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Lord Adonis: My Lords, that is a question more for the historians than for me, but I watched a fascinating programme about Beeching on BBC Four last week, in which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made a star turn as a railway manager who worked through that period. The nostalgia in me was overpowering.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, civil and family court fees are generally set to reflect the full cost of the system, but this does not mean that the courts are fully self-financing. The taxpayer funds a fee remissions scheme to protect access to justice for those who need financial assistance. Following a review, a public consultation and an independent research study, a revised remissions scheme was introduced in October last year. My department recently commissioned research to evaluate the new scheme. It is expected to report in spring 2009.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but I am concerned that local authorities wishing to bring a care case will find that their fee has gone from £150 to £4,500, which is an increase of 2,500 per cent. I am concerned that this might mean local authorities delay bringing their cases because their social services budgets are so stretched. Could that place children at more risk?
Lord Bach: My Lords, there is currently no evidence that fee increases affect the number of cases coming to court. It is true that public law family fees were introduced in May 2008, which coincided with the public law outline national rollout in April. That outline was introduced in pilot courts last year to clarify and narrow the issues in dispute, leading to greater focus and fewer unnecessary hearings. Everyone would agree that in family public law matters of that kind, it is better to have fewer hearings if it is at all possible. When the guidelines that were introduced last year are also taken into account, one may see fewer cases eventually coming to court. If so, that will be a good thing. We are not trying to discourage proper cases from coming to court. What is important is that fewer cases come to court if that is possible.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I acknowledge the work that is being undertaken to prevent families and children having to face court, but does the Minister not agree that there are still serious delays in the family court system and that when those delays affect the safeguarding and development of children, because they are waiting for cases to be heard, this is to be deplored? Will the Government do all in their power to ensure that those cases that do have to go to court are heard as speedily as possible? I declare an interest as the deputy chair of CAFCASS.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, whose expertise in this field is well known to the House. I agree entirely with what she says. Of course, cases should be brought to court at the appropriate time. I am glad that she agrees with what I said earlierthat it is better not to have unnecessary court cases, particularly involving children.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, when I initiated a debate on this subject on 2 May 2007, the then Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson, promised that there would be research. That was 18 months ago. Why has there been this long delay in that crucial research to look at the adverse impact of the full cost recovery policy on the most vulnerable? Does the Minister know that the Civil Justice Council and senior judges have expressed again and again to the department their view that the system does not adequately protect the constitutional rights of access to justice? More recently, experienced legal practitioners have expressed their concern that in public law proceedings, including cases involving children at risk in care proceedings, local authorities under this policy will not be able to afford to bring the statutory proceedings needed to protect children. Is the Minister aware of that? Is he aware of any other country in which that policy is being pursued?
Lord Bach: My Lords, when consultation was taking place on the effect that the increase in fees, along with the other matters that I have raised, might mean for public law cases in the family field, the Local Government Association said in its response:
It does not accept that local authorities are influenced by cost considerations in their approach to initiating proceedings, or in their decision about pre-proceeding work. The new scheme came into effect only in May this year, less than six months ago. It is important that we give it a bit of time to bed down before deciding whether there is anything that we need to do about it.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister recollect the words of Mr Justice Darling, some three-quarters of a century ago, when he said that the courts of this land were open to everybody, the same as the Ritz Hotel?
On a more sober note, what percentage of the adult population of England and Wales is on financial grounds practically exempt from legal aid? How does that compare broadly with the situation some 20 years ago?
I cannot give the noble Lord the figures on the number of individuals who would not qualify for legal aid, but I can tell him that for fee remissionswhich is what this Question is primarily aboutthe figure for 2007-08 was £27 million, with approximately 207,000 instances of fee remissions in the family and civil field. Of course, fees do not come into the question when we are talking about criminal proceedings.
Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, when Ministers come to consider the fee remission scheme later in the year, will they take the trouble to talk to high street solicitors around the country, who are saying consistently that they no longer find it economic to bring cases for poor, vulnerable and threatened people? Will they try to ensure that the legal system is as truly accessible to all citizens as I suspect that every Member of this House would wish it to be?
Lord Bach: My Lords, the Government wish it to be so as well, of course. I praise the noble Lords expertise, too. We spend more on legal aid per head in this country than any other country in the world, but we shall of course talk to high street solicitors, as we shall to other members of that profession and to members of his own profession.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of those service personnel who have lost their lives in operations since the House was last in session. On the Question, UK force levels remain at around 8,000 and continue to improve security in Helmand. The Taliban continues to use intimidation and violence against the local population, and expanding Afghan-led security remains key to our success. Sixty thousand Afghan national army troops have been trained and are increasing their ability to operate alongside ISAF. In Kabul, Afghan national security forces have begun the process of taking over responsibility for security.
Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, I associate these Benches with the earlier tribute. We all praise the bravery and skill of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan in an extremely complex and dangerous mission but, given the comments of Brigadier Carleton-Smith, voicing what many of us believe, that this is a war that probably cannot be won in a traditional sense and that ultimately negotiations will have to take place with the Taliban, and given last weeks reports that President Karzai has asked King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to help to broker a settlement with the Taliban, apparently with significant assistance from British intelligence, what is Her Majestys Governments attitude to negotiations with the Taliban and does America share their approach?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his statement about the bravery and skill of our Armed Forces, which we have seen demonstrated very well this summer, not least with the good work in regenerating the Kajaki dam. Brigadier Carleton-Smiths comments should not come as a surprise to anyone in this House. In a Statement in another place on 16 June, the Secretary of State said:
That has been said for some time and is something that everyone should agree with. President Karzai has had a reconciliation commission set up for some time for individuals previously associated with the Taliban. It is hoped that disaffected Afghans involved in insurgency or other activity can be brought into the mainstream. However, there are provisos and red lines, which are that such people should renounce violence and accept Afghanistans constitution.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, from these Benches we, too, send our condolences to the families and friends of the servicemen killed in Afghanistan. Will the Minister confirm that adequate supplies of ammunition ordnance are now being delivered there and say whether there has been any improvement in helicopter support?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Lord will know that during the summer we signed a new agreement on the supply of ammunition. We have no reason to think that there are specific problems with that. On helicoptersand I acknowledge the interest that the noble Lord has taken in this issue for some timewe have 60 per cent more airframes than we had two years ago. We have several initiatives, including one with other NATO partners on burden sharing, and we have plans to make sure that more flying hours are available, because it is flying hours that are the essence, not just the number of helicopters. We have made plans by improving the servicing of helicopters and doing more of that in the field. While we could always use more helicopters, we have sufficient for essential operations and are discussing with allies and in our own community how best to maximise the use of those that are available.
Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, what is my noble friends assessment of how well we are doing in controlling the growth of the poppy harvest in Afghanistan? In her assessment, is that helping or hindering our military effort?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, my noble friend raised this issue at the time of the Statement. The situation with regard to the poppy crop has not changed significantly. There is a problem in Taliban-controlled areas because the growing of poppies and the trade surrounding it are closely linked to criminality and the funding of the Taliban. We are trying to tackle this, but it is a difficulty. We are working hard with development agencies to bring about the same improvements in family incomes through farming other crops and we are working in other development areas such as getting more youngsters, especially girls, into
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Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, how secure is Kabul from incursions by the Taliban? Has there not been a worrying deterioration over the past year? Surely no wider military or other strategy can succeed unless confidence in Kabuls own security is achieved beyond question.
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, as I mentioned in my Answer, the Afghan national security forces began the process of taking over security in Kabul on 28 August. It is not surprising that some insurgents wanted to test their ability and to challenge their control in that area. That is part of what we are seeing at the moment. We have not walked away from the situation; training, mentoring and support are ongoing. The situation was considered sufficiently secure for the Afghan national security services to take that significant step forward. It is not surprising that those forces are being tested, but we are trying to help them.
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, co-operation between Afghanistan and Pakistan is important and significant. Discussions, sometimes involving third parties and sometimes direct, are ongoing. There is general recognition on both sides of the need for proper co-operation and discussion before there can be any calmness in the area.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, at a convenient point after 3.30 pm, my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham will repeat a Statement on financial markets. Looking at the groupings list, I can see that the debate on the first amendment of the Planning Bill is likely to be substantial. For the convenience of the House, I therefore suggest that we adjourn the debate at approximately 4 pm to enable the Statement to be repeated and to avoid unnecessary delay in doing so.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
The noble Lord said: The Bill creates yet another public body and yet another burden on the poor old taxpayer. This may be a minute matter when considered in the context of the Statement on national finances that we shall discuss at four oclock, but we are running a record budget deficit and here we have a proposal to increase it. It may be a marginal increase only but it is an increase. I have not been able to extract information on this, so I hope that the noble Baroness will tell us exactly what the costs are and, perhaps even more importantly, what savings might arise if the commission comes into being. She will reply to this group of amendments which go to the heart of the Bill as it establishes the Infrastructure Planning Commission to deal with the heavyweight planning applications that arise from time to time, and are likely to arise with increasing regularity over the coming years as we attempt to restructure our energy industry, improve our major infrastructure across the country and meet our climate change obligations about which we became well informed during the passage of the Climate Change Bill earlier in the Session. These are heavyweight matters.
Amendment No. 1 is a probing amendment and seeks to establish a slightly different purpose for the Infrastructure Planning Commission from that in the Bill. It seeks to enable the commission to advise Parliament on applications for orders granting planning permission. The reason for doing this is, in my view, very sound. Planning is not, and never has been, an exact science. I spent some time on a planning committee, which rapidly drove me close to insanity. The fact that I survived and am here to talk about it offers hope for the future, but perhaps that is not the view of those sitting opposite.
Development in whatever form is rarely site-specific. Most development can be established on a variety of sites. Up until now that decision has rightly been political. It is a political decision, whether it is taken by local politicians sitting on local planning authorities, or by the Secretary of State on call-in if the application is of sufficient national significance, is of sufficient exception to existing planning policy, or is an appeal. The very fact that the final decision is taken by an elected politician gives strength and integrity to the existing planning process. However, the Bill removes that and in doing so diminishes the strength and integrity of the existing system. It seems to me that, certainly initially, the results of the new system will be far more open to challenge, albeit that the existing systemthe Bill seeks to tackle thispermits many challenges before planning permission is granted for controversial applications.
We need to explore exactly why the Government are departing from this sound principle. We regard that departure as a disadvantage. There are many ways to approach the difficulty and this is not the only one. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, proposes a different approach in a later amendment in the group. I will leave her to speak to that and another amendment in the group in her name. We do not think that the Government have really thought this through. If we were to finish up with the proposed system, the way in which decisions are finally taken would need to be changed. At the moment, we are exploring the possibilities.
The amendment suggests that the commission should become an advisory body, doing all the hard work that has to be doneby golly, there will be hard work to be doneand then making a recommendation to Parliament, which is my personal preference. That is a subject for debate at this stage, because these matters need greater clarification. We are attempting to tease out the Governments motives and the justification for their proposals.
Amendment No. 2 is in the same group. It removes the possibility of future changes to the planning commission. We should not contemplate with any form of comfort the chance of what I would call mission creep. The body of people who will be required to do the work under the commission established by the Government will perforce need to become very specialist. In effect, it is a specialist branch of the inspectorate. I pay tribute to the planning inspectorate; I have known members of that body over the years and they are remarkable people. In some circumstances, they have had to do remarkable jobs. One thinks of the two obvious applications; Sizewell B and terminal 5. They were deeply intense matters that called for detailed knowledge and critical judgment. I know that the Governments ambition in the Bill is to diminish such types of inquiry. They cannot do that without the creation of a great deal of certainty, and that must be done by politicians; no one else can do it. Amendment No. 2 is designed to make that specialist body exactly what it is and to keep it that way.
Amendment No. 4 is another probing amendment, which requires commission appointments to be made by a similar means to that used to appoint members of the planning inspectorate. Those people, whoever they may be and whatever their backgroundI suspect some of them will come from the inspectorate; maybe the noble Baroness will tell us that they all willmust be very intensively trained. This is not going to be the same sort of job that is presently done by a planning inspector. They are going to have to go through all the detail. Preliminary procedures are laid out about consultation and so on.
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