The noble Lord pointed out two other areas where the Government might save money, and I have some sympathy with his comments regarding regulation and the repetition of regulation in terms of the Bar and the solicitors’ profession. Indeed, I have made some observations on the Floor of the House to that effect. It is certainly a matter that should be considered carefully. While, of course, regulation is desirable to protect the public from lawyers who do not perform their task adequately, at the same time regulation and overregulation very often result in overbureaucratic processes, which can ultimately cost the public more and therefore do not actually serve what should be the aim of a properly regulated profession.

The noble Lord also pointed quite rightly to the fact that there are difficulties in prisons, and particularly difficulties caused by violence in prison at the moment. Much of that is attributable to the prevalence of psychoactive substances, which have caused there to be assaults on prison staff at a very unacceptable level. Much is being done about that, including greater security by means of cameras on individuals—which are planned to be used a great deal more—which can result in more security both for the individual prisoner and, of course, the staff working in prison. There are challenges and the Government are fully aware of that.

The noble Lord rightly pointed to the fact that the Government and the Secretary of State have a particular interest in hoping that prisons can provide a proper source of rehabilitation. An increasing emphasis will be placed on education provision in prisons and it will be very much part of the Ministry of Justice’s programme that conditions in prisons will improve significantly and, it is hoped, have a greater effect on the long-term rehabilitation of prisoners.

The debate has focused on a large number of issues. We understand that the main area of concern that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, has directed against is that there is a risk of there being no adequate providers of legal aid around the country as a result of these cuts. For the reasons I have given, we are not satisfied that that is the position. However, we are not complacent. We acknowledge the value of the legal profession in providing proper representation and the importance of making sure that that is still available. We will continue to monitor that. I hope that what I have said has given some reassurance to the noble Lord that this is not a matter undertaken lightly and that he will understand the pressure that this Government are under to maintain a manageable legal aid service. It remains one of the most expensive in the world, as the noble Lord will be aware, and the most expensive in

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Europe. None the less, it is an important matter and this Government and all Governments are proud that it remains a beacon. However, cuts have had to be made. We respectfully suggest that those cuts are reasonable and, in all those circumstances, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his Motion.

Lord Beecham: My Lords, I am grateful to all Members who have spoken in this debate and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, on taking advantage of the occasion quite reasonably to raise matters which are not quite within the terms of the Motion, or indeed of the general subject of criminal legal aid fees. However, the points they made were telling and I hope that the Government will in one way or another respond to them with some proper consideration in due course. I endorse much of what they said and the very constructive suggestions made, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, in citing a number of cases in which it might be possible to find savings.

Incidentally, I do not object at all to the Minister failing to reply to the long list of questions that I threw across the Table at him. I know that he is very able to respond after proper consideration to such matters and I look forward to hearing from him with that rather long list in mind. But with all due respect to the noble Lord, I find that there is a note of complacency in his approach to these matters. One of the factors which I think the noble Lord, Lord Marks, mentioned is the matter of choice. Choice is going to be very restricted, given the relatively small number of firms of solicitors which will be engaged in the business of providing criminal legal aid. The likelihood for those who opt for just the own-client contract, from all the evidence around the profession and as perceived by the Law Society, is that after a relatively short time it will implode—and those firms engaged in that part of the legal world will simply go out of existence.

In addition, the Minister referred to consultation. While consultation took place in form, in my submission it did not really do so in substance. I cite in support of that contention two letters written by the president of the Law Society, one to the Lord Chancellor and the other to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Dealing first with what I suppose is the more important of the two letters, the one to the Lord Chancellor, the Law Society’s president said that he was,

“writing on behalf of the membership … to express our disappointment and concern about this decision”—

that is, the decision following the announcement of the department’s plans. He said:

“The administration of justice is a fundamental duty of government and access to justice is an essential part of that responsibility … Today’s decision further undermines the role of criminal legal aid solicitors in our justice system … You gave us an opportunity to explain our reasons for opposing the plans. We provided evidence from over 120 firms of the dire impact of the previous cuts, and the likely impact on the criminal defence service of proceeding with this further cut. I know that many criminal legal aid solicitors … will be concerned on behalf of the public at the implications”,

of this decision,

“as well as worrying for their businesses”,

and employees.

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The president wanted to raise a number of points on behalf of the profession. First, he said:

“There is extensive and compelling evidence that criminal legal aid practitioners cannot sustain a second fee reduction”.

Secondly, he said:

“The Ministry of Justice’s … own financial assessment of the tender submission”,

would in its view,

“underline the fragile nature of firms’ finances”.

Thirdly, he said:

“Making a further fee reduction … may jeopardise the savings the MoJ wishes to make in the broader criminal justice system”.

Finally, and importantly, he said:

“Any decision should be deferred until there has been a full review of the evidence as to the effect of the first round of fee reduction in light of the financial reporting made to the Legal Aid Agency”.

Given that the new system is in any event to come into place in January, I cannot understand why it is necessary to impose on the solicitors’ and barristers’ profession a fee increase halfway through this period.

The society noted,

“the announcement of a review of the system after 12 months rather than assessing the evidence now”,

and deplored that. Its view is that,

“a large number of firms will have closed during this time, and many others will…withdraw from this market”.

It said that a review 12 months hence would be,

“too late to save many firms … This will be very difficult … for particularly the small, specialised firms”.

The fear is that the impact of these changes,

“could create advice deserts where the most vulnerable members of society will be unable to access the legal advice they desperately need”.

A lot of that advice, of course, is at the police station stage rather than the court stage. Drawing on memories from long ago, I cannot say I was enthusiastic about driving down at three o’clock in the morning to Jarrow police station to interview clients. Given that not only has this reduction in criminal legal aid fees taken place, but that fees effectively have been frozen for over a decade now, I think that the supply side is likely to be very seriously affected. Indeed, that was the subject of the letter to the Business Secretary, pointing out the danger to the firms in this sector and telling him—not reminding him—that it had been suggested to the Ministry of Justice that a decision should be deferred until there had been a full review of evidence.

Rather like his predecessor—and I hope this is not a precedent because I think Mr Gove, as others have said, has rightly attracted some approval for his more open-minded and better thought-through approach in many respects to some of the inheritance he acquired—it does not seem that he has listened to that view from the profession. I suspect that this debate will look a little pallid when compared with the one we will have about the perhaps more publicly controversial issue of legal aid charges, which we will come to when the House resumes later in the autumn.

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However, I think it is important that the views expressed tonight should be considered further by the Government. I am afraid the course they are taking is very likely to fulfil the fears expressed in the Chamber tonight by those with whom they have consulted after a fashion. Nevertheless, we are not in a position to divide on this Motion—in fact, I do not think that

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there will be any Divisions in the next fortnight. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion, but look forward to the next round.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at 8.42 pm.