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Mr. Gill: During her deliberations on these very difficult questions, will the Minister bear in mind the fact that Shrewsbury was effectively cut off from the capital of the country with the withdrawal of the inter-city service from Shrewsbury to Euston some years ago? One of the greatest boons to the encouragement of public transport in our county would be the restoration of the inter-city route from Euston to Shrewsbury. Many Salopians travel to Crewe, Birmingham International and other stations to catch their trains to London. That, I believe, would not happen if there were an adequate inter-city service from the county town.

Ms Jackson: It would be churlish for me to remind the hon. Gentleman why our integrated railways became less than integrated. It may have had something to do with his Government's policy of rail privatisation, but we, as the new Government, have to deal with the situation with which we have been left. He will be aware that we are concerned to ensure that the £1.8 billion of taxpayers' money that goes into our railways every year produces a high-quality railway service for the people of this country. We are continuing to urge Railtrack to ensure that it really does invest the amounts that it claims it is prepared to invest into our railway system, so that more passengers and freight can be moved on our rail network.

Mr. Paterson: I had a meeting last week with Railtrack and Virgin Rail and am pleased to say that they are planning to bring forward by a year, to next summer, the planned date for restoring daily services from Shrewsbury to London. However, in Shropshire we want both. We want better rail services, but we also want, indeed need--this is the point of my speech--a better road, because certain traffic will not go by rail.

Ms Jackson: I am delighted to hear that Railtrack and Virgin Rail are producing the desired results for Shrewsbury. The hon. Gentleman referred to the needs of the people of Shrewsbury. Those needs could be replicated anywhere in the country. The Government are concerned to create a properly integrated transport strategy in which the carriage of passengers and freight can genuinely be shared.

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Easy access to public transport and good interchanges between different public transport services are critical. However--to refer to my carrot and stick analogy--carrots may get us only so far. We must also look at the sticks.

Telling people that they cannot do something that they have hitherto done, or are continuing to do, will cost them more is never easy. We must also be careful that we do not cut across our objective of creating a just and inclusive society and so make mobility the province of the rich.

That brings us to the third and last option: providing new infrastructure. This is also a very difficult option, both financially and in terms of its potential impact on the environment. Circumstances vary from case-to-case. In some cases a new or widened road may be the only option. In others, it may be the best--or least worst--option. There is no substitute here for rigorous case-by-case examination of the options.

We are looking region by region at the perceived traffic problems and the roads programme we inherited from our predecessors. We regard the existence of a scheme in the inherited programme as prima facie evidence of a transport problem. Apart from the roads already under construction and those on which we took decisions in the accelerated review last July, the Government are not committed to any of those schemes at this stage.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the Minister assure the House that the strategic implications for economic development, in this case for north, mid and west Wales, will be included in such a review when assessing, for example, the A5 trunk road?

Ms Jackson: As I have already pointed out, the whole purpose behind our consultation process and the publication of a White Paper next year is that there should be a strategy to create an integrated transport system not only for the short and medium term but well into the future. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the point that I made earlier: in Wales a similar review is taking place, based on exactly the same principle. We have to have a strategic overview.

Once we have identified the priority problems, the next step is to ensure that all the credible options are properly evaluated. There is no presumption that a road scheme is the right solution, or that a scheme in the roads programme is the best option. We envisage two outputs from this part of the review: first, a short-term investment programme; secondly, a programme of studies to look at the remaining problems--from which we will develop the medium and longer-term investment programme.

The short-term programme will include measures to make better use of the existing network, and new construction schemes. The new construction schemes are

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likely to come from the inherited roads programme and address priority problems in a way that is consistent with our integrated transport strategy. We will not put schemes into the programme if it is clear that an alternative option could obviate the need for the existing scheme. The right thing to do in those cases is to study the alternatives more fully before reaching decisions.

I now deal with the specifics of the hon. Gentleman's point about the A5 between the west midlands and north Wales. As he said, the A5 is an important transport link in regional, national and international terms. It is designated as part of the trans-European network route known as the Ireland-UK-Benelux road link. Over the past few years, improvements have been made to the Oswestry bypass, the Chirk bypass and its extension over the Welsh border to Ruabon, and the Shrewsbury to Telford improvement.

Other schemes to improve the Wolfshead Weirbrook section and provide a bypass of Nesscliffe have not gone forward. However, the hon. Gentleman has made it quite clear--both to my noble Friend and in his speech this afternoon--that the A5 has a poor safety record in this area. The Highways Agency is well aware of these problems and is considering various options, including options for an improvement at Shottaton crossroads, for which a 50 mph speed limit and speed cameras, are proposed. The cameras will be installed this year, and speed limits will follow once the statutory processes have been completed. The Highways Agency also proposes to introduce camera sites west of Churncote. It is seeking more information on accident problems on particular sections of the road and is looking at options for traffic-calming measures in Nesscliffe.

The whole of the A5 corridor is being considered as part of the roads review. The Government office for the west midlands is seeking regional views on priorities for investment on trunk roads for the region in the context of an integrated approach to transport planning. Officials from the Government office met local authorities from Shropshire and from Hereford and Worcester on 30 September. At that meeting, the local authorities expressed clear support for dualling of the A5 between Ruabon and Shrewsbury. I know that a route assessment study is being carried out for Shropshire county council, which is partly funded by the Highways Agency. We shall take that work into account when we make decisions on the road programme that will emerge from the review.

I must make it clear that a roads-based solution might not be the best one. As I have already said, we want to look afresh at the role of our road system in an integrated approach to transport planning. We seek long-term solutions that will promote sustainable economic development. The criteria are open and above board--integration, environment, accessibility, safety and economy. We should remember that the A5 forms part of the trans-European road network.

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Legal Aid

1.30 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the Government's legal aid proposals because I regard legal aid as embodying an important principle that we should support and empower. Individuals, especially those who do not have the financial means to employ legal services themselves, sometimes find themselves against big organisations, big corporations and power. Legal aid is an important means of addressing imbalances in our society. The people need the law, and now more than ever in view of the complexity and size of the powerful business organisations that they often have to oppose. They need its support and it should be available to them. If we are to have an equal legal system in which individuals have the ability to take on big power they must be backed in some way by public provision.

I am worried because it seems that the Government's proposals tilt the balance against the people in favour of power in a hasty and ill-considered fashion. If the Government's paramount aim is to provide an efficient service for the less well off, which it should be, the obvious approach would be to take the money that is now provided for legal aid--about £1.5 billion--and use it to establish a competing employed service of solicitors and barristers in the form of a public defender service dealing with criminal cases. It would comprise also a nationwide network of law centres dealing with all the civil matters that are raised in the courts. It is worrying that the Government appear not even to have considered such a service. It seems that they have not considered how we can provide better, more efficient, more direct and more committed support. Instead, the Government are engaged in a Treasury raid on legal aid.

Labour Members criticised the previous Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, because his proposals were Treasury driven, yet the Labour Government's proposals seem to be a Treasury nuclear raid on the system which if implemented will effectively destroy it.

I intend to deal primarily with the proposals for compensation cases, which seem to be straightforward and simple and would cut out legal aid completely. I will do so in a spirit which is, of course, helpful to the Government because it will allow them to flesh out their proposals, to tell us what is involved and to demonstrate that the issues have been considered.

Compensation cases are classic instances of the individual against big power--drug companies, industrialists, hospitals or the health service, for example. In many instances, these cases advance the public interest because they prove dereliction of duty and failure on the part of large organisations. In all these instances, the individual is weak when facing the large organisation unless he or she is empowered by some form of public provision.

My hon. Friend the Minister, when he replies, may accuse me of defending vested interests--in other words, lawyers--but instead I am defending the interests of the people, consumers, because they are paramount. I do not care about lawyers squabbling among themselves, with one branch of fat-cat lawyers accusing another branch of being fat-cat lawyers, which is edifying for the rest of us as a spectator sport. The real problem is to decide, against the background of that distasteful argument, how we might best protect the people.

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First, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister how much will be saved by removing legal aid from compensation cases. Various estimates range from £600 million to £800. Those figures reflect the cost of civil non-family legal aid. What will be the saving? Are the figures to which I have referred net of recovery? Is recovery to be deducted from the estimated saving? If so, the saving will be comparatively small. There will be a massive shift of power against the people to produce a small saving at the end of the day.

I have no doubt that there are abuses in the legal aid system. The Lord Chancellor has told us, and I agree, that the public should not finance unwinnable cases. I am horrified to be told that the public are supporting such cases. If that is happening, I am sure that the Lord Chancellor has the power to stop the public purse being drained in that way. The issue, however, is to deal with the abuses as they occur rather using abuses as an excuse for scrapping the legal aid system.

We must provide an alternative if we are to cut legal aid. The only alternative is to provide legal aid through a network of law centres.

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