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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that clause 1(2) provides for section 13(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999 to have retrospective effect, will the Minister explain the significance of that retrospection in practical terms? It would be helpful if he would provide an example. Will he also tell the House whether--and if so, to what extent--the policy has public expenditure implications?
Mr. Lock: I shall certainly deal with the retrospective nature of the Bill in relation to amendments made in another place. If the hon. Gentleman will give me a moment to deal with the substance of the Bill, I shall come to the retrospective parts in due course.
The second point that the Bill addresses is to ensure that advice and assistance is available for those involved in criminal proceedings as well as in investigations. Section 13 of the Access to Justice Act refers only to investigations. It is arguable that once an individual appears in court he is no longer under investigation, so the Bill clarifies that point.
Since the Bill was published, the Government have introduced three amendments on Report during its progress through the House of Lords. The effect of the amendments taken together is to allow the Bill, on enactment, to have retrospective effect, as the hon. Gentleman just mentioned. Amendment No. 1 provides that the Access to Justice Act will be read as though it had always been amended by this Bill. Amendment No. 2 provides that secondary legislation made under the powers in section 13(1) of the Access to Justice Act may also have retrospective effect, and amendment No. 3 changes the commencement date of the Bill. There is no longer any need for the Bill to commence on 2 April, and it will commence on the day on which it receives Royal Assent.
The reason why the Bill needs to have retrospective effect is--[Interruption.] I encourage the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) to listen to the answer to his question. Originally, it was envisaged that the Bill would receive Royal Assent in time for its provisions to be in force before the criminal defence service was introduced on 2 April 2001. In practice, that meant that it needed to obtain Royal Assent by 9 March. That would have allowed time to make the secondary legislation, using the power in the amended section 13 of the Access to Justice Act, to maintain the current levels of legal assistance available to those involved in criminal investigations and proceedings.
I hope that the Bill will complete its progress in good time and that the introduction of retrospectivity will prove to have been over-cautious, in which case no harm will have been done. However, if the House of Commons business managers cannot accommodate the same swift passage, this action will remove the possibility of gaps in our provision of legal support to those facing criminal charges.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): We have yet to reach the programme motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope that you will allow me to ask a question based on its content. Should the Bill be given a Second Reading--and the more I hear of what the Minister has to say, the more doubt I have about that--the Committee proceedings are envisaged to end on 8 March. As there must also be a Report stage and Third Reading, and not least the possibility of the Bill moving between here and the other place, what will happen if the general election should intervene before it can receive Royal Assent?
Mr. Lock: The timing of a general election is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister. We are to debate the programme motion following Second Reading. Given that this is a one clause Bill of extremely limited purview, and that it has caused no controversy so far--although I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman may want to change that--I hope that the Committee stage may not take the full time allowed for in the motion. Should it do so, the matter will come back on Report in accordance with that motion.
I am grateful to Lord Renton, who said that we had advanced "valid and strong reasons" for supporting the retrospective provisions introduced as an amendment. I hope that hon. Members will agree that this is an important Bill, clearing up any doubt about whether the Legal Services Commission will have the power to fund advice and assistance, as was originally intended.
Mr. Bercow: My ears prick up, and I am immediately suspicious at the words "in themselves". How are we to interpret that? Could it mean that there may be a public expenditure connotation by some other means? It might not be obnoxious, but we should know about it.
Mr. Lock: The expression "in themselves" was meant to refer to the limited effect of the Bill, which merely allows the duty solicitor scheme to continue as currently operating, and as all parties intended it to operate, after the introduction of the criminal defence service on 2 April.
I hope that the House will agree that this limited but important Bill should have a smooth and speedy passage and reach the statute book before the Access to Justice Act 1999 comes into force in April. I commend it to the House.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): The Bill arises from the unintended consequences of the relationship between sections 13 and 14 of the Access to Justice Act 1999. The junior Minister and his counterpart in the other place readily acknowledge those consequences, but they have not acknowledged that this little Bill is itself a direct consequence, unintended no doubt, of the Government's decision to crash through the Access to Justice Bill in 1998 and 1999 without thinking seriously about the problems that could arise. The 1999 Act is a Christmas tree that allows the Lord Chancellor to aggregate to himself 37 powers to make secondary legislation, the effects of which we are now having to correct.
Mr. Forth: I agree that this is a good example of how the Government handle their business in both Houses of Parliament. We are being expected to nod through the correction of an error caused in large part by their mishandling.
The Government fancifully called the original legislation the Access to Justice Act. My view is that it should be called the Denial of Access to Justice Act, and the Bill demonstrates why. Under the Legal Aid Act 1988, the initial advice and assistance available to those facing criminal proceedings includes limited support in court. By contrast, it is unlikely that section 13 of the Access to Justice Act 1999 will now allow the Legal Services Commission, via the criminal defence service, to fund advocacy services in situations such as making a bail application or representing an accused person who is at risk of being imprisoned. Equally, it may well inhibit the representation of someone at risk of being imprisoned for failure to pay a fine or obey a court order.
Those are injustices that the Bill is, sadly, needed to correct, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is entirely correct to draw to our attention the deficiency of the original Act and the arrogant and high-handed way in which the Government introduce important legislation.
Help granted in accordance with section 14 and schedule 3 of the 1999 Act will no longer be available to individuals in the circumstances covered by the existing assistance by way of representation--ABWOR--arrangements to which the Minister referred, which form the basis of the duty solicitor scheme. The Act fails to provide assistance in many of the areas in which it is currently available, thus derogating from existing individual rights.
Moreover, the rights concerned are almost certainly protected by article 6(1) of the European convention on human rights, with which we were assured at the time of its enactment, the 1999 Act would conform. It is perhaps instructive to remind ourselves that it was the current Defence Secretary who gave us that assurance here, and no less august a personage than the Lord Chancellor who did so in the other place.