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21 Jan 2009 : Column 292WH—continued

The biggest challenge now faced by the international community is to find a way to deliver a lasting resolution in the middle east. The crisis has undoubtedly highlighted the urgent need to make political progress in the peace process. There is only one way forward and that is a comprehensive approach with a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine, underpinned by a broader peace agreement between Israel and the whole Arab world,
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about which the Arab League has shown itself to be extremely serious. In other words, we seek a 23-state solution—the 22 states of the Arab League, and Israel.

The Palestinian President recently described the Arab peace initiative as the most significant initiative of the last 60 years. Israeli leaders have also indicated that they view this peace initiative as a basis for negotiations. With a new Government in Israel, a new President in the United States and our commitment as a Government, we must seize this chance and reinject urgency into the middle east peace process. That must include a unified Palestinian Government.

The Foreign Secretary has already assured the House that the middle east peace process will be top of the agenda when he speaks to Secretary of State Clinton this week. The UK will remain active in providing humanitarian assistance in the short term and will be unstinting in its efforts to find a permanent peace between Israel and Palestine.

In the short time that I have available, I will refer to some of the comments made. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood referred to international obligations. The UK has consistently called on Israel to fulfil its obligations under the fourth Geneva convention. That includes giving permission for the delivery of aid and supplies to Gaza. As the Foreign Secretary told the House, he raised that matter with Israeli leaders in his November visit.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I apologise to the Minister for intervening, but we must move to the next debate. I would like to thank the participants in this debate for their courtesy to each other and to the Chair.

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Legal Services Commission (Cardiff)

4.43 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to have this short debate today.

The Legal Services Commission is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Ministry of Justice and responsible for running the legal aid scheme throughout England and Wales. It lets and manages contracts to legal service suppliers, who come from private practice solicitors and not-for-profit agencies. It also decides whether individuals should get full legal representation in civil court proceedings paid for out of public funds through legal aid certificates and assesses how much legal aid lawyers are paid in certain certificated cases. The LSC calls this last category “business support” and that is what I want to discuss.

I secured the debate because of my serious concern over a decision announced out of the blue to staff at the Wales Legal Services Commission office in Cardiff on 4 November 2008. The announcement stated that, as part of a refocus of financial resources and reorganisation into five business support centres for civil legal aid work, business support will be transferred out of Wales to one or more business centres in England by the middle of this year. That is in six months’ time.

The decision does not mean that there will be no Legal Services Commission presence in Wales. Between 15 and 20 staff will remain to handle the letting of legal aid contracts to Welsh suppliers and liaise with them in managing contracts. However, in my judgment it represents a downgrading of the office at a time when most other national organisations have upgraded their representation in Wales in recognition of the political direction evident over the past 10 years. I am extremely concerned about the decision and about the fact that it was imposed on staff in November with only eight months’ notice before the planned move.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Let me state briefly that the hon. Lady has all-party support in her efforts and I praise her for all that she is doing. The decision flies in the face of the fact that Cardiff is now a very important centre for civil justice. Civil cases are dealt with there and the Court of Appeal sits in a civil capacity.

Julie Morgan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was going to elaborate on his last point later in my speech and I thank him for his support.

I am concerned about this decision on several counts. First, the Legal Service Commission did not consult the Welsh Assembly Government before it made its decision. Secondly, the decision will result in a great loss of experience and expertise to the LSC, and to Cardiff and Wales. Thirdly, it is estimated that the decision will lead to the loss of 40 quality jobs across south Wales. Fourthly, the decision has failed to have any proper regard to the effect of schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006, which paves the way for the Welsh Assembly to seek primary law-making powers in 20 fields of law.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend claims that there has been a failure to consult the Welsh Assembly. Was there also a failure
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to consult the Wales Office? Sadly, there is often an illiteracy in some Whitehall Departments about the nature of the settlement. That does not mean that Wales has drifted offshore by 100 miles; it means that we need a more joined-up approach by Government Departments and their agencies regarding those responsibilities that remain with central Government, and those that are devolved.

Julie Morgan: I welcome the intervention of right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour. This is certainly an example of non-joined-up Government thinking, and it illustrates the lack of understanding about the nature of devolution by some of the Departments responsible for non-devolved matters in Wales.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab) rose—

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Who does the hon. Lady wish to give way to?

Julie Morgan: I shall give way first to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd).

Ann Clwyd: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She makes an important point that the decision affects the whole of south Wales. It will certainly affect some of my constituents, who have written to me about it. Many of those staff are long-serving and have built up a considerable amount of knowledge and experience that will be lost to Wales if those jobs go. I am sure that she will make that point later in her speech.

Julie Morgan: I thank my right hon. Friend for her contribution.

Dr. Francis: I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I will listen closely to the debate and to the Government response. Can she confirm that there is also a concern in the context of wider consultation? For example, in my constituency there have been questions about the matter from citizens advice bureaux, and it is important for them and other appropriate bodies. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs might decide to have an inquiry into it.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that. I would certainly welcome an inquiry by his Committee.

The decision will result in a diminished service for my constituents and those of other Welsh Members, together with legal aid practitioners in Wales. Finally, the decision seems to run completely counter to the direction of devolution, which has been agreed by the House.

I shall return to those points shortly, but first I should explain things. Help available under legal aid can be broadly subdivided into two categories—legal help and help at court, and legal aid certificated work. Today, I want to speak about certificated work.

Civil legal aid certificates are a vital tool to legal aid practitioners and clients alike. They allow practitioners to obtain evidence, instruct barristers, obtain expert opinions and represent clients at hearings. When making decisions about the granting of certificates, or their
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amendment or termination, the legal aid office carries out a most important balancing function. On one hand, it seeks to establish whether the client has an arguable case, whether there are prospects of success, whether there is a benefit to be derived and the importance of the issue to the client. On the other, it seeks to establish the likely cost of the case, the amount to be recovered if there is a money claim, whether it is proportionate to spend public funds in pursuing the case and the client’s means and the extent of any contribution. In this respect, the legal aid office is acting as a guardian of public funds.

Business support teams are generally led by solicitors, and Cardiff has two. The word “support” is a misnomer; it disguises the fact that it is highly skilled work, operating at the coal face of people’s problems. Those people go to the heart of legal aid, delivering quality services to legal aid clients. If decision makers get it wrong, they can frustrate or quench the legitimate legal claims of our constituents or waste taxpayers’ money.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and highlighting the importance of the service for people in Wales. If the proposals go ahead, will that have an effect on the provision of Welsh language service in Wales?

Julie Morgan: It is bound to have an affect on Welsh language provision if the entire service is run from outside Wales. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point. The Legal Services Commission underestimates and undervalues the importance of its work.

I return to my list of concerns. First, I restate the fact that the Assembly is a voice for Wales and that it has the right to be consulted. The commission cannot cherry-pick, consulting with the Assembly and Welsh local authorities when its wants their money to help launch community legal advice networks in Wales, but forgetting to undertake consultation when it is inconvenient for its administrative plans. Consultation involves publishing a proposal in draft, asking a body for its views, giving it time to consult within its organisation, taking an informed view and responding. That did not happen in this instance. If it had, the commission would have been alerted to the dangers of the course that it has now taken, and the distress for its staff and our constituents affected could have been avoided.

Secondly, in relation to the loss of experience and expertise to the LSC and Wales, it is important to note that 40 per cent. of those in the Cardiff office have worked there for more than 20 years, and 50 per cent. for more than 15 years. Even if the commission feels that it can afford to lose that wealth of experience and expertise as we move into a new era where functions are being incrementally passed over to Wales’s control, we in Wales cannot. If the Wales office in Cardiff were a poorly performing office, I might begin to understand the basis of that decision, but the reality is quite different. Over the past three years, the Cardiff office has consistently achieved performance ratings above the national average, and it also deals with imported casework from other legal aid offices.

My third concern is about the loss of quality jobs in south Wales. I understand that the trade unions have estimated this loss at 40, but the commission says that
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only 33 roles are at risk of redundancy. That will be an enormous blow, coming, as it will, at a time when we hope to be recovering from the downturn in the economy. I am told that it is not only the Cardiff constituencies that will be affected; indeed, we know that some of the valley constituencies will suffer and that highly skilled employees who work at the Cardiff office also live far to the east and the west. The Legal Services Commission decision certainly runs counter to the Prime Minister’s view, expressed on 9 January 2009, that it is important to keep Welsh jobs in Wales. I believe that the staff at the Cardiff office have been badly treated. There have been rumours for years about change. The staff were then told that nothing would happen. Suddenly, on 8 November, this decision was landed on them. [Interruption.]

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. I remind the Minister’s team of civil servants that they do not have the right to come into the Chamber. It is important that the Minister should report to his colleagues that they should supply him with a Parliamentary Private Secretary, and not have his staff continually entering the Chamber.

Julie Morgan: My fourth concern relates to emerging Welsh law under the Government of Wales Act 2006, which enables the Assembly to seek legislation competence orders to pass primary legislation in 23 fields through Assembly measures. Those include, for example, aspects of social welfare, education and health. If the decision is allowed to stand, legal aid decision making on claims and challenges based on new Welsh law will have to be made in offices in England. It is no answer for the commission to say that practitioners will be able to exercise devolved powers—to stand in the shoes of the LSC’s Wales office and grant certificates to their clients. Devolved powers are designed essentially for emergency cases and are heavily circumscribed. The commission has said that it does not intend to alter the rules in the light of Assembly measures. Even when devolved powers are exercised, the legal aid certificate must still be reviewed by an officer in a legal aid office, and under the existing plans that officer will be in England. He will be unfamiliar with Welsh law, the context in which it was enacted, any guidance issued under it, or experience in implementing it.

The LSC has told me that is sees no problem in dealing with Welsh law. It says that the staff who remain in Cardiff will ensure that the differing aspects of Welsh law and culture are understood and that they will be built into the commission’s plans for Wales. The commission says that its Welsh policy experts will ensure that changes in Welsh law are reflected in the guidance issued to decision makers.

Who are these Welsh policy experts? With the greatest of respect, the staff who remain in Cardiff will not include lawyers and will not be qualified to identify the detailed changes made by Welsh law or to analyse their impact. Those best equipped to perform that task are the members of the current Cardiff business support team that handles Welsh cases day in and day out—staff who are likely to be made redundant unless they are offered the possibility of uprooting their families, to move to wherever the commission ultimately decides
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Welsh work must go. In the circumstances, we all know that most people will not go because their roots are deep within Wales.

My fifth concern is about the diminished standard of service for Welsh clients and those practitioners who visit the Cardiff office to speak personally to members of the business support team. Although the LSC says that those relationship managers who stay in Cardiff will be the point of contact for all Welsh solicitors and third sector agencies, they are not qualified to deal with business support queries. Once business support work is transferred to England, all contact will have to be by telephone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) suggested, new and different arrangements will need to be made for those clients who wish to speak through the medium of Welsh. Inadequate or poor decision making on matters relating to Welsh law is also likely to give rise to delays and increase appeals, causing frustration to practitioners and clients alike.

My final point is that the decision is against the spirit of devolution. It is now generally accepted that devolution has released a new-found confidence and a sense of pride in Wales. I do not know of any other organisation that is reducing its Welsh presence, or its operation. Quite the opposite is the case. A Welsh claimant has the right to issue judicial review proceedings in the Cardiff Civil Justice Centre, in a public law challenge against a Welsh public body. From time to time, the Court of Appeal sits in Cardiff. Even Her Majesty’s Court Service recognises that Wales has distinct legal issues that are likely to be better dealt with in Wales, or at least that claimants should have the choice of having challenges heard in Wales.

I am frankly astonished that, at a time when Wales is beginning to exercise more control over its affairs than it has for many years, the LSC should choose to start dismantling and reducing its presence in Wales. I have the impression that Wales, as a distinct nation with its own distinct needs, was not considered by the LSC when it reached that decision and that the paramount concern was achieving a good geographical spread of sites over England and Wales.

I do not doubt that the LSC must live within its budget, and I sympathise with the chief executive and the executive board, who have to find administrative savings to keep within budget. I also understand that the LSC, like other organisations, needs to modernise the delivery of legal aid for the benefit of legal aid clients, suppliers and taxpayers, which might entail rationalising the delivery into larger units, where increased efficiency can be achieved from new technologies. However, I do not understand why the LSC has not decided that one of those five business centres must be in Wales. It is the logical solution and by far the easiest to justify. The decision has been made in principle and is subject to the making of a business case to establish what work will move to where and when. I appeal to the Minister to look into that matter in detail and ensure that the LSC reconsiders its stance carefully. The answers that I have received from the LSC—I have held meetings with the chief executive and Cardiff members on more than one occasion—have not given me any satisfaction. I urge the LSC to continue with the fully functioning legal aid office that Wales deserves.
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Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, I apologise for having interrupted the hon. Lady in mid-flow. For the Minister’s information, the debate will now conclude at 5.13 pm.

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