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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): Comprehensive arrangements are in place across central Government to monitor the operation of the Act. The Department for Constitutional Affairs will receive quarterly returns from Departments on a range of information, including numbers of requests and the timeliness of responses. The first set of data will be published in June.
Norman Baker: Does the Minister agree that Departments seem to be significantly ill prepared to deal with the volume of requests coming in, despite the fact that they have had five years to prepare for the implementation of the Act? Has he seen the front page of The Independent and other newspaper stories that suggest that very few of the requests submitted are resulting in any information being released at all? Would he think about renaming the Act the "Creative Excuses for not Releasing Information Act"?
I have answered a number of questions on freedom of information at this Dispatch Box. There have been questions about shredding, but that was not happening, and questions about a lack of training and workshops, but that was not the case, because the Minister was going around all Departments, and around the country, informing people about freedom of information. This is about the public getting access to important information about the public services that they use. There have been more than 4,500 requests, many of which have led to that information being given within 20 days. The Act is working, and working well.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The fundamental legal aid review will report to Ministers in the first part of this year on reforms to place legal aid on a sustainable footing in the longer term and to target resources better to deliver the right outcomes for the right people. Ministers will then consider its recommendations.
Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Can he give an assurance that as he attempts to design a modern system of legal aid that guarantees access to justice for all who need it, whether for criminal or civil cases, he will maintain a consistent and substantial budget for legal aid, and will not embark on a Tory model of cuts in budgets?
Mr. Lammy: Since the publication of the James review, there has been a huge dividing line on legal aid. The Government are committed to legal aid and are spending more on it than any other developed country in the world, but we want to ensure that that money is going to the people who need it, that we have frank and honest discussions, particularly with the professions, about how we spend those funds, and that processes, particularly criminal justice processes, are not driving up costs. The Conservatives are committed to taking money away from citizens advice bureaux and law centres; that is something that the Government stand against.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The 1999 Act covered a number of areas of civil and criminal justice. Its main provisions established the community legal service and the criminal defence service, and extended conditional fee agreements. The Department conducted an independent review from September 2003 on the operation of the CLS to assess the impact of the delivery of an efficient and effective service on those who most need it.
Simon Hughes: Last year's Government figures showed that the number of people who have had civil legal aid has dropped by more than half over the past 15 years. Has the Minister's Department now decided on the value of equity in a person's home that should preclude their getting legal aid? The Department said last autumn that it would announce that. Has it decided? It matters to huge numbers of people around the country.
We will publish the results of that consultation shortly. I have been engaged in a range of meetings, particularly with the legal aid community, the
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Bar Council and the Law Society. The hon. Gentleman should remember that the Access to Justice Act 1999 took out of scope personal injury litigation, which means that there has been some reduction. We are committed to ensuring the appropriate levels of funding for civil legal aid, but we must also ensure that the money is being well spent against a budget that is now £2 billion, beyond which we cannot go. However, I shall publish the results of the consultation shortly.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The current regulatory framework for the legal profession is largely based on self-regulation, with the professional bodiesthe largest are the Law Society and the Bar Councilcombining regulatory and representative functions. The Government commissioned the Sir David Clementi review and are considering his proposals in detail.
David Taylor: I am a member of the Magistrates Association and when the Lord Chancellor gave an excellent address to our annual conference last autumn, he said that magistrates should be considered as part of the legal profession, and that they should be effective in their operations, connected to their communities and respected for their decisions. If that is so, why was my first-rate former bench colleague, Councillor Mrs. Adoline Smith, who frankly expressed her views on the sentencing options for burglary, asked to stand down from the bench? Is not that over-regulation which has deprived the people of Leicestershire of an excellent magistrate?
Mr. Lammy: It would be quite wrong of me to comment on an individual case. We have conducted the Sir David Clementi review so that we can have that frank and open discussion and ensure that we have the legal community that the country needs and deserves in the 21st century. I held a meeting with stakeholders about the issue last week and I will ensure that magistrates are part of those discussions as we go forward.
Sir Archy Kirkwood (representing the House of Commons Commission):
As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, a study was conducted in 2002 on the
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feasibility of providing child care facilities for staff of the House, Members and Members' staff. Following the review of the report's recommendations, the value of the child care voucher was raised, the scheme was extended to cover all qualifying children in families, and eligibility was extended to cover Members' staff. I am sure that the hon. Lady also knows that we are providing babycare room facilities in the main building and baby changing facilities in the Palace and Portcullis House.
Julie Morgan: I agree that some progress has been made in recognising the child care needs of Members and staff in the House, especially through the expansion of the child care vouchers and the Westminster holiday play scheme, which staff and Members use. However, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is high time we had a nursery here to serve both Houses and enable Members and staff to do their work more effectively? Will he reconsider the matter?
Sir Archy Kirkwood: The hon. Lady has ploughed an assiduous furrow on the matter and I welcome her interest. My fellow Commissioners will always be alive to the need to make this place a more family-friendly workplace. However, the evidence has not changed since the review was undertaken in 2002: the vast majority of people would like to provide care for their children at home rather than bring them to this place. It is right to bear the aspiration in mindwe want to set an example for other workplaces. The balance of advantage is currently in favour of extending the voucher scheme, but we will continue to keep the matter under review and if the next Parliament has a new intake of lady Members who are as assiduous as the hon. Lady, we might reconsider it early in that Parliament.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Surely a proper nursery or crêche facility in the House is more than an aspiration to bear in mind. Is it not absurd in this day and age that the House of Commons takes pride in the existence of the Shooting Gallery but is unwilling to contemplate providing a facility that would be widely used and enjoyed? The matter will be raised over and over again, eloquently by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and others, and with monotonous regularity, to the point when the House of Commons Commission will probably decide that it is best to give up the unequal struggle and simply provide the facility.
Sir Archy Kirkwood:
I understand that point perfectly, but it might interest the House to learn that up to 150 members of staff take advantage of the voucher scheme. That is a much bigger number of people. They are getting more modest benefits, but those benefits are appropriate to their needs. Some Members' staff in their constituencies are also taking advantage of the scheme, which is something that we shall want to promote in future. This is not simply an either/or; there will always be a tension between offering provision for the few and offering provision for the many, and we must keep the issue in mind while trying to develop the voucher scheme, which provides greater benefit for more people.
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