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Mr. Grieve: My right hon. and learned Friend is correct. It is a matter of anxiety and has been worrying me because, during the past month, I have received letters from solicitors and litigants indicating their level of concern. An extraordinary part of the Government's scheme is their attitude to the privatisation of justice. One inevitable consequence is that more and more matters will be resolved in other forums by arbitration and so on and, inevitably in such settings, it is the weakest and those with most need of access to justice who will be denied the justice that is an essential part of the coronation oath that underpins one of the reasons why this country and state exist.
Mr. Leslie: It is rich of the hon. Gentleman to lecture the House about access to justice on the very day that his colleague the shadow Chancellor proposed axing hundreds of millions of pounds from the legal aid budget. How on earth can the hon. Gentleman square his comments with that sort of removal of access to justice?
Mr. Grieve: The Minister is completely mistaken. The proposals are about the number of people in the bloated office that the Lord Chancellor is running; they have nothing whatever to do with cuts in legal aid. The Minister's comment is typical of the misrepresentation that comes from the Government.
Mr. Leslie: I think I very much understand the shadow Chancellor's proposals, which are to start closing down law centres, withdrawing support for citizens advice bureaux and scrapping the community legal service partnerships. How on earth can the hon. Gentleman get away with lecturing the House about how his party is, supposedly, the defender of access to justice?
The Minister has clearly not read the paper. If he had done so he would have seen that the changes we seek concern particularly what we regard as the waste of money by the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, in spending money that ought to be spent on legal aid on a series of social projects up and down the country that are an ersatz replacement for the lack of availability of legal aid to individuals.
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Mr. Garnier: My hon. Friend may recall the Access to Justice Bill that went through the House between 1998 and 1999, although he was not a member of its Standing Committee. It was a cruelly named Billit should have been the denial of access to justice Bill. The Government ripped up legal aid in any accepted and understandable form, denying huge numbers of the sick, the elderly and the poor access to justice. The Government said that they would rely on charities, citizens advice bureaux and law centres, but of course they cut funding to all those institutions. Not only did they deny public legal aid, but they denied any other route that was available to the poor, the sick and the elderly. The Minister then has the cheek to criticise my hon. Friend for advancing the Conservative policies that he has just been pronouncing.
Mr. Grieve: I remember the Bill very well and I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that the Government's comments ring particularly hollow. When they came into office in 1997, 60 per cent. of the population were eligible for legal aid; the figure is now 5 per cent. That is the measure of the change that the Government have presided over. The substitutes they have offered are, in many cases, not adequate.
Mr. Leslie: I want to be clear about what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he giving a commitment that a Conservative Government would not scrap any aspect of the community legal services partnership or support for citizens advice bureaux, legal aid work or law centre work? Is he giving that commitment?
Mr. Grieve: I assure the Minister that under an incoming Conservative Government access to justice, including legal aid for those who require it, will be better, better managed and more extensive than this Government provide at present.
The Government's argument is that a supreme court must be set up because the position of the Law Lords is so anomalous at present, yet in fact it has unique characteristics that are beneficial to the way in which we do governmental business in this country. It allows the Law Lords to participate in debate in the other place and they have shown themselvesas I said to the Minister and he acknowledged at the outsetperfectly capable of choosing their words with sufficient care and choosing the debates in which they intervene sufficiently carefully to ensure that no criticism attaches to them. That is what the Minister wants to get rid of, but it has real value as a constant reminder in the legislature of the view of the judiciary. The oddity is that, as far as I am aware, instead of the Law Lords being able to express themselves in the House of Lords, the replacement
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position will be that the Lord Chief Justice will have to do it all for themand not only there, but in the forum of press releases, for the fulfilment of which role he has already been allocated a press officer. I find that rather odd. We are shutting down what is a very controlled and ultimately beneficial way to ventilate issues of public concern, yet the Government acknowledge that, far from cloistering away the judiciary, they must make alternative arrangements.
Mr. Hogg : Does my hon. Friend agree with the proposition that, probably, in neither this Chamber nor the other place is there any person who has a wider knowledge of current legal practice than the existing Law Lords because they have legal expertise right across the spectrum of current legal problems?
Mr. Grieve: Yes, indeed. Of course, the Law Lords are helped in their work by the fact that they are present in the House of Lords, so they are intimately aware of current trends in the country[Interruption.] Oh yes, and they have an opportunity to discuss matters informally with others. That is valuable, and I regret that the Government want to get rid of it for such a costly white elephant that, otherwise, will deliver exactly the same service. The Minister is asking us to vote for a Bill that will vastly increase the cost of an institution that will otherwise operate in exactly the same way, save for the removal of the Law Lords' rights to speak and vote, even though they have never been criticised for the way that they exercise them.
Vera Baird : The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) was incorrect to suggest that the Law Lords have a broad sweep of legal experience. There has not been a criminal lawyer in the House of Lords for quite a long time, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware. Is not what he is saying inconsistent with the fact that half of the current Law Lords first, announced themselves, through Lord Bingham, to be uncomfortable with their current role in the Lords, and secondly, declined to speak at all, going beyond even the self-denying ordinance of 2000 because they simply think it inappropriate to mix their two roles?
Mr. Grieve: The final point reflects well on the Law Lords. The Minister wants to depoliticise the judiciary, but I am afraid that the debate conducted since the summer of 2003 has had the effect of pulling those in the judiciarymuch against their will, I suspectinto an arena where they have had to express their views, and they have succeeded in doing so moderately and sensibly. I fully acknowledge that there are differences of view among the Law Lords about the best way to continue, although it is remarkable, given the Government's enthusiasm for this project, that about 50 per cent. of the Law Lords would very much like the Government to drop it. Clearly, there are mixed views and, ultimately, it is for Parliament to decide, but I cannot go back, face my constituents and tell them that the Government are setting up a very expensive institution that will deliver virtually the same service but with some considerable downsides.
Is not the point that the hon. and learned Lady made a moment ago not overtaken by the fact that
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most, if not all, of the peers that the Prime Minister has appointed to the House of Lords who take the Labour Whip do not appear, speak or vote there? Surely, as they were appointed to do a political job, it is worrying that they simply fail to do it.
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