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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice):
I have regular and instructive contact about criminal legal aid with all stakeholders, including members of the legal profession, MPs and the general public. The hon. Lady will also be pleased to know that Lord Carter has had good and productive engagement from the legal profession since his independent review into legal aid procurement commenced.
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Miss McIntosh: The Minister is tackling the problem of legal aid in criminal cases by reintroducing the means-testing that this Government scrapped, but at the same time there is also enormous pressure on the civil legal aid budget. The hon. Lady has said that many parts of the country are "legal aid deserts" when it comes to civil legal aid, so why is she not addressing both problems with the utmost priority?
Bridget Prentice: I can absolutely reassure the hon. Lady that we are addressing both matters with the utmost priority. The Criminal Defence Service Bill, which will come back to the House for Report stage and Third Reading on Thursday, deals with the payment of legal aid in certain criminal cases. If she wants to quote my words in respect of civil legal aid, she can repeat what I have said ad nauseam, both in this House and elsewherethat we need to rebalance the legal aid budget, and that more money should go into civil legal aid. I assure her that the Department is working with all the stakeholders in this matterthe legal profession, law centres, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and othersto make sure that people everywhere in the country get the appropriate civil legal aid that they deserve.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My constituency is one of the legal aid deserts to which the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) referred. What is my hon. Friend the Minister doing to deal with the problem? In particular, what is she doing to attract more legal aid lawyers to work in areas where there is currently a real shortage?
Bridget Prentice: I can reassure my hon. Friend on two fronts. First, in some of the pilot schemes that we are introducing in urban areas, legal aid workers will work with other agencies to provide people with direct services in their immediate areas. We shall also have pilots in rural areas, where having one identifiable centre for people to go to is not as straightforward, and there we will have a network of support so that people can get advice that way.
My hon. Friend made another important point about encouraging young lawyers to take legal aid jobs as part of their professional career. We are supporting the Law Society and others in developing grants to foster that.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Many practitioners say that the proposals to reintroduce the means test for criminal legal aid under the Criminal Defence Service Bill will do little to resolve the legal aid crisis gripping this country. Does the Minister agree?
Funnily enough, I do not. The hon. Gentleman supported us over the Criminal Defence Service Bill on Second Reading and in Committee, and I believe that he will support it again on Thursday. We are trying to redress the balance through the Bill. The budget is overspent, and we are addressing that. As I mentioned in my answer to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), Lord Carter of Coles is looking into legal aid procurement and will report shortly. I hope that his work with the professions and others will ensure that we have a long-term stable and proper legal aid structure that will serve this country well.
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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has not received specific representations on programming since the hon. Gentleman tabled an oral question in October last year, some three months ago.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: The Modernisation Committee, which is chaired by the Leader of the House, is currently undertaking an inquiry into the legislative process. It is considering, among other things, the Standing Committee, Report and Third Reading stages of Bills, and Lords amendments. Surely the Leader of the House is aware that some of the evidence already submitted to him is highly critical of the programming system that we have in the House, which prevents our adequately scrutinising important legislation. Is not it time that the programming procedure was looked at again in order to enable the House to do the job that it is here to do?
Nigel Griffiths: Obviously, the present system is not the most perfect, but it is clear from reviews of the system that any suggested changes have consequences that the House might not intend. There are, of course, strong political pressures on the Opposition to oppose any Government's proposals for timetabling, which affects all but the least controversial Bills. The system was looked at in 2003 by the Modernisation Committee, and the Procedure Committee re-examined it in 2004. Improvements have been brought forward. The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing and much respected Member, and he knows that under the previous guillotine procedures many clauses were never reached. But it is important to have a proper programming procedure that takes account, as far as possible, of one of the most common alleged abuses in the House, which is filibustering.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): When the Modernisation Committee reviewed programming, it made two recommendations. It suggested having internal knives to allow Chairmen of Committees a little flexibility to postpone knives where discussions were advanced but not quite complete. Secondly, it suggested adding injury time when debates in Standing Committee, in particular, were seriously disrupted by Divisions in the House. The Government rejected both recommendations. As a Chairman of a Standing Committee, I recognise their value. Will there be a rethink on those two suggestions?
The Government do not intend to revisit those matters. They were looked at relatively recently and, as I have said, the volume of representations in recent months has not been
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particularly high on this issue, as others have focused on more important aspects of House procedures. However, my right hon. Friend and I have listened and we hear what my hon. Friend says; we keep an open mind on possible improvements. We have to be aware, however, as the House does, of unforeseen consequences, and the Government of the day have to get their business through in an orderly manner.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): We all know that consideration of a Bill, especially on Report, is often restricted, and that important groups of amendments are not considered, to the detriment of Back-Bench Members who may wish to raise a particular issue. We also know that there are days and sometimes weeks in which we seem to spend an awful lot of time accomplishing very little in terms of parliamentary debate. Is not it time to look again at setting up an all-party business committee to look sanely at the business of the House not only in the immediate future but over the full parliamentary calendar year?
Nigel Griffiths: I would welcome nothing more than an all-party committee that looked sanely, to use the hon. Member's words, at the matter. Unfortunately, in my experience of 18 years in the House, the lack of sanity on such matters is all too much in evidence. I am sorry to say that one of the reasons why there does not appear to be progress, or that discussion seems to focus around arcane issues during proceedings on a Bill, is that some hon. Members want to delay progress. In turn, that avoids getting on to clauses that hon. Members on both sides would like to debate. We live in an imperfect world, Mr. Speaker.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): We have been considering closely the proposals the Modernisation Committee made in the previous Session on scrutiny of European business. We hope to bring forward ideas for taking this issue further.
Mr. Borrow: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. May I put a suggestion to him for something that he could do straight away? On too many occasions, items referred by the European Scrutiny Committee to the European Standing Committee have been timed to coincide with a meeting of the European Scrutiny Committee. Will he ensure that that does not happen in future so that members of the European Scrutiny Committee who are interested in a particular item can be present for the debate in the European Standing Committee?
I have considerable sympathy with that point, which has also been raised by other hon. Members. I have considered the issue and I do not believe that there is an easy solution, which is why I cannot, I am sorry to say, give him the assurance that he seeks. I say that precisely because there are a substantial number of both Standing and Select Committees, but
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only a finite number of sitting days and hours when it is convenient to meet. Occasionally, there will be the sort of unfortunate clash that my hon. Friend has highlighted. If that can be avoided, business managers do avoid it, and I will certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to their attention. I can promise to do no more than that.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): The overall issue of the scrutiny of legislation referred to by the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) is important. I note the comments made by the Deputy Leader of the House that the Government will bring forward proposals in due course, but I hope that he agrees that one of the key issues is the House's ability to scrutinise legislation at an early opportunity before Ministers make decisions in the Council of Ministers. Will he assure the House that that is one of the key issues that the Government will consider and that their proposals will address it?
Nigel Griffiths: Of course it is vital that as many hon. Members as possible consider legislation at as early a stage as possible. I remind the right hon. Member that MEPs also have a role to play in this. Given the chaos that there appears to be in Europe in her party, perhaps she can tell the House which group her MEPs are going to join so that they can inform this process. We on the Labour Benches will do our best to make sure that there is proper scrutiny by this House, but there cannot be proper scrutiny by Conservative MEPs as long as we do not know which group they are in or are allying themselves to.
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