Draft Legal Aid (Functions) Order 2000, and the Draft Legal Aid (Prescribed Panels) (Amendment) Order 2000

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Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting observation, but is he aware that we are debating Criminal Defence Service regulations, which apply purely to crime? He has taken up 10 minutes of the Committee's time speaking on matters relating to the community legal service, which is concerned with civil law. There may well be some overlap, but it might help the Committee if the hon. Gentleman confined his remarks to the subject under discussion, which is the crime franchise panel.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister is right. There is some overlap, but, as we have repeatedly pointed out, the Government are going down the route of much greater central control, and we are concerned at the prospect of an American-style public defender system, which Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws has savagely criticised in many speeches in another place.

I am glad that the Minister mentioned crime, because in a later passage, the letter to which I have referred specifically mentions legal aid work in relation to crime. It states:

    I predict that the effect of that—

people leaving the system in droves—

    will be one of two things. Either he will be forced despite Mr Magee's confident stance to increase Solicitors charges or the Lord Chancellor not wanting to admit that he got it wrong, will rush into setting up publicly funded centres on a greater scale that in the end will cost the tax payer a great deal more money than the previous...system.

    At the present time, it is the CAB offices that are squealing under the strain of having to try to deal with huge volumes of work for which their advisers are not really qualified...and for which they have insufficient staff to cope.

The partner goes on to discuss criminal work. He states:

    The bureaucratic cost of administering Legal Aid has...been rising at an even greater rate, to the point where the cost of the bureaucratic tail is now wagging the dog that is actually delivering the legal service...to the public. Any Solicitor in the land that you care to talk to, who is at the sharp end like myself will tell you that there are clearly vast sums of money being thrown at the bureaucracy of Legal Aid, whilst the Lord Chancellors office is seeking to make the Solicitors who do the work squeal.

That is what partners in firms that specialise in criminal and family law are concerned about.

Mr. Lock: What is the Opposition's prognosis? Do they suggest putting up rates? If so, by how many millions will they increase the legal aid budget? Will that be paid for by a rise in taxes or will it be a further addition to the £16 billion cut in other public services?

The Chairman: Order. Our discussion is beginning to drift. I know that this is a controversial subject, and I have given Committee members a little licence. However, we are in danger of discussing aspects of tax cuts and we should return to our debate.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful for that, Mr. Cunningham. I appreciate that you do not want me to respond in detail to the Minister. I shall not do so, other than to say that I give him the same answer that I gave in last Thursday's debate—we shall certainly stop wasting money on bureaucracy. With regard to panels, and in other contexts, much money is being wasted by the move to centralised control and bureaucracy.

The Government would be wise not to dismiss the concerns that have been expressed in this context. Labour Members will find in their constituencies that solicitors who have done criminal and other publicly funded work will come to them with complaints. They will have to reply, ``We supported the proposal—we nodded it through.'' Today is not the time to fight the matter through votes, although that time may come if the Government continue down their current route. The Government may not be able to command the support shown by Labour Members in the House or in another place for such provisions, and lawyers at the sharp end will be unable to make them work.

4.52 pm

Mr. Burnett: I join the Minister and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Cunningham. I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the draft Legal Aid (Functions) Order so clearly. I have three questions about it, but I do not propose to say more on it. I shall confine my comments to the draft Legal Aid (Prescribed Panels) (Amendment) Regulations.

I start with a cri de coeur, which I discussed in Committee the other day with the Parliamentary Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy): the explanatory notes are inadequate. Regulation 10 contains a list of included criminal proceedings, but the explanatory notes should have contained a list of excluded criminal proceedings, and the reasons therefor. The statutory instrument makes provision for legal aid and legal services to be channelled through providers who have demonstrated a reasonably high standard of administrative efficiency and specialist knowledge. It relates to crime franchises and especially to those who specialise in criminal law. We had two earlier debates on similar panels—one on clinical negligence and the other on family law and immigration.

It is important that the public is assured of higher standards and expertise in what we would all recognise as important specialist areas. There is no more specialist area than criminal law, because an individual's liberty may be at stake. It is in the public interest that lawyers should have the expertise to deal with such cases, when instructed. Specialisation will improve efficiency and value for money.

I want to raise further questions on the prescribed panels regulations. What basic qualifications will be required of individuals who wish to serve on the crime franchise panels? Will there be written examinations, and, if so, who will supervise them? How much experience will be required? Will the Department have a continuing role in monitoring the panels, to ensure not only that standards are reached at the start, but that they are maintained? Will there be any grandfathering? In other words, if there is an examination, will individuals with long, specialist experience in criminal law be exempted? Will they qualify automatically through grandfathering arrangements?

I raised a question about the role of the Bar in relation to the Legal Aid (Functions) Order. The Minister in part answered my question, but it would be interesting to know whether he has any further information on the standards that will be expected of barristers when taking instruction from a firm that has a franchise.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bar and the Law Society share a concern about central control and the risk that high-cost cases will be taken away from members of the Bar? There is almost an element of threat. The Minister is saying, reassuringly, that no one will face that risk yet—but they will soon.

Mr. Burnett: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I shall refer to it briefly when I speak about the state defender system. The hon. Gentleman shares my view; he is against the establishment of the system, which we discussed during the passage of the Access to Justice Bill. We want a legal profession that is independent of the state and not bedevilled by conflict of interest.

I have one or two words of warning for the Minister, although I support both statutory instruments. Admission to a panel should be open to all who satisfy the criteria, and should not be limited artificially to a finite pool of members. I hope that the Minister will assure us about that. I should also like to say a few words about geographic spread. It is important that there should not be just a few franchised firms. In rural areas, there will be a considerable need for a large spread of franchises to cover sparsely populated districts. That is important for all of us who represent rural constituencies. The advantages of specialisation will be denied if the individual whom the client has chosen to act on his or her behalf is not the person who conducts the matter.

The panel member should not be there simply to catch the legal aid work. Cases must be not only obtained by the franchise holder but handled by members of the firm who have significant expertise in the matter. The finder with the expertise must not be used as an excuse for sub-standard work that is delegated to individuals without the competence and the ability to carry it out.

Finally, I shall say a few words about the state defender system. Will the establishment of that system have an impact on the funds available in the pool of money that will provide the costs for the Criminal Defence Service? It is important to have an independent Bar and solicitors' profession, and especially important that it should be open to any individual to instruct any lawyer of his or her choosing—provided that that person is a member of the panel if he is to be supported by the Criminal Defence Service.

I understand the reason for such panels, but I strongly urge the Minister to confirm to us—and to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, because it is germane to his intervention—that it will be open to any individual to instruct the lawyer of his or her choice. That applies to solicitors and to barristers. I appreciate the reasons for the statutory instrument, and for the client to be sure that he will have acting for him a solicitor or barrister—especially, in this case, a solicitor—of proven expertise. I also support the regulations for their value-for-money implications.

5.2 pm

Mr. Lock: I shall be brief in my response.

First, superstitions about the days on which Government policy takes effect are not usually the primary reason for choosing a date. It is more a question of whether the date falls on a Monday. The comments made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath about 1 April were, therefore, perhaps not his best point.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman referred to the problem of Ash and Ash Vale affecting his constituents. There is, of course, a difference between county council areas and postal areas. One might call it the Middlesex problem, in that Middlesex ceased to exist as a county council many years ago, but still exists as a postal district. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the particular circumstances of Ash and Ash Vale, and ensure that people whose postal address is in one local authority and whose administrative address is in another will be suitably catered for in any reprint of the directory.

The third point made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath was the sky-falling-in point. He has made it before, and he was wrong before. He has made it again and I am afraid that he is wrong again. The legal profession includes in its number those who are confident about predicting doom and gloom, the demise of everything, the sky falling in and the end of civilisation as we know it. They confidently predicted that people would not sign up for franchises and that solicitors' firms would not sign up for contracts, but they were wrong. We have maintained the geographical footprint.

As the hon. Gentleman gave examples from the community legal service, I shall do so too. We have a full range of family practitioners, and, in the Legal Services Commission, bid zones. In 98 per cent. of those, there are at least two family practitioners, who can cope with at least two sides of the argument. Obviously, I will keep under careful watch whether firms are pulling out of Legal Services Commission contracts. Those who cry wolf—in this context, it is not spelled ``woolf''—are apt to be disbelieved when they finally get it right. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the predictions on which he relied are wrong. There is no evidence of people pulling out of contracts. However, I am grateful that he gave a clear statement of his party's policy of getting rid of panels of solicitors.

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