Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Reid: Under Scottish legislation, the Legal Aid Board is allowed to take into account the applicant's inability to present their case because of, for example, age, inadequate knowledge of English, mental illness or other mental or physical disability. Does the legislation in England and Wales also permit that to be taken into account?

Bridget Prentice: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raised that. Not only does the exceptional funding regime allow for that, but it is specifically intended for people who would for any reason be incapable of bringing the case on their own, so they are very much included in the regime.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West suggested that citizens advice bureaux would not be able to represent people. We know that in 7 per cent. of cases citizens advice bureaux do go along and represent people. He was concerned, too, about legal advice deserts. A number of my hon. Friends made positive and welcome comments about the community legal service. I am delighted that so many people have had access to its website.

Today's debate has given us an opportunity to bring to the attention of the House and the wider public the excellent work that the community legal service is doing. Let me provide some figures for the new ways in which it is delivering advice and assistance. Through the internet there were 500,000 visits to CLS Direct last year. The community legal service has taken more than 200,000 telephone calls, including 22,000 specialist acts of advice and assistance by telephone. It continues to monitor provision closely and to ensure that quality provision is available across the country.

My hon. Friend argued, rightly, that advice and assistance should be available to the most disadvantaged. He suggested that his Bill would be the way forward in
14 Oct 2005 : Column 599
that, but I can only endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy), who provided examples of how people who were very wealthy by any standard would fall within the remit of the Bill, contrary to the aims of legal aid.

Mr. Heald: One issue has troubled Members of all parties. Given that most discrimination cases fail—they are withdrawn or they are dismissed at the tribunal—does the hon. Lady have any information about whether that is because applicants do not have the legal representation that they need to pursue the case properly, or because the cases are of poor quality? If she does not know the answer, will she have some research done? It is important to know why discrimination cases are not succeeding.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. There are a number of reviews. In particular, the Department of Trade and Industry constantly reviews the way that employment tribunals go about their work. One of the strengths of the system is that cases that have no merit do not get to the table in the first place. Pre-tribunal scrutiny allows vexatious and frivolous cases, which the hon. Member for Shipley suggested happen all the time, to be sifted out, so that they do not happen all the time. However, the point was made that we need to look at why cases do not succeed—an issue that the Government want to consider on an ongoing basis.

As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West expressed concern about legal advice deserts, and I should point out that from this March onwards some 238 organisations—164 solicitors and 74 law centres and citizens advice bureaux—have been specially accredited by the CLS to provide advice and assistance in employment matters. There are also 26 employment tribunal hearing centres throughout the country. So through the current spread of advice and assistance—the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) described it, rather beautifully, as a tracery—we are trying comprehensively to cover the country. Of course, we always want to do more.

Mr. Paterson: Why, in the Government's view, has the total number of discrimination claims increased from some 8,000 in 1999 to just under 28,000 in 2004? Moreover, why do there appear to be such a large number of weak claims? Claims relating to sex, race and disability succeeded in only 28, 15 and 29 per cent. of cases respectively.

Bridget Prentice: One explanation—it is based purely on anecdotal evidence—is that people are more aware of the existence of tribunals, and that they also perhaps feel that there has been an increase in discrimination. Reviews need to take that point into account. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said, many employers—whether they are taken to tribunal or not—realise when mistakes have been made in the workplace and address them before the tribunal stage is reached.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West also asked what access to justice means. It means that when people need help, there are effective solutions that are
14 Oct 2005 : Column 600
proportionate to the issues at stake. In some circumstances that will involve going to court, but in others that will not be necessary. It is in no one's interest to create a litigious society. The hon. Member for Shipley went on at length about vexatious cases, and I should point out that this country does not have a compensation culture, and that we intend to ensure that we do not create one. People must make responsible decisions about whether a case is worth pursuing, about whether to proceed by negotiation, court action or in some other way and about how far to take what might be a relatively minor matter.

When the hon. Member for Shipley made his observations about the compensation culture, he was responded to very expertly by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson). The Government are developing legislation to tackle the perception of a compensation culture, and tightening the regulatory net around unreliable providers of poor advice, including employment advisers.

The House will be aware that the way in which justice is delivered in administration and in the workplace is already undergoing significant change. A new executive agency of the Department for Constitutional Affairs will bring together tribunals under one unified administration. The Government have announced their intention to introduce, when parliamentary time allows, legislation that will enable tribunals to use a range of dispute resolution methods. The employment tribunal system will become part of that new agency when it launches in April 2006. Until then, we are working with colleagues at the DTI as they review the current arrangements, in order to explore how we can make the employment tribunal system work better for the user.

The Bill does not take into account the Legal Services Commission's existing role in administering legal aid, and in ensuring that quality assured legal advice and assistance is available for those who need it in employment cases. As has been outlined, legal help is available. Legal representation can be granted in individual cases under exceptional funding arrangements. Full representation under legal aid is already available in cases brought before the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) asked whether exceptional funding covered language and mental health problems. As I said to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, yes, it does. Part of the practice of the exceptional funding is to comply with article 6 of the European convention on human rights. Language and mental health will be taken into account.

My hon. Friend also asked what analysis had been made of current provision and I can tell him that the community legal service is undertaking a comprehensive review of its provision of advice and assistance. The consultation stage of that process will close this month. That is part of a wider Government strategy to provide a fairer deal for legal aid in order to tackle rising criminal costs and ensure the future of civil legal aid.

On the subject of costs, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire, among others, talked about the open-ended nature of cost provision in relation to the Lord Chancellor. Several Members have commented on the fact that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General is in her place. I assure the House
14 Oct 2005 : Column 601
that she is not here to ensure that I do not agree to that particular part of the Bill. The Department for Constitutional Affairs would not agree to that part of the Bill, even if we were to agree to any of the rest of it. It is unacceptable for any Government Department to be asked to pay unlimited costs to a body that is undemocratic and unaccountable to Parliament. Furthermore, we are being asked to provide not just unlimited costs, but unlimited costs plus, as the Bill provides. I assure the House that although the Government are opposing the Bill as a whole, they would oppose it on that ground alone.

In the circumstances, the Bill's proposed board would represent a duplication of the Legal Services Commission's role, but limited to employment discrimination cases. I am pleased that several hon. Members have been supportive of the LSC's role. The establishment of a new board would be unduly democratic and disproportionate, and would inevitably increase the amount of taxpayers' money spent on administration, diverting resources from supporting individual cases.

Next Section IndexHome Page