Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on his appointment as Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department. We have sparred cheerfully on other matters in the past, and it is good to see him on the Treasury Bench.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has already reminded the House that an objectives clause seeking to define the Bill's basic purpose was introduced in another place but removed in Committee. It placed clients receiving legal aid on an equal footing with clients who could afford to pay for themselves. The Government, and particularly the Lord Chancellor, have been dismissive of the need for such a clause, as we heard from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough. But their dogmatic attitude means that an important opportunity to reform legal aid in a way that puts all clients on the same basis will have been squandered. As long as legal aid is a matter for the discretion of Legal Aid Board administrators rather than a question of basic entitlement, one law for the rich and one law for the poor will continue to be the norm.

I support new clause 13 because it would put back into the Bill that clear statement of objectives which an impressive coalition of their lordships, including Law Lords, introduced, but which, as we know, the Government have since removed.

To illustrate the reasons why I support new clause 13, I wish to draw to the attention of the House Lord Spens's action against the Bank of England, which recently came to an abrupt halt because legal aid was suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn on the eve of the trial.

22 Jun 1999 : Column 985

I understand that many may associate an hereditary peerage, such as Lord Spens enjoys, with substantial wealth and financial security. That is not always so. It certainly has not applied to Lord Spens for more than a decade. He was a successful and highly paid merchant banker until the mid-1980s when he was arrested over the Guinness affair and put on trial in what became known as Guinness II. In the process of his defending himself, his wealth was soon exhausted.

On 4 June 1997, I spoke in the House about the unfairness of the inquisitorial nature of Department of Trade and Industry inspectors' inquiries, and I alluded to the Guinness case at some length. The interests that I declared in that debate apply here.

On that occasion, I told the House that Lord Spens had been sacked from his merchant banking job because politicians and officials at the DTI and the Treasury were pressing the Bank of England to collect some well-known scalps. At a meeting with Rosalind Wright, who has since risen to the post of director of the Serious Fraud Office, another official, John Wood, said:

The then Chancellor told the House that the Government would be taking action over the Guinness affair. His private secretary, now the permanent under-secretary at the Welsh Office, communicated with the Bank of England and the following day the Bank told the merchant bank to sack Spens or it would lose its banking licence. Spens was run out of the City and made unemployable. The Guinness II trial collapsed when Spens was about to produce evidence of the interference that I have just described. He was acquitted and awarded his full costs of £2 million, the first £500,000 of which he had raised privately, with the balance coming from legal aid.

It was common knowledge in the City and in Whitehall that, during a period of six days in January 1987, Bank of England officials had exceeded their powers, making ill-judged and indiscreet demands, because, to use the words of a Minister at the time, the Government "wanted handcuffs put on" ahead of the forthcoming general election.

Unable to work at his corporate finance trade, and dependent on legal aid, Spens fought on, despite two heart bypass operations. Advised by his solicitors, Russell Jones and Walker, he began proceedings against the Bank of England for unfair dismissal. He engaged Lord Neill of Bladen as his leading counsel. Lord Neill, who succeeded Lord Nolan as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, assured Spens--

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I question the relevance of this to the matter under debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I am certainly hoping that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) can make that very clear very soon.

Mr. Wardle: I hope to do so and, as I have said, I shall not detain the House for long, but this matter concerns legal aid and the importance of having a principle enshrined in the Bill that will ensure that legal redress is available to people regardless of their means.

22 Jun 1999 : Column 986

Lord Neill said that he abhorred the abuse of power and predicted a successful outcome. The Bank's attempt to strike out the case failed. Only weeks before the trial, however, Lord Neill was pressed by another member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to drop Spens's case, on the grounds that he could not reasonably devote so much time to his own legal work and chair the Committee at the same time. Lord Neill saw nothing untoward or ironic about that intervention; he said that he would continue as legal counsel--this is relevant to legal aid--but recommended the engagement of a second counsel to make most of the running, and Russell Jones and Walker made an application for extra legal aid to cover that.

John Baker, the Legal Aid Board executive who had handled the case for several years, was replaced by David Williams three weeks later, and eight weeks after that, Williams served a show-cause notice on Russell Jones and Walker, placing an embargo on the legal aid certificate against which Lord Neill and Russell Jones and Walker successfully appealed. The same process was repeated in the following month and, at the end of that appeal hearing, the chairman stated that the decision had been taken to reinstate the certificate of legal aid to--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am increasingly unhappy about the trend of the hon. Gentleman's speech. It strikes me that it would be much more appropriate to raise the specific case in an Adjournment debate, or at some other opportunity, rather than tying it, by a very thin line indeed, to the new clause. I must advise him that, if he cannot bring his remarks back within the terms and meaning of the new clause, he should desist.

Mr. Wardle: I always respect your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and, although I feel strongly that there is no more vivid illustration than this of what can go wrong with legal aid and why the new clause should be added to the Bill, I shall conclude my remarks. The unhappy experience of Lord Spens leaves the words spoken about the Bill by the Lord Chancellor on the "Today" programme sounding rather hollow. He said:

That is precisely what I was hoping to illustrate to the House by referring to the Spens case; it underlines the urgent necessity to enshrine in the Bill the fundamental principle set out in the new clause: people should have access to legal services and the machinery of justice, which they would otherwise be unable to obtain because of their lack of means. That is what the case and the experience of Lord Spens are all about.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): This is the first opportunity I have had on the Floor of the House to congratulate not only the Minister, but the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on their respective promotions. I hope that, with a new Minister, we will have a new wind, if that is the right expression, and a bit more fresh thinking on this important Bill.

22 Jun 1999 : Column 987

I support new clause 13, which is important. I remind the House that, in the White Paper "Modernising Justice", the Lord Chancellor set out in his foreword and in chapter 1 his aims and objectives for the Bill. He asserted:

He went on:

    "The justice system should serve everyone, regardless of their means."

He also said:

    "The disadvantaged and the socially excluded will find help with the issues that affect their everyday lives at the heart of the new service."

The Government's twin aims are to achieve a significant increase in access to justice and to obtain the best value for taxpayers' money spent on legal services and in the courts.

Effectively, new clause 13 embodies the Lord Chancellor's aspirations for the Bill. We discussed a similar measure in Committee, but the Government objected that there was no proportionality or limit on costs. The new clause is a statement of principle embodying the Lord Chancellor's own principles for the Bill and it is proportionate in so far as it is qualified, in subsection (1), by the words "so far as possible". The proposal does not invite open-ended expenditure but highlights the important principles stated by the Lord Chancellor himself--quality, access, choice and fair funding.

7.15 pm

On quality, the Liberal Democrats have strongly supported the establishment of panels of solicitors with expertise. On 27 January, we debated in Committee the draft Legal Aid (Prescribed Panels) Regulations 1998, which set up a clinical negligence panel within the Law Society. We supported that, and the setting up of other expert panels, because we believe that such expertise is in the public interest and in the interests of those who use the legal system. They will also provide better value for money; indeed, they will save money. The legal professions have rightly become more specialist, and it is not in the interests of clients or of the state to pay for lawyers learning on the job.

Nevertheless, this objectives new clause will act as vital spur to those administering the Legal Services Commission, which will ensure quality, access, choice and fair funding. That is particularly important in rural towns and rural areas. During the first sitting of the Committee, on 27 April 1999, I intervened on the then Minister and asked whether firms should automatically be entitled to a contract if they achieved the quality standards. The hon. Gentleman ended his response by saying that the Government were looking for the most effective way in which to ensure that there was access to justice throughout the country which will guarantee--I emphasise that word--that those who seek advice receive it from those who are best qualified to do the work. That is the essence of the new clause. It is vital that there should be availability and choice in all geographical areas, including the sparsely populated rural areas. The new

22 Jun 1999 : Column 988

clause would go some way towards ensuring real access to justice and living up to the aims and objectives for the Bill set by the Lord Chancellor.

Next Section

IndexHome Page