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

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Mr. Hawkins: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lock: Let me finish the point. I took careful note of the hon. Gentleman's statement. He said, ``We will be getting rid of panels of solicitors.''

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) for pointing out that panels that define who is, and who is not, qualified to offer services are particularly important in respect of specialist fields. I entirely agree with him: there is no more specialist field than that of criminal law, where very important issues are at stake. Specialists provide a high quality service for defendants—who may not be the most attractive members of society, but are entitled to high quality services if they face serious allegations. I also agree with him that they give value for money.

I am grateful for the indication that the Conservatives intend to scrap panels, and thereby abandon quality standards, which are the only basis on which those panels can be formed.

Mr. Hawkins: I hope that when the Minister practised at the Bar he took a rather more accurate note of proceedings. The Official Report will demonstrate that I said in response to the Minister's intervention that we would get rid of the bureaucracy and central control, not the panels. I want to make that absolutely clear. I also referred to my contribution to last Thursday's debate in Westminster Hall, but you rightly intervened, Mr. Cunningham, to warn me not to go too wide.

It remains to be seen whether the panels stand the test of time; the Minister is woefully complacent. The one thing of which we can be sure is that a future Conservative Government—that cannot be too far ahead—will get rid of the bureaucracy.

Mr. Lock: On the hon. Gentleman's last comment, we shall see. Frankly, there is not much point in having panels if there is no method of testing whether the people on them are able to provide quality services.

I take the point about the explanatory notes that was made by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon, and I shall ensure that it is conveyed to those who are responsible for writing them.

On the first substantive point that was raised by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon, essentially, the only services that are excluded are those for trials in the Crown Court and appeals above that. All other services are included. Both are funded by the Court Service, which is why they are not covered by the regulations.

I have already said that I agree with the hon. Gentleman about his second point on panels. His third point concerned how one acquires a franchise. That centres on whether there is effective and well ordered management of a firm, whether the legal and managerial competence of the key lawyers in the firm is proved, and whether there is proper supervision of the more junior lawyers—an important point that was made by the hon. Gentleman—and of paralegals, who nowadays form an important part of the discharge of services, to check that they properly exercise their responsibilities.

The comprehensiveness of the substantive legal and procedural issues that are covered in undertaking cases for clients is measured against objective transaction criteria that are developed with the help of experienced lawyers. Yes, there is a complex audit and careful checks are carried out to ensure that firms act in accordance with proper policies. However, that involves only the type of management systems that are used in properly managed businesses in the public and private sectors. They will deal with instructions from a major purchaser, which may be the Crown Prosecution Service, a trade union, an insurance company or the Legal Services Commission. Any top provider would be expected to have such a management system.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon discussed the problem of taking away representation. I should clarify the position. No one will take away a defendant's choice of representative if that representative is on a panel and is prepared to enter into a contract. The LSC is not prepared to pay a representative more than it decides is reasonable for the services that are provided. The LSC is accountable for public money when commissioning services, and it should not be required to pay more than, in its determination, is reasonable. If representation has to be changed, it will be because the lawyer determined that he or she is not prepared to undertake the work for the sum that the accountable public body determined in the circumstances was reasonable for the service. The choice will be entirely the lawyer's.

On panels, I am more than happy to give the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon the assurance that there will be no limit to the number of firms that can apply for the panels. It is in the LSC's interest to expand the number of firms on the high-cost cases panel. That will encourage quality standards, value for money and competition in determining the appropriate level to set. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that 40 per cent. of the Crown Court budget is taken up by 1 per cent. of cases. Securing value for money in that context is important.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked whether the money out of which the Criminal Defence Service salary pilots will be financed would impact on the balance of money that was available for funding defence services. He needs to keep the situation in proportion. Our proposal involves six pilots, which will start next year, but approximately 5,000 other firms will enter into contracts. However generous the LSC and we are, the money that will be invested in the six pilots is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the remaining 5,000 firms.

Mr. Burnett: I am grateful to the Minister for answering all the points that I raised. We have had a comprehensive response to some important points. I would raise one further basic point: for how long will the franchises last?

Mr. Lock: They last from year to year. As I understand the system—if I am wrong, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the correct answer—the firm is on the trail as soon as a preliminary audit has been granted. The firm can then undertake work for the Criminal Defence Service. There will be an annual audit, to check that the systems are being maintained, as one would expect of any organisation that undertakes public procurement. If a firm were to fail the annual audit, the franchise would be dropped, but as long as the firm passed it—a legal version of an Office for Standards in Education report—it would stay on the panel and could continue to undertake the work. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Legal Aid (Functions) Order 2000.

Draft Legal Aid (Prescribed Panels) (Amendment) Regulations 2000Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Legal Aid (Prescribed Panels) (Amendment) Regulations 2000.— [Mr. Lock.]

Committee rose at sixteen minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Cunningham, Mr. Jim (Chairman)
Beard, Mr.
Burnett, Mr.
Casale, Mr.
Fearn, Mr.
Hawkins, Mr.
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Ladyman, Dr.
Lock, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Ruddock, Joan
Truswell, Mr.

 
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