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I would like to set out Labour’s main priorities for reform of the CFP. Overcapacity has led to the destruction of Europe’s fish stocks. The problem is simple: we are over-fishing our seas. I think that the most remarkable comment we heard today was from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who harked back to a time when there were no quotas or discards and people simply went out and fished. The reality is that technology has moved on and countries can now fish in areas far from home. The idea that we could pull out of a common framework for managing our fisheries is simply unrealistic. The European fleet has grown too large and is catching too many fish. The current system favours the short-term interests of large-scale, often unsustainable, industrial operators. That has led to the lion’s share of resources and profits becoming concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of fishing enterprises in Europe.
Dr Whiteford: Does the hon. Lady agree that the Scottish fleet, which has halved in size in the past 10 years, should not have to pay again for the overall European reduction in fleet sizes that is required and that the people who have done more than anyone else to promote sustainability and change the way they work should get the credit for what they have achieved?
Fiona O'Donnell: I think that Members everywhere in the Chamber, apart from where the hon. Lady sits, have the interest of the whole UK fishing industry at heart; that is certainly the case for me. What is certain, however, is that if Scotland became an independent nation, our fishermen would face a very uncertain future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall on the Westminster Hall debate that she secured and for exposing the actions of trawlers in the waters off Mauritania. European waters have been over-fished, and now we are shipping our problems overseas. The EU fleet takes 25% of its annual catch from outside European waters, and EU taxpayers are subsidising the expansion of some of the biggest and most powerful trawlers in Europe into the waters off the western coast of Africa.
Neither EU member states nor fragile coastal fishing communities in western Africa can afford the reform of the CFP to become a missed opportunity. Reform is a real chance for change in Europe, and it could tackle over-fishing by EU fleets in external waters, so will the Minister update the House on his discussions with other member states about the exploitation of fish stocks in external waters?
Secondly, on the inshore fleet, Labour wants a reformed CFP that rewards those who fish more sustainably and selectively and with less impact on the environment. The UK’s inshore fleet represents more than three quarters of the entire UK fleet and employs 65% of its work force, yet it receives just 4% of the quota allocated to the UK under the CFP.
Labour believes that that imbalance must be addressed, and we want a fairer distribution of quota among the fleet. The draft CFP regulations contain a proposal whereby member states may withhold up to 5% of their national quota to encourage and reward operators that
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reduce discards and improve environmental performance. Labour thinks that should be increased to 20% to reward fishermen, including small-scale fishermen, who operate in a more environmentally sustainable way and who contribute positively to coastal communities.
Fisheries are a Government-held public resource, so we think it right that Government decide who should be able to access them, but, as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has pointed out, astonishingly the Government do not even know who owns the quota that they hand out. We want to see an entirely transparent register of quotas, and I join the hon. Lady in asking the Minister to update the House on progress in that area.
The New Under Ten Fishermens Association, NUTFA, the organisation that represents the domestic under-10-metre fleet, is calling for root-and-branch reform to create an inshore fleet that is fit for purpose. The Minister has responded with six community quota group pilots, so will he update the House on their progress and on the response to them from the under-10s? May I suggest to him that a crucial part of reform could be the creation of an inshore producer organisation? I have heard the proposal when meeting fishermen from the under-10-metre fleet. Is the Minister willing to consider it?
The rules that govern our fisheries are broken. Ahead of Rio+20, where food security and our oceans will be high on the agenda, it is vital that we put our own house in order. It is not too late to turn the tide. Now is the time for the Government to show renewed determination and leadership, and to pursue truly ambitious reform.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) for securing this important debate in the House, and I commend the excellent report that her Committee has produced. This debate has benefited from some very interesting interventions and speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I hope to refer to as many of them as possible.
My hon. Friend launched the debate with real knowledge and enthusiasm. Her enthusiasm for and interest in the subject are apparent from how she speaks about it, and they are very welcome. I enjoyed taking part in one of her Committee’s sittings on this subject, and I was impressed by the level of knowledge and interest across the Committee.
In answer to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell) and others, I am happy to report on how we are progressing with our discussions in the European Union. On Monday I am going to Brussels, where I will be discussing, not least, regionalisation, as well as the external dimension, on which we are making some progress, although it has not yet got to where I want it to be. I entirely share the position taken by the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) in abhorring the dreadful practices that we have learned about in recent years regarding the external footprint of fishing vessels that are subsidised by our constituents’ taxes so that they can fish unsustainably in the waters of some of the
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poorest countries in the world. I am looking forward to putting forward a very robust line on that, and I am impressed by the progress that my officials are making on it.
We will also be talking about discards, which I will discuss later. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) will be interested to know that we will deal with the thorny issue of mackerel and the perhaps not-very-sustainable activities of the Government of Iceland and the Faroe Islands. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who extolled the virtues of the Faroe Islands, might like to reflect on the fact that that country is not behaving at all properly in this matter.
I know as well as anyone how complex the issues are surrounding the whole area of the common fisheries policy and how difficult it is to unpick the diverse and interlinked problems that we face in reforming this failed policy. The Committee’s inquiry gets to the heart of these issues with a remarkable degree of perspicuity, and it has, as I said, delivered a very impressive report. The Committee’s thinking also reflects the stance that we are taking across a range of important priorities for reform of the CFP. It is crucial that we get past the “one size fits all” mindset that has served European fisheries so badly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) hosted my visit to the wonderful Plymouth marine laboratory, where we saw the impact of climate change. We saw how the fronts that change the temperatures of our seas in different places are moving, and how fish populations are moving. It is clearly ridiculous to have one constraining system for managing our fisheries that goes from the sub-Arctic waters of the north to the waters of the south Mediterranean. We must have a system that is much more fleet of foot, and we can do that only if it is more locally managed. I will come on to talk about how we are going to try to achieve that.
We are facing a critical stage in the negotiations in the coming months, and I will continue to press for radical reform; as I said, I will do that at the Fisheries Council in Brussels next week. In addition to those discussions on reform, we will have further discussions in April, May and June. The European Parliament is also considering the proposals in its committee stages, and we expect a plenary vote there on the whole package by the autumn.
The Committee’s report rightly highlights the importance of regionalisation. We must find ways to allow member states to work together regionally on the detail of fisheries management—in discussion, of course, with stakeholders—and I agree that we can do that within the bounds of the current treaty. Technical and legal constraints should not overshadow our aims in this regard, and that has been our message to others. I hope that I will discover that the issues of competence are as clear as the Committee suggests. We have been exploring with other member states the types of provision that it has identified in order to build support for potential solutions. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton that members of her Committee are not the only ones with access to legal opinions. In my experience, there are many and varied legal opinions on the subject, and it is important that they should be robust and able to stand up to the rigours of challenge.
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The Commission’s proposals reflect that same concept of empowering member states to take some of their own decisions. However, we are concerned that conferring more delegated powers on the Commission, as the proposals have the potential to do, might end up centralising decisions again.
I made an interesting visit to the constituency of the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie). I quite understand why she is not in her place, because she informed me that she would have to depart. I was shown a net in which an eliminator panel had been put in precisely the right place to allow cod to escape, but the net was deemed illegal by people who manage fisheries about 1,000 miles away from the fishermen who use it. They insisted that the eliminator panel should be further towards the cod end, even though the fishermen knew that by that stage the fish would be too tired to swim up through it. How crazy is that? What lunacy it is to have a system that does not allow the fishery in a particular area to develop the means to do virtuous things such as excluding discards.
I recognise that what I can achieve will probably never be quite what my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) and others would like, but I will do my best to achieve as much as I can.
The genuine regionalisation that the Government and the Select Committee are calling for will need the robust co-operation of member states on shared fisheries for it to be credible and to win support from others. Empowering member states to take some decisions may form part of the process, but it might not solve the whole problem. As many hon. Members have said, many of our fish stocks are shared with other countries and can best be managed on a regional basis. I believe that a properly devolved system, with close co-operation between member states, operating with an ecosystem-based approach, as the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) mentioned, is the right way forward.
The hon. Member for East Lothian asked if we have friends in Europe on this matter. We do. There are many like-minded states that share my sense of exhaustion over and rhetoric on how appalling this system is, and we are working closely with them. It is mainly, but not exclusively, the northern European states that have a like-minded view. I hope that we will find plenty of allies in the coming weeks.
Richard Benyon: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me of the very good point that she made. I share her view entirely that this is an area where the European Union does not need to tread. We have a successful aquaculture industry in the United Kingdom. We are all aware of the agenda here. Some of the more land-locked countries, which are seeking to access some of the European fisheries money, are interested in developing a competence over aquaculture. I assure her that I am robust in trying to exclude that possibility. How successful I will be remains to be seen.
We remain hopeful that the reformed CFP can build in a robust process to regionalise decision making. That will require agreement not only on issues of legal competence, but on practical processes for co-operation
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on management decisions with other member states which are transparent and enforceable. We will continue to press for that and will build support with the member states that share our fisheries.
The hon. Member for East Lothian asked when I last met the commissioner. It was just a few weeks ago. I meet her regularly and count her as an ally and a friend. I think she needs friends at the moment. I will be robust in giving our support for what she is trying to do. She needs legal advice as well. There are legal opinions coming from all directions on these matters and we are keen to provide her with ours.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), who made a thoughtful speech. He addressed a serious problem that goes to the heart of the credibility of an industry for which I have the highest regard. We should not minimise in any way the fact that when black fish are sold on the scale that he described, those fish have been stolen from legitimate fishermen. That is a crime of multi-million-pound proportions, and he was both brave and right to state that.
To achieve what we want to, we will require improvements in how we collect data and develop scientific evidence. A number of Members have referred to that. At the moment, the process can often lack robust data or be too narrowly focused on the short term to be credible with fishermen or to help policy makers. A more grown-up relationship is needed between scientists, fishermen and policy makers so that we can gather more effective data on the impact of fishing on the whole marine environment, and build trust. The fisheries science partnership that we have in the UK will help to pave the way to achieving that.
Nearly every Member who spoke referred to discards. I say to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar—[Interruption.] That pronunciation is the best I can do at this stage of the week, I am afraid. I remind him that more than half the tonnage of discarded fish has absolutely nothing to do with the European Union but is because it is made up of species that we do not eat and for which there is no market. There is a supply chain solution to that if we are imaginative. I am not diminishing the blame that must be apportioned to the system of management that creates the remainder of the discards, and we must not stop trying to deal with that, but more than 50% of discards are because there is no market. Great progress is being made on that, not least by DEFRA, through good projects such as Fishing for the Markets.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned my evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, in which I said how wrong it would be if we created a system that transferred a problem over the horizon at sea to one of landfill. Through a discard ban or an elimination of discards, we need to progress a supply chain solution to creating new markets for fish.
Fiona O'Donnell: Does the Minister also support fishermen in identifying markets overseas? For instance, there is not much of an appetite for cuttlefish at home, but there is in other parts of the world.
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in this country. We have to develop more eclectic tastes, but that is a debate in itself and I want to press on.
I agree with the Select Committee that we need to get our measures right and proceed carefully in setting targets. However, that has to be done on a fishery-by-fishery basis. I am also mindful that if we equivocate, we could find a thousand reasons why we should not do anything about discards. I believe that the Commission is right, and there should be an absolutely clear determination to move as near to an elimination of discards as we possibly can. That is why we will not sign up to the French declaration next week and why we must go into the next stage of negotiations on discards as robustly as possible to achieve a solution.
The debate on the CFP objectives raises similar challenges in a variety of areas. On the achievement of maximum sustainable yield, for example, I agree that we have to be guided by the best available scientific advice, particularly about complex mixed fisheries, and do so in a credible way. That is why we want clear objectives that are linked to existing commitments and enable us to get the specifics right for each fishery through multi-annual plans. That requires an intelligent approach to getting scientific data and advice. We have some good examples in the UK of partnership working with the industry, and I agree that member states must be more accountable for delivering the data needed to manage fisheries effectively. I appreciate the words of the hon. Member for Brent North about the need to define what we mean by MSY. FMSY is a different target from others, so we must get that right.
The Select Committee is right to sound caution about the Commission’s proposal for transferrable fishing concessions. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) raised that matter with passion. Although I recognise the benefits that a market approach can bring, I want our fishing rights to be managed in an economically rational way, by decisions on the allocation of rights being left to member states. If it were run and organised at that level, we could achieve real results. In certain circumstances, groups of fishermen might invest in an increasing biomass and see the attraction of a transferable fishery concession, which would in turn benefit the marine environment. It is important to look at that, but we should do so with caution, as advised by the Committee’s report.
A number of hon. Members asked who owns quota. I do not want to break with the cross-party consensus of the debate, but I suggest that the hon. Member for East Lothian has a bit of a nerve criticising the Government. We must get a grip on this problem. My Department intends to produce a register of who owns quota. To do that, we are working with producer organisations, which hold much of that information. I am constantly told of celebrities and football clubs that are alleged to own quota, but I have never found evidence of it. As the fishing opportunity should sit with vessels, the situation becomes complicated.
Sheryll Murray: As I pointed out, people who have quota must have a vessel, or a dummy vessel that is held in a producer organisation. Quota can transfer between different producer organisations, but it is impossible for somebody to go out and buy fish quota without having a vessel.
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Richard Benyon: The argument centres on who owns various companies, which makes things complicated, but my hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely right. The work we are doing to reform domestic management of English fisheries reflects those principles, but a lot has been said today on what we are trying to achieve. She knows more than anybody how important that is, but many hon. Members represent constituencies where there is a small inshore fleet.
A measure that has been raised in the debate—it is essentially independent from our reform measures—is my decision to give an opportunity to others to catch stocks that have been left unutilised for four consecutive years. I hope all hon. Members agree that where valuable fish quotas have been left unfished for four consecutive years, it is reasonable to look to give others the opportunity to catch them, so that we make the best of our national quota.
The Government’s reform measures are a response to our consultation in 2011. Many fishermen were uneasy at the prospect of the rapid introduction of an allocation system based on fixed quota allocations to the under-10 metre fleet. Therefore, we have since explored other ways in which we can give fishermen in that sector more control over their future fishing activity, and are seeking to establish voluntary pilots to set out the benefits and challenges of a more local approach to management.
To align those pilots as closely as practicable with the measures on which we consulted, in particular the proposed foundation quota, we are temporarily taking from producer organisations a percentage of quota allocations if they were increased at the December Council. That will apply only where vessels in the prospective pilots hold a track record of catching the increased quotas. Producer organisations will still benefit from having greater amounts of quota than last year, but they will have slightly less of an increase than they would otherwise have enjoyed.
There have been rumours regarding the suspension of all leasing and swapping by certain POs to the under-10 metre fleet in reaction to those proposals. I would be very disappointed if any PO looks to penalise other fishermen for circumstances that are not within their control and hurt their members financially. Should such attitudes and behaviours take place, it would not bode well for our wish to impart greater management and responsibility for fisheries to those who fish them. DEFRA officials are in close touch with colleagues at the Marine Management Organisation, who are monitoring the position and will be assessing likely impacts on the profitability of our fishing sectors should those rumours develop.
As I have said, I will be discussing the external dimension of the CFP at the Council meeting next week. I believe that the principles of the sustainable use of marine resources must apply in the same way outside EU waters as within. Proposals for agreements with third countries should be strengthened to ensure better value for money; integration on fisheries development projects; clauses on human rights; greater transparency to ensure appropriate spend of money and science to improve sustainability; and improved fisheries governance to ensure that the benefits of the agreements are delivered in reality. I think we are making progress on this, but there is more work to do.
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suggests consuming two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily. This level of consumption can readily be sustained if we manage our stocks effectively.
I fully support the motion. The failures of the CFP cannot be allowed to continue eroding the livelihoods of our fishermen and blighting the marine environment. This is why the current reform process is so important, and why I am committed to making sure we get the right policy during the discussions this year. That means a policy that allows member states to work together regionally to manage their fisheries more effectively, and a policy underpinned by better scientific knowledge of what is happening in our marine ecosystems.
On a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw), I am proud to be the UK fisheries Minister. It is important that I represent a noble industry, one that I wish to see revived, but if I restricted my actions to the management of fisheries, in a myopic, silo way, I would be letting down fishermen and all who care about the marine environment. So my hon. Friend is right: we should take a holistic view in our policies on fisheries, our marine policies and the reform of the common fisheries policy.
Miss McIntosh: We have had an excellent debate, summed up brilliantly by my hon. Friend the Minister. I thank everyone for their kind words and warm welcome, both for the motion and the actual report. I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that he has a suite of opportunities and a menu on which to draw. It is indeed our first call that he should seek to devolve decision making to the regions, but if that attempt were to fail, it would not be the wish of the Select Committee—or indeed the House—to allow the Commission more discretion in taking delegated powers.
The way is open for DEFRA to persuade the Commission to pursue our recommendation or press it to produce a clear road map for regionalisation—or, at the very least, legally binding regional agreements. We cannot proceed with a situation in which we have reliable scientific advice for only 30% of all EU fish stocks—for just 21 out of 60 in the Mediterranean.
The Committee would love to travel to Iceland, as I am sure would others, so perhaps that is a bid that may be looked on favourably. In any case, it gives me great pleasure to ask the House to support the motion.
That this House considers that the Common Fisheries Policy has failed to conserve fish stocks and failed fishermen and consumers; welcomes the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report, EU proposals for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy; and calls on the Government to use the current round of Common Fisheries Policy reform to argue for a reduction in micro-management from Brussels, greater devolution of fishing policy to Member States, the introduction of greater regional ecosystem-based management and more scientific research to underpin decision-making in order to secure the future of coastal communities and the health of the marine ecosystem.
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Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this very important debate on the effect of the reductions in legal aid on legal aid providers. I refer Members to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I was a practising lawyer before my election to this House. As a criminal lawyer, I relied on the public purse for much of my income.
The Lord Chancellor offered up 23% cuts without any fight and blindly conceded to the Treasury’s demands without looking at the real impact on justice and legal aid providers. The Government’s own impact assessment states:
“The lack of a robust evidence base means that we are unable to draw conclusions as to whether wider economic and social costs are likely to result from the programme of reform or to estimate their size.”
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As a fellow Hull MP, he will know the importance of citizens advice bureaux and community legal advice centres in providing legal help and advice and of the genuine concern out there that people will not have access to good-quality legal advice. I am sure that he shares the concerns of many people in Hull.
I am not just talking about the for-profit providers. The non-profit providers also provide important legal advice to people in our constituencies. I want to attempt to bust a myth that the Government are perpetuating. There seems to be the suggestion that publicly funded lawyers are fat cat lawyers earning fat cat salaries. In reality, publicly funded lawyers, whether solicitors or barristers, earn very modest incomes if funded by legal aid. The Lord Chancellor says that he does not want to hit women and children, but he does want to target fat cat lawyers. Why, then, is he making 53% cuts to social welfare legal aid?
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab):
I declare an interest as a non-practising barrister. I worked for a number of years as a solicitor at a law centre. These cuts will affect some very poorly paid solicitors who work in law centres and who were previously doing work such as immigration
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before that was taken away. The profession will suffer because we will not be able to attract people and give them the expertise to do this kind of work.
Karl Turner: My right hon. Friend makes a very important point and one that solicitors and barristers have raised with me in recent days. There is certainly concern about attracting people into training contracts and even attracting people to study law as a result of the Government’s plans.
As I understand it, £350 million will be removed from legal aid as a result of the Government’s plans. The vast majority of that will be in social welfare law. In an attempt to bust the myth that publicly funded lawyers are fat cat lawyers, I spoke to some legal aid providers in my area today. I spoke with Keith Lomax, the senior managing partner of Davies Gore Lomax, which is based in Leeds. He represents the most vulnerable clients on such issues as housing, debt, welfare benefits and education, particularly special educational needs, and he told me that the Government’s 10% reduction in fees across the board was difficult for his firm to cope with. I was staggered when he told me that his hourly charging rate was £48.24. He charges the Legal Services Commission £3.78 per letter—hardly fat cat lawyers rates. The people who work for him earn very modest incomes—between £18,000 and £24,000 a year for fully qualified solicitors, he tells me.
Tim Durkin, the managing partner of Myer Wolff solicitors in Hull, runs a long-standing firm reliant on legal aid. Mr Durkin estimates that the cuts to his business in relation to child contact and residence applications will amount to about £300,000 per year. He describes that as simply unsustainable.
“the Government are not living in the real world to describe legally aided lawyers as fat cats”.
In his view, the Labour Government were far from profligate when it came to legal aid. He says that the previous Government were not particularly generous in relation to publicly funded lawyers. However, he says that the previous Government at least understood the requirement to offer legal advice in areas such as social welfare law. Indeed, he also mentions immigration, which is particularly important, given that the other place almost accepted an amendment—it was defeated by, I think, 19 votes—a couple of days ago.
In 2000, there were 10,000 legal providers. There are now 2,000—a reduction of 8,000 firms in the last 12 years. Many closed their doors in the last 12 months. The impact of the cuts on legal aid providers is clear for anybody to see. Many firms that provide help mainly in family and social welfare law will have to withdraw from the market. The Law Society says
“firms already operate on the margins of viability…specialist firms and advice agencies…providing social welfare law services…are likely to be wiped out with catastrophic consequences for people in need”
“does not see how many firms can continue to operate in this environment.”
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The Government’s impact assessment, which accompanies the Green Paper, estimated a 67% decrease in income for law firms in rural areas and a 59% decrease in urban areas. That is simply unsustainable. It will not be economically viable for those firms to continue offering services on such tight margins. The Legal Action Group believes that legal aid will cease to be viable as a nationwide public service, with an overall decrease in civil legal aid to 900 firms, down from 2,000. My concern is about the potential for advice deserts to emerge as a result of those reductions. The impact on access to justice is therefore clear. If no service is available, our constituents will be left to paddle their own canoe. Some 75,000 children and young people are set to lose legal aid. Some 6,000 children under the age of 18 and 69,000 vulnerable young adults aged 18 to 23 will lose access to legal aid in their own right as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
The Government claim that advice will be available elsewhere, from places such as the Free Representation Unit, jobcentres and Age UK. That claim has been disputed by the Advice Services Alliance. The Free Representation Unit represents clients in tribunals, but it does not cover the initial advice stages of, say, a welfare claim. The Child Poverty Action Group has stated:
“Unfortunately we do not have the resources to provide direct advice to people who are claiming benefits”.
“Our concern is that while it is true that both Age UK nationally and our partners in local Age UKs and Age Concerns do provide some help and advice with welfare benefits it is most often not at a level comparative to that provided through legal aid.”
The Government’s defence until now has been to talk about the telephone advice service. However, that is not the answer to advice deserts. Face-to-face legal advice is crucial. Fortunately, the Government suffered a defeat on this issue in the other place yesterday evening. I would respectfully urge the Government to take that on board. The Ministry of Justice predicts between only 4,000 and 10,000 additional mediation starts, despite withdrawing legal aid from 255,000 cases. It has simply not made a proper assessment.
The impact on for-profit and non-profit providers will be substantial, but it will be most keenly felt by those who rely on their services. The Government’s own impact assessment states that the proposals
“have the potential to disproportionately affect female clients, BAME clients”—
“and ill or disabled people, when compared with the population as a whole”.
Despite that evidence and advice, the Government seem to want to plough on regardless. At a time when unemployment is rising and pressure is increasing on squeezed families, it is wrong for the Government to withdraw support for legal advice.
Opposing the legal aid cuts is not done due to narrow interest or to ensure that lawyers’ bank balances stay buoyant. It is about ensuring that people have not only these important rights but the means with which to
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exercise them. The Government must listen to the experts and base their cuts on the evidence. The Justice Select Committee, on which I serve, has said that the full cost implications of the Government’s proposals cannot be predicted. I therefore ask the Government to reconsider these cuts and not to take a gamble with justice.
Many eminent judges—not least Lord Hope, Lord Justice Dyson and Lady Hale—have also voiced their concern, along with academics and professionals, telling the Government time and again that there will be an increase in court administration due to the increased number of litigants in person, but that advice has been completely ignored. The Lord Chief Justice has echoed those concerns.
The opposition to the cuts in social welfare legal aid is, for me, about protecting the vulnerable and allowing access to justice. Of course, we are living in a time of austerity, and this must also be about saving money to the taxpayer, but there are alternatives. The early intervention provided for debt, employment, education, housing and family law matters through a mixture of voluntary and private sector organisations offers value for money. I shall not bore the Minister with the statistics produced by Citizens Advice, but it has provided Members with a helpful report that shows, pound for pound, the advantages of providing early advice. Unfortunately, however, the Tory-led Government have ignored crucial advice from, among others, the Lord Chief Justice, the Bar Council of England and Wales, and the Law Society.
The Lord Chief Justice has stated that the proposed reforms of public funding for civil cases will damage access to justice and lead to a huge increase in people fighting their legal battles alone. It is obvious to anyone that litigants in person will delay court time. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) is in his place. He sits as a recorder in the Crown Court, and he must know from experience the advantage of having a solicitor advocate or a barrister representing a client in court, as opposed to someone representing themselves.
“legal aid barristers, working across a broad range of practice areas, are public servants, overwhelmingly operating in the public interest. Over a number of years, many members of the Bar and the junior Bar in particular, have found it increasingly difficult to sustain a financially viable career on legal aid work, which poses a grave threat to access to justice. Successive fee cuts and now the threatened removal of whole areas of law from the scope of legal aid means that many vulnerable people will be denied effective access to the Courts. It also means that many highly skilled and publicly spirited Barristers will be forced to leave the profession with a particularly heavy impact on female and BAME practitioners. That cannot be in the public interest”.
The Lord Chancellor needs urgently to take on board the defeats that the Government have suffered in the other place, and to look again at the real impact of these legal aid cuts before overturning those amendments in this place.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I declare any interest I may have as a non-practising solicitor. First, let me congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on securing this debate. I recognise that this is a timely and important discussion to have at present.
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Let me start by saying that measuring and understanding the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on the providers of publicly funded legal aid services is something to which the Department of Justice has been committed throughout the policy development process. I invite hon. Members to consider both the impact assessments and the equality impact assessments published alongside the Government’s consultation paper and our response to that consultation. These are extensive in their consideration of the impact of the reforms on legal aid providers, with the equality impact assessment providing very granular detail on the potential for differential impacts in respect of different provider types—whether for solicitors, not-for-profit organisations or barristers.
We recognise that such assessments have their limitations. They use a method analysts refer to as counter-factual assessment. This operates by taking a given set of assumptions—in this instance, a snapshot of income in the legal aid market in a given financial year—and applies a narrow set of changes to this snapshot, which here means the reduction in income implied by the changes in the Bill. What the assessment cannot do is measure things like how providers will respond to those changes in terms of the structure of their firms, the business model they employ, their employment profile or the areas of law covered by their organisations. This is a crucial point for me in this debate. In other words, one cannot say with any real certainty how individual providers will respond to the changes, and that will be major factor in the overall “effect” experienced by the providers of legal aid. However, following the commitment made in our consultation response, we have commissioned a study that we hope will provide a better understanding of the dynamics of legal aid providers.
It should also be recognised that our discussions today are not purely theoretical. I simply do not recognise the picture of a failing environment for providers that the hon. Gentleman portrayed. Almost half the savings being taken from legal aid for the spending review period are derived from the remuneration changes implemented last October, which have now been in operation for up to six months—and there have been no discernible negative impacts on the supply. In fact, there has been strong confirmation that the market is willing to work at the new rates. The most recent Legal Services Commission tenders for family work were conducted using the new reduced rates, and were over-subscribed. This suggests that the rates offered are sustainable, and that providers are able to absorb and respond to the impact of reduced fees.
Returning to the Bill, at the macro level there are, of course, some obvious realities. I have always been very open about these, as the hon. Gentleman will know, both in Parliament and in my extensive engagement with the sector. A contraction in the range of services funded under legal aid will most probably mean a contraction in the number of firms providing such services, as well as a reduction in the numbers of lawyers practising in legal aid. I disagree, however, that this will translate into widespread advice deserts; it is certainly not the case at the moment.
This is a natural corollary of the changes we are making to scope, and I make no apology for that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that in most, but not all, cases, this is not a debate about so-called “fat-cat lawyers”.
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The legal aid system is there to provide advice, assistance and representation for those who need it most, not to maintain existing numbers of lawyers—but we do, of course, need a sustainable provider base, because without those who deliver services there would be no legal aid system. To this end, we are finalising our approach to the first round of contracting under the new scheme, which we expect will commence soon after Royal Assent.
There are, of course, two sides to this coin, and sustainability is not something that Government, as the purchasers of services, can or should provide purely on their own. No market is static, nor should it be. The legal aid market has historically shown itself to be adept at responding to changes and seeking out commercial opportunity—and I see no reason why it should not do so again.
If any business is to thrive, it must be flexible and adaptable—that is true of any sector—and the Government are creating the conditions that will allow legal aid providers to flourish. The Legal Services Act 2007, for instance, establishes a new licensing regime, which is now fully operational and which affords more flexibility, innovation and opportunity in terms of the type of business structures and providers that can offer legal services. The significance of that change, and the commercial opportunity that it represents, cannot be overstated.
That is not to suggest that the innovative models made possible by the 2007 Act are the only way in which providers can remain sustainable under the new scheme. The impact assessment figures published alongside the Government response to consultation suggest that even after the reforms have been implemented, approximately £1.7 billion a year will still be spent on publicly funded legal aid services. It is likely that, following the savings, we will still be spending more on legal aid than any other country, and it is undeniable that that level of expenditure represents a viable market. Given the range of services that will still attract funding, it will be open to providers to diversify and seek income across a range of areas of law, although for some providers the most prudent option will be to concentrate on their area of core expertise and expand their market share in that field.
It will also possible to bid for complementary services. The Government have made clear their commitment to alternative dispute resolution. They expect to fund an additional £10 million in mediation services within the new framework, and the Legal Services Commission will be tendering for additional mediation contracts to provide those services. The introduction of the mandatory telephone gateway—which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and which we intend to reinstate in the Bill—also presents opportunities. Providers will still be able to run telephone-based contracts alongside face-to-face contracts in areas that will continue to attract funding.
The overall message that I wish to convey is that—while challenging and sometimes traumatic—the changes will not come without opportunity, provided that there is a willingness to engage with them and think constructively about how to respond to them. Although steeped in
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great tradition, the legal profession has demonstrated resilience and fluidity throughout its history, and I would expect nothing less in response to these changes.
As the hon. Gentleman said, some people outside the private legal profession will be affected. Both he and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) pointed out that the equality impact assessments also consider the likely impact of the proposals on not-for-profit organisations. Such organisations have traditionally had a significant presence in a number of the areas that the Bill removes from scope, and the Government fully recognise the cumulative effect that the changes could have when coupled with local authority reductions in funding for them. However, as I have consistently made clear to the House, the Government also recognise the benefits that early generalist advice can have in a range of contexts. We want to help the sector to continue to deliver such services, but not necessarily in the context of legal aid.
We have already seen the creation of the £107 million transition fund and the £20 million advice services fund to help the sector to deal with the legal aid changes and with what will happen after that. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has now indicated that additional funding will be available after the current financial year to help the sector further, and it will be announced in the forthcoming Budget statement. That underlines the Government’s commitment to the provision of advice services such as this, and it is expected to ameliorate the effects of other funding reductions.
However, that is not to say that everything will remain the same. Because of our current fiscal situation, savings must be made, and the not-for-profit sector will need to demonstrate the same adaptability and resilience that I have described in respect of the legal profession.
The Government understand, and are sympathetic to, concerns about the scale of the change that the Bill represents, but we stress that it is incumbent upon the providers of services to think constructively and creatively about how they will establish themselves in the new market. Change will, naturally, be a challenge to the sector, not least because the current system has operated for a significant time, and providers will have become accustomed to a particular way of working. However, for the reasons I have given, there will be real opportunities for those who wish to take them, and for those outside the scope of the new scheme additional funding is being made available to provide for the future.
May I conclude by returning to the topic of the—rather technical-sounding—counter-factual assessment, to which I referred at the outset? We must avoid falling into the trap of predicting the future on a basis that does not allow for the very human response of adapting to changing circumstances. There is a future for legal aid providers, and the market can thrive, but the willingness of providers to adapt will be key to achieving that. Given what I have seen to date—not least providers’ response to the fee reductions—I have every confidence that that will be achieved.