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Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab):
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on bringing forward this important topic for debate. For as long as I have worked in the community, legally aided lawyers and law centres have often been at the forefront of the fight for justice for marginalised groups who could not otherwise have made their voices heard. Those were often groups of people who were not necessarily getting help from their trade union, their councillors or their MP, because lawyers can often pinpoint issues, because of the cases coming to them, before they come to the attention of politicians. Because I know that so many legally aided lawyers and practitioners who work in citizens advice
bureaux and law centres are often extraordinarily dedicated, I deprecate the tendency of Governments of all colours-my Government were just as bad-to talk about legal aid just in terms of the money going to lawyers. On the tendency to slide into talking about fat cat lawyers, I can say with confidence that, since the Carter reforms, nobody has made a fortune in legal aid law practice. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] I can hear hon. Members from both sides supporting me on that point.
Rehman Chishti: Prior to becoming a Member, I was a criminal barrister for a number of years, and, to confirm what the hon. Lady says, I must say that as a barrister at Crown court one would earn £40 for a mention and could be there all day. The idea that barristers or lawyers are fat cats is completely wrong, and I fully support what she says.
Ms Abbott: But sadly, when Governments of all colours consider legal aid, they seem to zero in on the lawyers and the money that they make, rather than the millions of people whom they help.
I repeat what Opposition Members have said about the potential of the reforms to undermine totally the law centre movement. Nobody who has seen people queuing outside their law centre for help could support any action by any Government which undermined that movement. I must add, however, that the legal aid reforms will also undermine the practice of many high street solicitors, who are often close to and help their community. A disproportionate number of them are black and minority ethnic solicitors, and I do not believe that the Government have fully considered how the reforms will undermine the structure for providing the legal advice, help and support on which communities rely.
Earlier, a Member said that one reason why people have recourse to lawyers is the inefficiency of the Department for Work and Pensions, to which I should add the inefficiencies of local councils and the immigration service and the inefficiencies and, sometimes, unfairness of education authorities. But what are we to do? We acknowledge the systemic inefficiencies in many parts of the public sector, but are we going to leave tens of thousands of people to suffer injustice and unfairness in order to save money in the short term on the legal aid budget?
I also want to address the limits of phone advice. Talking down a phone might be all well and good for people in wealthier areas, but in the inner city too many people do not have English as their first language, and if English is their first language they might be inarticulate, afraid and inhibited. In 20 years as a Member, I have had to advise hundreds of thousands of people. Often, they come in and mumble about some issue or other, and only after carefully questioning them, looking them in the eye and showing them my sympathy do they tell me their real problem. If we submit such people to talking down a phone, we will find that their issues are completely lost. They will put the phone down, never having explained what they really wanted to talk about.
Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab):
My hon. Friend's constituency and mine are different in many ways, but one similarity has been commented on repeatedly
over the years: they both have high levels of deprivation. Does she agree that, if we take away access to organisations such as Kirkby Unemployed Centre, Merseyside Welfare Rights and Knowsley citizens advice bureau, those levels of deprivation-in her constituency and in mine-will go up?
Ms Abbott: There is no question but that they will go up, because we are talking not about frivolity, serial litigants or people who litigate for fun, but about people who have to go to law to obtain the basic rights and fairness that we in the Chamber take for granted. On the idea of people in communities in the east end of London picking up a phone, Ministers are not being realistic. They must not understand what happens in some parts of the country if they think that going on the phone is a substitute for dealing with somebody who is skilled, looks a person in the eye, can see that they are nervous, knows how to put them at ease and can really draw from them the issue at the heart of their problems.
Opposition Members understand the need to consider the whole administration of justice budget, and there is a lot to be said for encouraging people with marital disputes to try mediation first, rather than going to law. Indeed, I have never heard of a divorce case in which tempers were sweetened by the involvement of lawyers. I do not reject out of hand the notion of encouraging people in marital disputes to go to mediation, but there are other ways of saving money in the Ministry of Justice budget, notably the organisation of the courts. Hundreds of thousands of pounds are wasted every year when cases collapse because people do not turn up and things have not been organised properly. Let us consider saving money through the organisation of the courts before considering these ill-thought-out cuts in legal aid. Government Members have referred to the NHS. It is better to identify liability earlier and save all the costs in contesting cases where people know perfectly well that in the end they will have to settle in some form or fashion.
It is not enough for Ministers to say, "Labour's spent all the money and that is why we're doing this." They have to understand that if we are serious about a big society and the role of Government, we have to ensure that the most deprived and marginalised communities have minimal protection, and part of that, in my mind, is access to justice and the rule of law. I sincerely hope, on behalf of my constituents and Hackney law centre, which is a tremendous organisation, that this is a genuine consultation and that Ministers will listen to some of the things that they hear in this Chamber this afternoon.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) in her very proper analysis of the issue. This is not about lawyers; it is about access to justice. I am glad to see the Minister agreeing with those sentiments in the sense that the Government are not indulging in character assassination as regards practitioners in law.
There have been some excellent speeches. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for getting this debate the time that it deserves. I was happy to support her in her bid. I wish there were more
time, as five minutes can hardly do the subject justice. It was a pleasure for me to take part in the Westminster Hall debate sponsored by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who took part earlier. I do not propose to reiterate the points that I made in that debate.
I put on record my thanks to the Department for having answered some of the questions that I have been tabling about the breakdown of the costs of civil legal aid for the last year for which figures were available-2008-2009. The figure of £24.7 million in legal help for welfare benefit cases, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), is startling, and we should pay close attention to it. There is no doubt, as other Members have said, that there are serious deficiencies in the decision-making processes as regards benefit entitlements. I am utterly convinced that that large amount of money could have been saved if that system were more sound. I urge the Minister to work as closely as he can with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that it starts to take a share of the burden of the cost of representation.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Buckland: I am sorry, but I cannot take interventions on this occasion because I want to ensure that other speakers have their say. As I said, so much to talk about, so little time.
Let me pray in aid Wiltshire law centre in my constituency, which carries out debt, welfare and housing work. To put it bluntly, it is set to lose the vast majority of its income if these proposals are implemented. May I put in a plea to the Minister to work as hard as he can with all agencies of Government to ensure that places like Wiltshire law centre get some form of block funding to ensure that its valuable work continues? It is as fundamental as that. I am worried that if we lose that service, my constituents will have to travel a very long distance to get legal aid, because most private firms in Swindon now do not offer the services offered by the law centre.
I have spoken in the past about special educational needs and education law. I reiterate my plea to the Minister to ensure that when the education Green Paper is published in March the forms of alternative dispute resolution, whether it be mediation or other forms of ADR, are properly explored and set out so that the need for legal representation in those cases becomes a thing of the past.
I have drilled down as far as I can to find out why this country spends more per head on legal aid than other country. The National Audit Office paper on the procurement of legal aid observed that during its control period in the latter part of last decade, England and Wales prosecuted more than a million more people than any comparator country. We have to look at why we spend a lot on legal aid. I do not think that it is a problem. I think it shows that we take prosecution seriously. The only real comparison we can make is with other common law countries, and they do not prosecute as many cases as England and Wales. Comparisons with France are utterly irrelevant. The French spend five times more on the judicial system than us because
of their inquisitorial process. We must focus on comparisons with other common law countries. The simple fact is that we litigate more in England and Wales. As I said, I make no apology for the fact that this country brings more prosecutions than any other country. That issue should be dealt with in other debates. It is a causal issue, rather than being about the symptoms that legal aid has to deal with.
On domestic violence, my plea to the Minister is that we work hard on getting the definition right. I suggest that it is not right in the Green Paper. We should be considering courses of conduct rather than individual incidents. I would be happy to work with him on that matter.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I join in the congratulations to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this debate on an issue that will adversely affect so many of our constituents.
Before Christmas, a woman came into my surgery in desperation. She was trying to extricate herself from a violent relationship. As is normal with such relationships, although she is now safe, her ex-partner continues to manipulate her and to exert his power by agreeing to things and then going back on his word. Even though she earns only about £20,000, she had been turned down for legal aid and was in a terrible situation. She was paying for a solicitor, but it had reached a point where she could not ask them to do anything else because she could not afford to pay them. As an ordinary person, she was terrified of running up debt, so she made sure that she paid all her bills immediately, even though that meant that she frequently did not have enough money to be able to eat. Of course, celebrating Christmas was out of the question. If the Government go ahead with their plan to reduce civil legal aid, my surgery will be full of people like that.
Bolton citizens advice bureau sent me a snapshot of an ordinary day at its drop-in service. On 11 January, its social welfare law drop-in service was open for six hours. Sixty-three new clients walked in off the street. That does not include the 31 people who went in for return appointments. If the proposals to reform legal aid had been implemented and if the Citizens Advice financial inclusion fund had been withdrawn, it would have been able to deal with only five or six of those people.
The stories of many of those people are heartbreaking and many of their cases involved an element of benefits, with claims being refused, delayed or wrongly calculated. Many of them did not have enough money to feed themselves or their children, such as the lone parent with three children who was receiving only £47.50 a week, or the lone father who had received no benefit for his 18-month-old and was told he would have to wait another four weeks for any money. A number of them were in imminent risk of losing their homes because of failed businesses. Some had employment issues and others had immigration issues. Whatever the issue, the common thread was that they went to Citizens Advice because they had nowhere else to go. They could not afford to buy legal support, unlike the people who were pursuing them. Their cases involved debt, wages that had not been paid and the refusal to pay benefits.
Surely, it is a mark of a civilised society that all people have access to legal justice. Surely, in 2011 we should not be returning to olden days when the poor simply had to accept what the rich and powerful did to them. Of course, the equality impact assessment states that females and black or minority ethnic people will be more adversely affected, and it cannot rule out a disproportionate effect on the disabled. The Government do not appear to be taking action to redress that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield talked about the financial cost of removing legal aid, but what about the other costs? What will happen to the lone father who is getting no benefit? Will his child go into care? What will happen to the person who loses their house? Will they go into emergency accommodation and have to be rehoused by the state? What about the long-term trauma of children caught up in the problems? Will they then fail in school and in their future life? The Government's proposal is wrong, morally, ethically and financially.
Citizens advice bureaux and community law centres are the Government's big society in action-a combination of volunteers and professionals working in partnership to provide a service for their communities. It is often the only service for those who are the most disadvantaged. Like every other voluntary group, however, the service costs. Even if projects are run entirely by volunteers, they still need funding for training and resources, premises and running costs.
I will not argue that legal aid needs no reform, but the proposed reform is supported by no one. Even the most commercial firm of solicitors says that it will have a detrimental effect on the most vulnerable in society. I say to the Government, please do not send us back to the days when justice was just for the rich and the privileged. I plead with them to rethink their proposals.
Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): I had hoped to speak for about 25 minutes, but I find that I have to cut my speech down to four minutes, so I shall be to the point and abrupt.
I wish to make a plea to the Minister about lawyers who fight against corporate, local government and about Government bodies that are under serious pressure to make serious cuts and sometimes get things wrong to the detriment of the most vulnerable in our communities. I wish to set out a particular case to the Minister, because I believe that the Legal Services Commission is already taking action to cut expenditure sizeably, but should not be doing it in quite the way that it is.
I wish to talk about a company called Hossacks Solicitors, which is one of the 78 legal companies that fight on behalf of community services. It has done a tremendous job-I have been on the wrong end of it on occasions in the past. However, in 2010 the LSC, which had granted a contract to Hossacks to fight a legal matter, said that it had issued the contract in error. The company disputed that fact on the grounds that it had entered into a binding legal contract with the LSC. The LSC replied on 6 January this year, terminating the contract in its entirety. The company appealed and was told that the appeal would be heard within two weeks. It has now been told that it will not be heard until the end of March, by which time many of the budgets will be
set and many of the cuts will be beginning to bite. That is too late for the vulnerable people Hossacks was going to represent.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Is the hon. Gentleman talking about a live case?
Mr Binley: No, I am not, because it has been stopped by the LSC.
I simply want the Minister to look into the matter to see how many more vulnerable people are being affected by decisions taken by the LSC that are premature given the debate that is currently going on.
Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Binley: I really do not have the time.
I ask the Minister to come back to me on this matter, because it raises a considerable concern that affects many people throughout the country. If the LSC is acting prematurely, it should be stopped until the debate is over and the consultation is finished.
I have finished within the time you wished, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I call Karl Turner, who can take two minutes. You have to sit down at 5.35 pm, please.
Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing the debate.
In the two minutes that I have, I shall concentrate on the citizens advice bureau in my area. I met the chief executive, Lesley Thornley, on Tuesday, and she highlighted the real problems that she thinks the CAB will suffer from. There seems to be a triple whammy. First, the financial inclusion fund will be gone. Some 50% of the advice that the CAB in my area provides is debt management advice, and she is concerned about what will happen to the people affected as a result of that cut. Secondly, there are the real-terms cuts to legal aid, and thirdly there are the cuts to the local authority, which she tells me will lead to 42% cuts to her CAB. She highlighted the fact that the Birmingham CAB is closing as a result of cuts, and she is very worried that the CAB in my area will also close.
I have spoken on numerous occasions to solicitors in my area, including very recently to Mr Waddington of Williamsons solicitors. He tells me that this issue is about access to justice. Publicly funded lawyers do not go into the job to earn big sums of money, just as teachers do not go into teaching to do so. Will the Minister ensure that he looks very seriously at the proposals? Vulnerable people will suffer as a consequence of the Government's programme.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I will ask that your short speech does not count against you in relation to the number of times that you have spoken.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this debate, which has been an excellent example of Back-Bench debates focusing on an issue that is causing great concern in constituencies around the country. We have heard many good speeches from both sides of the House.
It is appropriate that Members on both sides of the House speak in defence of legal aid, because it was on the recommendation of a Committee headed by a Conservative peer Lord Rushcliffe that legal aid was first proposed in 1943, and it was a Labour Government and a Labour Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, who piloted the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 through Parliament. The Secretary of State for Justice says that he wishes to return to the original intent of legal aid, but the original intent of legal aid is captured in paragraph 40 of Magna Carta:
"To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."
Those were the very words that Sir Hartley Shawcross had in mind when he said on Second Reading of the 1949 Act:
"It is a Bill which will open the doors of the courts freely to all persons who may wish to avail themselves of British justice without regard to the question of their wealth or ability to pay."-[ Official Report, 15 December 1948; Vol. 459, c. 1221.]
The Government's Green Paper presents their plans as a return to the founding intent of legal aid, but they are in fact the exact opposite. They will remove the average person's ability to seek justice.
I wish to focus on the cuts that will cause most damage-those to social welfare legal aid-but that is not to say that there are no problems with other aspects of the Government's proposals. The narrow definition of domestic violence cases will leave women and children vulnerable and less able to seek help; the failure sufficiently to address the costs of very high-cost criminal cases is a mistake and a missed opportunity; and taking clinical negligence out of scope, alongside proposed changes to civil litigation funding, will end the ability of many people to challenge negligence and malpractice. However, it is the cuts to social welfare legal aid that we find most unacceptable. They will result in the complete collapse of the social welfare advisory sector, and do so, ironically, at huge cost to the state.
In the short time that I have, let me give five reasons why those cuts are wrong. First, the advisory sector will all but disappear. The Government propose to eliminate almost all legal aid for social welfare, including legal aid for debt, housing, education, welfare, employment and immigration cases. They will cut funding for many advisory services, such as citizens advice bureaux and law centres.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Is my Friend aware that the High Court this week found in favour of the Mary Ward centre and other voluntary organisations that were threatened with a huge cut by London councils on the ground that inadequate equality assessments were made in advance of the proposed cuts? That is a taster of what is to come if the Government try to put those cuts through.
Mr Slaughter: Absolutely. I pay tribute to the Mary Ward centre, which I visited recently with Lord Bach, and to many other law centres around the country that do such sterling work.
The cuts to law centres and citizens advice bureaux come alongside cuts to the financial inclusion fund and local authority funding. Hammersmith and Fulham community law centre, where I have been a member of the management board for 20 years, has lost all its local authority funding, and will, if the Government's equality impact assessment is to be believed, lose 90% of its Legal Services Commission funding. Most law centres around the country and many citizens advice bureaux and private firms will be forced to close. Remaining citizens advice bureaux will find their ability to provide services considerably diminished, particularly those in areas of greatest deprivation. The knowledge, talented advisers and high-quality service provided at far below the market are irreplaceable.
The second point is that the most vulnerable will be hurt at a time of great economic turmoil. Let us consider the people served by those organisations I have just discussed. The Ministry itself estimates that 85% of legal representation and 80% of legal help is for individuals within the bottom income quintile. People with mental health problems and other disabilities experience much higher rates of unemployment, debt, homelessness and discrimination and will therefore be disproportionately affected. The disabled are twice as likely to live in poverty as the non-disabled. According to Mind, many callers are profoundly distressed and unable to explain their problems clearly. They find it traumatic to discuss those problems with a stranger over the phone and need face-to-face contact.
Thirdly, the Government overstate the ability of people to navigate the legal system without advice or guidance. The Green Paper misrepresents the reality of tribunals, and ignores the fact that the law is ever changing and highly complex. Without specialist advice, many claimants would be unable to prepare a case for first-tier, let alone upper tribunals. Representation before court and in court streamlines the legal system and makes it more efficient. These cuts will deepen the existing inequalities of arms and lead to injustice-and also to great inefficiency in the civil legal system. Without representation, appellants are more likely to request an adjournment, get things wrong, achieve less fair outcomes and therefore go on to appeal-all of which cause delays and costs.
Fourthly, the alternatives suggested by the Government are inappropriate or inadequate. The Minister says that people should seek advice from tribunals, respondent organisations themselves or the pro bono sector. The first two options have been greeted with incredulity. As for the last, the Free Representation Unit-the largest pro bono organisation in the UK-said in response to the Green Paper that it
"gives a misleading impression. It wrongly uses the role of FRU to support its conclusions. The work that FRU does can...be no part of the justification for withdrawing Legal Help in this area. FRU is in no position to replace the invaluable work of publicly funded solicitors, law centres and Citizens' Advice Bureaux in giving initial advice."
That is right. The pro bono sector cannot exist in its current form without the infrastructure of the advisory sector.
The fifth and final reason why these cuts are wrong is that the Government's sums do not add up. People who cannot resolve their problems often accumulate more problems and end up in cycles of decline, including social exclusion, eviction, unemployment, stress and depression, relationship and family breakdown. Children whose families are experiencing social problems are more likely to become involved in truancy, exclusion and offending. Early resolution saves time and money in identifying meritorious cases to take to court and preparing clients appropriately, and settling out of court where possible. Once someone is already homeless it costs the state tens of thousands of pounds to get them out of that situation. Just at first-tier tribunal stage, Government figures show that had the proposed cuts been in place last year, more than 51,000 cases that were successful would not have been, due solely to a lack of advice and representation.
The Green Paper is filled with inaccuracy, imprecision and outright fallacy. The sums do not add up, and it will lead to the disastrous loss of many of the CABs and law centres that are-to quote the excellent article by the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) in today's Guardian-the "last line of defence" against catastrophe for the tens of thousands of people they help every year.
Yesterday, someone who has spent much of their professional life providing legal assistance to those who cannot afford it asked me why no one has yet put this question in terms of the rule of law. A civilised society is one that encourages its decisions to be challenged and that understands that no decision can be beyond reproach. The legal aid system ensures that citizens can seek and gain justice, and that their lives are not placed into turmoil simply because they lack the means to challenge the decisions of large public and private corporations. That is the question that should haunt anyone who seeks to make such devastating cuts to a service that rightly makes us proud.
As for those outside this Chamber who have dedicated themselves to helping the most vulnerable navigate an often bewildering legal system, I join many of my colleagues in thanking them for all that they do for our country. They are the embodiment of the kind of civil society in which Labour has believed for so long. Many give their time for free. Others have accrued decades of valuable experience, with unique insight into the communities they serve, and I encourage them to make their voices heard. If their voices are not heard now, and if the stories of those whom they help are not heard, this Government intend to silence them forever. They should be assured that we will stand alongside them, our voices will join with theirs, and together we will resist these acts of sheer vandalism.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this important debate, in which we have heard many excellent contributions.
It has been helpful to hear first-hand from those who have contributed today, but before responding to some of the specific issues raised, of which there were many, I would like to reiterate the rationale and context of the
reform proposals. I should say at the outset that the Government strongly agree with the views expressed by many Members today that access to justice is a hallmark of a civilised society, and that the provision of legal aid, in a targeted, focused and sustainable way, is a key part of ensuring appropriate access to justice. So I say to the hon. Members for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) that our aim is to direct our scarce resources towards helping the most vulnerable.
As hon. Members will know, the Government have pledged to reduce the budget deficit to deal with the acute financial crisis and encourage economic recovery. The Department has to reduce its budget by £2 billion by 2014-15, and legal aid, being one of just three big areas of spending in the Ministry of Justice, needs to make a substantial contribution of £350 million to that reduction. However, the need to make savings gives us the impetus and urgency for change and provides us with the opportunity radically to reform a system that, in many cases, needed reform anyway. To that extent, I agree with the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) that our policy cannot simply be determined by how we deal with the deficit.
In June, we announced that we would be taking a fundamental look at the legal aid system. Our aim was then, and remains now, to create a stable and sustainable system that ensures access to public funding in those cases that really require it, the protection of the most vulnerable in our society and the efficient performance of our justice system. This also reflects the aim of creating a more efficient legal aid system as set out in the coalition Government document. Since the modern legal aid scheme was established in 1949, its scope has been widened far beyond what was originally intended. By 1999, legal aid funding was available for virtually every type of issue, including some that should not require any legal expertise to resolve.
Mrs Grant: Will the Minister give way?
Mr Djanogly: I would love to give way, but with so many points having been made, I cannot. I apologise.
I believe that that has too often encouraged people to bring their problems before the courts even where the courts are not best placed to provide the best solutions, and discouraged them from seeking simpler, more appropriate remedies. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on her excellent article this afternoon.
Indeed, the scheme now costs more than £2 billion a year, making it one of the most generous schemes in the world, even taking jurisdictional differences into account. We need to understand that, even after the proposed reforms, we are still going to have one of the most expensive schemes in the world. The previous Government made many attempts to reform legal aid, conducting more than 30 consultations since 2006, but the changes were of a piecemeal nature and failed to address the underlying problems. Rather than continue with this "cut and come again" approach, we have gone back to basic principles to make choices about which issues are of sufficient priority to justify the use of public funds, subject to people's means and the merits of the case.
The Opposition's general position on legal aid is staggeringly inconsistent and opportunistic. Labour appears to be backing down on its commitment to support legal aid reform. In an article on Left Foot Forward, the shadow justice Minister, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), wrote:
"It is nonsensical...to cut these long established public services."
The article seems to reveal a split between the shadow Justice team and its party leader, who said at a recent press conference that with regard to the reductions in legal aid
"Labour has shown it is ready to make difficult cuts which we believe are necessary for the long term health of our economy."
Its leader was, of course, reiterating the promise made in the 2010 Labour manifesto:
"We will find greater savings in legal aid".
It also contradicts the statement of the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) offering support to the Government when the reforms were announced last year. He said:
"Let me be clear: had we been in government today, we, too, would have been announcing savings to the legal aid budget. That is a reality that we all have to acknowledge."-[ Official Report, 15 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 663.]
Mr Slaughter Will the Minister give way?
Mr Djanogly: I think I do have to give way on this one.
Mr Slaughter: I think the Minister does, now that he has read out the central office briefing. I urge him either to read the shadow Lord Chancellor's article in the Solicitors Journal today, or even my speech in Westminster Hall before Christmas, which he would have heard had he turned up for it. If he does, he will see exactly where we would make the cuts and that we have made it clear throughout that we would not cut essential social welfare legal aid.
Mr Djanogly: I am pleased to hear some clarification of what the Opposition are not going to do; perhaps the hon. Gentleman will come back to the House to tell us what they are going to do, so that we can take a view on where they are coming from on this issue, because they have been thoroughly unimpressive to date.
Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?
The proposals in our consultation paper take into account the importance of the issue at stake, the litigant's ability to present their own case, the availability of alternative sources of funding and alternative routes to resolving the issue, as well as our domestic and international legal obligations. I should also point out that the consultation is still open, and that I am therefore here to listen to hon. Members' views rather than to agree or disagree with any particular view.
We propose to focus financial support, and legal advice and representation, on those who need it most. The proposed reforms involve significant change to the scope of legal aid funding. Having said that, I should
make it clear that we are not proposing any changes to the scope of criminal legal aid, and that legal aid will also still routinely be available in civil and family cases in which people's life or liberty is at stake, or in which a person is at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home. For example, I can confirm to the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) that we plan to retain legal aid for asylum cases, but not for immigration cases, except when the person is in detention.
Legal aid will also be retained for debt and housing matters when someone's home is at immediate risk, and for mental health cases. It will still be provided when people face intervention from the state in their family affairs that could result in their children being taken into care, and for cases involving domestic violence, child abduction or forced marriage. We also propose that legal aid should remain available for cases in which people seek to hold the state to account by judicial review for the most serious claims against public authorities. We shall also keep it for cases involving discrimination that are currently in scope, and for community care cases where the recipients are often very elderly and vulnerable.
Many hon. Members raised the question of telephone advice. Although that will provide a gateway, it will not stop face-to-face advice being given when that is appropriate. It will facilitate the more effective sourcing of services and help the disabled. People will be able to ask to be called back, as is currently the case, so the cost would be low. I should like to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) that we believe the telephone advice will assist people in rural areas, and that language translation will be catered for, particularly for Welsh speakers. The service currently has a satisfaction rating of more than 90%, so we see it as a very good service.
We recognise that there will be some cases, even within the areas of law that we propose to remove from scope, that international or domestic law will require to be funded by the taxpayer, or inquest cases where there is a significant wider public interest in funding legal representation. We therefore propose a new exceptional funding scheme for excluded cases. We also consider that the long-drawn-out, acrimonious nature of court proceedings too often exacerbates disputes rather than solve them. Alternatives often exist that are not only cheaper than rushing to court but faster and less contentious. So we will continue to provide funding for family mediation, to encourage people to use this more effective method to resolve issues between themselves, rather than using up precious taxpayers' money and the courts' time.
Of course, mediation is only one alternative to court proceedings. Work is going on across government to change our litigation culture and encourage alternative and less acrimonious dispute resolution. For example, the Government are currently seeking views on measures to achieve more early resolution of workplace disputes through ACAS conciliation, so that all parties have a chance to resolve their own problems in a way that is fair and equitable for both sides, without having to go to an employment tribunal.
Likewise, the Department for Education is looking into involving parents in early discussions and decisions about the special educational needs support that they need, so that they do not have to battle through the tribunal process. I think it was the hon. Member for Westminster North who said that 82% of appellants in
SEN matters succeeded in their appeals. I should point out to her, however, that just 18% of parents are currently legally represented in those appeals.
On eligibility, we are not changing the criminal means-testing introduced by the previous Government. In civil cases, however, we believe that those able to pay for or contribute to the costs of their case should do so. This will help to ensure continued access to public funding, in those cases that really require it, for those who have little or no funds of their own. The consultation paper therefore includes the proposal that all clients with £1,000 or more of disposable capital should make a minimum £100 contribution to their legal costs, and that the capital of any prospective legal aid clients is taken into account when considering eligibility. We believe that this will encourage a greater sense of personal responsibility by giving clients a greater financial interest in the conduct of their case, as well as helping to discourage unnecessary litigation at taxpayers' expense.
Many Members, including the hon. Members for Makerfield, for Westminster North, for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), the right hon. Member for Exeter and my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), made points about the highly valued not-for-profit sector. Having frequently met the CAB, Shelter and other voluntary groups, I appreciate that the not-for-profit sector has particular concerns, but the important point is that this issue goes way beyond legal aid. Indeed, funding from legal aid represents a minority of many CABs' income-we believe only about 15% of CABs' income comes from legal aid-and many do not receive any legal aid income at all; the three CABs in my constituency receive no legal aid money, for example. That is because the basic role of CABs is to give general advice, not necessarily legal aid advice, as they have been allowed to do only for the past 11 years. The problem, however, for those that do give legal advice is that legal aid funding will often merge with other funding streams. CABs are funded mainly by local councils and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills centrally, and removing one stream could have a knock-on effect, but that does not make it wrong for us to be unwilling to pay legal aid for general advice.
The reality is that the funding streams have been in conflict for years, and effort and services have been duplicated and resources wasted, although the previous Government never sorted this out while their money machine was pumping away. We have recognised this problem, and I am pleased to be able to say that we are working closely with the Cabinet Office-based Office for Civil Society, which will look at this important issue across Government. To answer a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), I should say that transitional funding may be available.
We certainly see an important role for not-for-profit organisations in the advice sector. The coalition Government support such organisations, including CABs, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, we hope that local government will share our view that they play an integral part in civil society. I am also happy to look at the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley).
The hon. Members for Makerfield and for Westminster North, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye and others spoke about welfare benefits. We recognise that some people find publicly funded legal advice and advice on welfare benefit matters helpful. However, the user-friendly nature of the tribunal means that appellants can generally present their case without assistance. More particularly, the issues raised are normally ones that should be dealt with by general advice, not legal aid. When I visited a law centre recently, I was shocked to hear that local benefits officers were sending people to the law centre for advice on what benefits they could claim. This is a bizarre situation, and it is not going to be solved by throwing legal aid money at the problem.
Mr Djanogly: I am afraid to have to tell hon. Members that I have run out of time.
This debate will continue, as will the consultation. I can honestly say that we are looking forward to receiving the consultation responses of Members and all other respondees.
Yvonne Fovargue: I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. Some good and passionate points were made on both sides of the argument. Legal aid has been called the fourth pillar of the welfare state, and I urge the Minister to listen and take on board some of the points that have been made, and not to cut into the legal aid budget so deeply that the whole building collapses, leaving Members to pick up the pieces in their surgeries.
That this House has considered the matter of the reform of legal aid.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, whose leadership heads the most incompetent quango in the country, has today published a "name and shame" of Members of Parliament who, in its mind, have made claims to which they were not entitled. Among those names is mine, but I have to tell the House that the payment was made to me in full on 13 December. IPSA knew that. Admittedly, it took two months to pay, but it acknowledged that the claim was legitimate and it was paid. However, my name appears in a list of those who had a claim refused. What action can be taken by Members who have been maligned-one could argue libelled and slandered-by this incompetent organisation?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I believe that the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Speaker's Panel on IPSA, and I am almost tempted to ask him to refer this matter to himself, but I will not do that. He knows that the matter that he has raised is not a procedural point for the Chair, but he has put his views on the record and he knows that there are other ways of taking the matter further.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Mr Dunne.)
Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I am grateful for the chance to speak about an issue that is of great importance to the city of Glasgow and to Scotland. The challenge of jobs and growth will be a defining political issue in the coming year. People want to know where new jobs and future prosperity will come from. Those in the private sector, who must create the jobs and wealth that Britain needs, will want to know whether everything that could be done is being done to support their efforts. They will want to know whether our Government are making the right choices on jobs and growth, and the right choices for the future of Britain.
One such company already asking those questions is STV Productions in my constituency. STV Productions is one of the few businesses of scale in the Scottish television production sector. It is a hugely important part of the Scottish creative industries cluster and a key employer in Glasgow's thriving media hub on the banks of the River Clyde. The growth of STV Productions can help to secure and develop a thriving, sustainable television production sector in Glasgow and throughout Scotland, delivering significant economic, social and cultural benefits. The growth of STV Productions will also secure and create much-needed private sector jobs.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says that the impact of Government spending plans will mean a 200,000 drop in employment this year. Under those headlines are larger numbers of job losses. PricewaterhouseCoopers calculates that public sector cuts will lead directly to around 500,000 private sector job losses over the spending review period. The CIPD has previously said that 1.6 million jobs could be lost, with the increase in VAT estimated to cost 250,000 jobs. Jobs will be created in the recovery, but the challenge to replace all the jobs lost through public spending cuts, as well as those lost as a result of the unemployment remaining after the global banking crisis and the impact of VAT, will be huge. The jobs that Britain needs can be created only by successful and growing private companies. They need the confidence and certainty that will justify their investing. Public policy must be focused relentlessly on creating the conditions for growth. Today the Government are making a series of wrong choices that will hamper the ability of private companies to grow.
Last November, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport made a choice that denied STV Productions the independent status that it sought. Officially classifying STV as an independent television production company would have allowed it to compete for programme commissions under production quotas reserved for independents by broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4. In short, independent status would have offered STV Productions the chance to create employment opportunities in Glasgow. Ofcom broadly welcomed STV's aspirations, saying that independent status would encourage greater access to network commissioning by external producers. Meanwhile, Ofcom's advisory committee for Scotland endorsed the broad policy position of ensuring that television production
be enhanced in the nations. The Secretary of State decided to overlook that advice and deny STV independent status.
STV Productions currently supports 305 full-time equivalent jobs. The company's combined direct, supplier and income impacts stand at £15.3 million of gross value added in the Scottish economy. If STV Productions maintains its current market share in 2016, its economic impact will increase to 317 jobs and £15.9 million in GVA.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on Scottish television. It is a shame that we could not have a motion of no confidence in the Government right now, given that there is nobody on the Government Benches, but I know that that is not the way procedure works. My hon. Friend is eloquently outlining STV's contribution to the economy. Independent producer status would allow that contribution to grow even further, leading not just to STV's growth, but to the growth of the entire production sector in Scotland, helping it to branch out from its hub in Glasgow to many other parts, including my constituency.
Anas Sarwar: I thank my hon. Friend for staying for the debate. I agree wholeheartedly with his comments. Independent status would not only benefit STV, create jobs in the company and create growth in the city of Glasgow, but help other independent production companies in Glasgow and throughout Scotland to branch out in many of the sectors involved.
Had STV Productions gained independent status, its competitiveness would have increased in the BBC market and other domestic and international markets. By 2016, such an increase in competitiveness could have increased its economic impact by 30% to 396 jobs and £19.8 million in gross value added. However, as a result of the Secretary of State's decision, the economic impact of STV Productions in 2016 is expected to be £3.9 million less than it could have been.
The provision of 79 full-time equivalent jobs would have been great in itself, but as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), independent status for STV Productions would also have had an effect on the economic impact of the wider production sector in Scotland. The growth of a company of scale would have led to an increase in the competitiveness of the sector as a whole., and that increased competitiveness could have allowed independents with Scottish headquarters to compete against international production companies with a presence in Scotland. By 2016, the resulting growth could have increased the economic impact of the sector as a whole to £98 million and supported 1,847 jobs. That is private sector growth on a scale that the Government cannot afford to ignore.
The Secretary of State could have secured a bright future for the independent production sector in my constituency and beyond. Instead, his decision will allow independents with headquarters outside Scotland to gain at the expense of the growth of STV Productions and those with headquarters in Scotland. The overall effect will be a reduction in the future economic impact of the television production sector in Scotland. The decision fails to recognise that STV is perhaps the only Scottish company with sufficient capacity to take on
such large-scale productions. It fails to show a full understanding of the measures needed to secure a viable and sustainable broadcasting industry in Scotland. Above all, it fails to encourage private sector job creation in my constituency and throughout Scotland.
The creation of a strong and competitive private sector must be central to the society that we are trying to build. We must support people who are in business and leading businesses. We need growth and job creation over the next year, but we also need to lay the foundations for a stronger, better balanced economy in the future.
I recognise the concerns of smaller independent production companies in Glasgow and in Scotland as a whole, and I accept that STV Productions will have to address many of those concerns if it wants independent status, but I genuinely believe that all independent production companies-including STV, if it could acquire its licence-would benefit from the resulting growth in the sector.
I want to see companies such as STV Productions grow, create more profits and create more jobs. With that in mind, I invite the Secretary of State, along with his colleagues, to visit STV Productions in the beautiful city of Glasgow, on the banks of the River Clyde, and to review his decision. That would benefit my constituency, the city of Glasgow and Scotland as a whole.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (John Penrose): Let me begin by apologising for the absence of the handsome and talented Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who is responsible for culture, communications and creative industries, whose portfolio is relevant to the debate, and whom Members may have expected to see this evening. Many Members will be delighted to learn that the reason for his absence is the fact that he is in Scotland as we speak. He has been in Edinburgh to discuss broadband, and then in Dundee to discuss the video games industry. However, I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue with the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) in his stead.
Anas Sarwar: Will the Minister give way?
John Penrose: I will, although I have hardly got started.
Anas Sarwar: Given that the other Minister is currently in Scotland, he might like to extend his visit to Glasgow. I am sure that I could hastily organise a visit to STV Productions tomorrow, or even late this evening, if he so wishes.
John Penrose: I am sure that that is a kind and heartfelt invitation, but I suspect that it may have come rather late in the day, given the state of the Minister's diary. None the less, I will make sure that he is aware that the offer was made. In addition, an earlier intervention claimed that nobody was on the Government Benches, but given that I was sitting there large as life feeling like chopped liver as I was stared through by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), may I put on the record the fact that there were people here listening very intently to the comments that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) was making?
One of the key strengths of UK broadcasting comes from having a TV production base spread out across the nations and regions of the UK. That ensures that a more diverse collection of views and voices are reflected back at all aspects of the audience through their TV screens. As well as the considerable cultural and social benefits to the population, the arrangement enhances national, regional and local economies. The Government recognise that much of the country's best television comes from the nations and regions, and we welcome the contribution that STV, in particular, makes towards public service broadcasting in the UK. STV's local news, in particular, is extremely strong and we welcome STV's recent announcement of a pilot to deliver more local TV news for the west and east of Scotland. That builds on the launch of its STV Local sites and shows a real commitment to serving audience demand for more localised and relevant content.
On a related note, hon. Members will be aware that the Government published their local media action plan in January. I wish to reiterate that the Government are keen to hear the views of industry and the public on our proposals, and to receive expressions of interest from organisations interested in running a new network channel to support local television services. Local media is a vital part of local democracy and I encourage everyone with an interest to respond to the public consultation.
I now return to the meat of today's debate. STV is important but of course so too are the independent producers in Scotland. As the hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned, the Secretary of State considered thoroughly last year the matter of the potential reclassification of production companies owned by Channel 3 licence holders. That consideration took into account the responses from 29 organisations, including the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, Ofcom, the Scottish Government, STV, Channel 4 and several Scottish independent television producers. The responses covered a variety of viewpoints, but the voice of the existing Scottish independent sector was loud and clear in opposing the reclassification of STV's production companies as independent producers.
The consultation closed on 2 February 2010 and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced the Secretary of State's decision on 10 November 2010. I believe that the hon. Gentleman understands that the delay occurred because once the Secretary of State took office in May 2010 he wanted to look afresh at the proposal in the "Digital Britain" White Paper and the responses to the public consultation. It is important to make it clear that this decision was not taken in isolation and was not taken lightly. As we have seen in today's debate, there are genuine and valid opinions on both sides of the argument. The Secretary of State concluded that, on balance, the potential benefits of implementing the proposal did not outweigh the likely negative effects, particularly on the existing Scottish independent production sector.
Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): I realise that this is not the Minister's direct brief, but does he appreciate that the point made by PACT in response to the consultation misses the fact that if STV does not have this status, there is not the scale for the large-scale independent production to take place in Scotland? STV getting this status would actually help the other independents, rather than hinder them.
John Penrose: I plan to deal with some of the remarks made by PACT later in my speech. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right about part of its remarks, but we have to take into account not only its remarks in their totality, but all the other remarks and consultation submissions made in response to the Government's request.
The Secretary of State believed it inappropriate to consider this matter in isolation, given the wider and more comprehensive review of public sector broadcasting and regulation that the Government are undertaking over the term of this Parliament. On that basis, he concluded that the proposal should not be taken forward. The Government appreciate that this decision will not be welcomed by everybody. Implementation of the proposal was not, however, in the interests of the Scottish economy as a whole, nor was it likely to promote competition or diversity of production in the long run.
The responses to the public consultation are published on my Department's website, but I wish to highlight some of the specific points raised by the existing independent production sector. They perhaps deal with some of the interventions that have been made, and they highlight the concerns raised and give some background to the decision.
Many respondents were concerned about the displacement of commissions from the existing Scottish independent production companies to STV. PACT said:
"There is significant risk that the proposed change in the definition would potentially severely damage the Scottish production sector by displacing commissions from other Scottish producers".
Its contribution expanded on this by saying that
"our main concern, though, is that STV will displace commissions not from London companies but from other, typically smaller Scottish independents, with the resulting damage to the Scottish production sector. The last five years have seen the growth of larger, typically London-based independent companies. However, with a few exceptions, Scotland remains characterised by small companies specialising in one or two genres. A 2008 report, for example, indicated that average turnover for an independent company in Scotland was just £1.33m per year."
Ian Murray: On PACT's point about the sector in Scotland being characterised by small production companies, the issue for Channel 4 in trying to commission more programmes from Scotland to try to get its percentages up- everyone in Scotland is keen that that should happen-is that there is not sufficient critical mass up there to produce something that Channel 4 could do on a returning basis to achieve that. The only organisations that could do that are the BBC, which cannot do it for licensing reasons, and STV Productions, which cannot do it because it does not have independent producer status, so there is a bit of circular argument on this issue.
John Penrose: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's logic, but the burden of what PACT has said is that the danger of giving STV independent production status is that it would cannibalise existing Scottish independents and we would end up with a much smaller number of larger producers, with STV massively in the lead. That is a possible outcome, but clearly the Secretary of State, in balancing what he was asked to consider, did not view it as strongly as some of the alternative outcomes.
Anas Sarwar: In our discussions with Channel 4, we found that it has set a target of increasing its spending on the independent sector in Scotland from 3% to 9%, but it has emphasised that it feels that only STV is currently able to provide the required quality of programming and expertise. Does the Minister recognise that it is a bit of a myth that STV would be the largest independent production company in Scotland if it were to get independent status, given that there are independent companies in Scotland that were previously owned by Warner Bros. and are now owned by Endemol-an independent-sector producer that is even larger than Channel 4?
John Penrose: The hon. Gentleman advances the argument that only STV has the scale to achieve the kind of programming status and quality that everybody wants, but surely, the existence of other very large independents must undermine the logic of that position in the first place.
Let me make some more progress on other comments in the consultation. La Belle Allée Productions considered that there would be
"a real and significant danger of STV displacing commissions from other Scottish companies".
IWC Media believed that there is a "significant risk" that the proposal
"would damage the Scottish production sector, by removing work from the companies that need it most".
Matchlight said that the proposal would
"substantially harm other, smaller Scottish producers by displacing jobs and network productions from them in favour of STV and the overall effect will be a zero sum game for Scotland-no new jobs created, no new work attracted".
Tattiemoon also disputed that the reclassification would create any jobs. Its response said:
"To believe the claims that this change in status would result in the creation of more jobs for our industry would be a terrific mistake and one that we cannot afford to make. STV are aiming to adjust their position in order that they can have more control of our industry and compete in an incredibly unfair manner with other programme makers".
Doubt was also expressed about the overall cultural benefit to Scotland. Tattiemoon said:
"Here we have STV as a broadcaster breaking all the rules to become an independent for fiscal gains and not for the overall cultural well being of the nation".
Turmeric Media focused on funding, training and development opportunities and asserted that STV would
"exploit many of the excellent funding, training and business development opportunities that exist in Scotland that help small indies survive, again to the detriment of the small indie".
Many independent producers made general comments about the potential negative impact on the industry generally. Bees Nees believes that
"The granting of independent status to STV...would be to the detriment of the independent production sector in Scotland."
Matchlight believes that the proposal
"seems more likely to frustrate the Government's stated objective of protecting Scotland's sustainable production base than to promote it."
I will add one more quote, if I may, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Mike Bolland, a former chair of PACT, told us the proposal
"would upset the delicate ecology of television production in Scotland".
Anas Sarwar: The Minister is rightly quoting those who participated in the consultation process, but is he willing to quote also what Ofcom said in its response-it agreed with the proposal for independent status for STV-or what the Scottish Government said about STV Productions having a role to play in the Scottish economy?
John Penrose: I do not deny that there were consultation submissions in favour-that is absolutely correct. What I am trying to illustrate is the strong tide of opinion against the proposal. Clearly, the Secretary of State had to take all sides of the argument into account. It is because the hon. Gentleman and his two colleagues strongly put the case in favour of the proposal that I am trying to ensure that we have a balance in the debate. It is important to remember that there are two valid sides to the argument-the decision was a difficult one that required a degree of care on the part of the Secretary of State-and I hope that I have managed to illustrate that, given that the hon. Gentleman made the other side of the case so strongly in his speech.
PACT in particular raised some further interesting points. It considers that STV is already well placed to take advantage of the predicted growth in the Scottish production sector-the hon. Gentleman mentioned that-even without qualifying as an independent. Furthermore, PACT noted that STV Productions and STV's wholly owned subsidiary Ginger Productions are already winning commissions from the full range of network commissioning broadcasters, including all public service broadcasters.
It was also pointed out by respondents that the benefits accruing to STV, which STV itself provided to the Department for the purposes of the consultation, were minimal. As was noted in the published impact assessment, STV estimated that if its production arms were reclassified as independent under the proposal, it would experience an increase in production revenues of £400,000, to £1 million per annum. That represents an increase of just 15 hours of production and, STV estimated, would create five full-time jobs.
Those were not the only viewpoints. Other contributors to the consultation were in favour of the proposal, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned and as I acknowledged in our last exchange. STV was, of course, strongly supportive of the proposal. The Government carefully considered the arguments put forward by STV for the benefits that would accrue both to STV and to the industry. STV believes that there would be a benefit to the Scottish economy arising from a greater dispersion of production throughout the UK. In particular, we noted STV's view that it was currently prevented from competing on a level playing field due to its minority
role within the ITV network. STV told us it has no influence over commissioning decisions, is disadvantaged by its regulatory status and cannot compete for the independent quota.
Ofcom, as the hon. Gentleman said, provided a valuable contribution and set out its reasons for broadly supporting the proposal. It did so on the basis that reclassification would encourage greater access to network commissioning by external producers, with potential associated benefits for the development of the production sector in the nations. We also noted Ofcom's reference to the conclusion of its advisory committee for Scotland, which suggested that the benefit to existing Scottish independents, in the form of a larger number of commissioned co-productions between STV and other producers, is unproven.
I hope that I have provided a useful and, in the light of my last couple of points, at least reasonably balanced summary of some of the contributions to the consultation. I encourage hon. Members to read the full responses on my Department's website, although I think it is clear that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have conducted a fairly extensive trawl of the submissions and are already possessed of a high degree of familiarity with them. For the record, however, and for anyone else who is interested, I just wanted to point out that the responses are there for anybody who wishes to see them.
Some hon. Members may be aware of the recent evidence provided by STV in the Biggar report, which indicates a rather larger financial benefit than was originally projected in the impact assessment. We have seen that report, but it was received six weeks after the decision had been announced and 10 months after the consultation closed. The point remains that the voice of the existing independent sector is loud and clear: it does not want this to happen. As I have mentioned, in making his decision the Secretary of State also concluded that it is inappropriate to consider the matter in isolation. He announced in January that we are embarking on a major review of the communications sector. It will be a wide and comprehensive review leading to a new communications Act before the end of this Parliament.
I should make it clear that we do not intend to review again the specific issue of the potential re-classification of production companies owned by Channel 3 licence holders, but the review will include an assessment of public service broadcasting and regulation, and the broader issues of independent production are almost certain to be part of that.