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European Parliamentary Elections

19. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): What plans the Department has to hold an all-postal ballot in Scotland for the 2004 European parliamentary elections. [134514]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The European and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, which is currently in Committee, allows innovative voting methods to be piloted in one or more regions or nations of the United Kingdom in the 2004 European parliamentary elections. The Government have not yet decided where any pilot should be held. That decision will be made following advice from the independent Electoral Commission, which is currently considering the matter.

John Barrett: If the Government decided to proceed with an all-postal ballot in Scotland, it would be the largest of its kind ever undertaken. What measures would be taken to improve security, which has been a cause for real concern in the smaller pilot schemes?

Mr. Leslie: Postal voting has been a feature of our electoral system for quite some time, and I am not convinced by the argument that it is any more prone to fraud or malpractice than conventional voting systems. Nevertheless, the Bill contains provisions to extend the time limit for prosecutions for electoral offences and to allow arrests for personation to be made outside polling stations as well as inside them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that those measures represent positive steps forward.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): May I urge the Minister to hold this pilot in Scotland? There will be no local authority elections there next year, which would make it much simpler. Would he also care to hazard a guess as to why the Liberals, the nationalists and the Tories in Scotland do not want to make it easier for people to vote in the election?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister does not have to guess that; he just has to answer the first question.

Mr. Leslie: Far be it from me to engage in party political banter; I would not want to go that far. Suffice it to say that I get a feeling that there is a keenness in certain regions and nations to have all-postal voting. Some of my hon. Friends have already made representations to me on this matter, and I am sure that Opposition Members will do so in due course.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The House and the world outside will no doubt be fascinated to know that, despite the Government's theoretical majority, the Bill that the Minister mentioned suffered a catastrophic defeat in Committee this morning because the Government were attempting to guillotine it and ram it through with indecent haste. Does the Minister recognise that the Government's attempt to introduce the Bill before the Electoral Commission has even finished its consultation, and to start the Committee stage only a bare week after the Second Reading—in

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which many hon. Members on the Government Back Benches signally failed to support the Government's own policy—shows that the Government are gerrymandering the constitution? Does he acknowledge that this is not the way in which important matters to do with elections should be dealt with in the House?

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman was in Committee with me this morning, when there was a minor disagreement about timing and about when we should conduct some of the debates. [Hon. Members: "You lost."] I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will debate the Bill in Committee. It will proceed and we will ensure that innovative mechanisms, such as all-postal piloting and electronic voting, will take place. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make more substantive points on policy issues in the future.

Community Legal Service

20. Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West): When the Secretary of State intends to complete the review of the not-for-profit contract issued to organisations offering legal services as part of the community legal service in order to incorporate retail prices index increases in salary scales; and if he will make a statement. [134515]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The Government are committed to the increasing contribution of the not-for-profit sector to legal aid work. The Legal Services Commission is currently reviewing the cost to the not-for-profit sector of providing publicly funded advice. A questionnaire will go out to suppliers in mid-November, and I hope to announce the outcome of the review early in the new year.

Dr. Naysmith : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. It indicates that some progress has been made, which is a good thing. Does he agree that if we are to have a high-quality community legal service, it is essential that we should treat those who choose to operate in that area fairly? Will he guarantee that what happened this year will not happen again?

Mr. Lammy: I know that my hon. Friend has been active in the north Bristol area, where the not-for-profit sector provides advice. He will know that there is an historic difference between the way in which we contract for advice with solicitors and the way in which we do so with the not-for-profit sector. Notwithstanding that, we want to see a greater contribution from the not-for-profit sector. The amount of money that we are contributing to it has increased from £35 million in 2001 to £51 million this year. There have been problems—that is why we are conducting the review—but I hope that we shall be able to come back in the new year and make some positive progress in this area.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Considering the overall cost of legal services, including the important not-for-profit sector, will the Minister keep his diary clear for Friday, by which time he will have in his hands the report on immigration and asylum cases to which he

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referred earlier? In the meantime, can he provide any guidance on whether there will be any savings, which could help the particular sector that we are talking about, arising from the Home Secretary's statement last Friday that 15,000 cases will not now go through the appeals system?

Mr. Lammy: The right hon. Gentleman will know that many of those cases are old ones going back to the end of the 1990s. Many of the people involved have completed and gone through the appeals procedure. Nevertheless, we estimate that there will be a saving of about £13 million.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Will my hon. Friend require those who work for the community legal service to identify areas where local people have no access to legally aided advice and assistance—the so-called advice deserts? When they are identified, what will my hon. Friend do to fill the gaps?

Mr. Lammy: We are conducting an entire review of legal aid, examining the supply, the purchase and the demand. We know, of course, that there are some rural areas where we have to keep a close eye on supply. However, I shall tell my hon. Friend about last year's figures. There were 2,909 providers on the criminal side and this year there are still 2,909 providers. On the civil side, there were just under 5,000 providers last year, and that number has dropped by 200 this year. So, talking about deserts is a bit strong. We want to guarantee that the great Attlee invention of legal aid will continue into the next century.

House of Lords

21. Ann Winterton (Congleton): If he will make a further statement on reform of the House of Lords. [134516]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Government published the consultation paper, "Next steps for the House of Lords" on 18 September, and the consultation period ends on 12 December. The Government intend to introduce legislation to reform the second Chamber as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Ann Winterton : Have not the Government been thoroughly irresponsible in beginning the reform of the House of Lords without having a clear idea of how it could be completed without detracting from the Lords' effectiveness as an amending Chamber? Will the Government now learn from their mistakes and opt for the status quo, leaving in place the 92 hereditary peers who exhibit integrity and independence and could never be accused of being the placemen for any Government?

Mr. Leslie: No, I do not think that it is right to allow the hereditary system to continue. I believe that it is wrong for people to sit in Parliament by virtue of their birth and it is time that we moved forward on that. Yet

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again, I detect a split or division of view among Conservative Members—one of so many that it is difficult to see for the cracks.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): May I seek an assurance from my hon. Friend that any future opportunity to determine the reform of the House of Lords will include a clear-cut opportunity for hon. Members to comment on how the regions and nations of the United Kingdom can properly have a voice in a second Chamber?

Mr. Leslie: While appointments will continue to be a feature of the second Chamber, we have said in our consultation paper that it is right to look to tasking any future statutory appointments commission to reflect the need for regional and national diversity. My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need to take steps towards reform, but the door is not closed for the future and we shall continue a dialogue with the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform on those next steps.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): When the Government introduce legislation, will they ensure that the long title is sufficiently broad to permit the House to consider amendments that would allow a more democratic solution?

Mr. Leslie: I would not wish to pre-empt the Queen's Speech on the nature or timing of any future legislation. Suffice it to say that I understand that there remain differences of opinion on both sides of the House about the composition of the reformed upper House. I believe, however, that the status quo—the option of doing nothing—should not be taken. We are pressing forward where we can, and I believe that removing the hereditary peers will be a positive step forward.

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