Coalition MPs have overturned changes to government legislation that would have made it easier for many disabled people to apply for legal aid.
They backed a government amendment to the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill, which reinstated plans for all those seeking legal aid to be forced to use a telephone helpline as their first point of contact.
The government wants to cut about £350 million a year from the £2 billion legal aid budget for England and Wales by 2014-15, but the telephone helpline measure would save less than £2 million a year.
Last month, the disabled peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson spearheaded a successful amendment to the bill, which meant disabled people would have been able to access the system in the most accessible way for their own needs, such as a face-to-face meeting.
But Conservative justice minister Jonathan Djanogly told MPs, when the bill returned to the Commons this week, that using a telephone helpline as the first point of contact would “modernise the system and bring it up to date”.
He said that phone-based advice had often been shown “to be more convenient and accessible than face-to-face advice, particularly benefiting those living in remote areas or those who have a physical disability”.
But the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes criticised his own government’s plans and said he was “not persuaded” that a telephone route was “right for everybody”, such as those with mental health conditions or learning difficulties.
And Labour’s shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the problems of many people with learning difficulties, mental health conditions or communication impairments could be “compounded” by having to explain their problems over the telephone.
There was a partial government concession on another area of the bill that had concerned disabled campaigners.
Last month, peers passed an amendment which would have ensured legal aid was retained to cover the initial appeals of people with complex benefits problems.
But justice secretary Kenneth Clarke told MPs this week that the government could not afford the £25 million a year cost in what was a “relatively low priority area”, as welfare benefits problems “should not generally require specialist advice”.
He did though offer a concession that would allow legal aid for benefits decisions that were being challenged “on a point of law” if those appeals reached the upper tribunal, court of appeal and Supreme Court.
He said the Ministry of Justice was discussing with the Department for Work and Pensions how this could also be extended to initial “first-tier” tribunal hearings for benefits appeals, again only for cases involving legal issues.
But Labour MP Jenny Chapman said social welfare law advice was vital to correct cases in which disabled people had been “blatantly wrongly assessed”.
She said Freedom of Information Act requests showed 32 claimants of employment and support allowance a week were dying after being found “fit for work” by the government’s much-criticised contractor, Atos Healthcare.
Chapman said: “Once internal reviews and first-tier tribunals are exhausted, further appeals can only be on points of law and not on the facts of a case.
“The government’s acceptance of higher courts and not tribunals is like saying, ‘Here’s a penthouse, but we’ve locked the staircase and lifts.’ Far too many disabled people will not get the help they need.”
18 April 2012