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11.26 pm

Mr. Garnier: I join the Minister in congratulating all who have taken part in our debates on keeping their temperature moderate. We had an amusing and sometimes constructive time in Committee and we have had a sometimes enjoyable, sometimes illuminating, but always good-tempered time this evening.

The Minister can be forgiven for much that is in the Bill because he has only recently been able to get his fingers on it. During the Committee stage, when the Bill was amended by the Government and, I am happy to say, at least twice by the Opposition--or at least our suggestions were incorporated in Government amendments that have been made this evening--the Minister played a rather silent role by virtue of his then post as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney-General. So he cannot be accused of playing a willingly silent role. He was unable for the same reason to speak on Second Reading.

Mr. Vaz: I did speak on Second Reading.

Mr. Garnier: The Minister is right. Indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) complained that this radical Government were allowing this radical Member to speak to a Bill that belonged to his master's Department. Perhaps the Government could not find a single Back Bencher prepared to speak in favour of the Bill. The Minister was the first member of the parliamentary

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Labour party to speak in favour of the Bill. Every other Back-Bench contributor spoke sceptically or with qualified support for the Bill.

Mr. Dismore rose--

Mr. Garnier: Here we go: the man with the spring in his back. I am glad to see that he is still on form and the spring is still working.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. and learned Gentleman has made that joke before and it was not particularly funny then. I simply point out to him that several Labour Members spoke in favour of the Bill on Second Reading and many more wished to speak, but there simply was not time for them all to be called.

Mr. Garnier: If the hon. Gentleman remembers, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) was the first Back Bencher to speak. It may have been--

Mr. Vaz: I was very senior.

Mr. Garnier: Oh, and very senior too. Top Minister speaks--I am very happy to hear it. I do not think that we need spend too much time on this little history of the Access to Justice Bill. I shall return to one or two of the points that I intended to make.

During the two years since the Government came into office, I have been impressed by the fact that they were full of high intentions--there have been hugely powerful speeches and much rhetoric. However, they have little understanding of what they are doing.

I suggest that all the Government's reforms--both those introduced in the Bill and those introduced outside by the Lord Chancellor and his Department--can simply be described as economically illiterate, politically inept and intellectually confused. Nothing that we have heard during the Bill's passage through the House or during today's debates has persuaded me that my descriptions are inaccurate. Those views were merely reinforced as I watched the Government stumble from day to day. Indeed, there was yet another piece of chaotic business management this afternoon, as a rebellion emerged among Labour Back Benchers that could not be quashed by the Government. The hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) persuaded many of his fellow Back Benchers--I think there were 49, including himself--to sign his early-day motion criticising the removal of personal injury cases from legal aid. A considerable number of those Labour Members joined the hon. and learned Gentleman in the Division Lobby this evening. The Government can claim no credit for producing a Bill that is either popular or right; they have managed to do precisely the opposite.

In his remarks, the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department appeared to be attempting to sell anything--it could have been a vacuum cleaner, dog food or some other goods that one could find in a supermarket--but if one thought that he was describing the contents of the Access to Justice Bill, one would justifiably have been confused. As I have said before, the Bill is a Christmas tree or a coat hanger; it contains a huge number of additional powers that the parliamentary Labour party is lamely giving the Lord Chancellor.

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There will be a huge number of executive powers to make law through secondary legislation. I realise that the Government find it boring when I make such remarks, but the job of the Opposition is to point out to the public that the sniggerers on the Government's Front and Back Benches are doing a huge disservice to the public whom they were elected to serve.

The Bill is called the Access to Justice Bill and, as I have said on several occasions, if I were a frivolous person, I should find that hugely amusing, because it is not an access to justice Bill but a denial of access to justice Bill. When one reads read Parts I, II and III even a casual glance shows that, once those clauses, and the amendments to those clauses and the new clauses that have been discussed today, become law--we are fortunate that a House of Lords still exists and is prepared to reconsider the Bill when it leaves this place--some of them will be deleterious to the interests of justice, damaging to the interests of our constituents, and leading increasingly to a denial of access to justice.

When Labour Members walk into the Division Lobby tonight, some of them may never have read the Bill and some may not have had the advantage of hearing the Minister trying to explain what the Government are about. At their advice surgeries, those Members will learn shortly--although not necessarily next Saturday, or even this year, but next year and the year after--when the number of solicitors providing legal aid has been reduced from approximately 11,000 to 3,000, that solicitors are not available in their towns, cities and villages to assist their most vulnerable constituents.

Labour Members do not need to accept all the blame for that, but in the remaining minutes of the debate, I urge them to think carefully about what they are about to do. They may think that the Bill causes difficulties for lawyers. So what? Any Bill that causes difficulties for lawyers is to be applauded. This, however, is a Bill that will destroy access to part of the welfare state. If the Labour party was elected to do that, it could have fooled me. Many of those who voted in May 1997 for the glorious new regime of this Prime Minister can also justly claim to have been fooled--and judging from the grunts and the groans that I hear emanating from the Treasury Bench, I suspect that many Ministers have been fooled also.

I can demonstrate the damaging effect of the Bill by considering only a few of its aspects. While we support the creation of the community legal service in clause 4, the Opposition are concerned about the Government's total inability to realise the mistake that they are making in failing to investigate and assess what is necessary to make that service work properly. The least able and the most vulnerable in our society must have some chance to fend for themselves by bringing actions in law with the assistance of the state.

The hon. and learned Member for Medway pointed out that personal injury cases funded by the state make the Government a profit. This self-righteous Government are destroying the ability of litigants in certain categories of personal injury cases to access state funds. The Government think that they are doing a good thing but the opposite is true. Personal injury cases cost the Government nothing, yet this Treasury-driven Bill is designed to save the Government money.

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In clause 12, the Government have decided to introduce a criminal defence service that will allegedly be a mirror image of the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS had teething troubles and goodness only knows what will happen with the criminal defence service. That will create a situation that used to exist only in communist China and Soviet Russia, where the state prosecutes and defends people.

If Government Members think that is a matter for levity, they should heed the words of Sidney Kentridge, a member of the South African Bar and a distinguished member of the Bar of this country. In a recent lecture, he pointed out that in apartheid South Africa the only thing that stood between the oppressive state regime and the independence and freedom of citizens was the independent Bar and the criminal defendant's knowledge that the lawyer representing him was free from the influence of the state.

This charming new Labour Government are trying to persuade their followers that a criminal defence service, comprising state-employed lawyers, will not be influenced by the need to kow-tow to its employer or by the fact that the next promotion depends on pleasing the Government. The Government cannot pretend that that will not have a damaging effect upon the service's ability to act fiercely and freely as an advocate on behalf of its clients.

On part II of the Bill and the dangers associated with the conditional fee arrangements, the Government claim that conditional fee arrangements are the complete answer to the destruction of legal aid. The Conservative party does not oppose the introduction of conditional fee arrangements--indeed, we introduced them ourselves. However, we are concerned about the gay abandon with which the Government have abolished legal aid and replaced it with conditional fee agreements. They know--or they should know--that the use of conditional fee arrangements, without proper insurance and a mature insurance market to support them, will simply not work.

It is no good saying that legal aid helped the poor, and those with discretionary income could make their own decisions, but middle England was unable to get to the courts. It is no good the Government saying that they have corrected that problem if, in so doing, they have created another by taking away from the poor, the vulnerable, the elderly, the injured and the disabled the ability to get hold of a conditional fee agreement.

In the circumstances that the Bill will create, conditional fee agreements will not be available for all to use. It is unthinkable that the people who now use legal aid will run up and down the high streets of England and Wales market-testing conditional fee agreements or checking the portfolio of risk of one firm of solicitors against another. That is naive and unreal.

Having outlined some of our concerns, may I make it clear that we agree with parts of the Bill? Parts IV, V, VI and VII are largely uncontroversial. Although they have not received the scrutiny that some of the more controversial parts of the Bill have been given, they have been considered, and I hope that they will be further considered in the other place when the Bill returns to it.

My overriding complaint about the Bill is that it seeks to do the wrong thing in the wrong way. It seeks to persuade the gullible hon. Members who will support it that it creates no problems for which they need feel in the

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least bit responsible. Let me warn them that over the next two years the Bill will turn their majorities to dust. I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends and others of good will in the House to join us in voting against Third Reading.


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