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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): Since 30 April, 33 devolution issue cases have been intimated to me. They have involved a variety of matters, mostly concerning the right to a fair trial under the European convention on human rights.
Miss McIntosh: I congratulate the Minister on retaining her post. As a result, we can continue to hold her to account at these monthly Question Times. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the shadow leader of the House, is present, and I am sure that he will support me in asking whether she has made progress with the modernisation plans that would allow an extension of this Question Time. At present, we have the minimal period of five minutes. An extension would help to make the Minister totally accountable to the House.
The Advocate-General: I am delighted that there is still support for further time to question me. That sits rather uneasily with those Opposition Members who feel that there is no role for the Advocate-General. However, the determination of the length of Question Time is a matter for the House, not for me.
Annabelle Ewing: What has been, or is likely to be, the Advocate-General's involvement in the ongoing saga of the Megrahi case? Yesterday, Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, called for the matter to be referred to the Privy Council. Does the Advocate- General have no role in the matter, or is her role secret?
The Advocate-General: My role is not a secret at all. The Scotland Act 1998 makes it plain that I have no role in connection with prosecution matters, which are entirely for the Lord Advocate. As the hon. Lady knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has other relationships to deal with. If further legal proceedings were begun, it is possible that a devolution issue might arise. If so, that would be intimated to me in the normal course of events, under the rules of the Scotland Act.
Mr. Dalyell: Given that President Mandela asked that there should be an appeal, will my hon. Friend the Minister use her good offices with the Crown Office to accede to the request from Mr. Eddie McKechnie, Megrahi's lawyer, that a moratorium be placed on the handing over of crucial artefacts? What is the hurry about handing them over, after 13 years? What does the Crown Office have to hide in the matter?
The Advocate-General: The Lord Advocate, and through him the Crown Office, are responsible to the Scottish Parliament and to the courts. There is no role for me in relation to the way in which the Lord Advocate
Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): With regard to devolution issues, have any cases been referred to my hon. and learned Friend that allege delay in criminal proceedings? Will she relate that to possible breaches of the ECHR?
The Advocate-General: I have indeed had many intimations about delay in criminal proceedings as alleged contraventions of the ECHR. The number of such cases runs into the hundreds, about 50 per cent. of which raise those issues. Because of the number of cases intimated to me, for a number of days recently I was involved in a test case, at which I appeared personally to deal with those legal issues. The Appeal Court has given a decision in that case, and the representations that I made were successful. However, a further appeal to the Privy Council is to be mounted, and I shall be dealing with that in due course.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): As the first Advocate-General for Scotland, I have been keen to ensure the most efficient use of public money, and I think that this has been achieved. My office provides a range of legal services to Government Departments, including litigation, advisory work, preparation of legislation and formal Law Officer opinions, and it does all that with 19 lawyers plus support staff. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that my officials and I give very good value for money.
Mr. Carmichael: Would the Advocate-General care to comment on reports that came to my office recently that she had a full set of session cases transported from Edinburgh to London simply for the purpose of a photo opportunity and that it was then repacked and sent back to Edinburgh? Is that the case and, if so, does she consider that to be value for money?
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): Lack of access to reliable legal advice can be a major factor in creating and maintaining social exclusion. Community legal service partnerships are therefore being established in order to plan and co-ordinate local legal services more effectively. The work of the community legal service partnerships is making a real difference to communities across England and Wales, particularly to those living in some of the most deprived areas.
Ms Munn: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and welcome the Government's approach. Does she agree that it is vital that legal advice is available to people such as my constituent from Gleadless, who came to my surgery on Saturday, so that she can challenge the loan company which says that she now owes £22,000 on a loan of £7,000 taken out 11 years ago?
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is quite right that the spiral of financial difficulties in which people sometimes find themselves could be avoided if they had proper debt counselling at an early stage, particularly to stop them falling into the hands of loan sharks, as her constituent obviously has done. The community legal service in Sheffield has received Government money to improve access to advice and information, particularly aimed at socially excluded communities and individuals. That includes making sure that people know exactly where they can obtain advice about the kind of debt problems that my hon. Friend has highlighted. I hope that that will improve the situation in her area.
Does the increase in the number of people seeking the help of law centres and citizens advice bureaux suggest that there are still extensive barriers to people who require legal representation? Whatever the criticismpossibly justifiableof the so-called fat cat lawyers in the City, many high street solicitors are seeking to extend a range of services to clients on modest incomes. Should we not consider how to ensure that the smaller lawyers' firms can continue practising in our smaller towns?
Ms Winterton: I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman's welcome to my hon. Friend. He is right that it is important to keep smaller firms involved within the community legal service partnerships, and there have been some good examples of that. In terms of ensuring proper access, we have almost achieved 100 per cent. coverage of legal service partnerships throughout the country, which is way ahead of schedule. That is an important means of ensuring that people have access to legal advice, particularly those who may have been excluded in the past. I certainly agree that it is important to ensure that private sector solicitors are involved in those partnerships with us.
Paul Clark (Gillingham): I note what my hon. Friend said about access to the right information, which is fundamentally important in ensuring that people who seek help receive reliable information. May I draw her attention to the work of the Medway community legal services partnership, which has developed in a number of ways? I draw her attention especially to the document in my handthe referral handbookwhich is useful to us all, not only Members of Parliament, but other bodies who help people seeking advice, such as the person to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) referred. The document has been developed by the Medway CLS to identify the available services and the clientele that they might serve. It shows where legal services are available through the CLS and where the quality mark exists. Will my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary look at the document as an example of best practice?
Ms Winterton: I know that my hon. Friend has been extremely supportive of his local CLS partnership. It is important that Members of Parliament show such support, as it often helps to make the partnerships successful. The booklet to which he refers is an excellent example of good practice by a partnership. I certainly agree that it is important that we ensure that other partnerships are aware of such good practice. One of the ways that my Department is considering assisting that process is by funding innovative projects throughout the country, especially through the partnership innovation bids. My hon. Friend might like to draw the attention of his partnership to that fund.