Meg Hillier MP, the Law Centre’s local Member of Parliament and HCLC Patron (pictured above), spoke in the backbench debate on legal aid that took place in Parliament on Thursday 27th June 2013.
Read the full transcript of Meg’s speech below:
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I want to talk about the impact of the proposals, the process and the politics of the situation. Before I start, however, I should mention that I have raised the issue with the National Audit Office, particularly after its very good work on interpreters in the criminal justice system.
The Secretary of State ought to be a little worried, because the NAO will be watching and monitoring the situation and waiting to assess the impact. Of course, it always does that retrospectively, but the Secretary of State could save himself a lot of grief from an NAO audit if he improved the scheme from the beginning.
What the NAO can do well is consider the system as a whole. I have asked it to do that and it is considering that request at the moment.
As time is limited, I will not repeat the arguments on the impact of the scheme that have been made eloquently by so many Members. Let me touch on a couple of points, however. The system is often painted as dealing with criminals but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said, people are innocent until proven guilty. A local solicitor in my area has pointed out that more than 50% of the people who rely on legal aid with whom he deals are innocent and are neither charged nor cautioned. This is an attack on the innocent, as well as on those who appear in the picture painted by the Government.
One of the big impacts is through cost-shunting. We have heard a lot about self-representation, more time and duplication of work. Those are serious issues.
I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee and when we consider such issues, we see time and again that one Department makes cuts and pushes the cost on to another.
We must consider the system-wide elements and I am not convinced that the Government have done that.
I will not repeat the other arguments, save to mention what happened when I was a Minister dealing with challenging issues, when I took on dealing with children detained with their families. In that investigation, I uncovered the immense cost of not getting proper legal advice at the beginning of a case.
It caused huge problems and damage to those children at a later date. There was also a huge issue with the geographical spread of cases. I did a round table in Wales and swathes of that nation in our country did not have immigration lawyers. I fear that this change will only exacerbate that.
On the process, the consultation has been rushed. There has been no proper opportunity for debate in this House and we have heard of some of the inadequacies in the consultation. The statutory instrument in the autumn will be the only opportunity the House gets to vote on these proposals and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has said that the Opposition are not afraid of a debate on the issue.
There have been no pilots. The points about changes made elsewhere should also be considered and perhaps pilots could compare this option with some of the others. I was a witness in court in the past year and was appalled at how much time was wasted. I was in a room with four other witnesses, some of whom were also victims. Only one was called into court that morning. One woman had some sandwiches and I realised as I left that she must have been prepared-indeed, she had been before and knew that her case might not be heard. What a waste of everyone’s time and money!
It is everyone’s-it is taxpayers’ money, it is my constituents’ money and the situation needs to be considered. This is not the way to do it. It is a cack-handed approach, but the situation is presented in a very political way.
Costs have gone down, as legal aid spend figures published yesterday show, but I have not time to go into that.
The Government are trying to paint the picture that they are being tough on criminals and immigration. That rhetoric is unhelpful. It attacks many of my constituents, who need good advice. Even with legal aid, we have a two-tier system. The changes will cut the vulnerable adrift.
Many of my constituents have suffered because they cannot afford expensive lawyers and legal aid lawyers are already stretched.
There is politics attached to this. We have heard from the Deputy Prime Minister, who is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying:
“You could say it’s perverse that a Government with Conservatives in it is reducing public choice”-
we have heard that already-
“rather than increasing it…on the back of the consultation we should see if there are alternative, less disruptive, less unpopular ways of delivering” savings.
So there you have it, Madam Deputy Speaker. If the Liberal Democrats decide that this is unpopular, they might persuade the Government to drop it. Given that we have no vote on it, that might be our best bet. So I urge those who are listening to this debate to turn up in droves to the surgeries of Liberal Democrat Members and persuade them that it is unpopular. Then perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister will have his way.
See the speech here at 3.19pm –