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Legal Aid

25. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What recent representations she has received from law firms in rural areas on legal aid. [131530]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): I have received oral and written representations from rural law firms and their representatives as part of the ongoing consultation into the implementation of our legal aid changes. I have personally been to more than 25 meetings with 1,000 practitioners, including many rural providers, and we took their concerns heavily into account when we revised our proposals and published them earlier last year.

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I assume that, having listened to those representations, she will be fully aware of the concerns such as those expressed by the solicitors in my constituency that the few who still provide legal aid services in rural areas are actively contemplating withdrawing from those services as a result of the Government’s proposals. What will then happen to vulnerable people in rural areas who cannot get representation under legal aid?

Vera Baird: We have just been through an exercise in renewing a contract for legal aid in almost identical
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terms to the one that prevailed before. A number of firms said that they would not sign because they did not intend to carry on, but I am pleased to say that, in the end, all of them did. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular difficulties in this regard, I would ask him please to come and see me about them, but we are confident that rural providers will do well out of our proposals.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I asked the Minister a similar question to this on 6 March, and I then discussed her answer with representatives of a local firm in which I have great confidence. They said that the new contract proposals for family and criminal work amounted to financial suicide, that they had been signed under duress and that many firms would indeed back out in an orderly fashion later this year. Is there not a real risk that we are creating a national chain of “Advocacy Is Us”, which will be based in cities, providing a service that is down to a price rather than up to a standard, and which will denude rural areas?

Vera Baird: No, there is not the slightest likelihood of that happening. I am anxious to encourage smaller firms to stay in business. The family fees do not represent financial suicide; they have been put together with a lot of input from the profession, for which we are very grateful. Nor do the criminal fees, which have also been put together with the greatest possible care. They are based on the average claims in the areas of the police station duty rotas. All of this involves the same budget as before. Everyone should have the confidence to go through the transition, as the signatures on the contracts now suggest is happening. They must get over the transition—it is not a simple one; I accept that—and then look forward to a very good future in legal aid.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): To be fair, the Minister has engaged with people who are complaining about services in rural areas. However, I have a letter here from a specialist in mental health law, Julie Burton, which is addressed to the Lord Chancellor. In it, she says that publicly funded legal advice lawyers are leaving the service “in droves”. She is the only mental health lawyer in the whole of north and mid-Wales, but she, too, is going to give up. She has dedicated her life to this work but, after 25 years, she can see no alternative.

Vera Baird: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, he is not correct to say that firms are leaving in droves. Of the solicitors who had signed up to the last contract, 94 per cent. have signed up to the new one. That does not suggest that they are leaving in droves; it represents a pretty average fall-away. I am sorry to hear about the lady in Wales. We will have to look for someone else who can provide that service to the vulnerable population that she serves, but I hope that she will reconsider.

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Planning (Consultation)

3.33 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I beg to move,

I must say that this is the best attended 10-minute rule Bill debate that I have ever come across. The title of the Bill is unlikely to set the world on fire. It will certainly not result in dancing in the streets or spontaneous outbreaks of public joy. I am sorry, folks, but the Planning (Consultation) Bill sounds profoundly dull—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I am getting cheers of support. In reality, however, it is important to everyone.

The law of planning has become a dangerous, bureaucratic minefield. It is said that there are only three people left in England who are capable of understanding it: one died young; one fled the country; and the other expert has now gone completely mad. It is understandable why. Anything to do with planning usually involves piles of paperwork, loads of legislation and acres of anxiety. People who are seeking permission to put up a porch at the front of their house will know, as will hon. Members, exactly what I am talking about. That person needs the householder application form, perhaps listed building consent and, let us not forget, the full and outline applications and the lawful development certificate. He will even need to give a consent form to the council to put up a notice. By now that person will have filled up enough of an official’s bumper mailbag to paper the walls of Buckingham palace and Westminster abbey. The application will have been scrutinised by planning officers, subjected to all the rigours of building regulations and put out to the public for their views—or will it?

I am concerned about several aspects of the existing public consultation. The whole process is extremely vague and open to different interpretations by different officials in different town halls. What happens in one place is not necessarily what happens in the district next door, but with the agreement of the House I hope to introduce an improvement—something to make life more sensible for those at the sharp end of the planning maze.

Consultation should mean what it says on the packet. We need a decent definition of the word itself. The “Pocket Oxford English Dictionary” suggests the following meaning:

and importantly

I am quite sure every planner and politician in the land would endorse those sentiments and vow that consultation is a splendid thing and part of everything they do for everybody. However, it is rather like motherhood and apple pie: no one could possibly disagree with the general idea. But with such a woolly meaning, consultation can be as good or as bad as politicians or planners prefer.

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The trouble is that too many planners and politicians are prepared to settle for the barest minimum when it comes to the standard consultation period. The blame lies, I am sorry to say, right here in Westminster. The House has always fought shy of spelling out what consultation should be—how local people are to be canvassed, how views are to be assessed, what account is taken of opinions, how many meetings will be held, or whether there be any meetings at all. The remit to consult is certainly written into all local government legislation, but dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s has always been left to the locals. Basically, the House has, I am afraid, copped out.

The aim of my Bill is to give an exact definition of the term “consultation” and to ensure that the relevant people are consulted. Surely it is such a sensible aim that nobody could possibly object to it. I still wonder why it was not introduced years ago. To illustrate my point, I shall give a real-life example of how our planning system can let down the people whom it is meant to protect. A farmer wanted to put up a new poultry unit in my constituency. Farmland frequently straddles authority boundaries. This farmer bunged in the planning application to the council for the area where the unit was proposed, but the council had no legal obligation to tell the people a couple of hundred yards away about it because they lived in another local authority area. The result was a lot of disgruntled folk who thought that they were being cheated.

The problem is not just a rural one, however. If someone wants to build anything in his urban back yard and the local authority boundary is close by, the people who ought to have a say do not get it. That is plainly wrong and should be put right, and this is where the political controversy may begin, because there seems to be a conflict between those who want to free up the planning process and see applications go through more quickly and those who would like the public to get a bigger voice. I believe that the two goals are not incompatible.

I am absolutely certain that the law as it stands leaves an awful lot to be desired. It also leaves a lot of people dissatisfied. Some things have been done to ease the burden of those who wish to submit planning applications, and in almost every area it can be done online by computer, cutting out paperwork and trips to the council offices. The quid pro quo is that councils are beginning to use their online services as an excuse for consultation. Someone can make an online planning application and people can see it— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is so much noise in the Chamber that it is unfair to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I am not offended by having my Bill talked about, Mr. Speaker! In fact, it is a great accolade.

Information technology has become a get-out—a way of avoiding telling people what is going on.

I appreciate the dilemma faced by local authorities. Some planning areas are very busy. In Wandsworth, here in London, 30,000 consultation letters were sent last year. However, the obligation actually to do anything is non-existent. The only requirement is for a period of 21 days during which action can be taken. The planning authority has a duty to put up notices,
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usually in small print on A4 pieces of paper pinned to telegraph poles. One needs a magnifying glass to decipher what they say, and one would have to be a planning anorak to stop and read one in the first place. Bigger developments require a planning authority to buy one tiny advertisement in the local paper, which is usually hidden away on page 99 if it gets that far. There is a woolly commitment to consulting interest groups, residents and—how I hate this word—stakeholders. The politician who coined the word should be made to use a stake himself.

There are good intentions, but they are not law. Every planning authority can do as much or as little as it likes to keep people posted; no planning authority has any legal obligation to tell people outside its areas what is going on. That means that unless there is a planning application to build a nuclear power station, an airport or a Tesco store, they will not be told. That deficit in the planning process makes a mockery of the existing law, and seriously undermines what has become a major cross-party commitment to be seen to be consulting.

The Government swear by consultation. Hundreds of different consultations are currently taking place: we need only look at the No. 10 website to see that. Those with strong opinions and ample time should be free to add to debates, but there is one small drawback. Consultation does not involve any debate at all. The public are invited to pour in opinion, which can then be conveniently polarised, twisted or ignored. The scale of the consultation industry is reminiscent of the old maxim “Divide and rule”. There are now so many official consultations that it is impossible to keep abreast of any of them. Moreover, the Government have opened up consultation far too widely.

Consultation involves small complications, but big complications are much more serious. Consultations are voluntary, they are not binding, and no one has a say. There has to be a proper “code of conduct”. Imagine what Moses would have said if God had handed him a code of conduct instead of the ten commandments. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ass” has a better ring to it than “Perhaps we should leave the neighbour’s donkey alone”.

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Private Members’ Bills such as this are designed to establish effective procedures by which all councils must abide. It is no longer good enough to tell people what the council feels that it should be telling them. It must no longer be acceptable to insert a tiny notice in the form of a classified advertisement in the local paper. Under my Bill, the nature of proposals must be crystal clear, and they must be advertised so that people can see notices, understand them and—more important—respond to them. Local authorities will have to go out of their way to let people know what they are doing, and the Bill will specify precisely how far out of their way they will have to go.

Critics may say that this will cost money. It is necessary merely to amend, not to reinvent the wheel, and paying for the maximum sensible standards will surely save more in the long term. If planners and politicians listen to local opinion first and take action on the basis of what people really want, town halls will get on a great deal better. We can all cite cases from all over the country in which that has not happened. Perhaps the most obvious local example is my own county council, which ill-fatedly put up hundreds of road signs without consulting. The public were upset, and all the signs came down again. That is not good enough.

The tragedy is that local authorities are not doing anything wrong, but are obeying the law. The Bill spells out what is necessary. It makes sense, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, Kelvin Hopkins, Mr. Mark Francois, Rob Marris, Mr. Ben Wallace, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Mr. Henry Bellingham and Mr. David Clelland.

Planning (consultation)

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger accordingly presented a Bill to require local planning authorities to consult or notify persons living outside their area about specified matters; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 90].

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Opposition Day

[8th allotted day]

Occupational Pensions

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the eighth allotted Opposition day, and the debate is on occupational pensions. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.45 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): I beg to move,

That simple motion reflects the following four simple charges. First, that in his first Budget this Chancellor introduced a stealth tax on pension funds that his own civil servants warned him would blow a big hole in those funds’ finances. Secondly, that in the decade since that Budget that is precisely what has happened; we have seen what the Labour pensions Minister at the time describes as the “large-scale desolation” of our pension system. Thirdly, that that desolation has left millions with a shortfall in their retirement funds and 125,000 people with little or no pension at all. Finally, that this Chancellor has from the start acted with stealth, blocked all attempts to get at the truth and now blames everyone but himself for the destruction that he has brought to Britain’s pensions. In short, the abolition of dividend tax credits was, in the words of the Prime Minister’s own economic adviser at the time,

and quite “crackers”.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Osborne: On that note, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine).

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): If the Conservative party were in power, would it reintroduce the dividend tax credit?

Mr. Osborne: It would do the hon. Gentleman’s career a great deal of good if he did not read out the prepared questions of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. I will come on to what we think we can do to help pensions, and there will be an opportunity tomorrow for the hon. Gentleman to vote for changes that would help those 125,000 people. That raises a question that he will have to answer when we have that debate tomorrow.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Osborne: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho), and perhaps she will tell us whether she will vote for the amendments that would help those 125,000 people.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I would like the hon. Gentleman to tell me whether he agrees with his colleague, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), who today on “The Daily Politics” show led people to believe that the Tory party would look at bringing back the dividend tax credit. What would the hon. Gentleman’s party do?

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Mr. Osborne: Now that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has withdrawn from the Labour leadership race, Labour Members are queuing up to ask the Chancellor’s questions in our debates. I will come on to talk about what the hon. Lady and I can do to help those pensioners. Indeed, there is a vote tomorrow in which she can take part.

I was talking about the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and may I say how pleased we are that Macavity has finally been dragged kicking and screaming out of hiding on the very day when homeowners and pensioners are coming to terms with the latest rise in inflation? Not long ago, the Chancellor was telling the Treasury Committee that he expected

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