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Mr. Vaz: I thank the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) for their kind comments and I associate myself with what was said about the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), who served with great distinction as a Law Officer.

As the hon. and learned Member for Harborough said, new clause 13 is similar to a clause that was added to the Bill by the other place and deleted in Standing Committee. The original clause was pressed to a vote in the other place, although the Government were proposing their own amendments to set out more clearly the separate purposes of the community legal service and the criminal defence service. Those two purpose clauses are now clauses 4(1) and 12(1) respectively--they are already in the Bill.

The purpose of the CDS is to provide the advice, assistance and representation that suspects and defendants require in the interests of justice. That is very clear, and the same absolute entitlement that exists now is retained. Briefly, the purpose of the CLS is to secure appropriate legal services, but not only lawyers' services, to meet people's needs effectively, subject to the constraint of available resources and according to priorities.

The Government have always made it clear that we are sympathetic to many of the concerns underlying this so-called principles new clause. That is why, when we sought to remove the previous version in Standing Committee, we tabled our own amendments to add three specific objectives for the CLS. These measures are in clause 4(4) and include objectives on quality and access--two of the points mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough--and the swift and fair resolution of disputes.

I find it hard to see what more is needed and, after so many debates on the issue, I am a little disappointed that the proponents of a separate principles new clause have tabled one again. None the less, I welcome the opportunity to explain in more detail to the whole House why the new clause, although mostly laudable in aspiration, is unnecessary and in parts unacceptable.

Our first objection is that, by seeking to cover two separate schemes with a single set of objectives, a principles clause overarching the whole of part I would undermine the structure of the Bill, which makes a clear distinction between the community legal service and the criminal defence service. This reflects the different policy objectives behind the public funding of legal services in civil and in criminal cases, the different mix of services required--criminal legal aid is, for example, far more court-centred--and the very different factors driving demand and cost.

Moreover, like its predecessor, new clause 13 expresses some unrealistic aspirations. Subsection (2)(a) states that persons should have access to services

However, there is no mention of any test of merits or priorities, or any indication that the services provided should be appropriate and proportionate to the problems

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that they address. Nor is there any hint that people can obtain legal services other than with their own or the taxpayer's money. No doubt that is because legal expenses insurance and conditional fees did not exist in 1949, when this particular formulation was first used.

Subsection (2)(b) is intended to ensure that access to services is not impaired by discrimination on grounds of race, sex or disability. The Government fully share that objective, but, having considered the matter carefully, we have concluded that nothing can usefully be added to the Bill. The Legal Services Commission and those whom it engages to provide services are already subject, as employers and service providers, to the provisions of the sex, race and disability discrimination Acts. Moreover, as a public body the commission will be covered by the Human Rights Act 1998, which outlaws discrimination on a wide range of grounds in relation to people's access to their rights under the convention.

We are determined to ensure that the reformed legal aid system delivers help to those who need it, irrespective of their race, sex or disability. That is why we need flexible machinery that can respond to the changing needs and priorities of the community.

Under the Bill, for the first time in legal history we shall be able to address the particular needs of any parts of the community--the needs of the disabled, or the needs of people with an ethnic minority background. Clause 6(5) refers to "areas or communities" specifically so that the commission can target non-geographical communities. The Legal Aid Board has directed its regional legal services committees that their strategies for assessing the needs and priorities of their communities should discuss the needs of specific client groups such as ethnic minorities, the disabled, the elderly, carers and remote communities. The board's franchise standard makes it mandatory for firms to have a written equal opportunities policy that is in effective operation. The policy must make it clear that the firm will not discriminate on grounds of race, gender, religion, disability or sexual orientation.

Only last week, the Lord Chancellor instructed the board to report to him by September on its proposals for monitoring the ethnic origin and gender both of the clients receiving services under its contracts and of the providers supplying those services. He said that he intended in due course to direct the Legal Services Commission to take over those monitoring systems, and to include information about the impact of the reform on minority groups in its annual report. The Lord Chancellor also asked the board to report to him, by the end of this year, the options for monitoring the impact of reform on access for the disabled.

As the hon. and learned Member for Harborough pointed out, subsection (2)(b) of new clause 13 also deals with geographic access generally. It states that access should not be impaired on account of the place in England and Wales where legal services are sought. I have two difficulties with that formulation. First, the emphasis is entirely on physical location. There is not even any recognition that much can be done perfectly well on the telephone. There is no hint of the larger role that information technology could play in future, and no suggestion that a lawyer should ever be troubled to leave his office to visit a client. Secondly, the subsection implies that people who live in rural areas can enjoy the same degree of geographic access as people who live in large cities. That is obviously unachievable.

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The Government have sought to address legitimate concerns about access in clause 4(4)(a), which establishes the objective of promoting improvements in the range and quality of services and in the ways in which they are made accessible to people. We are committed to providing effective access through the community legal service, but without limiting the concept of access to the number and location of lawyers' offices. The ability to tailor contracts to specific circumstances will make it possible to address areas in which access is inadequate now.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I welcome the Minister to his post, but let me take him back a few sentences. Surely a moment's thought would lead him to acknowledge that his argument that the new clause fails to reflect people's ability to obtain legal services on the telephone is nonsense. The new clause clearly does not preclude the person exercising the function from taking that into account. Nothing in the new clause suggests that it concerns the precise geographical location of services; it merely states that that should be taken into account. Surely the Minister must accept that this is a very weak part of his argument.

Mr. Vaz: No, I do not accept that. I believe that the drafting of new clause 13 means, in effect, that physical location will have to be taken into consideration, which will have exactly the effect that I have described.

Subsection (2)(c) covers quality, speed and fairness. The Government share those objectives, and have already dealt with them in clause 4(4). To that extent, the new subsection is wholly unnecessary. Subsection (2)(c) also refers to placing the parties on an "equal footing"--I shall deal shortly with what was said by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle)--but the danger of those apparently admirable words is that they might compel the commission to match the spending of a wealthy private party, regardless of the importance or complexity of the case.

Subsection (2)(d) states that people obtaining legal services should have

That goes much too far. As the Opposition know from their experience in government, the task is to balance competing desirable objectives, of which choice may be only one. An overriding objective of providing the widest possible choice would trump consideration of quality or value for money--a point made in the White Paper published by the last Government. It is almost always desirable for an accused person to have a choice--but not necessarily an unlimited choice--of legal representative, as that helps to promote confidence in that person's lawyer and the criminal justice system. Clause 15 already secures that objective.

In the case of civil litigation, which most people fortunately experience only once in a lifetime, I am not sure that it is particularly helpful to single out the choice of provider as such, as opposed to, for example, access; and it is positively undesirable to have as an objective the widest possible choice of services when the aim of the community legal service is to provide the most appropriate means of dealing with a particular problem.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle mentioned Lord Spens. I must tell him--he knows that I am going to say this--that this is a matter for the Legal Aid Board:

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it is not possible for Ministers to comment on individual cases. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is possible for people to make representations, and Lord Spens has done so. I think that Lord Spens has done pretty well out of the legal aid fund, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that, if he raises the matter on the Adjournment, the debate will be pretty short because I shall not be able to comment on the specific circumstances of the case.

The Government firmly believe that the Bill already meets the legitimate concerns that underlie new clause 13, and that the new clause would merely add confusion and create unrealistic expectations. I therefore invite the House to reject it.

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