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Legal Aid

32. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): If he will make a statement on levels of charges for legal aid work. [45603]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The levels of charges for legal aid work are principally determined under the Legal Aid Act 1988, passed by the previous Administration and no doubt supported by the hon. Gentleman. Within the limitations of that legislation, we are introducing standardised fees where it is legally possible to do so. However, we recognised quickly after taking office that the existing legislation does not afford a satisfactory level of control. That is why we announced last year that we see contracting for the provision of legal services as the most effective means of controlling the cost of legal aid.

Mr. Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful and, if I may say so, encouraging response. Does the Minister believe it right that somebody who is well known for his support of left-wing causes, Mr. Michael Mansfield QC, should submit a legal aid bill for £22,000, which was ultimately cut to just £12,000? The fees of his junior, Miss Baird, were reduced from £22,000 to just £7,800. That relates to just three days' work. Is that right? Is it value for money? When will this abuse of public resources be stopped?

Mr. Hoon: I am most grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support, and I hope that he and those Conservative Members who appear to support his assertions will support the Government when they introduce legislation effectively to control the costs of legal aid. I also hope that he will be able to persuade Conservative Front Benchers to support the proposals that we have outlined, because the Government are determined to control the costs of legal aid.

Mr. Winterton: Michael Mansfield?

Mr. Hoon: I am not in a position to comment on a case that is currently being considered, nor should I, but I can say that there appears to have been a persistent pattern of overclaiming by members of the Bar. Indeed, statistics that I can publish suggest that, in certain high-cost cases over the past two years, barristers have claimed more than double what they have received.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is it not interesting that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) mentioned only two barristers, whom he considers to be left wing? Michael Mansfield is doing an excellent job in the Lawrence inquiry.

On the general issue, which I have raised at business questions, is it not totally wrong that the most senior QCs receive substantial sums out of legal aid work when so many people are not able to get legal aid? Surely senior barristers should not be so overpaid and should not receive hundreds of thousands of pounds through legal aid work. I hope that the Government will continue to do what they are doing about this matter.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I have made it clear that the Government are determined to get the costs of legal aid under control. He is right: the most expensive cases in the Crown court--the top 1 per cent.--account for more than 40 per cent. of criminal higher expenditure, which is £125 million; the most expensive civil cases--the top 15 per cent.--

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account for about 15 per cent. of gross civil legal aid expenditure, at £167 million. That is why the Government are determined to control the costs of legal aid.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The Government propose to replace legal aid for civil cases with conditional fee agreements. I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that insurance premiums for defendants' costs in personal injury cases, which have a high degree of success, have risen in the past year from about £85 to about £161. When the Government's changes have taken effect, in what circumstances will the Legal Aid Board pay such premiums?

Mr. Hoon: It is clearly important that the Government control the costs of legal aid. The hon. Gentleman will know that we recently issued a consultation document setting out in principle our view that the cost of insurance should be recoverable against an unsuccessful defendant. That would clearly go a long way to assisting plaintiffs who bring cases under conditional fees to recover the costs of going to law, and would thereby increase access to justice. We are considering that carefully.

Barristers' Earnings

33. Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): What assessment he has made of the earnings of senior barristers relative to other professions requiring similar qualifications and skills; and if he will make a statement. [45604]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Each year, the Government, in assessing the level of public sector pay, must have regard to the professional skills and qualifications possessed by different groups. In the past, no regard appears to have been had to the total amounts paid out annually to self-employed barristers out of public funds on a case-by-case basis. I see no reason in principle why the overall amount of public money paid to barristers in any given year should not be open to public scrutiny and debate.

Mr. MacShane: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's answer. He read out some remarkable statistics; I had

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thought that the previous Government had abolished all closed shops, but one is still very much in operation. Is my hon. Friend aware of the outrage among professional people who serve the state so well in, for example, medicine and higher education? They have to qualify in their profession, work just as hard as barristers and skill themselves just as much, but the amount of money that they receive from the public purse is not remotely similar. I am not inviting my hon. Friend to go on "The Moral Maze" to discuss the matter, but will he at least consider whether the structure within which barristers work should be examined seriously to bring costs under control?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is referring to the position of QCs. The Government have no present plans to abolish that position. This modernising Government, however, have shown that they are determined to sweep away restrictive practices wherever they occur and whenever they cannot be substantiated in the public interest.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I do not want to anticipate anything, but perhaps one day I shall be able to welcome the Minister to the front bench of the Bar.

In addition to planting the question tabled by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), which he answered on 28 April 1998, Official Report, columns 65-67, the Minister said on television at about the same time that senior lawyers acting for legally aided clients were doing "a very responsible job", but that their earnings should be comparable to those of their medical counterparts. Now that the Government have seen the figures for senior consultants' earnings and benefits contained in the Law Society's case before the Committee chaired by the right hon. and noble Lord Browne- Wilkinson, what does the Minister say is the proper level of remuneration for a senior lawyer whose conduct in every case has implications for the future life and welfare of the client and his family?

Mr. Hoon: As I said in answer to an earlier question, it is quite proper for there to be a public debate about the amount of public money that goes into the hands of private sector lawyers. There is a proper public debate about the sum spent on behalf of taxpayers on those employed by the state in the national health service, and I see no reason whatever why the same principles should not apply to those who receive taxpayers' money to fund what are, in essence, private practices.

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Temporary Classrooms

3.30 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I beg to move,

Members of Parliament are privileged to work in reasonable and, one supposes, permanent surroundings. We occasionally complain that our offices are too small--I certainly do--but generally the roof does not leak, the windows fit, and rot is the province of speakers rather than the woodwork. Many hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren do not share that privilege. They aretaught in what are euphemistically called "temporary classrooms". Some are perfectly satisfactory, but many are up to 40 years old. So-called huts predominate in many schools. It is a major preoccupation for teachers, parents, governors and for local education authorities, who are only too aware that what they are providing for schools in their area are not up to the standards that they desire.

Some people would have it that the matter is of little consequence--that one need not worry about the surroundings in which children are taught. I disagree. The teaching environment is important to learning. I accept that it is not the only factor and that a good, committed teacher teaching in a field is a better than a bad teacher teaching in a great hall of academe. The fact remains that if one can put together good, committed teaching, a good curriculum and the right surroundings, one is doing the best for the children rather than the second best, as is so often the case.

A proper classroom--one designed for the purpose--enhances rather than detracts from the educational experience. I want children to concentrate on the curriculum rather than on the construction of substandard buildings. Temporary classrooms, particularly old ones, tend to leak because they have flat roofs that are often insubstantial. They tend to have window frames that do not quite fit, which causes draughts and further leaks. That, in turn, sometimes causes condensation. They are horribly hot in the summer sun and horribly cold in the winter, and they are difficult to heat.

Temporary classrooms also impose artificial constraints on circulation within the school. It is part of the proper school environment that children should be able to pass from classroom to classroom, and circulate around the school, yet children who have the misfortune of being in a distant hut have to put on their overcoats and pick up their bags before they can go to the next lesson. That is a further constraint on the quality of their education. It is also difficult to ensure security in such buildings.

Another good reason why we should not be over-reliant on temporary classrooms is that they cost a packet to run. They are cheap to buy and install, which is the main reason why we have so many them, but they cost more in heating and maintenance and to repair. They are more prone to vandalism: a wooden hut is often a challenge to

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adolescent males, who like to see how quickly they can apply their destructive capacity during their school years. As a result, resources are diverted from teaching, books and equipment into keeping those huts in working order. They are economic nonsense for education authorities and for school governing bodies.

How widespread is the problem? The Secretary of State, in his contribution to a debate on the Budget resolutions last year, estimated that there are 25,000 across the country. On a local level, there are 709 temporary classrooms in daily use in Somerset. Last year, I was chairman of education on Somerset county council. At some schools, temporary classrooms represent more than 50 per cent. of the teaching accommodation. There are 390 in primary schools: one in every five classrooms in which a primary school child in Somerset is being taught is a so-called temporary classroom. By 2000, three quarters of those classrooms will have passed their design life--their sell-by date--and will have exceeded the life for which they were designed.

Let us remind ourselves of just how old some of these temporary classrooms are. The oldest are the HORSAs, which were built during the war. They had a design life of 10 years, yet they are still here 50 years on. They are not the worst of the building stock by any means. Some wooden buildings built much later are in a much poorer state of repair.

How can we call these temporary classrooms? They are not temporary: some of them now house the grandchildren of the children for whom they were built as temporary classrooms. It is nonsense. The position is the same around the country: Somerset is not a special case. Many hon. Members have similar tales to tell. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) has told me of the Westlands school in his constituency, which has no fewer than 38 temporary classrooms in its building stock. I heard a similar story from my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell), who said that half the classrooms in St. Andrew's infants school are so-called temporary buildings.

How have we got ourselves into this mess? The primary reason is the old British story of short-termism and expediency. Such an approach predates the previous Government and the Government before that: the problem has existed for a long time. It always seemed better to spend a little now to provide a temporary classroom rather than to spend more on permanent classrooms. We have had a litany of capital controls, squeezes on local education authority finances and competing policy pressures--the Audit Commission, when I was on it, called it a policy gridlock that afflicts schools. The answers do not seem to work. The private finance initiative may eventually be able to deliver major school developments, but will it turn temporary classrooms into permanent classrooms? I suspect not. The problem may be exacerbated further by the move that the Government are rightly undertaking to reduce class sizes to under 30.

I acknowledge that the Government have recognised the problem. The Secretary of State has talked of the legacy of disrepair. The White Paper "Excellence in Schools" concentrates on that problem and on the Government's acceptance that it needs to be addressed. I simply suggest that the proposals are not yet consonant with the need--which is why my Bill is important.

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My Bill would place clear duties on the Secretary of State not only to recognise the width of the problem but to come up with proper answers to it, in conjunction with local education authorities, so that we have a planned response in removing temporary classrooms from our schools and replacing them with permanent classrooms. I am fed up with so many schools looking like shanty towns rather than educational establishments.

My Bill should be welcomed because, if it finds favour with the House today, it can be repealed in five years' time. If it is passed, the Bill will have done its job in five years, as action to rectify the disastrous mismanagement of the educational estate will have been taken. The ones who will benefit from that action are the next generation of children, who will have proper accommodation for their one opportunity of learning.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Heath, Mr. Bob Russell, Dr. Peter Brand, Mr. Terry Davis, Mr. Andrew George, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Dr. Ian Gibson, Mr. Edward Davey, Mr. Andrew Mackinlay, Mr. Martin Bell, Jackie Ballard and Mr. Steve Webb.

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