§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
I beg to move,
That the Legal Aid (Financial Conditions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 (S.R. (N.I.), 1993, No. 121), dated 11th March 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th March, be revoked.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss at the same time the following motions: That the Legal Advice and Assistance (Financial Conditions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 (S.R. (N.I.), 1993, No. 123), dated 11 th March 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th March, be revoked.
That the Legal Aid (Assessment of Resources) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 (S.R. (N.I.), 1993, No. 122), dated 15th March 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th March, be revoked.
That the Legal Advice and Assistance (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993 (S.R. (N.I.), 1993, No. 124), dated 15th March 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th March, be revoked.
§ Mr. McNamara
The original purpose of the legal aid scheme was that. all people, regardless of their means, should have access to the legal system; not only the poorest in our society, but also those of moderate means who could not otherwise afford to litigate.We are committed to enabling people with limited means to have access to justice.So said the discredited Conservative party manifesto of last year. The original aim of the legal aid scheme has now been sabotaged by Government cuts.
It seems clearly contradictory that a Government who boast about their citizens charter, much good though it has done citizens and Government, is, through the regulations, denying those same citizens the chance of enforcing their rights by cutting legal aid, and no more severely than in Northern Ireland.
There is no doubt that the regulations will have a severely restrictive effect on the availability of justice and many people will now be denied access to legal aid in Northern Ireland.
The lower limit below which a person is entitled to receive legal aid without payment of a contribution has been reduced from £3,060 to £2,294, with the upper limit remaining at £7,500 per annum for personal injuries cases and £6,800 for all others. That, coupled with the increase in the fraction of disposable income which is payable by way of contribution to one quarter to one third of the difference between that person's disposable income and the lower free limit, will have the combined effect of depriving a significant number of people in Northern Ireland of the ability and the right to seek justice.
The figures concerning the changes in Northern Ireland are not readily available, but in a written reply to a question of mine, the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, said thatthe effect of the introduction of the new regulations will be a small decrease in the proportion of households eligible for legal aid. It is estimated that this reduction will be in the region of two percentage points."—[Official Report, 19 April 1993; Vol. 223, c. 9.]He also indicated that more households would be made to pay increased contributions.
I believe that the figures and the suggestions put forward by the Parliamentary Secretary are misleading 248 and that the effect on people in Northern Ireland will be even more severe than the hon. Gentleman predicts, as there are more people on lower wages there than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Government's failure to publish figures shows all too clearly their "don't know, don't care" attitude and exposes the measures for what they really are—Treasury-inspired, ill thought out and with no consideration for the prospective litigants seeking justice in the courts.
The figures of the number of people affected in England, Wales and Scotland range from hundreds of thousands to many millions. I do not wish to play the numbers game because no one knows what the figures really are. The thing that matters is that not one single person should be denied an opportunity to obtain justice. But to satisfy the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his autumn statement, money is to be saved at the expense of justice. That is not a proper basis for the changes to the legal aid system set out in these regulations. Any alteration should come about as a result of a thorough and comprehensive review of the cost-effectiveness of the legal aid system, something which has been generally lacking throughout the United Kingdom and especially in Northern Ireland.
In England and Wales, the Law Society and the Bar Council put forward an alternative package of proposals which they believed would save the Treasury £43 million and protect the eligibility levels. I have contacted the Law Society in Northern Ireland. It, too, was willing to consider any and all ways to cut costs, but, because of the profound lack of consultation surrounding these measures, the Law Society proposals have not been given the consideration that they undoubtedly deserve. The Law Society in Northern Ireland invited the Lord Chancellor some time ago to discuss the best ways to implement measures and it is still waiting for a reply.
My office has also been in touch in the past week with-the office of the Lord Chief Justice in Northern Ireland and, although not wishing to comment on actual cuts in eligibility, he has assured me that he has been active in seeking to resolve the differences beween the Lord Chancellor, the Law Society in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Bar. We wish him well in his future efforts in very testing circumstances and we hope that he has more luck in influencing the Lord Chancellor than has his counterpart, Lord Taylor, in England or, for that matter, any interested body in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would give the House an undertaking that in the future, before such regulations are brought forward from the Lord Chancellor's Department, it will work closely with all the relevant groupings in Northern Ireland because it has singularly failed to do so in this instance. Will he also give the House an undertaking that if agreed savings can be found between the professions and the Lord Chancellor's Department it will be possible to restore the cuts in eligibility in the near future?
Opposition Members had hoped that some credit might be given for the fact that in Northern Ireland expenditure on legal aid per head of population is significantly lower than in England and Wales and that the average cost of all cases is also lower. I realise that it may be unfair to compare costs because we are not always comparing like with like, but I feel that these are relevant figures. In 249 England and Wales the average cost of a case was £2,008, in Scotland £815 and in Northern Ireland only £613. So for the sake of argument, even if there was a case for the cuts to be made in legal aid—I do not believe for one second that there is—surely there is even less of a case for these measures to be applied to Northern Ireland than there is in England, Wales and Scotland.
Once again, an English solution to an English problem has been exported and imposed upon the people of Northern Ireland without any regard for the logic or the justice of the situation. These cuts have been introduced without particular research into the effects that they will have on Northern Ireland.
It is impossible to impose basically the same regulations on Northern Ireland when its history is so different. Northern Ireland has generally suffered higher unemployment and poverty levels and the present conflict makes access to legal aid perhaps more fundamental, more necessary, than anywhere else.
Of course, it is possible to argue that Northern Ireland, like Scotland, has been spared a certain amount of the harshness of the cuts, as the contributory part of the green form scheme has not been ended and the contribution liability will not continue throughout the life of the case, but will be limited to one year. This should, of course, be welcomed, as far as it goes, but it is more a sign of incompetence and lack of research on the part of the Lord Chancellor's Department in failing to recognise that different laws affect Northern Ireland than of any show of leniency by the Government to the people of Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, we should be under no illusion that these parts of the cuts in eligibility will not be ended. In a written reply in another place to an inquiry whether the changes in eligibility in England and Wales would largely be extended to Northern Ireland, the Lord Chancellor stated:It is not possible, under the present enabling powers in Northern Ireland, for regulations to be brought forward immediately to give effect to two of the changes which have been made in England and Wales—namely, the extension of the payment of contributions over the lifetime of the case and the abolition of the contributory part of the legal advice and assistance scheme. Nevertheless I intend to bring forward legislation, as soon as a suitable opportunity arises, to enable the Northern Ireland civil legal aid eligibility criteria to be fully aligned with those in England and Wales."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 April 1993; Vol. 544, c. 73.]The Lord Chancellor may regard this as a promise; I regard it as a threat.
I, and I am sure most hon. Members, hope that, before such a move is made proper research will be carried out to assess the consequences, although on experience this seems highly unlikely and the people of Northern Ireland will, as a result, suffer for it.
I was under the impression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Whips were silent. They are also, apparently, deaf. Therefore, I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman—
§ Mr. McNamara
I take the hon. Gentleman's word for it that he is not learned. Certainly the content of his regulations when they came before us were not. But I assume that he is an honourable man. Therefore I ask the 250 hon. Gentleman to give an undertaking to present an extensive consultation paper before these further changes are proposed.
It is vital for the Government to commission a wide-ranging and detailed study into the effects of the legal aid eligibility cuts throughout Northern Ireland. Work must be done urgently to establish the cause of the rising costs. How can the Lord Chancellor talk oftargeting legal aid towardes those people whose need is greatestwhen his Department has not even identified those who are in greatest need?
Indeed, these changes will hit some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the community. Two groups among those who will suffer the most are women and children. It seems ironic that, in the immediate aftermath of major expenditure on the setting up of the Child Support Agency, the Government should now be implementing proposals which will tend to reduce the availability of legal advice to the very mothers whom the Child Support Agency was designed to help.
Similarly, the Children's Order (Northern Ireland) will create a need for significant advice and assistance by lawyers to parents. These new regulations seem deliberately designed to ensure that this desperate need is not met, at a time of great emotional stress and considerable financial worry for women and their children.
Such a study as Labour is urging would establish the savings that could be made in the ways in which legal services are provided. Then perhaps it would be possible to raise, not cut, eligibility levels. Unless such a review is undertaken, the very person that the whole scheme was constructed to help, the person of modest means with a legitimate case, will the greatest sufferer. The unhappy effect of all the Government's recent conduct of financial affairs has been that the person of modest means—wherever that person may be—has been the greatest sufferer.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor)
It is important to set the debate in its context. Disciplines on public expenditure are necessary. Notwithstanding that fact, we are entitled to say that our legal aid system in this country—in using that expression, I rightly include Northern Ireland—remains the most generous in the world.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) asked, "Who are the most needy?" In Northern Ireland, civil legal aid is available to 65 per cent. of households or more. That means that two thirds of the community, all the way up from the most poor, remain eligible for civil legal aid. The arrangements for criminal legal aid are even more generous, a considerably larger section of the community being eligible without contribution.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North made the common vernacular mistake of referring to the alterations as cuts. They are not cuts. Spending on legal aid in Northern Ireland is destined to continue to rise, and legal aid is actually available to a larger proportion of citizens in Northern Ireland than in Britain.
It is important to be honest about these developments. The hon. Gentleman is correct to say—as I said in answer to his parliamentary question—that we assess that a decrease of about 2 per cent. in those eligible for legal aid 251 is to be expected. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Law Society both in this country and in Northern Ireland suggesting packages that could involve economies. Let me say on behalf of the Lord Chancellor that those suggestions were greatly appreciated, and the Lord Chancellor's Department is more than willing to continue to explore them. In fact, those items have been on the agenda of the efficiency commission since the mid to late 1980s. I must say that there has not been a very high degree of professional urgency in pressing them. We are more than happy to look at the profession's suggestions for economies that can be made—although I must tell the House that, as I have said on another occasion, their suggestions to date have proved on examination to be worth considerably less than claimed.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State would join me in paying tribute to the legal aid staff in Northern Ireland who have continued to do their administrative work, sometimes in the most appalling and, to my mind, quite frightening conditions.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North asked me to give certain undertakings, and I will certainly address the matters that he put to me. I cannot predict what spending options might become available in more prosperous future times—in the realms of legal aid or elsewhere in public expenditure—but I am quite sure that, in more prosperous times, there will be no shortage of competition for the resources that are then available.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to comment upon the fact that the Lord Chancellor has indicated that there may well be two further disciplines to be anticipated in legal aid in Northern Ireland. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would wish me to say that these matters can in no way be delivered by an Executive act. They can be made available on a recommendation of the Executive, but it is Parliament that will decide—Parliament is the correct and ultimate forum for consulting the representatives of the people. The hon. Gentleman may be assured that that proper parliamentary route will be the only route down which any further changes can proceed.
The regulations which are the subject of this debate and which came into operation on 12 April 1993, have had the effects of decreasing the disposable income limit below which legal aid is available without payment of a contribution; increasing from one quarter to one third the fraction of disposable income which is payable as a contribution towards the cost of legal aid; decreasing the disposable income limit below which legal aid advice and assistance is available without contribution; aligning the allowances taken into account when computing disposable income in assessing eligibility for legal advice and assistance and for legal aid with those applicable for income support; increasing the sliding scale of the amount of capital to be disregarded in respect of persons of pensionable age; increasing the disposable income level below which legal advice and assistance is available; extending the disregard of certain forms of welfare benefit in the assessment of financial eligibility for legal advice and assistance and substituting a new scale of contributions payable by recipients of legal advice and assistance.
The regulations do not affect criminal legal aid in Northern Ireland and are concerned with civil legal aid, legal advice and assistance by way of representation. Having explained the main effects of the regulations, it will be helpful to the House if I explain why the Government have taken these measures at this time. The House will be 252 aware that the financial criteria determining eligibility for civil legal aid, for advice and assistance—commonly referred to as the green form scheme—and for assistance by way of representation—often referred to as ABWOR —in Northern Ireland, have historically been the same as those applied in England and Wales.
Over a considerable number of years, eligibility changes introduced in England and Wales have been effected simultaneously in Northern Ireland. As in England and Wales, the cost to the public purse of civil legal aid in Northern Ireland has been escalating over the last few years and the Lord Chancellor was satisfied that the policy of applying similar financial criteria in the two jurisdictions should be continued on this occasion to control the acceleration of growth.
The need for these measures is illustrated by the fact that over the past four years, overall expenditure on civil legal aid and advice in Northern Ireland has more than doubled from £.5.1 million to £10.3 million. In the three years from 1988–89 to 1991–92, the number of civil legal aid and advice and assistance bills paid increased by 22 per cent. while the cost of these bills increased by 63 per cent.
The Government are satisfied that such a rate of increase in the expenditure of taxpayers money cannot be allowed to continue. The regulations, the detailed effects of which I have already outlined to the House, will help to contain this growth in expenditure. But in so doing, the regulations have been designed to safeguard access to justice to the greatest possible extent and will direct available funding to where it is needed most. I stress that rather than being cut, expenditure on the legal aid scheme will continue to rise.
By the admission of a Labour spokesman in the House of Lords relatively recently, our system of legal aid is the most generous in the world. It is also probably one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, and the taxpayer has an interest in the matter.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)
Like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), I am not entirely satisfied that the Lord Chancellor's Department is absolutely correct to say that there will be only a very small reduction in the number of households affected by the economies. I doubt very much whether the reduction will be as low as 2 per cent. of expenditure overall.
With regard to the inevitable means-testing of applications for legal aid, I am not certain whether the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North is correct to say that people on low incomes will be hurt most. There are reasons to believe that people in the so-called middle-class bracket will suffer most. In many cases, middle income groups will find that legal aid actions will be priced out of their reach.
Oddly enough, the middle income group tends to be legitimately involved in seeking redress for grievances and in various civil actions. We must be very careful to ensure that those people are not being unduly deprived of resources. Could the Minister explain what he said about the vast and dramatic increase in the legal aid budget for Northern Ireland? Is it possible for him to give some categories that might show why there has been a mushrooming in the budget? He mentioned that there was the straightforward funding of legal action and legal aid 253 for representation. In Northern Ireland, legal aid for representation is especially important because I understand that he had third-party representations in legal cases in mind.
Thought needs to be given to a separate matter which may not be strictly relevant in the context of these orders —the impact on law centres and advice agencies. I know that that matter was considered at great length in the United Kingdom Legal Aid Act 1988. I wonder whether it is permissible to refer to that in the context of the present debate. I support the Labour party case that there should be a commonality and relationship—proportionately, if one likes—between expenditure in Great Britain and that in Northern Ireland. It is not enough for the Minister to say that the number of households will be limited. Certainly, it is no case for awarding Northern Ireland a budget that is smaller per capita than that for Great Britain. If it is the case that there is a variation and Northern Ireland is on a lower scale than the rest of the United Kingdom, that cannot be defended in any way.
I am sure that we are all searching for economies and want to ensure that moneys are spent wisely. Can we examine the possibility of effecting economies by omitting legal aid for cases that border on the frivolous on many occasions? In some cases, the cost of legal aid for preliminary hearings can be almost out of reach and has the habit of multiplying vastly when cases are taken to higher courts on appeal.
Mr. John M. Taylor
With the leave of the House, I feel that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) is entitled to a response. If there are any matters that I cannot address comprehensively because of the lateness of the hour, he and I can exchange letters because I am anxious to be obliging. He dwelt on the. question whether we could enlarge on why the legal aid bill had gone up so much. That has been a source of puzzlement in the Lord Chancellor's Department.
One is driven to a conclusion which may require further investigation, but the fact is—I do not say this whimsically but in a straight manner—that the legal aid bill has gone up because lawyers' bills have been escalating faster than any known relevant attendant index. Certainly, volume has increased a little, but lawyers' bills have gone up much more than volume. One must look at the unit costs of the practitioner. Why are cases taking longer? I am tempted to say—with some humility—that, since the lawyers drafted the bills in the first place, perhaps they can help us by explaining why their bills have gone up. I would be interested to hear their explanation.
I have always tried to be sensitive to the interests of Northern Ireland and its representatives in the House. I give a pledge—I was not asked for this—that I will continue to examine closely any representation that comes from Northern Ireland and its hon. and right hon. representatives in the House. I end as I began: this is probably the most generous system of legal aid in the world. However, it is expensive and we must exercise some discipline from time to time.
§ Mr. McNamara
By the leave of the House, I shall make just two observations. The first is in reply to what the leader of the Ulster Unionists said about the measure affecting many people. By modest means I referred to the salary and wage levels in Northern Ireland in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. But the effect of the increases could be across the board.
My second observation is that if we are punishing the litigant for the sins of the profession, the Government should have examined that in any case, in their auditing and control of payment of moneys. It seems wrong that the ordinary citizen should suffer because of what the Minister suggests is some fault on the part of the legal profession. That, above all, is the reason why we should vote against the regulations tonight.
§ Question put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 56, Noes 129.255
|Division No. 290]||[10.50 pm|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||McCartney, Ian|
|Battle, John||McFall, John|
|Beith, Rt Hon A. J.||McMaster, Gordon|
|Boyce, Jimmy||McNamara, Kevin|
|Caborn, Richard||Mahon, Alice|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Mallon, Seamus|
|Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)||Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)|
|Coffey, Ann||Meale, Alan|
|Cryer, Bob||Michael, Alun|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)||Milburn, Alan|
|Dixon, Don||Miller, Andrew|
|Dowd, Jim||O'Brien, William (Normanton)|
|Etherington, Bill||Paisley, Rev Ian|
|Fatchett, Derek||Pike, Peter L.|
|Foster, Rt Hon Derek||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Gordon, Mildred||Rendel, David|
|Graham, Thomas||Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)|
|Hanson, David||Skinner, Dennis|
|Hendron, Dr Joe||Spellar, John|
|Hinchliffe, David||Stott, Roger|
|Home Robertson, John||Wallace, James|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||Wilson, Brian|
|Hoyle, Doug||Wise, Audrey|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Worthington, Tony|
|Illsley, Eric||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Jowell, Tessa||Mr. Harry Barnes and|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Mr. Andrew Mackinlay.|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Chapman, Sydney|
|Amess, David||Congdon, David|
|Ancram, Michael||Conway, Derek|
|Arbuthnot, James||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)||Cran, James|
|Baldry, Tony||Davies, Quentin (Stamford)|
|Bates, Michael||Day, Stephen|
|Bellingham, Henry||Devlin, Tim|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Dover, Den|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Duncan, Alan|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Bowis, John||Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Evans, Roger (Monmouth)|
|Brazier, Julian||Fabricant, Michael|
|Bright, Graham||Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Forth, Eric|
|Browning, Mrs. Angela||Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)|
|Burns, Simon||Freeman, Roger|
|Burt, Alistair||French, Douglas|
|Carrington, Matthew||Gale, Roger|
|Carttiss, Michael||Gallie, Phil|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Garnier, Edward||Page, Richard|
|Gill, Christopher||Patnick, Irvine|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Gorst, John||Richards, Rod|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)||Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)|
|Hague, William||Robinson, Mark (Somerton)|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)|
|Harris, David||Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela|
|Hayes, Jerry||Ryder, Rt Hon Richard|
|Heald, Oliver||Sackville, Tom|
|Hendry, Charles||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Horam, John||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)||Spencer, Sir Derek|
|Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)||Spink, Dr Robert|
|Hunter, Andrew||Sproat, Iain|
|Jack, Michael||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Jessel, Toby||Stern, Anthony|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Stephen, Michael|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Streeter, Gary|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Sweeney, Walter|
|Knapman, Roger||Sykes, John|
|Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Knight, Greg (Derby N)||Taylor, John M. (Solihull)|
|Kynoch, George (Kincardine)||Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)|
|Lait, Mrs Jacqui||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Legg, Barry||Thurnham, Peter|
|Lidington, David||Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)|
|Lightbown, David||Tredinnick, David|
|Lilley, Rt Hon Peter||Trend, Michael|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|MacKay, Andrew||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Maclean, David||Waterson, Nigel|
|Maitland, Lady Olga||Watts, John|
|Malone, Gerald||Wells, Bowen|
|Mans, Keith||Whittingdale, John|
|Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Willetts, David|
|Mates, Michael||Wood, Timothy|
|Mawhinney, Dr Brian||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick|
|Merchant, Piers||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Neubert, Sir Michael||Mr. Andrew Mitchell and|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Mr. Michael Brown.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.