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Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley) : My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern felt not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), who has already been mentioned and who has visited the scene, but by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) who we are glad to see in his place today.
Could my hon. Friend have discussions with those companies that convey explosives and other dangerous substances to see whether, in advance of the implementation of the new regulations, it might be possible for them to improve their procedures particularly relating to the marking of the substances? That would ensure that, even before the regulations come into effect, a repetition of yesterday's accident will be made much more unlikely.
Mr. Bottomley : I know that the House will acknowledge what my hon. Friend has said about my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). The Nobel division of ICI has, over the years, had one of the best records in terms of the consideration of health and safety. I am not saying that it or anyone else is perfect, but I am sure that it is already making the investigations and inquiries to which my hon. Friend has referred.
I have taken advice and, without being able to confirm that it is absolutely right, I believe that it would not be unlawful for any company to put markings on vehicles now. They do not have to wait for the regulations to be laid and regulations to be passed.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the hon. Gentleman make the regulations a little more comprehensive? Together with his hon. Friends in other Departments, will he ensure that those regulations cover the transport of nuclear weapons, radioactive and other forms of nuclear material?
Mr. Bottomley : I think the House would prefer me to take the regulations that come from the Health and Safety Commission after the work of the Health and Safety Executive and lay them before the House as they are.
Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North) : Many hon. Members who have quarries in their constituencies will be aware that those of their constituents who live close to them will have been particularly shocked and distressed at yesterday's accident. Explosives are a vital part of the quarrying and mining industry. When my hon. Friend considers this matter, will he assure us that he will bring in the mines and quarries inspectorate to consider the safety of the materials as they are conveyed to quarries, and the route that some of those materials take? I am sure that many people will be reassured by the figures that my hon. Friend has given about accidents, which should allay some people's fears. I should be grateful if he would involve the mines and quarries inspectorate in this work.
Mr. Bottomley : I know from my previous service at the Department of Employment that the Health and Safety Executive brings the relevant inspectorates together. I believe it is better for either myself or other Ministers to be answerable in this House, but to maintain the Health and Safety Executive and the Commission as the bodies that primarily bring the industries and the experts together from all sides of industry. It is the practitioners who have the responsibility to ensure that their work is as safe as reasonably practicable and, in this respect, I believe that
Column 1273the record shows that they generally have. What happened yesterday was things going wrong rather than things going according to the book.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Will the Minister accept that there seems to be a leisurely course in dealing with health and safety at work regulations? A study of the current statutory instruments list shows that many of them are intended to raise charges for optical and dental examinations and a whole host of other things. Last night the House approved many instruments that will cut legal aid without any proper scrutiny. That happens when the Government want to increase charges.
Why have health and safety regulations taken so long? Will the hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that those regulations will make absolute provisions for training and marking and that we are not about to go down the road to qualifying the requirements with the words "so far as reasonably practicable", which the Health and Safety Executive and the commission are rather fond of using? The Minister knows that those words place a cost on carrying out that requirement and such words can be used in a defence in court. We want an absolute provision so that employers are required to ensure training and proper and adequate marking.
Mr. Bottomley : Having transferred a partial tribute to the hon. Gentleman from his hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I now believe that he does not deserve it. To introduce other extraneous matters when we are dealing with the serious issues of what happened yesterday and the new regulations that have come through the Health and Safety Executive machinery is to end this statement on a low note.
The hon. Gentleman should remember--assuming that he knew in the first place--that the words "so far as reasonably practicable" lift up the level of provision rather than providing a ceiling to it.
Mr. Bottomley : If a firm can do something that is reasonably practicable, it has a duty to do it. The obligations go beyond what is just written down if it is reasonable to do that. As somebody who is not a lawyer, I do not think that I shall take legal advice from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).
Column 1274been carried in the same load for the explosion to take place? Will he take steps to ensure that in future, such materials are never carried in the same load? Further, will he ensure that all explosive material is immobilised in any transit journeys of the type undertaken on this occasion?
Mr. Bottomley : I think that my hon. Friend is asking me if such loads can be rendered inert, rather than immobilised. I cannot give an answer to his first point, but I am sure that the Health and Safety Executive's inspector's report, which will be published, will cover that issue.
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : Where was the vehicle destined to make its delivery? Is the Minister suggesting that the existing regulations do not require those transporting explosives to show warning signs? I am sure that many people will be astonished if that is the current practice. Will the Minister answer two questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) which I do not believe he answered? When did the consultation on the new regulations begin, and when did that consultation end?
Mr. Bottomley : I imagine that consideration--I am not sure whether it involved consultation--started in 1979, when the last amendment to the previous regulation was made. There is a continuous process of review. I suspect that the passing of the new regulations will be the start of a new process of considering what more can be introduced. The key point is that the majority of countries in Europe still believe that our previous, and up to now present, practice is right : the security of not advertising the fact that explosive material is being carried is better than the secondary safety which will be introduced as a result of our consultations and changes of view. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there is a clear- cut answer, he is wrong. It would need only one more example of illicit explosives being used to cause the death of a number of people for others to turn round and say that the "obvious" point recognised by the hon. Gentleman is wrong rather than right. I have been open with the House about the change of view as to what will provide the greater protection.
Mr. Speaker : In view of the time taken by the statement, the debate in the name of the hon. Member for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones) will now conclude at 5 minutes to 12, and the debate on the legal profession will start at that time.
Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn. 11.29 am
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : Before the statement I was asking who would be paying the price for the health authority's inability to develop a coherent strategy in financial and planning terms. I am convinced that in this case the patients in Gwynedd will pay the price : what a heavy price it is. Is it right that the patient pays a penalty when he or she has committed no wrong? Why should we be punishing innocent victims?
As the Minister will know, the people of Llandudno lose a children's ward, and Groesynyd hospital will close. The Druid hospital closes, with the proviso that a new ward is to be built on the Cefni site at Llangefni. The Madog hospital is to close. Caernarfon cottage hospital may have had a temporary reprieve but still faces the axe. St. David's hospital is to close and services are to be transferred to ysbyty Gwynedd.
Let me assure the Minister that neither I nor my colleagues are saying that every hospital should be kept open for all time. Hospitals need to close when the buildings are old, difficult to maintain and heat and when they become costly. However, they should not be closed at the expense of decent, comprehensive community provision.
I was astonished at some of the statements in the Secretary of State's letter of 3 March to the authority approving the plans. It said :
"The Secretary of State accepts that implementation of your Authority's proposals will in fact mean some reduction of services, including loss of beds, notwithstanding that overall implementation will maintain services and indeed improve some."
To be charitable, the Secretary of State is saying that there will be virtually no change, but, at worse, there will be a significant reduction in the provision for many people. I have no hesitation in saying that the old will suffer as a result of the plans. On the position in Llangefni, if the health authority had introduced plans for a fully resourced, fully funded community hospital, I would not have objected, and neither would the staff and patients, to the closure of Druid.
What should be done? One does not criticise others lightly and I accept that I have been highly critical of the health authority today. I have done so only after careful consideration of the matter and in the knowledge that my views are likely to be reported. However, there are occasions when one feels that there is a duty to speak out and I do so today on behalf of my constituency and the people of Gwynedd. In my view, the authority has failed in its statutory duty to provide a comprehensive health service for Gwynedd. I call upon the Secretary of State to set up an inquiry into the affairs of the authority, as he has powers to do under the National Health Service Act 1977. If he finds that the authority is in breach of its statutory duty, he should issue a direction to ensure that it complies with that duty.
In the meantime, I call upon the members of the health authority who voted for the rationalisation plan to consider their position and ask themselves whether they can, in all conscience, remain members of an authority that has failed the people of Gwynedd.
Column 127611.33 am
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate. It is a timely debate in view of the major threat to the vital hospital facilities in Gwynedd. Two hospitals in my constituency are under threat. The first, the ysbyty Madog in Porthmadog, has regrettably had its closure confirmed by the Welsh Office and the second is the Caernarfon cottage hospital, which is subject to further consultation on the dental facility, but which we fear will be subject to the same rubber-stamping exercise thereafter, as has happened to the four hospital facilities that are being closed.
I need not stress to the Minister the outrage that is felt in Gwynedd about the proposals. He should know that from his constituency. The outrage was manifested in Llandudno on Monday this week when 400 people unanimously passed a vote of no confidence. He should remember the experience of his predecessor but one, now Lord Thomas of Hendon, who, because of the strong local feelings on the issue of leasehold reform, lost his seat. The Minister should take note of that lesson.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mo n has put the general arguments about the failure of performance by Gwynedd health authority over a number of years. I touched on those arguments in our debate on 14 June 1988 and they were not answered by the Under-Secretary of State. They are even more persuasive now. The guts of the argument is this question : why on earth should the ordinary people of Gwynedd who depend on these hospitals be chastised and lose their services because of the health authority's ineffectiveness--an ineffectiveness which the Welsh Office has acknowledged?
Our impression is that, because the Welsh Office was not able to get from the health authority the performance that it wanted, it sent in consultants. So as not to be criticised by the Welsh Office, the health authority slavishly adhered to the consultants' report, without differentiating between or looking to the merits of individual proposals. We suspect that the health authority has called the Welsh Office's bluff. The Welsh Office is afraid not to rubber-stamp the closures in order to ensure that the health authority does not blame any future predicaments on the Welsh Office. This yo-yo game is not good enough. There is a need for greater statesmanship and vision and a need to ensure that any
rationalisation is part of a coherent, long-term strategic and investment plan that ensures that there are services worthy of the 21st century.
In Porthmadog we should be moving towards a new community hospital to serve the ysbyty and north Meirionnydd area. That proposal has been put forward on numerous occasions by the health authority but is not part of any strategic plan. The closure is taking place in a vacuum. It is ridiculous that a town of the size of Porthmadog should face the prospect of having no hospital.
The number of objections to the proposed closure is so large that the Secretary of State has failed to take proper note of them. In annexes E and F of the decision the Secretary of State said that no objection had been received from any of the community health councils in Gwynedd. That was said as a justification of the closure decision.
Column 1277On 13 March, a letter from the secretary of the Arfon-Dwyfor community health council to the Welsh Office said :
"The members of my Council at their recent meeting were astounded at the statement in Annex E and F that no objection had been received from any community health council'. A letter was sent to the Gwynedd Health Authority on 7th March, 1988, setting out this Council's detailed objections to the proposals affecting the 3 hospitals in the Arfon-Dwyfor area, namely, St. David's Hospital, Bangor ; Cottage Hospital, Caernarfon ; and Madog Memorial Hospital, Porthmadog. On the same date, a copy of the letter was sent to your Department".
The Welsh Office is playing with words. On 20 March, the Welsh Office said in a parliamentary answer to me that it was firmly aware of the objection of the community health council dated 7 March but, because it was it was dated March and not April, it had referred to the fact that no objection had been received from any community health council. The Minister cannot get away with that. It is not good enough. Why does the Welsh Office not just admit that it made a mistake?
The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts) indicated assent.
Mr. Wigley : That would be much more honourable. I see that the Minister nods. If he is going to admit that a mistake was made, that is fair enough. However, if a mistake has been made, the whole issue should be reconsidered. The Minister should go back to the drawing board because the decision on Porthmadog was reached after an 8 : 7 vote at the Gwynedd health authority meeting. It was a knife-edge vote. Given the enormous number of objections, the Minister should think again.
The Porthmadog hospital was set up as a trust, as a memorial to those people from the Porthmadog area who lost their lives in the first world war. Does the Secretary of State have the right to close the hospital and reduce the service in the area? Does he have the right to sell off the building? Surely it should revert to the trustees as a war memorial building. This matter may well be taken up in a legal case by people from the Porthmadog area, who feel strongly about it. If the closure goes ahead, the Welsh Office should be warned that there will be an enormous campaign to have a new, much-needed community hospital for the area.
I should like to refer to the cottage hospital in Caernarfon. There is still a glimmer of hope because the Welsh Office has asked for further consultation to be undertaken on the dental side. The Minister knows that I and my family have a strong personal commitment to this hospital. My goodness, that hospital is not going to close if there is anything that I can do to stop it. I say that in all seriousness.
Many objections have been put forward by people in the Caernarfon area and it seems that, again, evidence has been lost. I have a full list of the names and addresses of the people whom the Welsh Office recognises as having submitted objections. It was sent to the area health authority and it has come into my possession. It does not include the names of numerous people who, I know, have sent objections. I have a letter from Selwyn Griffith, clerk of the Llanddeiniolen community health council dated 15 March, confirming that objections were sent formally opposing the closure proposals. Yet his name does not
Column 1278appear on the Welsh Office list or the area health authority list. That is only one example. I could quote dozens of examples of people who have written in and have had their letters acknowledged, but who have not received a copy of the consultation document or any other acknowledgement of their objection. This serious matter needs to be looked into because it appears that consultation procedures have not been carried out as they should have been.
Circumstances at the cottage hospital have changed dramatically over the past 15 months, since the closure proposals were put forward. Utilisation at the hospital in 1988 was 80 per cent. of a 14-bed facility, compared to only 67 per cent. of the 10-bed facility in the original proposal. That is a massive difference in utilisation. The staffing level is now down from 21.5 full-time equivalents in 1987--the figure given in the consultation document--to 17.5 full-time equivalents. Those two factors taken together mean that the cost at the Caernarfon cottage hospital for patients is equivalent to £10 per patient per day cheaper than in ysbyty Gwynedd, one of the alternatives being put forward. It would be ridiculous for the health authority and the Welsh Office to go ahead with the closure when circumstances have changed so dramatically since the proposals were drawn up.
There has also been an increase in the demand for geriatric provision at ysbyty Gwynedd and the specialists there have used the cottage hospital increasingly for people to recuperate in the community. Further consideration is to be given to dental provision. I ask the Minister for assurances that there will be a further public meeting in Caernarfon to consider the new proposals that he has asked the health authority to bring forward. Will he also clarify whether objections should be sent to the health authority or the Welsh Office, as the Welsh Office does not appear to take much notice of objections sent to the health authority? Will he also confirm that the whole proposal to close the cottage hospital at Caernarfon will be looked at again, rather than just the dental aspect? One aspect affects the others and logically the whole matter must be considered afresh, in its entirety. Finally, can the Minister confirm that, as circumstances have changed since 1987, those changes will be considered by the Welsh Office before a decision is taken? I support the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mo n. Members of the health authority should consider their position and the Welsh Office should consider seriously the future of the health authority itself as a result of this sad saga.
The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts) : This debate is being held in the light of the decision letter issued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the hospital rationalisation proposals of Gwynedd health authority and I fully understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones) and for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). Their constituents are affected, and so are mine because I too am a Gwynedd Member.
I believe that my right hon. Friend's decisions on the Gwynedd health authority's proposals were right in the context in which they were taken and that they lay the foundations for a potentially better health service in Gwynedd. Of course, my right hon. Friend and I appreciate that the process of transition to a new pattern of services is not easy, but the long tradition of service by those hospitals scheduled for closure should not blind us
Column 1279to the strenuous efforts of the health authority to provide a full and effective service elsewhere. The proposals that have been approved by my right hon. Friend include a number of features which will improve the service available to Gwynedd as a whole, such as the reprovision of psychiatric facilities in purpose-built accommodation at ysbyty Gwynedd and the integration of maternity services on the district general hospital site. They also include proposals of local benefit such as the centralisation of care for the elderly in refurbished premises at Llangefni in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ynys Mo n. The approved proposals provide an opportunity for the health authority to build for the future, and the Welsh Office will be watching with interest to see whether the lessons that have been learned can be applied elsewhere.
The hon. Member for Ynys Mo n has spoken at some length about his assessment of the management of Gwynedd health authority. It may help, therefore, if I dwell for a moment on the relationship between the health authority and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend is of course ultimately responsible for the National Health Service in Wales, but the day-to-day running of hospital services is delegated to the district health authorities. Health authorities are responsible for providing effective and efficient services to people in their districts from within the revenue resources allocated to them. They are also responsible for planning the future pattern of services, using the most appropriate combination of buildings and equipment, within the capital funding provided to them and on the basis of capital allocation assumptions for future years published for planning purposes by the Department. Authorities' shares of both capital and revenue resources are determined each year using formulae agreed by the joint NHS/Welsh Office resource allocation working group. Health authorities are under a statutory duty to keep their finances within balance. The hospital rationalisation plans to which my right hon. Friend has given his approval form part of a package drawn up by the health authority to bring its finances into balance. The health authority first drew the attention of the Welsh Office to its financial problems at the beginning of 1987. After discussion with the authority's chairman and senior officers it was decided to bring in management consultants, at the Welsh Office's expense, to investigate the authority's financial position. The consultants concluded that the authority's problems had their roots in 1984-85, with a developing trend of overspending on budgets in following years. The authority had managed to contain its overspending by taking advantage of non-recurrent savings-- including slippage on capital schemes--and in 1986-87 by substantially increasing its creditor balances. But by 1987-88, the position had become untenable.
The consultants attributed the authority's position to the cumulative underfunding of pay awards, an increase in activity levels, particularly in high-cost specialties at ysbyty Gwynedd, the failure to make recurrent savings to finance the 0.5 per cent. transfer of funds to priority groups and the effects of incremental drift on pay.
The consultants also concluded that insufficient management action had been taken to control activity and spending levels. Later in their report they were critical of the authority's systems of planning, budgeting and financial control. It is vital that, as part of its programme to restore financial balance, the authority takes vigorous
Column 1280action to improve its arrangements for planning, budgeting and financial control, and I am pleased that action has been set in hand to achieve that.
The authority remained within its cash limit in 1987-88 mainly as a result of advances from the Welsh Office and the effect of emergency measures adopted by the authority when its financial crisis first became apparent. A similar combination of advances, together with the effects of the emergency measures, has contained the position in 1988-89.
The problems are the more serious when set against the background of an authority that has been shown--by both the capital and revenue formulae used to assess the relative funding position of Welsh heath authorities--to be one of the best resourced in Wales. The growth in recurrent revenue resources which will have been made available to the authority in the period 1978-79 to 1989-90 is some £21.5 million, or more than 51 per cent. after adjusting for actual and expected inflation. That is the second highest rate of growth of any authority in Wales, and it compares favourably with the Welsh average of 44 per cent.
In the light of these figures, I cannot say that I am satisfied with the level of financial management which has been shown by the authority in the past. However, I am encouraged by the steps that the authority is now taking to improve its performance in that respect. There have been several references to the consultation procedures which led to my right hon. Friend's decision letter. It may be helpful if I outline the details of the procedures under which Gwynedd health authority consulted upon its hospital rationalisation proposals. Before I do so, one or two points have been raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon about objections by two community health councils. I openly admit that there has been an error, for which officials have already apologised to the community health councils in question, in that the letter of 3 March conveying my right hon. Friend's decision did not record the fact that objections were submitted to him by Aberconwy and Meirionnydd community health councils following the health authority's meeting on 25 April. Although the decision letter in the case of Meirionnydd CHC was inaccurate in not correctly attributing the objection by Meirionnydd CHC, the council's two objections were discussed in paragraphs 19 to 21 and 34 of annex F of the decision letter.
In view of the council's statutory duty with regard to representing the interests in the Health Service of the public in Gwynedd, my right hon. Friend has looked again at its objections, but he is satisfied that his original view of them is correct and that the authority's proposal to close the Madog memorial hospital is still to be supported.
The bulk of the objections submitted by Aberconwy CHC was a copy of its representations to Gwynedd health authority during local consultation. They were considered by my right hon. Friend before the issue of the decision letter. A letter is being sent today to all those who received the original decision letter notifying them of the additional consideration that has been given in each case. I am aware also that the hon. Member for Caernarfon has written to my right hon. Friend raising several points about the additional consultation to be carried out on the proposals for the cottage hospital at Caernarfon. My right hon. Friend will send a separate detailed reply to him. I should like to confirm that my right hon. Friend will be
Column 1281prepared to take into account all objections received about the cottage hospital as part of his additional consultation, whether or not they relate specifically to the dental service.
I have already referred to the responsibility of district health authorities in Wales for the detailed planning of health service provision. Responsibility for local consultation on the plans produced also rests in the first instance with district health authorities. In formulating plans, authorities are required to have in mind the need to make the most efficient use of their available resources which is consistent with the changing needs of patients. Ultimate ownership of all health authority buildings is normally vested in my right hon. Friend. In view of the fact that proposals for permanent closure or change of use can have a significant effect on the community, special arrangements have been designed to ensure that the public and all local interests are fully consulted. The procedures provide a right of appeal to my right hon. Friend, who decides on the proposals in the full knowledge of the contending considerations. Guidance is contained in the procedures for consultation on the closure and change of use of health buildings set out in planning paper No. 5. I stress that the role of my right hon. Friend is essentially to consider whether to approve the health authority's proposals, in the light of objections made to him. Under the consultation procedures, it is not the role of the Welsh Office or my right hon. Friend to draw up proposals of their own.
Mr. Wyn Roberts : The hon. Gentleman says that my right hon. Friend has a duty, but his duty is exactly as I have spelled it out. Of course he has a responsibility for the National Health Service in Wales, but when these sort of proposals are put before him his role is to decide whether to approve them. It is not up to him to make his own proposals.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : I am delighted to have this opportunity to be the Member of Parliament who initiates our first debate on the Lord Chancellor's Green Paper on reform of the legal profession.
As, sadly, this debate has been personalised in some quarters, let me state my credentials. I am a barrister, although I make no claim to being a distinguished or senior one ; I have devoted too much time to politics since the age of 20 to aspire to that. But I have a good working knowledge of criminal courts. I venture to suggest that MPs are rather more in touch with public opinion than most barristers. That is not the fault of barristers : it is simply that it is our job and not theirs.
The Green Papers have been widely reported and, it must be said, criticised by interested parties--or perhaps I should call them vested interests. There is nothing pejorative about that phrase. In a democracy, vested interests have as much right to comment as independent observers who, while they may be more objective, may be less knowledgeable.
I thought that it was time for an hon. Member to congratulate the Lord Chancellor on bringing forward the Green Papers. They are an excellent working brief for our debate. Above all, they deserve sober comment rather than hysterical outbursts in newspaper advertisements.
In my conversations with fellow barristers, it has been put to me that the Green Papers begin with dogma. My colleagues say that there is no sustained proof of the shortcomings of the Bar or of how reforms could benefit the public. The "dogma"--the alpha and omega of the papers--is a belief that restricting rights of audience and the promotion of solicitors is a restrictive practice that should be swept away. I do not view that as dogma. It is a sensible assumption.
My barrister colleagues, however, would say that such a restraint on the rights of solicitors is an historic and well-tested tradition and also protects the rights of small country solicitors, enabling them to brief the best in the land. It provides an independent cadre that is dedicated to the pursuit of justice, rather than profit or success in courts.
It has been put to me by my colleagues that, were the reforms to proceed, there would be no incentive for able young men and women to join the Bar, which would wither away as an independent force. I hope that I have been fair to the comments of my colleagues.
In my conversations with the public, I am afraid, I have found not a shred of sympathy for the barristers' case. That does not deter me from my opinions. Lawyers were unpopular long before politicans. The public seem to take the discomfiture of barristers with a large pinch of salt. I attach considerably more respect to the informed lay arguments, that barristers must take their turn to be reformed, like everybody else.
I now come to my views. I hope that they represent a reasonably informed and objective view of these matters. I hold the Bar and its traditions in deep affection. I respect its senior men and women for their learning and their commitment to justice. As a nation, we should be proud of
Column 1283our incorruptible and dedicated judiciary. It would be a tragedy if the independent Bar was swept away or even withered away. The traditions of integrity, the skills and the low overheads of an independent Bar compose what is probably the most efficient economic mechanism known to man. The independent contractor freely offering his services in the open market will--this is the crux of my argument-- survive and prosper if the reforms are brought in. The experience of the Commonwealth shows that an independent Bar survives such reforms. The Australian experience in New South Wales proves that an independent Bar can survive and be prosperous, vigorous and independent despite giving rights of audience to solicitors in all courts ; nor have large in-house firms of advocates in New South Wales taken work from the independent Bar.
However, we need not look to Australia to confirm that analysis. Our own experience as practising barristers is cogent enough. When solicitors were granted rights of audience in county courts, many of the same arguments were used, such as : "They cannot be trusted as instruments of justice." Not only have those arguments been proved groundless, but the independent Bar flourishes in the county courts. When one walks into any magistrates court in London--I fear that I have walked into too many in my life--one sees that the benches are filled with young barristers, notwithstanding open competition from the solicitors. Why? The barristers are cheaper. They are not paid for those interminable hours of waiting around for their case to be called.
In my experience, few solicitors running busy criminal practices with large overheads and enormous out-of-court work pressures, such as meeting clients, organising bail late at night and much else, would dream of taking on lengthy, relatively poorly paid Crown court trials. Why should they, when most solicitors have known to them a group of experienced advocates who devote their whole life exclusively to court work and to the paperwork that is directly connected with it?
Again, experience in New South Wales shows that little High Court work-- only about 10 per cent.--has been taken from the independent Bar by solicitors. However, equally, I have come across solicitors who can present an excellent case in long old-style committals--men with a lifetime of experience in the law and in the lower courts. Is it seriously contended that those men of mature years, of sound legal training and practical experience, are not capable of representing a client just as ably as a 22- year-old barrister with six months' desultory pupillage under his belt? Of course not.
My barrister colleagues have said that if somebody wants to become an advocate, "Why not become a barrister?" They say, "Why should we labour for years in the vineyard for little reward as a barrister, while the prodigal son--a solicitor--walks in at the last moment and helps himself to the plums?" What sort of argument is that? The enemies of the Bar would claim that it merely shows an attitude based on exclusivity--even snobbery--that has no basis in logic.
We all know how difficult it is to start at the Bar, especially for women and for minority groups, but in reality it is difficult for all of us. We have all had that experience. If a young man or woman has been forced by economic necessity to become a solicitor and if increasing
Column 1284family commitments make it impossible to transfer, should that young man or woman, assuming that he or she develops into an outstanding lawyer, be denied the ability to practise his or her trade at the highest level? Of course not.
At one end of the scale there is an unanswerable case in justice for the solicitors ; at the other, we have well-attested evidence that the Bar will survive and prosper, even in the face of open competition. Put like that, the case for the Lord Chancellor's reforms is unanswerable.
However, all that is beside the political point : how can we, members of the Conservative party, justify dealing with restrictive practices, closed shops and vested interests for working-class people--for dockers and print workers--but not for our own people? What would the country think of us, especially as there is widespread belief that legal costs are too high?
The public remains to be convinced that more competition will not lower costs. Indeed, members of the public consider that, if they are not fortunate enough to be wealthy or able to obtain legal aid, the legal system--certainly as regards civil proceedings--is closed to them, and that is a disgrace.
Time does not permit me in this short debate to deal with conveyancing, except to address the central issue of advocacy rights. My advice to the Lord Chancellor is to listen and ponder, and perhaps to compromise on some issues, but to proceed on the main issues of the rights of audience.
I have a few suggestions, for what they are worth. Worries about multidisciplinary practices and their effect on an independent Bar should be taken seriously, and if a compromise must be made, perhaps this is an area for so doing. However, it can be asked, if barristers are to lose their right of exclusive audience in the higher courts, why should they not be compensated by free access to partnerships and direct relationships with clients?
We are giving our opponents a handle by setting up a structure of legal advisory committees and advocacy certificates. The constitutional arguments from certain judges are, frankly, bogus. The Lord Chancellor already appoints judges, and the committees will only set down standards of practice. Perhaps we should consider simplifying matters by extending rights of audience and leave the rest to self-regulation.
In any event, I call on the judges to lower the temperature. The remark by the Lord Chief Justice was, frankly, way over the top. The judges must take the lead in suggesting consensus and refrain from using inflammatory language that does their case with the public no good.
The Bar will have to do a deal with the Law Society. The Law Society pressed the Lord Chancellor to act, and his proposals are the result. The Bar cannot will them away with a Saatchi and Saatchi advertising campaign. Indeed, it will have to do a lot better than the "Wrong, wrong, wrong" advertisment. What nonsense to suggest in that advertisement that, if the reforms were to proceed, high street solicitors would wither away. This week the Law Society published a temperate and sensible response. Its views cannot be ignored by the Bar, any more than by the Lord Chancellor.
As a Government, we believe in self-regulation. Clearly, the Bar Council and the Law Society must sort out standards of advocacy, and it is better that they, rather than we, do it. The Lord Chancellor must also do some
Column 1285more work on the effect on the consumer. Will this reform lower costs? As I have said, for too many people it is just not an option to go to court. Can we have more information on foreign experience? The Crown prosecution service question must be examined in more detail. That service has not been a success. Nor, in my view, will it ever be able to attract sufficient first-class entrants, if employed barristers cannot practise in Crown courts. It would clearly be absurd if employed barristers could prosecute but employed solicitors, often working in the same office, could not. The "Wrong, wrong, wrong" advertisement from the Bar Council was also deeply insulting to the integrity of Crown prosecution service personnel.
We need more information on the nature of the Bar. I doubt that it is the small elite known to judges that it was. To what extent, however, does the esprit de corps feeling facilitate justice, and how much has that esprit de corps broken down in recent years? Those are a few suggestions and questions. I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on having the courage and determination to take these issues on in a positive and understanding way. He has conducted himself in an exemplary fashion in this debate. He deserves the thanks and the praise of the whole House.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : We live in stirring times. After 700 years, a determined Government of outsiders has dared to question the automatic rights and the closed shop of the Bar. The Bar's response has been surprising. Here is a profession which is supposedly good at thinking on its feet and which can always see the tactical advantage and the way forward, yet from this profession I see an outraged and hysterical response --hardly the cool and dispassionate dissection of an argument that I was taught as a young pupil.
I have yet to attend a meeting as a barrister where the word "consumers" is used--certainly not with approval. Now the Bar has moved to lower forms of attack. We have already heard arguments ranging from exaggeration to obvious misrepresentation and they have done no good.
The Bar has accused the Government of a sinister attack on its independence. What of news given to me last night by a colleague at the Bar, that the Bar Council has a file on me and other hon. Members which it intends to use for future attacks? It has already criticised my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor. It said that the Lord Chancellor is a Scot and does not understand the English system, that he had not thought out his proposal carefully, that he prepared it on a Sunday afternoon when he did not have a great deal of time, and that he had been pushed into it by the Prime Minister, another barrister. It says that the Prime Minister had only a short time at the Bar and does not understand how it works, and that she is simply seeking revenge for some petty pique that she acquired during her brief period at the Bar.
That is a total disgrace and does nothing to enhance the standing of an ancient profession worthy of the highest respect. The Bar argues tha the client is entitled to Rolls-Royce treatment and therefore has to pay Rolls- Royce prices, but that rests on a number of