The UK Government has downplayed concerns about legal aid "deserts" by suggesting everyone can still rely on a telephone helpline to access advice.

Debating social welfare law cases in the House of Lords, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, advocate-general for Scotland, said legislation would be introduced "later this year" to pilot provision for social welfare advice for people threatened with eviction.

However, Labour’s Lord Bach, who led an extensive inquiry on access to justice, said that "two small pilots over a two-year period hardly begin to tackle the scandal that a large number of our fellow citizens cannot get the legal advice that they need and are entitled to".

"The number of new cases that were helped last year was one-quarter of those helped in the year 2012-13, just before the ghastly LASPO Act came into effect - all that at a time of increasing living costs and families finding it difficult or impossible to cope," Lord Bach said.

Labour’s Lord Kennedy of Southwark said the pilots seek to quantify the benefits to individuals, their support networks, the Government and, ultimately, the taxpayer – but questioned how this could be achieved "when the number of providers of these services has been reduced by a third and in some areas we have a complete desert of providers".

Figures published by the Ministry of Justice show that the number of civil providers has shrunk from 1,817 in April 2012, when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force, to 1,369 in February 2022.

Lord Stewart replied: "We understand that there are areas where there are no providers, but perhaps I may offer him this assurance: the Legal Aid Agency keeps the matter under constant review and looks to engage with new providers where there are none. No part of England or Wales is without access to legal advice, because of the existence of a national telephone helpline, which can be drawn upon by people who require to access legal aid and assistance who would not otherwise have that available to them."