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12 July 2007 : Column 512WH—continued

That is the story for legal aid firms across London. The big firms that do a proportion of legal aid cases are continuing to do so only because they can cross-subsidise within the firm—not because there is sufficient funding but because they can afford to. However, I have a number of legal aid solicitors’ firms in my constituency, as I am sure colleagues do, in which sometimes as much as 90 per cent. of the work is on legal aid. If the cuts go on, they will have to close down and we will lose the benefit of them.

After the last debate, I took the opportunity of writing to every solicitor’s practice in my constituency. I sent them a questionnaire and asked them to outline what they did, whether they had signed the new contract, what they thought the effect would be on their clients and whether they would be prepared to take part in a repeat exercise in a few months’ time. Many companies replied. All of those that replied had signed the contract, but they pointed out that they had been unwilling to do so, it was done at the point of a gun and so on. They did not do so willingly.

On 16 May, Deighton Guedalla and Company replied to my questionnaire. I asked what the effect of the new regime was likely to be on finances, training and so on, and the company replied:

Deighton Guedalla is a good, effective local company. I could read out all the survey reports, because they say much the same kind of thing.

Colleagues may have done similar surveys of local firms in their constituency. I have a quote from Islington Peoples Rights, which is a very effective, popular voluntary organisation. It has a legal aid contract. My questionnaire asked:

The reply was:

There are so many more responses like that one.

I had a letter from a local legal aid solicitor, Greg Foxsmith, who referred to a meeting of legal aid lawyers that he had attended the day before in Conway Hall, at which it was said that allegations about the top 10 high-earning barristers had been used to an absurd degree by the media and others who go on and on
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about the gravy train for fat-cat lawyers. I do not doubt that there are fat-cat lawyers. I do not doubt that those who represent the Beckhams and other such people in this world probably make a lot of money. There is a difference between the world of the rich and the famous for being famous—those who are famous because of their barrister—and the reality of life for ordinary people whom we have been sent to Parliament to represent. I wish that we could separate the two and seriously review the consequences of the changes that have been introduced.

Access to Justice Alliance set out a good summary of the issue. It asked, what is the point of legal aid, and said that it was the supply of advice, accessibility of legal aid services to all ethnic groups, local networks of organisations that provide help and support to vulnerable people, and quality of advice.

Given that good advice and those sound points, it is important that the Government recognise that the Carter review came along, there were warnings about problems, and problems occurred. There was a debate in this very Chamber when prescient warnings were given. The Select Committee published a report—and a very good report it is, too—and here we are again, having another debate.

We have a new Minister. I compliment her and congratulate her on her appointment. She has a real chance to do something about the situation by listening to those who work day to day in this field, by understanding the problems that they face, and by understanding that, in the present atmosphere, the reality is that the people who are being short-changed and treated the worst are those who have already been short-changed and treated the worst by society as a whole.

If we are here for justice, we must ensure equality of access to justice. That is what I want. That is why I ask the Minister to think seriously about the Government’s response to the Select Committee report, and to give us some hope when she replies that there will be a rethink on the contract and the funding, and on accessibility to advice services in constituencies and communities.

I shall conclude with this point. I have represented Islington, North since 1983. When I was first elected, the borough had three law centres, two citizens advice bureaux, a large number of community advice organisations and an effective welfare rights organisation run by the local authority. In other words, many people could get access to advice. Therefore, benefit take-up rates and all the other things that go with that were high.

The borough now has one law centre, no citizens advice bureau—the last one just closed—Islington Peoples Rights, which does its best but is flooded by demand, and legal aid solicitors who do their best. I suspect that many people, particularly those whose first language is not English, have no access to any advice or the benefits that would come if they were to get advice, and no access to legal aid because of the shortage of legal aid provision. It is up to us, as Labour Government Members, to ensure that those people in our society do not go under-represented and short-changed.

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4.25 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Legal aid is a very necessary service, and legal aid lawyers do a fantastic job on behalf of the clients whom they represent. Few earn large salaries for the work that they do. However, none of those incontrovertible facts is a reason not to curb excesses within the legal aid system, or to seek better value for money in a public service for which expenditure is rising a great deal faster than the rate of inflation.

The problem with legal aid is that almost everyone who has anything to say in the debate has a vested interest in increasing the amount that is spent on it. [Interruption.] I know that some hon. Members disagree with me. I have listened patiently to their views, so I hope that they will have the decency to listen to a different point of view.

My comment about vested interest applies to lawyers and to members of the public who qualify for legal aid. It applies to the courts, the police and many pressure groups.

Mr. Beith: I am neither a lawyer nor, because of my income as a Member of Parliament, do I qualify for legal aid. What is my vested interest?

Hugh Bayley: I said that almost everyone who has anything to say about the matter has a vested interest. The hon. Gentleman makes a debating point. He has looked at the evidence in front of him and reached conclusions, but I ask him to listen with an open mind to someone who has reached conclusions that are different in some respects.

The consequence of the nature of the debate that we have had in this country about how we provide legal services for those who cannot afford to pay for them themselves has left us paying more per capita—

4.27 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.42 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Owing to the time lost through Divisions, the debate is now scheduled to finish at 6 pm.

Hugh Bayley: Given the reaction of the Chairman of the Select Committee to my opening remarks, I feel a little as I did when, in front of an audience that included many Yorkshire miners paid by their union to attend, I argued the case, against Arthur Scargill, for the Labour party abandoning clause 4 of its constitution, which committed us, in those days, to the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

Whatever the reasons, the legal aid budget for England and Wales is larger per capita than that for any other country, and, therefore, it is not self-evident to me that the way to deal with the problems facing the legal aid system is simply to increase the budget. That might be necessary, but so too is radical reform of the budget. The Government are right to seek to limit the rate of growth in the budget and we, as Members of Parliament, have a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure
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that they receive value for money from taxes paid for the legal aid fund, as we seek value for money from other taxes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said that he is irritated by reports in newspapers of legal aid lawyers earning more than £1 million a year from legal aid work. Like him, I accept that few lawyers earn such remuneration from legal aid. Recently, I read a report in a newspaper that listed the top 10 earners from legal aid, one of whom, I believe, earned more than £1 million. Frankly, I find it extraordinary that any lawyer, who inevitably will be an educated man, could be so out of touch with the lives of ordinary people that they believe that it is fair to accept remuneration of £1 million—in some cases, more—as recompense for their contribution to society through representing clients in the courts. That is four times the remuneration paid to the highest paid doctors in the NHS, the Prime Minister or the highest paid judges.

Doubtless the vast majority of solicitors practising in my constituency would share my incredulity, because they earn a tiny fraction of that level of remuneration, especially if they are working on legal aid. Nevertheless, I believe that there is an urgent need to rebalance the way in which the legal aid budget is spent. For instance, I suggest that the Government set an upper limit, perhaps of £100,000 a year, on the amount that can be paid to a lawyer for legal aid work. Any legal aid work done beyond that should be pro bono.

Ms Abbott: I am surprised that a self-confessed Labour moderniser is calling for a return to a prices and incomes policy. He is utterly transparent. He has made it clear that the purpose of this so-called reform is to cut costs. If it could be proven to him that that would impact very unfairly on black and Asian lawyers and clients, would he say that it was a price worth paying?

Hugh Bayley: My hon. Friend makes an assumption; I shall listen carefully to her speech to see if she provides evidence with which to back it up. If the small number of legal aid lawyers earning hundreds of thousands of pounds would not wish to carry out that work if their maximum remuneration was £100,000 or less, plenty of other legal aid lawyers would be prepared to do it, and many of them would be black or Asian.

I cannot accept that a public service should pay Rolls-Royce prices. My hon. Friend the Minister, in a previous job, ran the Motability car service for disabled people, which buys decent, safe, appropriate, sensible and necessary cars for disabled people, but nobody would suggest for one minute that such a service, paid for out of the public purse, through disability living allowance, should provide Rolls-Royces. If it did and, therefore, left less money in the budget to provide ordinary, necessary and serviceable cars to other disabled people, it would be malfunctioning. To make that comparison, I believe that the legal aid budget is malfunctioning.

Mr. Cox: If the hon. Gentleman took a straw poll of solicitors in this country and offered them £100,000 a year, they would be falling over themselves—they would bite his arm off. Most of them are being paid a fraction of that, as he has said already. I do not
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understand the bearing of the suggestion that there should be a cap. Most are earning far below that.

Hugh Bayley: The point is that if we have a system that overpays some and leaves insufficient money for the rest, we ought to limit the overpayments so that more is available for the others.

We need to find ways to build incentives into the legal aid system to reduce unnecessary expenditure. For example, some cases come to court only because legal aid is available and could be settled properly and justly if they did not. Let us look at some family law cases, which account for the largest part of the civil legal aid budget. The National Audit Office produced a report in March of this year, entitled “Legal Aid and Mediation for People Involved in Family Breakdown”. It states:

Mr. Beith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he raises a quite important point. Indeed, the Committee has in the past drawn attention to the fact that legally aided parties in such proceedings are required to consider mediation before they can get legal aid, whereas a non-legally aided party is not so required by the court and therefore will take the matter to court.

Hugh Bayley: The Chairman of the Committee is right, but the NAO report, as I am sure he is aware, found that 33 per cent.—one third—of legal aid recipients said that they had not been made aware that mediation was an option, even though there is a statutory requirement to consider referring cases to mediation. If the Government are paying legal aid lawyers to do a necessary job of work for people with family law cases that are being brought before the courts, we should at the very least require them to do what they are statutorily bound to do—to advise clients in most cases to try mediation. Of course, there will be some cases of domestic violence in which that would not be appropriate. The NAO, in its report, recommends that the Legal Services Commission should “actively promote mediation”. Will the Minister say what action is being taken to give substance to the NAO’s recommendations?

I believe that more radical change is needed than the Government or the Committee is considering. I would like the Government to consider contracting out management of legal aid to not-for-profit bodies, which have their clients’ interests at heart and which would benefit from maximising the number of clients who receive advice for the money available. I know that that is done in part by contracting services out to citizens advice bureaux, but why is that not done also to National Family Mediation or possibly to the Refugee Council?

I have been lobbied by solicitors in York to sign early-day motion 537, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). I studied the motion closely, but decided not to put my name to it because I took the view that it was tabled on behalf of the producer interest—that of the Law Society—and that it took too little account of the public interest, the interests of members of the public, including my
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constituents, who pay for the service through taxation. However, I have talked with solicitors in York and examined their concerns in great detail and I agree with other hon. Members that the solicitors working in this area have some real concerns that need to be addressed and some constructive proposals about how to deal with those concerns. I know that time is at a premium, so I shall be brief.

I wrote on 1 June 2007, on behalf of Kevin Blount, a solicitor in my constituency, to the Minister’s predecessor, who is now the Solicitor-General, to make the case that the Legal Services Commission should allow lawyers in a wider range of rural areas to claim for travel in addition to their fees. That is necessary because if the LSC continues to include travel in fees, that will lead to fewer remand prisoners seeing a solicitor before they appear in court and that could be costly in terms of court time and lead to an overall increase in expenditure. In addition—this follows a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North about waiting time in court—including waiting time in a bundled fee will, in my view, place lawyers in the unreasonable position of having to bear the cost for court or police failures to process cases efficiently.

I look forward in due course to the Minister’s reply in writing to the letter that I have sent to her Department and I look forward to her response to the debate. I say to my colleagues, who, by and large, appear not to share my view about this matter, that reform of the legal aid system is necessary. Additional money may well be necessary. The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) made the point that the Government are bringing more criminals to court—there are more cases in front of courts—and therefore there is greater pressure for criminal legal aid. I accept that point, but to see the answer simply as more money would be a grave mistake and not in the service of the public.

Mr. Cox: The hon. Gentleman has been generous with his time and I am extremely grateful, but I wish to make the point—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): To ask the question.

Mr. Cox: I am most grateful to you for reminding me of that, Mr. Martlew.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept—in fact, he said this himself—that very constructive proposals have been made not only by the solicitors’ profession, but by the Bar? The problem is not so much that the legal profession does not accept the overpowering need to achieve economy, but the speed with which the proposals are being introduced, the way in which they are being introduced, the changes of proposals and the abandonment of graduated fees, which have been proved to work and to allow control of costs. The Government are rejecting all that in favour of a steamroller approach.

Hugh Bayley: I most certainly agree with parts of what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said. The problem with this debate is that it has polarised into a
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debate about capping the budget on the one hand and breaking the cap to provide justice for people who need legal aid to take their case before the court on the other hand. A truly just solution needs also to take into account the interests of the taxpayers, who are paying for a public service whose costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation. A real and just solution will require a combination of both those factors.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. Three Back Benchers wish to speak, and I would like to start the winding-up speeches at 5.25 pm, so you can figure that one out for yourselves. I call John McDonnell.

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