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Keith Vaz: The problem remains that good legal aid practitioners are leaving legal aid work because the rates are so low. It is not that they wish to make a huge profit from it; it is the fact that they cannot afford to continue in that work. That means that those who are not particularly good may remain to do the work because they can afford those rates.
James Brokenshire: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which I was coming to, about access to justice and the quality of justice, support, advice and guidance that is received by the beneficiaries of legal aid. There is still a much wider debate to be had on the future of legal aid and legal services, which falls outside the scope of today's debate. Clearly, we need to ensure that legal support is there where it is needed and that where it is needed, it is robust and of sufficient quality to ensure that those individuals are properly represented. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who also sits with me on the Constitutional Affairs Committee. I suspect that we in that Committee will continue to monitor this in the months and years ahead.
We need to monitor the impact of these provisions. I understand that they will be introduced in magistrates courts first and the Crown court thereafter. Obviously, the Minister will closely monitor the impact of that, particularly where offences can be tried in either court, and whether people elect to go down the Crown court route because of the flexibility that might remain there following the introduction of these provisions.
There have been interesting comments about the reasons for the growth in the budget. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) highlighted the fact that we have seen an increasing number of offences on the statute book. Clearly, changes to sentencing guidelines have had some impact, in terms of the greater risk of imprisonment, giving rise to demands and needs for access to justice and fair justice, ensuring that people are properly represented. We must not forget the argument about the inequality of arms. We cannot have people feeling intimidated or threatened by the power of the state seeking to impose criminal penalties, and the fact that they cannot be adequately represented or defend themselves.
I remain struck by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate when he moved his new clause in an attempt to ensure that the less advantaged and perhaps people with mental health problems are not disadvantaged by the Bill. I urge the Minister to monitor this closely to ensure that people from less advantaged backgrounds, people who are illiterate or people with a disability are not prevented from gaining access to justice. I am sure that that is not the intent of the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
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I ask the Minister to keep this under review and ensure that the fairness that is the hallmark of our justice system remains.
I am pleased that there has been some movementparticularly in another placeon the clarification of appeal rights; such clarification has been an important part of this legislation's development. We must make it clear that there is a separate means of ensuring that, where necessary, the Legal Services Commission's decisions are scrutinised in court. We will need to monitor the system's operation and performance in order to establish how many of the LSC's decisions are successfully appealed. If many are, that would tend to suggest that there are problems with the system's administration, and with the way in which decisions are being determined.
"Legal aid plays a vital role in ensuring that those who cannot afford their own defence costs can still obtain legal representation. It also protects against unfair trials and 'inequality of arms' between the defendant and the prosecution and makes it easier to protect defendants' rights."
They must be the underlying principles driving the changes being implemented today. I welcome the Bill, but I hope that it will continue to be scrutinised as it completes its legislative passage, that the aims and objectives effectively summarised by the Constitutional Affairs Committee are put into practice, and that we have a strong and robust system that continues to deliver high-quality, effective and cost-effective justice.
That this House takes note of the 17th and the 20th to the 52nd Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 200304, the 1st to the 30th Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 200405, and the 1st to the 3rd, the 5th, 6th, 10th and 11th Reports and the First Special Report of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 200506, and of the Treasury Minutes and the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda on these Reports, Cm 6271, 6282, 6302, 6303, 6304, 6332, 6355, 6416, 6441, 6458, 6468, 6496, 6577, 6578, 6579, 6609, 6667, 6668, 6682, 6689, 6712 and 6724.
I am pleased to welcome Members to the Public Accounts Committee debate. It is the first of its kind since June 2004, and in the lengthy intervening period the profile of public sector efficiency, which has been at the heart of the Committee's work ever since its creation 140 years ago, has been raised, certainly in part, by the Gershon review. Given this context, we have a lot of highly topical issues to cover today.
The Committee is proud of its work since our last debate. We have published no fewer than 76 reports on issues at the very top of the policy agenda, including 21 in this Session so far. Our high profile and hard-hitting output has included a report on UK military operations in Iraq. That report recognised the commitment, bravery and professionalism of our armed forces, but noted shortcomings in the channelling of supplies to front-line forces.
We also considered the uncertain future of renewable energy, advising the Government to subsidise the development of new technologies and to engage fully in the nuclear power debate. We further concluded that the operation of tax credits has been an absolute nightmare for a significant minority of claimants, who cannot understand how much they are due, or why, in so many cases, such large overpayments have been made.
We also highlighted a simply unacceptable postcode lottery in the prescription of anti-cancer drugs, waiting times for scans and chemotherapy treatments. We found that people who live in a northern city are almost twice as likely to die of cancer as those who live in an affluent area in the south. The cancer of those who happen to live in a deprived area is likely to be much more advanced by the time that it is diagnosed, and they are less likely to survive. We urged the Government to address that issue as a matter of urgency.
Many of the Committee's recommendations have been implemented in the past 18 months, thereby translating them into practical service improvements for the taxpayer. Some 276 of the Committee's recommendations93 per cent., which is way above the percentage achieved by any other Committeewere accepted by the Government in 200405. I pay tribute to the Treasury for accepting 93 per cent. of our recommendations; its doing so is entirely in line with the cross-party nature of our work.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op):
The hon. Gentleman said that 93 per cent. of the Committee's recommendations had been accepted. For
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purposes of comparison, what was its record under previous Chairmen? Has he achieved a higher or lower proportion, and does he set himself a target?
Mr. Leigh: I am sure that my very distinguished predecessor as PAC Chairman achieved just as high a rate. He has moved on to even better things, and I do not want to criticise him in any way, but the Committee has gone from strength to strength over the past four or five years. That has nothing to do with meI have just happened to be Chairman in that timebut it does have to do with the structure of the Committee, the National Audit Office and many other factors. Things have gone pretty well.
I shall offer only three or four examples of our successes, although I could go on and on. However, I regret that the Committee is also the Public Accounts Committee for Northern Ireland while Stormont is suspended.
The Committee does not pull its punches, and our recommendations are hard hitting. We are consensual, but that does not mean that we go for the lowest common denominator. On the Jobskills programme in Northern Ireland, we said:
"Our overall impression is that Jobskills is one of the worst-run programmes that this Committee has examined in recent years. We noted a quite astonishing catalogue of failures and control weaknesses, all of which pointed to a disturbing level of complacency within the Department."
The Committee's report on light rail projects stressed the need for rigorous financial viability tests prior to approval. As a result, the Department for Transport shelved plans for three new light rail developments because it realised that it could not guarantee against price escalation. Last year, the Committee highlighted the fact that the Inland Revenue had adopted many of the recommendations proposed by the PAC six years previously. As a result, it had become 66 per cent. more efficient in its administration of inheritance tax.
The Committee also reported recently on Energywatch and Postwatch, which we described as "feeble". We suggested that those bodies could reduce costs by re-examining their regional structures and sharing administrative functions. In response, Postwatch centralised its complaint handling function in Belfast, and Energywatch, with the support of Postwatch, set up a consumer action network to find ways to achieve better joint working.
It is a testament to the Committee's work that our recommendations on the private finance initiative and on public-private partnerships have saved the taxpayer no less than £750 million, according to the NAO. If the Committee's members were paid on a commission basis, we would not need to remain Members of this House for very long.
Complementing the impacts that I have described is the increasing scale of media coverage enjoyed by the Committee, which is greater than that received by other Committees. That degree of attention to our work can only aid us in pressing for value for money.
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