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11 Jan 2007 : Column 195WH—continued

First, I would like to raise a point with you, Sir Nicholas. This important debate has been well attended. Many members of the public tried to come to it, particularly those in the legal profession. I ask whether you could do something to ensure that there is greater seating capacity in this Chamber in the future, especially for debates like this one, so that more members of the public who have travelled a long way to
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attend the debate could come in and see it. It must be frustrating to travel from the north of England and spend the afternoon in the Jubilee Room trying to watch the debate on television.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman’s point has been noted and I assure him that it will be carried through.

Jeremy Corbyn: Thank you, Sir Nicholas.

Like others who have spoken, I represent an inner-city constituency. I welcome the fact that we are debating legal aid, I welcome the Minister’s commitment to legal aid, and I welcome the principle of legal aid. We should be proud of it. It could be considered a continuation of the principles of the welfare state—a means of ensuring that everyone has equal access to justice. It is important that we emphasise that and stick with it.

As someone who has represented an inner-city constituency for a long time, I am depressed about the increasing difficulty that many of my constituents have in getting any kind of advice about anything. Sadly, there were more advice facilities in my constituency 25 years ago than there are now. The number of law firms that do legal aid work is decreasing, so the pressure on the remaining ones is increasing, as is the pressure on them not to take the complicated and difficult cases.

A large number of legitimate asylum cases fail simply because the applicant has great difficulty finding anyone to represent them first time round, or because, if they find someone to represent them, it is an immigration adviser who does an incompetent job. The case is effectively lost from the beginning, as I am sure colleagues will be aware, because of the incompetent representation. Those cases end up in our constituency advice bureaux. I did an advice bureau this morning and exactly such a heartbreaking tale came up. We see the strong case of someone who well merits asylum in this country but that case is likely, tragically, to be lost. I look to the Minister to recognise that.

I have been contacted by a number of local legal aid firms and I shall cite a letter that I have received from Burke Niazi, a local firm with 98 per cent. of its work in legal aid. It calculates that in mental health cases the firm will suffer an overall loss of 48 per cent., in child care cases a loss of 50 per cent., in housing cases a loss of 58 per cent. and in welfare benefit cases a loss of 59 per cent. I know that the Minister will say that the firm and I are scaremongering. I am not; I am repeating what a reputable local firm has told me that it estimates will happen. What is wrong with that?

Vera Baird: What is wrong is that those calculations are not based on reality. There are no fees fixed for any family work, nor for any mental health work. Any concerns that have been expressed in that way are out of date and are based on the Carter fees. I can understand why. Because the Carter fees were fixed where they were, people are apprehensive, but such a calculation is utterly impossible because they do not know what will come out next.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am grateful for the Minister’s intervention, and I hope that she will not mind if I pass
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the correspondence from the firm on to her. It has made a logical, intelligent, sensible case based on a profound knowledge of a needy local community and it does not lightly raise concerns at that level any more than others raise the question of difficult cases simply being forgotten because of the changes and of people with real difficulties ending up leaving the system altogether.

I hope that in this short debate the Minister will seriously consider the proposals’ implications for small firms of solicitors who deal with vulnerable groups, particularly linguistic minorities who deal with one solicitor, where clearly the idea of a federation simply will not work. I hope that she will look to their needs and to the needs of the community that suffers, and to the problems that the law centres and the not-for-profit sector are facing. I am a great supporter of law centres; they are a wholly good idea and have opened up a huge area of legal opportunities for people who are otherwise denied them. They are not happy about the proposals. They are having difficulty with funding in many cases and they will have greater difficulty because of the changes.

I hope that the Minister recognises our position and that she shares it—that is, that we support legal aid and universal access to justice, but we want to ensure that the proposals do not take us backwards and deny the most vulnerable people justice. Those who come in with carrier bags full of all their letters and correspondence, who often have a real grievance, who are confused and not good at expressing that grievance and who require a lot of time and patience to do so, deserve to be represented just as much as the more articulate groups. I fear that in future they will simply be turned away because the firms will not have the time, the money, or—because the firms do not have the time or the money for training—the expertise or the newly trained solicitors needed to deal with such cases. Can the Minister not look at some of that afresh and listen to the serious and helpful points that have been made to us?

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Jim Cousins) for his patience.

5.14 pm

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): I declare my interest in staying out of the hands of lawyers, and nothing that I have heard this afternoon does anything to dissuade me from that.

I welcome the flexibility that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister has given about fixed fees in some of the key areas of civil law work. She will acknowledge in the light of the debate that that is something about which Parliament will have to be kept informed. The worries expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), among others, are something that we all share. Parliament will have to be kept informed, because of the impact on the political process as we experience it as Members.

I welcome, too, the fact that the Minister has said that there is to be some reconsideration of police station boundaries in the area of criminal work. Lord Carter, in his wisdom, put North and South Shields together. One cannot get from North Shields to South
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Shields without using a ferry, which is not terribly convenient for the courts involved. Again, Parliament will have to be kept informed about those matters because they are no longer points of obscure detail but are fundamental to the workings of our legal system.

I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) a great regret that the area where the abuses are found—in the high-cost cases—is the last end of the legal food chain that the Government have chosen to clean out. The first are not the last in the way that our Lord intended. Those high cost cases should have been the first area for investigation, not the last.

I urge my hon. and learned Friend the Minister to consider the harshness of the means tests that are now being applied in legal aid. They will have perverse effects. There will be more litigants in person, which will have an impact on the courts system. More people might well plead guilty to minor offences without considering the lifelong impact that such a plea might have on them, and far more cases might reach the Crown court than would otherwise have been the case because of the differences in means-testing between the two systems. It is too early to tell whether that will happen, but it well might and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will keep an eye on it.

I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s intervention in the working of means-testing in the magistrates courts, which she made just before Christmas. I think that she headed off what could have been a substantial crisis in the working of our court system. None the less, that does not give confidence in some of the other assurances that she has given us. We all appreciate that she tried to head off some of the complexities of means-testing and she was right to refer to it in the debate, but those problems should not have arisen. Can she assure us that the merits test and the means test, both of which have to be satisfied, will be able to be dealt with instantly by someone at the court so that people will know that they will be represented and so that the people who represent them will know that they will be paid? That is fundamental. Just before Christmas, we were sliding into a position where that was not the case. We cannot run a court system in such circumstances.

Will the Minister assure us, too, that some of the complications about both parties signing up to the means-test form in a reasonable period will be dealt with? Will some of the problems of the self-employed in finding where they stand in the means-testing system be dealt with? It is no earthly good our saying that we are in favour of flexible labour markets and then doing over the people involved when they happen to appear in the courts. Will she also assure us that the problem that she had in mind just before Christmas—that there would be a cascade of requests for adjournments, which would have a bad effect on the court system—will be resolved? If a fixed fee for criminal work is to be introduced, will my hon. and learned Friend assure us that the potentially perverse effect of delays by the CPS or the police will not have an impact on whether cases are taken, or how they are conducted? Finally, will she will bear in mind the potential impact on police behaviour in police stations and in court if officers know that the defending representative is working to a
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fixed fee? That could have a real impact on how the police decide to handle cases. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will be able to reassure us on those matters.

5.20 pm

Vera Baird: With permission, Sir Nicholas. I am most grateful to hon. Members for all their contributions to our debate. I shall try to deal with them in turn and quickly, though I am not sure that I shall get through them all.

I shall deal first with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Jim Cousins). If a lawyer takes on a case before the means test has been determined, he is entitled to be paid to represent that person. That is called early cover; it entitles the lawyer to be paid for representing someone prior to the decision. If the decision on means is an adverse one, the lawyer will get that money; if the decision is positive, the lawyer will get the full fee. Lawyers have a guaranteed payment for early cover.

I shall not go into detail about the minutiae of the means test. Under the Tories, people had to produce 13 pay slips in court. We now have a hot link to the Department for Work and Pensions, which is in use a good deal of the time. When solicitors co-operate it works quite well, and it has dealt with more than 120,000 applications. I have a meeting every week at which I receive feedback, and take-up is improving all the time. In the major conurbations, where there is proper competition among solicitors, and in not a few backwoods places, it is working well.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) says that the fees for lawyers have not gone up—however, their income has. I cited an example in my opening speech; rather than repeat it, I refer the hon. Gentleman to Hansard. We have new legislation and an increasing number of offences. I support many of them—including those under the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003—and they are all absolutely desirable. Plenty of research shows that such legislation is not the main cost driver. I refer the hon. Gentleman to Cape and Moorhead; I also mentioned them during a previous Adjournment debate at which he and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) were present.

I am sorry to hear that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) is indisposed. I do not know much about the situation on the island. I happily invite the hon. Gentleman to write to me about the particular problems there. Niche suppliers, small suppliers and black and minority ethnic suppliers should have absolutely no difficulty. If a major supplier wants to bid for large number of cases, there is no reason why they should not; they have specialists of all kinds at their disposal.

The public defender service has been cited. Its current accounts show that it is pretty competitive. It has a future. It is as independent as private solicitors, if not more so, in respect of the advice that it gives in police stations.

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There has been talk of the declining number of practitioners in civil cases. There has been some decline in the number; but as I said earlier, the amount of advice given has risen by about 20 per cent., which shows that, although there are fewer practitioners doing the work, those involved are giving much better value for money. We should remember that they are doing it on fixed fees. There is nothing wrong, therefore, with fixed fees. I attended the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association annual general meeting, and the association will have some input when we reconsider the fees.

I do not rise to the bait of being called unrealistic. I know that I am personally well grounded; I also know how much time I spend going around to talk to not-for-profit practitioners in meetings and privately; and, of course, I am close to all of those in my constituency. Realism is not a characteristic that I lack.

I accept that a number of virtuous organisations have concerns; they have, of course, been driven by the Law Society, which has told them that solicitors are likely to withdraw from the kind of work in which they need their help. They will have taken that on trust. I see no more than that in what they say. I hope that they will read the report of our debate and that they understand that they need not worry like that. I say again what I have said in many different ways throughout the debate: that campaign started before the document that we are debating came out, and it was based on fees that are no longer applicable.

Mental health law will be reconsidered, but I must tell the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk and other hon. Members who referred to mental health that about a half of mental health work is now done by mental health lawyers who chose to do it on a fixed fee basis. They clearly find it profitable and are able to deal with the most vulnerable and difficult people. They are obviously able to run satisfactory businesses. They were not compelled to do it; they volunteered to do exactly that.

Forgive me for not being able to pin this point down precisely, but there was talk of the number of asylum lawyers falling. The number of asylum seekers has fallen far faster than the supply of lawyers, and there is still a good core of asylum practitioners. We are confident that they are improving. I was sorry to hear about the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). The general sense is that those who were incompetent have now left the business, and that it is time to start devolving more discretion on payments to those who are left. There is a separate system for that, but it is not directly part of our debate. I hope that I have alleviated some of my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Jeremy Corbyn rose—

Vera Baird: I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind if I do not give way, but I do not have much time.

Just to take a joke against myself, I note that the Carter report states that RAF Bulmer is in South Shields. Coming from that geographical location, that would mean something to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central, but these things do happen. My hon. Friend was concerned that there was no attack on high costs cases. They are being
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considered—indeed, they were considered first—and the inquiry is ongoing. Two Committees are considering the matter to speed up procedure and to look at the way in which such cases are billed. Make no mistake about it, we will not only streamline the courts but investigate every place where, in the context of the changes, there appears to be an incompatible excess of payment. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) mentioned experts’ fees, and we are looking at those as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) asked for evidence. I shall give her what evidence I have, but from what I have seen, I can say that there are often two not-for-profit organisations in an area that the Legal Services Commission regional offices—they have a close relationship with those organisations—see as being fairly identical in terms of social deprivation and need, and that one will take significantly longer to do the same kind of work than the other.

I pay tribute to the sector, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we have been driving up productivity. I have already said that 50 per cent. of suppliers,
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including in her constituency, will gain from the changes immediately. If we looked at that figure a year ago, probably 19 per cent. fewer would have been gainers, because they would have been much less competent. We have been driving competence and productivity up by requiring not-for-profit people to undertake cases as though they were on a fixed fee. Instead of being paid £55,000 for 1,100 hours, they have to do a fixed number of cases. That is how productivity has risen.

It is all about productivity. As far as one can see, there is nothing, except efficiency, to distinguish two suppliers in the same area whose times for completing particular kinds of case are vastly different. We are keen to roll out good practice. The transition will be important for not-for-profit organisations and everyone else, but it must be done carefully.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. We have run out of time. I thank the House for its co-operation.

It being half-past Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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