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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I believe that my noble friend asks whether I retain an open mind on the proposals and will be flexible in my approach. I certainly shall be. I aim for a fair playing field between solicitors and barristers. I shall meet the chairman of the Bar Council and the president of the Law Society at the end of November. I shall consider the representations they make with an open mind and will come to my decisions before Christmas.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, will my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor confirm--I am sure he will-- that after prolonged negotiation between his department and the Bar Council there was agreed in 1997 and thereafter put into effect an agreed mechanism for remunerating criminal legal aid? Will he also confirm that this provided a complex formula for assessing fees and that there has been no uplift since 1997 despite the RPI increasing by over 10 per cent? My question is therefore this: is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor seeking to discredit this agreed mechanism by imposing punitive deductions in regard to the scale already agreed? If so, does he accept that there is truth in the old adage that if you pay peanuts you will ultimately get monkeys?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the facts are that my proposals are confined to cases up to 10 days in length and they concern what we call "graduated fees". The noble and learned Lord is right that in criminal work graduated fees have applied to defence barristers for almost four years. These are acceptable as reasonable by the Bar. A graduated fee scheme sets

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fixed fees for different items of a case, including preparation and hearings, in place of the bad old system of brief fees, daily refreshers and ex post facto assessments of reasonableness.

My proposals are designed to remove an inequity under which prosecution counsel were paid much less than defence counsel to the prejudice of the CPS when engaging prosecuting counsel. The proposal therefore is that criminal graduated fees should be reduced by 10 per cent overall to pay for an increase in prosecution fees to bring about equality and to introduce a graduated fee system for prosecution counsel. The Bar should benefit overall and therefore I do not accept my noble and learned friend's strictures.

Lord Kingsland: My Lords, bearing in mind the judicially reviewable duties of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor under Section 25(3) of the Access to Justice Act, noting that one of these duties is the obligation to secure family law services by a sufficient number of competent practitioners and taking into account the fact that the circumstances for a cost uplift are extremely constrained, how can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor fulfil this duty when the rates of pay for a senior junior counsel will be the same as for a second six month pupil?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the criteria that I must apply are set out in different statutes. Of course, with the liability to judicial review I shall express myself with great care. But in both areas--family and crime--I shall want to ensure that a sufficient number of competent barristers are available to carry out the publicly funded work in question; and that will be achieved.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord admit that his plans involve a considerable reduction in legal aid fees paid to criminal law barristers and even more so to family law barristers? Will he accept that it is likely to be a serious deterrent to would-be young barristers who, among other things, know that they will leave university owing debts of up to £20,000?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, no, I do not accept that. I believe that all professionals must recognise that they are affected by market circumstances, the same as the rest of us. Those affecting the Bar are that the number of people entering the profession increased by 3 per cent last year and the amount of family work has fallen over the past two years so that there is increasing competition between a larger number of barristers for a similar amount of work. There is also evidence that some criminal law barristers work less than full time. But I am not presently persuaded that there is likely to be a lack of supply of competent barristers in

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either area to carry out publicly funded work to the extent required at remuneration the public would regard as fair.

Rail Travel: Telephone Information

2.52 p.m.

Lord McCarthy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why local railway stations no longer operate telephone advisory services which provide the public with up-to-date information concerning such matters as train cancellations, late arrivals and the state of station facilities.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, in the past, local stations were not formally equipped to operate as telephone advisory services although some did provide information to callers upon request. Under British Rail, up-to-date information was available from 43 relatively small call centres all with different opening hours and telephone numbers. The creation of the National Rail Enquiry Scheme (NRES) outsourced call handling to modern, large call centres which have a single 24-hour telephone number which I am assured is deemed memorable. Noble Lords may judge for themselves: it is 08457 484950.

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, does the Minister know that you can never get an answer when you ring that number? I do not know whether the noble Lord is an inveterate rail, car or executive jet man. However, in the days before privatisation if you woke up and could not see your before your face because of fog, or if there were leaves on the line, or if the IRA was "up to it" in the waiting rooms, you could ring the local railway station. I have rung hundreds. They were always manned. That disappeared on privatisation.

We now have the invisible National Rail Enquiry Scheme. When one occasionally manages to get through to the number, one is given the local customer services telephone number, but that too is often unobtainable. If one does get through, those individuals do not know what is happening in one's local railway station or the station to which one wishes to travel. If one presses the point, they ask, "Have you tried Ceefax?" The other day I was told, "You can always have a go at the Net". More often they say, "If I were you, I would try contacting your local railway station or local radio".

I do not understand why we got rid of those telephone services, or why we cannot have them back. Until we do so, the Government will be under continuing criticism because people do not know where they are going.

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Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, my noble friend says that one can never get through. Knowing where he comes from, yesterday I telephoned NRES to ask about his local station, Oxford. I got through twice on two calls averaging one and a half minutes.

In the years when the noble Lord worked for British Rail, about 60 per cent of callers found that the telephone lines were engaged or that their calls were unanswered; 90 per cent of calls are now answered.

Sierra Leone

2.55 p.m.

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are the foreign policy objectives behind the further deployment of troops to Sierra Leone.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, our intervention in June stabilised the security situation and helped prevent a descent into chaos. But many people in Sierra Leone still live under the threat of a brutal rebel minority. We shall not abandon Sierra Leone. We are determined to stand by its people, and to provide substantial practical support for their government and the United Nations. Our objectives remain to assist the Government of Sierra Leone and UNAMSIL to repel the rebels and restore the peace process.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and remind the House that I have a very peripheral interest. Our troops are doing a fabulous job all round the world. Is the Minister satisfied with the manning of UNAMSIL? Can the noble Baroness say why we are not within UNAMSIL rather than just alongside it?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for the compliments that he pays our troops, and join with him. UNAMSIL has been constructive. Noble Lords will know that we were not identified as being a country whose troops would participate in that regard. But we have a strong interest in Sierra Leone historically and now. We have great friendship with the people of Sierra Leone and would not stand idly by when assistance could be given. The noble Earl knows from Questions to and Answers from this Dispatch Box that our support has been sound in relation to training and other matters and is greatly valued by the people and the democratic government of Sierra Leone.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, perhaps we may congratulate Brigadier David Richards on the well-deserved honour of a CBE which was announced on Friday. It is a tribute not only to Brigadier Richards but to the wonderful way in which our forces in Sierra Leone have carried out their responsibilities.

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What is the target strength of the Sierra Leone army which we are assisting to train? When does the Minister estimate that the Sierra Leone army will begin to restore government control over the vast majority of the territorial area of Sierra Leone which is occupied by the rebel forces? Can the noble Baroness say anything about the talks, announced for later this week, between the Government and the RUF; and whether it is still possible for RUF personnel to come back into the political process?

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