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Westminster Hall

Thursday 6 July 2000

[Mr. Michael J. Martin in the Chair]

Community Legal Service

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Betts.]

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock ): I welcome the opportunity to debate the Community Legal Service. Its development is a manifesto commitment and the Government's flagship policy for reforming civil justice. The creation of the service is a radical programme, which will transform access to justice, make it easier for people to understand their rights and responsibilities, and enable them to resolve disputes, enforce their rights and, if necessary, seek the protection of the courts.

Traditionally, the legal world conjures up images of court rooms with judges and barristers in wigs, but that is only the tip of the legal iceberg. The vast majority of community legal work is unseen by members of the public and operates away from courts and often away from formally qualified lawyers. The CLS challenges the public perception of legal services. We are redefining the concept to make them relevant and important to all of us who take responsibility for the welfare of those whom we represent. This wider, more inclusive view of legal services in the CLS covers the full range of different levels and types of help, whether provided by public libraries which provide people with information about their legal rights and responsibilities, local advice centres which help people with debt problems and benefit claims, advisers doing casework on behalf of clients with immigration or employment problems, or lawyers who advise and represent people in court, at tribunals and in any other areas where legal rights are concerned.

Those providing legal services are not restricted to solicitors and barristers in private practice. They include professionals who work in the not-for-profit sector, advice workers, local authorities, including trading standards officers, and trained volunteers in advice agencies such as citizens advice bureaux, who do such valuable work throughout the country and work so closely with many hon. Members. All are part of the CLS and help the public to have better access to good quality advice on their rights and duties. It is no good people having rights in theory if they do not know what they are, how to exercise them or who to turn to for advice. Without that information, legal rights are merely illusory.

Some, including the president of the Law Society, have asked why we need the CLS. The answer is that, despite the efforts of many professionals and volunteers, in reality too many people are unable to access necessary legal services or obtain necessary legal advice.

A few areas of the country benefit from a range of good quality advisers, who form ad hoc networks to refer people to the right sort of advice and provide a

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better service to the public. However, that is the exception and too many areas are advice deserts or advice mazes through which those in need of help struggle to find the right adviser. That situation has arisen because of the fragmentation and lack of co-ordination in the funding of legal advice. For anyone who suggests that there are no problems, the research paper, "Paths to Justice", which was produced by Professor Hazel Genn and the National Centre for Social Research, is suitable bedtime reading. Professor Genn's paper is the most comprehensive survey ever of the experiences of people with problems that could ultimately end up in the civil courts. It does not make easy reading for lawyers or anyone who wants to defend the present situation.

The old civil legal aid scheme had to change because of several problems. Expenditure on civil legal aid was increasing year on year, while the number of people being helped was not. There was no way of targeting expenditure on the areas of greatest need, and no connection was made between legal aid expenditure and other funders' spending on legal and advice services. Lawyers had no incentive to provide services cost effectively or to provide the services that people really needed. Anxiety was increasingly expressed that too many weak and unmeritorious cases were receiving funding. However, it is not merely a question of money. Significant amounts of public money are already spent on legal services. About £150 million of local authority money is spent on purchasing legal services each year. Through the Legal Aid Board, the Government spent, in net terms, £780 million on civil legal aid last year, including £206 million on civil advice and assistance. This year, that figure will increase to £226 million.

Funding is also provided by other central Government Departments, charitable foundations and through the valuable contribution of the National Lottery Charities Board. A great deal of money has, therefore, been committed to ensuring that people have access to legal services. Civil legal aid spending has increased vastly over the past six years. How, therefore, have we ended up with advice deserts and advice mazes? The answer is that all those different funders have been acting in isolation, and sometimes even at cross purposes.

As a result of that failure to work together, a single funder has only a limited overview of an area's legal needs, and no consistent or comprehensive quality standard can be relied on in deciding whom to fund. As one local authority funder said,

Those are major, long-standing problems, which the previous Government ducked. They responded by cutting the number of people eligible for legal aid while doing nothing to tackle the fundamental problems--classic short-termism, year after year.

Throughout consideration and implementation of the Access to Justice Act 1999 the Opposition whinged and made personal attacks, but proposed no coherent

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alternative polices. I accept that they do not like the CLS. They have railed against it so often that I do not expect a Pauline-like conversion today. However, I hope that the Opposition will use today's debate as an opportunity to come clean with alternatives.

We know that the Opposition want to abandon full-cost recovery and transfer £300 million from court fees to general taxation. Do they also propose to revert to a demand-led legal aid budget? If so, would they put up taxes or cut other services in order to increase payments to lawyers? I hope that the single Opposition Member present today will show us whether there is any legal thinking on their side of the political divide. Do they have a policy or is this a Tory policy void? I refer the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) to "Macbeth". It is a case of

The Lord Chancellor launched the CLS in April this year. The launch marked the replacement of the existing civil and family legal aid budget with the CLS fund, and the implementation of three core policies for the CLS. Those policies are, first, CLS partnerships, which will take responsibility for planning local legal services; secondly, the CLS quality mark, which will be awarded to providers of legal services that achieve the required quality standards; and thirdly, the CLS website, called "Just Ask!", which contains a directory of legal services and guides users to the most appropriate sources of information and advice on more than 300 other sites.

CLS partnerships are at the heart of the community legal service. Each partnership includes the two players common to every area: the Legal Services Commission, which from April succeeded the Legal Aid Board, and the local authority. Working with other local funders and providers of legal services, they will support the creation of local referral networks of good quality services. CLS partnerships have four main tasks: to assess the extent of need in their area for legal and advice services and to prioritise those services; to identify how well the current supply meets the need in priority areas; to plan together how best to organise the funding that each partner brings to the table so as more effectively to meet priority legal needs; and to facilitate the creation of active referral systems in the local network of services.

The term "partnership" is not used lightly. The CLS does not involve a pooling of funds. Each funder--the Legal Services Commission, the local authority and the National Lottery Charities Board--will maintain its independence, distinctive approach and discrete responsibilities. The partners come together to gain the benefits of pooling expertise and knowledge so as to engage in activities that are of mutual interest and concern. By working together in that way, they are in a better position to share information, to understand what is needed in a particular area and to target individual decisions to achieve objectives. That process will be underpinned by concordats which will promote confidence and encourage trust between independent partners working together to deliver common objectives.

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Before we hear special pleading on behalf of lawyers, I remind hon. Members that the sort of prioritising decisions the partnerships will have to make are precisely the sort that all public authorities providing services from large but, none the less, controlled budgets must make. How, for example, does a health authority balance health promotion and heart surgery? Those are tough decisions, and the views of local partnerships will be similarly vital in deciding how public money is spent on legal services.

The Legal Services Commission is able to participate fully in local partnerships because of the radical changes to legal aid made in the Access to Justice Act 1999. The previous civil and family legal aid scheme has been replaced by the CLS fund. Instead of the previous demand-led system, the CLS fund will enable us for the first time to target money on national and local priorities by awarding contracts to the providers best placed to deliver a quality service that meets local priority needs and is purchased in a best-value context. Contracts have been issued from the start of this year to providers throughout England and Wales.

A key difference is that, under the new CLS, funding is now allocated on the basis of priorities that have been decided locally and, at national level, by the Lord Chancellor. They include the welfare of children, domestic violence and helping people avoid or climb out of social exclusion. Those priorities are given effect by the introduction of contracts. By April 2001, all civil and family legal services will be provided by quality-assured suppliers that are under contract with the Legal Services Commission. The contracts enable the commission to choose what services it wants to provide and ensure that taxpayers' money is directed at the areas of greatest need. They also provide suppliers with an incentive to provide services cost effectively.

Another key difference between the CLS fund and the previous legal aid scheme is that the new fund replaces the old civil merits test with a new funding code. The funding code gives effect to identified priorities in terms of deciding which cases receive funding by setting more or less stringent tests according to the priority of the category of case.

Although the CLS is still at a very early stage, there have already been encouraging signs. There are now 109 CLS partnerships, which involve 184 local authorities and cover 50 per cent. of the population of England and Wales. We have, therefore, exceeded the Lord Chancellor's target of covering 33 per cent. of the population by autumn 2000, and are well on the way to achieving the targets of 66 per cent. by spring 2001 and 90 per cent. by spring 2002.

The CLS partnerships are delivering where it matters in the communities in which they serve. For example, the CLS partnership in Northumberland is involved in the local action against poverty initiative. It provides debt advice workers in general practitioners' surgeries and primary health care teams throughout the county, enabling health workers to refer on those in need of debt advice.

In the East Riding of Yorkshire, the Legal Services Commission and the local council are running a pilot scheme to improve access to services by providing advice kiosks at locations throughout the county, which will link with the local council's customer services

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centres. That highly impressive scheme was developed specifically to use information technology to overcome the problems associated with that type of rural area. We will be monitoring the pilot scheme closely to see whether it should be adopted elsewhere.

There are now over 5,500 solicitors and advice agencies with the CLS quality mark, and an increasing number of organisations are applying every month. I especially praise the involvement of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which is fully engaged in working with us and will become the first external organisation to be accredited to award the CLS quality mark.

The CLS website, "Just Ask!", has already proved a winner. It has won a major award and attracts an average of more than 1,000 users every day and sometimes more than 2,000. We anticipate that the figure will increase steadily over the coming months, particularly as the design of the website is further enhanced.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): If I may, I shall talk about my own experiences in Stroud with the local citizens advice bureau. Debt counselling was clearly identified as a priority and I would support that because a large number of people go to citizens advice bureaux for advice on that. However, there is also a clear need for housing and employment advice. The problem that needs to be considered is how to achieve the second level of prioritisation through the franchising. Will my hon. Friend say whether there may be a revisiting of the priorities in due course?

Mr. Lock : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. The priorities are being kept under review, and the fact that categories such as children's cases or domestic violence are not of the highest priority does not mean that we are not providing extensive funding for them. Housing, employment and immigration funding is being substantially increased as part of the extension this year from £206 million to £226 million for contracts for legal help. I am sure that suitable priorities will be identified in my hon. Friend's constituency, and I would be delighted if he wrote to me about any specific problems that he would like me to consider.

As long ago as 1968, the Society of Labour Lawyers wrote an influential pamphlet about the need to develop community legal services. That remained unfinished business for many years, but this Government have turned the ideas into substance and created the framework in which community legal services can be genuinely delivered for the first time.

I hope that the CLS will receive a warm welcome in all parts of the House, because those services will be delivered in all constituencies. I look forward to hearing about the needs and experiences of individual hon. Member's constituencies.

2.48 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock), is developing something of a reputation for trying to get his retaliation in first, and today appears to

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be no exception. Before addressing his specific points, I shall respond to his final statement, in which he said that he looked forward to hearing hon. Members talk about experiences in their own constituencies.

I shall start with an account from the sharp end, which is not the sort of thing to be found in the official Government brief that the Parliamentary Secretary has just read out, with its slogans and buzz words about sustainable legal services and solutions to social problems. I shall talk about reality, about what is happening on the ground, focusing on a particular firm of solicitors in my area. The firm is not based in my constituency, although it has many clients there; it covers a wide area and has several offices.

One of the partners, who is also an associate of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, writes:

Although we did not overlap, the Parliamentary Secretary and I were in the same west midlands chambers, which undertook a lot of criminal work. When I hear him read out a departmental brief that refers to bleats from lawyers, I start to believe that he has undergone a transformation--that he has ceased to be a lawyer. Perhaps some of the firms that instructed him when he was in chambers might agree. Despite the hon. Gentleman's comments, we must be conscious of the effect of the Government's plans on lawyers working at the sharp end. The example that I have given reinforces the view that the official Opposition have expressed repeatedly: that the so-called Access to Justice Act 1999--probably the worst misnomer of any piece of legislation introduced by the current Government--has become known, not only among Opposition Members, but generally in the profession, as the denial of justice act.

The letter to which I have referred also states:

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Mr. Lock : The hon. Gentleman cites with approval a statement that the current CLS budget of £1,600 million a year is not properly resourced. What are his resourcing proposals for that budget? How much would he increase it by?

Mr. Hawkins : The much-vaunted plans for the CLS that the Government introduced are not working. The Parliamentary Secretary will hear exactly what our proposals are in due course, when the time comes, as and when we have policies to put to the electorate, but today we are discussing what the Government are doing. This is their debate, not an Opposition-led debate. We are here to respond to the Government's--and the Parliamentary Secretary's--outrageous boasts that they are doing all the right things and that everything is working. I have cited a concrete example given in a letter that was written on behalf of many people. It is not the only letter that I have received on the matter; it just happens to be the best one and it is from a firm in my constituency. I am responding to the hon. Gentleman's challenge--he wanted to hear what was happening at the sharp end; well, the answer is that his plans are not working. He can smirk all he likes, but he will find that, along with the current chorus of disapproval will be heard a chorus of protest.

The letter goes on:

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Despite such warnings, the Parliamentary Secretary says that the policy is a success. He believes that the problem is nothing other than lawyers' whinges. The Government do not recognise reality. I sometimes think that those in the Lord Chancellor's Department live in a dream world of their own, where everything is in line with the Government's press releases. Well, that is not the reality, and the Parliamentary Secretary and his colleagues must wake up to what is really gong in.

I shall now deal with the more general points that have been made by the Law Society, which is not just an individual firm, but the official organisation that represents solicitors throughout the country. It has a number of concerns about the partnerships. It states:

The Law Society points out that

The Law Society says that it has been made very clear that there will be no new money available for the establishment of the CLS. That will have implications for the partnerships. In addition, no analysis appears to have been made of the cost, as mentioned in research carried out by Richard Moorhead into the pioneer partnerships set up by the Government. Paragraph 2.41 of the research points out that there are significant resource implications, especially for lead partners, but

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also for others, in terms of investing time, supporting meetings and consultations, and drawing other resources into a partnership. The research also states that it was clear that the more in-depth work on needs assessment and user involvement required significant resources. The Law Society believes that that will be a major factor in determining the ability of the partnerships to carry out the majority of their key tasks.

I said that I would refer to some of the specific points made by the Minister. He quoted Shakespeare, but listening to him and having heard the arguments from him and his fellow Ministers so often called another literary figure to my mind. In this area of the law, the Government appear to believe a dictum of one of Lewis Carroll's characters, which is

The Government, including the Treasury and the Lord Chancellor's Department, claim that local authority spending is discretionary, and they tell local authorities that what they spend money on is up to them. However, let us consider a practical example. A chief executive of one of the two borough councils in my constituency received a letter, signed in the Parliamentary Secretary's name on his behalf, which stated that there was no statutory duty on citizens advice bureaux in respect of the CLS, and no compulsion to participate in the CLS network. The chief executive responded to the letter as follows:

There we have it--the poor local authorities are over a barrel. The Government tell them that a wonderful service, the CLS, has been introduced, but that they have to fund it in addition to having to fund citizens advice bureaux. Local authorities are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: the Government will not provide any extra money to enable them to take on extra commitments. The Government are keen on announcing new initiatives while expecting someone else to pay for and deliver them. The example I have given is yet another illustration of the Government's control freak tendency. They want to centralise everything and to introduce amazing bureaucracy, but they are not the ones who have to work at the sharp end.

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Mr. Lock : The problem that the hon. Gentleman seeks to illustrate is founded on the assumption that local authorities are compelled to take part in partnerships, but they are not--doing so is entirely voluntary. Has the chief executive in question contacted the Local Government Association, with which the policies were developed? The Lord Chancellor's Department received warm praise from the LGA for proposing local initiatives that are developed and delivered locally, not centrally. Surely the LGA knows what it is talking about, even if the hon. Gentleman does not.

Mr. Hawkins : In fact, the chief executive approached both the Department responsible for these policies--in other words, the Lord Chancellor's Department--and the Parliamentary Secretary personally. In his reply, the hon. Gentleman did not advance the argument that he has advanced this afternoon--but I shall let that pass. In any case, a local authority might suspect that it would not get unbiased opinions from an association led by supporters of the Government.

The chief executive's letter states that it is

Before I conclude, I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Parliamentary Secretary, for the fact that I might not be able to stay for the entire debate, although I hope to be here for most of it. I am sure that other Conservative Members whom I expect to join us later will have the opportunity to participate later in the debate.

I turn finally to the aspect of the Parliamentary Secretary's letter--it does not have his signature on it, but I assume that he must have authorised someone in his office to sign it in his name--that added insult to injury. The chief executive was outraged by the fact that it said that I--as Member of Parliament for that local authority area and for part of another local authority area--was the shadow Minister and suggested that the chief executive consult me for an explanation of the Government's policy. It is not incumbent on chief executives of local authorities to consult any Member of Parliament--they deal directly with Government Departments.

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For the Parliamentary Secretary to attempt to score that kind of cheap political point in an official letter to the chief executive of a local authority is as unworthy of him as it would be of any Minister. It reveals the Government's bankruptcy of ideas. Their policies are in a mess--the professional organisations say so; they are not properly funded, and they will be a disaster.

3.8 pm

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): Before commencing, I declare an interest as a practising solicitor in a firm of solicitors that participates in a local CLS partnership.

I welcome this debate. I supported the Second Reading of the Access to Justice Bill and was a member of the Standing Committee that considered it prior to its receiving Royal Assent last year. The legislation contained some difficult and tough measures, which were not popular. My view at the time and now is that the fact that the development of the CLS goes some way towards meeting the needs of vulnerable people in society compensates for the sacrifices made, especially in the provision of legal aid. Time will tell whether that judgment is correct.

We are at an important stage in the development of the CLS. It was launched in April this year with the aim of having the network of partnerships up and running in almost every area of England and Wales by the end of March 2002. That is a tough, but achievable, aim. In its recent report "The community legal service: access for all?" the Consumers Association said:

The legal aid scheme and legislation introduced by the post-war reforming Labour Government in 1949 served the nation well until the 1990s, as did the legal aid and assistance, or green form, scheme. However, I doubt whether those provisions could have survived much longer. Inevitably, Treasury limitations and changes in society made legal aid unsustainable in the form it took prior to the Access to Justice Act 1999. The status quo did not provide access to justice for all, so improved access to justice was at the heart of the CLS. Hitherto there had been gaps in terms of coverage, inappropriate application of means testing and geography--my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned the "deserts". The 1999 Act provided a framework of provisions that potentially plugged many of those gaps and helped to fertilise the deserts. It provided a more co-ordinated approach to advice and assistance and ensured representation where appropriate. I use the word "potentially" because we have some way to go before the vision is realised. Today's debate is well timed, as local partnerships to deliver the CLS are being formed and steering committees across England and Wales are commencing their work.

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In my area, the London borough of Havering, trading standards officers, representatives of local firms of solicitors and the voluntary sector and, chiefly, the citizens advice bureau have set up a CLS partnership which will be at the heart of the area's community legal service provision. It will bring together those who fund legal advice services, including the Legal Services Commission, the local authority, local and national charities and those who supply services such as lawyer and advice centres. The partnership will produce a strategic plan for the provision of services. There is considerable enthusiasm locally, and it is important that the Government recognise and encourage such enthusiasm whenever and wherever possible. I should be pleased to hear from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary about the steps that he is taking to nurture the enthusiasm of local partnerships. The steering group has begun the important mapping exercise to identify needs, which is to be used in producing the strategic plan.

I must flag up what I regard as potentially the most problematic issue: funding. When discussing the role of local authorities, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) referred to the briefing that the Law Society has produced for this debate. It is unclear how local authorities are to play their role, and my area, Havering, provides an example of how difficulties can arise. The Havering citizens advice bureau is a registered charity--as most of them are--which is wholly dependent on the London borough of Havering for its core funding to provide the salaries of its three paid workers and the running costs of its offices at Hornchurch, Romford, Harold Hill and Rainham. The management committee, all of whose members are volunteers, has been informed that its grant for the whole of the service in Havering will be £109,380 for the year beginning 1 April 2000. For the past five years, the grant made by the council has been insufficient to meet costs in full, so the management committee has subsidised the shortfall from other income and reserves. Despite detailed and repeated representations to the local authority, the award of standstill funding has taken no account of the changes in service delivery and the increasing needs of clients.

In September 1999, the bureau introduced a 24-hour, seven days a week recorded telephone message system. It dealt with 11,000 calls in five months. In the year ending 31 March 1999, Havering citizens advice bureau dealt with 17,424 people and 29,559 problems, including issues relating to housing, debt, money, employment and discrimination. In London, in 1999, the average cost of an inquiry at a citizens advice bureau was £11; in Havering, the cost was £3.26. Havering council has paid less than 50p per person per year for a service that is freely available to all who live and work in the borough. The statistics help to underline the importance of the local service. The number of calls handled and the efficient way in which the service is provided mean that it is well regarded throughout the borough, by my constituents and people in surrounding constituencies.

Despite that, the future of the service remains uncertain, because of Havering council's poor financial settlement under the standard spending assessment formula. I know that we are not debating local government finance, but if we expect local authorities to play an important role in the provision of the service, we must acknowledge that standard spending assessments

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are relevant. The borough council has adopted the Government's modernisation programme and ensured that all the schools in its area are properly funded, in accordance with its standard spending assessment for education. The council, regrettably, has had to increase the council tax by 8 per cent. in the past two years, while having to reduce spending in other important areas, such as the provision of elderly people's homes. The borough council, despite embracing the measures wholeheartedly, finds it difficult to maintain the core funding of the citizens advice bureau. The Government should be aware of that.

I am wholly in favour of the CLS, and I know the local partners in my area. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath says, many voluntary and professional organisations, including private practice solicitors, want the service to succeed. None the less, local authorities play an important role, especially in respect of funding, so we should be aware that they will find it increasingly difficult to do so if they have to work with reduced finances.

Let me change the subject slightly to insurance, which could play an innovative role in support of the CLS and to which I referred on Second Reading of the Access to Justice Bill. Legal service insurance cover could be expanded significantly to help to bridge the gaps in cover. Work is being done at a national level.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I keep hearing from people in private practice who do legal aid work that some insurance companies draft their conditions in such a way that they drive the litigation and the client and the lawyer are mere adjuncts. How does the hon. Gentleman propose to cure that particular deficiency?

Mr. Darvill : The hon. Gentleman makes a relevant point. That is why the Government and the CLS should engage at a national level with the insurance industry to ensure that the small print of insurance cover meets relevant needs. Additionally, I want to develop a service that I call a health check, which could be carried out in conjunction with the information technology industry and insurance companies. Citizens advice bureaux would have a computer facility that allowed members of the public to input information about their insurance cover, and the software would give them information about the extent of that cover. In short, there are two ways to deal with the hon. Gentleman's point: first, at a national level, the Government and the CLS can work with the industry, and, secondly, people should be able to go into a citizens advice bureau or a solicitor's office for the health check that I describe. Different people--those who travel abroad, own property or engage in business--have different insurance cover demands. There is no reason why programmes should not be developed that can provide individual health checks. Indeed, there could be advantages in that approach, which would ensure better cover nationwide.

The relevant legislation on, and the Government's policies towards, the co-ordination of cover at a local level are right. I have received the draft report from the CLS in my area, which was developed in conjunction with a long list of service providers, including Age Concern, the Alcohol Advisory Service and many others. My experience as a solicitor and, since entering

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the House, as a Member of Parliament, shows me that individuals can go to various providers of information, although there is often duplication. The Government have stated the honourable aim of helping to co-ordinate different approaches, which should ensure that relevant cover is available locally and enable more efficient use of resources.

I am disappointed that not more hon. Members are present in the Chamber to participate in this debate. We should monitor the extent to which local partnerships are developing across the country. There is much support for the service, but we want the service to benefit all of our constituents. In my view, hon. Members are uniquely aware, through their advice surgeries and their contacts with the community, of individuals' need for advice and assistance. Their unique experience could help to ensure that the service works. We should have frequent--perhaps annual--debates on the subject; that would ensure that it was monitored by the House. If we did that and worked with the CLS, I am sure that the service would be a success.

3.24 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I am pleased to speak in this debate. Unlike all the hon. Members who have spoken before me, I am not a qualified lawyer, but I am the chair of Slough, Windsor and Maidenhead CLS partnership. It has been a privilege to work with all of the partners in that group, which seeks to improve the quality of legal advice and assistance that is provided in the community that I serve and in neighbouring communities.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) raised the question of what can be done to encourage local authorities that are not particularly active in improving the quality of their advice services. Our partnership provides an example of what can be done. The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) had discussed with me the lack of free advice services in his constituency, so I persuaded our partnership to invite Windsor and Maidenhead to join us in discussing certain steps that we had taken to improve the quality of advice services in Slough. I am glad to say that Windsor and Maidenhead have become partners and are taking up that challenge. I believe that the quality of advice services in the Windsor constituency will improve in the long term.

I took on the role in the local CLS partnership because of my deep concern about access to legal advice--indeed, to all forms of advice--in the multiracial, multilingual constituency that I serve. I am struck by the contrast between the quality of legal advice and assistance that my constituents routinely experience, and that provided in the London constituency that I once represented at local council level. The single most important issue in respect of which my constituents seek my help is immigration, and many of them ask me to help them to unravel problems caused by the giving of, to be frank, very bad advice. Such advice is sometimes given by qualified lawyers and sometimes by agents who represent themselves as lawyers.

An urgent priority for our partnership was to improve the quality of legal advice on immigration available locally. I have learned over a long period that a legal

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qualification is not necessarily a guarantee of good-quality knowledge and advice on a particular issue. As I said, I have no legal qualifications, but I remember vividly an experience I had in the early 1980s, when I was general secretary of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. I received a telephone call from a high street solicitor, who said, "I've got someone sitting in front of me who wants his wife to come and join him in Britain, but I can't find any reference to such a circumstance in the Immigration Act 1971." When I said, "You need to look at the immigration rules", his response was to ask, "Immigration rules? What are they?" I asked, "Do you think that you should be advising this person?", to which his reply was, "I'm a solicitor, why shouldn't I?"

I do not think that that solicitor should have advised that person. Because the inquiry was not particularly complicated and because he was legally qualified, he felt that he was qualified to give advice--but he was not. One aspect of the CLS partnerships that I welcome especially warmly is that they are based on quality standards and the principle that those who do not know their stuff do not get funding, even if they are lawyers. That is a radical and important change, which will ensure that people get better quality legal advice.

In the concordat that forms the basis of the partnership in Slough, Windsor and Maidenhead, the core vision is of a network of good quality legal and advice services. Many are already of good quality, but improvements can be made, for example, we can use quality standards as a way to unite and improve the quality of different types of service. Moreover, we can invest more in training of all kinds for groups who provide legal advice and assistance--citizens advice bureaux and voluntary groups, as well as lawyers.

The second point in our concordat is that the quality partnership should be supported by co-ordinated funding, and I want to make a plea in that respect. One big problem facing voluntary organisations that give advice and assistance is the number of different masters whom they have to please and the number of different auditing mechanisms, quality assurance standards and reporting methods that they have to adhere to. A real priority must be to obtain agreement on common standards between the Lord Chancellor's Department, local authorities, charities and the national lottery organisations. We can immediately and enormously increase the volume of advice that voluntary organisations give if they have only to meet one set of standards. The big challenge facing our partnership is to ensure that we move faster towards that single standard, so that everyone is asked to jump through the same set of hoops. At the moment, people are asked to jump through one set of hoops on Monday and another set on Tuesday, and then someone tells them that they should be in a different financial year anyway. We must make a priority of changing that.

The third bullet point in our concordat is to deliver services to local communities. That was what motivated me to become chair of our partnership: I could see that there were little centres of good advice in Slough about which some people did not know. Also, many people had legal problems but did not know that they were legal problems; because they had no idea that their housing

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difficulty, for example, could be tackled effectively by good legal advice, they did not seek such advice. Many people thought lawyers were frightening and expensive, and not for the likes of them. I want a CLS in which no one thinks in that way, and through which everyone thinks that they have a right to help.

When seeking that help in a constituency such as Slough, the first port of call is probably not the high street solicitor, but a church, mosque or residents association. People turn to those to whom they talk daily and who might have practice of dealing with lawyers, whom they believe to be frightening and expensive. Such intermediaries might speak their language better and can help people to reach the point at which they can get a qualified advocate. One of the visions of our CLS partnership is to draw in that network of people in and make them feel included. Small voluntary and community groups all have copies of our referral handbook, and some have entries in it because they are knowledgeable. The Pakistan welfare association knows the language of some of my constituents, whereas few solicitors in private practice do. We need to set up a partnership in which that association can know where its competence ends and when it should refer cases on. Part of the purpose of the handbook is to help people to know their limits.

If we achieve our aims, that will make the delivery of better quality legal advice cheaper. Fewer people will barge into a solicitor's office if they know that the unemployed workers centre or the Pakistan welfare association can deal with their problems. More people will receive advice more economically, thus enabling us to invest in creating a referral system that ensure that, for example, the people who need judicial review of their immigration case have someone who can represent their case excellently. That might lead to some improvements in our immigration law and administration. Also, we could invest in extending the availability of advice. We need to create mechanisms whereby referral works well.

As part of the launch of our CLS partnership, we carried out an interesting survey of private and voluntary agencies in Slough. The survey found that several concerns were shared equally between solicitors in private practice and voluntary advice givers. The great advantage of that survey was that people gained a greater awareness of each other's roles. Claire Fitzgerald said at our launch:

Access is another important issue. Solicitors in Slough tend to be concentrated in the centre of the town, as do the voluntary advice services, but the people who need advice are often those who find travel difficult and whose mobility is restricted. There are no advice centres in the estates on the outskirts of Slough. I, as the Member of Parliament, am one of the few people who goes around the town and provides an advice service to deprived communities.

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One of the groups within the partnership is the unemployed workers centre. The National Lottery Charities Board has funded the centre to carry out an access project: run by Keith Spencer, it is designed to deliver basic benefits and other elements of welfare advice to people in their homes. That is the beginning of an expanding partnership and network. Through the partnership, other people are getting to know about Keith's services and are getting him to help those of their clients who cannot travel to the centre of town. We are beginning to improve the delivery services to local communities.

Mr. Burnett : Without wanting to put words into her mouth, I ask the hon. Lady whether she will be interested to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary about the progress that has been made in giving franchises to the not-for-profit sector.

Fiona Mactaggart : In my constituency, it is difficult to identify or develop good quality not-for-profit immigration advice, just as it is in the private sector. However, I think that we should treat all kinds of advice centres equally, whether they are solicitors, or advice agencies in the not-for-profit sector, or community organisations. If they meet quality standards, they should have access to funds, not only through franchises but, by meeting those standards, through local authorities. I should be interested in hearing about the progress that is being made, and it is possible that it is not happening fast enough. However, I am glad that we are taking steps down that road. Let us continue to do so.

The fourth point in our partnership's concordat is that the CLS should be in accordance with an effective assessment of local needs. That is the bit of the challenge that we have found most difficult to get right. Legal advice services in Britain have traditionally been provided according to where lawyers want to set up their business, or where voluntary organisations are established--services have been producer-led, which is a problem, because the best services are needs-led. Huge needs are hidden in a constituency such as mine, because people do not know that they need legal advice; they know that they have a problem, but not who can help them to tackle it.

One of the challenges that CLS partnerships face is reaching the sort of organisations to which I have talked, such as churches, mosques, residents associations and so on, and ensuring that they have a clearer awareness of what constitutes a legal problem and when someone needs legal advice so that they can more clearly express local needs. I hope to hear imaginative ways of doing that, because unless the CLS reaches those people, it will not have met the challenge.

On balance, it is right not to throw out the baby with the bath water by saying, "We will have a national legal service in the way that we have a national health service." Instead, we must say, "Let us improve quality by building partnerships with existing voluntary and private organisations and with bodies such as local councils which give quasi-legal advice to residents." However, to achieve that objective, we need to challenge all those providers to improve their act, to reach the parts that they are not reaching, to meet quality standards and to challenge other bodies that are not

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even thinking along such lines--for example, libraries--to ensure that people know whether their problem is a legal one and, if it is, where to go for help. The referrals handbook that I mentioned is available in Slough libraries, as well as in the other kinds of organisations to which I have referred.

We also need to ensure that people whose first language is not English get access to good quality legal services. I hope that that issue will be addressed. At present, there are often problems in funding interpretation services for people who need legal advice. The CLS cannot tackle all the problems in the first year of its existence, but that one must be tackled, because an inability to speak good English is a real barrier to access to good quality advice.

I am glad that quite a lot has already been done. I thank all the partners in the Slough CLS; they have begun to make it work. They have collaborated in ways that they did not at first think possible--they have met each other for a start, which in some cases is a great leap forward. They have enjoyed the experience of learning what the others do and are beginning to trust each other. We all need to find ways of reinforcing that trust because, unless it is properly developed, two-way referral will not occur and solicitors will not say to Age Concern, "This client would be better served by talking to you than by my taking up the case."

There is more work to do and there is a real challenge--the biggest challenge of all, which is to make sure that we create a legal advice service that makes it clear to people who have never had access to legal advice that they have a right to good advice; and we must deliver good advice, for until we do that, we fail those people. Focusing on how much money solicitors in private practice earn out of giving legal advice, as debates such as this always seem to do, is the wrong approach, because it implies that producers can determine the shape of the system. We need a new system in which consumers decide what kind of system we have. If we achieve that, we will truly have a national legal advice service.

3.44 pm

Mr. Lock : I am grateful for the permission of the Chamber to speak again. I shall be brief in closing what has been an interesting but reasonably short debate.

In answer to the observations of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), I can only express great disappointment that, having sat through the debate for so long and having heard so much, he has so little understanding of what we are trying to do. That was brought home to me by the letter that I received from the chief executive to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, who said that the council was proud to fund the citizens advice bureau. He went on to say that the council did not

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We must recognise that the monopoly that lawyers thought that they had in delivering legal advice and assistance does not prevail on the ground. When local authorities fund CABs, the valuable services that they are funding are legal services and they are not any less legal because they are provided by people who do not have magic letters after their names to show that they are formally qualified lawyers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough illustrated in an eloquent and accurate example, lawyers are often not the best people to deliver such advice anyway, but local authorities are funders of legal services.

Mr. Hawkins : The Minister does not have to take my word for it, because I wrote down carefully what the hon. Member for Upminster said in a measured and helpful contribution to the debate, which was:

Mr. Lock : The hon. Gentleman does not understand the system. It is discretionary for local authorities to fund CABs. It always has been. The Government have no proposals to change that. We want to ensure that when local authorities fund advice services, they do so in a way that makes sense, given the other funders in the area. I am proud that as a result of the CLS 330 not-for-profit agencies have now been awarded the quality mark.

Mr. Hawkins : Where is the money?

Mr. Lock : The funding for the not-for-profit sector, including CABs, has risen from its record level last year of £11 million from the Legal Services Commission to £29 million this year--an increase of 270 per cent. Yet the hon. Gentleman asks, "Where is the money?" An increase of 270 per cent. in funding in one year for the delivery of extra quality-marked services is a significant step in the right direction. I repeat that it is disappointing that, after having heard so much and listened so long, the honourable Gentleman has so little understanding of the way in which we will deliver important legal services to those who really need them.

Most lawyers, including those in the not-for-profit sector, working under legal aid are not fat cats, and I would not dream of suggesting that they are; nor did I. They deliver quality services for a reasonable return. However, the obligation on a Government Department is to secure value for money in the services that it purchases. Throughout the country we have a full coverage of services, with the exception of one or two problems in immigration, which we are working hard to solve. The prediction that lawyers would not sign up for

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contracts at the rates that we were prepared to pay has proved incorrect. For example, family services are provided in all legal aid bid zones.

Hon. Members will no doubt say that family problems tend to come in at least twos, if not threes. I am, therefore, pleased to say that 98 per cent. of bid zones have at least two firms of solicitors under contract providing quality services. However, we will not contract for the provision of services with lawyers whose only expertise is the fact that at some point in the distant past they passed a law examination and their Law Society finals. The problems involved are too complex and important to be left to the dabblers. We shall contract with firms that have a quality standard, so that we know that the services being provided are quality services, and we shall pay the amount necessary to secure those services. If we paid more, we would help fewer people.

I am grateful for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, whose analysis of circumstances in his area was extremely interesting. I assure him that I have taken careful note of the differences in the cost of provision of advice in Havering compared with the rest of London. It is interesting to compare the cost of provision of benefit or debt advice through the not-for-profit sector and the traditional green form scheme for lawyers, and to ask which is the best way of procuring that advice, whether we can be sure of quality standards and whether it is right to pay anything up to 10 or 15 times more merely because the advice is provided by a qualified lawyer. Although it may occasionally be right to do so, we have a general duty to secure best value.

Mr. Darvill : I am interested in the point that the Parliamentary Secretary makes. Will his Department ensure that such an analysis is made, especially in identifying good practice? If necessary, will representations be made throughout the Government to ensure that, for example, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is aware when local authorities and citizens advice bureaux are not providing that best value?

Mr. Lock : Yes, that research is being done and the results will be published. I shall ensure that my colleagues in the Government are aware of the benchmark figures that we extract from the research to show the appropriate levels of payment and the return in different areas. In both the not-for-profit and the for profit sectors, some firms and providers are much more efficient at providing quality services than others. As public money is involved, it is important that those who say that they cannot deliver the service for a particular price should look in the first instance at other providers, firms of solicitors and not-for-profit operators that can work within those budget lines and produce a quality service, and learn from best practice elsewhere.

I shall make a few observations on my hon. Friend's comments on insurance. He is right to say that both before-the-event and after-the-event insurance play a significant role. A significant problem is that, although many people have legal expenses insurance with their household insurance, when they have a problem they are not aware that the £10 or £12 a year tacked on at the end of their insurance form, which they signed a long time

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ago, can be the gateway to the help that they need, rather than it being provided by the public purse through a lawyer of their choice. People have that right under a European directive. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point because it is important to make people aware that they may already have insurance. Millions of people do. We must publicise that fact and ensure that lawyers ask their clients the right questions to ascertain whether those clients already have cover. Ultimately, the points made by the hon. Member for Upminster about a vibrant insurance market are right. As in other areas, the quality of service and number of restrictions in legal expenses insurance will be sorted out by the market and pressure from the Government. We should make sure that the insurance industry delivers services in a way that is suitable for the consumer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough on her work in CLS partnership in her area. She has worked through the process and has understood, from long experience, why what we are delivering is so important. It focuses on unmet need--people who would never dream of consulting a firm of solicitors but are greatly in need of legal advice. She recognises the consequences of not delivering that advice, not providing such pathways out of social exclusion and not allowing people to get the most out of their lives because of what holds them back. That is key to the Government's attempt to tackle social exclusion and create opportunity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough referred to the importance of having only one quality standard. I entirely agree with her. The quality mark produced by the CLS should be the benchmark, whether it is a local authority seeking to satisfy itself that it is funding a citizens advice bureau under a best value regime, whether it is the National Lottery Charities Board or whether it is the CAB. Whatever organisation is seeking to deliver services through the CLS, that should be the core quality standard to which they should be required to work by any funder within the CLS. A single quality standard will ensure that one year will not end on a Monday for one funder while a second year ends on a Tuesday for a different funder. Similarly, there will not be one type of working and set of goals, objectives and key performance indicators for one funder and a totally different set for another. I hope that all funders will recognise that more of their money will go to providing services and less to carrying out administration if they are prepared to trust the quality mark as the single indicator of quality services. That will allow organisations to work in accordance with a single set of coherent policies. I assure my hon. Friend that that is beginning to happen.

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My hon. Friend is right about translation services. As part of the invest-to-save budget, the CLS website "Just Ask!" is in the process of translating the CAB advice guide. Therefore, valuable practical advice on benefits, housing and employment, including detailed legal advice, will be available in the six most used United Kingdom community languages. I am sure that that will be useful in her constituency for those advisers who are able to access the net.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough challenged me to find imaginative ways of reaching communities to identify priority areas of unmet legal need. I shall give two examples of what is happening. In Newcastle, the Legal Services Commission is funding an immigration co-ordinator to work with advice agencies to help asylum seekers to obtain the right advice from the right person, where there is capacity and firms are able to deal with cases, and to ensure that the referral system works properly. In that way, help can be co-ordinated so that asylum seekers receive the advice they need from someone who can provide them with the quality of advice which they are entitled to expect.

In Liverpool, debt advisers are working in GP surgeries through the CLS partnership. GPs identified the need for their elderly patients to maximise their income so that they can turn up the heating and have a better quality of life. Many elderly people who would not have gone to the citizens advice bureau with cap in hand to ask for benefits advice to improve their income can now obtain that advice in their GPs' surgeries which they visit anyway. That is good for GPs, the advice comes from the citizens advice bureau and is of high quality, and the service is of real benefit to Liverpool's elderly citizens who can take advantage of services in a way that they would not have done previously.

This has been a short, but an interesting debate. It has shown how the Government's policies on development of community legal services are working. Developing networks and delivering the services that are needed in each community will take a generation, not 12 months. This is a long-term process and a change of culture, but the Legal Services Commission has made an impressive start. The development of partnerships throughout the country is changing the way in which services are being commissioned and delivered. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster and for Slough who have given such strong support for the initiative and have brought experiences from their communities to help us in our debate this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

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