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James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con):
What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the additional cost involved in that change? My impression
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is that the Government simply got it wrong and that, while I welcome the Bill, it seems to be backtracking. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the amount of money that has been wasted?
We support the Bill in principle, but there are various questions that the Government need to address. While we largely welcome the Bill, especially the introduction of means-testing, it represents only a very small step towards the reform of the legal aid system. Yes, the growth in spending on the criminal defence service has to be checked, but we also need a focused and sustainable plan of action to address these serious issues.
I am afraid that, on its own, the Bill does no such thing. Much as we agree with the basic premise of the Bill, it does nothing to tackle the other main factors driving the increase in criminal legal aid costs, in particular the very high cost criminal cases and the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service manages prosecutions, especially complex ones. It certainly has nothing to do with helping civil legal aid, as the Department's press release suggests.
As the Department for Constitutional Affairs itself acknowledged in its recent White Paper, more than 50 per cent. of Crown Court legal aid is now consumed by just 1 per cent. of the cases involved. My noble Friend Lord Kingsland said in another place in relation to means-testing:
"I hazard that however much money it will save, it will save nothing like the amount of money that high cost cases cost the criminal legal aid system."[Official Report, House of Lords 13 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1083.]
The Government will no doubt argue that all these matters are being examined by Lord Carter's review of legal aidin fact, the Minister has done so alreadyand that we should await the outcome of that review. If so, we should like to know when that review is to be published. Why is it not available now, when it is so clearly needed in the context of this debate?
It is self-evident that we need a far greater emphasis on reducing expenditure in high cost cases, and that we need to pursue initiatives aimed at achieving better value for money across the criminal justice system, such as more effective trial management. Irrespective of Carter's review, the Government should be seeking urgently to make progress. What we need are imaginative solutions if we are to achieve a sustainable legal aid system and an application of basic management skills to criminal case management.
We attempted to deal with the issue of a Crown court scheme on Second Reading and in Committee. The Government had made a fairly convincing response to our earlier request for the contemporaneous introduction of the Crown court scheme, and we are prepared to accept the concept of a phased roll-out of a similar regime in the Crown court on the basis that it is
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expeditious. We should, however, like to know from the Government when that is likely to happen. We should also like a review of the Bill's effects before the means-testing scheme is implemented in the Crown court. Will the Minister please confirm that that will happen, and explain how it is likely to happen? We recognise the benefits of a so-called phased roll-out, but that can only be effective if there is a full and expeditious appraisal of the consequences of the changes proposed in the Bill.
As we discussed these points during the Bill's earlier stages, I shall not discuss them now in great detail. However, if we are to have split magistrates and Crown court systems and starting dates, wealong with our noble Friends in the other placehave concerns about the perverse incentive that may result if the Crown court scheme is implemented at a later date. Defendants may opt for the Crown court route in cases that are triable in either way in order to ensure a more favourable position in regard to legal aid. That is another reason why the Government should be expeditious in applying the scheme to the Crown court.
The aim of the Bill was to address the funding crisis that beset the Government who abolished means-testing. Now they have recognised the error of their ways, it is important also to recognise the drain of high cost casesparticularly in the Crown courtthat could hinder the merits, in practice, of what we ultimately support in the Bill.
The problem is not that the Government are spending too little; the problem is that cases need to be managed more efficiently, and there needs to be clarity about what legal aid is spent on. The Crown Prosecution Service, and judges themselves, need to manage cases more efficiently. Dealing with the management issues at an early stage will help to prevent even bigger problems from spiralling later. Yet the Government seem unable to get to grips with the difficulties. This must be seen as a significant failure on the part of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and it must know that the reintroduction of means-testing in itself will not solve the problem or make significant savings in relative terms. A review before implementation in the Crown court will, we believe, be intrinsic to the fulfilment of what the Minister said on Second Reading was the aim of the Bill:
"a legal aid system that balances fairness with administrative simplicity and that is based on affordability yet is sensitive to an applicant's individual circumstances."[Official Report, 13 December 2005; Vol. 440, c. 1238.]
All in all, the Government must recognise that the Bill is not a panacea for all the problems to which the legal aid system has been exposed. Although we welcome it in principle, it is only a small step towards desperately needed reform of a legal aid system that the Government have allowed to fall into disrepair, and much more remains to be done. The Department for Constitutional Affairs must know that the Bill in itself will not solve the problems.
The Government must recognise, particularly when producing the regulations that will follow the Bill but also when introducing the scheme into the Crown court, that what is needed is not simply restriction of the number of people being helped by the legal aid system as
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the Bill proposes, but what was proposed in the Government's own report "A fairer deal for legal aid": a system that is
Keith Vaz: In response to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) in the last debate, the Minister referred to a coincidence of desire. Until the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) got to the last part of his speech, I felt like a gooseberry watching not consideration in Committee being reported back to the House, but a love-in, so generous was the praise between those on the Front Benches and so amicable the discussions and various deliberations in Committee and in the House since consideration of the Bill began.
I pay tribute to the Minister and her colleagues at the Department for Constitutional Affairs on the modernising agenda that they have adopted since my noble Friend Lord Falconer became Lord Chancellor. There must be something of a whirlwind in the Department. I remember my time there as a Minister six years ago, when it was not so much sleepy, but at least not as dynamic as it is now. Legislation rushes out the door at breakneck speed and Ministers appear before the House practically every week to tell us about new legislation that is to be passed.
The Bill is important, primarily because we want to save money on the very large legal aid budget. The hon. Member for Huntingdon will not remember the debates held in the House when I was first elected, when the legal aid budget was, even under the last Conservative Government, spiralling out of control. The current legal aid budget is £1.1 billion, which makes the DCA one of the biggest-spending Departments.
The savings that the Bill envisages are quite smallonly £35 million out of £1.1 billionbut £35 million is a lot of money. It is better than a poke in the eye, and any legislation that saves money for the taxpayer so that it can be spent wisely is to be welcomed. Therefore, I welcome the Government's approach of targeting legal aid so that it is spent on those who need it. The Minister gave the examples of the lottery winner and the football player, but there are a lot of people in between them and the very poor who must not be left out.
My main concern, in accepting what the Government have done and supporting the Minister in the good work that she does at the Department, is that too much trust and faith are being put in the Legal Services Commission. Once the decision-making process is taken away from the judges and the courts, removing that degree of independence and putting it in the hands of bureaucrats, some of whom are ex-civil servantsnot that we have anything against them; I shall use the term "officials", if I may call them thatour ability as
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Parliament and that of people who apply for legal aid to feel that they have had their case justly treated are also removed.
The Minister accepted the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, and I welcome the spirit in which she did that, but I ask her to spend her time and efforts in supervising and monitoring what the Legal Services Commission does. It is dispensing a huge amount of public money, so both ministerial eyes need to be firmly on those who govern the commission. The Minister should be willing to respond to the concerns of Members of the House, the public and the professions when they point out that things are going wrong.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who unfortunately has had to leave the House, has raised with the Minister, as I am doing again today, her concern and mine about the proposals to stop the specialist support services in England and Wales, which are, instead, to be provided by the Legal Services Commission. My hon. Friend tells me that they will be stopped in July. I see that the Chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and other members of the Committee are here today. We discussed this very matter yesterday.
The concern held by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North and by me is that these services are being stopped when the Government should be ensuring that we target our money so that services that workproviding assistance and advice to voluntary organisations on issues such as debt, housing and welfare benefitsshould continue. I ask the Minister to look into that point at the same time as she is asking us to put our faith in her judgment and that of the Lord Chancellor in transferring yet again so many powers to the Legal Services Commission.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon is right; in a sense, the Government are the victims of their own success. Having taken power in 1997 and having told the public that they would catch criminals faster, that is what they have been doing. But that puts pressure on the court system, which goes back to an earlier point concerning the relationship between the DCA and the Home Office. The DCA is an equal partner with the Home Office. The Home Office is not in charge and the Home Secretary does not tell the Lord Chancellor what to do; I am quite sure that the Lord Chancellor is robust in his dealings with the Home Office. But our great success in catching criminals and reducing the number of crimes committed has resulted in an increase in the legal aid budget.
I see my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) looking at me. Clearly he will soon be gesticulating to tell me to bring my speech to a close and, as I am quite afraid of him, I will do so. I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has done good work on immigration appeals. I ask her to listen to the professions and not to fight with them.
I have read the Law Society brief on this and it has no problems with what the Government are doing, apart from the effect on the right of appeal. I ask my hon. Friend to work with the professions and with those who help those going through the legal system. I am sure that the good will generated for most of this afternoon will be generated again by similar legislation that I am sure my hon. Friend will propose in the years to come.
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