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Lord Filkin: My Lords, we think that there is a risk of problems arising, but we are satisfied that there is not an immediate problem. That is not to imply complacency. We have to look also at how we can move back to the aims that this party has held for some 50 years; that is, to try to ensure that legal aid is made available to those in the greatest need. That requires not only a review of how we effectively commission work from lawyers, but also where, how and who we
Lord Renton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for tabling this very important Question. May I ask the Government to bear in mind that the strengthening of the legal aid system is much more important in ensuring the success of our system of justice than are any of the proposed changes that the Government have in mind?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I do not think that there needs to be a choice in this: we should do both. Much work is being undertaken by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, first, to ensure better value in the short term from the current legal aid budget, which is now £2 billion; and, secondly, to consider how the systems should be restructured to ensure that people get earlier resolution, often in ways that may be less adversarial and result in greater satisfaction than is currently the case.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, may I ask the Minister to review what I think many practising lawyers will consider to be his overly complacent response to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis? I declare an interest as someone whose firm has a legal aid franchise and therefore I speak from the coal face. There is now more severe discontent within the legal profession as regards legal aid than there has been at any time during my 40 years in the profession.
The noble Lord mentioned that there has not been, as he put it, a significant decrease in the number of firms seeking certificates. However, does he accept, first, that the number which are minded to withdraw from the legal aid schemeand that includes my own firmis really very significant? Secondly, there are already certain parts of the country where someone requiring legal aid has no access to a solicitor because none is available. Thirdly, in a recent survey, the Legal Services Commission itself found that some 2 million people with significant legal problems are currently receiving no legal help. Does the noble Lord accept that we have on our hands a real crisis?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, it is difficult to respond quickly to so many questions. We are certainly not complacent. We are aware that it is not necessary to have a lawyer physically in every town in order to provide a legal aid service, and therefore we have developed considerable initiatives in piloting alternative means of delivering those services.
Recent evidence derived from the civil legal aid bid suggests that a large number of lawyers wish to continue providing legal aid services. However, I repeat that we are not complacent; we are also aware of some concerns. The answer is not necessarily to throw about increased fee rates, but to consider trying to reduce levels of bureaucracy and to put in place better procurement arrangements with firms so as to give them greater certainty about the volume and flow
Lord Ackner: My Lords, is not part of the trouble that the Government have relied on speculative legal practice, something which was looked on as being contrary to the public interest? It has now transpired that a high proportion of solicitors no longer wish to speculate because it is not a good basis on which to advise clients. One's own interest is often in conflict with that of the client.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am not absolutely certain that I have the gist of the question put to me by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. If he is asking whether we think it is important to focus legal aid on those firms which demonstrate that they can deliver quality services and try to reduce funding to firms delivering poor quality services, then I very much agree with him in that respect. Indeed, that is the thrust of many of our reforms.
Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in many areas of the country there are no solicitors providing a legal aid service, which people may well need? That is due to the withdrawal of many firms of solicitors from providing civil legal aid in the way outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I can only say in all honesty that that is not the picture shown by the current evidence. While there are some pockets of problems, in some areas those are being covered by alternative arrangements. The best answer I can give to the noble Lord is to say that when we publish the promised report on supply, demand and procurement, it will put into the public domain the evidence we have gathered from our surveys, all undertaken with good co-operation from many solicitors' firms in response to our questions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey): My Lords, the London Borough of Bromley and Sport England are working closely together to establish a framework for the future of Crystal Palace which meets the needs both of the local community and of elite sport in London. I understand that they are making good progress and that local residents have been briefed on developments. The parties are in regular dialogue with both London and central government.
Lord Moynihan: My Lords, why have the Government not acted sooner to secure the long-term future of Crystal Palace with private-sector support, rather than oversee a situation in which the Amateur Swimming Association is considering the closest equivalent venue for its 2004 Southern Counties swimming championships in Dunkirk?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, responsibility for Crystal Palace lies with the London Borough of Bromley and Sport England. I would not wish to say anything that could interrupt their dialogue which, as I have pointed out, is progressing well and which we hope will reach a successful conclusion. As regards the plans of the Amateur Swimming Association, I understand that while it may be literally true that, as the crow flies, Dunkirk is the nearest venue, the association is also looking at the possibility of using a 50-metre pool with accommodation for 800 spectators in both Aldershot and Norwich.
Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the entire site at Crystal Palace is extremely important from the point of view of any bid for the Olympic Games to come to London? Am I not right in thinking, for example, that accommodation is available there for foreign competitors which would make it much cheaper as an asset when it comes to putting the bid before the necessary authorities?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, before I respond to her question, may I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, on her birthday today? I wish her a happy flight on Concorde tomorrow and I hope that she comes back!
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, yes, the noble Baroness is right. While Crystal Palace would not be used for main events in the Olympics, the facilities could well be used for training and practice purposes. Barbara Cassani, who is leading London 2012, is fully aware of those facilities and of the current negotiations.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, when referring to transition of usage we should remember that the Crystal Palace sports centre is now used mostly by the people of Bromley and its surrounding boroughs. It is used particularly by the people of its surrounding boroughs because the centre is right on the edge of Bromley. So there is no question of a transition from or to elite sports in the case of Crystal Palace.
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