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Lord Goodhart: My Lords, my party has always supported the principle of franchises and franchise panels. Therefore in principle we do not object to the regulations, although the view that we have also taken is that any firm able to reach the appropriate quality standard should be entitled to a place on the franchise panel. That matter does not appear on the face of the regulations.
My only question about it was passed to me by the Law Society and highlights its concern with immigration practitioners. There is a serious problem of under-supply of competent practitioners. A considerable number are not competent, but those who are and who are qualified to go onto the panel are in short supply. In that circumstance it is surprising that a number of firms which are qualified to be included on the panel have received contract offers for an amount of work which is substantially less than the amount that they were doing last year.
Given that one expects the work not only to remain at least at the level reached last year, but to increase quite considerably as the backlog is tackled, perhaps the Minister can say why firms have been offered contracts for less work than they did last year when demand will increase not only because of the exclusion of incompetent operators, but also because of the strong probability of an increase in the overall work. I understand what the noble Lord said about an increase in the reserve, but surely that is required anyway to cope with the probable increase in work.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, is a little too sensitive. In both his speeches this evening he gave us a short tour d'horizon of the rationale and justification for the Access to Justice Act. He must expect a little reprise on our part, especially when it is genuinely put in the context of what seem to be current experiences. I hope it is helpful to the Government to hear what is taking place in the field. However much the Government may believe that the way in which this matter is apprehended is itself slewed by the resistance of parts of the profession to these reforms, I believe the Minister will accept that practising solicitors are extraordinarily down to earth and pragmatic. Once rape is inevitable they do not exactly lie back and enjoy it, but they do get on with it.
The few remarks that I shall now make are genuinely intended to help the Government make the best of this Act. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, has made much of the clinical panel. Indeed, it has worked well. But I believe he will accept that it concerns a very special core group of practitioners. It is not safe to generalise in terms of national needs from this very particular and specialist group of solicitors.
The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred to the consequences. The reward of the number of cases to those on the panel has been substantially fewer in all cases than were applied for and expected. That does not matter to a firm which has a great deal of private client work and for which immigration work is a relatively small part of its practice, such as my own. But it matters intensely to precisely the kinds of firms that the Government ought to be helping and encouraging; namely, the mainline providers.
The Immigration Law Practitioners Association held a meeting last week specifically to discuss how things are going. There was a high level of concern about the way in which this particular aspect of the Legal Aid Board's contracting is working. So I mark the Minister's card on that point because I am sure that the Government will want to be flexible and reactive to real problems.
Finally, I make this point. It is all very well speaking endlessly about quality. We on these Benches have never been in any sense in opposition to the Government on the desire for quality in legal aid any more than we have been against franchising as long as one has open panels. The point that the Government must return to is that it is not realistic in this age to continue talking about quality, let alone increased quality, when the levels of remuneration for practitioners have remained unchanged for six years.
Those in the House who know a little about the way in which legal fees work may be surprised to know that the standard remuneration per hour for panel work is £48.25 pence. I would love to learn of any of the lawyers who have been adorning the Government Benches who are happy to work at that rate, which is indiscriminate as between the most senior and most junior practitioners. Unless the Government address that issue--with no increase, let alone a real increase, in legal aid remuneration all these years--they will find that their wish for quality, which we share, will disappear into the dust.
Lord Kingsland: My Lords, as I said earlier, the Government got their Act. The regulations are entirely consistent with its terms. The Government claim that the Act will give better access to justice to the citizens of this country than its predecessor. I for one am prepared to give them a good year to see whether they are right.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have taken part in the discussion on the regulations. In an attempt to answer the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about the query of the Law Society concerning contracts for immigration work, we believe that there is substantial evidence that the current
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. The problem that has arisen here is not an overestimate of the amount of work that might be generated as a result of some firms being squeezed out for doing bad work, but what will arise from the firms which will themselves be on the panel and which will be offered contracts for less work than they were doing last year. By definition, those are the competent firms.
Lord Bach: My Lords, no one is disputing that those are competent firms. They would not otherwise be on the panel. However, perhaps the reason that they are to be given less work than they might otherwise have expected is that our estimate of the total amount of work may be rather less than is sometimes thought. That is because the current volume and that generated over the past year has been artificially raised by those who have used unscrupulous methods to run effectively hopeless cases. The true level is between 85,000 and 100,000, taking account of the recent influx of asylum seekers. The pattern of demand is also uncertain because of the exclusion of unscrupulous and incompetent suppliers and the changes arising from dispersal. To retain flexibility, the board has initially allocated 85,000 new matter starts, and has kept in reserve a further 15,000 to be allocated as required. The number of new matter starts required to meet priority need in this area will be kept under review.
Furthermore, of the 85,000 new matter starts, 80,000 are allocated to solicitors and 5,000 to the not-for-profit sector. That sector is growing and is being encouraged because all would agree that there are certain fields--immigration matters may certainly be one of them--in which properly franchised not-for-profit sector practitioners may be able to offer a real improvement in service.
I am delighted to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, is keen on quality--I never for a moment doubted that--but the Government would say that if you wish the end, you have to wish the means as well. We would argue--we are sure that we are right on this point--that those means must include much more quality testing of lawyers and the not-for-profit sector before allowing members of the general public to seek advice, assistance and perhaps representation from those who have not always been able to deliver those services in the best way.
Lord Bach: My Lords, in all important respects those standards are bound to be the same. There will not be two separate levels that allow voluntary practitioners not to need to pass as high a test of quality as that of solicitors. I dare say the tests may not be precisely the same because they will be dependent upon the kind of work that is being done. However, voluntary providers will not, as it were, get through merely because they are voluntary providers rather than solicitors.