Criminal Defence Service (Advice and Assistance) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Garnier: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lock: Well, yes, okay.

Mr. Garnier: We have until Thursday to deal with the matter.

The Minister said that the important point was not how many solicitors had signed the contract to date, but how many would have signed it by 2 April. It is possible to extrapolate from the number who have signed to date—bearing in mind that the contract has apparently been available to be examined since the autumn, albeit that it has been amended in negotiations—the number that may well have signed by 2 April. How many does the Minister anticipate will have signed by that date? Given that I cannot expect him to provide me with the answer to the question that I put to him earlier, will he please write to me with an up-to-date figure, let us say as at midday on 6 March, for the number of lawyers—or lawyers' firms—who have signed the contract?

Mr. Lock: I am certainly prepared to give the hon. and learned Gentleman an assurance that, on the evidence, our best assessment is that sufficient lawyers will have signed up to the contracts by 2 April to enable us to discharge our duties under the criminal defence contracts. For example, the number of offices operating in Wales a few years ago was about 540. It is now fewer than 300. However, the spend on those 300 offices, which are now quality-marked, represents well over 90 per cent. of the previous total spend across all the offices. We are clearly moving to a quality-assured system, where the number of firms is reducing but we are ensuring that those firms that remain in the system are quality-marked. We are, therefore, confident of the quality of service to clients that is being paid for out of public money.

Mr. Burnett: There are two aspects of this on which I should appreciate an assurance from the Minister. First, will enough practitioners have signed up by 2 April, and, secondly, will they span the whole country? Will he supply that assurance either by letter or in Committee now?

10.45 am

Mr. Lock: I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that I know of no reason why geographical coverage should not be maintained appropriately after 2 April.

I should like to raise a related matter. The criminal defence service intends to pilot an initial six offices to see how they work in the context of the criminal justice system in England and Wales, with salaried defenders. That is six offices, compared with several thousand firms that undertake criminal defence work. The proportion of work being undertaken in the salaried sector is, therefore, extremely small. I do not have full details of the anticipated costs with me today. Last time hon. Members asked about them, those matters were still being worked out by the commission. I am happy to write to hon. Members to explain the best estimate of costs that we now have.

The hon. Gentleman raised a serious point about the Scottish pilot. My understanding of the position, having been to see the Scottish pilot working, was not that the cost per case was significantly higher, as has been suggested. Indeed, many of the figures bandied about were exaggerations. However, this pilot is not run by my Department; it is run by the Scottish Legal Aid Board, which reports to the Scottish Executive. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to get some costings and will write to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

        Committee rose at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Sayeed, Mr. Jonathan (Chairman)
Atkinson, Mr. Peter.
Burnett, Mr.
Garnier, Mr.
Griffiths, Jane
Joyce, Mr.
King, Mr. Andy
Lammy, Mr.
Lock, Mr.
Love, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Prentice, Ms Briget

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