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Dr. Evan Harris:
Is the Minister aware that the four trains that used to run from Oxford to London between 6.30 and 7.30 in the morning so that people
could get to work at 9 oclock have been cut to two? That has caused huge frustration, overcrowding and late arrivals. Will he confirm that that is not his vision for commuter services from Oxford to London, that the Department for Transport is not to blame, and that he will work with us to improve matters?
Mr. Tom Harris: I can confirm that I am well aware of the problems affecting the hon. Gentlemans constituents. First Great Western has told the Department that it is looking at ways to plug the gap at 7.25 am. He will be interested to know that Network Rail and First Great Western have put in place a joint action plan to address performance issues, including the Oxford to London route, and to monitor them every month.
The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill, which is currently under consideration by their lordships, contains measures that will require all private bailiffs to hold a certificate issued by a county court judge. Certificates will only be issued subject to certain conditions, including a criminal record check.
David Taylor: In their 2003 White Paper Effective Enforcement, the Government committed themselves to the proper regulation of bailiffs. The reforms in the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill are welcome, but they fall short of that target. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the present certification system does not tackle misrepresentation, the harassment and intimidation of clients, false threats of imprisonment and serious overchargingall of which are practised by a significant minority of bailiffs? Will she, even at this late stage, toughen up what is a rather weak piece of legislation?
Ms Harman: All the things that my hon. Friend mentioned would be taken into consideration by a county court judge, and I cannot imagine that a certificate would be issued to any bailiff who had been engaged in such activity. The activities of bailiffs are a mish-mash of provisions going back many centuries, and it is sensible to ensure that they are up to date, uniform and under the supervision of a judge. We can discus whether the Bill goes far enough when it comes to this House, but I think that it is a useful step forward.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con):
One purpose of the law in a constitutional democracy is to protect the citizen from abuse of power by public bureaucracies or
private bullies. A constituent who visited my surgery on Friday was extremely shocked and angry to have received a visit from a group of bailiffs whom she regarded as complete thugs and who presented her with a series of extortionate charges for which no lawful authority appeared to exist. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that that is reprehensible? Is it not also reprehensible that my constituent can get no answer from the court, the police or the bailiff other than a reference to one of the other parties? She is being given the runaround, and it will not do.
Ms Harman: I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would send me details of the case, as I shall certainly look into it. Thugs and extortionate demands have no place in the bailiff system, and he is right to say that it is the duty of the justice system and the Government to protect the citizen. That is why we are going to bring in regulation for bailiffs, and I remind him that the criminal lawfrom which bailiffs are not immuneis also available as back-up. May I just say at this point that the duty of the state is not only to protect citizens but to ensure that, when the county courts or magistrates courts order that a fine or a debt should be paid or that a victim should be compensated, that should happenwithin the law, subject to proper regulation, and without any criminal offences being committed. That is what we are aiming for.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will know that the sort of incidents that have been referred to are commonplace and that Citizens Advice has a long list of examples. I am sure that many hon. Members have seen examples. Will she consider making the law stronger? I appreciate that she intends to change things, but we need stronger regulation on charging and on misrepresentation of powers, which bailiffs regularly get away with.
Ms Harman: I take my hon. Friends point. I pay tribute to Citizens Advice. The last thing that we want is for people who are not paying fines because they simply cannot afford them to be put under pressure, especially if they are vulnerable for any reason. We absolutely do not want to do that. We are working with Citizens Advice to examine what is going on in the system. I offer the House the notion that some people do not want to pay their fines. Some people will fight against paying compensation to victims. Other people will hide behind the legitimate grievances that some people have about overbearing and unacceptable behaviour, which we intend to regulate. People will come along to our surgeries and say that they, too, have been the victims of bailiffs. We have to ensure that the courts make the right orders, that the orders are enforced, that the bailiffs act according to the law and that justice is done by fines being paid and compensation being paid to victims.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con):
Many of us share the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in our constituencies. People are concerned about this. The Minister says that the Government intend to regulate. Given that the Bill will increase the powers of entry for bailiffs and give them the right to seize cash, when do
the Government intend to regulate along the lines of the White Paper Effective Enforcement? When are we going to have a date for that?
Ms Harman: The Bill is under consideration in their lordships House. After that, the Bill will come to this House and the hon. Gentleman will be able to scrutinise it. Bailiffs will not have the power to enter any home or property under the Bill unless they are authorised by the court. One of the problems is that people are unclear as to what the provisions are because they are such a complex network. The Bill will make it clear that no bailiff has the right to enter premises without the order of the court. Hon. Members will have the opportunity to discuss that issue in the proceedings on the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): The Legal Services Commission is establishing new advice centres and networks in conjunction with local authorities and other funders of advice. These will deliver a much improved and more integrated service that will meet the legal and advice needs of clients, especially those in danger of social exclusion.
Ms Keeble: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. I know that this is something that is dear to her heart. Many of my constituents have real difficulty because advice services are provided by the local authorities, and people need to be able to challenge local authority decisions, especially in housing and education matters. What is my hon. and learned Friend going to do to ensure that there is proper mapping throughout the country of legal services so that people have access to independent justice?
Vera Baird: My hon. Friend will know that historically there has been a tension between local authority funding and legal advice, but the law centres have managed to ensure that it works. The idea of the community legal advice centres and community legal advice networks is that they will be independent once they have been set up. I really must compliment my hon. Friend because she has made strong voice about the poor quality of legal advice in Northampton, and has had powerful effect. She now has the largest single contract for social welfare law in the east midlands, with 15 solicitors who are quality assured for legal services. She has an interesting scheme which enables patients to see a legal adviser at their GPs surgery. I think she favours having a community legal advice centre in Northampton and I suspect the Legal Services Commission favours a network across the county, but I can assure my hon. Friend that itis very anxious to talk to her and, indeed, to Northamptonshire county council to find the way ahead and ensure that the sort of integrated services that she has pursued and still seeks come to fruition.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD):
Given the widespread anger and concern among those who currently practice in legal aid and advice
services up and down the country about the Government pressing ahead with Lord Carters recommendations for next year, what guarantee can Ministers give us that 2007 will not mark the year when the Labour Government will be seen fundamentally to undermine one of the pillars of the welfare stateproviding legal aid and advice to the most vulnerable in society at a cost they can afford?
Vera Baird: I did not come into politics to see any kind of damage done to legal aid or advice. This scheme is the best way forward to ensure the best services, particularly for the socially excluded, who are very dear to our hearts. A week ago, there was a debate in Westminster Hall and the Liberal Democrats were totally missing from it, while many of my own Back Benchers [Interruption.] I gather that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was there, but he said not a word. Innumerable Labour Back Benchers expressed real concern about social exclusion and gave real voice to itand the hon. Gentleman did not. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman needs to stop mouthing back at me and to read the new document. The hon. Gentleman needs to listen
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I am one of the Back Benchers who attended that Westminster Hall debate, and the Minister will be aware of the concern in my constituencyit probably applies in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) toothat the areas around us are quite different from our communities. There is a riskcertainly in Sloughof there being an advice desert, so what I want to know is what aspects of the proposals can help Slough to stop being such a desert.
Vera Baird: There is everything in these proposals to ensure that there is comprehensive coverage of an integrated kind, running from basic advice right through to representation. If my hon. Friend has the opportunity to look at the Gateshead community legal advice centre, which was contracted last week, she will see that a local law centre, a local citizens advice bureau and three firms of solicitors have contracted together to supply the whole range of advice, including outreach services, across a wide geographical area south of the Tyne. It has a budget for three years that will guarantee that it will be able to do that. We are working very closely with the local authority to ensure that that comes properly to fruition. This will be a model that we propose to take forward in as many towns as possible where we can engage the local authorities to introduce it. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), and, indeed, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) can look forward to 2007 being an extremely sound year for legal aid and advice services.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con):
Is not the Governments idea of community legal and advice centres, however well intentioned, clearly failing?
There was not a single tender for the centre in Leicester and, as far as we know, the scheme is not going ahead there. Should not the Government have followed their own advice and had discussions with law centres and the Law Centres Federation before ploughing ahead with a half-baked scheme and failing to deliver? The Cabinet Offices own voluntary sector compact makes it clear that the not-for-profit sector should be involved in service design of this sort, so that services are tailored to local needs. Why on earth did the Ministers Department simply ignore the Governments advice?
Vera Baird: It did not. The hon. Gentleman has not got one thing right in what he has said so far. Leicester had a bid; it was not of the quality that we sought. We will put the Leicester bid out to tender again, but we will not settle, even if he would, for substandard provision. Consultation has been carried out extensively, and certainly since I came into office, I have hardly stopped consulting. I spent the whole summer doing it, and I talk frequently to the not-for-profit sector and to professional providers. Let hon. Members have no hesitation in accepting from me that, going forward, all of this will be done in close liaison with the not-for-profit sector and practitioners. [ Interruption. ] It really is time that Opposition Members read The Way Ahead, because they clearly have not done so.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): We very much hope that the new bidding process will result in a centre being created in Leicester. We are very disappointed that one has not been created so far. I know that my hon. and learned Friend is cross with the Liberal Democrats, but the fact remains that, if the Government implement the Carter review, there will be fewer providers of services. Will she give an assurance that, once those reforms are implemented, the service provision will be better than at present?
Vera Baird: I am sorry that we were not able to provide the community legal advice centre in Leicester that my right hon. Friend wants to have as quickly as possible. We will ensure that there is a rebid as soon as possible. The framework between the local authority and the LSC is in placethe basis of the plan is in placebut we need better quality bids to match the kind that we have accepted in Gateshead. There may be fewer
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): The Department for Constitutional Affairs contributes to reducing and, indeed, to seeking to avoid descent into social exclusion, particularly among those with multiple problems, through promoting accessible, good and co-ordinated advice and information; through early intervention, to avoid the escalation of problems; and through fair, proportionate and expeditious justice in the courts.
Vera Baird: My hon. Friend makes a very good point about integration between the criminal justice sector and the social welfare sector. There is an obvious link involving people who need social welfare support and advice and who, if they do not get it, descend into criminal activity. The community justice centresthe pilot is in Liverpool, and 10 more have just been announcedaim to problem-solve. They are closely linked with all the problems in the community. The judge makes it his business to go out in the community and ensure that he knows what is going on. Advice resources are available at court, not only for defendants, whose problems are shown up by their offending, but for witnesses and victims. Victims are often thrown into social exclusion by their victimisation, and they, too, can receive advice and assistance at court. There is growing integration between advice in the criminal sector and that in the social welfare sector, which is wholly desirable.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): In the spirit of co-operation running up to Christmas, I wonder whether I could help the hon. and learned Lady. Surely, the best way to avoid social exclusion is to open up legal services to all, and the best way of doing that is to stop means-testing for cases before magistrates courts. Will she commit to stop that today?
Vera Baird: There is absolutely no connection between the two. Means-testing is an appropriate system to stop the scandalous events that occurred when the cases of people who could well afford to pay for their own criminal defence were funded none the less by the taxpayers in Redcar and those in the hon. Ladys constituency, whose interests she does not appear at the moment to be protecting. [ Interruption. ] I will take no lessons from the hon. Lady about social exclusion. It is extremely
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that in Wales the citizens advice bureaux, properly supported by the Welsh specialist support service, have an important contribution to make to reducing social exclusion? Will she comment on the future of those two bodies?
Vera Baird: The future for those two bodies is very positive. The point is to turn them over to a fixed-fee regime. They are increasing their productivity massively, which is commendable. They now have a full year in which to do much more of that before they are gently and supportively moved across on to a fixed-fee regime, enabling them to do more work for more people at better prices for the taxpayer. It is difficult to get a value-for-money, good-quality legal advice service into this country, particularly in rural areas. The Tories never managed it. This Government will.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con):
Never has the provision of legal services to the socially excluded
been under such threat as it is now. Government proposals have resulted in mental health lawyers complaining that their practices are unsustainable, in family lawyers threatening to stop practising, in criminal lawyers refusing to work and in the future closure of hundreds of high street practices, with resulting advice deserts. Now, even the court workers are going on strike. With all that debacle, is it not the case that the Ministers Department is increasing, rather than reducing, social exclusion?
Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman is on another planet, where one would expect the Tories to be when talking about social exclusion. Family fees are going to be looked at again and they are going to be dealt with in connection with family practitionersthe principle that I have been explaining all morning. Matters connected with mental health lawyers are going to be looked at again, in connection with practitioners. They have no concerns at all. Criminal lawyers are making the means test work in most major urban centres in this country.
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