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Community Legal Service (Specialist Support)

23. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): What role her Department played in the process which led to the decision by the Legal Services Commission to end the provision of specialist support services under the community legal service. [61527]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The Legal Services Commission is the public body charged with the planning and delivery of legal aid, and it is for it to enter into or terminate community legal service contracts and to decide how the money is spent.

Kerry McCarthy: In my constituency, there is woeful under-provision of expert legal advice, particularly for asylum seekers and people who are going through the immigration service, which means that many people are actually pursuing hopeless claims or have been left without any legal advice. I am concerned that the acting chief executive of the LSC seems to think that that need can be met by the Community Legal Service Direct, and I wonder whether the Minister agrees with his take on the matter.

Ms Harman: CLS Direct, which allows people to phone up and get early legal advice, is an important service that is doing an important job, and it is going to expand. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a problem, which particularly applies to poorer people in socially excluded areas, with getting access to family and civil legal aid. The truth of the matter is that we have greatly increased the legal aid budget since we entered government in 1997. Despite the fact that there have been fewer criminal cases in the courts, most of the increase—in fact, nearly all of it—has gone on criminal legal aid, and civil and family legal aid has experienced a cut of £200 million, or about 24 per cent. I hope that all hon. Members will join me in trying to make sure that we get a fairer balance within the increased legal aid budget between family and civil legal aid on the one hand and criminal legal aid on the other.

Peerages (Nominations)

24. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Whether the Government plan to change the way nominations to the House of Lords are made. [61528]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last week, our plans include bringing forward the last stage of House of Lords reform over the coming months, which will include membership and the systems of appointment. As promised in our manifesto, we will allow a free vote on the composition of the House of Lords. The Prime Minister has also made it clear that any reforms will be consistent with the primacy of this House.

Mr. McGovern: Given the recent publicity about loans to political parties, which in my view was not so much about the fact that loans were made or who made them, but the implication that those loans were being used to buy privilege, surely the solution is to allow voters to decide who sits in the other place—it would take a very rich person to make a loan to every voter.
 
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Bridget Prentice: As I have said, there will be a free vote on the issue when it comes before the House. On loans, we intend to amend the Electoral Administration Bill to make it compulsory for political parties to disclose any loans that they receive, which will obviously affect all political parties. I am sure that we will work together constructively to find a solution that allows for transparency and fairness.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What role does the Minister envisage the Prime Minister retaining in nominating people to the House of Lords?

Bridget Prentice: My apologies for my slow response, but I did not catch the hon. Gentleman's question at first. The Prime Minister has already said that he is relinquishing his role in the honours system. We will examine House of Lords reform in the round, and there will be a debate on both the composition and processes of the House of Lords. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) has a view on whether the House of Lords should be entirely elected, and the   matter will come to this House as a free vote. The    Government have set up the Appointments Commission, and we want to ensure that representation in the House of Lords fairly reflects the wishes of this House.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Should we not all congratulate the Prime Minister on changing his views on the House of Lords? He was resolutely against election and in favour of appointment, but events have so conspired that he has very publicly changed his mind.

Bridget Prentice: I am delighted that my hon. Friend has been able to ask a question on this issue which I know has worried him for many a long day. The Prime Minister, along with the rest of the House, will be able to participate in the free vote. He will be able to express whatever opinion he wishes then.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the Minister agree that any inducement offered to secure an honour or peerage is an act of criminality? Is the Minister prepared to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime?

Bridget Prentice: The matter of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 is for the prosecuting authorities to deal with.

LEADER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS

The Leader of the House was asked—

Honours

30. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): If he will bring forward proposals for a Select Committee to be established to make recommendations on the awarding of honours. [61512]
 
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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths): The system for making recommendations for honours has only recently been reformed and the Public Administration Committee can, of course, re-examine the working of it whenever it sees fit.

Hugh Bayley: Public confidence in the honours system is draining away and it is not only because of concerns about party funding. Honours go disproportionately to the establishment, the rich and famous, and civil servants, and women still receive far fewer honours than men. Few people have heard of the Appointments Commission, but they have heard of Parliament. Can we have a statutory Committee of both Houses of Parliament to oversee the honours system in a transparent and accountable way?

Nigel Griffiths: While I am a strong supporter of such statutory Committees, they require the full co-operation of all the parties. They cannot work if one party alone comes clean while the main Opposition parties hide their sources of support.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I do not think that my party is hiding anything, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will consider that comment. It is not only the future system that needs addressing, but the shabby events of recent months and years. In that light, does he agree—and will he use his    personal authority to ensure—that the Public Administration Committee and the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, which are looking into the issue, should have all the access to all the information that they need and all the people they need to see as witnesses, be they civil servants, party apparatchiks, donors, Ministers who knew and Ministers who did not know, consistent with self-incrimination and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is quite long enough.

Nigel Griffiths: What this House wants is full disclosure of the donations by Michael Brown and others to the Liberal Democrats. I am sorry that even today the Liberal Democrats cannot commit themselves to revealing the names of their donors and loaners. It is    important that there is full co-operation—[Interruption.] There will be full co-operation from this side and we want full co-operation from the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that he has always regretted it when he has not taken the most radical course of action available. May I remind my hon. Friend that two years ago a Committee of this House recommended a radical and comprehensive reform of the honours system? Does he think that my right hon. Friend now regrets that he did not embrace that more wholeheartedly?

Nigel Griffiths: My hon. Friend is being uncharacteristically uncharitable about the steps that have been taken since that distinguished Committee reported in 2004 and the actions in 2005 that set up eight committees that look across the range of areas.
 
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Independent appointments are made to those committees, which make recommendations to the Prime Minister. That system seems to have worked rather well. Of course, if improvements can be made, the House waits to hear them.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will accept that if confidence is going to be restored in the system, political rants in answer to serious questions in this House will not help that process. During Constitutional Affairs questions, the Minister said that the breaches of the 1925 Act were a matter for the prosecuting authorities. That is indeed the case, which is why Scotland Yard has been called in to investigate whether the Labour party has been selling peerages. Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that any system that is put in place to restore public confidence needs to be independent of Members of Parliament, and particularly of the Prime Minister?

Nigel Griffiths: The Prime Minister has already made it very clear that he wishes to stand aside from taking such decisions on nominations, which will require legislation in this House and full co-operation. I think that the hon. Member—[Hon. Members: "Right hon."] I am sorry. I think that the right hon. Member should perhaps have declared her close interest in this. I understand that the tax exile, Lord Ashcroft, made a contribution of some £25,000 to her election campaign. She would have done well to tell the House that, and also to tell the House that she will now disclose all the lenders to the Conservative party.


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