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11 Jan 2007 : Column 183WH—continued

It does not really matter how the Minister responds to that, because throughout the Chamber people have been saying that the proposals will have an effect on the ground.

When will there be a ring-fenced budget for civil legal aid? That is crucial. Customer groups, practitioner groups, citizens advice bureaux, law centres and firms throughout the country oppose the proposals, because they see the reality. I ask the Minister to spend half a day or a day in the law centre in my constituency or someone else’s; then let her return to the House and make the same speech as she has made today. I hope that she will listen and that we will see the changes that are necessary if we are to provide a service to our constituents.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I seek the co-operation of the House. I should like to call the Minister to respond briefly towards the end of the debate at 5.20 pm. Seven hon. Members wish to speak and I hope to call them, so if they put seven into about 55 minutes, they will know how long each should speak.

4.23 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am not quite sure that I can.

Jeremy Corbyn: Seven minutes and 45 seconds.

Tony Baldry: Ah, yes.

I feel rather sorry for the Minister. She must feel that the time she spent in the summer talking to lots of people could have been better spent on Scarborough beach. It is clear from this afternoon’s debate and from the excellent meeting of the all-party group on Citizens Advice—at which she spoke on Monday, which was very good of her—that there are some fundamental
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misunderstandings. For example, on Monday, Citizens Advice said that it was concerned that fees would be paid only in arrears, and the Minister explained that that proposal had been scrapped and that a substantial part would be paid in advance. This afternoon, numerous hon. Members have said that they are concerned that the level of fees would drive not-for-profit organisations and solicitors’ firms into bankruptcy, and the Minister said that that was an impossible position, because the fees had not been fixed so how on earth could anyone predict them?

The Minister said today and to the group on Monday that cost is not an issue. Like every Minister in every spending Department, she said that she would like some more money, but she said that cost is not an issue. If it is not an immediate issue, might I suggest that she delay the implementation of the proposals by six months, or at least until the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs has had the opportunity to report? Otherwise, the proposals will be implemented against a background of opposition, some of which may simply be misplaced and misunderstood. It may be in her interests and in those of good order to delay implementation for some time, so that the proposals can be introduced in a better way.

I should welcome the Minister’s thoughts on another point that came up on Monday. I do not entirely understand how one ties in not-for-profit organisations, such as citizens advice bureaux, and high street solicitors, so that they provide our constituents with advice that is complementary and supportive rather than competitive. I hope that I speak for middle England, as I represent two large market towns and several villages. Under the proposals, each town should have at least two firms of solicitors—a matrimonial dispute would be difficult, otherwise—that provide legal aid, and one citizens advice bureau. How will one ensure that the bureau’s work complements and reinforces the work of the solicitors? How will they work together so that, for example, the organisation that is best at litigation—the high street solicitor, rather than the citizens advice bureau—undertakes the work?

The Minister said that she will not discuss the community legal services strategy, but it is difficult to explain the totality of the proposals to the House, to the profession and to the country without discussing it. On Monday, I had the impression—I am sure that others did, too—that the Minister was talking about community law centres funded by the state. The Minister nods, so I heard her correctly. I hope that the situation does not arise whereby—for example, in Oxfordshire—there is only one centre: in Oxford. For my constituents, Oxford is light years away; for a pensioner or a single mum living on a housing estate in Banbury, getting to Oxford is like getting to the moon. Will the centres be outreach centres? If so, in a patch such as mine, cannot they work collaboratively and in the same location as the citizens advice bureaux in Banbury and Bicester? They will be doing pretty much the same thing.

We have not heard much about the role of local government. Until now, it has funded citizens advice bureaux pro bono, because it thinks that they are a good thing. Will local authorities be asked to stump up
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more money for the community legal services strategy? They must understand whether it will happen and where it fits in.

The Minister said on Monday, and again repeated today, that sometimes the quality of work in citizens advice bureaux or the not-for-profit sector is not as good as it might be, not least because—I think she said—people go in with one problem and it is not always established that they have a multitude. Whether or not one is a lawyer like myself or like the Minister, when people come to us with a problem, we must assume that they will divulge it.

If the Government are concerned about the quality of advice, what more can they do to help with training? After all, everyone who works in a not-for-profit centre is a volunteer, and often they do not have a legal background. In these days of online, television and DVD training, the Department should give more thought to what it can do to train and enhance the training of such workers, and it should do so in a way that enhances, reinforces and complements the work of high street solicitors.

I have been on my patch for 23 years, and I notice distinctly more immigration cases and asylum seekers—even in Banbury. I suspect that they are new to citizens advice bureaux and to high street solicitors. Given the experience in Paddington and elsewhere, it would be better if there were departmental training for citizens advice bureaux in Banbury and Bicester.

I fear for what will happen if the proposals are rushed through and they go wrong. I put that point to the Minister on Monday. In criminal law, any problem will be picked up quickly, because magistrates, their clerks, stipendiary magistrates or Crown court judges will tell the Department that the proposals are not working. My concern is much more with civil law, where if services just atrophy, it will take time before anyone picks up the problem. If services disappear for whatever reason and the Minister’s best endeavours do not work, how will we know? How will we know that a single mum on an estate in Banbury is not gaining access to the legal advice that she needs? The service will just wither away.

On Monday, the Minister said that she would set up a stakeholders’ group, which is very good news and in accord entirely with her general approach of embracing and including people in the process. By definition, however, many stakeholders will be organisations based in London or other big conurbations and will have their own policy objectives. So may I make a very humble suggestion to her? Depending on how one looks at it, the country is organised into either Government offices, such as the Government office for the south-east, or circuits. It might be sensible for her to ask either a recently retired circuit judge or a silk to monitor civil legal aid in each of those areas, so that solicitors, practitioners and others with problems and those who think that things are going wrong will have a focus and someone whom they can telephone and tell, “You might just like to know that this is going wrong”.

Today’s debate and Monday’s meeting of the all-party group on Citizens Advice, which was ably chaired by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), demonstrated something of a dialogue to death. People are concerned that the Department is not listening to
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their concerns. When this system is introduced, we must be confident that, three, six or nine months down the line, we will not have coming to our constituency surgeries people failed by the system. I and, I hope, other Members would have much greater confidence if we felt that an objective and independent person—not a stakeholder—was monitoring the situation, reporting back to the Minister and saying, “Look, in the north-east, this seems to be working”, or “In the south-east, this is working, but some bits in the more rural areas are not”. That way we could all be confident that there was transparency in and oversight of the situation.

4.32 pm

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Before I kick off, I declare an interest: before entering Parliament, I was a solicitor and the firm that I co-founded did a lot of publicly funded work.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) alluded to the all-party group on Citizens Advice, of which I am a chair. The Minister was the first chair of that group, and it would be churlish not to pay tribute to her for the work that she has undertaken in turning up to our meeting this week and having an honest and candid discussion with parliamentarians and for the tour of the country that she has undertaken since becoming a Minister, during which she has spoken to those with an interest and expertise in this subject. She has also made changes to the proposals first set out in the Carter review in November.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) is right: there is a synergy between this discussion and that in the Chamber, which is where I was before coming here. To answer a question put by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), there are similar numbers of Members in both debates. When this debate kicked off, three Conservative Back Benchers were present, and there are four in the Chamber for the debate on social exclusion.

I have received, as I am sure other Members have, massive representations about the future of legal aid from the advice sector, consumer representatives, practitioner groups and, of course, constituents. I accept that the legal aid system is in need of reform, particularly in high-cost criminal cases. However, there is a danger that, rather than paying attention to that aspect of legal aid, the proposed changes could lead to experts in law firms and law firms themselves, law centres and the not-for-profit sector ceasing the sort of work to which Members have referred. Such work is necessary, if for no other reason, so that we can provide a place to go for those who turn up with their carrier bags.

A point also needs to be made about access to justice. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister spent her career before entering Parliament committed to and—dare I say it?—obsessed with access to justice. There is a danger that the proposals could have unintended consequences and lead to a reduction in such access. I accept that the intention is not to save costs overall; she said that reform would be needed, even if no savings would be made as a consequence.

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I shall deal with private practice and the not-for-profit sector. On private practice, my hon. and learned Friend knows that the Law Society welcomed the Carter review and said that there has long been a need for an overhaul because the current system falls far short of providing access to justice and tackling social exclusion. So she has allies in the Law Society, as well as in many other groups. I am afraid that, with a finite budget, if expenditure on criminal legal aid increases, the amount of money left for civil and family legal aid will come under increasing pressure.

High-cost criminal cases should have been the target of most of the changes, particularly in relation to the Bar—the Minister might lose a lot of friends if she agrees with that. We know from the press and questions answered in Parliament the cost of some criminal QCs to legal aid expenditure. Some cases, such as those for fraud, have a disproportionate impact on the legal aid budget—the cost is humungous. I suspect that, if we reduced the money taken up by that small number of cases, a huge sum would be released to a large number of clients, the not-for-profit sector and private practices, which would help more vulnerable people. Huge savings could also be made in experts’ fees, including disbursements, which is a problem and leads to conflicts when practitioners choose experts.

My hon. and learned Friend has alluded to and tried to deal with my concerns about ethnic minority practitioners and clients. I urge her strongly to keep an eye on that because I am concerned about it. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) referred to another concern: where tomorrow’s legal aid lawyers will come from. That is a real concern for a number of law centres and private practices. My hon. and learned Friend needs to think about that because the motivations that she and I had when beginning such work will not survive if law centres cease to practice in certain areas, and private practices cease publicly funded work, even though there are noble people today willing to do such work. As has been referred to by Members, it is important to disentangle practitioners and lawyers who undertake publicly funded work from the sort of lawyers who, rightly, get flack in the media for the huge, gravy train fees that they charge.

On the not-for-profit sector, I know that my hon. and learned Friend has taken on board all the concerns that have been expressed by citizens advice bureaux and law centres up and down the country. Today, she received a letter from the chief executive of the CAB, which welcomed some of the reassurances that she gave on Monday at the meeting of the all-party group. The five areas of concern, which remain, relate to fixed fees, payment structures, fee arrangements for multiple-issue cases, outreach services and London weighting, which has been alluded to by colleagues. I shall not repeat those comments because that letter is in front of her.

In conclusion, the intentions of the Government and my hon. and learned Friend are laudable. However, some of the unintended consequences of the changes outlined will be devastating to some constituents, particularly those in deprived areas such as the constituencies represented by myself and by colleagues present. There is a real danger that, by not providing
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legal aid and advice at an earlier stage, more costs will be incurred in the long run, whether in debt, immigration or social welfare cases.

The stakeholder monitoring body, to which the hon. Member for Banbury referred, will need to ensure that it is beefed up, that it reports sooner rather than later and that it takes into account any consequences that were not predicted, so that we do not face a situation in which lawyers and practitioners leave that area of law and so that, in six years’ time, we do not have to pump more money in to try to recruit more people, because others have left owing to the changes that we have announced.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. I call David Burrowes—briefly, please.

4.40 pm

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I shall pay due heed to that, Sir Nicholas. I declare an interest, in that I am a practising criminal solicitor. I should also like to add to the list of visits for the Minister. If she would care to join me on a duty period at Enfield magistrates court or at a police station any time and see the reality, she would be very welcome.

The Minister said that we need to look at the reality now. I encourage her to do that and to bear with me. She said, boldly, that the proposals are not a cost-cutting exercise and do not affect the vulnerable, but she has heard from Labour Members and other hon. Members how plainly that is not the case for a range of issues. The practitioners and the experts on the ground have also said that she is misdirected and not in touch with reality, which I say with due respect to her experience in publicly funded work.

I should like briefly to consider the reality now, because we are not simply dealing with challenges to publicly funded work over recent months, during the Carter review or following other proposals. We must consider the context of the past few years. This debate is quite properly about the future of legal aid. Small and high street practitioners, particularly those in areas of great need and who deal with vulnerable defendants, have already had to ask what the future of legal aid is. Many had come up with an answer even before the implementation of Carter—that there is no future and that, as I said in an earlier intervention, the writing is on the wall.

Despite the Minister’s quoting various figures about the lower fees that will be increased under the proposals, a number of practitioners in Enfield and Hertfordshire have had to give up publicly funded work in recent years, particularly in family law and immigration. There is also no publicly funded education solicitor in Enfield to deal with such work. That is a direct result of the lack of proper pay increases and the Government’s intentions.

In the past two months, two firms of solicitors have given up publicly funded work in crime. Those firms are well known for providing a good service, which goes beyond the fee structure. They care for clients and are part of the system of criminal justice that provides the integrity that is much admired not only in this
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country but further afield. Those two firms have seen, to use the Minister’s words, the direction of travel, which is certainly not in the interests of the vulnerable or of a proper service.

To stay with crime, if the Minister is so sensitive to publicly funded work and to the consultation results and seeking to modify Carter, why is she not then sensitive to the fact that lower court costs have been under control for some years? Her Department has confirmed that there is that control, which is quite remarkable given the escalating costs of legal aid. There has been a control over lower court costs in crime for some time, which is not surprising in many ways, because quality control has been there for some time. It has been carried out by many solicitors without the need for the Legal Services Commission’s eye. No doubt the contracting regime of franchising has brought rigours with it. As I know from being part of that process, as we have ticked the boxes and sought to convince the Legal Services Commission of the quality of our service, there has been a control, which has had an impact. Indeed, it can be seen from the Department’s figures that there is the necessary control in place.

Why then does the Minister say that we still need to prove efficiency? Does efficiency still need to be proved in lower court costs and in magistrates courts’ work? How many more hoops do criminal solicitors need to jump through? We are now into the area peer review, and there are certainly further hoops to come under Carter.

The cynical might say that the early suggestion that there should be a 100-firm reduction in London—effectively, a brutal cull—is, in fact, what is happening. They might say that, under the premise of weeding out those who do not provide the quality service that we all want, the reduction is not so much a weeding out as a driving out of many firms. That is indeed what is happening. A number of firms are giving up on publicly funded work, particularly lower courts work, although we must also consider what is to follow. When the Minister talks about seeking proof of efficiency, many on the ground would say that proof of lower costs is what she really wants. That is the reality that I ask here to reflect upon.

The Minister has already reflected on one of the major impacts that has been felt over the years. In the debate in Westminster Hall on 26 October 2005, she referred to the profound effects of legislation and to the impact that has been referred to by my hon. Friends and by other hon. Members. On that occasion, she referred to the target of 1.25 million offenders being brought to justice by 2008, which represents an increase of 150,000 on 2003 levels. She made no reference to the impact on defence legal aid as a result of that. She said:

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