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The Advocate-General was asked—

Legislation (Amendments)

24. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): How many Bills in the Scottish Parliament the Advocate–General has sought to amend since May. [10333]

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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): Since May, eight Bills have been passed. My legal officials and I considered those Bills during the various procedural stages. If necessary, informal discussions took place about competence issues, to try to resolve them without the use of my powers under section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 to refer the matter to the Privy Council. Amendments are the responsibility of Members of the Scottish Parliament.

John Robertson: My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the Scottish Parliament has now passed the International Criminal Court (Scotland) Act 2001. Does the fact that she did not refer that Bill to the Privy Council mean that she will intervene to support that important Scottish legislation if it is challenged in the Scottish courts?

The Advocate-General: That is certainly possible. I intervened to support Scottish Parliament legislation when the Mental Health (Public Safety and Appeals) (Scotland) Act 1999 was challenged. Any challenge to the 2001 Act intimated to me as a devolution issue will be carefully considered on its merits.


25. Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): What recent discussions she has had on the interrelationship between the Scotland Act 1998 and the Human Rights Act 1998. [10335]

The Advocate-General for Scotland: The inter-relationship of those two important Acts was discussed in the recent case of Kenneth Mills, in which I appeared personally. Questions had arisen as to whether an issue under the Human Rights Act could now be raised directly without raising a devolution issue, even though the question might relate to the powers of the Lord Advocate. My argument, which the court accepted, was that such a matter is a devolution issue under the Scotland Act and must therefore be intimated to me as Advocate-General.

Mr. Lazarowicz: Do my hon. and learned Friend's discussions indicate that there have been any problems in the operation of the Scotland Act since the Human Rights Act came into force?

The Advocate-General: The case of Mills was one solution to a problem that had arisen, but my impression is that the legal profession in Scotland is doing well and is well informed about that important legislation, and citizens are not slow to take advantage of the new rights and remedies that the Government have provided. Through his writings and his expertise in that area, my hon. Friend has done much to raise debate about such matters.

Asylum Seekers

26. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What recent advice she has given on the application of the Human Rights Act 1998 to asylum cases. [10336]

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The Advocate-General for Scotland ): I give advice on a range of matters as and when required. I am aware of the Home Secretary's proposals for treatment of asylum seekers and of the need to ensure that their treatment continues to comply with convention rights.

Miss McIntosh: Is the Advocate-General in a position to tell the House this afternoon what her advice would be in a case in which an application was made for the deportation of a person deemed to be a threat to the security of Scotland, and whether there are any contra-indications in the Human Rights Act that might be invoked in defence?

The Advocate-General: The hon. Lady knows, because I have told her on two occasions, if not three, that Law Officers' advice is always confidential. That was the case under previous Administrations and I see no reason to alter that convention.

27. Annabelle Ewing (Perth): What assessment she has made of the adequacy of legal representation available to asylum seekers in Scotland. [10337]

The Advocate-General for Scotland ): Legal aid is a matter devolved to the Scottish Ministers, so the provision of legal representation available to asylum seekers in Scotland is a matter for them.

Annabelle Ewing: I thank the Advocate-General for yet another interesting almost non-answer, but may I point out that whereas the provision of services, and therefore of legal services, to asylum seekers is a devolved matter, policy on asylum seekers is set by the United Kingdom Government? What additional resources will be made available to the Scottish Executive to meet the costs of implementing UK Government policy in that respect?

The Advocate-General: Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to address that matter to the responsible UK Minister. Scottish legal aid is a matter for the Scottish Executive. It is a policy matter and not a matter for me. I am a Law Officer.


The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Children and Family Services

28. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): What action he is taking in response to the High Court decision relating to self–employed guardians ad litem and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. [10338]

29. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): If he will make a statement on the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. [10339]

30. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of CAFCASS during its first six months of operation. [10340]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): CAFCASS is a new organisation that brings together the Family Court Welfare Service, the Children's Division of the Official Solicitor and the local authority panels of guardians ad litem in one unified service. It began only on 1 April 2001.

Since the inception of CAFCASS, the dispute over the guardians' contractual terms has taken a vast amount of time and effort and has diverted attention from other important issues. In response to the High Court decision relating to self-employed guardians, the Lord Chancellor issued a statutory direction to CAFCASS to begin consultations, and that process has begun. I receive weekly reports from the chairman of CAFCASS and have regular meetings with him.

Despite the problems, the evidence is that the service on the ground has generally continued to be provided as before. We value extremely highly the work of all the guardians and other CAFCASS staff, whether they are employed or self-employed, and I hope that all sides can now move on to develop the child-focused service that I am sure we all want to achieve.

Mr. Speaker: That answer was far too long.

Mr. Kidney: Is my hon. Friend aware that some very effective guardians have been made to feel unwelcome in the new service merely because they are self-employed? What does she say to the managers of the new service: are self-employed guardians welcome or unwelcome?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to say that there have been difficulties with self-employed guardians. We are consulting every self-employed guardian on the issue of self-employment. He will be interested to know that CAFCASS has accepted the National Association of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers proposal that the consultation process be led by an independent chairman and that the results be independently assessed. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend some reassurance about the position of self-employed guardians.

Dr. Cable: Does not the Minister accept that the quango has been guilty of extraordinary incompetence, not merely in acting illegally and alienating a crucial profession, but in driving 20 of its 54 regional managers to resignation in six months? As the management appears to be denying its accountability to Parliament through the hon. Lady, will she assert its accountability by having these people dismissed?

Ms Winterton: I reiterate that, throughout, our central concern has been to provide a good service to vulnerable people. All who are involved with CAFCASS share that aim. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that CAFCASS is a non-departmental public body, and as such it is governed by a framework document. Over and above that, it is a publicly funded body. It is fully accountable to the Public Accounts Committee, for example, and subject to regular scrutiny. The evidence from our independent inspections is that the service on the ground is generally being delivered extremely well. That is a tribute to all those who work for the service.

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Paddy Tipping: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for accepting that there have been problems—understandable, perhaps—in setting up CAFCASS. Does she share my belief that the resignation of 22 of the 55 panel managers is genuinely worrying? Is the driver behind that an insufficient budget for CAFCASS and, perhaps, poor management? I know that there have been difficulties with management in the organisation. Is my hon. Friend confident that those problems have now been resolved?

Ms Winterton: I know that my hon. Friend is extremely concerned about that situation. He gave figures for panel managers; my figures show that, actually, 16 panel managers will have left the service by the end of December, but that includes a number who will have retired and some who have been promoted. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that of the 729 guardians who were self-employed on 1 April, only 29 have left the service; 175 have now accepted employment contracts. Of course we accept that there have been difficulties in the service. However, I repeat that I am meeting the chairman of the board weekly and am receiving regular reports from him. I am determined that the service will work for the children whom it was set up to look after.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Minister not recognise that all the problems were entirely predictable? Indeed, they were predicted by Opposition Members. I know that that is not the Minister's fault, because she joined the Department only after the relevant Bill became law. However, if she studies all the debates, both in the House and in Committee, on the Bill that set up CAFCASS, as I hope she will, she will find that my hon. Friends and I repeatedly predicted the problems with CAFCASS that have now occurred.

The Government were arrogant and dismissive, and did not take a blind bit of notice. Having sown the wind, they have now reaped the whirlwind. Will the Minister undertake to look again at those debates and learn the lesson that, in future, she and her new ministerial colleagues need to listen to Opposition Members with experience of this legal field?

Ms Winterton: I will of course listen to representations, particularly from professionals in the field. However, when the service was set up, it was widely accepted that bringing all the disparate groups together in one unified service was the best way forward for vulnerable children. I will of course listen to representations, but evidence from independent assessments shows that, on the ground, the service is generally working well.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I thank my hon. Friend for the encouragement that she has given the guardians in her responses. When will it be possible to fill the substantial number of administrative and legal vacancies at all levels of CAFCASS in Wales, so that the service to vulnerable children to which she referred will not be harmed?

Ms Winterton: I thank my hon. Friend and reiterate the high value that we place on the work done by the guardians. Perhaps she will be reassured to know that, as

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I said earlier, of 729 guardians who were employed on 1 April, only 29 have left the service; 175 have now accepted employment contracts. In addition, 197 candidates eligible for appointment as guardians have been recruited, which should fill any gaps in the service. Of course, if my hon. Friend has any particular points that she feels we need to look at, I hope that she will write to me; I give her an undertaking that I will look into them.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): In the light of that sorry tale and the High Court proceedings, will the Minister explain why, when CAFCASS made decisions that the guardians found unpalatable, it told them that the Lord Chancellor was responsible? When the Lord Chancellor made inconvenient promises, however, CAFCASS told the court that it was independent of the Lord Chancellor.

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman and I have been together upstairs, but I take this opportunity to welcome him to his new position on the Floor of the House. I quite look forward to working with him.

As for the legal position, some of the points that were made in court referred to a technical matter that was raised by NAGALRO—the National Association of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers. I assure him that we are working closely with the board of CAFCASS to ensure that the service is delivered. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not join me in praising the very hard work and dedication not only of those employed but of the self-employed and other staff at CAFCASS. I hope that he may in future take the opportunity to do so.

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