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11.42 pm

Mr. Dismore: I should to declare an interest as a solicitor who has practised in the field of personal injury law for 20 years or more.

I welcome the extension of conditional fees and the proposals for the recovery of the success fee and insurance premium. Unlike most of those who have criticised the extension of success fees and related matters, I have practical experience, and I am sure that the provisions will be successful. I also welcome the assurances given today by my hon. Friend the Minister on the fallback position--the protections that will remain for personal injury victims in the legal aid scheme for cases that are expensive to investigate or are in the public interest. I look forward to seeing that protection even more fleshed out in the funding code that is in the Bill.

I welcome the debate that we had in Committee on Queen's counsel, and I claim a mini-triumph--I see from the Government amendment for which I have been lobbying that QCs are to pay the full cost of administering the QC system through the more generous application fees that they will have to pay. I acknowledge the Government's response to the concerns that I expressed in Committee about the way in which QCs are remunerated, and the assurance that the Government are prepared to consider further steps to end the fat-cattery, perhaps turning the dangerously obese lawyers into those who are merely seriously overweight. We have already discussed proportionality, double manning and the rate for the job.

I welcome one of the new clauses introduced tonight, which there was no time to debate and which my hon. Friend generously called the Hendon clause. That is the one that relates to the telescoping of the inquest and inquiry procedure, following major disasters. For too long we have put the relatives of victims through far too much distress, duplication of hearings, delay and expense by making them relive the same experiences over and over again.

Mr. Vaz: My hon. Friend knows that QCs throughout the country quiver when they hear his name. He also knows that my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has made a number of improvements to the silk system and will always try to find ways to improve it further.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that assurance. No doubt we can continue our dialogue in an attempt to sort out the issue of remuneration, even if I cannot quite convince my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor that QCs should be abolished altogether.

The new clause on inquiries is important. It means that we can now look after victims' relatives and victims themselves far more effectively. This is the first stage in that regard and I look forward to further reforms in due course.

22 Jun 1999 : Column 1074

11.45 pm

Mr. Burnett: I congratulate and thank all those who have taken part in the debates on the Bill leading up to tonight, and especially officials of the House.

I have highlighted tonight and at earlier stages of the Bill Liberal Democrats' grave misgivings with parts of it. The abolition of legal aid for personal injury cases except criminal negligence is a grave mistake and the Government will have much time to rue the day that they railroaded the provision through the House. It saves no money and it prejudices the poor and vulnerable.

I hope that the Minister will find some time to read the paper so ably and clearly written by Matthias Kelly, secretary of the Personal Injuries Bar Association, entitled "The cost of legal aid in personal injury litigation in England and Wales". It demonstrates clearly and unambiguously that the provision will not save money. Rightly, many conscientious Labour Members have opposed the measure.

Another regrettable feature of the Bill is the power, often unfettered, which it gives the Lord Chancellor to set up the criminal defence service. That is another example of the inherent conflict of interest which also characterises conditional fee agreements.

We have to ask whether quality legal services and access to justice will be available throughout the country when the Bill is enacted, which no doubt it will be. We shall have to wait and see, but I have my doubts. The Bill is deeply flawed and we shall vote against it.

11.47 pm

Mr. Grieve: I, too, preface my remarks by saying that the Bill's passage through its various stages has been an education, during which a number of changes have been made to it. Moreover, the presenter of the Bill has changed from the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), with his academic cynicism and discourse, to the present Minister who, with his courteous emollience, has brought it finally to its close before the House.

If ever there has been a missed opportunity, it is this Bill. There are aspects of it that I can welcome, just as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) did, but there are also aspects where we have grievously failed to address some of the principal issues which concern the difficulties over access to justice.

Bearing in mind conditional fee agreements, which we have debated again this evening, and the problems of legal aid, especially for the most disadvantaged, it is extraordinary that the whole area of contingency legal aid, despite having been touched on in Committee, and despite the fact that there has been a hint at times that it may be considered in future, and that it might provide a real alternative for ensuring that all could obtain access to justice on the same principles as those that existed in terms of accessibility under the old legal aid system, even though there might be some financial forfeit, has never been properly considered. Instead, we have gone down a road which, while it may bring certain advantages to some, will undoubtedly be a massive disadvantage to the most vulnerable within our society. I deeply regret that. If anything makes this legislation flawed, it is that.

22 Jun 1999 : Column 1075

I reserve my gravest reservations for the principle of the criminal defence service. We have moved progressively towards a situation where the provision and the services of the justice system are, in a curious way, being nationalised.

It is extraordinary that, although the Labour party has apparently embraced the idea that privatised services may be of some benefit, we are moving towards a continental criminal justice system--which, taken to its ultimate expression, existed in the old communist countries. The lawyer was simply the state functionary who was sent off to represent one element or other--whether as a prosecutor or a defender--and was always regarded as a lowly cog in the machine.

I simply do not see where the advantages lie in establishing the criminal defence service and it was made clear in Committee that there might be circumstances in which individual choice in respect of getting a lawyer from outside the CDS would be restricted. That fills me with foreboding. That measure has been introduced by the Government who had the courage to incorporate the European convention on human rights into our law, which strikes me as shocking. One can conclude only that the Government have absolutely no regard for civil liberties or the rights of accused people in respect of the criminal justice system. That seems to have been emphasised by the suggestion that there is worse to come with the denial of the right to trial by jury for certain categories of offence. I deeply regret that.

Those are the principal reasons why I cannot lend support to the Bill, even though parts of it have much to commend them. The Government will come to regret the way in which they were driven down this road, whether by financial considerations or simply by lack of any regard for established systems. Although those systems may be imperfect, they have nevertheless delivered justice of good quality.

I have always acknowledged, however, that there have been problems over expense. As I said on Second Reading, we have started to throw the baby out with the bath water and I am afraid that we will regret having passed the Bill.

11.52 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I shall speak briefly before the Minister concludes the debate. On behalf of the official Opposition, I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) described the Bill as being either a Christmas tree or a coat hanger. I prefer to call it an attempt by the Government at a portmanteau Bill.

There was much debate in Committee about the combination of Henry VIII clauses, which we deeply regret and opposed, and the fact that the Lord Chancellor has often been compared with Henry VIII's ultimately most unsuccessful Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. The Bill attempts to combine the worst features of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, which is a feat in itself. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough rightly said that some of the Bill fits in with what George Orwell called newspeak, in which words mean exactly the opposite of what the Government claim.

22 Jun 1999 : Column 1076

On Second Reading, I referred at length from the Back Benches to the criticisms of the Bill made by Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, the distinguished Labour lawyer, in the other place. None of her concerns about the Government's proposals for a criminal defence system adopting the worst excesses of the United States public defender system have been addressed at any stage.

When the Solicitor-General wound up the debate on Second Reading, he said, rather desperately:

He said that even though almost every Labour Back Bencher who had spoken had attacked him and the then Minister.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough said, we welcome some aspects of the Bill--in particular, in respect of the inquest point referred to by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), which we did not have time to debate at length--but there are still a lot of bad things in it. As my hon. and learned Friend said, this is a denial of access to justice Bill in so many regards. I invite the 20 Labour Members who voted with us on the personal injury matter to join us, and hon. Members from both sides of the House, in the Lobby to vote against the Bill's Third Reading.

I ask the Minister to correct an uncharacteristically ungracious remark that he made earlier. He said that it was surprising to hear a Conservative spokesman using the arguments of a charity such as Shelter. That remark was not characteristic of him and I invite him to withdraw it. I encourage hon. Members of all parties who have a conscience to oppose the Bill.

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