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Baroness Thornton: I support the principle behind the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and congratulate the noble Baroness on tabling it. It is correct to say that the voice of the consumer must be heard. I am aware of the noble Baroness's work on and support for consumer interests. I join her in her attempt to bring that experience to bear

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in this instance. I wish particularly to add my congratulations on the work of the National Consumer Council.

It is significant that there is cross-party support for this proposal. I hope that the cross-party consensus on the interests of the consumer will be heard and followed throughout all the considerations on this measure. We must put the consumer first, across the political divide and the divide between lawyer and non-lawyer. On behalf of non-lawyers, I say gently and with the deepest respect to my colleagues in this Chamber from the legal profession that this debate will be heard outside this House as well as inside. The Bill is about access to the law. It must be heard to be in people's interests as well as actually being in their interests. The language of our debate must be accessible. As a non-lawyer, I put in a plea that we speak in language that is accessible to those who wish to follow this debate about access to the law for the majority.

Baroness Crawley: I wish to add my strong support to the amendment tabled by the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Baroness Linklater of Butterstone, proposing that membership of the legal services commission should include those with knowledge and experience of consumer affairs. Both noble Baronesses have a strong interest in consumer affairs. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, reminded us, she is a former chair of the National Consumer Council. We are grateful for the expertise that she brings to the debate.

The amendment fully reflects the fact that the interests of the consumer go to the very heart of the Bill. It is designed to meet people's needs, create a new awareness of justice, and deliver real value for money in a modern context which sweeps away old restrictive practices.

The inclusion of provision for consumer representation on the commission will mean that it will be expertly assisted in carrying out its functions and evaluating the needs of users of the community legal service. From my constituency experience of consumer policy in the European Union, I believe that the amendment is sensible and necessary and would undoubtedly add value to the Bill. I recommend it to my noble and learned friend.

Lord Hacking: As a lawyer, I support the amendment. That much maligned profession of which I am honoured to be a member has long been concerned about consumers of the courts. It is over 20 years since the commercial court users' committee was formed, on which there is a large lay representation. About three years ago I was asked to be president of the county court users' group. It is important that, in order to have good value for money and efficiency of the system, the consumer should be represented on the commission. The only other matter about which I would seek to persuade my noble and learned friend is that he should not add any further criteria to the Bill. If the amendment is accepted, the subsection will have added to it paragraph (e). Let us not go further than that. Section 19(5) of the Courts and Legal Services Act extends to

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paragraph (g). I fear that if we move any further we shall lose the main purport of this commission, which is to act as a cohesive body.

The Lord Chancellor: We intend the focus of the legal services commission to be on the needs of users rather than providers of the legal services to be provided by the CLS and CDS. It was, therefore, in any event likely that at least one person with experience in, or knowledge of, consumer affairs would be appointed to the commission so that it could be sufficiently informed about the interests of consumers of these services. Clause 1(5)(c) requires the Lord Chancellor to consider the desirability of appointing to the commission persons having experience in, or knowledge of, social conditions.

It always was our intention that the provision would ensure that the membership of the commission would be sufficiently informed about consumer affairs in evaluating the need for services. But concerns have been expressed by bodies who represent the interests of consumers that our intention to take account of consumer interests in the membership of the commission should appear unequivocally on the face of the Bill. I am happy to accept the principle of the amendment. It is particularly appropriate that the noble Baroness, a distinguished former chair of the National Consumer Council, should have proposed it.

I welcome the opportunity that the amendment gives me to demonstrate to the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Linklater of Butterstone, my consistency over the years. Such is my regard for the consumer interest that I am minded to re-order the paragraphs and not relegate consumer affairs to the bottom line. I undertake to show the noble Baroness a draft of what I propose for her consideration before Report. On that basis, I invite her to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Wilcox: I thank the noble and learned Lord. He has pleased me very much today. We have been battling on this matter for some time and I was not sure how we would fare today. It is so easy to become hung up on the word "consumer." It is not a word that we all like particularly, but it is a kind of generic term which we have all had to come to use.

The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, mentioned the citizens advice bureaux. Organisations representing citizens must be represented, and I believe that that is already provided for. Consumers of goods and services--in this case consumers of services--are a specific group of people, represented originally by the National Consumer Council, set up over 26 years ago by the then Shirley Williams who was at that time a member of the Labour Party. For that I must express my thanks.

I believe that we have what we want. I look forward to reading what the noble and learned Lord said. I take this opportunity to thank all those who supported the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Clause 1 agreed to.

Schedule 1 [The Legal Services Commission]:

Lord Kingsland moved Amendment No. 12:


Page 52, line 27, at end insert--
("( ) The Commission shall publish the plan submitted to the Lord Chancellor.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 12, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 14, 15 and 16. These amendments concern the relationship between the legal services commission and the Lord Chancellor's Department and refer to paragraph 15 of Schedule 1, which is entitled "Annual plan".

Under paragraph 15 the commission is required, before the beginning of each financial year, to prepare a plan setting out how it will fund services from the community legal service fund and the criminal defence service and how it is to exercise its other functions. The effect of the amendments would be to change the drafting of sub-paragraphs (2), (3) and (4) as follows. Sub-paragraph (2) would read:


    "The Commission shall send a copy of each plan prepared under sub-paragraph (1) to the Lord Chancellor".
Sub-paragraph (3) would read:


    "The Commission shall publish the plan submitted to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chancellor shall lay a copy before each House of Parliament".
In sub-paragraph (4), if the Lord Chancellor does not approve the plan, he shall make his reasons public and direct the commission to revise it.

The purpose behind these changes is to make the relationship between the legal services commission, on the one hand, and the Lord Chancellor's Department, on the other, more transparent. It will, I trust, demonstrate the principle, to which I hope the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor subscribes, that the commission not only has a personality of its own but is also capable of having, and sometimes will have, a will of its own. I beg to move.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): I shall, if I may, speak to Amendments Nos. 12, 14, 15 and 16. As the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said, these amendments require the publication of the legal services commission's annual plan in draft form before it is approved by the Lord Chancellor or laid before each House of Parliament and requires the Lord Chancellor to publish his reasons for not approving an annual plan prepared by the commission. As the noble Lord accurately said, the effect will be to make clear the role of the Lord Chancellor in the commission's process of planning how it intends to fund services and exercise its other functions. Obviously, the Lord Chancellor will have a key role in ensuring that the commission's strategy delivers value for money and meets the need for services that has been identified in a way which accords with government policy. This role, as the noble Lord explained, will be exercised with the safeguard of the approval mechanism set out in paragraph 15 of Schedule 1.

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Given that the commission will be working within a framework of priorities and in accordance with directions given by the Lord Chancellor, it is likely that the safeguard contained in paragraph 15 will rarely need to be used. The Bill as drafted already provides for clear public information about the development of the annual plan. The legal services commission will produce the plan following wide consultation, primarily through the regional legal services committees and community legal service partnerships. The plan will summarise the regional legal services committees' regional strategies which will themselves have been published after full and wide consultation. Further detail about the basis of the plan, for example the underlying data at local or regional level, will also be available under the open government code of practice. I find it difficult to foresee why any direction given to the commission by the Lord Chancellor to revise the plan would not also be made available under the open government code of practice. However, to make clear that that is the position the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is willing to undertake to ensure that that will happen.

Publication of the annual plan in draft form would add expense and delay to the process of agreeing the plan. It could also suggest a further consultation stage in the planning process. The necessary consultation will already have been completed by that stage through the mechanisms that I have described. A statutory duty to publish the plan in draft, which is the effect of the amendment, is therefore undesirable and unnecessary. It would result in the complexity, expense and delay of publishing and laying before Parliament two plans. However, the Lord Chancellor is willing to consider at the same time as he lays the plan before Parliament accompanying it with a statement of reasons for departing in any material respect from the commission's draft plan, and he will table government amendments to that effect. I believe that that goes some way to meeting the concerns of the noble Lord. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.


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