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9 May 2007 : Column 127WH—continued

We are looking for a system that is fair to clients, defendants, practitioners and the taxpayer. Since this is day one of the Ministry for Justice, I stress again the
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Government’s commitment, and my own, to diversity in the legal profession. In the judiciary, at the Bar, or in the front-line offices of solicitors’ firms across the country, a diverse legal profession is essential for a quality legal service for all the clients who will and must be served by our justice system.

I am well aware of the kinds of concerns that my hon. Friend has raised. One of my earliest meetings when I got this aspect of my ministerial portfolio was to meet the Black Solicitors Network and the Society of Asian Lawyers with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I told them then that the reforms will not be discriminatory; I say that again today.

When I delivered the third annual lecture to the Black Solicitors Network, I said that I was impressed that its members had come to see me straight away and that they do not mince words any more than I do. I emphasised that I was their ally in making the legal profession one that represents Britain in the 21st century, and I reiterate that today.

Ms Abbott: My hon. and learned Friend has said that she is certain that the reforms will not be discriminatory. Is she equally certain that they will not be indirectly discriminatory?

Vera Baird: I said that it is everybody’s intention that they should not be, so let me consider that issue and see whether there is any danger. We listened at every opportunity to BME practitioners during the various consultations and we will carry on listening for as long as they want to talk to us. The Legal Services Commission has been careful to ensure that each step of the reform process has been accompanied by a regulatory impact assessment, which has included as much detail as possible to ensure that the impact on BME providers and clients was known. The LSC has a provider diversity reference group, which includes the BSN, the Society of Asian Lawyers and the Commission for Racial Equality. It has held BME-specific practitioner consultation events in London, Leicester and Birmingham, and I intend to ask the LSC to commit to a full retrospective regulatory impact assessment on the full reform programme in phase 1 so that we can see cumulatively the impact that it will have alongside the consultation on best value tendering.

Significantly for clients of BME solicitors, those solicitors are available. In total 16 per cent. of solicitors are BME, far more than the proportion of BME people in the general population. We are proud of that. There is no reason why the reforms should make any difference to the number of solicitors, nor has anybody pointed out any such reason. Some, but only some, BME-controlled firms are newer and smaller. Some are older, better-established and larger. Many BME solicitors also work in well established, major supplier firms, sometimes white-owned and controlled, sometimes mixed-owned and controlled. Those businesses offer strong opportunities for BME solicitors, as they do for others, and will continue to do so.

At the meeting that I referred to with the Black Solicitors Network, the Society of Asian Lawyers and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East, was a BME solicitor who asked whether, having
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merged into a firm that had—forgive me for forgetting—either six or eight partners, he needed to consider merging further to fulfil the needs of what was then the interim Carter report. The answer to that was probably no, but let us be clear that not all BME firms are small and not all BME solicitors are in BME-owned and controlled firms. There is not a uniform picture but a significant spread.

However, I do not hide from the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington has put her finger on the point that some aspects of our reforms may have an adverse impact on some BME firms as they are currently configured. I recognise that some BME solicitors want to work for themselves and that some BME clients come to such solicitors because of the cultural resemblance. That is inevitably the case. The core point is that proportionately more firms in some parts of the country are run by BME solicitors than by white solicitors.

Undoubtedly many young black firms run by black entrepreneurs of the kind whom we want to encourage are small, because they are new and have not had the time to grow and develop. They are concerned that the drive is in the direction of bigger firms and that they have not served the time to gain enough slots on duty rotas on a historic basis, so they will have a poorer chance of thriving under a fixed-fee scheme, which my hon. Friend hinted is likely to move towards bigger firms.

Neither the LSC nor I can give an open-ended guarantee that the security of every firm will remain exactly as it is when the change comes. For instance each firm will have to work out, like the BME practitioner to whom I referred, whether it wants to merge with similar practitioners or act with them in unofficial conglomerates that need not be as definite as a merger. However, we are considering ways to accommodate our BME justice partners who work in their own firms and want to stay there. We are looking for ways forward.

One issue to consider is how best to ensure that new firms under BME majority-owned control can access the market under best value tendering. One possibility—it is only one—is lower-value, smaller contracts for newer firms to enable them to establish themselves in the market. There could be not just great groups of contracts for big firms but perhaps another tier for smaller firms. Similarly, the LSC will consider closely how competition should be rolled out across the
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country, perhaps in a phased way, to ensure that firms are not locked out of their local markets for prolonged periods. As is true throughout the reform process and particularly in this sector, practitioner input will be important and welcome.

The LSC has made compulsory the provision of data by legal aid firms on the ethnicity of their staff, which will ensure that we get a better picture as we go along. The data are far better for London than outside. We are continuing efforts to ensure that all firms have robust diversity policies, because the underlying sub-text is that some black and minority ethnic solicitors feel that they cannot get through what they perceive as a glass ceiling in certain firms. That is a criticism not of the changes but of the legal world as it is. We must tackle that, and we are doing so.

Because we have the Constitutional Affairs Committee report to respond to, we are in mid-consultation on a number of the relevant matters and our conclusions must wait until we have had an opportunity to assess all the feedback. I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that the issues raised have been known about from the start and continue to be well understood by the Government as we proceed with the reforms.

Our proposals for legal aid are part of a wider reform agenda across the entire justice system, which now, in our new Ministry, we are better equipped than ever to take forward holistically and thoroughly. We are equipped to bring improvements to the justice system, not only for the people whom it serves but for those who work in it. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured and can join me in inviting black and minority ethnic firms and solicitors to take an active, not an oppositional role in helping us to pursue the ideas that I have indicated are in the ether. Those ideas can ensure that, as I undertook to the Black Solicitors Network at its third annual general meeting, the proposals will not proceed any further as discriminatory proposals, whether directly or indirectly. That is certainly not our intention. I hope that she is reassured and will join me in the belief that if we turn the proposals appropriately and drive them forward in their current framework while examining the issues closely as we progress, we can have a system in which practitioners from all backgrounds can prosper and make a positive difference to the communities that they serve.

4.27 pm

Sitting suspended.

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International Whaling

4.30 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am pleased that I was able to secure this debate. It is particularly timely, as the International Whaling Commission is meeting in Anchorage right now. The scientific committee meeting has already started, and meetings will continue until the end of the month, with decision making happening between the 28th and the 31st.

The issue of international whaling is of great concern to many people in this country. I am sure that I am not alone in having had dozens of constituents write to me on the issue, and that other Members will have had similar postbags. I would like to thank the Minister for his helpful responses to constituents who raised the issue with me.

During the debate, I would like to outline the history of the issue, give some background and explain the problem. I shall discuss the changes made last year by the IWC and explain why the issue is rapidly moving up the agenda of animal welfare organisations, then perhaps touch on the UK’s response so far and turn to the challenge of the meeting at the end of this month. Finally, I shall pose some questions for the Minister about the UK’s activities to secure the outcome that we all want at that meeting.

Whaling has occurred on a small scale throughout history. I believe that there is broad agreement among most nations of the world and even among animal welfare organisations that small-scale whaling by indigenous peoples can be supported and sustained, and that it involves sufficiently small numbers that it will not greatly affect world whale populations.

However, the advent of large-scale commercial whaling in the 20th century has resulted in literally hundreds of thousands of these beautiful, majestic creatures being killed. Some estimates of the number of whales killed in the past century are as high as 2 million. In fact, some species were hunted almost to extinction; for example, the blue whale is only now recovering and still has a very small population. It is estimated that there are as few as 1,700 in the southern hemisphere.

But there was a chink of light 25 years ago with the International Whaling Commission, and a reprieve for the whales when it agreed on a moratorium on commercial whaling. To some extent, whale populations have been allowed some respite and the ability to recover. I believe that many scientists agree that the moratorium helped to halt the rapid decline in whale stocks, although the IWC Scientific Committee is not without its internal politics: there is not always agreement on specific whale numbers and the size of whale stocks.

Why is it important to maintain the moratorium? There is a very strong argument in terms of the animal cruelty involved. There is no humane way to kill a whale. Whales are killed by methods that would not be allowed for any land-based mammal. Whaling fleets go out armed with all their technological equipment to find the whales, and harpoons are shot from cannons. A six-foot iron spear goes into the whale. Often, it will have a grenade with a timer on the end of it. The
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grenade explodes shortly after impact, blowing the animal’s insides apart, but, unfortunately, death is not immediate. Seldom is it possible to fire the spear into the animal’s brain, so the whale may then thrash around in agonising pain for up to 10 minutes until it finally dies. The horrors of that have been well documented by a variety of non-governmental organisations and charities.

Apart from the animal cruelty aspect, I would argue that there is just no economic sense to commercial whaling. Whales may be hunted for human consumption, but there are well-documented health hazards because of heavy metal content. Indeed, even the Japanese, who have undertaken so-called scientific whaling and who have used the meat for food, have huge stockpiles of meat that they cannot get rid of. Few people want to eat whale meat, and the Japanese are trying to sell it off for school dinners or, in some cases, even pet food.

So there is no economic case for commercial whaling. However, there is a great economic case for whale watching, which is a non-intrusive activity that allows people to see the beauty of the creatures in their natural environment. It has been estimated that last year nearly 8 million people took part in that activity, providing $800 million of revenue to those countries where they are able to do so.

Those are reasons for keeping the moratorium, but the problem is that Japan in particular has been actively lobbying to resume commercial whaling. Given that there is no economic case for it, the reasons why the Japanese are so determined to maintain it completely escape me. Perhaps whaling is some kind of cultural totem or tradition.

Japan has had some success in signing up members of the IWC, particularly small countries that have been tempted by promises of aid packages. There are well-documented cases of the amounts of money that have gone to different countries: more than £2.5 million to St. Kitts and Nevis, more than £8.5 million to Nicaragua and more than £4 million to Palau. It is estimated that over the past 12 years Japan has given $750 million of so-called fisheries aid to smaller countries which have then ended up voting on a pro-whaling basis on the IWC. Japan has now started having pre-meetings in Tokyo, to prepare for IWC meetings. It did so in 2006 and again this year, and paid for small countries to attend.

Last year, 66 countries were present at the IWC meeting. For the first time, as we all know, there was a pro-whaling majority on one motion in the St. Kitts and Nevis declaration, which included a statement that the

That is a clear message that Japan is not keen on the role of protecting whales.

The declaration also includes the words:

It does not have legal, binding status, but Japan hopes that it will give credibility to its case for resuming commercial whaling. The motion was passed on a knife edge of 33 to 32 votes.

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Other votes last year did not command a simple majority but still give cause for concern. There was a vote to prevent discussion on steps to protect small cetaceans, or dolphins, which was narrowly defeated 32 to 30. There was a resolution to permit minke whale catch in the Okhotsk sea, which was defeated by 31 to 30. Perhaps most worrying was a proposal by Japan that votes of the IWC should be held in secret. It was defeated by just 31 to 30. Given the allegations of bribery—the votes of specific countries being bought by Japan—that is obviously of special concern.

What has been the UK’s response to the issue? First, I very much welcome the work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the issue. I believe that the work of DEFRA Ministers and officials is very much praised by interested groups in the UK. The document “Protecting Whales—A Global Responsibility”, with a foreword by the Prime Minister and David Attenborough, has been sent to the countries on the IWC. It was certainly a very good initiative. Strong diplomatic means of showing our views on the issue, such as the summoning of the Icelandic ambassador last October, have helped to make the UK stance quite clear and to show a lead in Europe and globally.

However, I would like to press the Minister on some points and seek an assurance from him that all of the Government as well as his Department are doing everything that they can to secure a victory at the IWC at the end of this month for the anti-whaling countries.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): My hon. Friend makes an important point about the distinction between DEFRA and higher levels of Government. Does she share my concern about the slightly ambiguous answer I received from the Minister on 26 April, which mentioned that the highest diplomatic levels were being used and that Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts in the relevant capitals were being briefed? Would she welcome confirmation of whether his Department has asked the Prime Minister to make his views known to countries, such as Denmark and the smaller Commonwealth nations, and would she also welcome confirmation that the Prime Minister has done so?

Jo Swinson: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I would welcome some clarification from the Minister on that issue. Obviously, it is welcome that the Prime Minister has written the forward to the document, “Protecting Whales—A Global Responsibility”, but that is not enough on its own. The Prime Minister should be encouraged to write to all the nations concerned.

I urge the Minister to emphasise to the Prime Minister the importance of using occasions when he meets other world leaders to press the matter. We know that the Prime Minister met the Japanese Prime Minister on 9 January this year and a written parliamentary question on 30 January 2007, Official Report,column 151W, asked whether they discussed whaling. In the answer we are directed to the website, which states what was discussed at the meeting. However, there is no mention of whaling on the website. When the Prime Minister had the opportunity to press the Prime Minister of Japan on the issue it seems that he did not rise to the challenge and ask him about whaling.

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Although the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs may press the issue, in terms of diplomacy within the wider world, surely the Foreign Secretary has a role to play. Yet in a written question on 27 February 2007, Official Report, column 1205W, the Foreign Secretary was asked what discussions she has had with Ministers and officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about whaling in the past 12 months. In answer she said:

It seems that she is passing the issue onto DEFRA. The Foreign Secretary should have plans in that regard. She should be involved in efforts to deal with the issue and it should be taken forward at Cabinet level.

Can we really take the Government’s anti-whaling credentials seriously if, despite the good work of DEFRA, the issue is not receiving the priority attention that it should at the highest level? I urge the Government to recognise that Japan never misses an opportunity to involve its highest profile Ministers from the Cabinet and the Prime Minister of Japan in the issue. That can be countered only by a similar level of effort from the UK Government.

On a similar point, I note that it will be the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs attending the IWC on behalf of the UK at the end of month. I know that the Minister has previously attended and has great experience in this area so I am curious to know why he is not attending this year. That may be a matter of concern in terms of sending a message that the highest levels of Government are involved in the issue.

We have the meeting at the end of the month and there are more than 70 members of the IWC. We hope that there will be a slim majority of anti-whaling countries, but the process moves quickly and countries have up to the last minute to join, so the situation could change. What steps are the Government taking to convince more of the current members to switch if they are anti-whaling or if they are wavering? What are the Government doing to encourage more countries to sign up? There has been some great success with Croatia, Slovenia and Cyprus, but is there likely to be any progress in getting Greece to sign up before the end of the month? From the documents I have read, I understand that secrets ballots are unlikely to be an issue at the meeting. However, I would welcome the Minister’s understanding of the situation and if we could at least have some reassurance about whether that will come to the table at the forthcoming meeting.

In some circles, there is a fear that the US, which, of course, is usually anti-whaling might be tempted to do a deal with Japan to ensure that there are enough votes to secure aboriginal hunting of bowhead whales off Alaska. That is of concern because the US is an influential country that could carry others with it. Has the Minister anticipated that happening? What is being done to use our influence, particularly with the smaller countries that we have strong historic ties with—for example through the Commonwealth, as my hon. Friend mentioned? What UK diplomatic efforts are being made to exert influence on those countries?

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