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Mr. Heath : I must say to the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) that it is paranoia of the highest order to be afraid of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). However, I agree with some of what the hon. Member for Leicester, East said.
There are few months of the year in which I bemoan the dearth of legislation coming from the DCA and the Home Office. Indeed, sometimes it feels as though one does nothing else but read new legislation. However, the hon. Gentleman is right about the relationship between the two, although I would argue that we should have a ministry of justice to take on all criminal justice responsibilities. If we create 800 new offences, people will be tried for them and that costs money, which is where the increase in legal aid comes from.
I believe legal aid to be one of the great glories of this country. The fact that we are prepared to institute a pillar of our welfare state to provide for people who need representation before our courts is something to be rejoiced and not slighted; it is a necessary part of a civilised society.
I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary, who has finally discovered how to pronounce my constituency, to the point that she corrects others. That is a wonderful advance in a short time. She and other Committee members have done a fine job. We debated the Bill and, we hope, improved it, but we did not take an unnecessary amount of time to do so. The fact that we have managed to complete consideration does not suggest a lack of care or scrutiny. It is a simple fact that this is a brief Bill with few complicated proposals that, therefore, does not require long consideration. But we have pointed out what is lacking in it.
It would be easy, were it not for the constraints of the rules of the House on Third Reading, to launch into a much wider debate on the future of legal aid, as it is a serious issue that needs debating. This debate, however, deals with a narrow point. It would also be extremely valuable to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Leicester, East and his hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), and I hope that the Minister can enlighten us as to the loss of specialist officers in the Legal Services Commission.
This measure deals with eligibility for criminal defence legal aid. Two issues arose in Committee, the other place having dealt with the major issue of the capacity to appeal in the interests of justice. One was the issue of the residual power, which was raised by the new clause. I still maintain that that would have been an improvement to the Bill, that it would have created a better, more appropriate way of dealing with exceptional cases, and that it would have saved a little money in the process. The Minister has not, however, accepted that.
The other issue was that of appeal. I have said that I believe that the amendment from the other place was wider and better in its scope, but I repeat that I am grateful to the Minister for listening to my points and arranging for me to meet her officials to discuss whether a compromise was possible, and for accepting the amendment to the Bill today. I say with a degree of confidence that I think that it will satisfy those in another place who will consider the matter later.
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The Minister must not be allowed to get away with the fact that the Government marched us up this hill only a few years ago and are now marching us down again. Consistency is not the Government's strongest point in their approach to this issue. That said, I welcome what has been put in place today to curb what, to the layman, and to an interested observer, are abuses of the system. I welcome the fact that the Government have not reintroduced a crude threshold for means tests but have taken a more sensitive and sensible view about the taper that should be applied, which I commend.
I return to a basic point: nobody wants to see a lot of money spent on legal aid until they need that support to defend themselves in court. It not just millionaires, or those without means, that we are dealing with. It is those in the middle who are most affected when, in extreme circumstances, they find themselves before the court and unable to receive the support that they need to present their case properly. Those people must be clearly in our minds when addressing the Bill. The Bill goes a long way to deal with some of those issues. The wider issues of legal aid in the criminal and civil courts will wait another day, but the Minister can be assured that we have extremely strong opinions on those.
Mr. Burrowes : I support the Bill, particularly in relation to the restoration of the means test and the fact that the Government have learned from their mistakes. In terms of the detail, I welcome the fact that the application of the means test will be much more straightforward and less bureaucratic. I remember the days of the old means applications, when a paper trail among a pile of wage slips or statements was necessary, but I understand that the regulations will introduce a much more straightforward procedure.
I have some fundamental reservations, however, which revolve around the conferring of powers on the Legal Services Commission. In that regard, I support the comments of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz). On grounds of principle and practice, we are concerned that the courts' remit will be taken from them. We sought in Committee to retain the residual power. We sought through new clause 1 to retain it as an exceptional power. Both those attempts failed.
Can the Minister give us assurances in relation to the practical application of the conferring of powers to the Legal Services Commission? I draw her attention to page 13 of the supplement to the framework document. It states:
The Minister has justified the Bill on the basis that court staff will be involved in the application of the new regulations. That makes sense because they are on the ground. They know the best way of maintaining the system in terms of granting legal aid and assessing financial eligibility. They are closest to the decision making. They will be able, practically and quickly, to make the decision. Therefore, I ask her to give an assurance that the final option of devolving the practical powers so as not to involve court staff will not be proceeded with and that, at the very least, if the guidance does not work in the Government's eyes, they will seek to bring the matter back before the House to amend schedule 3 to the Access to Justice Act 1999 to deal with the working of the interests of justice test, and will not go straight to the final option, take all the practical powers away from court staff and give them to the LSC. At that point, the concerns of the hon. Member for Leicester, East, practitioners, court staff and others would come into play: decision making would be far removed from where it should take place, which is in the court building. Will the Minister directly respond to that?
This is not the place to do it, but I point out that it is estimated that there will be a saving of £35 million through the application of the scheme. Can that be properly taken into account when Lord Carter's review is published and when consideration is given to how to deal with lower courts' work? It has been accepted by the Department that lower court costs are under control already. We now face the prospect of £35 million savings. Can we properly take account of that and allow that to form part of the judgment before proceeding to, from the practitioners' point of view, another nuclear option: competitive price tendering, which raises concern that the work and service of many local practitioners for the community, not least black, minority and ethnic firms, will be threatened?
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I broadly welcome the introduction of the Bill, particularly in the context of the cost issues affecting legal aid. Since 1997, the legal aid bill has grown from £1.5 billion to around £2.36 billion for the current year. That emphasises the need to tackle that issue urgently, particularly when one considers the different balance between civil legal aid and criminal legal aid. The funding to civil legal aid has gone down by about 1 per cent. during that time, showing that it is the criminal side of legal aid that has seen growth in expenditure.
It is interesting that, when the Government introduced their previous proposals, which effectively scrapped means-testing, in the "Modernising Justice" White Paper, they described means-testing as complex and costly, highlighting issues where lack of documentation led to delays and the further costs associated with that. They talked about it being an unjustifiable waste of money. It is interesting to see how the debate about and, perhaps, the recognition of the
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need for some form of means-testing has come back. For this to work and to make the potential savings of £35 million that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) talked about, it will require good administration, not the bureaucracy that some hon. Members fear may exist in the Legal Services Commission. That needs to be monitored carefully if we are to get the hoped-for cutbacks in the increase in spend through means-testing. For that to happen, we must not get bogged down in a mire of bureaucracy and administration.
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