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21 Jan 2009 : Column 299WH—continued

5.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr. Shahid Malik): It is a pleasure to respond to this debate under your stewardship, Mr. Hancock, and I apologise for being without a Parliamentary Private Secretary this afternoon.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to discuss what is happening in Cardiff and across the Legal Services Commission more widely. I recognise that she has natural concerns about the changes taking place in Cardiff, and it is to her credit that she is using all reasonable avenues to discuss that matter and to ensure that all that should be done is being done. That does not surprise me, however, having witnessed at first hand, when in Cardiff, the passion that she has shown to ensure that she gets the very best for people in her constituency and, indeed, in Wales. I am pleased that, last Friday, she was able to meet Carolyn Regan, the chief executive of the LSC, and Paul Davies, the LSC director for Wales, to discuss her concerns.

What is happening in Cardiff needs considering in the context of wider legal aid reform and the current economic climate. The legal aid reform strategy aims to ensure that the £2 billion-plus annual budget for legal aid services is focused on helping those most in need who are least able to afford essential support. In a similar vein, the LSC was asked to re-examine its internal administration to ensure best value for the taxpayer, taking account of the impact of the wider legal aid reforms flowing from Lord Carter’s 2006 review. All LSC staff and providers have been aware of the proposed cuts in the LSC administrative budget and posts since 2006. That year, the LSC announced that it would achieve the required reduction through an improvement in electronic working with providers and a reduction in staff numbers across England and Wales from 1,700 to 1,100. On 4 November 2008, the LSC announced more detailed plans for reducing the number of staff in business support areas, moving from 13 to five business support centres between mid-2009 and 2012-13.

Cardiff has one of the relatively small LSC offices, so it has never been one of the likely centres for centralising business support work. That was clear in 2006, when LSC staff were told that there would be only three business centres—the decision to increase to five came later. It is also important to keep in mind that the LSC already transfers work across other LSC offices in England and Wales to deal with peaks and troughs. The LSC is looking to centralise the operational work from Cardiff during the latter half of 2009. Concerning the posts at risk, the LSC has an agreed redundancy policy with its recognised trade unions to explore all possible alternative employment opportunities and relocations for any impacted staff and to exhaust those possibilities prior to a decision on redundancy.

While the five business support centres will carry out operational processing work, the LSC will continue to maintain a presence of relationship managers, plus
21 Jan 2009 : Column 300WH
policy staff, business analysts and some other functions in Cardiff, as in all areas. That will mean the continuation of a close working relationship with local providers and stakeholders, with local LSC staff focusing on commissioning the best possible services for Welsh legal aid clients.

Julie Morgan: In 2007, the Cardiff office did 793 extra hours of work for other LSC offices throughout the country. Furthermore, before November 2008, the staff were told that the plan to move to three offices had been abandoned and that it was likely that the office would stay as it was.

Mr. Malik: I was not aware of that last point, but I have noted it and thank my hon. Friend for bringing it to my attention.

It is important to emphasise that most clients access legal aid services through local providers and increasingly through the Community Legal Advice telephone service and website. The LSC itself currently deals with very few legal aid clients on a face-to-face basis in Wales or in England. The vast majority of its interactions with clients take place by telephone, e-mail and letter. My hon. Friend has mentioned consultation, and I am aware that we spoke with both the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly—whether that constitutes consultation is another matter. Only yesterday, I received representations from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales.

The relationship managers in Cardiff will be the point of contact for all Welsh—

Dr. Francis: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Malik: I shall, but my hon. Friend will leave me little time to respond to all the points raised.

Dr. Francis: The Minister is uncertain about the nature of the consultation. Will he elaborate, because it is a very important point, given that the Secretary of State for Wales represents Wales in Westminster and Whitehall?

Mr. Malik: I specifically said that we spoke to the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly. We offered to have a meeting in April to look at progress on the issue. I have said that I am not sure whether that constitutes formal consultation, but contact has been made.

The LSC will continue to have an important presence in Wales. That is demonstrated by the LSC’s recent appointment of a senior director for Wales—

Mrs. Betty Williams: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Malik: I am more than willing to allow time for interventions, but I will not be left with much time to respond to the debate, which will be unsatisfactory for all concerned.

Mrs. Williams: When the Minister referred to April, did he mean April 2008 or April 2009?

Mr. Malik: They have spoken and an offer was made for a meeting in April 2009.

Mrs. Williams: That is too late.

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Mr. Malik: I am merely reflecting the facts on the ground.

That appointment will maintain the strong links with the Welsh Assembly Government, local criminal justice boards, family justice councils and other key stakeholders, including local government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) has said, the Welsh language is vital. I confirm that the LSC remains firmly committed to its statutory obligations under the Welsh Language Act 1993. Its plans will ensure that clients will be able to contact the LSC by telephone, letter or e-mail in Welsh and receive a reply in Welsh. The Cardiff LSC office will also retain a local policy presence to ensure that the different aspects of Welsh law and culture are not only understood by the LSC but built into its plans in Wales.

The LSC has undertaken a programme of jointly commissioning community legal advice services with local authorities, either in a community legal advice centre or through a community legal advice network. It aims to offer a wide range of joined-up legal advice services to clients. In 2008, as part of the agreement between the LSC, the Ministry of Justice and the Law Society, which followed the unified contract judicial review, possible future services were identified up to April 2010. The Law Society deed identified Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend as areas in which a CLAN should be developed, and it would be a jointly commissioned service with local authorities.

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As with other CLACs and CLANs, the plan is for the Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend CLAN to be commissioned—

Julie Morgan: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again, but I deliberately did not focus this debate on CLACs and CLANs. My major concern is that decisions about who gets legal aid and laws that have been developed in Wales will be made outside Wales, where the knowledge will not be available.

Mr. Malik: I am happy to skip CLACs and CLANs. Some concerns, based largely on anecdote, are that some local advice providers have been adversely affected by the CLACs and CLANs, but I will skip over that. My noble Friend Lord Bach has asked officials to lead a short study that will gather evidence on current funding and provision of legal advice at the local level.

My hon. Friend said at the start of the debate that only 20 jobs will be left. My understanding is that between 30 and 40 jobs will remain in Cardiff. She also talked about “rumours for many years”. As I have said, my understanding is that staff were made aware that changes were on the horizon in 2006.

5.13 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).

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