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ADVOCATE-GENERAL FOR SCOTLAND

The Advocate-General was asked—

Devolution

15. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What devolution issues she has considered since 9 September. [133821]

16. Annabelle Ewing (Perth): What devolution issues have been raised with her since 9 September. [133822]

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): Since 9 September, 66 devolution issues have been intimated to me. The majority related to criminal law matters such as delay in bringing cases to trial, confiscation action under the proceeds of crime legislation, and the scope of the offences of breach of the peace and shameless indecency. In the civil arena, there were devolution minutes concerning prison conditions at Barlinnie and a significant number on the regime for recovering fixed penalty traffic fines.

Miss McIntosh: Does the hon. and learned Lady agree that it would be in the public interest to make available to Lord Fraser the Wark Clements tapes on the true cost of the Scottish Parliament? What representations has she made or received in that regard and does she agree that it would be in the public interest to release that information, given that the Scottish Parliament paid for the making of those tapes?

The Advocate-General: I am sure that we are all very interested in the tapes. Fortunately, it is not my job to advise the BBC or the inquiry, but I shall certainly bring the hon. Lady's representations to the attention of the appropriate quarters.

Annabelle Ewing : None the less, can the Advocate-General say whether, given that broadcasting is reserved to Westminster, she is of the view that the BBC is acting in accordance with the Nolan principles of openness, honesty and leadership? Surely, she must agree that if it was it would make the evidence available forthwith.

The Advocate-General: It is a Scottish Executive inquiry and therefore not a matter for the UK Government. So far as the BBC's responsibilities are concerned, it has to be advised about contractual matters and any other matters that it thinks relevant. No doubt its legal advisers will take all such representations into account.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Has anyone raised with the Advocate-General the devolution implications of the fact that a majority of parties active in Scotland are in favour of a referendum on the European constitution?

The Advocate-General: No.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): Will the Advocate-General discuss with the Lord Advocate whether Lord Fraser might be given

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additional powers to require the BBC to give the Holyrood tapes to the inquiry, given that that is in the public interest?

The Advocate-General: I am sure that the Lord Advocate has sufficient lateral thinking ability to consider those matters himself.

Ferry Services

17. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): What assessment she has made of the implications for subsidised ferry services sailing to and from ports in Scotland of the recent European Court ruling in the Altmark case. [133823]

The Advocate-General: The operation of subsidised ferry services in Scotland is devolved. It is therefore for the Scottish Executive to consider what implications, if any, the Altmark case may have for ferry services in Scotland. In the event of a challenge in the Scottish courts, I would of course have to consider whether I wished to intervene if a devolution issue were raised.

Mr. Reid : Negotiations with Europe are the Government's responsibility, but if it were ruled that the subsidised ferry services did not need to go out to tender, the Scottish Executive could give the Campbeltown-Ballycastle route straight to CalMac without having to go through the long and involved tendering process. Could the Advocate-General please look at her law books and reach a conclusion? The present unfair situation helps no one.

The Advocate-General: The matter is complex, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands. It is not as simple as he suggests for me to look at my law books and to come up with a solution, much as I should like to do so. As I have explained, a process is available that is similar in some ways to the process used in the Altmark case. A challenge was made in the German courts in that instance, and a reference was made to the European Court for clarification. Although there are parallels, the issues involved are not identical; but if the matter cannot be resolved by agreement, there is always the process whereby a challenge can be made and an authoritative ruling from the European Court of Justice can be obtained following an application by the Scottish courts to Europe.

CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State was asked—

Immigration and Asylum

18. Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): If he will make a statement on limiting lawyers' fees in immigration and asylum cases funded by the Legal Services Commission. [134513]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): I believe that my hon. Friend is referring to the proposals in our recent consultation paper on publicly funded immigration and asylum work. We have now collated and analysed all 260 responses received. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs has also undertaken an inquiry, and is due to report shortly. We will consider its report along with other responses before any decisions on future policy are made.

Mr. Foster : As my hon. Friend knows, it is proposed that advice and assistance in such cases should be limited to five hours. Is he aware that expert lawyers have suggested to the Committee that that is insufficient time for the proper preparation of a case? More specifically, what proposals are there for extending the time in more complex cases?

Mr. Lammy: We referred to possible exceptions on pages 8 and 9 of the consultation paper. We asked lawyers what they should be. The five-hour cap was based on a typical, average case. I have heard representations on more complex cases. I know that the Select Committee will be considering the issue, and we hope to present detailed proposals once it has reported.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): I hear what the Minister has to say, but the Law Society has expressed its determination to root out those who overcharge from the legal aid system. As the Minister may know, I have already called for reform of the system, and I welcome the accreditation system that the Government have come up with, but how can the Government believe that it will help legal aid, asylum seekers or the public interest if—as we have just heard—they try to cap the amount by imposing impossible targets for the amount of time that a case must take? I hear what the Minister says about pages 8 and 9 of the paper, but the plain fact is that trying to impose impossible targets is neither in the interest of legal aid or of the asylum seeker nor in the public interest.

Mr. Lammy: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the accreditation system. He will know that in the consultation document we referred to the establishment of a unique file number, and there was support for that as well.

As I have said, the capping was based on a typical, average case. Many Members will be familiar with that. We are listening to suppliers, many of them quality suppliers at the top end of the market, who have told us about complex cases involving complex medical issues, mental health issues, unaccompanied minors and so forth. That is what we must consider in deciding whether there should be a cap or threshold, or some indication of flexibility.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): Has my hon. Friend made any assessment of the likely impact of the additional work on hon. Members' advice surgeries when asylum seekers who may previously have qualified for legal advice suddenly find that they no longer do so

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and expect us to do the work that the lawyers once did? That applies especially to diverse constituencies such as mine and, perhaps, my hon. Friend's.

Mr. Lammy: I am glad that my hon. Friend referred to my constituency, which probably has the largest number of new arrivals in the country. Of course, we have listened carefully to parliamentarians on the matter. We spoke to the all-party group on refugees and I gave testimony to the Constitutional Affairs Committee. We are listening to Members of Parliament, lawyers and broader stakeholders. However, it is right to place some focus on the system because we know that there are lawyers who unscrupulously run through it asylum cases that should not gain support. Hon. Members have had much to say about that. Indeed, the Speaker wrote to the Lord Chancellor about the matter.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister should not give away secrets about the Speaker.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): New policies on the issue appear to tumble from the Government at an extraordinary rate. That has led to the current shambolic position. Given that there are undoubtedly some vexatious and ill-founded appeals, and also some shysters who give unprincipled and incompetent advice, why, instead of dealing with them, must the Minister make it impossible for good, conscientious practitioners to do an adequate job for their clients? Will not that cost more in the long run in ill-prepared cases?

Mr. Lammy: No, is the simple answer. The system is not a shambles. The Prime Minister said in September that he wanted the number of those arriving in this country to decrease from 9,000 to half that figure. The number is now under 4,000, which is a tremendous improvement. However, the budget has increased from £80 million to £174 million in three years and we must ensure value for money. Labour Members want to do that and I had hoped that our Liberal Democrat colleagues would support us in the enterprise.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem lies with the decision-making process in the Home Office and that the real shambles occurs at the immigration and nationality directorate? If the decisions were made in a more appropriate way that was much more easily understandable, the amount of money spent on legal aid would be reduced. What discussions has he held with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that the flow of cases is streamlined and that decision making improves?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend knows that we have a single asylum fund and a joint ministerial board on which I sit with the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration. I went to Croydon to talk to caseworkers and ascertain what they are doing. Standards have improved; caseworkers now sample cases, they are supported by senior caseworkers and Treasury solicitors review a random selection of cases. That constitutes improvement and they want to do more. However, the Department for Constitutional Affairs must consider our contribution on legal aid.

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