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12 Jun 2007 : Column 248WH—continued

Mr. Stuart: Obviously the Minister is infinitely more familiar with the detail of this landscape than I am, but it seems to me that when people do not go to Beverley
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and thus do not pick up a fee—I believe that such fees represent about 20 per cent. of their income—they can hardly be considered to be pocketing a pay rise. Those changes have caused Hull-based firms financial and professional difficulties. As one firm put it:

It is beneath the Minister to suggest that they are fat-cat lawyers who are going for a money grab. That is not the right approach to the issue, which is why the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) and many other Labour Members questioned the Government’s approach during January’s debate. The Minister’s harshness of tone when dealing with those who are trying to provide services of great importance is inappropriate.

The eight firms to which I referred have fiercely opposed the locality being declared an urban area. They concluded that it no longer made economic sense to represent publicly-funded clients in Beverley, Goole and Bridlington and thus gave notice to Her Majesty’s Courts Service that they would no longer provide duty solicitor services for courts based outside Hull or take on new cases. That came into effect on 16 April 2007.

The situation has created a dilemma for the Legal Services Commission, which has a statutory duty to ensure the availability of legal advice. It wrote to firms in Scarborough, York, Doncaster, Scunthorpe and Grimsby to ask for their help. When that provided limited assistance only at Beverley, it had to arrange for the public defender service at Darlington to attend, although Darlington is more than 90 miles away. When pressed, the regional director of the LSC would not reveal how much the service had been paid.

A rota for the whole of June has been put in place. Three firms—one from Bridlington and two from Scarborough—are being used and the LSC is in the process of drafting a similar rota for the next three months using the same firms, plus any others that are interested. On the rota for Beverley, solicitors from Scarborough are providing Saturday cover, which is operated through a call-in scheme—the duty solicitor is required only if there is a need. After that, the situation is unclear. The eight Hull-based firms are now bringing judicial review proceedings against the LSC on the basis that the other three firms are receiving additional pay for their services.

The Minister suggested that that payment has already been included in the fees. I gave an example of solicitors having to travel to court and wait perhaps three hours for a case to be heard. Is she suggesting that the Hull solicitors would receive the same amount of money as the solicitors from Scarborough? It appears that she is now less keen to intervene.

Vera Baird: I am happy to intervene. In my response, I shall set out the system comprehensibly to assist the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Stuart: I look forward to that and hope that the Minister will answer that straightforward question. If lawyers from Bridlington and Scarborough are being paid more than those from Hull, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North and I will want to know why and how the Minister can justify that.

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Vera Baird: The answer is very straightforward: eight firms of solicitors have tried to boycott the work that they are being paid to do, so other resources have had to be brought in. Happily, the court is being served properly and no one’s access to justice has been damaged as a result of the action.

Mr. Stuart: But as a result of the policy of the Government and the Minister, the costs are higher because lawyers have to be brought in from far afield—Darlington, Scarborough or wherever. The Minister’s policy has caused that. Those lawyers have to travel a long way and are being paid to do so. Far from saving money, that is costing the public purse more money. People in Hull who are committed to serving the local community are being affected by reforms that were supposed to increase the local work and focus of lawyers, but are having the opposite effect. Her truculence in dealing with the issue throws light on nothing, except perhaps her attitude. If the Minister will not take that point from me, perhaps she will accept it from the area director of Her Majesty’s Courts Service, who said to me:

how different from her view as she sits in her ivory tower.

Vera Baird: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stuart: No, I shall press on to the end of my speech. The area director continued:

As I said, what makes the current situation so inadequate is the fact that it is costing substantially more money to bring in those people than it would to use the Hull-based solicitors. Those firms will be charging for travel to Hull prison and the nearest Crown court, which, funnily enough, is also based in Hull.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful case. Does he agree that such people are not likely to cause trouble or to be obstructive in normal circumstances? They are also being hit hard by the introduction of means-testing in magistrates courts because there will be many more litigants in person, which will clog up the courts and, probably, take work away from many local solicitors.

Mr. Stuart: I agree entirely and, of course, these reforms compound the problem caused by the over-bureaucratic and complicated means-testing system brought in by the Government. They will obstruct access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable in society. No one doubts the Minister’s commitment to access to justice, but Labour Members increasingly doubt the efficacy of the reforms that she thinks will bring that about.

Briefly—because we are running out of time—what will be the impact of those reforms on the local supplier base? Nationally, the number of firms holding a criminal legal aid contract has reduced from 2,925 in
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2000-01 to just 2,608 in 2006, which represents a decline of 10 per cent. On 17 October last year, in a written answer to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), the Minister admitted that two thirds of legal aid practices had disappeared since 1997—under the Government’s watch.

All the available evidence suggests that that trend is likely to continue. Moreover, as a result of the reforms, smaller firms will be forced to close or amalgamate. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said in January, many firms

The fragility of the supplier base is also a major issue on which I hope that the Minister will reflect.

In summary, it is extraordinary to see a left-wing firebrand becoming a marketisation freak who is committed to forcing a market-based ideology on to a system when there is no problem. Costs are under control and services are good. This is a solution trying to find a problem and the supplier base is being put at threat. Large firms are likely to result from the tendering process, rather than small responsive firms with specialisations. All that will have come about under the Minister’s watch. I and other Members on both sides of the House hope that she will think again, listen to the warnings from experts and this House and recognise that her reforms, far from leading to quality, will lead purely to cost constraints, although there was not a problem in the existing system.

1.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Vera Baird): I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing the debate. I am sure that his constituents are assured that he did so solely out of concern for their interests. I acknowledge and thank Members who have found the time to attend. The hon. Gentleman is right that we have the best legal aid system in the world, by many strides, but he is wrong to suggest that criminal legal aid has not increased. It has done so by 39 per cent. since 1997. That has consequently produced a 37 per cent. decrease in civil legal aid. I will come on to the impact of that on the poorest in society.

It is not correct to suggest that the Hull firms will receive less than before and the figure of £30,000 is not correct. They have achieved a clear 2 per cent. pay rise, assuming that they do the work that they are contracted to do, which they are now not choosing to do in Beverley.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the Minister give way?

Vera Baird: I am afraid that I do not have time to give way because the hon. Gentleman ran over his allocation of time and I must respond to the points that he chose to raise, many of which were incorrect.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) intervened intending, I think, to help
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his colleague. He suggested that the people involved would not usually cause any difficulty. However, he missed the fact that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said that this group of people had been fiercely opposed to the introduction of the changes. They have been on strike already and it is clear that they are acting collectively now.

Before dealing with the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I shall reiterate the principles behind the Government’s programme of legal aid reforms, the thrust of which is supported by his party. On 15 March, in the Public Bill Committee that considered the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, who is in the Chamber now, said:

I mention that because the correspondence from a solicitor local to the constituency of the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, which his office has kindly shown me and which essentially gave rise to this debate, is a diatribe against the totality of the reforms that both his party and mine accept are vital if we are to serve the poorest in society.

Our reforms will serve the people who rely on legal aid. I recently opened the community legal advice centre in Gateshead in the north-east. Historically, people needing advice have got only what the legal profession has delivered. People, often with multiple problems involving such matters as welfare benefits, debt, housing and family, have had to work out exactly what type of advice they need and then go to the right supplier, who might be able to give them help with one problem, but not all of them. The more people are referred on to supplier after supplier, the less likely they are to go—they get referral fatigue. Anyway, research makes it clear that specialists do not refer people on for the right advice if they do not have the necessary expertise in their firm, even if they see a person’s need.

Community legal advice centres such as that in Gateshead will be well publicised. They will invite people with problems to come through the door and ensure that they are connected to all the advice that they need. People will need simply to come through the door and ask. Such investment, which can make a huge contribution to preventing chaotic lives from declining into the social exclusion that untackled problems can cause, will follow from getting a grip on spiralling criminal legal aid expenditure. We will also ensure that the structure of criminal legal aid supports improvements to our criminal justice system by using it to drive efficiencies, such as controlling the money spent on paying for lawyers’ travel and waiting time.

I come now to the concerns that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness raised about the introduction this April of the new standard fee system for magistrates courts. Magistrates courts have worked on the basis of standard fees for years. The change is to average out the payment for lawyers’ time spent on local travel and waiting, to put it into the standard fee
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and to remove merely one third of it—not all of it, as the hon. Gentleman suggested—so that people are encouraged to operate more efficiently. Criminal defence practitioners who have business premises in Hull and have historically carried out work in Goole, Beverley and the other places to which the hon. Gentleman referred have received a 2 per cent. pay increase under the new fee system. The letter of diatribe to the hon. Gentleman did not mention the pay increase.

All eight solicitors’ firms in Hull have decided not to go to work in Beverley any more and have resigned from the duty rota there. That is their privilege. The 2 per cent. increase applies if the solicitors travel to do work in those outlying areas, as they have done in the past. If they do not travel there, they will be working in Hull. Their offices are in the city centre, within easy walking distance of the magistrates court, and they will thus get a far bigger increase in fees by profiting from being paid for the time spent travelling—that payment is rolled up in the fixed fee—although they are not travelling. That means that they are getting two thirds of the pay for travelling to and waiting at both Hull and Beverley, but they are not going to Beverley—they are walking only to the Hull court.

A 2 per cent. increase in what the solicitors were earning for covering all the courts seems a very strange reason for deciding to withdraw from Beverley. I find it very surprising that all eight of the Hull suppliers have simultaneously found it commercially attractive to withdraw from Beverley. I am told, as the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness reiterated, that that represents 20 per cent. of their business, so they must have sound commercial principles in mind. They have said that if we pay them again—on top of the travel element of the fixed fee—to go to Beverley, they will be prepared to do so. By the way, they get their mileage costs in addition.

I find it even more surprising that the letter from a solicitor local to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency asserts that the decision taken by the solicitors had something to do with access to justice. I wonder how many people at the court centres no longer served by the lawyers would like to be helped by a representative whom they know, but will now have to be represented by a new firm, although no doubt that new firm will give them good service. I am very pleased that local suppliers outside Hull have taken a different approach: they are prepared to help people in trouble at those courts. I am also pleased that the courts continue to operate effectively with proper representation from solicitors who are local to the area.

The hon. Gentleman cited the HMCS director in an out-of-date memo. The director e-mailed the hon. Gentleman’s parliamentary assistant yesterday to indicate that he was satisfied that the system was now working well and that e-mail was copied to me.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Will the Minister give way briefly on that point?

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Vera Baird: No, the hon. Gentleman overran his time. I will answer his point.

It is right that the public defender service had to be deployed for a while to ensure that no disruption to access to justice was caused by what was frankly a boycott. However, although its personnel remain available and we are immensely grateful to the dedicated team of public servants, they are not needed at present in Beverley, which is served by good-quality local solicitors’ firms.

Mr. Stuart: On a point of order, Miss Begg. For clarification, the letter from the area director of Her Majesty’s Courts Service is dated 4 June.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): That is not a point of order. I call Vera Baird.

Vera Baird: It is pretty obviously not a point of order. Mr. Bradley, the gentleman who was referred to, e-mailed the hon. Gentleman’s assistant, Tim, yesterday and pronounced himself satisfied with the system that we have managed to put in place. That e-mail was copied to me. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not making a very good point.

Over the past two years, there has been a fundamental examination of the way in which the Legal Services Commission delivers legal aid. We have carefully considered the full range of independent research that has been published—not only the publications that the Government and the LSC commissioned—and that research has informed and launched our programme of reforms and will continue to shape it.

I do not seek to hide from the fact that the extension of fixed and graduated fee systems will require legal aid practitioners to change how they work. Many legal aid practitioners, largely in bigger cities, are already successfully moving from remuneration based on time spent to remuneration based on effective services delivered to clients. That will allow the Government to have greater control over spending and will encourage suppliers to improve their efficiency ahead of best value tendering. Such tendering, which will be introduced from October 2008, will enable the LSC to purchase legal aid services on the basis of quality and price.

The key to the new procurement system is balancing quality and access for clients, value for money for the taxpayer, and fair remuneration for providers. I strongly believe that efficient, flexible and innovative suppliers will benefit from, and flourish under, the reforms. It is part and parcel of the acceptance by the hon. Gentleman’s party of the thrust of the reforms that it thinks that as well.

Our proposals for legal aid are part of a wider reform agenda across the entire justice system. The coming months and years will see the implementation of the reforms that we have set out to the immense benefit of the public. The reforms will bring improvements to the justice system for not only the people it serves, but the professionals working in it who are willing and able to cope sensibly with change.

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