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Barristers (Strike Action)

20. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What steps she plans to take in response to strike action in respect of publicly funded work by barristers in criminal practice. [18520]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): It is irresponsible for barristers to take action that disrupts the courts and harms the interests of victims, witnesses and defendants. Action has been limited and managed locally by the courts, the Legal Services Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service using a range of effective contingency plans.

Mr. Harper: Given the ample warnings from the Bar Council, does the Under-Secretary believe that it would have been advisable to wait until Lord Carter produced his report before introducing cuts to legal aid pay?

Bridget Prentice: The Lord Chancellor has been in conversation with the Bar Council, including two full months of consultation with the Bar, on the savings package. He also invited the Bar Council to offer alternative suggestions, without receiving any effective response. We could not wait any longer and I asked the Bar to continue to work with Lord Carter.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): On the back of my hon. Friend's comments, may I draw hon. Members' attention to early-day motion 745, which I tabled? Does my hon. Friend agree that it is deplorable when the Government are held to ransom—in effect, blackmailed—by the Bar? Is not it time that certain—
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not all—members of the Bar understood that a review process, which will consider the position in the round, is in progress, and that they should therefore reflect on the action that is currently being threatened? Should not especially members of the Bar Council Association decide to join in the review, which will report next year?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend presents a measured and reasonable argument, to which I hope that the Bar will pay heed. Barristers are well paid. Junior barristers are paid, on average, £650 for a one-day trial and £1,300 for a three-day trial. Most people would find that a reasonable remuneration. I agree with him wholeheartedly that the Bar should work with Lord Carter, who will reach his conclusions by the end of January, so that we have a fair, sustainable and stable legal aid procurement system for the future.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I declare an interest in that I am a practising barrister. Does the Under-Secretary understand that, although many of us do not support the strike, many members of the junior Bar are paid no more than £46 a day for going into court? Will she take account of their expenses? The fee is derisory and the matter should be addressed with all possible speed.

Bridget Prentice: The £46 fee is often mooted in favour of the junior Bar and is sometimes done so in a way that implies misunderstanding. The £46 could be for a bail application, which might take 10 minutes. A junior barrister could do 10 or 20 bail applications in a day at £46 each. I leave it to the mathematicians to work out exactly how much that is. Having said that, I stress to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we are aware that aspects of the junior Bar's remuneration need to be examined. Today's action does not affect the very junior Bar; it is about trials that last 11 days and more, which few junior barristers experience.

Postal Voting

21. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What further measures she proposes to put in place to prevent fraud in postal voting. [18521]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The Electoral Administration Bill includes several provisions to prevent fraud in postal voting.

Mr. Kidney: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important to reassure the public that voting by post is secure and reliable? Will she confirm that she will take care not to impose so many restrictions that the bureaucracy deters people from applying for a postal vote and voting by post?

Ms Harman: We want to ensure that people have the choice of voting by post, which is an increasingly popular way of voting. However, we must also make it absolutely clear that security in postal voting is not an option. To achieve that, we need robust legal provisions—we shall improve them in the Electoral Administration Bill, which I shall bring before the
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House next week—and good support for the operational activity to deter and prevent fraud on the ground. We shall achieve both those things.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The greatest level of security would come from individual voter registration, backed up by national insurance numbers. Why will the Government not countenance that?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman is not right to say that we will not countenance it. In the Electoral Administration Bill, we are making provision to pilot the testing of individual identifiers and signatures. The right way to proceed is on an evidence base. We need to achieve three things to ensure the legitimacy of democracy. The first is that everyone should have access to a vote, which means everyone who is eligible being on the register. The second is that everyone should want to vote, which relates to high turnouts and to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) about postal voting. The third is that nobody should fiddle the vote. We need to focus on all three, and to have measures that will work across the board. That is what we shall be doing.


      The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Cleaners' Pay and Conditions

31. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions the Commission has had on pay and conditions for cleaners employed in the House. [18508]

Nick Harvey (representing the House of Commons Commission): The issue of contract cleaners' pay was discussed by the Commission on 18 July and again yesterday evening. The Commission took note of the progress in the ongoing negotiations between the cleaners' employers and the Transport and General Workers Union. It also took note of the offer from the employing company, Mitie, of a pay increase to its staff from £5.20 to £6 per hour, funded through internal efficiency savings. The Commission also confirmed that it had no plans to increase the contract's value. Improved on-site accommodation for the contract staff has now been provided.

David Taylor: Even Thomas Gradgrind and Ebenezer Scrooge would balk at the Dickensian cleaning contracts in this place, which have driven wages down to poverty levels. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Commission has a role to play in settling this dispute? Will he ask the Serjeant at Arms to convene a tripartite forum of contractors, unions and House staff, with the aim of overcoming the impasse that is bedevilling progress in this unnecessary dispute?

Nick Harvey: The issue of pay and conditions is a matter for the employer and the work force. Let me make it crystal clear to the House that the authorities of
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the House have done, and are doing, what they can to help to resolve this issue. However, the Commission has authorised me to reaffirm that it will not increase the £2.2 million value of the contract. It cannot become directly involved in the negotiation of terms and conditions, which are a commercial and, ultimately, a legal matter between a contractor and its staff. The authorities of the House are, however, being kept informed of the progress in these negotiations, and will continue to do what they can to assist in achieving agreement as fast as possible.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May I put it to the hon. Gentleman that his answer to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) is not entirely satisfactory? Some of us think that it is not really good enough for the House of Commons Commission to hide behind the cloak of a contractual negotiation between employer and employee. As one who signed the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), may I put it to the representative of the Commission that it would do the Commission great credit if it were to intervene in such a way as to offer hope to the people who toil incredibly hard in this House for a pathetically insignificant reward?

Nick Harvey: The House of Commons lets contracts for a wide variety of services within the organisation. It would be highly unusual if, halfway through one such contract, we were to renegotiate its value, and it would become impossibly difficult for the House to hold the value of any other contract on a wider front if we showed a willingness so to do. I reaffirm that the House authorities have worked with the employer to help it to find substantial savings within the contract. Parts of the building will be cleaned less frequently than before, and some will be cleaned during the day rather than in the evening. When we let this contract, however, it was not given to the lowest bidder. All bidders gave indicative pay rates, which we insisted had to be set at a level that would minimise staff turnover. Indeed, staff turnover on this contract is much lower than the industry average, indicating a degree of satisfaction on the part of the work force.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is not the crux of the matter that the people about whom we are talking are not being paid as much as those directly employed by the House of Commons? Why should there be such a difference? Does not the Commission have a responsibility to ensure that all those who do such essential work are paid decent wages, which is not what has happened so far? The people who have been employed by the contractors have been treated disgracefully, and it is about time that the House of Commons put the whole matter right.

Nick Harvey: The wages and conditions on these contracts are comparable with equivalent contracts in the area and with the market rate. The pay of in-House cleaners reflects two points: first, that they work in sensitive areas, where it was felt that the service should not be contracted out; and secondly, that they are paid within a pay system that covers the majority of the House's employees. Therefore, internal relativities as well as market factors have had to be considered when settling the level of pay for in-House cleaners.
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