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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and speaking so passionately on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society. The Legal Services Commission is the public body charged with the planning and delivery of legal aid, and it has recently taken the difficult decision to stop funding specialist support services. Specialist support services provide additional assistance to organisations that already hold legal aid contracts and which therefore have to meet the commission's quality criteria.
I assure hon. Members that the quality principle will continue and that there is no question of undermining it. There are well-established mechanisms for monitoring the quality of specialist advice and services provided to clients. The specialist support contracts are worth about £2.9 million. With that sum, the commission can help a significant number of people with their legal problems. Although those particular contracts have been withdrawn, I assure my hon. Friend that the money is
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being reinvested in civil legal aid. Instead of the money being used to pay people to advise lawyers, it will be spent on paying lawyers and advisers to give more advice directly to more consumers. That sum could translate into several thousand more acts of advice and assistance.
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no reason to doubt the quality of the advice that specialist support contract-holders have been providing. The Legal Services Commission is very keen that clients should continue to benefit from the expertise of those people who have been delivering specialist support service advice.
Mrs. Betty Williams : Can my hon. Friend give us a categorical assurance that the proposals that she is spelling out will provide the same level of services as the service that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) described? Honestly, I do not think that they will.
Bridget Prentice: I can give this assurance: the commission believes that by giving this moneyalmost £3 milliondirectly to front-line advisers, it will be able to advise thousands more people who are desperate for such legal advice. Initially, I shared some of the concerns about the withdrawal of funding, so I understand why it worries my hon. Friend and other Members who are here, particularly those from Wales. Of course, it will also be of concern to their constituentsthe people whose rights the legal aid system was established to promote and uphold.
I have considered the issue very carefully, and I know that the commission has not taken this decision lightly. However, I am persuaded that by refocusing the limited resources available, the Community Legal Service will be better able to defend the rights of the people about whom my hon. Friend is rightly concerned. That has to be good news for the people, whether in Wales or in England, whom this decision affects most.
Keith Vaz : I know that my hon. Friend has a difficult job, and she does it extremely well. Nevertheless, we are talking about £3 million out of a budget of £1.1 billion. Has she received any evidence to suggest that that money is not being properly spent?
Bridget Prentice: The commission launched a consultation strategy on making legal rights a reality and it discovered that the high level of need for first-tier, or direct, consumer advice was not being met and that far more must be made available. It is vital that we act to try to redress that gap. The commission believes that refocusing these resources on advice given directly to the consumer, rather than to the lawyers who then go on to advise the consumer, would provide a much better service to a far larger number of people.
That is particularly essential in places such as Wales, which has large rural areas. The commission is working with the Welsh Assembly Government more closely than ever before. When it carried out its consultation on the future of legal services, it consulted the Welsh Assembly Government on their strategy for civil legal
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aid and the Community Legal Service. It is keen to receive views from the Welsh Assembly and to continue to work together to identify how we best use limited resources. Together, and in partnership with the Welsh Local Government Association, the commission is identifying the areas in which it will be most fruitful to pilot the delivery of client-focused and integrated face-to-face specialist advice services that will provide a one-stop system to help people to use the law in tackling their problems.
The commission is increasing the services it provides by telephone. In Wales, Community Legal Service Direct provides free information, help and advice direct to the public on a range of common legal problems through its helpline, website and leaflets. All those services are available bilingually. During 2005, there were almost 8,000 calls to the telephone service from Wales, of whom 6,500 were from clients wanting to speak to an adviser, which resulted in 4,500 specialist cases being advised on. The commission is tendering to expand the capacity of CLS Direct to take calls and advise Welsh-speaking callers on welfare benefits, debt and housing.
In taking forward the vision set out in "Making Legal Rights a Reality", the commission and its partners are building on the existing successes of the Community Legal Service in Wales, which is already helping more people. By the end of November last year, it had undertaken 8 per cent. more acts of specialist advice and assistance in this financial year compared with the same period in the previous year. It has reversed a previous decline.
After close working with the Welsh Language Board in August last year, the Legal Services Commission launched a consultation paper on its proposed Welsh language scheme. The commission will continue to work with the Welsh Language Board on the implementation of the final scheme at the beginning of April.
I should like to take the opportunity, which has arisen thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North, to announce, on behalf of the Legal Services Commission, new funding for four additional outreach money advice workers in Wales via the Treasury's financial inclusion fund. That will help to deliver the cross-government over-indebtedness strategy. The projects will be of enormous benefit to those people in Wales who most need specialist money advice. I believe that all my hon. Friends agree that there is an increasing need for such advice in all our constituencies. The commission will shortly make further announcements about additional services in England.
Other notable Community Legal Service work in Wales includes a housing possession court duty scheme, which provides an invaluable emergency advice and representation service to those in immediate danger of losing their homes. The commission has also funded 12 local projects through the partnership initiative budget, some of which have also benefited from a joint funding arrangement with the Welsh Assembly Government and the then Community Fundnow part of the Big Lottery Fund.
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Those include the Connect 2 U project, run by Torfaen county borough council, which provides information and advice on benefits, debt, consumer rights, housing, employment and immigration problems via video links from libraries and from the council's customer care centre to the citizens advice bureau, the trading standards department and other council departments. Another initiative, on which I am especially keen, is the young people's advice and information project run by Caerphilly council citizens advice bureau. It provides a welfare benefits and debt advice service targeted at young people.
I hope that my hon. Friend will be assured that the Legal Services Commission is working closely with agencies in Wales to ensure that the desperately needed aspects of legal advice are indeed being resourced.
Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for explaining what is being done in Wales, and especially for the announcement of the four new workers. However, does not she agree that the front-line workers need specialist back-up to solve the complex cases? We need the projects that she has announced todayand many morebut for them to be effective, they need the service that is currently working well, is applauded by all practitioners and helps not only solicitors but the many places in Wales where there are no solicitors but front-line advice workers who do not have legal training.
My hon. Friend makes her point well. I agreeand the Legal Services Commission agreesthat specialist advice is important. The commission has refocused the money to ensure that even more people get advice and it has also invited all the practitioners and specialist advice services that were previously fundedthat will continue for the next six monthsunder the current system to discuss how they can advise clients and consumers directly rather than through a second-tier system.
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