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6 Mar 2007 : Column 1375

Mr. Alexander: I am sure that most Members of the House would recognise that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the subject of an ongoing investigation by the rail accident investigation branch.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): In light of the Grayrigg derailment, and the apparent similarities between that and the Potters Bar derailment, is there not a need for more than a precautionary inspection of 900 points? Is there not a need for a thorough inspection of the maintenance system and the inspection system for points, and indeed of the whole safety culture surrounding the points, so as to avoid this type of derailment?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is getting rather ahead of himself. First, we have to take forward the continuing work of the rail accident investigation branch in clarifying exactly what happened at Grayrigg and the reasons for that particular tragedy. I understand that that will take some months. I am sure that we should allow the rail accident investigation branch the opportunity to do that work. In addition, however, it obviously continues to be an option for the ORR, the safety regulator, to set down conditions for Network Rail. My understanding is that, post the tragedy at Grayrigg, the ORR is satisfied with the steps that Network Rail has taken.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): Perhaps the Secretary of State will confirm that the west coast main line will open again on 12 March.

Following the Potters Bar derailment, when there was a failure involving the points, the Rail Safety and Standards Board made 16 recommendations specifically on rail maintenance. Have those recommendations been implemented?

Mr. Alexander: I will certainly be happy to write to my hon. Friend about the RSSB recommendations. I assure the House that work is under way to make sure that the west coast main line opens as quickly as possible.

West Coast Main Line

10. Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): How much his Department has spent on the west coast main line upgrade. [125121]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Expenditure on the west coast main line upgrade to date is £7.225 billion out of a total expected cost of £8.125 billion.

Ms Clark: I appreciate that a huge amount has been spent on upgrading the west coast main line. However, following the recent derailment, our thoughts are with the family of the bereaved and the survivors. I appreciate that the investigation is continuing, but if it becomes clear that further resources need to be invested in health and safety, does my hon. Friend agree that that funding must be provided?

Mr. Harris: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made clear the Government’s willingness to
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act in light of recommendations received from the rail accident investigation branch. My hon. Friend will also know that investment is running at a historical high, with £88 million being invested in the railway network every week by the Government.

Constitutional Affairs

The Minister of State was asked—

Claims Handlers

17. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): When she expects regulation of claims handlers to commence. [125129]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): All authorised businesses will be required to comply with the regulatory rules by 6 April 2007. The regulatory regime will come fully into force in late April 2007, when we plan to commence the statutory prohibition on providing regulated claims management services without authorisation.

John Mann: Two claims handlers are responding to my constituents’ consumer complaints by sending them threatening solicitors’ letters. What will be the process through which my constituents can object to the inclusion of those claims handlers on the official register?

Bridget Prentice: When the regulator assesses applications, he will be able to take into account the views of anyone who has concerns about a particular claims handler. Comprehensive and detailed questions will be asked of all people who apply for authorisation. I recommend that my hon. Friend and his constituents make the regulator aware of the concerns that he has raised on several occasions.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): The answer that the Minister has just given will be of some relief to people who have been approached by these claims handlers, who have not merely handled their claims inadequately and charged them money when they should not have done, but transferred their claims by selling them on, often to poorly qualified solicitors who have done an extraordinarily poor job of handling claims for mining injuries. I hope that this process will be able to put that matter to bed. Does the Minister share my hope?

Bridget Prentice: I certainly do share my hon. Friend’s hope. There have been recent incidents of claims handlers touting for business with a variety of people, including physiotherapists, and we are ensuring that we get the message across that claims handlers should be very careful before acting in such a way. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will ensure that their constituents are aware that the Compensation Act 2006 will be coming into force in a month. I should also say that people will get their claims dealt with more quickly and successfully if they proceed with them themselves, rather than by going through a middle agent.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the regulator
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about the inclusion on the register of organisations such as the Union of Democratic Mineworkers and the Durham area National Union of Mineworkers? They are acting wholly as claims handlers and are still, in some cases, refusing to identify who has had money deducted and to repay that money. Will she speak to the regulator as a matter of urgency and ensure that he looks into those organisations in detail?

Bridget Prentice: I am aware that the organisations to which my hon. Friend refers have both applied for authorisation, but although I can confirm that, I obviously cannot give any information on the progress of the applications that the regulator is assessing. However, if they were authorised, they would have to be listed in the same way as other organisations, and they would have to comply with all the regulations set down in the Act.

Advice Services (London)

18. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): What changes she expects there to be to legal aid support for advice services in London; and if she will make a statement. [125130]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): From October 2007, the Legal Services Commission will pay advice services in London fixed fees for various types of standard social welfare work, with payment by the hour retained only for exceptional cases. That approach will help to ensure the optimal delivery of effective advice to clients in greatest need.

Mr. Dismore: May I raise just one of the concerns of Barnet law service in my constituency? It works as a second-tier advice agency, primarily on cases that need specialist caseworking and representation referred to it by bodies such as citizens advice bureaux. For that reason, it does not have smaller and easier cases to balance against the more complicated ones. How will it fare under the Minister’s cuts? Surely it is a higher spending priority than judges’ lodgings, on which her Department wastes £5 million a year.

Vera Baird: As it happens, I have the figures for Barnet law service in front of me. It is the only not-for-profit provider in my hon. Friend’s constituency that the Legal Services Commission pays. The figures show clearly that if the fixed fee scheme had come into play last year, Barnet law service would have made 8.4 per cent. more money, with its current case load. Of course, we want to encourage efficient suppliers such as Barnet law service, so we are open to suggestions that such suppliers might start doing more work.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): When the Lord Chancellor was asked about the subject in the public evidence session held by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, he said that he thought that any reduction in the number of suppliers of legal advice in London, which is relatively well provided for in that respect, might be compensated for by an increase in supply in areas where there is a shortage of providers of legal advice, such as the north-east. Does the Minister share his confidence that that will happen?

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Vera Baird: I do; there is a considerable over-supply of some, but not all, kinds of legal advice in London, and it is rational that the cash now going into that over-supply should be moved to areas where there is under-supply, and where we have been criticised for allowing advice deserts to continue. Certainly, that is the drive, and the economics suggest that that is what will happen.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): One of the many concerns expressed by legal and advice agencies in my constituency relates to the abolition of the level 1, or very basic, advice service. How many Londoners who had access to level 1 advice last year will in future be turned away from that simple signposting, and what does the Minister expect will happen to them?

Vera Baird: I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact numbers now, but I will write to her, if she will find that information of assistance. Level 1 is general advice, which is gate-keeping and triaging advice. It is not legal advice, and the Legal Services Commission pays only for legal advice. Our target and our achievements in that direction, which are increasing, are to merge our funding with that from local authorities, so that the local authorities’ funding can be used for simpler, straightforward advice, while our resources are reserved for organisations such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) talked about.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Minister aware that a recent survey revealed that 95 per cent. of civil legal aid practitioners believe that the changes will make their work non-viable? That puts a huge amount of extra pressure on community law firms and advice centres in London that may well be unable to cope. Shelter, Mind and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children all predict that the legal aid system will soon reach breaking point. Whom should the public trust: world-class charities that help the vulnerable day in and day out, or Ministers?

Vera Baird: Interestingly, I had e-mail correspondence with the chief executive of Shelter, who is confidently moving his team of legal advisers into that future framework of supply. I do not doubt that in past months there has been a great deal of anxiety and concern about the size of the change necessary to take on the challenges of that Carter-type proposal, but people have grasped the fact that it is profitable to make those transitions, which will enable them to deliver a good service. I am holding meetings practically daily with suppliers, who are coming round to the notion that they should look to the future. It is time the Tory spokesmen did the same.

Legal Aid

19. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): When the Government plan to bring forward their proposals for reform of legal aid procurement. [125131]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): “Legal Aid Reform: the Way Ahead”, published on 28 November 2006, set out our plans for reforming the procurement
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of legal aid services by moving towards a market-based system. The first phase of the reforms will come into effect next month. More will follow in October and afterwards, subject to the outcome of current consultations on some of the detail.

David Taylor: Solicitors practising in the unglamorous, indifferently paid world of legal aid criminal defence generally do so because they care about giving disadvantaged people access to justice, which is surely a cornerstone of any decent society. Does the Minister think that turning legal aid procurement into a single-buyer market with fixed fees and competitive tendering risks forcing many law firms out of such work, creating legal aid deserts in parts of the country, thus denying vulnerable clients, often with mental health or social problems, any hope of effective representation?

Vera Baird: I am sorry that my hon. Friend regards legal aid criminal work as unglamorous; I will try harder. I have spent my life in such practice, and I can assure him that it is very satisfying and rewarding, even though we cannot rise to the levels of pulchritude that he expects. The hallmark of a decent society is good legal advice and representation for the community. That is far more important than particular lawyers’ practices. The proposals will improve a legal aid system that is already the best in the world. Fixed fees for standard cases will ensure that the best, most efficient quality-controlled firms bid to undertake more and more cases. They will provide top-quality advice to more and more people, thus ensuring that high standards are spread more effectively and are available to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Constituents at my advice surgeries consistently tell me that there is little or no legal aid provision in Wellingborough and the surrounding area. Have the Government carried out a countrywide assessment to determine where legal aid is, and is not, available?

Vera Baird: Yes. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives the details of what we resource in Wellingborough. I accept that about two years ago, there were significant gaps in provision, particularly of social welfare law services across the country, but since then we have paid 20 per cent. more into those services to try to fill the gap, and we have advised 30 per cent. more people. In fact, we are on an upward trajectory, but I would be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman if he has specific constituency concerns.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): When I met Wrexham legal aid practitioners last Friday, criminal legal aid practitioners were concerned about the rates under the new fixed fees. In particular, there appears to be a disparity between payment in the Wrexham area and in other areas, so can my hon. and learned Friend help by explaining the basis on which those calculations are made? Is it historical or geographical? Can she give us a little more information?

Vera Baird: Yes, I can. The fixed fees proposed for the new police station duty rota areas, which will apply to my hon. Friend’s criminal suppliers, are the average fees claimed over the preceding year in those police
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stations. The purpose of going down to the local level and consulting on each duty rota area is to try to thrash out any problems. For instance, if we have got things slightly wrong in cross-border areas, we need local knowledge to straighten that out.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The concern that we have on the Back Benches is that the number of specialist contracts that the Government have issued has declined considerably in the past few years. If my hon. and learned Friend looks at the answer she gave me on 6 February, she will see that in areas such as family law they have gone down from 4,200 to 2,800, so how can she possibly say that a decline in the number of specialist contracts will result in better access to services for our constituents?

Vera Baird: By analogy, when we introduced contracting, the total number of legal aid suppliers declined from around 6,000 to around 3,000, but service quality and coverage of supply increased. Those contract numbers have gone down. Let me repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), though: over the same period, the amount of money that we have put into family and civil legal aid has gone up by 20 per cent., and we are serving 30 per cent. more people. That means that we have rightly kept in play the suppliers who do the job well and do it efficiently.

Postal Votes

20. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What mechanisms are in place to verify the legitimacy of postal votes. [125132]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): We are introducing a range of new measures at the May 2007 local elections that are designed to strengthen the security of postal voting. They will build on the measures successfully introduced in May 2006, including the introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters, which will help to ensure that postal voting is both safe and secure.

Philip Davies: The Minister knows that I am not a big fan of head of household registration. Does she agree that postal voting for all can lead to head of household voting? There is a concern, especially among certain minority communities, that people are coerced into voting for particular candidates through hierarchical pressures. Will she consider restricting access to postal votes, to make sure that all votes are cast fairly and freely?

Bridget Prentice: The identifiers introduced in the postal voting system this year will show that everyone can vote as they wish. I am interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the way postal votes are handled in a household. I notice that in the 2005 general election, which he won with a majority of 422, 9,392 postal votes were returned. I wonder how many of those he considers were handled purely by the head of household.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Bellingham. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman was a little slow; I call Mr. Betts.

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