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Vera Baird: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome and for his praise of the process that has led us to where we are today. I agree that it has been a good process, and I assure him that it will continue to be genuinely consultative.

The hon. Gentleman said that the increase in criminal legal aid derived from an increase in business. I assume that he meant that more cases are going to court; nor can I exclude the fact that there has been more legislation, so there are more offences and increased complexity. He is right up to a point, but notwithstanding all that, and quite separately from it, the amount of money being paid out to lawyers has increased. I am sure that he is aware of the Cape and Moorhead research, which considered the inevitable impact of more legislation on legal aid, but concludes that there is more to be said on the subject. Everybody wants more business in the criminal courts in the sense that more people should be brought to justice.

Mr. Heath: It would be better if fewer people needed to be brought to justice.

Vera Baird: Indeed.

A point was put to me about the demise of high street solicitors. I cannot say that they will be unaffected by the review, but Lord Carter’s proposals do not mean a big is beautiful situation; they are about tuning the new system to ensure that efficient suppliers of a variety of sizes and structures who have been satisfactorily peer-reviewed—I cannot emphasise enough the point that quality is up-front in Lord Carter’s proposals—ought to be able to succeed under the best tendering model. So, as I said, high street solicitors will not be unaffected but there is no reason to forecast their demise.

The hon. Gentleman referred to local courts and accepted the need for a balance. Of course, local justice can be good justice, but appropriate facilities are needed, too. Some local court buildings are very old indeed and cannot accommodate modern needs; not only for disabled access, but also for defence witnesses to be kept away from prosecution witnesses and so on. Various moves are afoot. Last Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Liverpool community justice project, in which justice simply could not be more local. The project is having a superb impact because it is so well knitted into the surrounding community. Such initiatives are to be praised and encouraged. As ever, we are trying to do everything at once.

The hon. Gentleman asked that financial incentives should not compromise cases and that the need to fix fees would not undermine a decent pay rate for lawyers. I think that was implicit in what I said. There is no intention to do that; it is everyone’s intention that good quality lawyers should continue to be recruited to the public sector. Our courts simply cannot work without them—the hon. Gentleman can rely on that.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether a defendant could be represented throughout the proceedings by a good local lawyer. Solicitors will bid for a quantity of police station cases, and the usual model would be that they would take the case through from the police station to the magistrates court and to the Crown Court, if appropriate. There is provision in Lord
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Carter’s recommendations, which I applaud, for consultation on own-client work; that is, somebody who comes under the duty rota scheme by virtue of being locked up at a particular police station but who has another solicitor elsewhere with whom he has some faith. If he were able to rely on that person it could assist the system. There is scope for consideration of such ideas, but the broad intention is that the person who picks up the case at the police station should take it all the way through. High cost cases are the exception. It is proposed that a panel of experts be set up and when it is clear at the police station that the case is a specialist one, it would go directly—as an escape route—to the panel.

I agree entirely that although it is bad to be poor in a poor area, it is just as bad to be poor in a rich area. The hon. Gentleman will have appreciated from my previous answers that I am very engaged in how advice can assist in dealing with social exclusion. As he understands, a major thrust of the legal aid review is the intention to move money, where and when possible, over to civil sectors so that people can be prevented from going into social exclusion by timely advice about their problems in the first place.

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I add my welcome to the statement and to the delivery of this much needed review.

The whole House will recognise the difficulties of reconciling the different imperatives that bear on the issues, but I should be grateful if my hon. and learned Friend will confirm that when she looks further at how to implement the recommendations of the review she will bear in mind that moving to a more market-based approach could result in bottlenecks. She may be aware that I have written on several occasions to her Department about the problems with immigration advice in Swindon. Will she keep a careful eye on making sure that appropriate services are available throughout the process? She will be aware that bottlenecks in immigration advice can have considerable consequences down the line, and clog up the system.

Secondly, I noted the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about the importance of advice. One way of bearing down on the costs of legal aid is to give proper advice to those who need it, especially the most needful members of our society, before they get into the legal process. However, is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the LSC has withdrawn its support for a potentially valuable project in Swindon—an advice centre co-ordinating all the advice bodies in the borough in one building? I understand that the LSC feels that the project is no longer part of its purview, but as a result of its withdrawal, Swindon borough council has been left on its own to deal with it. I should be grateful if my hon. and learned Friend will confirm that as part of the review she will look at ways in which her Department can support the council in developing that valuable project.

Vera Baird: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I am aware of his correspondence about
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bottlenecks and I accept entirely that they can cause considerable knock-on problems. I am apprised of that problem—as he requested me to be.

I cannot comment at all on what has occurred with the LSC and the Swindon advice centre. None the less, I undertake to look into the situation and speak to him about it.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister agree that small market town solicitors are often the lifeblood of local communities and that many small towns could not survive without them? Today’s announcement is not good news for many of those small solicitors, particularly paragraph 7, which points out that they will be paid on completion of their case rather than the number of hours they have worked. That will affect incomes. Obviously, large commercial firms will not suffer, nor will many of the larger regional partnerships, but what discussions is the hon. and learned Lady planning with the Law Society about the impact of the proposals on smaller solicitors?

Vera Baird: I do not accept that there will be a dreadful scenario for small town solicitors. I am impressed by the hon. Gentleman’s conviction that they are the most important thing in many such towns, although I agree that they are an important part of their fabric.

The Law Society has of course been very heavily involved with Lord Carter’s proposals. It has issued a press release this morning, indicating that it takes the view that

can produce

“a system that is financially sustainable in the long term,”

and the society proposes to work constructively with the Government to try to translate those proposals into a system that will succeed on the ground. Of course neither the system nor the consultation will be confined to urban areas, so I think at least over the summer the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we shall look very closely at the problems that he has raised.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I, too, thank my hon. and learned Friend for her statement. What impact does she consider that Lord Carter’s proposals will have on the development and regulation of the no win, no fee system? Is it her intention, during the consultation period she has mentioned, to consider those impacts and the regulation of the system outside the legal aid process?

Vera Baird: There are references to the no win, no fee system and a number of other non-legal-aid means of financing cases within Lord Carter’s review. When I go out round the country, those who respond—including practitioners and notforprofit organisations, I imagine—will address their comments to the contents of Lord Carter’s report. Although I am not aware of any immediate proposal to revise the current system, any submissions will be taken very seriously.

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Ms Keeble: Northampton is one of the legal aid deserts that have been discussed, to such an extent that I have to send constituents to Birmingham or Oxford to get legal help with certain types of case, despite the best efforts of the community legal service. On the development of the network of community legal advice centres, will the CLS or whoever is overseeing it ensure that legal aid deserts are targeted? I make a plea that we should have such a centre in Northampton, so that my constituents can get proper access to justice to help them with their serious cases.

Vera Baird: Clearly, part of the thrust of Lord Carter’s report and of the Government’s position is that one reason for making the criminal system more efficient is to ensure that more money can be moved over into exactly the kind of work that my hon. Friend is talking about. So I think that I can assure her that that is very much in mind and that her constituency is very much in mind too.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Humberside law centre closed in 2005, which has meant that many of my constituents have been unable to access representation in social welfare law. I wonder whether my hon. and learned Friend will tell me how the Carter review will address our representation problems in Hull.

Vera Baird: I am aware of the position in Humberside, largely because my hon. Friend initiated a debate in Westminster Hall about the demise of that law centre. I have also had discussions, although only briefly, with the Law Centres Federation leadership about the position in Humberside. I believe that I am meeting my hon. Friend to discuss it further in due
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course. I understand from the Law Centres Federation—I hope I have got this correctly—that most of the contracts with the Humberside law centre have been placed elsewhere, so that there is not a huge loss of representation, but clearly there must be some because my hon. Friend has repeatedly said that something should be done. I look forward to meeting her and hearing more about that.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Will my hon. and learned Friend take forward the idea of an audit of advice within particular geographical areas? When I was first elected I was very struck by the multiplicity of agencies and of funding sources that exist in areas, and I am convinced that there is a level of over-provision and overlapping in those sources of advice. Real economies could be made if the local authorities and the Legal Services Commission worked together much more closely.

Vera Baird: I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s comments. There was of course auditing of advice by the community legal service partnerships when they were set up, but I think that he is right; not only is there a multiplicity of agencies but there is also a large number of core lines of one sort or other that give advice on debt, housing or consumer affairs. They are lodged in various Departments of Government—the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Education and Skills and our own Department. Clearly, the expertise for coordinating the availability of such advice probably lies with the Legal Services Commission, and yes, it is imperative that they are consolidated so that they work in a coherent way, without duplication, and provide an adequate service.

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Orders of the Day

NHS Redress Bill [ Lords]

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 754, on Compensation Culture; Fifth Report from the Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 1009, on Compensation Culture: NHS Redress Bill; and the Government’s responses thereto, Cm 6784.]

New Clause 1

General duty to promote resolution under scheme

‘A scheme must include provision requiring the scheme authority and the members of the scheme, in carrying out their functions under the scheme, to have regard in particular to the desirability of redress being provided without recourse to civil proceedings.’.— [Mr. Simon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

2.5 pm

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am delighted to move the motion, and I declare an interest as a trustee of AvMA——action against medical accidents——the leading patient safety charity in this country. I speak to the new clause as a Member of Parliament and not on behalf of that organisation, with which I cannot and do not formally speak. However, I know that, like me, AvMA is grateful to the Minister for having listened to our concerns and those of patients across the country, and many other patient and consumer organisations and other stakeholders, about the original provisions of the Bill and for acting on them, as evidenced by not just my new clause but the Government’s amendments, both those that they have tabled today and those that were tabled and made in another place. We are also grateful for the Government’s attitude in Committee, which I think Members will agree was, broadly speaking, most of the time a very constructive and cooperative place.

I mentioned the other Government amendments because my new clause makes sense, and has the force that I believe it can have, only if it is viewed in the context of the other amendments tabled, here and in the other place, by the Secretary of State. Collectively, I hope that they represent a tangible and real response to the three big calls that have been made: first, for measures of independence to be brought to bear where necessary to resolve disputed cases within the NHS redress scheme; secondly, for specialist legal advice or representation to be available, where appropriate, to empower patients—I use the word “empower” rather than “entitle”, which I know, in the context of this NHS scheme, the Minister does not like—within this NHS process; and thirdly, for measures to ensure that patient safety lessons are learned and implemented and seen to be learned and implemented.

By placing a general duty to promote resolution under the scheme, my new clause seeks to ensure that all the provisions already made possible by the other amendments will have to be considered before
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proceedings can be finalised. The new clause appears to be quite general, bit I think it can be very powerful, because it is an enabling measure that gives force to all the other amendments that have been made, here and in another place. Crucially, it would mean that where the NHS scheme member’s initial conclusion is not to offer redress but the patient feels, having received independent, specialist legal advice to that effect, that they should be eligible, consideration would have to be given to the use of joint instruction of medical experts as a means of seeking resolution, because—the Minister looks at me quizzically, but I know that he will agree with my “because”—all possible instruments within the scheme would have to be examined and eliminated before having recourse to civil proceedings. In some disputed cases, that might well result in bringing independence to bear on the assessment of eligibility for redress, rather than just establishing the facts of what happened, as others, not least on the Opposition Benches, have sought.

In some such disputed cases, it would mean that the patient was empowered through specialist legal advice and representation jointly commissioned from independent sources, but within the scheme. If an independent medical expert assessed that there was negligence and causation, the expectation would be bound to be that there would be an offer of redress.

The new clause and the amendments—largely the Government amendments—made here and in another place would help to ensure that patient safety lessons were learned and implemented if the independent medical expert identified in the report the salient risk management issues. In other words, the positive experience from the resolve pilot in England and the speedy resolution pilot in Wales would be put to good use, just as I argued—with some sympathy across the House—on Second Reading and throughout the Committee stage.

The crucial point is that the original ethos of the scheme—putting the emphasis on the NHS itself and recognising where it has been negligent, and the NHS proactively putting things right and offering redress within its own owned NHS scheme—would be safeguarded, empowered and furthered by the new clause. The process that I have described of joint instruction would be necessary only if and when the NHS’s assessment did not tally with that of the patient and the legal adviser. That is my interpretation of the overall effect of this enabling new clause and of the combined effect of my new clause with the various Government amendments that it seeks to enable. I would be grateful for a few words from the Minister—I have no doubt that they will be forthcoming—about how that tallies with his interpretation. Kindly, he has already written to me about that so I have an idea of what he might say. Given the effect of the new clause and the amendments that it seeks to enable, I believe that we have the framework of a scheme that could enjoy public confidence and deliver real benefits to patients and the NHS.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): We have made it clear that we support the sentiment behind the Bill and therefore we have no problem in supporting the sentiment behind the new clause. In many ways, it is inherently obvious and what it says goes without
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saying. It could be argued that that raises the question of why it has to be included in the Bill. The Minister will be fully aware that we welcome and support the good intentions underlying the redress scheme. Our problem is that we have difficulties with some of the detail and content of the operation of the Government’s proposed scheme.

It is ironic that the new clause refers to

In many respects, and with due respect, those words could be construed as misleading. If the Government have their way, the redress scheme will replicate the difficulties of the civil litigation scheme instead of representing a genuine alternative to litigation. That is anything but desirable. The Government are proposing that the role of lawyers be extended to any stage prior to the offer, including the joint instruction of medical experts. However, the redress scheme is not conceived as a judicial process, so the question of legal representation should not arise. Legal rights are not being asserted or defended. Thus there will be lawyers involved in a process that is non-determinative and non-binding. The scheme will not ensure the closure, certainty or finality of a court process. It will attract the problems of civil legal proceedings, such as expensive lawyers, protracted cases and complexity, without the good aspects of the judicial process, such as finality and independence. It is, in many respects, a lose-lose situation.

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