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Mr. Willetts: I thought I had made that clear in my speech, but I will try to give absolute clarity. Yes, we accept the increase in school spending and the capital spending pledge. We need more information about the time scale for the aspiration, although, of course, we support it. For us, the crucial aspiration is to match the standards in private education, not just the spending.

John Healey: We have made progress since Budget day. Clearly the hon. Gentleman has disowned the comments made by his colleague, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earlier described the Conservative party's policy changes as flip-flops, and I have to say that she was right. The situation should concern everyone. I guess that there are some people who want to believe what the Leader of the Opposition says and his promises, but, frankly, the fiasco of the policy flip-flops following the Budget shows that when the Tories are put under pressure and the going gets tough, they give in.

The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was right to warn of the challenges in the global economy, just as the Chancellor did in his Budget speech. The hon. Gentleman was also right to say that we need to boost research and development. However, he spoiled his comments by talking about the tax burden. He knows that this Labour Chancellor cut the main rate of corporation tax, the rate of small business corporation tax and the rate of capital gains on business assets. He knows that the tax burden is still lower than it was at its peak under Baroness Thatcher in 1984. He also knows that, according to the OECD, the net direct tax burden for the average working family has halved since the Labour Government came into office.

Other speeches made by Opposition Members shone little light on the policies that we could expect from a Conservative Government, but let me deal with as many contributions as I can in the time available. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) freely admitted that spending on education has gone up under this Government. Whatever position he claims for Worcestershire pupils, they would have been—and would be—far poorer under a Conservative Government than the Labour Government of the moment.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) was right to raise concerns about regulation, but his overstated rhetoric spoiled his case. The Budget produced specific targets for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs to reduce administrative costs in the tax system. It also included plans for further simplifications. Similar hard analysis and plans for the other areas of the Government in which he is interested will be published during the rest of this year.

The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) called the Budget thin. He was especially concerned about attracting investment into the UK. Perhaps he
 
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could look at the publication "Science and innovation investment framework 2004–2014: next steps", which we published alongside the Budget, and in particular at page 66, which sets out the answer to his concerns. I am glad that he welcomes the Budget publication on consulting on the future of carbon capture and storage.

Stewart Hosie: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Healey: I will not because I want to respond to other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) spoke with passion from his constituency perspective. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills responds to him on his point about further education for his constituents. However, he began by questioning the Chancellor's credibility—the same Chancellor whom Alan Greenspan has described as "without peer" on economic policy making.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) criticised the Government on skills. The proportion of 16-year-olds achieving five good GCSEs or better has risen from 45 to 55 per cent. under this Government. Some 1 million adults have improved their literacy or numeracy skills under this Government. The proportion of adults with a degree has increased from one fifth to more than a quarter under this Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who courteously said that he could not be present for the wind-ups, made an informed and expert contribution as Chair of the Select Committee on Education and Skills. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) looked forward to the Government's response to the Turner report in a characteristically reflective, and rather broad and sweeping, contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) set out a long-term concern about pensioners receiving further support, especially those who have been failed by their occupational pension schemes collapsing. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) spoke about firms in her constituency and drew on her national policy experience to explain how the Budget announcements may help them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) shares the Chancellor's passion for education, even if he does not share every detail of the Government's planned reforms. He told of us lessons in Scotland that could be learned in England. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) was right about the Budget's theme, which is how Britain can meet the changing pressures in the world, and she was right to point to our contribution on climate change. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) was concerned to see young people in her area share in the greater investment that the Budget makes in sport. I will ensure that the Minister for Sport writes to her with further details so that she can see how that might take place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr.   Gibson), who is Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, observed that the priority,
 
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plans and funding contained in the 10-year framework have never been seen in Britain before. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) recognised the UK as one of the leading countries in dealing with climate change and rightly urged us to use energy more efficiently, not just in business, but in households and the public sector.

As we enter the 10th year of a Labour Government, this is the 10th consecutive year of uninterrupted economic growth. It is also the 10th successive year that we have grown faster than the euro area. Not only has there been growth in every quarter in every year since 1997, but growth has averaged 2.8 per cent.—a rate that is significantly higher than the average of the period 1979 to 1997, when it was at just 2.1 per cent: a period of government that left Britain seventh out of seven in the G7 for national income per head. Now Britain is second only to America in the G7. Now there are 2.4 million more jobs in the economy. Now there are more than 500,000 more firms in business and 1.7 million more home owners than in 1997, when Labour first came to office.

The choice at the heart of the Budget debate is whether to cut planned public spending to cut taxes on principle, whatever the needs of the economy, our infrastructure and public services, or whether to invest to meet the long-term challenges that we must face in Britain: investment in science, innovation and skills, investment in tackling the threat of climate change, investment in the long-term infrastructure needs of the economy and, above all, investment in the talent and the potential of every one of our young people. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed in the Budget and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills said, education—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Tuesday 28 March.

SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE

Ordered,


 
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Community Legal Service

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Tony Cunningham.]

10 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab) rose— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Would hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber go quickly and quietly, and would hon. Members who remain here be quiet?

Keith Vaz: I would like to thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House the future of the Community Legal Service.

I am delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs is on the Front Bench, and I welcome her to her new responsibilities. I am also pleased that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs and other right hon. and hon. Members are in the Chamber. I was delighted when, as a Minister in the former Lord Chancellor's Department, I had the opportunity to attend the launch of the Community Legal Service in April 2000 by the then Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend Lord Irvine of Lairg. This Saturday, it will be exactly six years since the establishment of the CLS, and it is important that Parliament should assess the service so far and try to map out its future.

Last Thursday, after months of consultation on a paper entitled "Making Legal Rights a Reality" the Legal Services Commission, with impeccable timing for our debate, released its strategy document outlining the future of the service between now and 2011. In February, Lord Carter of Coles published his interim report on reforming the procurement of legal aid—we await his final report with great interest. I was pleased that last week on Budget day the Legal Services Commission took the opportunity quietly to inform its contract partners that it will review its decision to terminate funding of the specialist support services after a relaunched consultation is complete. I will refer to that announcement a little later.

The great post-war Attlee Government identified three requirements for a just society—free state education, free health care, and free access to justice. Although the provision of the last requirement has generally had a lower profile than the first two it is no less important. Protecting the vulnerable and ensuring the legal rights of everyone requires an efficient, effective and co-ordinated legal service. The Legal Services Commission and the CLS were established under the Access to Justice Act 1999. The vision behind the CLS was to ensure that everyone in society has access to justice through quality-assured legal advice, representation, education and information. It is not a single body or organisation—it is defined in terms of its purpose, which is to promote the availability of legal services in civil law, including all the organisations and bodies that fund or provide civil legal advice services, with the Legal Services Commission acting as guardian of the service. Although an exciting concept, its very structure poses serious practical difficulties.
 
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It is perhaps easier to describe the CLS as a near-equivalent in law of the national health service. Like the NHS, the CLS should allow everyone the opportunity to receive specialist advice according to their need. As in medicine, legal advisers specialise in different fields. Welfare, education, employment rights and family law are just some of the common areas that the service covers. For the client to be best served, he or she should have access to the correct specialists. To continue the medical analogy, one would not go to see a dermatologist about a sore throat.

I shall raise several issues in the debate. After six years, the challenges and problems that the service faces can be clearly identified. Research from the legal services research centre shows that there are likely to be over a million unsolved legal problems each year, and that only half of those with a legal problem choose to seek legal advice. Of those who do seek guidance, one in seven fail to receive any legal advice. It is also much more likely that if a client is facing one legal problem, they will also experience another related legal issue.

The main challenges are the funding of the civil legal aid budget, the recruitment and retention of trained lawyers and advisers, the identification of the needs of the public, and the provision of a seamless legal advice service. The funding of the CLS has been identified as the most important concern of those working in the service. In spite of efforts to control spending, the annual legal aid budget has risen from £1.5 billion in 1997–98, to over £2.1 billion last year, a rise of approximately 40 per cent., or a 10 per cent. increase in real terms.

Despite the rise, practitioners and consumers complain that the sum is not enough to retain good lawyers or to provide a first class service. The £2.1 billion funding has to be shared with the criminal defence service, as well as funding the administration of the Legal Services Commission. In the past seven years, spending on criminal legal aid rose by 37 per cent. in real terms. As funding for civil legal aid is not ring-fenced, that rise has resulted in civil legal aid falling by 13 per cent.

That has meant increasing pressure on legal advice providers in all areas that the CLS covers, and it is important that before the situation becomes critical, funding of the civil legal aid budget is put on a more sustainable and secure footing. This is a call not for unrestrained spending—obviously, there is a limit to the amount that can be spent—but to take forward proposals that can reduce pressure on the service.

Lord Carter seeks to provide a solution to the problems of funding legal aid. His recommendations include cutting the bureaucracy of the Legal Services Commission, and bringing in a market-based system for legal aid allocation and fixed-rate fees for certain types of cases. These proposals should be studied carefully. However, should the number of cases requiring criminal legal aid continue to rise, there will be a corresponding fall in the proportion of the budget allocated for the CLS.

Unfortunately, Lord Carter did not put the recruitment and retention of current legal aid practitioners in the terms of reference of his report.
 
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The circumstances that the CLS faces in its efforts to provide legal advice have been well reported. It is a common sentiment of those working in legal aid that the system is facing a crisis, as more lawyers leave the service and fail to be replaced by younger newly qualified practitioners. Kevin Martin, president of the Law Society, has used such words as "meltdown" and "disaster".

The implications for a member of the public wishing to receive specialist legal advice can already be seen. What are known as advice deserts are becoming more common. These deserts are areas in which few or no legal aid solicitor is available. For example, the town of Leatherhead has not one single legal aid solicitor, and in the whole of Kent there are no legal aid solicitors offering housing advice. This puts advice organisations such as the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in an impossible situation.

One bureau in the west midlands tried to advise a man whose ex-wife's new partner was in breach of a court order concerning access to the client's children. The client had a very real concern that his children were at risk from his ex-wife's partner, but the bureau was unable to find a community legal service solicitor within a 15-mile radius to help process an injunction. There are thousands of similar cases.

We must be clear that the failure to retain or recruit new solicitors for legal aid work is not the fault of those solicitors. It is not the case that these practitioners wish to work only on cases that pay well. Many newly qualified solicitors are likely to emerge in the legal world burdened with debt. After seven years of study, many students graduate holding loans of over £20,000. A solicitor with a sense of social justice who practises wholly in legal aid is likely to earn less than a new recruit to the Metropolitan police. They must start paying back their debt and look to secure their future, but the amount that they would get paid under legal aid does not allow them to do so. We must wait for the final version of Lord Carter's report. I hope that it contains proposals on fixed-fee cases that are sufficiently attractive to halt or even reverse the decline in the number of legal aid solicitors.

At the moment, two different services are attempting to cover the gaps in service left by those advice deserts. The specialist support service was created with organisations such as Shelter and the Child Poverty Action Group, and it includes people who have the relevant expertise to help those with problems in areas such as housing and family law. The tiny amount of £2.9 million a year is spent on the specialist support service, but, as my hon. Friends know, until last week the LSC had decided to terminate its funding. Last Wednesday, the LSC reversed that decision, and it will start a new consultation process, and I hope that the service and the consultation process will be improved. I welcome that U-turn and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), who led the campaign to get the LSC to reconsider its decision.


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