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Middle East Peace Process

11. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): What progress has been made in the middle east peace process. [44524]

17. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): What progress has been made in the middle east peace process. [44530]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett): Concern has been expressed at the Cardiff European Council about the continuing deadlock in the middle east peace process and the threat that that poses to the stability of the region. We have reiterated our strong support for the efforts of the United States to gain the agreement of the parties to a package of proposals which, if accepted, would open the way to the relaunch of final status talks. We have welcomed Palestinian acceptance of those proposals and continue to call on the Government of Israel to give a

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clear and positive response. The European Council also welcomed the increasingly substantive role of the EU under the UK presidency.

Mr. Dismore: Does my hon. Friend agree that economic stability is fundamental to Israel and the Palestinians--a fact recognised by both sides? Does he also agree that we should make as much progress as quickly as possible towards the final EU-Israel association agreement, which would make a major contribution to promoting and maintaining the economic stability that is so necessary to the peace process?

Mr. Fatchett: My hon. Friend will know that the EU-Israel association agreement has been ratified in the House and undergone all the United Kingdom parliamentary procedures. That is true for the overwhelming majority of European Union countries. It is not true, however, for Belgium and France. The process is therefore held up in those two countries.

Dr. Starkey: Land for peace is a crucial element of the middle east peace process. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Israeli Government appear to be trying to pre-empt the final settlement by extending illegal settlements across the whole of the west bank, with the associated road building, and by continuing planning policies in east Jerusalem that are changing the demographic balance between the Arab and Jewish populations to the detriment of the Arab population? Is he particularly concerned about the danger posed by the Israeli Government's plans for the E1 site, a huge site adjacent to Har Homa, which, if developed, would cut the Palestinian area in two?

Mr. Fatchett: We have always accepted the principle that land for peace is the basis for progress between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That is why we have continued to urge further redeployments by the Israeli Government. We hope--we have said so on many occasions--that they will take the United States' suggested offer, which is on the table. That is the way to make progress. We have also made it abundantly clear that we see the settlement development as inimical to the peace process and illegal in international law. We again urge the Israelis to stop the settlement development. Otherwise, it is impossible to achieve further redeployments and meet the Oslo principles, which we consider so important.

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Legal Aid (Reform)

3.31 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I beg to move,

The case for reform of the legal aid system is widely accepted across the House. The argument between the Government and the Opposition is about the means by which most effectively to do so.

The background to the present problem is well understood: an exponential rise in the legal aid budget over the past six years. As the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department has pointed out, the budget stood at £682 million as recently as 1990-91. By1996-97, it had ballooned to an alarming £1,477 million. To place the matter in context, one observes that the budget for civil legal aid and family cases has tripled over that six-year period to £671 million. The average cost of pursuing those legally aided cases has risen by 53 per cent. over and above inflation. Yet, at the same time, 39,000 fewer pieces of legal advice or representation have been provided. In short, it is true that, as the Parliamentary Secretary has pointed out, we have been paying more, but getting less. That clearly cannot be expected to continue.

In defending the Government's consultation paper, "Access to Justice with Conditional Fees", the Parliamentary Secretary told us that the Government wanted

He went on to contend that, in his judgment and that of the Government, they could do most productive good for the British people in the area of social welfare--employment matters, housing, tackling debt-related problems, benefit entitlement and, in some cases, pursuing actions against bureaucracy and officialdom. I do not necessarily disagree with that analysis. The Parliamentary Secretary was making a reasonable point, although we differ about whether the Government's announced, and thus far largely unamended, proposals will achieve the reasonable objectives that the Government have established.

In response to the statement by the Parliamentary Secretary, his shadow, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), observed that the Government's plans were

My natural restraint and moderation, which are familiar throughout the Chamber, are such that I do not intend today to indulge in such an arsenal of aggressive adjectives to describe the likely outcome of the Government's policies. I content myself with observing that in all the debates on these matters, little, if any, reference has been made to whether specific categories of persons should not be eligible for legal aid or should face greater restrictions before being able to secure it. That is a reasonable proposition--I put it no more strongly than that--for the House to consider.

We are all familiar with the old saying, "No taxation without representation." There must be an argument that we are entitled--perhaps morally obliged--as an elected

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legislature to impose some restrictions on the rights to representation in British courts of people who neither ordinarily live nor pay taxation in the United Kingdom. That seems a reasonable proposition.

In preparing this Bill, I naturally inquired about how many people might be covered by legal aid in the category which forms its essence. I was sorry, and somewhat surprised, to discover that there are no collated statistics on people who do not live or pay tax in the UK, but nevertheless receive legal aid. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) chunters from a sedentary position that he thinks that that is a satisfactory state of affairs, but I do not. I make no criticism of the Legal Aid Board for failing to keep statistics because living or paying tax in the UK is not a legal criterion for applying for or granting legal aid. However, if we are in favour of transparency and openness, as the Government say that they are, those factors are relevant. A public register should be established to record who has applied for and received legal aid. It would categorise and explain the cases of those who do not live or pay tax in the UK but who nevertheless receive help. My first concern, therefore, is that there is no public information.

My second concern is that although there are no overall collated statistics, we know that 67,175 bills had to be paid in respect of immigration and nationality cases in 1996-97, which constituted only 4 per cent. of the total legal aid budget. Significantly, I remind the House, and Conservative Members in particular, it amounted to a 45 per cent. increase in such cases over three years.

My third concern is whether we get value for money in respect of such cases. The sad answer is that we do not know. Although individuals, including lawyers, may be sceptical of whether legal aid should continue to be granted for particular cases or of whether such aid should be granted in the first instance, and although they can apply to the Legal Aid Board for a review of the decision to provide such funding, the board does not have to give reasons for its decisions. It can decline to review the provision of legal aid and give no reason for its decision.

My fourth concern, which underlines the importance of the Bill, is that there is reason to believe that legal aid is being abused. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough made that point on 21 November 1997 at column 553 in a debate on legal aid when he drew attention to the fact that the judges in the divisional courts regularly complained about hopeless immigration cases being brought before them. Someone had been prepared to sign the certificate, and legal aid--public money--had been provided for the reconsideration of cases that had no merit. Merit is supposed to be a criterion, so there is a serious problem of public funds being frittered away.

There is a powerful argument for establishing limits on who is eligible for legal aid, dependent on length of residence here and whether applicants pay taxes here--and surely there should be a public record of what is paid. The British people are fair-minded. We believe that people who live in this country, pay taxes in this country and have a loyalty to this country should have help from this country, regardless of race, colour, creed, religion or sexual orientation, if they need that help. Those who do not need help should not have it; it should be withdrawn from them.

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My Bill is directed towards a fairer and more equitable system and a better expenditure of public funds. It is a good Bill, a sound and overdue measure. I hope that it will have widespread support in the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Bercow, Mrs. Angela Browning, Mr. Howard Flight, Mr. Nick Gibb, Mr. Nick Hawkins, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Mr. Peter Luff, Mr. Owen Paterson, Mr. David Prior, Mr. Laurence Robertson, Mr. David Ruffley and Sir Teddy Taylor.

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