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11 Jan 2007 : Column 189WH—continued

Vera Baird: Surely the hon. Gentleman knows that since then the legal aid impact assessment has come into play. All policy changes and all legislation are costed, and the money must be handed to the legal aid fund, so he is just a wee bit out of date.

Mr. Burrowes: I suggest that I am not out of date about the impact of the legislative change on firms and
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how they operate their business. That is the point that I am making. The change has had a profound effect on the ability to provide a service to defendants properly, as one straddles the different legislation on sentencing at a youth court, for instance. One only has to go down to a youth court to see the burden placed on the work of providing a proper service to defendants and to the criminal justice system at a rate that has not been increased for many years. That point relates to what the Minister said in October 2005, which still has relevance, as we still see a never-ending supply of additional legislation and variations.

Another example, which the Minister did not go into in our previous Adjournment debate on the matter, is the means test. The means test has had another profound effect and placed a burden on the criminal justice system, not only on defence solicitors, but on courts and Crown prosecutors trying to meet their targets, with a number of delays occurring. Only last week the prosecutor at Enfield magistrates court told me, “We just can’t meet the targets, because of the number of inevitable delays from the processing of these forms”. I have with me examples of such forms—pages of them. I understand that even Carter expressed great dismay in his business model about the bureaucratic process of dealing with the forms, including the finance statement, which has to be completed by clients who are often vulnerable and have difficulties in doing so. They are left by themselves to deal with such forms and often lack adequate representation.

Vera Baird: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I shall not have time to deal with all those points later, but Carter had nothing to do with the means test and made no comment on it at all. I understand from a briefing that I received earlier this week that the forms are not a particular cause of complaint. However, again, the hon. Gentleman is out of date, because we have revised them. The form is about six pages long now and will come into force in January. It is quite inappropriate for him not to get his facts right.

Mr. Burrowes: I am not sure that the Minister was at a court last week, as I was at Enfield magistrates court, when that point was made to me by the Crown prosecutor, by the clerk, who bemoaned the fact that she does not have the ability to carry out a decision properly and in a timely manner, and by defence solicitors alike. That was only last week. Despite the revisions, there is still profound concern about the inability of Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, to deal with issues of income support and properly process statements in a timely manner. They also fail to deal with those, including self-employed people, who have difficulty in properly collating their affairs and dealing with matters in a timely manner so that a proper decision can be reached.

The call went out for means-testing. Yes, we recognised that wealthy defendants in those classic tabloid cases should not receive legal aid, but also that any new system of means-testing had to work in a streamlined, effective and simple manner. The concern of practitioners and others is that the Government
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have not delivered on means-testing, so will they be able to deliver on the implementation of Carter? The Government have not got means-testing right and have come up with belated revisions to the system. That does not bode well. What will happen in respect of Carter?

The concern is that the Government’s response to the consultation and quoted issues about fee structure has failed to have regard for the extra mile that practitioners and others go in publicly funded work. It is not just a case of receiving the fee. As many have said, practitioners have an altruistic motivation to provide a proper service to clients. The resulting added value can be seen at any court in which a place is gained for a drug addict to get rehabilitation or a residence is found for a mentally ill person. Such things are not purely reflected in the statistics. That quality, provided up and down the country, will soon be dumbed down by the processes of implementation that the Government are following through.

The concern is that we will effectively have a sausage-machine approach that dumbs the system down to the extent that people will soon not have proper regard for complex cases, unqualified people will deal with much more serious cases and miscarriages of justice will result. When, years down the line, we come to discuss the future of legal aid, the concern is that the system will have gone down to the lowest common denominator: not efficiency, but cost. That would be to the detriment of all, not least the vulnerable of our society.

Several hon. Members rose—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. There are four speakers to be heard before we get to the Minister. I ask them to speak for a maximum of six minutes, please.

4.52 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Just before Christmas, I was fortunate enough to introduce a debate on legal aid under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I shall try to be brief and not reprise those arguments.

Generous and persuasive though the Minister was in her response to that Adjournment debate, she left me unconvinced on some critical points, many of which have been emphasised again this afternoon. I should like to add to them. From my perspective, particularly as a constituency MP, the gravest concern still relates to the adequacy of the arrangements for London. Both in the December debate and today, my hon. and learned Friend has drawn attention to there being winners as well as losers under the proposed arrangements, in my constituency and London more generally. On the basis of the information that I have received so far, I am unconvinced by that argument, although I could be convinced if I had the information to support it.

The situation is equivalent to those in many other areas of public service about which we have heard in the past; education is a particularly good example. There are three primary schools within 100yd of each
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other in a deprived area of my constituency, and their results vary hugely. Ministers have asked why those three schools, which are all in the same neighbourhood, cannot produce the same results. I said it then and say it now—the answer is intake, intake, intake, and the same point applies to what we are discussing today.

One school will have three times as many children eligible for school dinners, five times as many children with non-statutory special needs and twice as many children for whom English is not a first language. Unsurprisingly, the school’s results are different. The Minister said that in my constituency just over half the providers are likely to gain under the proposed scheme, but again I say “intake”. Is it possible to convince me—I am willing to be convinced—that those gainers are truly representative of the clients about whom we have heard? Are we genuinely saying that under the existing arrangements all providers are taking an equivalent proportion of those whom we have described, I hope sympathetically, as the “carrier bag” clients? I do not believe it. Certain providers, such as solicitors, law centres and citizens advice bureaux that I know, deal with a much higher proportion of clients whose first language is not English, who have mental health or alcohol problems, who are drug addicts or ex-prisoners, or others with multiple difficulties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) would love to have spoken in this debate, but he is speaking in the Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill. He has said that the issue is not about people with multiple cases, but about single cases involving a client with a compounded series of challenges that makes it hard for them to present their case coherently. That might be because of the bundle of papers, lost documents or the time it takes to go through details with the client.

We have all seen such cases at our constituency surgeries; I am sure that the Minister has. Sometimes, a client’s case is potentially quite simple but they are completely incapable of making it and are resistant to explanations of how they can present it most effectively. The time and effort involved is profound. I have been convinced that the doors of some providers are more open than others; as it stands, the system will operate against their best interests. I say this kindly: if I have a choice between believing what my law centres, citizens advice bureaux, specialist advice agencies and quality solicitors say about the impact of the changes—they have said it this week on the basis of the “Legal Aid Reform: The Way Ahead” document, not only Carter—and believing in a national Government mechanism based on averages, I know which I will choose.

The Minister says that half my providers will win under the new contract, but I am at a loss to know where they are. I am not hearing from any of them. People are not saying to me, “For heaven’s sake, be quiet because we are going to gain under the new arrangement”, as happened during discussions of the GPs’ and consultants’ contracts, but I would have expected someone somewhere to have done so.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Lady’s implication is that the other half may be losers, who will by definition be penalised in any event.

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Ms Buck: That is also true. For me, the key point is about whether the relevant research exists and, if so, where it is. If it does not exist, can it be commissioned to demonstrate to me and other Members of Parliament from London and beyond that those potential losers are not the providers dealing with the most challenged individuals? I believe that they will be. That is my first point.

Secondly, I briefly emphasise that the most vigorous representations from my local area come from the specialist providers, who fear that they will be squeezed out by cost and by the approach of the community legal advice networks and the community legal advice centres. Specialist housing organisations such as the independent community housing advice services, invaluable to me as a constituency MP, and organisations that work with private tenants, are extremely concerned about the prospects for their holistic approach to case management that has been built up over decades of expert work on complex housing cases. They have put forward cases and examples that have convinced me that there are serious problems; I am sure that equivalent arguments will be put forward in other areas of the law. I would love to have the time to go into the issue, but I shall not.

I make one more point. In her letter to me, the Minister responded to a point that I made in the December debate about the extent to which local authorities will pick up the community legal advice network approach and support it. Her response causes me some concern. The letter states:

First, it would be helpful to know—if not now, subsequently—exactly what kind of numbers we are talking about. I wish the Minister luck, because local authorities, including my own, Westminster city council, are operating in a challenging financial environment. They have been generously funded by the Government, but with increasing pressures from so many sources, there is more chance of wringing blood from stone than of getting a comprehensive commitment from local authorities to pick up what they will see as a consequence of central Government’s not responding to the level of need. I do not see it happening at any time soon. The language in the letter, extremely well intentioned though it is, reflects the unlikelihood of being able to achieve much.

I know that there have been concessions, and that the Minister is absolutely committed to delivering to the most vulnerable clients—I do not doubt her motivation for a second. However, I remain unconvinced that the mechanism in the proposals will achieve what she wants. I would prefer more research, more information and, if necessary, a deferral of the proposals before we go ahead and make a serious mistake.

5.1 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I declare an interest, having practised 20 years as a solicitor in family and criminal law, and 10 years at the Bar. Both practices were publicly funded.

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In her opening speech, the Minister proved why she was a prominent silk before she came to this place. She gave a brave and expert presentation of a poor case. Something is very wrong when Members coalesce across the political spectrum. We are all worried about one thing: vulnerable people.

In a written answer to me on 17 October, the Minister said that two thirds of legal aid practices had disappeared since 1997. That is a worrying statistic. Unfortunately, the proposals will only make things worse.

The Access to Justice Alliance made several important points in a helpful briefing. It referred to people taking only the shorter cases and common-sense stuff because of the fixed fees—the more complicated cases will be left alone. We have heard about language problems and so on, and there is also the Welsh language dimension in north Wales. According to the Law Society and the alliance, there is also a likelihood that the proposals will impact badly on ethnic minority groups, which is the last thing that any of us want.

The proposals will not help in exceptional cases—in other words, those to which the uplift applies. Firms will be worried about whether they will in fact reach the exceptional cases threshold and therefore be properly and adequately paid. Action against Medical Accidents referred to advice deserts—it can envisage that happening—standard fees being totally unacceptable, downsizing and people leaving criminal negligence work.

The Minister received a letter from the president of the Gwynedd Law Society on 12 December. For the record, I was once the president of the Gwynedd Law Society; it is clear that standards have risen since then. The letter states that although there is no difficulty with a critical mass of clients,

The astonishing fact is that there are only nine publicly funded criminal practitioners for four constituencies in north Wales, and it is believed that that number will be reduced even further. There is no point in talking about mergers, because the firms that wanted to merge have already done so for economic reasons.

Specialist family law solicitors have come to me desperately worried about what will happen. They will leave that area of practice and, unfortunately, young children in danger of being taken into care may not be properly represented. I am sure that that is the last thing that any of us, including the Minister, wants. In a largely rural area such as north Wales, only a small number do such work now. Unless the proposals are changed substantially, the impact in that area will be ruinous. I have used the word “vulnerable”. There is nothing more vulnerable than a child who may be taken into care. I am worried and, more importantly, senior members of the judiciary told me over the Christmas period that they are desperately worried, and they are not normally bolshie people who oppose for opposition’s sake.

I doubt whether the proposals make a great deal of sense for an urban setting, but they will be ruinous in a rural setting. I know that the Minister has considered rurality, and I thank her for that, but further consideration must be given to that point. Unfortunately, outreach in
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rural areas is unlikely to be any kind of answer. Who are the providers who will travel from Chester, Liverpool and further afield to deal with housing and difficult work in north Wales? I venture to suggest that that will not happen. Even if it were to happen, where are the economies if they are paid travelling expenses?

I ask the Minister whether the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Shelter, Citizens Advice, Access to Justice Alliance and Mind are wrong. The Minister says, “Yes.” Fine, she is absolutely right and they are all wrong. Those groups do not normally queue up to hit the Government, but they are vehemently against the proposals, and with good cause.

As I said, I doubt very much whether the proposals are at all reasonable in an urban setting, but their effect will be appalling in a rural setting. I remind the Minister again that added to the groups of people who oppose the changes are the senior judiciary in the family courts in north Wales with whom I have spoken. They are desperately worried.

Vera Baird: I do not know how many times I have to say it, but there is nothing to worry about at present, because the profession and the LSC are negotiating the family law figures. So the only way the judiciary can possibly be concerned, if the hon. Gentleman insists upon it, is on the basis of old proposals that are no longer applicable. People should try to calm down a bit.

Mr. Llwyd: I do not sound very calm because I am in a rush to get these words out. Also, the issue is very important.

The Minister’s written answer stated that two thirds of practitioners had already left legal aid work because they were underpaid and overburdened with regulation. [Interruption.] I respectfully suggest to the Minister that that is the reason. I am nearer the bottom feeders than she is, and I know that to be true. Two thirds have left already. Practitioners are worried that the proposals will continue the downward slide. That is the point. I know that the Minister is sincere, but please, can we have a reasonable dialogue? Can we change the proposals for the good of our constituents and the most vulnerable people in society? She and I are concerned about them, as is everyone in this Chamber.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his co-operation. There are six minutes left.

5.8 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Thank you, Sir Nicholas. Six minutes will be quite sufficient.

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