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Mr. Lock: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the current debate between the Legal Services Commission and the solicitors considering signing the criminal contract has nothing to do with fat-cat lawyers. It is about solicitors providing important public services, paid for by the taxpayer, to vulnerable clients for a modest return. It is about important services and the controls and contractual structure necessary to ensure a guarantee of quality for both the commission and the client as well as a proper, though not excessive, return for the solicitor. We must get

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that balance right. I have spoken many times on this matter and have never raised the issue of fat-cat lawyers in connection with the contractual dispute. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by that.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful for that helpful intervention, but the Minister has simply underlined the fact that no matter how far advanced the negotiations are, they have not produced a satisfactory result. He merely highlights the fact that we may, in only a month and a half, have a serious problem with the administration of criminal justice in magistrates courts outside the conurbations. If so, Ministers will find themselves in a great deal of difficulty--perhaps at an extremely inopportune moment. They will face people who are properly addressing their concerns through the Human Rights Act 1998, such as prisoners who have not been properly represented. We have before us the makings of a complete breakdown in our system of local justice, a system that we prize and which it is absolutely essential to maintain.

The Bill restores advice by way of representation--so-called advocacy assistance--and that goes some way towards ensuring an unbroken maintenance of the traditional right of local representation. However, that can be mediated only by an effective local defence service, and there is a danger that that will not exist within the space of a few brief weeks. Ministers must address the problem urgently: it may not yet have hit the headlines, but it assuredly will do so across most of the country that is outside large cities and away from large practices. We may face an irrevocable breakdown in relations with the important professionals working within the local justice system.

7.20 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I have been a Member of the House long enough to know that, when a Minister sidles up to the Dispatch Box, assures us that a Bill is small and technical but important and then claims that he has the support of the Opposition, those are very good reasons to be extremely suspicious of what on earth is going on. As we listened to the rather inadequate explanations offered by the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, of this allegedly small, technical but very important Bill, my suspicious were strengthened.

In my notes of the Minister's remarks, I identified several headings: provenance, retrospection, confusion and public expenditure. Coming to the debate as a layman, gratuitously sticking my nose into esoteric legal matters, I am happy to say that I was greatly assisted by the explanatory notes not only for this Bill but for the Access to Justice Bill, which I found most helpful when I tried to satisfy myself as to what on earth we are attempting to do.

I shall trot briefly through my headings, with some references to the explanatory notes, before analysing the Bill itself. I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I shall attempt to make all my remarks strictly relevant.

On provenance, the Minister was forced to admit, under cross-examination from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), that the Bill turns out to be all too good an example of a measure that has arisen from an ill-considered piece of prior legislation--

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the Access to Justice Act 1999. As the Minister confessed, that measure needed a large number of amendments, which were made on the hoof--the Minister did not use that expression, but I paraphrase him in order to be helpful. The attitude taken by the Labour Government to the legislative process has become all too familiar: they start with an ill-considered Bill; it is hacked around, amended and altered in another place; it then returns to this place and, usually with wholly inadequate time, is amended or--as the Government would put it--further improved. Thus, we have a Bill that seeks to correct a lacuna--perhaps even lacunae--brought about by the Government's own handling of the prior legislation.

That would be bad enough but, as a direct result of all that, we are being asked to accept the worrying element of retrospection that has entered the process, which we are told is essential. Why has that element arisen? The key is helpfully given--as ever--in the Bill's explanatory notes, paragraph 4 of which helpfully states:

The Government have told us with rare and almost disarming honesty that they had intended something to happen under the prior legislation, but had not quite managed to deliver it. No doubt that was due to the rush of ill-considered amendments made to that measure.

The Government go on to tell us why we are considering the Bill:

Having confessed to their inadequacies, they explain:

The worrying part is the statement that

that is indeed uncertain, as I shall discuss in a moment in relation to the possible timetable--

The Government are telling us that there has been a mistake; there is a lacuna that they want to correct. The implication is that the measure has been given the lordly stamp of approval in another place, so we do not have to look too closely at it. We now have future retrospection entering the legislative process. That may be unique--it may be a novelty--but for the Government to say that they are introducing provisions that will have retrospective effects just in case what they thought would happen does not happen seems to introduce a multiplicity of doubt and uncertainty to the process that cannot do us, or it, any good.

Mr. Bercow: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the use of the words "there is some doubt" comes as near to an admission of ministerial fallibility as we are likely to encounter during this Parliament? Does he further agree that, if Ministers have reached that judgment on the strength of advice from Government lawyers, it would be helpful on this occasion to breach the convention that such advice is not published so that we can see it for ourselves? Alternatively, if Ministers have come to that view as the result of outside representations, may we be told from whom those representations have come?

Mr. Forth: "In your dreams" is all I can say to my hon. Friend. The day that that happens we shall all be so

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astonished that proceedings may momentarily grind to a halt--although they will not do so on this occasion, I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps, from now on, the Minister should be known as "Doubtful Lock", or something of that kind.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) that we are witnessing a rare admission of near fallibility, but I regret that, in my interpretation of what is happening, that admission is altogether spoiled by the Minister's telling the House that he really does not expect us to take much interest in the measure as it is a relatively small matter; that he expects it to be nodded through quickly; and--as I shall discuss when we come on to the debate on the timing of the measure--that the Government expect it to be completed without too much fuss, in spite of the fact that we are correcting a measure that arose from exactly the same approach on a previous occasion.

The Minister compounds the felony by saying that, because the previous Act was made a mess by rushing it through with too many amendments, he is asking the House to rush through another measure. The correction of those errors is to be rushed through with as little scrutiny as possible. That is not a good harbinger of success.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, especially as I was unable to take part earlier in the debate. He raises an extremely important point. Does he understand from the Minister's explanation that, if the Bill is enacted and if regulations are made under it, actions that are currently unlawful will be rendered lawful, or will it be only those actions that take place after 2 April, when the Bill has not yet become law, that become lawful?

Mr. Forth: My right hon. and learned Friend challenges me to explain what the Minister thought he was saying. That challenge may defeat even me. In a genuine attempt to help my right hon. and learned Friend, I can only draw his attention to the explanatory notes, which state:

that is section 13--

I take that to mean that the retrospection would start on 2 April 2001; it would not have effect before that date. That is what I was referring to when I talked of the novel concept of future retrospection. I must confess that it defeats me. That is as much help as I can offer my right hon. and learned Friend, but I am sure that the Minister will clarify all when he winds up this little debate at a later hour. The point puzzles me as much as it does my right hon. and learned Friend.

Talking of dates--as we now are because the date is mentioned in the explanatory notes--I do not want to pre-empt the impassioned debate that we shall hold shortly on the programme motion, except to note that it is highly relevant at this stage. That is because we are in the rather unusual position that it is widely assumed that an election may be pending. The House must take account of such facts. We cannot operate in a bubble and pretend that nothing is happening outside this place. There is considerable speculation as to the possibility of an early Prorogation, Dissolution of the House and election.

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That is material in this case because, if we agree to the Bill's Second Reading tonight, its consideration in Committee would end on 8 March under the timetable that the Minister suggests in the programme motion.

If I am lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the debate on the programme motion, I want to say something about that date, but let us take it as given at the moment. After that date, Report and Third Reading would have to take place and, if the Bill were to be amended--given the mess we are already in, amendments may be required in Committee, even to this Bill--it might be necessary for the matter to return to another place. Self-evidently, there might not be enough time, especially if an election were to take place on 5 April, one of the most widely canvassed dates, and with the postponement of the countryside rally announced early today, surely an even stronger runner.

I repeat my earlier challenge to the Minister: what does he think will happen if Dissolution of this Parliament occurs before the completion of even the accelerated timetable that he suggests? Even his retrospection will not save him then, because he will not get it without Royal Assent. Against a background of what may be much greater events, he is attempting to put us under unreasonable time pressure given the Bill's desired effect, as he has put it. Thus the challenge, which was echoed by what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) said earlier: if those circumstances effectively leave a group of people without legal representation, what does the Minister have to say to us and them?

Why has the Minister waited until now to introduce this allegedly very important Bill, with its unreasonable timetable, given the backdrop of a possible election? Unless he is extraordinarily fortunate, all those matters seem to conspire against him, and the lacuna that he seeks to remedy under the Bill will remain if Royal Assent is not given. I hope that he will be candid with us about those matters. He tried to take refuge behind an old shibboleth, saying that he would not speculate on whether the election will be held soon because that is a matter for the Prime Minister. We all know that, but the Minister owes it to the legislative process and to the people who may well go without representation unless the Bill is passed to explain exactly what he envisages will happen if the process that I describe occurs.

The matter appears to revolve around a confusion that has arisen between the terms "investigations" and "proceedings". I confess that the fact that I am not a lawyer will prove a considerable handicap, but my layman's reading of the Bill suggests that the difficulty has arisen because of the difference in wording between sections 12(1) and 13(1)(b) of the original Access to Justice Act 1999. Throughout section 12 reference is made to

yet the word "proceedings" does not appear in section 13, which is unhelpful. If my reading is correct, that is where the matter originates, but what puzzles me is why that element of doubt has arisen, and I should appreciate the Minister's guidance in due course. Sections 12 and 13 seem to contain what I shall call wide savings provisions. Section 12(2)(g) refers to

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