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Ms Buck: I completely agree with my hon. Friend and I am delighted to see a number of other hon. Members here this afternoon, despite this being such a short debate. That tells us something important about the service. I shall expand on the point that my hon. Friend raised.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): Barnet law service wrote to me in similar terms to those that my hon. Friend reported to the House. I went to see the people there a few weeks ago and they were extremely concerned that they would not be able to deliver high-quality—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will address the Chair, and not turn his back on it. Would he care to repeat the last part of his comments, which I did not hear?

Mr. Dismore: Of course, Sir Nicholas. The point that I was making was that Barnet law service wrote to me in terms similar to the comments that my hon. Friend made. I visited the people there several weeks ago when they made their points forcefully. I, for one, do not want my work load to go up because of cuts implemented by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We have plenty to do as it is and I am concerned that my constituents, particularly those in the most deprived areas, will not receive the service that they need and should expect.

Ms Buck: I agree completely with my hon. Friend and share his concern that MPs’ offices, which are already heavily overstretched, should not be expected, for the sake of our constituents, to have to take on these complex and difficult cases.

Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): I intervene so that my hon. Friend can lose her place completely! I agree entirely that the impact on our work is significant, but there are even more significant problems. First, the effect on the advice sector will be a barrier to good local government because it is often the advice sector that takes action against statutory bodies. It will also jeopardise the survival of many advice centres and legal aid solicitors, many of whom have gone already, particularly in my constituency where they are also affected by cuts implemented by the local Tory council. Fundamentally, this will have an impact on the most vulnerable people in our constituencies and runs completely contrary to the Government’s agenda on social inclusion.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Are there any more interventions? Perhaps we should get them all over with.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). Does she agree that for the people who are involved in some of the work that we value so highly in law centres and solicitors’ firms in our very deprived inner city constituencies, and who work with the poorest and most vulnerable people, including many asylum seekers and people with language difficulties, it will not be possible, nor sensible, to say that it could be possible for people to be able to do the work and provide the quality of delivery that is necessary to give our constituents a proper hearing?

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Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before we take any more interventions, I suggest that the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) respond.

Ms Buck: I welcome the interventions that my hon. Friends have made. I shall develop some of the arguments during my comments, but everything that has been said so far echoes exactly my experience and what will be the thrust of my speech.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): My hon. Friend seemed to indicate that she would be willing to take another intervention. It is important to demonstrate the breadth of the concern throughout London. The greatest single issue in my constituency casework is immigration. The people concerned have absolutely genuine and solid reasons for needing legal advice on immigration matters, which sometimes involve their relatives, and so on. I do a huge amount work for them, but from time to time I know that my ability to help is limited. They must have proper advice, and they will just not get it if the proposals go through.

Ms Buck: In support of what my hon. Friend said, the model of good practice is for Members of Parliament to deal with constituency cases, whether immigration, welfare benefits, housing and so on, but to seek to work in partnership with our solicitors, law centres and citizens advice bureaux, so that they can offer expert advice and we can drive forward that advice and, we hope, obtain responses from agencies that might otherwise not provide them. That relationship, in which we both do the work that we are there to provide, is exactly how we achieve the best results for our constituents.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I have the privilege of making the first intervention from a Member of Parliament who does not represent a London constituency. I have many of the same issues that other hon. Members have mentioned, but there is no such thing as a law centre in Slough. The citizens advice bureau was smashed by its previous leadership, and is underfunded and limping along. I am afraid that I do not share the confidence that other hon. Members have expressed about the competence of many of the local solicitors’ firms to deal with immigration advice. May I ask my hon. Friend to comment on how important it is to have good-quality sources of advice, as well as to have them well funded?

Ms Buck: That is absolutely right, and part of the thrust of my comments is the importance of having the general, although high-quality, advice that is offered by citizens advice bureaux and law centres, and also some of the specialist practices that I am fortunate to have in my constituency, such as the Catholic Housing Aid Society, which helps my constituents with what are sometimes complicated housing cases. Having that range of specialist advice services is exceptionally important.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend, but I am fortunate in having some very good local solicitors’ practices. In their representations to me, Gillian Radford and Co. said:

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just over 1,000

That threatens a blow to the delivery of services in my constituency that is absolutely not sustainable.

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which we all wish was longer so that we could all contribute in more depth.

Is it not a concern that the possibility of Carter being implemented is worse because of the way in which the means-testing process is being implemented for criminal legal aid? Does she share my concern that those who are mentally ill, in particular, are often denied the representation to which the Minister referred during a contribution in this Chamber when she said:

Many mentally ill people are not adequately represented, despite the recent amendments on means-testing.

Ms Buck: I agree. It is certainly the case that some individuals do not receive the representation that they should because of means-testing and the nature of their cases. That is with the service as currently constituted. It fills me with horror to think that we may deliver an even lower level of service than that provided at the moment.

The key issues expressed to me by organisations cover access, funding, the possibility of private practice withdrawing from social welfare law, and a reduction in suppliers because some will not receive preferred supplier status, sometimes because they are small and specialist services and not because of the quality of their work.

On the issue of private practice withdrawing from legal aid in social welfare law, we are concerned about what is happening already in immigration—in some cases rightly because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said, there were some poor practitioners in the area of immigration advice, but others were good. That withdrawal could accelerate into other areas of social welfare law. If that happens, how is it proposed that not-for-profit provision will be increased to fill the gaps? That will be a particular problem in London because without any London weighting to cover the inevitably higher cost of provision in London—wages, overheads and so on—we are starting from a lower base.

Until now, the legal aid system has recognised the higher costs in London by paying additional fees to organisations based in the capital. Organisations are concerned that the caps on time per case could hit vulnerable clients, who mainly opt for the not-for-profit sector rather than the private sector. It is probably the single most important issue. Those vulnerable clients include many people from black and ethnic minority groups, clients with multiple problems, language issues,
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mental health problems and chaotic lives. Inevitably, cases that involve such challenging clients take longer.

Many agencies have told me that the new time restrictions will result in an unsustainable loss of income. One of my local law centres told me that under the new regime, the loss of income could be as much as 40 per cent., meaning that it could not take on complex cases because they would simply not be economic.

Although I understand the proposals for exceptional cases, in practice many cases will take far longer than the average, but they will not make it into the three-times-costs category. That represents a major disincentive to accepting cases that take longer than a fixed fee allows for, but which do not make it into the exceptional case category.

The DCA asserts that there will be swings and roundabouts; however, if an agency serves mostly clients from groups with complex cases, it is difficult to see how the system will operate. In principle, I see little wrong with the fixed fee system per se, but unless it takes account of the needs of those groups, it will fail, and many of the more vulnerable groups will simply fall through the net. The director of one agency wrote to me to say:

On the Government’s assertion that many firms are already doing work for the proposed cost, the director said that it was probably because they were cherry picking simple cases and easy clients while rejecting the complex cases and vulnerable multi-problem clients. The director conceded that

In the balance between cost and outcomes, the new service errs wildly on the side of cost constraint. It will provide cheap services but poor value for money. Having spent so long trying to drive the sharks out of legal aid, the Government will be left relying on sharks to provide it, as they will be the only providers left.

Other comments from lawyers bear out that conclusion. The partner of a specialist mental health practice in London gave me a number of case studies, illustrating the impossibility under the proposed system of taking on the type of complex cases that she routinely deals with. Similarly, a debt specialist unit in my constituency told me that its cases routinely take longer than the fixed fee times because of their complexity. Workers from the unit told me:

Another local housing specialist told me that legal aid caps will hit many housing cases, particularly those against big landlords. Some are ultimately unsuccessful, not because of the merits of the case, but because legal aid runs out. Some landlords deliberately spin out their cases because they are aware of that. I am told that some registered social landlords are—shamefully—particularly guilty of such practice.

Organisations in my constituency also expressed concern about the proposed abolition of level 1 advice work, which provides brief, non-means-tested advice or initial diagnostic work for clients. It is a valuable service, as it often helps resolve matters at an early stage, or it highlights an issue that needs in-depth work. Another advantage is that one can advertise oneself as providing “free initial advice”.

Fear of cost is a major turn off to potential clients—even eligible ones. Now that such work will be means-tested, a significant number of people who need help will not be eligible. That is a common problem in London. Relatively poor people, even though they are low paid, are not eligible, because they are slightly over the limits but unable to afford to pay privately.

Another group increasingly caught out by the capital limits are those who have exercised the right to buy and who may after a year or so be over the capital limits. I have in that category a number of council leaseholders who are challenging major works bills. They would not be entitled to advice.

Most organisations have expressed their anxiety about the black and minority ethnic community, as potential user and supplier, being hardest hit. In a nutshell, all the proposals seem to push for larger suppliers, which are justified by the economies of scale argument. Few, if any, large suppliers are from the BME community, so a disproportionate fall-out may result, as BME agencies and firms fail to get contracts under the new regime. In view of those two issues, has a race impact assessment of the situation in London been undertaken?

My final concern relates to the assumption that local authorities will play a central role. It is assumed that local authorities will contribute to local plans and put resources into making local plans work. That is often not the case. For example, of my two local boroughs, Westminster city council contributes nothing to its law centres, and the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea only a small amount. They appear to take the view that they will fund generalist but not specialist advice—sometimes because they wish to avoid legal action against themselves, and sometimes for historical reasons.

Without a statutory duty—or something similar—to provide funding, plans may fail, and there is evidence
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from other fields that local authorities may take it as an opportunity to cut funding and break the additionality principle by seeking to shift previously locally funded organisations on to Government funding.

In conclusion, I shall flag up a number of questions. In view of the almost universal opinion that fixed fees will not work as structured, particularly in London, because of the higher proportion of complex cases and the significantly higher proportion of multi-problem clients, how do the DCA and the LSC propose to address the issue? Will consideration be given to a more sophisticated fee structure, together with London weighting, which more accurately reflects the realities and costs of legal aid work in London? Will the DCA and the LSC address the issues raised by the abolition of level 1 assistance, particularly in London? Will the Minister assure me that a race impact awareness study, covering both clients and suppliers, has been undertaken in London? If so, what are its conclusions? What will the DCA do when local authorities refuse to co-operate or to resource local services as intended, so that people in such areas are not disadvantaged?

I have been blessed with a number of excellent advice services in the private and not-for-profit sectors, and I put on record my appreciation of the work that they do. However, even at present strength, my office is deluged with work: there were 3,000 cases last year. My office has dealt with more than 1,000 housing complaints, with homelessness, disrepair, debt and immigration, but still, a vast amount of need goes unmet.

If there is a reduction in the provision of advice services in my area, my office will not be able to cope, and those who lose out will be the poorest—the most disadvantaged of my constituents. This is an issue of national concern, but not for the first time, I make a particular plea for the interests of London.

4.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) on securing this debate and those Back-Benchers who have contributed. Not surprisingly, Labour Back-Benchers are conscientiously looking after the interests of the underprivileged, while the only intervention from the Tories concerned the means test, which does not have anything to do with this debate.

I shall respond rapidly to a few questions. There will be a race impact assessment soon. I probably will not have time to deal with the question of community legal advice centres and community legal advice networks, but I will discuss them and their interaction with local authorities with my hon. Friend any time she wishes. There is no reason why smaller providers should not continue to offer niche services within the ambit of CLACs and CLANs. The model is intended to be flexible.

I agree entirely about the need for good-quality immigration and mental health advice. Neither of those issues is included in the current proposals, and no new proposals concerning them have been introduced. They will be introduced after consultation with the professions in October 2007.

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