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It should be put on record at this stage, as I am sure the noble Earl knows, that there has been a considerable degree of frustration, and indeed resentment, in particular on the part of civil practitioners within the legal aid field, not only about the level of remuneration but about the time it takes for lawyers to receive payment for work which they have done and on which they have expended moneys. We hope that these regulations will at least alleviate some of the grievances.
It is important to note also from a public point of view that when people see the amounts expended on legal aid, they tend to think that all the money goes into the lawyers' pockets. But although I do not know the figures, the legal process is an industry on its own and perhaps one of the largest employers of clerical and administrative staff in the country. It would be nice if the public could be occasionally disabused of the idea that everything from legal aid goes directly into the lawyers' pockets.
The legal aid system is an important part of the fabric and structure of legal and social justice in Scotland, and indeed in England and Wales. Any improvement which helps to maintain that fabric and structure should be welcomed. This side of your Lordships' House recognises that there are fiscal restraints in extending legal aid payments. From the position I am standing in at present, I can give no guarantee that when the change of government comes in the not-too-distant future the situation will be any better in so far as concerns any implements. As has been said in another place, we shall have to have a look at the books first before anything can be done about that. However, we recogniseI believe that it was recognised at about this stage last yearand the Government recognise the importance of maintaining the solidity of the legal aid system. One of the alarming factors in Scotland, of which no doubt the noble Earl is aware, is that civil practitioners were opting out of the legal aid system because it was just not worth while practising in that field any more.
These orders will, I hope, to some extent encourage people who are thinking of opting out of the civil legal aid process to remain within the system and to provide a service to the Scottish community within the structure.
The noble Earl referred to England and Wales. On a purely personal basis, I have often wondered whether any comparative study has been done of the cost per head of legal aid in England and Wales as against Scotland. I do not know; I have not had time to see whether any such study exists. If the noble Earl knows of any such recent comparative study, I should be grateful if he would let me know. I do not ask that in a carping, critical way but as a request for information for myself and perhaps for others who are interested in the legal aid system throughout the United Kingdom.
He expressed concern over the level and speed with which legal aid payments are made to solicitors and counsel involved. In considering the correct level of fees for legally aided work the Government have to take into account both the general financial position, to which the noble Lord referred, and the supply of legally aided services. Expenditure on legal aid in Scotland has increased dramatically in recent years. From 1987-88 the figure stood at just £45 million, whereas the corresponding figure for 1995-96 is estimated to be £133 million. That is just a fraction short of a 300 per cent. increase in funds over just nine years. In this context, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland clearly had to consider carefully what can be afforded by way of fees for legally aided work before making any decision which would inevitably increase overall expenditure still further.
On the supply side, there is no evidence that members of the public are unable to find solicitors willing to undertake criminal legal aid work or advice and assistance. However, we have received representations from various bodies, including the legal profession, pointing to difficulties in connection with remuneration for civil legal aid work. The noble Lord pointed that out. The noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, knows that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has decided to increase the fees for civil work by an overall 3 per cent. I shall pass on the concerns of the noble Lord both to my right honourable friend and to my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie on that point.
The noble Lord was concerned, too, about the speed with which our remuneration was delivered. I can assure the noble Lord that the Scottish Legal Aid Board has greatly improved the time taken for payment of legal aid bills over the past three years. That point is being further considered by the policy and financial management review of the Scottish Legal Aid Board.
The last point that the noble Lord raised was on the differential in average cost per case between Scotland and England and Wales. No recent formal studies have been carried out between the two areas of jurisdiction. Expenditure is broadly comparable. If there are any minor differentials they must be considered against the background of the different circumstances which exist between the justice systems and the court systems in those two areas.
I reassure the House and the noble Lord that in dealing with the concerns that the noble Lord raised my right honourable friend must balance access by those in need with the prudent control of public expenditure. It is for that reason that my right honourable friend is especially anxious that the resources available must be directed as efficiently and effectively as possible towards those who are in the greatest need.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, I present to the House this short uncontroversial instrument which will allow farmers and crofters in Scotland and Wales to obtain grants under the Farm and Conservation Grant Scheme towards the costs of fencing work related to the "waterside habitats" option of the Scottish habitats scheme and the "water fringe" and "coastal belt" options in the Welsh habitats scheme.
This instrument places Scotland and Wales on the same footing as England. A similar instrument for England was approved by Parliament last year. Due to different timescales for the processing of Scottish and
There are various differences between the Scottish and Welsh habitats schemes which reflect the different environmental and conservation priorities for each country. However, the fundamental objectives of the two schemes are the same: to encourage farmers and crofters to establish and manage specific habitats of conservation value. Farmers and crofters can receive area-based payments if they agree to take specified land out of agricultural production for a period of years or allow only limited and controlled grazing, depending on the habitat scheme option selected.
In Scotland, farmers have the option of taking land out of production for 20 years or restricting the use of land to limited grazing, managed in the interests of conservation, for a period of 10 years. In Wales, land can be taken out of production for 10 years, or grazed on a limited basis for the same period. Habitat options available range from watersides, coastal areas and broadleaved woodland through to damp lowland, grassland and marsh communities. Rates of area payments are based on the nature of the habitat option chosen by farmers or crofters. The Scottish Habitats Scheme came into operation in November 1994, and the Welsh scheme started in January 1995.
It was always our intention to make available some form of compensation to farmers who had entered the habitats schemes towards the costs of any necessary fencing of land within eligible waterside or coastal fringe sites. Clearly, there are considerable advantages in denying stock access to such areas in terms of protection of water purity, waterside vegetation and the creation of rich, natural habitats for wildlife. However, no satisfactory means of paying such compensation could be found, since the habitats schemes are based on area payments. We concluded, therefore, that the Farm and Conservation Grant Scheme should form the vehicle for making compensatory payments to farmers who need to fence any land they have entered under the appropriate options in the Scottish and Welsh habitats schemes.
The instrument we are considering today will enable participants in the Scottish and Welsh habitats schemes to obtain grants at the rate of 40 per cent. for fencing works under the appropriate habitats options under both schemes. The rate of grant we are proposing, and which applies already in England, has been pitched deliberately at a high level on the basis that we wish to encourage farmers to participate fully in the habitats schemes. I am confident that the instrument we are discussing will help to achieve this important objective.
Finally, I can confirm that there are no public expenditure implications associated with this instrument. Resources to pay grants for fencing works related to the Scottish and Welsh habitats schemes exist already within the overall public expenditure provision for FCGS. No additional bids are therefore necessary. I commend this instrument to the House.