I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for giving me advance sight of his statement, and I note his apology at the beginning of it. One must admire the mind-reading ability of senior journalists at The Sunday Telegraph and The Times. It was a huge discourtesy to the House, but it provided the advantage of 24 hours' notice of a statement to be made on the Floor of the House. I am grateful to both Patrick Hennessy and Simon Coates for their ability to do just that. The Green Papers on cutting legal aid and reducing civil costs are among the most important that the Government have published to date. Legal aid is one of the pillars of the welfare state, and was set up by the Labour Government after the second world war. It plays a crucial role in tackling social exclusion, especially in hard times such as now. It ensures that everyone may have access to justice, regardless of their means. Under successive Governments, the legal aid budget has grown to the point where it now stands at more than £2 billion. That is not sustainable, especially in the current economic context.
I have six questions for the Lord Chancellor. The previous Labour Government had moved to cap the legal aid budget, and to reduce it. We also planned to turn the Legal Services Commission into an Executive agency. Do the Government have any plans to introduce legislation to achieve that aim?
In recent years, we brought the principle of fixed fees into civil and family legal aid cases, introduced means testing into magistrates and Crown courts, and on the very day that the general election was called we signed off on cuts to advocates' fees in the higher courts. We took these decisions because we recognised the need to reduce the legal aid budget. It is worth reminding the House that many of our actions were taken in the teeth of opposition, from both the legal profession and Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members. I am looking forward to hearing their contributions to this debate.
Let me be clear: had we been in government today, we, too, would have been announcing savings to the legal aid budget. That is a reality that we all have to acknowledge. The crucial questions are: where to make those savings, and how to spend the money that is left available. What equality impact assessment has the Lord Chancellor undertaken of the proposals? Our policy was-and is-to control the legal aid budget and get value for money for the taxpayer, while optimising services for people who need support the most. That is why we concentrated much of our investment on social welfare legal aid. Legal aid delivered has the power to changelives and save money. The housing possession court duty scheme, for example, saved thousands of people from repossession. It delivered a social and financial good. Are the Government committed to preserving that and similar schemes?
What balance do the Government intend to strike between civil and criminal cases? Can the Lord Chancellor explain why he is proposing more severe cuts in civil and family legal aid than in criminal legal aid? Can he say whether he agrees with the Attorney-General, who said that "legal aid is no longer available for a large number of people who ought to be entitled to it"? If so, in what areas does the Lord Chancellor intend to expand the provision of legal aid?
We will carefully consider the Green Paper on legal aid and the equally important paper on Lord Justice Jackson's review of civil legal aid costs before we respond in further detail. I would note, however, that Sir Rupert Jackson argued against cutting the legal aid budget, and the Lord Chancellor has decided to ignore that view. In conclusion, the basic test that we will apply in both cases is whether the proposals will deliver a saving to the public purse while ensuring that no one is denied access to justice because of their means.
This blog is apolitical but it seems that apart from minor tinkering around the edges the only Lord Chancellor in our history who is not a lawyer is going to achieve his objectives. It will be impossible to return to the status quo and I fear that irreparable damage to a pillar of our modern legal concept of justice is being effected before our very eyes.