Ken Clarke defends collapse of major migration law firm
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has defended a decision not to prevent the collapse of the UK's largest immigration law practice.
Some 10,000 cases involving migrants, asylum seekers and children are in limbo after Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) entered administration.
The charity with 330 staff says the government owes it £2m for work it was contracted to do.
Mr Clarke said the charity had not managed changes to legal aid.
The majority of RMJ's clients are asylum seekers, but the organisation also represents 900 unaccompanied children and women trafficked against their will by organised criminals into the British sex industry.
Under changes to legal aid , immigration law firms are only paid when a case ends. But some immigration cases can last for years and RMJ said it had no means of paying wages or rent while it waited for the payments from the Legal Services Commission (LSC).
Administrators entered the charity's London headquarters on Wednesday after the trustees said it was crippled by a lack of cash flow. Staff have been paid for June but don't know if they have a job next month or what will happen to their clients' cases.
The decision to call in administrators came after the Ministry of Justice rejected calls to intervene, including a letter signed by the legal experts and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Mr Clarke told MPs that he recognised that the collapse of RMJ was an "unfortunate situation" but that the LSC had identified other firms that could pick up the caseload. The 20 most pressing cases had already received new representation, he said.
But he denied that delayed legal aid payments had caused RMJ's collapse.
"It's not a question of late payments," he said. "Refugee and Migrant Justice was paid what was due, but they did not make the efficiency saving that other providers did.
"The main task now is to ensure that the interests of vulnerable group are protected and no one is left without legal assistance."
But Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes, who raised the issue, said: "There are 13,000 clients currently being looked after by the RMJ, including nearly 1,000 children, who, of course, are very vulnerable."
He said the charity had taken every step required to cut its costs, but had found itself stuck because the system of payment in arrears had left it with no cash flow.
But Mr Clarke said: "You can't suddenly start diverting huge sums of money out of the legal aid budget to bail out one of the voluntary bodies which has got itself into a financial mess because it has not made the same adjustments to the system in 2007 that everybody else succeeded in doing."
The organisation was originally created with some government backing because ministers believed it was in everyone's interests to see experts take on the most difficult cases in the UK.