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Mr. Leigh: The tax will be levied on those who are deemed able to pay, which is often those on marginal incomes in the middle classes.

Mr. Evans: Middle Britain is hit time and again. The Queen's Speech contained another measure, which the newspapers have dubbed, "The means-testing of free school buses." The very people who will be hit by that are the ones who pay full prescription charges. They receive no council tax benefit or other housing benefits. They pay the full cost of school meals and they will pay full tuition fees. They will be hit yet again by the means-testing of free school buses. Why do the Government have so much against middle Britain that they want to whack those people time and again? I wish that they would stop.

As for the proposed legislation on the House of Lords, is that vindictive or what? It is time that the Government made up their mind about what they want for the second Chamber. So far, their reforms have been nothing short of constitutional vandalism. The Government started on a journey with not the faintest idea of where they were going. They wanted to get rid of the hereditary peers, and they ended up with 92 hereditaries—funnily enough, they are the only elected element of the Chamber now. Baroness Jay said:

That was said by the totally unelected Baroness Jay. The Prime Minister called the old House of Lords an insult to modern democracy. In 1994, in a speech in Cardiff, he said:

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We know that the Prime Minister has made an art form of changing his mind, but that change is breathtaking. It seems that he can find reverse gear when he wants to.

Whenever the Leader of the House mentions the House of Lords, he spits out the word "unelected", as we saw on Thursday. We can only assume that he wants to see a House of Lords with a larger elected element, if not a fully elected House. We know that there is no unanimity on the issue, but to remove vindictively the only elected element is spiteful, wrecking and mean. While we are at it, let us chuck in the word "ignorant" as well to describe what the Government have done to the second Chamber. We should have a joint Committee of both Houses to work out a destination for the House of Lords, not merely a transition. Let us have a big conversation with the people about what they want to happen to the second Chamber before it is wrecked further. I can only imagine the planning that must go on in the Prime Minister's household about his summer holidays, when he says, "Where are we all going to go? I haven't got the faintest idea. Transitionally, let's go to Tuscany, before going on somewhere else." The whole thing is ridiculous. People should know their destination before they start on any journey.

It would also be useful if the Government were to have a big conversation with the people about Europe and the European constitution, which is totally absent from the Queen's Speech. Let us find a few reverse gears for the Prime Minister on that issue. He should just get the manual out: every vehicle has a reverse gear; even the bandwagon has a reverse gear, as the Liberal Democrats will no doubt soon find out. The French and the Germans have found their reverse gear on the stability pact, and I have read what Ruth Lea of the Institute of Directors and Digby Jones of the CBI have said about the threat to this country from the European constitution. The people want a say; they want to have a big conversation with the Prime Minister, who has got it wrong—very wrong. We are to have a referendum in the north-west about the lousy, useless regional assemblies, which we do not want, and about the break-up of local government, but no referendum on Europe. I want my say, and I want the people of Ribble Valley to have their say, too.

While we are on the subject, let us change the hours of the House back to what they used to be on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, so that we have decent opportunities to discuss everything that we need to discuss. Let us bring the voice back to Parliament, and change the hours.

3.30 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman and his entertaining if contentious speech.

Legal aid was introduced as part of the great welfare state revolution of the Labour Government after the second world war. Labour's Prime Minister then, Clem Attlee, valued legal aid, as does today's Prime Minister, who, speaking before coming into office in 1997, said:

Legal aid, however, is a public service that is often overlooked. Perhaps it is seen by some as having less immediate benefit than education and health, but surely

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the rule of law and access to justice are essential features of a working democracy. Perhaps support for legal aid is tempered by the knowledge that it is delivered largely through a network of private lawyers. I can understand that argument, although I declare that for 20 years before coming to Parliament I was a solicitor in private practice.

Not all delivery is by private lawyers, however. In round figures, about 4,000 lawyers and 400 not-for-profit organisations provide legal aid services, and the community legal service is achieving universal coverage across the country, bringing together the providers and other key players such as local authorities. Anyway, legal aid lawyers are a different breed: they provide legal aid services not to become rich—they do not—but because they genuinely care for public service and justice. This year, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group introduced awards for legal aid lawyers of the year. My congratulations go to the first year's winners: Jeffrey Gordon, Richard Egan, Belinda Greenwood, Nicola Mackintosh and Mark Jewels. I particularly praise Mark Jewels for the family award, because when I was a solicitor he was my partner in private practice. I also congratulate the Legal Aid Practitioners Group on arranging this recognition for an important group of people.

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West) (Lab): To refrain from mutual admiration, does my hon. Friend not accept, from another lawyer, that there has been abuse of the legal aid system, and that the Government are right to take that on board?

Mr. Kidney: Yes, my argument is about those good lawyers who often get no recognition at all, not those few who come to the headlines because of abuse of the system. Abuse is always wrong and should be rooted out, but as Cherie Booth, QC, who chaired the judging panel said:

In the last decade, the cost of running a solicitors' practice has risen by about 67 per cent., but legal aid rates have increased by 26 per cent. The legal aid budget is restricted, but I am not arguing for more money for legal aid. Instead, I want the Government to get a grip on what they want legal aid to pay for. The Government must then ensure that the budget is adequate for the work required. The current set-up is a fixed amount of money in the legal aid budget but growing demands upon it. I therefore have the following observations.

First, criminal defence legal aid is demand led. The Government's welcome get-tough approach to reducing crime nevertheless creates a greater demand on the criminal defence legal aid budget. Secondly, on top of that growth in existing criminal defence legal aid, the Government continue to create new offences, adding to the demand. This Queen's Speech includes a new offence of asylum seekers destroying their documentation and a new offence of breaching a restraining order to prevent domestic violence. Have the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs assessed the extra expense in relation to criminal defence legal aid

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and made provision to meet the extra costs? Alternatively, will civil legal aid simply be squeezed again?

Thirdly, civil legal aid has been withdrawn from claims for compensation for personal injury, except in clinical negligence cases. It has been replaced by the conditional fee arrangement. What is the assessment of this change other than those great demands for extra fees about which we heard at Question Time today in relation to miners' compensation claims? Civil legal aid remains for very important issues, however: challenging public bodies including Government through judicial review; resolving disputes and property rights when couples separate; protecting consumers from deceit and rip-off; and defending the poorest in society from social exclusion in areas such as housing and welfare rights.

So, fourthly, year-by-year, money for civil legal aid is being constrained, limiting access to justice. That brings me, fifthly, to the fact that the Government continue to create new laws affecting civil rights and hence the civil legal aid budget. Again, there is no apparent assessment of the extra expense and compensating adjustment to the budget for that.

The Queen's Speech contains a welcome clampdown on domestic violence, but that will create more civil legal aid cases, and a new registered civil partnership, which, sadly, will sometimes go wrong, creating the need for new dispute resolution procedures at the expense of legal aid. The Government know about the problem. It is not new; I am not saying something surprising. The previous and the present Lord Chancellor have both commented on it.

On 2 April 2003, Lord Irvine, when he was Lord Chancellor, appeared before the Select Committee that then scrutinised the Lord Chancellor's Department. He was asked whether he was embarrassed by an overspend in his departmental budget, and he said that, yes, he was. Specifically on legal aid, he said:

The present Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, speaking at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group annual conference on 17 October this year, said:

So, please, Government, may we have more rigorous legislative impact analysis and proper provision for the effects on the legal aid budget?

The Government can do more to help. They can fund more alternative dispute resolution procedures. They can consider no-fault compensation, and I volunteer clinical negligence as the first field for such consideration. They can separate the criminal defence legal aid budget, which is demand-led, from the rest of the civil legal aid budget.

Legal service providers themselves must change too. They should work with the community legal aid service in matching the appropriate supply to the need for their services, giving the best value for money. They should

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consider alternative ways to fund access to justice, including more use of salaried services and legal expenses insurance.

The Law Society itself has been considering alternative ways to fund lawyers for legal aid work and has come up with ideas such as a GP-like contracting system and even competitive tendering. What we need from legal aid in the future is a diverse supply of legal services, so that we can offer comprehensive access to justice for all our citizens. In that way, we will tackle social exclusion most effectively.

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