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2 Dec 2009 : Column 94WH—continued

I reiterate to the Minister what the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and for Solihull said about CLACs and CLANs, or community legal advice centres and community legal advice networks. I hope that he is aware of what is going on. The idea behind CLACs is undoubtedly sensible: it makes sense to assist clients with a plurality of problems in a joined-up way. However, I am concerned that no pilot has been done. So far, as I understand it, the Legal Services Commission has jointly commissioned CLACs in Gateshead, Leicester, Derby, Portsmouth and Hull, and
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five new areas were announced towards the end of last year in Manchester, Stockport, Wakefield, Barking and Dagenham.

Impact on the ground is already a problem. As colleagues have pointed out, the CAB in Hull has lost 76 per cent. of its funding and reduced its staff by a similar amount. It is under a great deal of pressure and may well have to close. Indeed, the law centre in Leicester has closed. The problem is the narrowness of tendering specifications. The tendering is for specialist legal aid and advice work, and the other work carried out by the CAB is not taken into consideration. We have a "winner takes all" system. I am concerned about that, because I do not think that the Government have considered it carefully enough or done enough research. Why has a proper pilot not been done? The system might have been a good idea when the economy was booming, but it is now under great pressure, and for the Government to say that CABs are incredibly important while another Government agency takes money away from them through the tendering process makes no sense.

That is just the CLACs. I am equally concerned about the CLANs, which are the networks that will apply in rural areas. So far, none have been launched, but a number of discussions are taking place with various local authorities. One problem is simply that the Legal Services Commission is bound by statute to spend its money only on specialist-level legal services. It does so through contracts with various solicitors, private companies and organisations such as law centres and CABs.

I have a memo from a county council that is in discussions with the Legal Services Commission. I cannot give the name of the county council, as that would be breaching confidentiality, but it points out-this is probably typical of county councils, and, indeed, some unitaries, across the country-that of about 15 CABs in the county, five do not yet have the specialist-level quality mark necessary to deliver legal aid, so they are out of the equation completely. One particular CAB in the county has never wanted to deliver a specialist service because it has not wanted the restrictions that an LSC contract might place on it.

One question in the county council's confidential briefing is what would happen if the CABs did not win the open tender for the CLAN. The result would be that if the county council decided to proceed, the £350,000 it spends on CABs would be reallocated, obviously, to the CLAN. The briefing goes on to point out that the CABs that currently hold LSC contracts would lose those contracts. Basically, the bottom line in that particular county is that if the CABs do not win the CLAN contract through the tendering process, there will be mayhem among the CABs. Some will survive and some will carry on doing the 26 per cent. of their work that consists of general advice, but they will not be viable on that basis, as they will have lost local authority funding.

I hope that the Minister will consider that concern, because the Conservatives have been raising it for months now. Is it a classic case of a Department having all the right intentions-a joined-up, one-stop-shop approach to dealing with clients who have a plurality of problems must make sense-but doing it in a ham-fisted way, without a proper pilot. That makes no sense whatever. I
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hope that he will address that point. We are all concerned about local authority budgets and his Department's budget, but this is a classic case of unintended consequences. It is something that the Government could do straight away: they could say this morning that the CLAC and CLAN programmes will be put on hold. The programmes will remove vital funding from a lot of CABs.

I have one final point to make on the separate issue of employment tribunal awards. I am concerned that every year, CABs across the country deal with roughly 1,000 unpaid awards- [Interruption.]

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. Is it your mobile phone that is vibrating?

Mr. Bellingham: I am sure that it is not, Mr. Martlew, as mine is turned off, but I will put it over there for avoidance of doubt. It is always my policy to turn off my mobile.

Roughly £4.5 million in employment tribunal awards that have not been enforced is outstanding at any one time. The problem is that employment tribunal awards must be enforced by the individual who wins them. Employment tribunals have no powers to enforce their awards, so the employer who wins his case must take it through the county court, or through the High Court in due course, if need be. Legislation on the matter was introduced in the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. Section 27(43) of that Act includes a process for speeding up awards. They need not be registered in a local county court before enforcement action can be initiated, which obviously saves a great deal of money.

I understand that that particular measure has not been commenced, so the Minister might care to consider it. It has a knock-on effect for bureaux, because they must invest a lot of money in employment tribunal cases. When the individual's award is not enforced, they must go back to the CAB for advice on how to go through the county court system, which costs a substantial extra amount. This would be a good way to save some bureaux money at the margin.

I hope that the Minister will put our minds at rest and tell us that the Government will take action. That action will not cost a great deal; in fact, it will cost no money at all, as it is just a question of talking to other Departments, particularly the Ministry of Justice, and ensuring that the two issues that I flagged up are considered as a matter of priority. I hope he will answer those points, as well as putting our minds at rest that this truly remarkable service will be fit for purpose to help our constituents to deal with their problems during this recession.

10.48 am

The Minister for Further Education, Skills, Apprenticeships and Consumer Affairs (Kevin Brennan): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing this important debate, and everybody else who has contributed. This has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate. I join others in congratulating the citizens advice bureaux on their 70th birthday and on all the fantastic work they have done during that period.

Given the time available, I will refer briefly to what hon. Members have said and then make some more general remarks. My hon. Friend pointed out the valuable work done in her constituency by her local bureaux and
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the pressure that they are under. However, I was concerned at what she said about the contracts with the Department for Work and Pensions and the flexible new deal, and the lack of third-sector involvement. I will be happy to talk to DWP colleagues about that, because the Government vision to which my hon. Friend referred is very much that the third sector should be involved in delivering such services.

My hon. Friend referred to additional help from the Government for the third sector. Help for Citizens Advice is being given not only as a result of the recession. For example, since 2001 the income generated for the third sector by the Government has risen to £12 billion-a £3.6 billion increase in recent years.

The Government's commitment to the third sector is not merely rhetorical, but a genuine financial commitment on the level of support for the third sector, as it will help the Government to deliver their priorities. It will also help the third sector to do what it does best-reach down into those parts of our communities that the Government cannot reach. Indeed, in my former role as Minister for the third sector, I introduced a recession action plan, which in August this year brought in an extra £15 million that went to 558 organisations, and a £16.5 million modernisation fund. Help has been given over and above the help for citizens advice bureaux, to which my hon. Friend referred.

If I may, I shall return later to the question of additional hours raised by my hon. Friend. However, she said that her local CAB was not included in the additional hours project. That decision, of course, was taken by Citizens Advice, rather than the Department. We wanted Citizens Advice to decide where the additional hours should be allocated, but I take the point that the requirements could not be met for her local CAB.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) called on the Government to provide core funding for local bureaux. The Government provide core funding not for local bureaux, but for the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. However, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for Citizens Advice. Twenty-five years ago, at the heart of another recession, Citizens Advice was attacked by the Government for being critical of their response to the recession. It was accused of being a hotbed of radicals and revolutionaries. In reality, that is not a description of what Citizens Advice is about, so it was refreshing to hear that the hon. Gentleman recognises and supports the importance of Citizens Advice in helping people through the recession.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Government's additional funding, which is helping 370 extra clients in Banbury. However, it is for local government to organise the local delivery of services through citizens advice bureaux. Each bureau is an independent charity, as he will know, and they are supported by the network, which is supported by funding.

Tony Baldry rose-

Kevin Brennan: Given the time constraints, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me I shall try to answer as many Members as I can. If he wishes, he can contact me later about any other points.

It would be a big thing for the Government to be involved in the funding of individual local citizens advice bureaux. On reflection, I am not sure that that is
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the right way forward. Yes, local authorities are under pressure, but the provision of good advice services is a priority for local authorities, and they should not retreat to a position of protecting only what they directly deliver. They should consider the value that the third sector can bring to local authority priorities, and in these times advice should be a top priority.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) was one of three Back-Bench Members from Wales who contributed to the debate. He made an interesting point about the changes that have been made and the so-called CLAC provisions for community legal advice centres in Wales. We were here last year, as I attended a debate instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on that very issue. However, in an interesting contribution, the hon. Gentleman pointed out the other way forward.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy criticised the Government for bailing out the banks rather than supporting Citizens Advice. Had the Government not saved the banking system, bureaux would have faced much longer queues of people who had lost their life savings. That is not quite the comparison that he wanted to make.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) pointed out the good role played by citizens advice bureaux in Northern Ireland, and the different funding streams available there. He also referred to the ongoing need for support.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) spoke of the history of his constituency in the 1930s, when CAB started. Male unemployment in Brynmawr in his constituency in those days was more than 68 per cent. As he knows, my mother was growing up in Nantyglo in his constituency at the time. The Government's philosophy in trying to support Citizens Advice in dealing with the recession is rather different from the means test that his constituents and my family faced then. However, he made a good point about shared premises. That would be a good way to cut costs, and local authorities could support bureaux in kind.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) pointed out the importance of the additional hours project. I shall refer to the project later, but it has helped more than 400 clients in his constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said that Citizens Advice can offer alternatives to poor-quality legal advice such as in this old joke: "If I give you £100, will you answer two questions?" to which the answer is, "Yes. What is your second question?" The number of cases of bad legal advice referred to Citizens Advice that come to MPs' constituency offices is a matter of great concern. My hon. Friend made a valid point about bureaux helping people in a real and tangible way to deal with eviction and other problems in her constituency, and spoke of the need for continued funding. She also said that diverse communities need particular help. As part of the face-to-face debt advice project, we have budgeted for such things as translation facilities for all projects, which is important in communities such as those in Hackney in my hon. Friend's constituency. We have also provided British sign language facilities for other excluded groups such as the deaf and so on.

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The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said that she did not want to be a harbinger of doom but went on to be one in her description of the economic outlook. Nevertheless, she passionately pointed out the importance of the services that bureaux provide. She also pointed out how they should be treated in procurement situations. However, advice is available from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in such situations, and it is supported by the Government. I agree that it is important that the third sector is taken into account in Government procurement. That is why we created the Office of the Third Sector, which can provide support.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) invited me to make up policy on the hoof. I must disappoint him, but I shall look into what he said about employment tribunal awards. I shall seek advice, although not from NACAB, on his question about the impact of CLAC and CLAN plans. He was not able to name the source of the information that he gave, but he told us how those plans might affect CAB funding for one county. I am happy to investigate that further with officials.

One point was central to the debate: Members wanted to know about funding, and particularly about the additional funding that the Government are providing at a time of recession. This year, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills allocated £21.47 million of grant in aid to enable NACAB to provide the essential leadership and support to local bureaux. It will seek to monitor and maintain standards, train staff and volunteers, and help to strengthen the bureaux network. It will also provide case data and evidence from bureaux, allowing the Government to inform and communicate policy developments. Central funding is provided through the Department for that reason.

Feedback has been important in building and maintaining a modern regime, ensuring that consumers are treated fairly, empowering people and ensuring that they know their rights, and helping bureaux to cope with the significant increase in demand for local services through measures such as the additional hours project, which give additional support.

The further £10 million of funding, which lasts until 2010, is enabling bureaux to extend their opening hours for generalist advice. That funding was announced in last year's pre-Budget report. It has been a success, but it was meant to be a temporary measure. I cannot anticipate the forthcoming pre-Budget report. However, the scheme has been highly successful: 324 participating bureaux have been able to advise a huge number of clients in a large number of locations. That is well on the way to beating the Government's original target of helping 335,000 more local people. Although I cannot say any more today, this being a matter for the Chancellor, I acknowledge the success of the scheme in a time of recession.

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Israeli Goods (Labelling)

11 am

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): In this debate, I shall concentrate on the labelling of food products from Israeli settlements in the west bank. Food labelling is the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I will ask the Minister to explain what is happening about the issuing of revised labelling guidance to retailers; why there have been such continued delays; and why the Department is failing, in my view, in its duty of consumer protection.

The labelling of food products is governed by both UK and EU law and serves the purpose of giving clear and complete information to consumers, to allow the customer to exercise choice. It is well established that, as well as needing to know the nutritional content and ingredients of food products, consumers need to be able to exercise ethical choices-for example, to be able to identify if a product is organic or fairly traded and to know its country of origin. A number of key issues may lead consumers to wish to avoid purchasing goods from Israeli settlements, but current labelling practices do not give them that choice.

First, I shall summarise the reasons why settlement goods are a particular case. The official position of the British Government is absolutely clear: Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem and the west bank, plus those in occupied Syrian territory, are illegal under international law and are an obstacle to peace. That view is in line with that of the rest of the international community, including the USA. Currently, most media attention is given to the homes that continue to be built within existing settlements and the new residential settlements that continue to be established, but another important aspect of the illegal settlements is the agricultural produce that is grown within them and the various other goods that are manufactured in industrial enterprises established there. Anyone who has been to the west bank and, indeed, to Gaza before the settlements there were dismantled will have seen that the settlements typically enclose very large tracts of land-much, much bigger than is required to accommodate the housing that is built within them-and that much of that land is used for agricultural production. The sale of that agricultural and other produce from the illegal settlements contributes significantly to their economic viability and thus to their continuation.

For many years, that agricultural produce was deliberately mislabelled by the Israeli authorities as "made in Israel" and exported to the European Union under the EU-Israel trade agreement, thus benefiting from the trade preference and avoiding import duty. The European Union has now started to prevent that practice. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs requires the importing authorities to give the postcode of origin, and only goods identified as originating from within the internationally recognised borders of Israel are permitted to enter under preference. Goods identified as from settlements cannot legally be labelled "made in Israel" and should pay full import duty. Ruling in a case involving the German courts and Brita bottled water, the European Court of Justice recently reaffirmed that the trade agreement applies only within the 1967 borders of Israel.

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