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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): We said that we would maintain the judicial system regardless of any action that barristers might take. We have done that. The action was limited, and was managed locally by the courts, the Legal Services Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service using a range of effective contingency plans.
James Duddridge: I thank the Minister for her response. What contingency plans does she have in place in case there are problems and disruption when Lord Carter eventually produces his report? What will happen if barristers withdraw their labour after the Carter report?
Bridget Prentice: I do not want to prejudge either the Carter report or what the barristers will do as a result of it. Since the barristers took strike action, they have co-operated very positively with Lord Carter, and I do not foresee that we shall have to put any contingency plans in place post-Carter. However, if we have to, we will.
Andrew Rosindell: Does the Minister agree that cuts in legal aid pay will have a serious effect on the recruitment of barristers from lower income backgrounds? I thought that that was a recruitment policy that the Government encouraged.
In answer to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, he is absolutely right. We do want to encourage people from a variety of backgrounds into the legal profession, both as barristers and solicitors. As I said in answer to an earlier question, Lord Carter is looking at the situation as a whole. He is well aware of where the strains are within the legal aid budget, and I hope that he will suggest some positive reforms that will ensure that people not only from lower income backgrounds but from a diverse variety of backgrounds are able to join the profession.
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Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Does not the Minister share my disappointment that members of the junior Bar took this industrial action? Will she assure the House that the Government are continuing to hold a dialogue with them? Will she explain to the barristers concerned that we have a legal aid budget of £2.1 billion, which is up from £1.5 billion in 1997? The Government are seeking not to cut that budget but to refocus it on the areas that clearly need funding, such as the community legal service and the large parts of the country in which one simply cannot find a solicitor prepared to give legal advice. That is why there must be a reshaping of our priorities.
Bridget Prentice: I know full well the amount of work that my hon. Friend did to establish facilities such as the community legal service, and I hope that the House is appreciative of that. I do not accept, however, that there are large swathes of the country where people cannot get legal advice. They can get legal advice, and there are a variety of ways in which we can provide it, whether face-to-face directly with a solicitor, by telephone or on the internet. It is also right, however, that we want to rebalance the increased budget that this Labour Government have put into legal aidup from £1.5 billion to £2.1 billion, which we should not forgetso that civil legal aid gets its fair share of the pot.
Bridget Prentice: We are disappointed with the ballot result in the magistrates courts. There is still time for industrial action to be averted, and it is regrettable and unfortunate that we have been unable to reach agreement on a settlement with the unions. I hope that further negotiations and discussions can take place between now and when they wish to consider action.
Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): The Minister has expressed her concern for the junior Bar, which I share. Does she agree that one of the reasons for the industrial action is that members of the junior Bar in particular have been asked to wait and wait for an indication of what their financial future will be? Had the Government also waited for the Carter review before imposing cuts on fees paid to the junior Bar, that industrial action might have been averted.
Bridget Prentice: The Government, as the caretaker of the taxpayer's money, must behave in a responsible fashion. Legal aid was £130 million over budget, so we had to take some action to ensure that we brought it back into line. It is responsible and proper for the Government to behave in that way. We look forward to the outcome of Lord Carter's review early in the new year, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the junior Bar will find it a positive way forward.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
(Lab/Co-op): Stephen Hockman QC, the new chair of the Bar, has stated his view that Carter will recommend fee levels that are likely to be accepted as appropriate. Of the 4,000 criminal barristers in England and Wales,
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however, increasing numbers are refusing to take on new defence cases, and in some cases declining to take late appointments when other barristers were double-booked in relation to a prosecution. As a result, prosecutions in the courts have been lost. Does the Minister think that that is likely to be an increasing trend before Carter reports?
Bridget Prentice: No, I do not think that that will be an increasing trend before Lord Carter reports. The picture that my hon. Friend has painted might have taken place during the strike action, although no case was lost in court. I do not therefore believe that the scenario that he describes is likely to recur. Lord Carter is well aware of the views of everyone in the legal profession, however, and has had detailed conversations on such matters. I am sure that he will bring forward a review that will allow us to have a legal aid system that is sustainable and appropriate for the 21st century.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The Minister fails to face up to the fact that legal aid in this country is in crisis. With barristers striking, at least 25 per cent. of criminal law firms having closed down over the past four years, legal aid rates frozen for eight years and more than 50 per cent. of Crown court legal aid now being spent on just 1 per cent. of the cases, how much further can the Government squeeze the pips of legal aid before it collapses?
Bridget Prentice: It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not think about the answers to some of the earlier questions before asking his own question. I have already established that the barristers' strike is over, and that they are co-operating with Lord Carter. It is precisely because 50 per cent. of the budget is being spent on 1 per cent. of cases that we asked Lord Carter to conduct a review and to see how the position could be improved. We have already provided opportunities to manage cases before they go to court, and we are considering ways in which the junior Bar can be helped and supported. A whole range of things are happening. If the hon. Gentleman is to speak from the Front Bench, he really ought to do his homework first.
The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): Our plans include clarifying the powers of the House of Lords to entrench the primacy of this House, and giving this House a free vote on the composition of the House of Lords.
Mr. Hollobone: Given the speed with which the Government are advancing reform of the House of Lords, when the Prime Minister eventually steps down, is he likely to be elevated to the upper House, or will he have to seek election to it?
I think that we are proceeding at an appropriate pace. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are committed to establishing a Joint Committee of the two Houses to consider and codify the powers of the
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House of Lords, so that when we vote in this House on the composition of the House of Lords we shall be in no doubt about what its powers are. Now that the Conservatives have sorted out their leadership issues, I trust that we shall be able to proceed with the establishment of the Joint Committee as soon as possible.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend share, or at least empathise with, my embarrassment over what happened last week when the European Scrutiny Committee visited the Turkish Parliament? When we spoke of people's concern about the fact that the country was run by a religious party, it was pointed out that we have a second Chamber containing 13 representatives of a particular religion. Did they get there by right? According to those parliamentarians, if any member of their Parliament had been found to have given £200,000 to a political party, he would be in jail and not in a legislature.
Ms Harman: Let me respond to my hon. Friend's first point by saying that he will have a chance, as we all will on a free vote, to vote on the composition of the House of Lords. What is important is ensuring that the House is given the choice that it wants, rather than the Government narrowing down the possibilities. In that way the House can play a part in deciding the choice on which it is ultimately able to vote.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I welcome the news that the House is to be given a free vote on the composition of the second Chamber. Many of us believe that it should be either wholly or largely elected. However, may I ask the Minister to be very careful when talking about the primacy of this House? What she is actually talking about is the primacy of the Whips Offices in all parties. That is very different from the primacy of an elected Chamber.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is a former Whip, says that that sounds perfectly reasonable to her, but I believe that plenty of Members on both sides of the House consider that the Whips do not have absolute primacyalthough of course they have powers to persuade and encourage.
When Members of this House vote on the composition of the House of Lords, the vote will be not only free but unwhipped. All Ministers will have a free vote, and members of all parties will have a free vote. What is more, we want to ensure that the House has decided on what choice is before it, so that no Members can feel that they were not given the right choice on which to exercise their votes.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
(LD): If the right hon. and learned Lady thinks that we are moving at an appropriate pace, I should hate to see us moving slowly. This is the most urgent issue within the urgent process of democratic renewal that the House needs to undertake. We have waited since last summer for the Joint Committee to be established, and there is still no sign of it. We cannot have the free vote to which the right
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hon. and learned Lady referred until the Joint Committee has done its work. Has she had any conversations with the Leader of the House as to whether, when we do come to take a decision on the matter, we can do so by a process of exhaustive amendment similar to the process by which you, Mr. Speaker, were elected, so that we have a genuine outcome and not the Whip-arranged score draw that we had last time?
Ms Harman: On the speed with which we are proceeding on constitutional and democratic reform, I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have devolved power to Scotland, Wales and London, we have new electoral systems for Scotland, Wales, London and the European elections, we have introduced the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and we have already undertaken substantial reform of the House of Lords. I would have liked us to go faster in establishing the Joint Committee of the Lords and the Commons, but it requires the agreement of all parties. We are seeking to reach that agreement and to set up that Joint Committee of all parties. We do not want to proceed without the help of a Joint Committee but, if it cannot be set up, we will move on. That will, however, be less satisfactory.
I will be having discussions with hon. Members about the process by which we decide the options on which to have the free vote. I do not think that any of us wants to go through the processes that we went through last time, which people felt were unsatisfactory. We must work out how to get the appropriate consensus of this House reflected in a vote.
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