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Let me say briefly to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw that poorer people sometimes have a better guarantee of quality from lawyers than richer people. If people are on legal aid, the Legal Services Commission, which contracts with them, has powers. For example, the commission can issue a specialist quality mark which people need to carry out certain legal aid work. It also has a system of peer review. That system involves other lawyers reviewing the way in which people conduct their business, so I admit that it might not be perfection incarnate, but it is a pretty potent tool that guarantees some quality. When a person is outside legal aid, none of those mechanisms are
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available. In addition, for complex cases, case management is available on legal aid through the LSC, so lawyers cannot send a case on legal aid to an expert who is not needed. Standard cases are carried out for a fixed fee, so there is nothing to be gained by prolonging a case unnecessarily in the way in which his constituents have experienced.

My hon. Friend dealt pretty effectively with Liberal Democrat Members’ cosy point that local solicitors are universally good and always act in the interests of their communities. Sometimes that is the case, but small firms must not be preferred at all costs. Such firms are not universally bad either, but they cannot possibly have the range of expertise that is needed in this modern world. Larger community legal advice networks are essential, whether they are actual or virtual. Firms in the not-for-profit sector can work together through such networks to ensure that the poor using legal aid can go through one door for advice, rather than going to the only firm available—although it knows nothing about debt because it spends its life conveyancing and dealing with crime—and thus getting let down. Such a system also means that people do not need to work out what kind of advice they need so that they can decide where to go. If they have a community legal advice network or centre, they can walk through a door and just ask.

I was privileged to open the first community legal advice centre about a week ago in Gateshead. I ask all hon. Members in the Chamber to request that their local authorities enter at once into negotiations with the LSC so that the local authority cash that is available for welfare advice and our cash from the LSC that is available for legal advice can be pooled, to ensure that people who need good legal advice can literally walk through a door of a community legal advice centre and just ask for it.

My last point about the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw is that the lawyers complaints system has got significantly better, as even my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said.

If the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) thinks that measures that say that alternative business structures should not be introduced until endless research has been completed, and which would delegate the power of the office for legal complaints back to the Bar Standards Board, are not wrecking amendments, I am afraid that he is a lost cause.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) rightly perceived that he would need to get some correspondence from me in connection with the points raised in his speech. However, he asked a specific question that I can answer. If an ABS body operates in England and Scotland, it will have to comply with each jurisdiction’s regulatory rules, unless the rules apply to where the work is being done. If alternative business structures are not permitted in a jurisdiction, a firm will have to create a different entity to work there.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the crossover of regulators when multidisciplinary partnerships come into being. The LSB will regulate the economic entity that supplies the legal services, while individuals from different profession will remain regulated by their profession.

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My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham champions outstandingly his hard pressed, ill treated, often suffering miner constituents. He makes powerful points but essentially says that the amendments made in the other place weaken the Bill. We agree, and we will not accept them.

The question of appointments has taken a lot of airspace tonight. To speak as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire did of Government controlling lawyers or the Lord Chancellor appointing his friends is silly. Of course the Nolan principles apply, as he knows very well. Appointments will be made in accordance with best practice and they will be scrutinised by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The appointments will therefore be made on merit, independently scrutinised by the OCPA and subject to equal opportunities requirements and to the test of probity. That method of ministerial appointment is the norm for all public appointments. There is no reason to distinguish between appointments made in connection with the Bill and any others.

Mr. Heald: Will the Minister give way?

Vera Baird: Yes, but let me first make one more point. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will respond when he intervenes.

A number of people have asked why the Lord Chief Justice should not co-decide the matter. The answer is that if an appointment is a ministerial appointment, there is both parliamentary oversight and scrutiny by the OCPA. What if an appointment were proposed by the Lord Chancellor and passed all the Nolan criteria of merit, equal opportunities and probity, but were then vetoed by the Lord Chief Justice? Who would be accountable then?

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. and learned Lady not recognise that we are in a different world, with new roles for the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice? Each represents an important pillar of our constitution: the Executive on the one hand and the judiciary on the other. Given that the appointment is about the independence of the legal profession and given that it goes to the profession that provides the judges and, therefore, that pillar of our constitution, how can she say that this is not a serious matter, or argue that there should not be consultation with the Lord Chief Justice? Of course there should be.

Vera Baird: Ah—I sense a wee shifting of ground here. We are talking about consultation, are we? That is not the word that was inserted by Conservatives in the other place. Consultation? Let us think about that in Committee.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has taken and digested the point that I made a minute ago, to which he simply failed to respond. If a proper appointment made by a Minister accountable to this House and according to Nolan principles is vetoed by the Lord Chief Justice, there is no route of accountability. That is the fatal flaw in the rather superficial arguments that have been advanced. If we followed the path advocated by Conservative Members, we would weaken the independence of the legal profession.

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Mr. Heald: The Minister may not yet have fully appreciated the significance of the change to the Lord Chancellor’s role, or that the Lord Chief Justice now has part of the Lord Chancellor’s former role. Is she saying that she would agree to an amendment that required the Lord Chancellor to consult the Lord Chief Justice, or is that just a red herring?

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman, running backwards as fast as he can without quite falling over, ignores the code that allows the flexibility now for Ministers to consult relevant persons. What is the problem with that? It suffices for every other public appointment. Clementi does not want the Lord Chief Justice to make a co-decision; consumers overwhelmingly do not want it. The availability of consultation is present. The hon. Gentleman has run back up a dead end.

Let me deal with the question of thresholds for the exercise of the LSB’s powers, to which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate referred. It is essential that the board be able to exercise appropriate powers where the acts or omissions of an approved regulator damage the regulatory objectives, but to amend the threshold so that the board can act only where there is a significant adverse impact on the whole of the regulatory objectives is to tie its hands. The board must not stand by and watch while a significant or serious event happens before it can act; that is not in the consumer interest. We will overturn that amendment.

We have discussed the sunrise clause and researching before we introduce ABS activity in England and Wales. If part 5, which brings in ABS, cannot commence until some research has been conducted on ABS, there will be no ABS to research, and the process of bringing it into force will be very circular. The amendment to that effect made in the other place is about delaying unreasonably the positive benefits that ABS will bring to consumers and providers alike.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, among others, raised issues of providers cherry-picking, undercutting, wiping out the competition and not providing services in rural areas because of the power of the open market, and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is no longer in his place, talked about virtuous local solicitors using conveyancing to subsidise criminal work. Theirs is simply not a realistic position. The most dynamic firms in my constituency, where there are small towns, only do criminal work and they do not subsidise it from anything. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate spoke with pride of being a solicitor who had done legal aid criminal work for the poor on benefits for the past 12 years, and he has a decent quality suit on tonight, so I think that he is managing without subsidising that work from anywhere else.

The licensing authorities will have a clear duty to consider the effect on all the regulatory objectives, including access to justice, when carrying out the licensing functions. That is in clause 28, which covers all licensing functions, not just decisions on applications for alternative business structure licences. That duty is reinforced by the requirements in clause 82 for licensing authorities to issue policy statements about how they will comply with their duty to consider the regulatory objectives when carrying out their functions. Again, that is about access to justice.
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Licensing authorities will be held to those duties through monitoring by the legal services board. Those duties will fully protect access to justice.

Mr. Burrowes: To go back to the Minister’s categorisation of those who want a sunrise clause as people employing a delaying tactic, would she say that Sir David Clementi and the Joint Committee on the Draft Legal Services Bill were guilty of using delaying tactics? They all urged a cautionary approach to the ABS systems.

Vera Baird: Caution is the Government’s watchword, and we will proceed with monitoring as we go along, but silly research that is intended to support a wrecking amendment will not be tolerated; the Bill will make progress at the appropriate rate.

Let me turn to the issue of trade unions. My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has made it clear that we in no way intend the Bill to regulate lay trade union representation in the workplace, whether full-time or part-time. Nor do we intend it to put additional burdens on unions that provide legal advice to their members. However, contrary to what was suggested, that does not mean that union members will have no protection, for a number of reasons. First, any reserved legal activities that a union undertakes will have to be carried out by lawyers and will be subject to regulation. We are talking about not regulating the union as an entity, rather than not regulating the lawyers who work within it. In addition, the exemption applies only where the union is providing legal services deriving from its membership. If the union wanted to provide legal services to the public at large, it would have to be regulated as an entity and would have to get an ABS licence.

The Royal Automobile Club, the Automobile Association or any other members’ organisation would be in the same position; as long as it provided services only for its own members, and as long as its membership was not so wide that it amounted to a section of the public under clause 15(6), it, too, would not have to be regulated. It is common for members of unions to be referred to outside firms with which the union has arrangements, but where trade unionists have a complaint about the way in which they have been represented, they can of course go to the certification officer, if there is a breach of the rulebook; that remedy is not available to somebody who is being represented by a citizens advice bureau.

The issue of not delegating complaints-handling to the Bar Standards Board is central to our policy of creating a single, independent complaints body. The office for legal complaints should deal with all complaints of up to £20,000, although that limit can be increased. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw talked about the need for it to be higher. The Law Society’s current ceiling is £15,000, so the provision is better than that, but we will certainly consider the points that he made. The OLC will be free to seek advice or assistance from anybody, including approved regulators; that is important, and it means that the much lauded expertise of the Bar Standards Board will not be lost. It is imperative that the OLC be independent. It is a new redress system; it is not the Bar Standards Board. There must not be the impression
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that the profession is judging itself, and there will be no delegation of complaints-handling down to the Bar Standards Board. This important legislation will put in place a regulatory framework that puts the consumer at its heart.

Mr. Heald: The hon. and learned Lady seems to suggest that she fully accepts the comments made by the hon. Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann) to the effect that all lawyers are chisellers and not to be trusted, and that we are in effect talking about an outlaw profession. She has been an honourable member of the profession for a long time; is she just accepting those remarks? Is she not prepared to stand up for a profession full of hard-working, honest people who are trying to do a good job, and who believe that they are following a vocation? Is she not prepared to defend her profession at all?

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman does not listen to what my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham and for Bassetlaw are talking about. They have laid a large number of legitimate complaints that have been upheld by disciplinary bodies. They have both made it clear that so far none of those concerned have been found not culpable in those cases. That is entirely right, and I do not understand why the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire wants to make the point that my hon. Friends are misguided in their criticism of those wrong solicitors who shame him, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate and me as members of what should be an honourable profession. Bad lawyers must be dealt with severely, and they will be dealt with severely. The hon. Gentleman must not let vested interests stand in the way of his usually fair judgment.

This important piece of legislation will put in place a regulatory framework that puts the consumer at its heart. It will encourage competition, innovation and transparency in the provision of legal services. It will address consumers’ bad experience with poorly handled complaints. It will ensure that the regulatory structure within which the legal services operate is flexible and modern. It will strengthen the position and standing of legal services in England and Wales to secure greater public and consumer confidence at home, bring greater independence to the regulation of legal services and retain the sector’s long established and respected international position.

All these are the purposes behind the Bill, and it will achieve them. We look forward to careful scrutiny and good debate in Committee in case this good Bill can still be improved, but we will resist totally its purposes being undermined by specious amendments. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A (6) (Programme m otions),

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Question agreed to.

Legal Services Bill [ lords] [money]

Queen’s recommendation having been signified——

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.

4 Jun 2007 : Column 106


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52 (1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.

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