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Travellers

23. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on the provision of legal advice funded by his Department to Travellers. [221527]

Mr. Lammy: The eligibility criteria for legal aid for Gypsies and Travellers are the same as for other individuals in England and Wales. The Legal Services Commission aims to ensure that socially excluded groups can access the advice to which they are entitled.

Andrew Selous: Does the Minister think it is good use of precious public money for the council tax payers of South Bedfordshire district council to have to fund legal action in the High Court when his Department is spending money on planning advice for Travellers? Would it not be more sensible to make the law clearer and for it to apply equally to the settled and travelling communities, so that all that money would not be spent on a needless legal dispute?

Mr. Lammy: If South Bedfordshire district council is taking action against Gypsies and Travellers, it must be right in a civilised democracy for them to have access to advice. That has been the position not just under this Government, but under previous Governments. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is choosing to depart from that. Legal funding is not based on a straw poll of popularity; it is based on financial need.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): May I congratulate my hon. Friend on standing up for people who are unpopular? If Travellers are citizens of this country, they must have the same rights, including the right to legal aid, as any other citizen. Does my hon. Friend agree that Travellers are more likely to observe the law if they receive legal advice?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend knows that the fundamental of the Attlee settlement on legal aid is that those who are poor and vulnerable are entitled to legal advice. That goes to the very heart of our democracy. In the same way, home owners in the settled community who are involved in disputes can receive advice through the community legal service, by telephone, from citizens
 
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advice bureaux and from lawyers. The Conservative party wants to cut those services—I refer my hon. Friend to its James review.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Should Travellers receive legal aid when there have been blatant breaches of planning law?

Mr. Lammy: If the hon. Gentleman is aware of any of our legal aid solicitors encouraging people, whoever they are, to bend the rules, he should refer the matter to the Legal Services Commission or the Law Society. I stand by the Attlee settlement, which all Governments have stood by—that those who have no means, are poor, vulnerable or socially excluded are entitled to legal advice.

Supreme Court

24. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department's choice of a building for the proposed supreme court. [221528]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Subject to enactment of the Constitutional Reform Bill, the Government believe that the Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament square is the preferred choice for the location of a new UK supreme court. The building is a Crown court and will provide good value for money if refurbished and converted for that purpose.

Mr. Swayne: What is the Minister's estimate of the cost of that refurbishment, and what additional value will taxpayers receive compared with the tasks that their Lordships are carrying out in more frugal circumstances?

Mr. Leslie: Many of the Law Lords have said that they are worried about the cramped conditions in which they have had to operate in the House of Lords. We have decided to create a new UK supreme court, which will cost £30 million, because we need greater clarity, transparency and independence for our judiciary, and to separate the courts from Parliament. That reform is long overdue. Lord Bingham said that the cost

We are doing the right thing by creating a supreme court.

Child Contact Centres

26. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What plans he has to increase the provision of child contact centres.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): The Department for Education and Skills has allocated £7.5 million for the two years 2006–08 to deliver child contact services, including those delivered by child contact centres. That more than doubles the Government's allocation of £3.5 million in the last spending review.
 
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Dr. Whitehead: I welcome the encouraging increase in funding for child contact centres. When my hon. Friend considers the details of allocating that funding, will he ensure that it is used not only to increase the geographical spread of child contact centres, but to allow them to provide increased time for individual contact by people who do not have residential parental access to their children?

Mr. Lammy: My hon. Friend raises a good point. We published the "Next Steps" report on child contact in January and are discussing that issue among others. We want to see the new money that has been allocated supporting parents during supervised contact with their children. I know that my hon. Friend has two local centres in Southampton, and I encourage them to continue their good work.

LEADER OF THE HOUSE

The Leader of the House was asked—

Regional Select Committees

31. Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): If he will bring forward proposals to establish Select Committees for the English regions.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas): My right hon. Friend has no plans to do so, but is open to suggestions from hon. Members on this, as on other matters.

Andy Burnham: I am grateful for that encouraging reply. Does my hon. Friend agree that rather than spending vast amounts of money sending hon. Members around the world on Select Committee trips of questionable value, our time and resources would be better spent serving on powerful regional Select Committees? The chance to hold regional bodies to account would help us to do a better job and make this place more relevant to our constituents. Is not the correct response to the north-east vote not more politicians, but those we have already working harder and more cleverly?

Mr. Woolas: On the day the Liaison Committee has published its report, it would be unwise of me to criticise the activities of Select Committees. My hon. Friend makes a sensible point. We have, of course, the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, to which hon. Members may put forward suggestions and through which they may scrutinise Departments. By and large, Select Committees shadow existing Departments, although my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said in the past that the Modernisation Committee may wish to consider the matter in the future.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does the Deputy Leader of the House recognise that he has strong support on this side of the House for the position that he has just set out—that he has no plans to consider regional Select Committees? Does he realise that there is little appetite for that proposed reform?
 
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Whatever subject any such proposed Committee considered, it would already be covered by an existing Select Committee.

Mr. Woolas: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government consulted Members on the function and roles of the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs and received a poor response. However, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is keen to promote that vehicle as a way of meeting the valid point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), without breaching the principles that operate in relation to Select Committees.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the Minister accept that there are already more than enough Select Committees for Members to serve on appropriately? Will he take it from me that in the south-east there is no demand whatever for a regional Select Committee, and will he ensure that the Leader of the House sticks to his guns and does not foist one upon us?

Mr. Woolas: I find it unusual that the Front Bench is promoting Select Committees while the Opposition oppose them, but the right hon. Gentleman is making a serious point. It is true, as I am sure all Members accept, that there are big differences between the regions. In the north-west, there could be strong support for the idea, but perhaps not in the south-east. That is why it makes sense to proceed cautiously and to give proper consideration to the proposals, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is doing.


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