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Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, to answer the second question first, we are absolutely confident that the arrangements for PPP are secure and valid. Everybody regrets the accident at Chancery Lane.

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London Underground has announced that it will be two weeks before the service returns to normal. The problem is that new bolts must be put on 2,800 motors on the 700 trains involved, which will take 5,600 hours. The Health and Safety Executive is insistent that nothing should return to normal until all that work has been carried out and it is confident that the Tube is safe and secure for its customers.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, in view of the delays now experienced on the London Underground, and the Minister's response, which suggests that there will be further delays on the Tube, do the Government intend to put pressure on the Mayor of London to delay the implementation of his notorious congestion charge?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, my announcement was contained in a London Underground press notice issued last Thursday, so there is nothing new in what I say. Congestion charging starts on 17th February. It is entirely for the Mayor and his staff to decide whether there should be any delay in implementing it. But we see no reason why there should be, because it is essential that the congestion charge, which we hope will be a success, is seen as a way of reducing the appalling congestion in London.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the noble Lord says that the Tube is safe and secure for travellers to use. But, is it not a fact that the Mayor of London last week warned Londoners that the Underground was unsafe? Did the noble Lord see that report? Clearly, he does not agree with it; but does he think that it was wise of the Mayor of London to issue the statement only three weeks before introducing the congestion charge?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I was not aware of any such article in the Daily Mail. A picture on the front page of the Evening Standard purported to be of a rail, but it was not. I do not think that I said that the Tube was absolutely safe. I said that, only when work is completed and the Health and Safety Executive says that the Tube is safe, will the Central line reopen and run as efficiently as we hope it always will.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, in response to my noble friend's question on whether the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister or the Government Office for London has made any approach to the Mayor, the Minister said that it was entirely a matter for the Mayor. But my noble friend asked whether the Deputy Prime Minister or the Office for London made any approach. Is the Minister not aware of the desperate difficulty that people are having in getting home at the moment? Surely, that must be aggravated by the congestion charge.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, people are having appalling difficulty getting home at the

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moment, first, because of the accident on the Central line and, secondly, because of the weather. Congestion charging does not start for two weeks. Therefore, it is difficult to blame it for the present conditions.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the safety record of London Underground, far from being poor, is exemplary? In terms of safety, it is the envy of many capitals around the world. Will the Minister also confirm that safety remains paramount in any new financing arrangements for the Underground?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I confirm that both those statements are accurate.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, when the Minister says that the congestion charge is entirely a matter for the Mayor of London, is he correct? Is he aware that, under the Greater London Authority Act, powers are available to the Secretary of State to vary and to exempt certain groups and persons from the charges and penalties under the congestion charge? Will the Minister reconsider whether penalties and charges could be varied and groups protected? People are being badly hurt, not merely due to the Central line fiasco and tragedy. They are unable to contact the central administration of the congestion charge authorities to determine how to pay.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, the detail of congestion charging is a matter for the Mayor and his staff. As regards the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, yes, it is right that in certain circumstances there can be intervention from central government. However, within the context of the questions I was being asked, I did not consider that central government would so intervene.

Legal Aid Scheme

2.52 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many firms of solicitors withdrew from the legal aid scheme in 2002.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Legal Services Commission does not collect data in a way that allows me to answer the exact question that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, has asked. At the start of 2002, 2,919 solicitors' offices had criminal defence service contracts. At the end of the year, there were 2,909—a net loss of 10. There were 4,938 solicitors' offices that had general civil contracts in the Community Legal Service at the start of the year and 4,681 at the end—a net loss of 257.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, while I thank my noble friend for her Answer, is she aware of the deep dissatisfaction of local firms which have neither the

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inclination nor the resources to carry on doing legal aid work, both in the civil and criminal sense? Is she further aware that a number of practitioners say that they are thoroughly demoralised and have reached breaking point as a result of what has happened to the legal aid scheme? Finally, what is to happen to clients who need legal aid?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we are aware that the profession expressed unhappiness about the level of remuneration. It was only when this Government came into office that there was an increase, after a significant period of time. Therefore, we are aware of those concerns. I reassure my noble friend that, within the limits of resource constraints, the Government are doing all that they can to meet the concerns being raised in relation to remuneration and other matters.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I declare an interest as a practising solicitor whose firm is stupid enough to have a legal aid certificate. Is the Minister being a little anodyne in those replies? There is, if not a catastrophe, a serious crisis developing. If she doubts me or the Law Society or the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, she may have read the annual report of the Legal Services Commission. What does the Minister think of this? The report states:

    "We are picking up intelligence through our regional offices that up to 50% of firms are seriously considering stopping".

It continues:

    "Our studies show that at current legal aid rates many firms are at best marginally profitable".

Is that not a crisis?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, there is not a crisis. First, the noble Lord's firm is not in the least bit stupid to continue legal aid. I commend it on its good judgment, and its service to the public. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, will know that legal aid solicitors, and those who work funded by legal aid, provide a wonderful service. I understand his concerns. The Government are considering what the justification is for any withdrawal from legally aided work. That is an issue under constant review. I reassure the noble Lord that on a monthly basis the figures are being reviewed to ensure that there is proper legal aid coverage throughout the country.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, the Minister will know that since the introduction of the new contracting arrangements and the Legal Services Commission, the number of solicitors firms giving legal advice, funded by legal aid, on family law has seriously declined. What are the Government doing to protect the interests of those who need such advice in areas which now have no cover?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, as I have already said, we have recognised for some time that there are potential problems in these areas. We take those concerns seriously. We know that the profession

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is unhappy. We are monitoring the supply on a monthly basis to the commission. At present, there does not appear to be a widespread problem in providing adequate cover in England and Wales. Those are the issues with which we have been exercised for some time. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that the particular issue in relation to family law practitioners is one on which we are keeping a careful eye.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, has not the situation occurred because of abuse of the system by certain people?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot respectfully agree with my noble friend. Anecdotally, concerns have been expressed about whether there has been abuse. We make every effort to audit firms to ensure good quality. However, it would not be fair to state that the problems currently faced are as a result of abuse throughout the system.

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