Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 120-139)



  120. Following the spending review have you any plans to increase the fees for publicly funded work?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I would love to be able to answer that question but the Lord Chancellor has not taken decisions about that and I think that I would be pushing my luck if I was to say either yes or no because frankly we have got to have a look at that as part of both the SR2002 decisions on priorities and as a part of trying to tackle some of the gaps that are emerging and the frailty of some bits in the supply network.

  121. Could we go on to criminal legal aid which you have touched on before. You did talk about the Recovery of Defence Costs Orders before and I was surprised by the statement you made in saying that it was not all about the recovery of public money. I am quite surprised by my brief in that I do not understand how this operates. My brief tells me that in 2001-02 the Special Investigations Unit accepted 809 referrals from the Crown Court. Of these, 632 cases required full investigation. Investigations were concluded in 292 cases and reports submitted back to the courts. The Crown Court made 22 RDCOs. That seems to me an awful lot of work for very little outcome or output and it raised £141,000-odd. How much has all that administration cost? If so little is being produced, why are we bothering?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Why are we bothering? We are bothering because I think we should clearly make an effort, your question is about proportionate effort, to recover costs at the end of the day from those who can genuinely contribute to them. I have to say I cannot immediately answer the question what the administration cost against the recovery rate was but, if I may, I will get a note[4]4 sent in that deals with that unless one of my colleagues knows it offhand.

  122. Do you not think it is a pretty poor show that out of all this work only 22 Orders were made?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The figures as up-to-date as we have them from April 2001 onwards, ie roughly just over a year ago, are 193 Orders against income and 66 against capital. I do not know what our expectations or projections were, I imagine it was too difficult to do that. This was a total of something just over £200,000. Perhaps I could just repeat something I said earlier, if I may. Clearly we will have a look at the administration costs and address your point about proportionality, although I think people would say that those who really can pay should contribute something. The comparison was that I think on the means testing that went on before an enormous effort was put in and I think I am right in saying that payments were only made in 1% of the totality of all the criminal cases going through the courts. That was wholly disproportionate—wholly disproportionate. As I say, it ended up with our accounts being qualified every year because people made mistakes regularly and, secondly, it built in a delay that was totally unnecessary. As I said earlier, I think that was a waste of time. I am sure this is a better system than that but I am afraid I do not have the information about the costs at the moment that I can give you to set against the income. That may not be the only issue because I think there will be a strong feeling among many people that if someone is convicted who does have means and can pay towards the cost of the case it would be right from the taxpayer's point of view that they should make a contribution.

  123. I think the public would entirely agree with that.
  (Ms Rowe) In fact we are reviewing the operation of the Orders at the moment. Internal auditors are involved in that and they will produce advice on how the scheme is working and if it can be made to work better.

  124. Sir Hayden, you did say earlier that 1% of cases are taking 49% of the criminal legal aid budget. I think the public would like to see recovery of costs from drug traffickers, people traffickers, people engaged in smuggling. Why are we not doing more in that field through these Orders?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I entirely agree with that. It is possible to freeze people's assets, it is possible to get contributions in principle here, but you have to be able to have the evidence that you can display and it is convincing and you have to be able to get your hands on their goods or their money. This will be done where it can be done but from the numbers we have given you here we have not had that very many very high cost serious cases in which very large sums have yet been able to be achieved. It would be our policy to do exactly what you say.

  125. I think we would like to hear an assurance, or reassurance, that there is a will to do this.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) There is a will to do that. This is a combination of, our operations and Home Office policy. Again, if it is helpful, because I cannot answer for the Home Office aspects on this, I could put together a note agreed with them about what the powers are, what we can do, and illustrations of the sort of cases which on the face of it we might have wanted to have got some more out of the system but the reasons why we may not have been able to do so.


  127. It would be helpful as well to know how much it cost to get back this £141,000. You have already agreed to do that, have you?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes. I hope I said that is something we will certainly give you so you can look at the proportionate figures.

  127. We appreciate that it is early days and this has only been up and running since April 2001, so there is some way to go.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Absolutely.

Mr Singh

  128. Changing the subject slightly. We are running fixed contracts for low cost cases and there is a pilot running for high cost cases but are there any plans to extend fixed contracts to the higher cost cases?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) We would like to be able to push that further. The fixed cost regime and the standard fees regime have been quite successful in controlling cost and also, as we were saying earlier, lawyers knowing exactly where they were and not having to wait until after the event. As usual with these schemes to roll them out means bringing cash up front until you get to a steady state and I am afraid it is really a question of looking to see how much resources we can put into this as opposed to other priorities to see over what timescale we should do it. The information I have indicates that where we have contracts in the very high cost cases that is proving a successful way of managing them, both in keeping costs down and keeping a control over the quality of the work that is done.

  Mr Singh: Turning to complaints against solicitors, you were interrupted when I thought you were getting to a very interesting part of your statement. I think you were saying that you were very happy with the operation of the Office for Supervision of Solicitors and its performance so far.


  129. I do not think he was.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think I was saying precisely the opposite. Obviously I have lost my powers of explanation this morning and I do apologise if that is so.

Mr Singh

  130. My question is that we as Members of Parliament and certainly many of our constituents are not happy with the way it operates. Can you justify your confidence in the Office for Supervision of Solicitors?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Let me make clear what our position is and this is what the Lord Chancellor has said. We are not happy with its performance. We have asked for a whole series of improvements to be made in turnround times for dealing with complaints and in the quality of the way in which they have been dealt with. We have set a whole range of targets, covering a range of activities and they are not hitting those targets, they are below them, and that is not good enough. In addition to that we have asked the Legal Services Ombudsman to keep a very close eye on the Office for Supervision of Solicitors and complaints handling and that she is doing and she is doing that successfully. The Lord Chancellor has taken powers in the Access to Justice Act if he thought it was useful and right to actually put in a Complaints Commissioner on top of this exercise. He has not at the moment decided to do that, but to try to enable the Ombudsman working with the OSS to make an improvement. On the other hand, to be fair, I should say that the Law Society have put in place a new redress scheme. They have announced the setting up of a lay commissioner, an independent lay commissioner. Sir Stephen Lander takes on this job in November. I know they genuinely want to try to improve the position. It is not coming through at the moment and I have to say there is quite a long way for them to go before they would satisfy us, and you as Members of Parliament, that complaints were being handled in the way we want.


  131. Maybe Sir Stephen Lander is going to tap their telephones.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think he has a range of qualities, Chairman, and he has not been selected for that particular experience.

David Winnick

  132. The Office of the Immigration Service Commission in his annual report—Do you have that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes.

  133. He made criticism of some solicitors because apparently advisers in the immigration field who have not been registered in some instances, according to the Commissioner, and I am looking at the annual report, having failed to obtain registration, were incorporated in the solicitor's practice and yet operate independently of the solicitor. In other words, the solicitor, knowing full well that the immigration adviser had not been approved for registration, was quite willing to allow such a person to operate within the solicitor's practice and the Commissioner, understandably, was very critical of that. Is this too recent for you to comment?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think the annual report is published today. I have not, I am afraid, settled down to it in detail. If that is happening then obviously with the Commissioner we need to look at ways in which it can be made to stop happening because the good regulation which he is meant to ensure in this area has got to make sure that there are not shades of grey about whether people are properly qualified or not properly qualified.

  134. It is a very serious complaint, it is obviously unprofessional conduct as the Commissioner points out, but it is unfair really to expect you to give an off-the-cuff response other than you have. I wonder if you would be good enough, with the Chairman's agreement, to send us a note about this and what action is intended to be taken by the Lord Chancellor if he considers that this merits an investigation.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I will certainly do that.[5]

  David Winnick: Thank you.

  Chairman: Now, we are in the miscellaneous section. Mr Cameron, do you have any further questions?

Mr Cameron

  135. Yes. I am afraid they are rather miscellaneous. Just on the Office for Supervision of Solicitors, they are in the last chance saloon the Lord Chancellor has said, although not in those terms. How long have they got before you threaten some sort of statutory regulation? Have you put a timetable on it?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No. I think the Lord Chancellor has made it clear that he keeps that option in mind. Self-regulation is a privilege, not a right. We believe they should be given a chance to put in the new redress scheme and the lay commissioner. We believe that the Legal Services Ombudsman should be given a chance to do the work she is doing with them to see if it can be improved. As I said earlier, he has the power to put in a new Complaints Commissioner if that is the right route, but equally it may well be that we ought overall to review the way that regulation works more widely in this area and that is something we should take into account.

  136. Turning to public spending, I just have a couple of questions on page 94 on your public spending charts. You describe particularly in the area of asylum appeals a huge volume of work and I just wondered whether you wanted to comment on the fact that your estimate outturn for 2001-02 of £2.8 billion is actually more than your plans for two years' time. It seems that your budget is going backwards. Will you be able to complete the work with that budget or does the CSR change that fundamentally?
  (Ms Rowe) There are some changes as a result of the spending review but also in 2001-02 we did receive additional funds from the Treasury for asylum and immigration work. That was only given to us for that year at that point and we are in discussions with them at the moment about what should be carried forward into the current year. There is likely to be another addition for that.

  137. I do not know what other members of the Committee would find helpful but I would find it really helpful in terms of looking at how the Department has performed if we could have what the budget was for each year and then what the outturn was for each year. All we get are outturn figures so we only know what you have spent, we never know what you were meant to spend unless we really dig down into the figures and go to the Treasury. Is that something we can look at for future years?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Absolutely, and I think we also will see whether we cannot find a way because now the budget that is formally set for us is not necessarily the figure we actually have, ie—No, wait. It is not total Sir Humphrey, I assure you. There is the CJS reserve which we can draw down on and there is now a new asylum budget shared with the Home Office and, again, that will be additional. I think what we might try to do, and we can do this with the clerk to the Committee, is to test out some presentations of those figures so by the time we come to do our Departmental Report next year we are doing it in a way which takes account of the Committee's view on what is a good presentation and what is not.

  138. It would just help because then we could see what you were meant to spend, the targets you were meant to meet, what you met and what you actually spent and then one can take a view about the performance of the Department. One other question, and I am sorry to go back to the favourite of targets but I was rather captivated by the one on page 80, target number nine. The target was an increase in the proportion of undisputed invoices paid within 30 days, presumably this is to small businesses and the like, and this target was not met and is now dropped, I just wondered why that was.
  (Ms Rowe) We continue to target that particular activity to make sure we actually meet our obligations. Just in terms of the suite of targets on which we report to the Treasury it is not in there.

  139. But it is important that big departments with billion pound budgets pay small businesses, stationery companies, the people who produce the annual report on time. Should that not be a target then?
  (Ms Rowe) We monitor it and we have an internal target.

4   See Ev 50-1. Back

5   See Ev 51. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 19 March 2003