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Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor aware that such changes as have been made are welcome? However, does he recall that some months ago I raised the question of a German national, living in Italy, who sued a Japanese company through the courts of this country and received substantial legal aid to do so, to the surprise of most Members of your Lordships' House and the public outside? Can the noble and learned Lord tell us whether measures have been brought to bear, as he indicated they would, to prevent what most of us consider to be an abuse of the system? If not, it is about time they were.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I indicated before and I indicate again that I have proposals for overall control of the legal aid budget which will deal with the kind of case referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dean, and give priority to cases within the overall money available. I believe that the specific case mentioned by the noble Lord was an infringement in this country of a United Kingdom patent. However, my general proposals will have the effect of putting priority as between cases of that kind and other cases which your Lordships may think more deserving and allocating funds accordingly.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, in the present state of controls over legal aid there is no question of extending it further to tribunals. If the legal aid budget was fully controlled, occasions might arise when it would be appropriate to fund certain types of specific cases. However, that would be within an overall priority for legal aid and with a controlled budget. There is no question whatever of that happening under the present system so far as this Government are concerned.
Lord Irvine of Lairg: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that Mr. Orchard, the Chief Executive of the Legal Aid Board, has recently written that the merits test does not represent a substantial barrier to trivial or frivolous litigation and that he has also written that increasingly the board is finding that it is not in possession of the full facts of cases in legal aid applications? Does he have any plans to deal with this?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the merits test is laid down in primary legislation. Only primary legislation can change that. I proposed in the White Paper that we should change that by primary legislation when parliamentary time is available. So far as concerns ascertaining the facts, the Legal Aid Board is learning more and more how to try to extract from applicants the relevant facts. The Legal Aid Board is not the ultimate judge of the case. It looks to see whether there is a prima facie case within the terms of the existing merits test. But the Legal Aid Board is now finding it rather less certain to rely on the advice it gets from the applicants' lawyers than once it did. This matter requires further action on the part of the Legal Aid Board, and that it is pursuing.
Lord Meston: My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord confirm that, contrary to the impression sometimes given, the vast majority of legal aid is not squandered but is properly used on deserving cases which are conscientiously assessed both as to merits and to means? Can he also indicate whether the figures he has given allow for the recovery of the costs of legal aid through costs orders, the statutory legal aid charge and from VAT?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, there is no question of recovery of VAT except under the two heads which the noble Lord mentioned. The figures I have given are figures of net expenditure. It is difficult to say where the balance lies between genuine claims and claims that are less than genuine. But my understanding of the experience of the Legal Aid Board is as I said in answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg. The Legal Aid Board is finding that facts are alleged to it in applications which, once the case starts,
Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, against that background, can the noble and learned Lord tell the House how many applications for legal aid have been rejected by the board over the past two years or so?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I do not have that figure with me. I am happy to write to the noble Lord with an answer to that question. I take it that he means initially refused by the Legal Aid Board, because sometimes the decisions of the Legal Aid Board are altered on appeal by area committees and sometimes following judicial review.
Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, I have no pecuniary interest in the matter and I am not a solicitor by any means. However, as an ordinary man in the street, perhaps I may ask the noble and learned Lord whether he is really happy with the situation. Many of us who see cases in one capacity or another are most dissatisfied with the way in which the Legal Aid Board presents itself to people. It seems most unfair in many cases.
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, it goes without saying that I am not happy with the present position, which is why I have made proposals in the White Paper to change it. On the other hand, the Legal Aid Board is doing its best within the constraints of the present scheme. It is trying to improve its systems all the time. There is no complacency in this operation. I do not think the Legal Aid Board is complacent, as the quotations from the chief executive given by the noble Lord, Lord Irvine, show.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, no. The Government intend to bring forward legislation to privatise the National Air Traffic Services early in the next Parliament.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I congratulate the Minister and his colleagues on fighting off the Treasury and on shelving this privatisation proposal twice in the past two years, bearing in mind that the proposal has met with enormous opposition from the industry, from the airlines and from the Transport Select Committee in another place. Meanwhile, can he indicate what plans the Government have for the National Air Traffic Services operation at Prestwick, which covers Scotland and the north of England?
Moved, That a Select Committee on broadcasting be appointed to supervise the arrangements for, and deal with any problems or complaints out of, the televising and sound broadcasting of the proceedings of the House and its committees; and that as proposed by the Committee of Selection the following Lords be named of the Committee: