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Bridget Prentice: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and to those Members who served in Committee, who realise how important it is that I manage to get the hon. Gentleman's constituency correctly pronounced for once. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has expressed about officials. I will ensure that they are all aware of his gratitude and positive remarks.

It has always been our firm view that an administrative review was the most appropriate mechanism in the situations under discussion. However, we are sensitive to the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and others in Committee and on Report. I accept that there may be a very limited number of cases which are not just about number-crunching, but which may raise points of interpretation of the regulations. That is likely to happen at the beginning of the scheme particularly, and we can then set a precedent for what the scheme is intended to achieve.

Having listened carefully to the arguments presented by the hon. Gentleman and others, we are willing to consider his amendment. The proposal has advantages
 
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over both consideration by a magistrates court and reliance solely on judicial review. The amendment does not undermine the broad principle that a challenge to the means test where the applicant alleges an administrative error or miscalculation would be most appropriately provided through the administrative review mechanism. However, I acknowledge that in the rare cases where it is anticipated that a difficult issue such as a point of law may arise, the amendment represents a practical and measured response to the concerns expressed.

The amendment marks a coincidence of desire, so to speak. It offers the sensible balance that we have been aiming for, and I am pleased to urge the House to accept it.

Mr. Heath: I hugely welcome the Minister's remarks. An outbreak of consensus seems to have spread to all Benches. That is a remarkable occurrence at the end of Report, and in this case it has the merits of improving the Bill and makes the Legal Services Commission work better at administering legal aid than it would otherwise have done. I am grateful to the Minister, her officials and hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber who have supported my amendment.



Amendment agreed to.

Order for Third Reading read.

3.32 pm

Bridget Prentice: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill marks a significant stride forward in ensuring that the criminal legal aid system becomes fairer and more effective. It will achieve this by re-introducing an updated and revised means test, as well as transferring responsibility for the grant of criminal legal aid representation from the courts to the Legal Services Commission. The Bill reflects our firm view that those who can afford to pay for their criminal defence costs, not least wealthy Premiership footballers or lottery winners, should be asked to do so.

By targeting resources on those who most need them, we will be able to deliver a sustainable legal aid system that continues to serve the needs of this and future generations. In short, the Bill will help provide for a criminal legal aid scheme that ensures access to justice for all, while giving better value for money to the taxpayer. I am sure all hon. Members will be pleased that their constituents can welcome the Bill knowing that those who earn vast sums of money or gain vast sums by other means will no longer be eligible for legal aid.

I have been encouraged that the key principles that underpin the Bill have broadly met with unanimity from both Houses. I am delighted that on the one issue where debate has been most intense—the policy on reviews in respect of the new means test—we have been able to reach a consensus and a practical solution. I hope that the House of Lords will take the same view. The fact that we have been able to work closely with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) demonstrates the constructive spirit in which the House has debated the important issues raised by the Bill. I pay tribute to him and others, including the hon. Member for Huntingdon
 
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(Mr. Djanogly), for their contributions today, in Committee and on Second Reading, which have got the Bill to this stage.

I also take the opportunity to thank all hon. Members who served on the Committee and my hon. Friends in the Whips Office, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), for ensuring that we have had an informative, albeit concise, debate.

May I express through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), who was one of the Chairmen of the Committee, but who, unfortunately, owing to the precise and concise way in which we dealt with matters, was unable to chair part of our proceedings. I thank, too, everyone on both sides of the House who has participated today and throughout our proceedings for ensuring that we pass a Bill that will stand us in good stead for the future.

Finally, I thank the officials in my Department for the excellent work that they have done, not just on my behalf but on behalf of everyone in the House in ensuring that we have a Criminal Defence Service Bill which will last long into the future. I commend the Bill to the House.

3.36 pm

Mr. Djanogly: I join the Minister in thanking all those Members on both sides of the House who have been involved with the Bill. I thank the Minister and her officials generally for being constructive and prepared to consult, and I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for his important contribution to the Bill's progress. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), who provided me with valuable assistance in Committee and today, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who has worked hard on the Bill. I also pay tribute to those in the other place who so ably assisted in allowing this worthwhile Bill to come this far.

The Bill has been a work in progress, and a significant part of that was achieved by their lordships. We remain supportive of the principle that those who can afford to pay for their defence should do so as a necessary prerequisite to a fair, effective justice system that gives taxpayers value for their money.

The Bill was subject to a number of amendments in Committee and on Report, some of which were non-contentious Government amendments, but many others were tabled in an attempt to forge an effective piece of legislation, which is essential in stabilising the current failing legal aid system. Much good work has been achieved. For example, significant progress has been made on producing a thorough and comprehensive set of regulations that set out the detailed calculations necessary to assess whether individuals will be entitled to relief.

Issues raised in debates in both Houses that have been addressed in the supplement and by amendments to the Bill include: that the interests of justice test should be a judicial rather than an administrative decision; that it
 
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should be possible for an applicant to be granted legal aid when the interests of justice clearly require it, even if the applicant has failed the means test; that some contribution should be made, by those who qualify for representation and are capable of making it, to costs in the magistrates court; and that responsibility for legal aid matters be restored to the Lord Chancellor's Office. We have supported or proposed those changes.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, one issue, appeals, has persisted despite what has been achieved. Under the scheme originally envisaged, the court could consider an appeal as if it were merely hearing a judicial review rather than making the decision itself. Following strong arguments against that on Second Reading and in Committee in the House of Lords, the Government updated the supplementary framework document published in October 2005, which sets out the details of the regulations that the Secretary of State proposes to make under the Bill. That now makes it clear that the court will be able to hear appeals in the interests of justice, with its own decision replacing that of the Legal Services Commission. That would, however, have applied only to appeals on the misapplication of the interests of justice test. Therefore, under the leadership of our noble Friend Lord Kingsland and Liberal peer Lord Goodhart, an amendment to extend appeals to the eligibility test as well as the interests of justice test was passed on Report.

The amendment tabled by Lord Goodhart and Lord Kingsland appeared to remove the thorn in the side of the Bill, for which we were grateful at the time. However, it was a shame that, in Committee in this House, amendment No. 1 overturned that amendment. We strongly opposed that, and the eligibility test became the remaining issue. It is unsatisfactory that those who are unable to afford to go to court because they have been denied legal aid can seek redress only through an expensive and cumbersome review. In Committee, I tabled an amendment to give the courts a residual power to grant a representation order upon oral application to the court. We thought that that would prevent unnecessary delay in court proceedings in exceptional circumstances. That move would have been all the more important in the context of the Government's amendment that I have just described. We have revisited these issues today. As my hon. Friends have argued in Committee, it is cheaper, faster and better to put such matters into an appeal before the court, rather than through judicial review.

In other respects, the Bill is a good measure, and I hope that the Minister will not allow failure to act on the outstanding issues to overshadow the wider achievements. The Conservative Opposition feel that access to justice is a serious matter that requires full and detailed consideration. Through the determined efforts of our noble Friends in another place, such detailed consideration has been possible. The Conservative party has long been in favour of many of the measures in the Bill, including means-testing for those who can afford it. The Government abolished that means test in 2001. Now, somewhat bizarrely, five years later they are bringing it back.


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