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11 Jan 2007 : Column 176WH—continued

The second reason is the simple proposition—you understand this, Sir Nicholas, as the Minister does—that most, or many, cases are unique and require uniquely specialist responses. Of course, some are multiple-issue cases, but some are not. The reality, therefore, is that the fixed-fee system, even with the transitional system, is too rigid. Different communities have different issues, just like different people have different needs. The reality is that fixed fees will offer no incentive to specialise in certain areas. The danger is
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that the people who are approached will do the routine work, which is easy because one can get it done quickly for the fixed fee, and they will not take on the work that is more difficult and more complex. Who suffers? Not the lawyers, but the people who come to them.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s answers to certain questions at the end of the debate. How many firms will do legal aid? The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) cited the current number. I agree with him about the figure; we have both been given the same briefings. Several thousand do civil legal aid and several thousand do criminal legal aid, but their number is predicted to go down. Of itself, that may not be a bad thing, but how many solicitors will do legal aid work? What percentage of all solicitors will do legally aided work? It looks as though it will be a significantly smaller number. People have come to me and said, “We will not be able to afford to do it. Our firm will not do this work. I’m sorry. We will opt out. We will go private. We will make more money. It just won’t be worth it.” For me, that is not the way the legal service should be going.

What will be the average pay of the solicitor who opts to do either all or some legal aid work? The answer is that it will be relatively less than that of those who go only into the private sector. What incentive is that to the graduate who wants to do their social service as a lawyer? The answer is that it is not an incentive, because they will feel the pressure, not only in London, where property prices are high, but in other places, to do something else. They will say that they will not be able to choose to continue to do legal aid work, and that is sad and unacceptable.

I ask the Minister, when she reflects on these matters, to examine what will have happened to the pay of the local teacher and the local general practitioner relative to the pay of the legal aid solicitor since Labour came to power. The answer is that the legal aid solicitor will have done worst of those three.

Vera Baird indicated dissent.

Simon Hughes: The Minister says no, but if she were to examine the salaries of GPs in London, Norfolk or anywhere else, she would see that they have increased considerably—by much more than those of people doing legal aid work.

We will lose some firms and we will have some of the fees paid. I understand the holding position that the Minister has taken by saying, “I am taking some of Carter but not all of it.” I want to cite only one example in relation to criminal legal aid, which is a letter written to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) by Ian Phillip of Myer Wolff solicitors. It has been circulated and colleagues have seen it. It states:

Such a situation cannot be acceptable. The Minister will tell me if those figures are wrong, but they were given in December—not before—by a solicitor in Hull who was describing a recent experience.

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman is again doing exactly what I have been trying all afternoon to guard against. There are no fees fixed for the whole petty sessional division, the whole police station area or anywhere else. The Legal Services Commission is negotiating with local suppliers to fix appropriate fee levels. Once again, he is quoting Carter and scaremongering when there is nothing to scaremonger about.

Simon Hughes: As the Minister heard, I introduced what I said and I was specific, by saying that she has introduced a revision to the Carter review. Some measures will come in later and there will be pilots in some urban areas first. There is a delay for further consultation on other areas, such as family law, mental health and so on. I said that at the beginning.

I am outlining the consequences of the most recent proposals—in this case, in the criminal sector. The Minister will agree that nothing has come since then. I am putting the case that we need a system that is more flexible as well as generally better funded. Lawyers specialising in mental health cases—an area that is to be reconsidered and re-consulted upon—might need to consult more than once when examining the same client, because, as the Minister knows as well as I do, mental health patients often have recurrent conditions that mean that they have to be visited over and over again.

I am putting to the Minister the case, which was also put by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, that since her November proposals the citizens advice bureaux have been concerned, and still were at the meeting the other day, that many of them will have either to close or to merge inappropriately. In Hammersmith and Fulham there is a federation of local providers, and I am not against such things. A local federation in an urban area is a good thing; however, it is not such a good thing in a rural area, where having a legal aid provider five miles from one’s house is no good if it deals only with crime and housing and not with the issue that one wants to take to it. The lack of London weighting will be a particular problem for constituencies such as mine, where a third of the community comes from black and minority ethnic communities and where three quarters of people live in rented housing, and so on.

If the Minister is concerned that we are misrepresenting the case, she must re-examine the impact assessment published by her Department in December. Her Department’s figures—not mine—make the point that the introduction of a standard fixed fee will be most acutely felt in London and by not-for-profit providers. Some 67.79 per cent. of providers in London and 55.5 per cent. of not-for-profit providers will experience a decrease in legal aid
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income. The same thing applies, although the figures involved are smaller, in Reading, Cambridge and Bristol.

Other people have done assessments since November—these are not our figures. I hope that the Minister will tell us that the impact assessment will be taken into account, because if it is true, it must betoken an adverse consequence. When the current consultation is over, I hope that we will be given an answer that says that that adverse effect will not take place.

Vera Baird: Will the hon. Gentleman explain why if 50 per cent. of suppliers—let us take any figure—are capable of doing the work for the fixed fee in identical circumstances to the other 50 per cent., we should increase the fixed fee rather than encourage the latter 50 per cent. to become as efficient as the first 50 per cent.?

Simon Hughes: Of course, we should encourage people to cost the Government, and therefore the taxpayer, the least possible amount. However, some people might not do the big and complex cases or cater for a large immigrant community that does not speak English. The reality is that cases vary. This is a horses for courses argument. I am oversimplifying, but that is the case that has been put.

I am not against a review. I have always argued that we must review public services and ensure that we get good value for money and good practice, but there are threats to the quality outcome. Good solicitors in well respected firms have told me that the danger is that quality will suffer because people will do the easy work, they will do work quickly or they will not be able to spend the time required.

I know from my surgeries, as the Minister and every hon. Member representing a London constituency will know from theirs, that there are complex people who are depressive, suicidal and have all sorts of issues, and who, to put it bluntly, take a lot of time to deal with. The pressures are such that firms will not be able to take on people like that because they will not have the time to deal with them and because they will not be able to average things out. Such people will cost firms too much over the average.

I want to make two further points, because other colleagues want to add to the argument and, I hope, to the pressure. First, let me repeat the network point that was identified by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). The Government’s rejoinder to arguments about the network is often, “People, on average, live no more than five miles from a legal aid provider.” The question is: what do we want the provision for? That is why I argue that rather than just taking the Carter proposals, as amended, and having the top-down approach, which is the Minister’s and her Government’s response, she should seek to agree what should happen with providers, county by county or region by region. It has been suggested that the responses will simply be, “I am sorry. We might like to move away from this, but we cannot move from it at all.”

Let me return to the point on which I began. The Minister said that the reforms do not represent a penny being cut from the legal aid budget.

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Vera Baird: The civil and family budget.

Simon Hughes: I thank the Minister for that. I was going to say the reforms will cut the criminal budget. I have seen no analysis of the economic impact on mixed firms and the consequences for civil provision of making the cuts in the criminal budget. Secondly, although the reforms to the civil and family side are claimed to be cost-neutral, it seems to me that massive budget cuts will be caused by the switch to national averages, particularly in areas with a high incidence of deprivation, foreign-language-speaking communities or the rest.

Thirdly, the Government have said that even if the Department for Constitutional Affairs had a much larger legal aid budget, they would still implement the reforms. There is always a case for reviewing the system and for reform, but if the Minister goes down the road that she is following, we will probably lose a huge amount of talent in the system. Those people will not then return and we will not recruit the people we need to replace them. The danger is that we will have broken the back of a system that has been built up over 20 or 30 years simply because we have a more complex society with more complex legislation and more complex regulation, and because the lawyers are more needed by the poor than ever before.

We are making a case for the poor and the disadvantaged. There needs to be a bigger legal aid budget and a rethink of the system. I hope that the Minister listens, if not to us, at least to the Select Committee when it reports. I hope that at the end of the process we will have a second revised response to Carter’s proposals. Carter may have started the Government in the direction in which they want to travel, but I hope that they will change direction, because we will get a much fairer system if they do.

4.9 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): For the second day running, I am on the same side of a debate as my neighbour and colleague, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I concur with every word that he said.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend is the first non-lawyer who has spoken.

Kate Hoey: Yes, I am. Many of us would have liked to have taken part in the debate in the main Chamber today, as well as in this debate. Both debates are about people who are the most vulnerable and most socially excluded, and who will become more so if some of the proposed changes are implemented.

I totally agree with the Lord Chancellor who said in his speech to the Law Society on 13 October 2006:

That is why I agree with those colleagues who referred to the overall size of the legal aid budget. We are constantly told that there is no more money for legal aid, but I am bold enough to ask why. It is a political priority to decide how money is spent and the political choice made should be that legal aid and maintaining its budget in line with other increases is crucial.

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Again and again, the Minister referred to best value and best practice. She should talk more about how best value and best practice equate with best quality, because I am worried that the push for best practice means doing things more quickly and having more people on the target list so that the boxes can be ticked and the Government can say that they are giving more people access to legal aid, when the quality will be such that those people will have been done a disservice.

We talk about the cost of legal aid increasing and the necessary increase in money, but the cost of the Legal Services Commission since it took over from the Legal Aid Board has increased from £58 million to nearly £100 million. That money has not gone to the people who are giving our constituents help and advice; much of it has gone into the administration and bureaucracy that is inherently involved when the Government set up any new body.

We must also remember that since the Government came to power in 1997, approximately 3,000 new criminal offences have been introduced, many of which have links with immigration, mental health and matters that the most vulnerable people must deal with. Inevitably, that means that more people need legal aid and support. If we keep putting more and more laws on the statute book, we must accept that there will be an increase in the legal aid budget.

I shall talk briefly about the effects of the proposals in my constituency and plead for London to be treated in a special way because of its nature. It is an accepted fact that the cost of doing anything in London is greater than elsewhere. There must therefore be some sort of London weighting. If the Minister goes ahead with the proposal, London will have to be looked at again as a special case. I suggest that it would be better to do that now before many of our constituents are badly served.

Lambeth law centre does sterling work and has made a difference to people from vulnerable communities, particularly in immigration and asylum work. It has provided opportunities for them to be equal with other citizens. The proportion of its money that comes from local authorities has gradually declined as they have been forced by the reductions in what they have been able to spend to choose and to redirect their money. If the proposals go through, law centres will be badly affected. If the law centre in my area is to stay in the game and become a preferred supplier with a computer software programme with an interface with the Legal Services Commission, it will have to spend a substantial amount of money. The current system costs only a few hundred pounds a year, but from October this year it will no longer be compatible with the LSC requirements and the law centre will have to find the full set-up cost of approximately £30,000. That cost will have a great detrimental effect on many law centres and on not-for-profit smaller solicitors in my area.

I do not understand the concept of a fixed fee when there are such differences in cases. Cases that are superficially similar may, in fact, be very different because the people involved are so different. I have been told of many specific examples by solicitors in my area and the law centre. For example, there may be two housing possession claims against tenants of social landlords. One may have fallen into rent arrears because of non-payment of housing benefit and the
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other may be in a similar position but because of mental health problems may not have left his home for many years. The first case would obviously be quicker to deal with, but would a solicitor take on the more difficult case if he were paid the same for each case? What is the incentive for him or her to take on a second visit to a person who cannot leave their home because of a disability? What incentive is there to do the extra work that may ultimately make a difference to the outcome? There is no question that many of the people that I and other London MPs see at our constituency surgeries have language difficulties and require an interpreter, and naturally need more time with a solicitor. I have not heard anything to allay my fear that under the fixed fee proposal the only solicitors who will take on such cases will be those who act directly against their commercial interest. Non-profit-making solicitors will find it extremely difficult.

Mr. Khan: Does my hon. Friend agree that an additional problem faced by those who give advice in law centres and citizens advice bureaux is that clients often turn up with three or four carrier bags full of paperwork dating back perhaps 16 years? That all adds to the time that must be spent with the client.

Kate Hoey: I am sure that all MPs have seen with trepidation such people come to our surgeries, and at the back of our minds we always wonder whether we can find a legal expert who is prepared to take on their case.

Vera Baird: As ever, my hon. Friend is making a strong case, but she seems to overlook entirely the fact that solicitors who do welfare law—there are some in her constituency—are already doing so for fixed fees and have been doing so since 2003. At least one third of those suppliers in Vauxhall will be paid better under the new fixed fees than under the old ones.

Kate Hoey: I can only say that there is a problem with the Minister’s or her officials’ communication skills because there is a huge gap between what the Minister is saying and what the people I know and respect and have worked with are saying. If this debate does anything today, it is raising the fact that the Minister and her Department are not getting the message across so that those who will be affected believe it. The law centre, for example, will have to deal with three times as many cases as it does now to maintain its present income if the fixed fee scheme goes ahead. That means that it will not be able to provide a quality service without going out of business or employing fewer people.

Mr. Burrowes: I declare an interest as a practising solicitor in publicly funded work.

The hon. Lady’s response to the Minister’s figures concerning those who will apparently receive a greater fee might be that a significant proportion of practitioners conduct their work efficiently at a fee below what it is proposed and provide a wonderful service for vulnerable clients.

Kate Hoey: We are not saying that many things cannot be looked at differently and done differently to help to make the processes more efficient, in the
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Minister’s view. I am not interested in efficiency in that sense; I am interested in the quality of the outcome for my vulnerable constituent who is being helped in a difficult legal case.

There is no question but that the cost of running a legal firm of whatever type in London is higher than in other parts of the country. The Minister may have made some changes to the following idea, but a trainee solicitor living in my constituency told me that fixed fees for attendance at a police station is nonsensical. More experienced lawyers will be far less likely to attend the police station. The more complex the case, the longer needed to interview the client, but the lawyer is more likely to be inexperienced. It all adds up.

Patrick Marbles, director of the Lambeth law centre, said:

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