers MPs' questions on subjects including Legal Aid and the Tribunals Service.

Legal Aid

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential effects of his proposals for legal aid reform on the provision of face-to-face legal advice; and if he will make a statement. [40453]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We published initial impact assessments, including equality impact assessments, with our reform proposals, including the proposal to establish the community legal advice helpline as the single gateway to civil legal aid services. Face-to-face advice will continue to be available where it is appropriate.

Mr Cunningham: I am very interested in that reply. What does the Under-Secretary mean by "appropriate"? That seems to me to be a little get-out clause. I assume that he does MPs' surgeries. If so, he knows that people need face-to-face contact with their representatives-in this case, solicitors-to help them out. The measures will hurt some of the poorest families.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate that we are not considering some future project-the advice line exists. It was used by 600,000 people last year and it is getting something like a 90% satisfaction rating. Poorer people can be called back so that they do not pay for the call. Those who live in remote areas often greatly appreciate the telephone call, and those who are disabled also much appreciate having access by telephone. I take the exact opposite position from the hon. Gentleman and say that the advice line will help vulnerable people.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does the Under-Secretary accept that restricting advice on housing matters could result in more homelessness and additional costs to homelessness budgets in local authorities?

Mr Djanogly: No, I do not, because we are not proposing to remove legal aid when imminent homelessness is a possibility. Legal aid will be retained in that situation.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Is the Under-Secretary aware that there is deep resentment in my constituency about the attack on the South Manchester law centre, which is hugely valued, and about the attacks on advice bureaux? Will he understand that the activities of the malign Legal Services Commission will remove access to legal services for people on limited means?

Mr Djanogly: Just to be absolutely sure, neither my ministerial colleagues nor I, as far as I know, have attacked the South Manchester law centre in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. If he would like to give me details of exactly what he is talking about, I would be happy to take it up.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Many senior barristers earn hundreds of thousands-if not millions-of pounds from the public purse in the form of legal aid. What plans has the Under-Secretary to introduce a form of cap to stop the funds running to such sums?

Mr Djanogly: We have no proposals to put a cap in place. The amount of work that is carried out will be just that. We are looking at the rates that are paid in certain circumstances, and people's eligibility to receive advice in the first place.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Citizens Advice, the main provider of face-to-face advice, faces cuts of up to 45% and law centres face cuts of 70%. Legal service funding is an essential part of the income of all law centres and most CABs, but, according to the Government's own figures, it is being cut by 90%. I welcome the Business Secretary's U-turn on reinstating debt advice for one year only. Will the Under-Secretary take the opportunity, in considering the many responses to his consultation, to perform his own U-turn and drop his plans to end social welfare legal aid? If not, does he accept that the whole country will become an advice desert, and that he will be known as the man who ended universal access to justice?

Mr Djanogly: Anyone who suggests that there is universal access to justice in the context of access to legal aid has missed, for a start, the restrictions that the previous Labour Government put on access. We need take no lessons from the hon. Gentleman's party, which, on the day the election was called, cut criminal legal aid by 13%. We take no lessons from him.

...

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the likely effects of the planned reduction in the legal aid budget on citizens advice bureaux and law centres. [40455]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We published equality impact assessments with our reform proposals. They considered impacts on the not-for-profit sector collectively, but not on individual types of not-for-profit organisation. We are working closely with colleagues across Government to formulate a coherent approach to that issue so that we can encourage and co-ordinate support for the valuable not-for-profit sector.

Anas Sarwar: The reforms mean that people are now expected to represent themselves in an increasing number of proceedings. However, the Government's figures show that the success rate for people who receive proper legal advice and help before appearing in court is double that for those without representation, even though their cases have equal merit. Given that the Under-Secretary has already mentioned potential cuts for CABs and law centres, how does that fit with the principle of equal access to justice for all?

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate that the not-for-profit sector, while being valuable, often offers legal advice in circumstances in which general help is needed. There are many different funding streams, and we are talking about the legal aid funding stream, whereby CABs, for instance, receive only 15% of their funds from the Ministry of Justice. That makes it a cross-departmental issue, which we are taking up on a cross-departmental basis-something that the Labour party failed to do throughout its period in government.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I am encouraged by the Minister's emphasis on cross-departmental co-operation. Will he assure me that he and his colleagues will do everything they can to maintain the continuation of services such as the Wiltshire law centre and the citizens advice bureau in my constituency, which often find that legal and social issues cannot be distinguished?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend says that some centres find that legal and social issues cannot be distinguished, but that depends on how they are funded. For instance, only 50% of CABs receive any Ministry of Justice funding whatever. That very much depends on whether a centre offers general or legal help. However, I repeat that we realise that advice provision needs to be looked at on a cross-departmental basis. We appreciate that there is an issue for not-for-profits, and we are determined to address it.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that the other funding streams he talks about are often from local government to advice bureaux, law centres and CABs? All over the country, they are being decimated. Many valuable voluntary advice services that give not legal advice, but wraparound, general advice, face enormous cuts. Thus, people lose out on benefits and opportunities, and often end up homeless as a result of a lack of appropriate advice at the necessary time.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, and has clarified a point that I made earlier: there is a difference between general advice and legal advice. We appreciate that not-for-profits have an issue when we consider funding streams all added together. Those who attended the legal aid debate two weeks ago would have heard me make a plea to local government to support the general advice provided by their CABs. I repeat that plea today.

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Legal Aid

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): What plans he has for the size of his Department's budget for civil legal aid. [40458]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We published impact assessments alongside our reform proposals setting out their potential financial implications. We estimated that the savings to civil legal aid would be around £255 million by 2014-15. Total civil legal aid expenditure was around £900 million in 2008-09.

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): We all appreciate the need to make savings, but citizens advice bureaux, including the Charnwood CAB in my constituency, play an important role-hon. Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention to their CABs. Mention has been made of the difference between legal and general help. May I suggest that the Minister consider, with the Department for Work and Pensions, simplifying the length of the forms that people need to fill in? The CAB currently helps benefits claimants who sometimes have to fill in forms of up to 52 pages in length.

Mr Djanogly: Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we are in discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions on exactly that matter, and more generally on improving early intervention, so that preferably people will not need to go to a tribunal at all.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): We heard evidence this morning that conditional fee agreements were driving up costs in clinical negligence cases. Will the Minister look again at Lord Justice Jackson's view that legal aid in such cases should not be cut?

Mr Djanogly: We are indeed doing that. The consultation on Lord Justice Jackson's recommendations closed yesterday, and we have had a large number of responses. We will look carefully at those over the coming weeks and come back with our response to the consultation. I agree that this is an important matter in terms of legal aid and conditional fees arrangements in so far as half of clinical negligence cases are funded by the former and half by the latter.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): On budget savings, has the Minister had a chance to consider how much might be saved in the legal aid budget by not allowing cases of unaccompanied children and young people whose asylum claims have failed to be dealt with under legal aid, and indeed those who have fled domestic slavery? Will he look again at whether the savings derived are appropriate, given the impact that it will have on these categories of people?

Mr Djanogly: In all of those circumstances-the hon. Gentleman mentioned a lot quickly-I think that we will be retaining access to legal aid.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Recently, Ministers drew attention to the staggering sum of £38 per head of population in England and Wales being spent on legal aid funding. That figure is £3 in France and £5 in Germany. Will he give us the comparisons with the rest of the regions of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland and Scotland?

Mr Djanogly: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that England and Wales spend more on legal aid than anywhere else in the world except Northern Ireland. In Spain, the figure is about £2.50, in France £3, in Germany £5 and in other common law countries it is more like £9 to £11. Some people say that our system is different, but actually other common law countries spend about a third of what we spend on legal aid. After our proposals, we will still be spending more on legal aid than any other country in the world.

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Disability Living Allowance (Tribunals)

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What advice his Department provides to members of tribunals hearing appeals against decisions on the award of disability living allowance. [40463]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Ministry of Justice does not provide any advice to members of tribunals, because the judiciary is entirely independent of the Government.

Bob Russell: Well, I suggest that it is about time the Department did something. It has only to look at the case of Mr Robert Oxley, which I raised at Prime Minister's question time last month. The Minister would do well to look at the records of the tribunal in Colchester, and particularly at the cases heard by Mrs Hampshire.

Mr Djanogly: I must emphasise to my hon. Friend that it is not for Ministers to adjudicate on judges' behaviour, because they are independent of the Government. I can tell him, however, that tribunal members undertake annual refresher training, which enables them to carry out their duties effectively. Any appellant who is unhappy with the decision of a tribunal can appeal to the upper tribunal. If an appellant is unhappy with the conduct of the panel, or a member of the panel, they can make a complaint to the regional judge.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): The tribunal system is under a lot of pressure, with an average wait of between 11 and 12 weeks. This is not only because of disability living allowance claims, but because more people will be coming into the tribunal service as the Government proceed with their migration of those on incapacity benefit on to employment and support allowance. The system is already experiencing stresses and strains. What are the Government going to do to ensure that people get the correct determination in as timeous a way as possible?

Mr Djanogly: We have been in touch with the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that we have a better, more seamless system between the two Departments. We have also been dealing with the increase in tribunal hearings, which the hon. Lady rightly brings up, and have increased the number of judges and the number of medical staff. I am pleased to say that it is now within our sights to end the backlog.

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Legal Aid

Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the likely outcomes of the planned reductions in the legal aid budget. [40466]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Our approach to the legal aid reforms has been to focus resources on those who most need help in the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation is justified. I believe that the outcome will be a system that is more responsive to public needs, allowing people to resolve their issues out of court, using simpler, more informal remedies where appropriate, and encouraging more efficient resolution of contested cases where necessary.

Shabana Mahmood: My constituency is one of the most deprived in the country and is also 60% non-white. Given that the Government's cuts to legal aid will disproportionately affect those on low incomes, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and women, can the Minister explain how his plans for legal aid are in any way fair?

Mr Djanogly: I should point out that people on high incomes do not get legal aid. We need to change behaviour; there needs to be a less contentious approach to the law and early intervention, which means looking at new ideas such as mediation.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): With regard to the outcomes of the reforms, particularly in family law cases, will the Minister clarify and confirm that in such cases, divorcing couples' equity and assets will be taken into account when determining legal aid so that those who can pay do pay?

Mr Djanogly: In public family law, legal aid will remain. In private family law, legal aid will be removed, because we believe fundamentally that the taxpayer should not have to pay for a regular divorce, a contact application or splitting up family assets. People should go to mediation to sort out their problems among themselves-not at the cost of the taxpayer.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I have an example of a case in Sheffield where a 62-year-old grandmother used legal aid to go through the processes she needed to go through to care for her two grandchildren, who were otherwise at risk of going into care. Will the Minister assure me that grandparents in such a situation will be able to do that in future? Otherwise, the cost to the state of caring for small children will be considerably more than that of the legal aid.

Mr Djanogly: What I can tell the hon. Lady is that we do not propose to remove public family law legal aid, and that includes cases in which the state wants to take away someone's children.

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Employment and Support Allowance

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): If he will bring forward proposals to reduce the time taken by tribunals to determine the outcome of appeals against work capability assessments for employment and support allowance. [40471]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Tribunals Service has already acted to increase its capacity to dispose of more appeals. It expects to return to normal levels of work in hand for employment support and allowance appeals by the summer of 2011.

Duncan Hames: In Chippenham, 50% of such appeals are consistently upheld. Those cases need never have arisen if the Government's assessor, Atos Healthcare, had had a sufficient incentive to get the decisions right in the first place. The cost to the Department and the taxpayer was about £10 million last year. Will the Minister discuss with the Department for Work and Pensions mechanisms by which the liability could be transferred from the taxpayer to the Government's contractor?

Mr Djanogly: I can confirm that the Department for Work and Pensions has worked to improve the quality of the original decision making and its reconsideration process so that only appropriate appeals filter through to the Tribunals Service. I am in regular contact with the Department to discuss the matter.

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HM Courts Service

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): What recent progress his Department has made in recouping outstanding financial penalties that remain uncollected by HM Courts Service. [40475]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We have published impact assessments and equality impact assessments alongside the legal aid consultation, and these set out in detail what we think the effects of the proposals might be. We must face up to tough choices, and our proposals focus resources on those who need help most for the most serious cases in which legal advice and representation are justified.

Kris Hopkins: I think that was the wrong answer to my question.

I hope the Secretary of State has made progress in collecting the money that criminals have been fined, and may I ask that once we have collected some of the money and we have made a contribution to reducing the deficit, we increase our prison capacity?

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister delivered his answer with admirable force and self-confidence, but I think it suffered from being the wrong answer, as he was, perhaps, not expecting to be responding to this question. If he can provide us with the right answer to the question now, we will be very grateful.

Mr Djanogly: I think the appropriate answer in the circumstances, Mr Speaker, is that we will look into this issue and get back to the House.

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Topical Questions

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Will the Minister reconsider his original thinking on the definition of domestic violence and the evidential requirement when deciding whether to make legal aid available in family law cases?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I have to tell the hon. Lady that we have just consulted on this-the consultation ended yesterday-and that we will consider carefully what people have said. We put a definition of domestic violence in the Green Paper and we will look carefully at how people have commented on that.

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Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): The whole House will be aware of the worst scenes of poverty in America. Will the Minister with responsibility for legal aid reconsider his reply? Currently, both local authorities and his Department are cutting the money available for advice. Where will the people of Haringey, the constituency in which the baby P and Victoria Climbié cases occurred, get that advice?

Mr Djanogly: Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that citizens advice bureaux and not-for-profit organisations have been able to do legal aid work for only 11 years. Before that, they just gave general advice. He must appreciate that when the previous Government allowed those organisations to do legal aid work, they did not look at the matter holistically. They did not look at the various funding streams coming together or at the waste in the system. Now that the money has gone, we are having to look at those things.

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tephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): I was delighted to hear over the weekend that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has managed to find an additional £27 million to pay for CAB debt advisers. Could any additional funding be found by the Ministry of Justice for groups such as the Brighton housing trust in my constituency, which plays an important role in providing housing advice of the kind that, if it is not dealt with at an early stage, ends up costing-

Mr Speaker: Order. We are very grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Djanogly: Yes, we are looking at various early interventions in relation to housing, welfare benefits, special educational needs and, importantly, private family law.

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Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The Minister recognises that there is a need for advice on debt, benefits, housing and many other things. The problem faced by the constituents of Members on both sides of the House is that although the cuts to legal aid are happening now, his proposed solution seems a long way off. What is going to fill the gap?

Mr Djanogly: We accept that there are issues in terms of funding because a lot of advice is given as general advice and is mainly funded by local councils. We are in discussions across government about how we can approach the matter holistically to make sure that such provision stays in place.

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Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Crawley court house in my constituency deals with a large number of cases, including those emanating from Gatwick airport. Will the Minister agree to meet local magistrates, my local authority and me to see whether the court house could be part of a major town centre redevelopment that is shortly to get under way?

Mr Djanogly: Yes, I am indeed happy to meet my hon. Friend.

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Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Secretary of State think again about the compounding impact of the legal aid cut and Lord Justice Jackson's proposals on victims of criminal negligence? It would be wrong for injured parties to have to fend for themselves, and if they pay for the compensation and the costs of cases, the wrongdoer will be getting away, which would be unfair.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes it clear that Lord Justice Jackson's proposals and our legal aid proposals are being run in conjunction. We were very concerned that they should so that practitioners would be able to compare the two-that is especially relevant in cases of clinical negligence-so we will be doing exactly that.

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