Subject: Speeches on the Legal Aid, sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – “Sharp Elbowed Britain”
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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Howe rightly said a few moments ago, other amendments later in our proceedings will return to the general question of legal aid. I will reserve some of my remarks for that later group of amendments, as my noble friend indicated that she, too, would do. However, I would be sorry to see the amendment proceed without as many voices as possible being raised around your Lordships’ House in support of what the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, said today. As the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, intimated, this is of central concern. The noble Baroness was right about this at Second Reading and she was right to bring this amendment before the House today. I hope that the Government will reflect on the arguments that were laid before us.
At Second Reading I mentioned that an organisation of which I am a patron, the National Association of Child Contact Centres, had written to me expressing concern about the number of volunteers who are withdrawing from voluntary service because of the pressures that we are placing on them.
That, in tandem with the reduction of resources being made available to Citizens Advice and other voluntary organisations because local authorities have to cut back on their funding, should cause all of us to stop and ask the kind of questions that the noble Lord, Lord Newton, properly put to us earlier. I am sure that the Minister shares many of these concerns.
He would not want to see-any more than any noble Lord would want to see-people with spina bifida, autism, cerebral palsy or any number of physical or mental disabilities placed in a position where they cannot get proper or adequate representation or advice in order to pursue their cases. I hope that he will be able to tell us whether he has had direct discussions with organisations such as Leonard Cheshire Disability and Scope; and I hope that before coming to a final conclusion on these issues he certainly will.
My noble friend Lord Wigley was right to remind us at the outset of the increase in the number of complex questions that are now being placed before people who are dealing with disabilities. During my time as a constituency Member of Parliament I, like my noble friend-although we had very different constituencies; one in rural Wales and one in the heart of the city of Liverpool-was confronted again and again, just as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, was when he worked as a volunteer in legal aid centres or on telephone lines, with complex and difficult questions. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, reminded us that these days the advice runs to more than 7,000 pages in a handbook. It is impossible to deal with these questions when, as we heard, they are incredibly complex and changing day by day, even as your Lordships consider them.
I was struck by a leading article in a Sunday newspaper that commented on the anachronistic nature of your Lordships’ House. It went on to say, thank God for these anachronisms because last week in debates on the Welfare Reform Bill it was the anachronistic House of Lords that stood up for the voiceless and powerless people for whom no one else would speak. I suspect that your Lordships will have to perform the same role again.
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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, there are 13 amendments in this group. The Committee will be relieved to know that I intend to speak to only one of them. The thing that links all these amendments is what my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss described earlier as the paramount interests of the child. That is at the heart of what all of us who come to the debate have in mind.
My noble friend Lady O’Loan, in moving Amendment 33, the amendment to which I should like to speak, said that the key issue here was how this legislation and these proceedings would affect the family and the child. I was struck by a letter that appeared in the Times last week, signed by the most reverend Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Southwark. He joined those who have spoken so eloquently in your Lordships’ House this evening in stating that the Bill will, in his words,
“affect thousands of children whose parents are involved in civil cases”.He went on to warn that,
“the result is likely to be increased long-term public costs and greater suffering”.
The Government have consistently and rightly talked about the importance of responsible parenting in a child’s development. Indeed, when the Prime Minister discussed the structures necessary for giving children the best start in life, he identified them as “strong and secure families” and “confident and able parents”.
Yet how can a parent be expected to remain secure or confident when they face debt that could lead to their utilities being cut off; a discrepancy over benefit payments that could leave them unable to pay for the weekly shopping; or even a compensation claim over an injury leaving them unable to work-all without adequate advice or representation? It is perverse that the Government should, on the one hand, rightly emphasise responsible parenting, and then take away the very mechanisms for securing families’ basic legal remedies on the other.
The challenges posed by the Bill will be felt sorely enough by individuals in the vast range of situations already mentioned in your Lordships’ House today and in previous debates, some of which I referred to in my Second Reading speech. Such challenges will only be exacerbated for those with dependent children for whom they need to provide and care.
The experience of those working on the front line underscores the fact that for many parents civil legal aid is no less than an essential component in securing
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legal redress for their families in some of the most serious and threatening cases. It was the magnificent Lord Bingham who once remarked:
“Legal aid is a service which the modern state owes to its citizens as a matter of principle”.
But principle, along with access to justice, seems to have become an early casualty in our sharp-elbowed Britain.
The national charity, Housing Justice, emphasises:“Housing cases involving families and children are frequently lengthy and complicated, so legal aid is vital if justice is to be done”.
It further remarks:
“It is imperative that children in particular … do not have their misery prolonged because of the difficulty in getting legal redress”.
The House needs to consider today the genuine human suffering that thousands of children will face as a direct consequence of restrictions to their parents’ legal aid entitlement.
As we have heard from my noble friend and many others during the debate today, and from people within the charitable sector, the hardship likely to result will be compounded by the simultaneous changes to the social security system. Many of those changes are complex and will leave many of the most vulnerable families more in need than ever of legal support. This has on more than one occasion been described as a “pincer movement” against the United Kingdom’s poorest.
Depressingly, it reinforces the impression that we are not all in it together and that only those with sharp elbows will survive.
In researching the likely effects of the Welfare Reform Bill, the Catholic Church’s social action arm, Caritas Social Action Network, heard from a client of the admirable Cardinal Hume Centre in Westminster, only a stone’s throw away from this place. This lady, a single mother of three children, who is currently studying, was asked about the likely impact on her family if she fell victim to the new provisions on the recovery of benefit overpayments. Her response was simple:
“My kids and I would suffer”.She went on to state:
“I would struggle to buy anything apart from food”.
Were she to find herself in this situation, as many individual and families are likely to, she would have to face it without the professional advice or support that such complex and technical issues may well necessitate. She would ultimately be left with the choice of trying to challenge a decision herself, balancing this with her studies and with raising her young family, or she would have to take it as a hit without dispute, consequently being left with just enough to put food on the table. I dare say that in some cases parents will be left struggling to do even that. How is this in any sense a fair or just state of affairs?
A very similar case has been drawn to my attention by Caritas in the northern diocese of Salford.
It involves another single mother, training to become a beautician, who received a letter regarding an error in her benefit payments which stated that if she did not repay an amount owed her current benefits would stop. In the event, she was able successfully to challenge the decision and continue her training, but once the 135,000 benefit cases each year are taken out of the scope of legal aid how many like her will be left without any suitable
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Of course, the impressive work undertaken by the charitable sector will mitigate some of the impact. However, as I said in the earlier debate about disability, from the experience that I have had during my time as patron of a charity dealing with children’s issues I know that it is already overwhelmed, and will be increasingly overwhelmed in the future, especially with the cuts to local government funding and the funding that comes in turn to those voluntary organisations.
The sheer volume of cases, many involving a significant degree of complexity, will inevitably leave families falling through the gaps.
I particularly want to draw the Committee’s attention to the Caritas community worker’s commentary on the case which I have just mentioned. That caseworker says that the mother,
“is trying to develop a positive future for her family through gaining qualifications that will hopefully lead to employment but the stress of her situation could have harmed these goals”.The removal of support in such cases will not be a mere inconvenience to parents; it will be a genuine challenge to their best efforts to create a safe and supportive environment for their children to grow up in. In the long run this will, of course, result in significant costs to the state, in economic as well as human terms, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham and others. Many noble Lords have indicated that they are familiar with research from Citizens Advice, which highlights that for every £1 of legal aid expenditure on benefits advice as much as £8.80 could be saved in public expenditure. In cases involving children who suffer as a result of their parent’s case, the true cost may be far higher. That is penny wise but pound foolish.
Finally, I should like to draw the attention of the House to the devastating effects that the withdrawal of legal aid for immigration cases will have on children. Another study from the Cardinal Hume Centre relates to a client with twin girls, aged three. Legal aid was essential to resolving the immigration issues that had created immense difficulties in securing housing and left her at risk of being split from her children. It seems hard to justify denying support in such situations, which would appear certain once again to result in human suffering and, ultimately, public costs.
As highlighted by noble Lords promoting this and the other amendments, there are many areas beyond benefit cases and immigration cases in which children will be hurt by the provisions of this Bill. I commend the report Not Seen and Not Heard, by Sound Off For Justice and Just Rights, which outlines in detail the worrying scope and scale of all this.
It was Churchill who once said that you measure the degree of civilisation of a society by how it treats its weakest members. Surely that is the test that we should apply when considering the ramifications of the provisions of the Bill. I hope that when he replies to these 13 amendments the Minister will give us some assurance that he will go away and consider further some of the arguments that have been advanced.