Draft Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission and the Draft Legal Aid and Assistance

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Mr. Burnett: I do not want to go into the argument about independence or otherwise, but can the Minister assure me that there will always be a choice for the defendant either to take a lawyer from the Criminal Defence Service, or a lawyer from what I call the independent sector.

Mr. Lock: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is the position, as set out in the Access to Justice Act 1999, though I am afraid that I cannot remember which section covers the point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington raised the Kenneth Noye case and the investigation of assets. I am sure that he will appreciate that I must be cautious about dealing with that particular and highly unusual case. It is highly unusual for two reasons. First, most defendants who come before the criminal courts have not been successful either in money or in life. The vast majority of my former criminal clients have not accumulated villas in Marbella, large amounts of money in the bank, or other tangible assets. Kenneth Noye was an exception.

Secondly, Kenneth Noye was an exception because the rules relating to the assessment of means appear not to have been followed, and, as my hon. Friend quite rightly noted, disciplinary action has been taken in respect of those officials of the court service who appear not to have followed the rules. I will not say any more about the individual case.

On the wider question of the investigation of assets, for the limited class of defendants who appear to have assets, I can assure my hon. Friend that the special cases unit of the legal services commission—the successor body to the Legal Aid Board—is extremely mindful of the need to recover sums for the state. The essence of legal aid, be it criminal or civil, is that it works more efficiently if the same amount of money goes round the system several times— that is why recovery of costs in criminal and civil legal aid is so important. I will provide my hon. Friend with a copy of the consultation paper that we put out at the end of last year concerning this very matter.Careful consideration has been given to the investigations that will be undertaken at an early stage and to the application of injunctions to freeze assets when individuals are charged in order to ensure that, at the time of conviction, assets are not frittered away or placed in an unreachable jurisdiction.

I was frankly astonished to hear the the hon. Member for Christchurch say that legal aid is a finite resource. Two points can made. First, the very limited nature of the additions in the order— a matter of a few hundred, or perhaps a few thousand pounds—will not make much of a dent in the £1.6 million legal aid budget. Secondly, the Conservative party, in the past week or so, has published proposals on legal aid that would reduce the money available for legal aid civil cases by £525 million a year.

The Conservatives propose repealing the community legal service fund and replacing it with a contingency fund of an entirely spurious amount. They propose to remove all funding from family cases, domestic violence, legal advice for law centres and citizens advice bureaux—a sum that this year totals £236 million. Those are the proposals on which the hon. Member for Christchurch will fight the next general election.

I am naturally concerned about the boundary dispute involving his constituent, although I am reminded of the biblical phrase about observing the plank in your own eye before being concerned with a splinter in someone else's.

Mr. Campbell-Savours rose—

The Chairman: I hope that the hon. Gentleman's intervention will have to do with the extent of the order before us.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): It is on that very matter, Mr. Welsh. We are talking about the availability of money to fund applications, and what others do in these circumstances is therefore particularly relevant. Will my hon. Friend press his opposite number, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, on this issue as I feel we should have more information. The hon. Gentleman has his head down at the moment and does not seem to be paying attention.

Mr. Lock: I am conscious, Mr. Welsh, that I must stay in order. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will pass him a copy of the shadow Attorney-General's press release, which provides precise figures and explains what is going to be abolished.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Isn't that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath?

Mr. Lock: I quite agree that it should be, but the Member for Surrey Heath has been outmanoeuvred. I will also provide my hon. Friend with a brief explaining the effect on all the other cases that will not receive funding in the event of these proposals going through. Of course, we are safe in the knowledge that they will not. On that basis, and returning to the very limited scope of these regulations, can I commend them to the committee?

Question put, and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Legal Advice and Assistance (Scope) (Amendment) Regulations 2001.

Committee rose at twenty-four minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Welsh, Mr. Andrew (Chairman)
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Burnett, Mr.
Campbell-Savours, Mr.
Cann, Mr.
Chope, Mr.
Clark, Dr. David
Etherington, Mr.
Fallon, Mr.
Hawkins, Mr.
Kennedy, Jane
Lock, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Norris, Dan
Prentice, Ms

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