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Vera Baird : The hon. Gentleman is making a very poor point. He said that very high-cost cases accounted for between 40 and 50 per cent. of all criminal legal aid spending. That is so, as it was in 1996, when the Conservatives were in office. Since then, it has gone up from 42 per cent. to 49 per cent., but we are tackling it, whereas the hon. Gentleman's Government did nothing whatever.

Mr. Djanogly: Eight years later, here we are talking about what needs to be done, and the best that the hon. and learned Lady can say is that the last Conservative Government did not get it right.

Vera Baird: Would the hon. Gentleman like me to tell him over what period of time the same proportion of high-cost cases took up criminal legal aid? It was for many years while the Conservative Government were in
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office. We are trying to tackle that. I repeat that the Conservative Government did nothing about the problem for 18 years. We are trying to do something. How can he accuse us?

Mr. Djanogly: With barristers and magistrates going on strike, law firms closing down week after week—

Vera Baird rose—

Mr. Djanogly: No, I shall not give way to the hon. and learned Lady again.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. We cannot have two hon. Members on their feet at the same time. The hon. and learned Lady must know whether the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor is giving way to her.

Mr. Djanogly: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Vera Baird: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Djanogly: No, I shall not. The hon. and learned Lady has already intervened several times. The fact that the Government have to have a Home Office Parliamentary Private Secretary as the only Labour Back Bencher in the Chamber reflects the Labour party's attitude to legal aid and the crisis in the system.

Vera Baird rose—

Mr. Djanogly: I shall not give way.

I repeat that the Government appear unable to get to grips with the problem. It represents a significant failure on the part of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. It must know that the reintroduction of means-testing will not solve the problem or make significant savings in relative terms.

The Law Society said in its submission to the fundamental legal aid review of January this year that early skilled diagnosis would have the most benefit in controlling the budget and prevent straightforward issues from becoming more significant and therefore a greater burden. It recommended the early identification of problems, and access by clients to appropriate services through a single point of entry offering legal aid services at different levels, or planned referrals. That will enable firms and advice agencies that already exist to take on extra rolls and expand their business. Does the Under-Secretary agree that that is a sensible way forward? If so, will she assure us that something will be done to implement it?

Work needs to be done on proposals for competitive price tendering. If such proposals are to succeed, we cannot have a system that runs a high risk of being no more than a cost-cutting exercise, which will inevitably reduce access to justice and the quality of advice and representation that is available to legally aided clients. Given the range of quality accredited suppliers already in existence, where is the justification for jeopardising quality purely to save costs? Representations have been
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made to us that small, often ethnic, inner-city firms will have to close shop because of the proposals. The high street criminal practice could become almost defunct.

The graduated fee scheme could have the perverse effect of encouraging barristers to drag out cases so that the longer they last, the more money they receive. It is also worth pointing out that, although civil and criminal legal aid constitute different pots, the Government appear to want to examine the whole. Losing control of criminal legal aid budgets has meant a collapse in civil legal aid, excluding asylum, by 24 per cent. in real terms since 1997 as criminal expenditure has risen by 37 per cent. We need imaginative solutions to achieve a sustainable legal aid system and an application of basic management skills to criminal case management.

Another concern is the falling number of solicitors who choose criminal law defence work as a career. Work needs to be done to increase participation. The number of solicitors' offices that provide criminal defence services has fallen by 25 per cent. from 3,500 in April 2001 to 2,651 in September this year. Legal aid practitioners should be of a high quality and receive proper compensation. In a survey that the Law Society conducted, 50 per cent. of trainee solicitors said that, all things being equal, they were likely to pursue a career in legal aid work. However, the practical reality is that only 8 per cent. said that they were indeed likely to pursue a career in legal aid. Financial uncertainty is a particular problem for young barristers, who have not even the guarantee of a meagre salary.

Given that legal aid rates have not increased for approximately eight years, the idea of attaching the tag of "fat cat" to the average criminal lawyer is perverse. Indeed, the problem is so bad that criminal practitioners tell me that very few wish to practise criminal law. Of those who do, many want to become prosecutors, who get a decent salary.

Perhaps the Under-Secretary could describe the pilots for state defenders. I understand that they are even more expensive than private defence solicitors. Firms also need some predictability in their businesses. Many face immense pressure as they try to deal with new proposals and the complexities of the current system in a hostile environment.

In relation specifically to criminal law, the increased complexity of the law as well as trial length must be taken into account, as the Bar Council has argued that those are the central drivers in increasing costs. It has cited annual criminal justice Bills and other legislation, which, over the past decade, have produced major changes in almost every area of legal practice and procedure. Two important examples are the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

Changes to sentencing guidelines and the increase in the number of offences that carry a prison sentence are further factors. In cases in which imprisonment is the likely consequence of a conviction, the interests of justice test in assessing entitlement to legal aid is more likely to be satisfied, causing more frequent grants of rights to representation. Imprisonment is increasing; indeed, the prison population today stands at about 77,000, an increase of 28 per cent. since 1997.

The effects of the Government's overall criminal justice policy must also be taken into account. For example, targets to increase arrest rates and the creation
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of a vast number of new criminal offences are contributory factors. That point was made by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) in her very worthwhile comments in a recent Westminster Hall debate. Surely the message is that, if we are going to charge more people, send more people to Crown court trials and lock more people up, the costs of processing the accused—including legal aid costs—will rise.

Criminal solicitors are threatening to close up shop and criminal barristers have gone on strike, yet the Government seem unable to see that we need provisions to address the legal aid problems that are handicapping some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society. What is needed is not simply to restrict the number of people being helped by the legal aid system, as the Bill proposes, but what was proposed in the Government's own report, "A Fairer Deal for Legal Aid", which was published in July this year. That is, a legal aid system that will be

Why can the Government not respond to their own message? If the Minister thinks that we, or the legal profession, will accept the Bill as the answer to the legal aid crisis, she will have to think again.

4.27 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I congratulate the Government on the Bill, which I welcome. I also congratulate those in another place who did a very good job of teasing out the Bill's problems and giving them a good airing so that they could be addressed. It is not appropriate to arrogate that activity to just one side, which the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) sought to do. It is perfectly clear that the Liberal Democrats played a role, and that the hon. Gentleman's colleague and the Liberal Democrats in the other place were very complimentary about my noble colleague, Baroness Ashton. It seemed to have been a job well done all round.

It is a pity, therefore, that the atmosphere of trying to bring the Bill to fruition in everyone's interests cannot be maintained in this House, and that there has to be inaccurate cat-calling from the Conservative Front Bench. That is utterly unnecessary, and the hon. Member for Huntingdon really does get a great deal wrong. It is odd to hear him talk about the virtues of means-testing—the Conservatives usually speak of its evils—when its purpose is to get people out of poverty. The Tories took the extraordinary line only a few years ago of criticising the Government when they were doing their best to improve bureaucracy by abolishing a means test.

I also want to put the hon. Gentleman right on another point. There are plenty of applicants for the criminal Bar. My own chambers has hundreds of applicants per year.

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