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Mr. Forth: The Minister may have partially answered my question already. At the beginning of his remarks, he said that he envisaged that a number of such regulations might have to be brought forward. I know that it is asking for a gift of foresight, but it would be helpful if he could tell us whether he has any idea of the number and frequency that may be involved. If the regulations were to come in a steady flow, that would be one thing; if they were to be occasional and sporadic, that would be quite another, notwithstanding his point about the need for speed of response.
Mr. Lock: I am prepared to answer that question in this way. Two types of regulations are likely to be made under section 13(1). First, there are regulations that will extend the advice and assistance to new circumstances. If, for example, the House were to pass into law the International Criminal Court Bill, so the International Criminal Court came into existence, it would be necessary to prescribe circumstances in which advice and assistance could be given to persons coming before the court.
The far more usual way in which regulations are made under section 13(1) is to reflect the financial limits that are available to prescribe who can and cannot receive assistance in these circumstances. Clearly, it would not be right for the matter to be debated by both Houses of Parliament every time that there was a financial change, because benefits are uprated annually, or however it may be.
It is not the Government's intention, save in the very unusual circumstances of the International Criminal Court, which is an example of extension in scope, to make a change to the method or substance of the way in which advice and assistance are given. On that basis, bearing in mind the situation concerning the Criminal Defence Service, which comes into effect today, and despite the right hon. Gentleman's desire for proper scrutiny, I invite him to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed reply to the debate. Although I appreciate his point about the need for what may be frequent--he said annual--adjustments resulting from benefit upratings or changes, the difficulty is that neither the wording of the Bill as it stands nor my amendment can distinguish between regular, relatively minor, changes and occasional, rather substantial changes. He said that he thinks that it will be mostly routine annual or semi-annual adjustments that are made, but other fairly large changes could take place in the meantime.
Mr. Lock: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if he felt strongly about substantial changes under the International Criminal Court Bill, it would be appropriate to pray against them and have the debates? If the changes were more routine, would it not be appropriate to allow them to go through without a debate? Is that not the precise purpose of the negative resolution procedure?
Mr. Forth: Indeed it is. I am grateful to the Minister. However, I think that the problem with his suggestion is that praying against, in my experience, tends to work almost entirely or exclusively if it is done by Front-Bench Members, and rarely if it is done by modest, humble and obscure Back Benchers. Of course, my trust in my Front-Bench colleagues is almost boundless. However, I can imagine the odd circumstance in which it might just be possible that my Front-Bench colleagues were prepared to allow something to go through unchallenged and on the nod and I might not feel entirely happy about it, so I accept the Minister's point only partially.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these matters. I sense that it probably is not the will of the House to have a Division on the matter at this stage. I am prepared to let it rest on the basis of the Minister's assurances and the points that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has made. On that basis, and with some reluctance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
This is a short Bill, but an important one for anyone who is concerned with criminal justice. It will allow the Legal Services Commission to continue to fund the same level of essential legal services for those facing criminal charges and ensure that the Legal Services Commission may fund, under section 13, advice and assistance that includes advocacy. Additionally, the Bill seeks to ensure that advice and assistance are available to those who are involved in criminal proceedings rather than only to those who are involved in criminal investigations.
There was a short but constructive debate in Committee, with no amendments being moved. As the House is undoubtedly aware, on Report in the other place, the Government moved three amendments to the Bill, the combined effect of which will allow the Bill, on enactment, to have retrospective effect. When we amended the Bill to make it capable of retrospective effect, we felt that we might be erring on the side of caution. However, by the smallest margin, it has proved to be a necessary amendment. The provisions establishing the Criminal Defence Service came into force today, and I confirm to the House that regulations will be made under the Bill immediately it receives Royal Assent.
The draft of the Access to Justice Act 1999 that was originally presented to the House would not have left the lacuna. However, in attempting to respond constructively to amendments and issues raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, the Government accepted various amendments. Unfortunately, during the scrutiny of those provisions, it was not appreciated that amendments that had been moved both by Opposition Members and by Labour Members would leave that small lacuna. The gap is, nevertheless, an important matter, and I should be grateful if the House would close it by allowing the Bill a Third Reading.
Mr. Garnier: The Bill arose from the unintended consequences of the relationship between sections 13 and 14 of the Access to Justice Act 1999. The junior Minister in this place--the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock)--and the junior Minister in the other place, Lord Bach, readily acknowledged those consequences, but they have not acknowledged that this little Bill is itself a direct consequence, undoubtedly unintended, of the Government's decision in the earlier weeks of this Parliament to crash through the 1999 Act without seriously thinking about the problems that could arise.
It is of some interest that the Minister has yet again sought to attach some blame to the Opposition for the sorry state of the 1999 Act, which is the reason that we need this Bill. As I recall it, none of the amendments to the Access to Justice Bill moved in Committee by official Opposition Members were accepted by the Committee, and the only amendments that were accepted were those moved by the Government and voted through--undoubtedly without adequate understanding--by Government-supporting Members.
The Government fancifully called the original legislation the Access to Justice Act, but my view is that it should be called the "Denial of Access to Justice" Act, and the Bill demonstrates why. In the Legal Aid Act 1988, the initial advice and assistance available to those who are facing criminal proceedings included limited support in court. By contrast, it is unlikely that section 13 of the 1999 Act would have allowed the Legal Services Commission, via the Criminal Defence Service, to fund advocacy services in situations such as making a bail application or representing an accused person who is at risk of being imprisoned. Equally, the provision could well have inhibited the representation of someone who is at risk of being imprisoned for failure to pay a fine or obey a court order. Those are not small matters.
Indeed, the author of the error is happily with us now--I am delighted to welcome into the Chamber the Secretary of State for Defence, who, when the 1999 Act was considered in Committee, was the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department. How things have changed. None the less, the mistakes have lived on after his time at that Department.
I do not wish to prolong the Government's agony by letting this debate continue unnecessarily into the evening--although I gather that even this debate will be guillotined, at 7 o'clock. Nevertheless, I do not intend to spend the next hour or so dilating--as one of our Committee Chairman used to say--on the defects of the 1999 Act, as they will shortly be corrected on Royal Assent to this Bill. It is, however, an object lesson in the proper construction and making of legislation. The Government have a vast--indeed, an unhealthily large--majority. Nine or 10 Government Members served on the Bill's Standing Committee; only one of them, the Parliamentary Secretary, spoke. The others may or may not have listened, but their Committee activity hardly constituted scrutiny. Perhaps that is unsurprising in relation to a small Bill such as this, but had they not engaged with the Access to Justice Bill Standing Committee in exactly the same way, the problem faced by the Government might not have arisen and there might have been no need for the Bill.
The official Opposition give the Bill our broad but sad support--sad in the sense that we should not be in this position, but as we are, it is right that the Bill achieves Royal Assent as quickly as possible.