Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]
I advise hon. Members that we finish at 5.30 pm. It looks as though this Adjournment debate will be well subscribed, with many hon. Members wishing to speak, so I merely ask hon. Members to bear in mind the needs and expectations of their colleagues in all parts of the House.
On 28 November, the Government set out their programme to reform legal aid and put it on a sustainable footing, in the document “Legal Aid Reform: The Way Ahead”. The announcement followed the direction of travel of the Carter review, published in July, that lawyers and other advice providers should be paid by fixed and graduated fees—rather than by the hours worked, which does not encourage efficiencies and can reward the inefficient.
Once those in profession have adjusted to that system, the price per case will be fixed by them, for we shall invite competitive tendering among strictly quality controlled firms for each type of work. They will bid at prices that are, of course, profitable to them, but that are also made competitive for the taxpayer by local market forces. That is the way ahead that will guarantee needy people access to legal advice and representation at a fair price, while paying practitioners better.
Importantly, our document introduces changes to the implementation of the Carter blueprint, following our consultation over the summer, during which we engaged in an unprecedented way with the profession. That is the kind of consultation that points the way forward for good government. I intend to ensure that we continue to engage with advice providers throughout the implementation of the changes and that we do the job in the interests of the public and with the profession. I accept that some of the figures for fees in the Carter proposals were not as well tuned as we have now made them, and I accept that they were a cause of concern.
The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs is about to embark upon a series of evidence sessions designed to establish how far the Government have met the concerns that were expressed during the consultation. I hope that the Minister will take the outcome of that fully into account, as well as what is said during the sessions.
I shall indeed do that. I shall watch the proceedings with interest, although it is rather a pity that the timing was not different.
Unfortunately, concerns were caused by some of the figures in the Carter proposals and those concerns have not been got over yet. They are not anyone’s fault, but a good deal has changed. However, people have not really taken on board what has changed, so I am glad to have this opportunity to emphasise that.
My hon. and learned Friend mentioned the concerns of a number of groups, one of which is made up of the ethnic minority practitioners. She was sympathetic to their concerns when the review was taking place. Does she feel that the Government’s tuning of the proposals has met those concerns?
I hope that we have done that. As I shall outline, there will be local consultations—in particular, on criminal work—and local regulatory impact assessments, including diversity impact assessments, which I hope can deal with that problem in the best location: as close to the ground as possible, where practices operate.
My hon. and learned Friend was courteous enough to send me a copy of a letter that she sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), in which she confirmed that there would be a regulatory impact assessment. Can she confirm whether advice has been taken to establish that we are not thereby in breach of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and—to allude to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz)—that that will not affect either ethnic minority practitioners or ethnic minority clients and potential clients disproportionately?
I can confirm all that my hon. Friend asks me to confirm. There is already a regulatory impact assessment, which I am sure he will have seen, but the plan is to have fresh ones at each level, so that when we configure how practices will work locally, we can consider ethnic minorities as both clients and practitioners, although clients are the central focus.
My hon. and learned Friend has talked about the tuning that was done after representations, but does that tuning not mean that people working with debt will still receive some £64 less than the not-for-profit average? There will therefore be a huge disparity between what people were receiving and what they will receive.
No, I do not think so. I have seen a number of ways of calculating the current hourly rates. I suspect that that figure is inflated, because the calculator has not removed exceptional cases from the calculation. The average fee now will be in the fixed fee limit. Let us remember that, if a case takes three times as long as the fixed fee time, it no longer comes under in the fixed fee regime. One can calculate using only the cases that will be in the fixed fee regime. The figure that my hon. Friend mentioned seems to be inflated by including all the exceptional fees as well. The figure that I have is very much closer—indeed, there is but a pound or two between the new fixed fee and the current national average fee for debt.
The Minister and Lord Carter have said that access to justice is
“no less a fundamental right than education or healthcare”.
The background to the proposals is that they might not be—in the Minister’s words—a cost-cutting exercise, but there is a cost-controlling exercise, in that the legal aid budget during Labour’s nearly 10 years in office has increased by about a quarter, whereas the budget for education has increased by more than a half, and the budget on health in this country has doubled. Why is the legal service—the third pillar of the welfare state—taking so much of a hit when it starts with a much smaller proportion of public finances in the first place?
I do not regard a budget that has increased from £1.5 billion to £2.1 billion since 1997 as a budget that has taken a hit, but I shall come to the cost in a minute, if I may.
I welcome this debate. It comes in Government time, but I hope that that will give me an opportunity to put to rest some of the misapprehensions that have survived the changes that we made to the Carter proposals after the consultation. I should like to make it clear again that we accept the direction of travel of Carter, but we have changed the pace, the sequencing and so on.
I welcome the assurances that my hon. and learned Friend has given on immigration cases and more complex cases that deal with ethnic minority groups. However, she mentioned criminal cases, so will she say whether she is also extending the examination of the flat-rate system to family law cases, many of which are long and complex? I have been approached by constituents—including Pauline Troy, who is a family law practitioner who has worked on complex cases throughout her legal career—with fears that colleagues may be encouraged to do what is called skimming. In other words, owing to the huge pressures of the more complex cases, they either do not take them or go through them more quickly, which is, of course, to the detriment of the children.
Order. Before I call the Minister, I should say that, although I am not known for supporting Ministers of any party, we should allow the Minister to develop her case before she is flooded with interventions. It is important that the Government express their view on what they propose before other Members intervene or try to catch my eye to make their own contributions.
I shall come to family fees.
There will be a consultation on the regulatory impact assessment on each scheme, and that will include race equality. There is not only a new impact assessment, but a consultation on each one. I hope that that cheers up my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan).
Almost everybody who responded to the consultation—
That is unexpected and kind, Sir Nicholas.
May I take my hon. and learned Friend back to a point that she made earlier? She said that the bidding system for criminal legal aid was still to be determined. The Government said that, in early 2007, they would publish a threshold value for the firms that would be allowed to bid. Can she tell us what that threshold value will be?
No. Although a power to include a minimum contract threshold is taken in the new contract, there is no intention at present to include such a threshold. That change has clearly not been noticed. As I shall set out more fully when I come to criminal cases, it is proposed that the police station duty rotors and the fees should be worked out locally, so that we can see whether there is any call for a minimum contract size on the basis of the local market. I hope that I have answered my hon. Friend’s question.
Will the Minister explain the Government’s thinking on the very concept of minimum contracts? The best-value contracting system seems to take care of quality and price and therefore efficiency. What is the extra policy intention behind having minimum contracts at all? Many of us suspect that they are merely for the administrative convenience of the state, which does not strike us as sufficient reason to restrict choice, as a minimum contract regime would.
As I said, at present there is no intention to limit the contract threshold in any way. However, the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on an argument. The Legal Services Commission also has to cut costs, and it will do so if it deals with fewer people, because it will have fewer transactions to manage. That is a case to consider.
As I outlined to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central—a senior Member—almost everyone who responded acknowledged the need to change the legal aid system. I imagine that most Members here acknowledge that as well. We have the best-funded legal aid system in the world by a mile, but it does not optimise its resources to serve the public and to reward practitioners properly.
Our legal aid system is the best-funded in the world by a long way. A table kindly sent to me by a senior judge shows that the legal aid of the majority of countries whose justice systems we consider to be good costs between €1 and €5 per person. For example, legal aid costs €5 per person in France and Germany. Countries whose civil liberties we admire, such as Scandinavian countries, spend between €10 and €30 per head. The UK, and only the UK, pays €60 per head, or £100 per taxpayer, on legal aid.
I am glad that our system is well resourced, because that makes it the best. However, although we taxpayers pay £100 each, in the past two decades, under Labour and Conservative Governments, the costs have gone up far faster than inflation and those of any other public service. Since 1997, the fund has increased from £1.5 billion to more than £2 billion. Despite that, costs are rising exponentially and the budget is overspent.
There is no prospect of more cash, although there is a campaign to get more into the legal aid budget. I would be very pleased to have more cash for my budget; I would not argue with that at all. The Department for Constitutional Affairs is not the right target for any such campaign. However, realistically, as we well know, there will be no more cash. I am waiting to see whether Opposition parties will pledge more cash; they have not done that so far, and I suggest that they will not. Furthermore, they should not do so if, as I shall set out, we are not getting best value from our current cash.
Why has the DCA apparently been so relatively unsuccessful compared with other Departments in its bidding round with the Treasury? Does the Treasury consider that the DCA is not getting value for money and is punishing it, or is there some other reason behind the fact that, in the context of overall Government expenditure, the DCA has been one of the very big losers in the various spending rounds and negotiations?
There certainly is a question about value for money for legal aid. As I am about to set out, that is part of the driving force behind the proposals, which are about using our money more wisely and, if we need more money, being able to demonstrate to the Treasury that we need it on the basis that we are using wisely what we have already. Paying for hours is not the way to demonstrate that.
Someone with more stripes on their arm than I have would be required to answer the question about the adequacy of our settlement. I believe that our settlement is regarded as being as good as that of many other Departments.
Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that, although the overall budget has gone up, the spending has not increased in some areas? I have been particularly concerned at spending on housing advice and legal services in my area. Does she also agree that we need to consider, for example, the provision of legal aid for work with people with disabilities—in particular, for families with disabled children?
Spending has gone up on the kind of civil help that my hon. Friend mentioned. As she knows from her own area, there have been new developments. Of course disabled people and children in families with disabled parents need to have proper access to legal aid. That is very much part of the DCA’s social exclusion agenda; we intend to ensure that such people have that access.
I am told that, in the 2007 spending round, our settlement was the average of that for all the Departments. I shall come to housing in a bit more detail in a minute.
My hon. and learned Friend said that the settlement for the DCA was average. In fact, the DCA is virtually unique in having already been committed to the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. It is virtually the only Department for which the comprehensive spending review has already been announced. How could she say what she said?
I have said what I have said—can we now talk about legal aid?
In our view, there is no prospect of any more cash for the legal aid budget. I wait to see whether any other party will pledge to offer more, but I do not think that they will—or that they should while we are not getting best value for our cash. Let me make it clear: the changes are not about cost cutting; if there were a sudden windfall into the legal aid budget, we would still make them. It is imperative that we obtain best value for taxpayers’ money.
We have a duty to get best value for taxpayers and to pay in a way that ensures the best-quality coverage to people who need legal aid. That requires us to stop paying by the hour, which can favour the inefficient, and instead to pay per case, which will encourage high-quality and efficient practitioners to streamline the processes and develop the capacity to do more cases and get more advice to more vulnerable people. The quality of service will improve. Peer review as the means of quality assuring all practitioners has been welcomed by everyone. If suppliers do not reach the required level under peer review, they will not be allowed to supply legal aid.
It has been said over the months that we are not addressing all the cost drivers in the justice system, but that is not correct. The proposals that we are discussing deal with legal aid procurement; other reforms that are taking place across the justice system deal with other cost drivers. Part and parcel of the way ahead is a commitment to new stakeholder representation to help to see the reforms through, to head off any emerging problems at the pass, and to monitor progress. For the first time, legal aid lawyers will have a say on problems caused to them by other agencies in the justice system. The first meeting, to set the framework of the stakeholder body, will be on 1 February.
Let me deal with some specifics of the scheme. On crime, it was always clear, but it became much clearer in the consultation, that there are differences in the way that criminal advice works in urban and rural areas, so for magistrates court work we will initially introduce the new standard fees only in 16 urban areas. We will consider spreading the system to rural areas when we have seen how it works in the urban areas, where the market is different.
Some practitioners were concerned about the level of police station fees proposed in the Carter reforms. They were based on averages in criminal justice areas. In discussions with me and in the consultation responses, lawyers rightly pointed to differences between particular spots in the criminal justice areas and the consequent differences in the costs of attending at a police station. We have therefore delayed the introduction of fixed fees for police station advice until October to allow the LSC to consult on the detailed police station duty rotas—again, only in the 16 urban areas. We shall fix the police station duty rotas best for the advice needs of the locality. We will then fix the fees very locally and very specifically, based on those duty rota areas and on where the current claims are clustered. They will therefore be based on true averages for the specific area. We should be as sensitive as possible to local issues.
I declare any interest that I may have as a solicitor. There seems to be a big difference between what Carter says and what criminal practitioners say the implications of the proposals will be in terms of the number of criminal law firms that will have to close down. What is the Government’s view on the number of solicitors who are predicted to leave the profession, or the number of criminal law firms that will have to close down, as a result of the proposals?
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is talking about some research by LECG for the Law Society that estimated the number of firms that would either close down or merge; it dealt not with people going out of the profession but with merger or change. However, its work was based on a course that has never been pursued—that there would be a minimum contract size of £150,000. As I said, there is no minimum contract size, but the only one that was ever countenanced was £50,000. Carter thought that, overall, there would be some fall-out, but he too was countenancing a minimum contract. However, there is no fixed view on that. As I said, we have localised the way that we hope to be able to configure the changes, to try to fit what is already there.
During the consultation, solicitors asked for competitive tendering to start as quickly as possible after they had moved over to fixed fees, so that they could adjust their businesses to fixed fees and then quickly seek to set the fees themselves by making a bid. Consequently, we have narrowed the time between introducing fixed fees and introducing bidding by one year—there is now only one year between the two processes—to take account of that. It is better that firms make competitive bids for work that take account of their actual running costs and required profit margins, rather than requiring the LSC to second-guess fair fee rates in the absence of hard information on the true costs that firms incur in providing services, which is what happens now.
Clearly, the running costs of solicitors’ practices vary enormously around the country. Perversely, in inner London, there are areas of extreme deprivation and poverty but incredibly high running costs—higher staff costs and so on—for any sort of business. Many of us fear that we will end up with far fewer legal aid practitioners in precisely the areas where they are the most needed.
But that does not follow in the slightest. Solicitors who enter the bidding process and bid at a price that returns them a profit—that is exactly what they will do—will be in a much better position than if they were on the receiving end of an estimate produced by the LSC on the basis of historical claims. It is much better that they reveal their costs and make a bid that will accommodate those costs and produce a profit. It is a much more sensible way of proceeding.
I am talking about crime, but my hon. Friend may not be. However, one third of London advisers in civil law—perhaps that is the kind of work that he is concerned about—already deliver advice at below the proposed fixed-fee levels. The fixed-fee system is intended to drive efficiencies, and such advisers have already gone a long way.
It is much better to allow solicitors to bid than to get the LSC to second-guess.
I believe that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) was talking not about the money side of things but about the number of solicitors. He made an important point. Surely the net result of contracting will be fewer firms, because only so many firms can win contracts. I believe that hon. Members are trying to ascertain the extent to which the high street solicitor will be extinguished, which the legal profession maintains will happen.
As we are talking about legal aid, I shall not go into the community legal service strategy in great depth, but of course the idea will be to engage people who are delivering different individual types of advice in consortiums, so that they can deliver it all of a piece. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North was talking about civil advice. We now have in Gateshead the first model of a community legal advice centre. The idea is that somebody who walks through a door can have literally all the advice that they need across the range of issues that confront them—or virtually so, by being carried forward. There are many structural issues, and the question that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) asks is slightly begged by the future of those structural issues.
In my constituency, many people go to small advice agencies that are specifically geared to their cultural and linguistic needs. Does my hon. and learned Friend envisage that those organisations will come together in a consortium? I can tell her that that will not happen.
I am sorry to hear that negative approach, because the answer is that there is indeed scope for subcontracting to the kind of niche provider that my hon. Friend mentions. That is the case in Gateshead, where the main contractor has enlisted a number of major suppliers and it is open to them to engage a number of niche providers. Indeed, where there is a danger of a community going unadvised, they will be required to ensure that they supply services to all those communities.
Does the Minister not realise what concern there is outside this Chamber about the bidding process? Criminal legal aid solicitors’ fees were last increased in 2001, and civil practitioners were last given a 2.5 per cent. increase in 2004, which was meant to reflect increases for the previous four years. I may be being simplistic, but it seems to me that in any bidding process the cheapest bid normally succeeds and that will often be at variance with securing the best-quality advice.
The process is a best-value bidding process. The auction process is being designed with input from the Treasury. No doubt in due course we can discuss its finer points, but the hon. Gentleman is not necessarily correct. It is clear in the Carter report that there will be alertness to any suggestion of loss-leader-type bidding to undercut others so that a firm can come in, take over a good deal and do a lot of damage to a local market. The auction will have to be reasonably sophisticated and it is our intention that it should be. It is important to remember that the point is to deliver good service at a fair price, and we will plan the auction in that way.
Does not the Minister recognise that some firms already see the writing on the wall? High street practitioners in Hertford and Enfield who provide good service are already leaving publicly funded work, raising the prospect of deserts in legal aid work in the vulnerable areas of mental health, crime or child care. Does the Minister recognise that that is happening already?
No, I do not. The resources going into the civil side have increased by 20 per cent. over the past couple of years, and the supply has increased significantly, too. The hon. Gentleman is in a happy position in his constituency, where 63 per cent. of the providers already provide services to the public at less than the fixed price. His supplier base will benefit enormously from the changes to the fixed fee and is therefore bound to be able to extend its range and to provide more advice to more people. His local suppliers will be able to spread their influence, and that is entirely right. That is what the bidding process is capable of doing, enormously to the public benefit.
May I underpin how important the networking of advice agencies is? Where a network has not been established, a lot of people who access legal aid have difficulty in maintaining a relationship and they end up in a revolving door, going from one firm to another over a period of time. The support and signposting that the advice agencies, the networks and community law centres provide are essential in making best use of the legal aid budget.
My hon. Friend is entirely right, but there is no perfect picture at present. Law centres and citizens advice bureaux do not fit the model of providing advice across the range of social welfare law. Most citizens advice bureaux offer one or two—three at the most—types of social welfare advice. We need to ensure that the networks are established.
An interesting fairly recent piece of research was carried out by Richard Moorhead, who is an esteemed academic. He considered the way in which advice was delivered in the not-for-profit sector as well as by solicitors. He found that half of the people in his sample who had gone to get advice on civil law, and were interviewed by his researchers a month later, disclosed that they had another problem, or more than one, that they had not been able to disclose to their original adviser. That is a condemnation of the current approach. That research and previous research points towards the fact that people who get information and are empowered to deal with their own problems do well, as do people who get advice, while the people who do worst are those who look for advice but do not get it. We are not delivering across the board, and we must encourage such delivery. The proposals will help.
I was a member of the management committee of Hammersmith and Fulham community law centre for some 15 years, and I should perhaps declare that interest as well as my interest as a practising barrister. The centre provides a full range of law; it is rare in doing so across many fields. There is one other private practice, White Ryland, which provides a comprehensive service in Shepherd’s Bush, but is practically the only provider. It is opening outreach offices to try to serve the community there. We suffer from the exact problem mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn)—high costs, but extraordinarily great and complex needs. This only an intervention, and I think that other hon. Members will indicate what they are—
If my hon. Friend writes to me, I shall try to answer the point that he was trying to make.
In family and civil law, it is our intention in the longer term to increase the proportion of overall spending from the legal aid budget. There are no cuts to be made to those budgets. This year, civil and family legal aid expenditure will be more than 20 per cent. higher than it was two years ago. More than 700,000 people have been given legal help in the past year—50,000 more than we expected and more than ever since the community legal service began in 2000. Contrary to claims about advice deserts, face-to-face advice increased by 13 per cent. on the previous year and advice by telephone from Community Legal Service Direct nearly trebled—research showed that that was done to great satisfaction, too, in only its second year of service. This year we intend to increase acts of assistance by a further 5 per cent., or another 50,000. It is to the great credit of suppliers that that can be done, but it also happens because we ensure that the services are initiated and resourced.
Having painted a growing picture of the supply in civil cases, I want to consider family cases. Profit costs in care proceedings have increased from £109 million in 2004-05 to £129 million in 2005-06—an increase of 10.8 per cent. per certificate issued. If we consider civil and family cases together in that context, we see that the climate is hardly one in which we would expect huge numbers of civil or family practitioners to go out of business. That nostrum has been given much ventilation over the summer, but it comes from the dark ages to suggest that improving efficiency, as we intend to do, will undermine quality or impede the personal touch. Efficiency undermines neither. The taxpayer requires all three.
The fees proposed for family work caused concern back in July. We realised quickly that they were not sufficiently sensitive and we agreed to take them back. They need change before they are right for that field and we have engaged with the professions in negotiating the changes. In the case of civil help, solicitors are already paid a fixed fee per case for the help that they give. Such tailored fixed fees are based on firms’ average claims and were introduced in 2003-04 as a stepping stone to a single fixed fee system for all suppliers. However, not-for-profit advice agencies, such as citizens advice bureaux, are paid on a contract to provide hours of work. We cannot justify using a different basis to pay for the same work, according to who supplies it; the right way to pay for both is fixed fees. The tailored fixed fee system, which has helped to give rise to the increased productivity that I mentioned, has shown that fixed fees work for civil help.
The fees proposed in the consultation document in July, which were based on solicitors’ pay rates, also caused concern. We listened carefully to the concerns of the not-for-profit sector, whose representatives told me that they see different clients from solicitors. They told me that they see more vulnerable people, who have multiple difficulties, who often have mental health issues and who often do not have English as their first language. However, solicitors who do such work disagree that they do not see equally vulnerable people with equal difficulties.
We have therefore based the fixed fees on data from both sides—the not-for-profit sector and solicitors—to try to get over the problem. Average not-for-profit costs are significantly higher than solicitors’ costs for debt, slightly higher for welfare benefits cases and lower in other categories, such as housing, so the fees to be set for civil advice have changed quite markedly since July. The fixed fee for a debt case is £70 a case higher than it was in July and the fee for a welfare benefits case is £20 a case higher than it was in July. Despite the assertion that not-for-profit agencies see more difficult and more complex cases, their costs were about the same as solicitors’ in other categories. Most of the fees have therefore stayed roughly the same, even though we have incorporated data from not-for-profit providers.
No, I doubt very much that it is at the same rate. There has always been a huge difference between publicly and privately funded work, has there not? I wish that there were some way of changing that, but I am afraid that that is just the way of the world—it certainly was the way of the world when I started at the Bar, and it continues to be the way of the world now.
The Minister misunderstood my point. She was talking about fixed fees for legal aid solicitors doing representation work, but I am asking about what happens when public authorities or the Government retain a solicitor to undertake defence or prosecution work. If a fixed fee is involved, is it the same as the fixed fee that a legal aid client would have funded from public funds, or is it much higher? We could have a scenario in which the public prosecute somebody who receives less funding than they do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. We will not talk about other publicly funded cases, but I hope that that explanation was helpful.
Having brought in all the costs of the not-for-profit sector, we feel pretty confident that we have set the fixed fees at a realistic and reasonable level, and I shall say why in a minute. However, let me first make a further point, which was ventilated over the summer and which needs dealing with. There is no threat to the vulnerable from the proposed fixed fees. Such people are currently seen and advised, and the cost of the advice that they get and the care that they need is already in the current budget. That budget will remain the same, but will just be distributed in a different way. The fixed fees therefore take account of vulnerable people, and they are, rightly, not under threat from the proposed change to the structure.
On that point, I have received representations on behalf of relatively small practices in Dorset that act for mental health patients. Could the Minister give me any specific reassurances about the likely effects on such small practices?
I went to the Mental Health Lawyers Association annual general meeting and had conversations there about the issue. We agreed to look again at the nature of the proposed mental health fees, and that process is in place. There will be proposals in due course, which will apply to suppliers across the board, whether large or small.
The “Way Ahead” fees, which are based on the average costs for the various cases handled by solicitors and not-for-profit providers, are reasonably well placed. Analysis shows that about 62 per cent. of providers across the board would have been paid more for their last year’s case loads under the new fixed fee scheme than they would under the old scheme. The point of changing to fixed fees is to motivate efficiencies; indeed, productivity has gone up exponentially, and I must express my great respect for the sector for achieving that. We therefore have every hope that, long before the new fees come in—they have, of course, been put back to October to facilitate the process—many more suppliers will comfortably be doing their work for less than the fixed fees or the same sort of price.
The Minister said that 60 per cent. of cases will generate more income, and that is the key point, which I suspect will be reiterated several times by those who are lucky enough to catch your eye, Sir Nicholas. Our core point—certainly for those on the Labour Benches—is that the 40 per cent. of cases that do not generate more income will be disproportionately concentrated in areas where providers deal with the most vulnerable people and the most complex cases. Sadly, we have not yet heard any convincing evidence to lead us to believe otherwise.
That is not, on the face of it, the case at all. My hon. Friend’s constituency, for instance, is very deprived, but about 51 per cent. of the suppliers in her constituency now do such work at below the fixed fee rates, so her argument does not follow at all. There are suppliers in the regions who cost more for the same job than suppliers in London, there are suppliers in some areas of London who cost more than those in other areas and there are suppliers who cost less. It is not, therefore, about regions, but about costs and about rolling out best practice so that we can get the best and the most out of all suppliers. We are reasonably confident that we have pitched the fees at roughly the right level.
My hon. and learned Friend is comparing region with region and supplier with supplier, but in child custody cases, in which one parent could afford to pay an unlimited amount, while the other was bound by a fixed fee, the interests of the child might not be equally represented.
There will be graduated fees in child cases to represent the various stages of such cases. Again, the budget will not be any different from what it is now; it will simply be a matter of ensuring that the graduations are appropriate proxies for the complexities of individual cases, and that is what is being worked on. There may always be an imbalance between what somebody is paid as a privately instructed lawyer and what somebody is paid on legal aid, but I am afraid that that has ever been thus. There is no reason to think that what is happening will make it worse. Indeed, if we are right and bidding will lead to better profitability, it could improve things.
Productivity has increased by 19 per cent. in the not-for-profit sector so far this year—and this year is not over yet—building on productivity increases in the previous two years. By spreading best practice the Legal Services Commission and the Advice Services Alliance, which represents not-for-profit suppliers and is hugely helpful in this context, will encourage all providers to take on a full range of cases of varying levels of complexity, which will make the fees sustainable for all the relevant providers.
The fees in question are not those that were proposed at the time of Carter. It is imperative that people take on the changes that we have made, having listened to the consultation process, and let their minds be at rest. We have delayed the introduction of fixed fees for civil work until October to allow for those productivity increases to continue and to allow time for the not-for-profit sector to adjust to the new regime.
Very complex cases taken by solicitors or the not-for-profit sector in the civil sphere, which will take three times as many hours as the ordinary fixed fee represents, will come out of the fixed fee system entirely, to be paid for by the hour. Those are the exceptional cases which, I think, were wrongly included in the quoted usual costs of cases, as I mentioned earlier. Something that is very complex will be dealt with completely outside the system and be supervised by the Legal Services Commission on an hour-by-hour basis.
I take the point about complex cases; but we are really talking about complex people, who take a long time to deal with. In London 75 per cent. of people who go to providers of the kind in question may have English as a second language. That point has not been properly dealt with. Hon. Members have the same experience in their surgeries, and I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will know of it first hand. That is not being addressed.
It is being addressed. I have made the position clear. The fees incorporate all the time that is currently spent, as necessary, by not-for-profit sector bodies and solicitors on vulnerable people who do not have English as their first language. All that time is wrapped up in the budget, which remains the same and is cut into fixed fees, instead of being paid by the hour. I assure my hon. Friend of that, and, further, of something that I have said more than once already—that there are now suppliers in his constituency who are doing the work in question, with the difficult people to whom he referred, for a lower cost than the new fixed fees.
The Minister has explained that the proposals made in the summer were not right, and that they have been adjusted—presumably because of representations. Representations are being made today as well. Perhaps the Minister has seen the debate pack usefully compiled by the House of Commons Library, so can she explain how people can move from a fixed fee to an hourly rate? An illustrative example is given in the debate pack of how solicitors went through a lot of unused evidence that the prosecution eventually decided to disclose. Only after an incredible amount of work did they find that the accused person had not done what they were accused of doing. Is permission necessary to move to an hourly rate? How is that to happen?
It would depend on the category of case. The case cited by the hon. Gentleman sounds like a very high-cost one. I did not note that item in the debate pack. A very high-cost case would already be completely outside the fixed fee system; subject to a contract link with the Legal Services Commission, a supervisor would supervise it and all the work necessary would have to be screened through the LSC beforehand so that it could be established that it was necessary for the good conduct of the case. That is how the hon. Gentleman’s example sounds to me. The other cases that will come out of the fixed fee system will be those that are complex and will take much longer than could realistically be paid for on a fixed fee. That will happen more in London, where there are more complex cases—about 10 per cent. of cases in London are categorised as complex, compared with about 2 per cent. nationwide. Such cases must be dealt with on an hourly rate because of their complexity.
Perhaps I may ask a regional question. The Legal Services Commission accepted, as I understand it, the argument for London weighting, for all the reasons that everyone concerned with public spending understands. Am I right in understanding from what the Minister has said that there is no general London weighting on the fixed fee system, or any such general weighting in this region or anywhere else with particularly high city or regional costs?
The fee is a national fee. It is the same wherever the work is done. I am sure that I have already said that there are suppliers in London doing the work more cheaply than suppliers in the regions, and that this is a matter of efficiencies, not regions. We consider that the fixed fees are set at a level that will facilitate good service supply in London as well.
Good as our legal aid system is, there has not yet been a Government who have secured an effective legal aid system that provides all the advice and assistance necessary for all the needy people who require it. The reforms give us the best chance of achieving that. I repeat that they are not cost-cutting reforms. They are about getting value for money. Since without the discipline of fixed fees the legal aid budget will continue to grow exponentially, I must make it clear that the alternative to spending taxpayers’ money more effectively in this way would be cuts in eligibility for the civil scheme and cuts in its scope. I do not want to be involved in such a process, which would be to the detriment of the needy people on whose behalf almost everyone who has so far intervened in the debate has been speaking. The Government, too, intend to serve those needy people, as do practitioners. Rather than damaging their interests, the changes will improve the availability of legal provision to them.
This is a three-hour debate and the Government opening speech has lasted three minutes short of an hour for which I do not blame the Minister at all. It was so long because of the large number of interventions that she took. I make a plea to hon. Members to speak as briefly as possible, without detracting from the quality of their speech or affecting what they want to say. Let us have short speeches. Ten hon. Members hope to be called, and others who have not written in may also try to catch my eye.
I declare my interest as a barrister who did legal aid work in the past. I welcome the debate in Government time, although it is regrettable that it is not in the main Chamber. There are 25 Members here, which is I suggest probably many more than are in the Chamber for the debate on social exclusion.
Everyone agrees that action is needed to control the criminal legal aid budget, and I want first to discuss criminal legal aid in general terms, before considering civil legal aid. The cost is up 37 per cent. from 1997 to more than £2 billion, as the Minister pointed out, and I want to consider the drivers of that increase. Lawyers’ fees are certainly not responsible, because standard and non-standard fees, taken together, are up 1.7 per cent. since 2001. I suggest that the increase in the legal aid budget is largely due to the increased volume of cases, changes in procedure and changes in the rules of evidence. Of course, there has also been a very big increase in the number of criminal offences on the statute book. Indeed, in a speech made by the Minister herself in 2005, when as a Back Bencher she secured an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, she pointed out that 700 new offences had been created since 1997. In fact, June Venters QC pointed out in a recent speech that since 1997 there have been 3,000 new criminal offences. That obviously puts great pressure on the criminal system, because the Government go on legislating.
I shall make progress, if I may.
Defendants must of course have justice. Indeed, in a speech on 24 October 2006, June Venters said:
“Legal aid is there to ensure that vulnerable and disadvantaged people are not denied access to justice because of their inability to pay”.
The Lord Chancellor in a speech the other day to the Law Society said:
“Free access to justice for those who need legal aid is as integral to the welfare state as the NHS or state education.”
I think that we would all agree.
I shall quickly consider the impact of means-testing on magistrates courts. It is ironic that the drivers behind the increases in the legal aid budget do not come from the magistrates courts, but mainly from the Crown court. However, the means-testing arrangements are having an impact on the magistrates courts as we speak. That is a matter for concern. Most solicitors support the principle of means-testing, but they have always stressed that the new means test must enable legal aid to be granted or refused quickly. That manifestly is not happening.
I recently received a letter from a large firm of solicitors in Sheffield—Howells, the Citizens Solicitor. The firm made it clear that the new arrangements for means-testing are extremely bureaucratic and cumbersome. I shall not go into detail, Sir Nicholas, as you have told us to make progress, but it points out that the Department for Constitutional Affairs did not take account of representations made by the solicitors who deal with such cases day in, day out at the sharp end.
The Minister talks about the most vulnerable, and in her press release this morning she made it clear that vulnerable people would not be affected. The New Policy Institute report headed “Means testing in the magistrates’ court: is this really what Parliament intended?” was published on 5 December. It highlighted the case of a lone parent with a child aged 10. The parent was working full-time at the minimum wage of £5.35 an hour but will not be eligible for criminal legal aid because of a boost to her family income from tax credits. If that is not affecting the vulnerable, I really do not know what is. That is exactly the sort of person who we should be trying to protect and help. Is that what the Minister intended? Is it what she meant today in her press release?
The result, as we have heard, is that many firms will close or amalgamate. Many of the firms in my constituency are not in criminal legal aid to make money; they are doing it through conviction, as a service, because they believe in the ethos of trying to protect those in society who have real problems and crises. That was very much the message that I received from those firms. There will certainly be legal aid deserts, especially in rural areas.
Furthermore, in my judgment, there is no question but that the bidding process and the best-value procedures will lead to bigger firms, and the consolidation and closure of small firms. We should not be in any doubt that the larger firms will cost more. It is the smaller, more focused firms with dedicated partners who historically and traditionally offer the best value for money. For instance, in 2005 and 2006, Otterburn Legal Consulting carried out two large surveys of criminal firms and concluded that the smaller firms with lower overheads and dedicated staff who work long hours offer the best value for money. The larger firms cost more, and ultimately they will cost the Government more in criminal aid. That is ironic.
I take on board the points made by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Members for Tooting (Mr. Khan) and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) about the black and minority ethnic firms. Many are small businesses, but they have a great commitment to the communities that they serve. By definition, they probably do not want to consolidate or merge or even expand; they want to remain small and to serve their communities in their inimitable way. I also take on board the points made about legal aid advice centres.
If you do not mind, Sir Nicholas, I shall quote a colleague. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has recently been very ill. He suffered an unpleasant stroke, but mercifully he is now much better. I spoke to him by telephone last night. He asked me to tell the House that, in his judgment, the supplier base for legal aid on the Isle of Wight is threatened by the current proposals. He said that if the base is eroded too far, there will be no choice, which will create further serious problems, with conflicts of interest. The problem affects all areas, but it will have a particular impact on the island, given the logistical difficulties of getting people over from the mainland—or the high cost that his poorer constituents will face in getting to the mainland. He pointed out the risk that under the Government’s proposals the Isle of Wight will become an advice desert. It is important that his comments are taken on board, particularly at this time.
The public defender service pilot schemes clearly show that the cost of the PDS is between 40 and 90 per cent. more than the cost of private law firms providing the same criminal defence services to the public. I find that a matter of concern, and it shows that big is not necessarily beautiful.
When considering criminal legal aid, I wonder whether the Minister’s reintroduction of means-testing with such a bureaucratic system is really how the Government want to help the vulnerable. I am sure that she does not need reminding that, during an Adjournment debate in October 2005, she argued cogently and passionately that the budget for criminal legal aid cannot be capped. I know that she has taken the Queen’s shilling and gone native, but, for goodness sake, does she not trust her instincts—or is she just doing what her boss is telling her? I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions.
I turn to civil legal aid. We heard this afternoon that the proposal for a single national fixed fee for advice work in each legal field will lead to many problems. The Government say that it will be cost-neutral, but I put it to the Minister that the picture in civil legal aid is pretty grim. Civil practitioners received a rise of 2.5 per cent. in 2004 in legal aid fees. There was no increase in 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999 or 2000. It is a matter of great concern that the number of offices with civil legal aid contracts fell from 4,301 in March 2004 to 3,632 in March 2006—and the number is falling fast.
Lord Carter proposed a graduated fee scheme for solicitors doing family and welfare-related work. Why did the Government not take Lord Carter’s advice? Why did they not listen to what he had to say? Standard fees are obviously are very different. Although I welcome the Government’s decision to reconsider and delay the introduction of standardised fixed fees in relation to family, immigration and mental health law, fixed fees will definitely be introduced for others areas of social welfare law, including housing, employment, welfare benefit, debt, community care and education law in October—in a few months.
I ask the Minister to consider her Department’s regulatory impact assessment. It confirms that a standard fixed fee will mean a loss of income for 38.6 per cent. of providers. The Law Society’s document on the subject is a pretty comprehensive survey of the various points of view put by different organisations. It makes it clear that 82 per cent. of family practitioners believe that their firm is less likely to undertake publicly funded work in future; that 78 per cent. of mental health practitioners are considering whether to continue to represent publicly funded clients and believe that the quality of service will decline; that 72 per cent. of immigration practitioners say that their firms are less likely to undertake legal aid work in future, and 67 per cent. thought that the quality of the service would decline; and that 95 per cent. of civil aid practitioners believe that the proposed fixed fees would make their work non-viable. That is pretty staggering.
Does the hon. Gentleman know or have an estimate of the shortage of practitioners who are prepared to take on immigration or asylum cases? My experience as an inner-city Member is that large numbers of people are barely if at all represented in very serious cases and that we need an increase in the number of practitioners.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I have a brief from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, which makes it clear that there is already a severe shortage of young people coming into this area of law. It is concerned about the potential impact that these changes will have because the supply of new, young practitioners may dry up completely. That is also borne out by the Association of Lawyers for Children.
Yes, it was the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the briefing was from the president, Ian McDonald QC. The other organisation that I briefly mentioned was the Association of Lawyers for Children.
Is it any wonder that virtually every organisation out there that has lobbied MPs and expressed opinions is telling us of its dismay? People are very concerned and a range of organisations are involved. First, the Access to Justice Alliance—an organisation that is very well briefed—has said:
“To survive on the proposed fixed fee we would have to exclude some of those most in need whom we currently help. There is unlikely to be another supplier to take them on, so they would simply not receive the help they need”.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, an organisation that we all know and love, has made it clear that it is gravely concerned about the potential loss of expert legal advice for family law cases resulting from the cuts in legal aid. It says:
“There is already a serious risk regarding the future availability of family legal aid lawyers; the situation will only get worse if the government fails to provide proper support”.
The NSPCC outlines a very distressing case of a young girl called Tracey. She was a heroin addict suffering from post-natal depression and social services tried to remove her baby from care. It was a complex case and I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) that many of those cases are becoming increasingly complex and difficult. In the case I have outlined, many hours were put in by the solicitor concerned at a substantial loss to the law firm. The solicitor was eventually paid about £9,000 in legal aid money, which may sound a great deal, but it certainly was not anywhere enough to cover the time put in. The bottom line is that Tracey is now off drugs and her life is back on track. That is exactly the type of case that her solicitors believe they would not be able to take on today. The cost of social care and of interventions from other agencies to help Tracey would be far more than the legal aid paid out to her solicitor.
Other organisations involved in this issue are Shelter, Mind, Action Against Medical Accidents and the Mental Health Lawyers Association, which has been lobbying very hard indeed. It sent me an e-mail the other day in which it made it clear that it is not at all happy with what is happening. It states:
“The problem that the Government faces, is that it has squeezed mental health lawyers so hard…there is no slack in the system…The Government faces a potential ‘meltdown’ situation in October. This is not industrial action it will simply be members finding they just cannot do the job”.
The Minister recently said:
“Matters connected with mental health lawyers are going to be looked at again, in connection with practitioners. They have no concerns at all.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1280.]
However, Richard Charlton, the chair of the Mental Health Lawyers Association, made it clear that that was not the case given his references to ‘meltdown’ and “no slack in the system”. If the Minister thinks that that represents ‘no concerns at all’, she should think again.
I am grateful for that intervention from a senior hon. Member. I did have time to read out the whole of Richard Charlton’s brief and the memo in which he makes that very point. Frankly, if the Minister thinks that the Mental Health Lawyers Association has no concerns at all, she should speak to it again.
I did not say that there were no concerns at all; I said that there were no imminent concerns because we would be going back to look at those fees, and we have done so. The hon. Gentleman should know that I am told that roughly one half of mental health cases are carried out by mental health lawyers who have volunteered on a fixed fee basis.
The Minister should look at column 1280 of Hansard on 19 December 2006. Perhaps she meant that mental health practitioners had no concerns at all about having another meeting. However, if one looks at Hansard, it certainly seems that she is implying that practitioners should not have any concerns about what is happening. When she meets Richard Charlton and the association, she should try and clear that point up and listen to them very carefully.
The citizens advice bureaux have been extremely active in briefing us. I have many letters from CABs and I will not got through all of them. However, I want to flag up that my local CAB in west Norfolk and the one up the road from me in Boston have grave concerns. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), the Boston CAB’s bureau manager, Maggie Peberdy, said:
“As you will know, Boston CAB holds a contract with the Legal Services Commission to provide debt and benefits advice. We strongly believe that the proposed changes will have a damaging impact on our ability to provide essential legal aid services to people with complex welfare benefits or debt problems, and that this in turn will harm the most vulnerable in our community.”
She goes on to list many of her concerns.
The Minister kindly attended a meeting of the all-party Citizens Advice group the other day. At that meeting, the CAB passed on a number of very complex case studies that involved a whole range of factors—for example, those dealing with complex clients suffering from mental illness who require the assistance of outside agencies and third parties including local authorities. Those cases take a long time to resolve.
The Minister should look again at what the CAB has said and at the views of the Association of Lawyers for Children, the Family Law Bar Association and a large numbers of individual firms. I met a firm in my constituency the other day, which is a growing and expanding partnership that is doing well. However, there is a real problem with that business as a number of dedicated partners and lawyers, some of whom do criminal and legal aid and family work, are concerned about whether the firm will be able to carry on offering the same level of public service. They were kind enough to bring in a family law barrister who expressed exactly the same concerns and who is acting for different solicitors up and down the region. Day in and day out, he expresses in court his very grave concern about whether many of the smaller firms will be able to carry on with this type of work.
The hon. Gentleman is falling into the very mischief I have spent most of the afternoon trying to stop people falling into. Any family lawyer cannot now say that they will not do any work or that they will be driven out because the fees have not been fixed and are still being negotiated. He is doing what I have tried to stop people from doing: looking back at the situation post-Carter and not looking at the reality now.
All I can say is that I have received dozens and dozens of letters and e-mails and met a large number of lawyers. I have not yet met one lawyer who supports exactly what the Minister is saying.
I shall conclude now as I know that you, Sir Nicholas, wish to call other Members to speak. However, I am concerned about the black and minority ethnic firms in relation to civil legal aid as the present system is nearly at breaking point. It is already becoming increasingly difficult to find a legal aid solicitor and the Government’s plans will only make that worse. The Minister talks about trying to help and make life easier for the vulnerable, but she should listen to what the experts are saying and trust the judgment and instincts that she so eloquently expressed in the debate on 26 October 2005.
As the shadow Attorney-General said earlier, what is the role of the Lord Chancellor in this? First of all he has downgraded his own job—we gather that was done on the back of an envelope—and has then spent tens of millions of pounds on a new supreme court. He has rewarded his Ministers with a sell-out to the Treasury, or has the Treasury rewarded him for not managing his Department properly? The conclusion that I draw is that some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies and communities will suffer. That is what concerns us and it is why I very much hope that the Minister will start listening to the people who really know what is going on.
I shall seek to heed your reminder, Sir Nicholas.
I am very glad that we are having the debate, which is clearly of enormous significance. The Government had Lord Carter do his work and produce his report; having seen the response to that work, they produced their own proposals at the end of November in the document entitled “Legal Aid Reform: the Way Ahead”, which modified some of Lord Carter’s proposals, and announced a further consultation on some areas, such as family law and mental health. I hope that, having done that, the Government will now pay attention both to this debate and to the results of the work by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs—which, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), is about to start examining this matter, having taken evidence—and only then come to a view on whether to proceed.
My judgment is like that of colleagues on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), in, if I may say so, a very effective debate recently, put a typical London case, with which I absolutely associate myself, as do many other London Members. We do not want—to misquote Edgar in “King Lear”—to stand up for lawyers. We want to stand up for the people whom lawyers paid in the public service have been looking after, because we believe that there is a risk that they will be squeezed badly by the reforms that we are discussing.
Although I basically agree with the hon. Gentleman, does he not agree with me that the small high street solicitor network is a very important service for the community? They should not be treated as though they are all fat-cat lawyers; they are providing an important service on the front line.
I agree absolutely. As far as I know, we have not been lobbied by the senior partner of Linklaters. We have been lobbied by small firms and by people working in citizens advice bureaux, who in my constituency provide an excellent service for people who have been leaseholders of the local authority, or do immigration work. We have also been lobbied by people who have given their lives to family law, such as the person cited earlier, who happens to be a friend of mine from south London and who has spent all her life dealing with child care cases. We have been lobbied by that sort of people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is not quite correct. We have been significantly lobbied by, and there has been a lot in the legal press from, the City firms that do a lot of pro bono work and are now worried that proposals imply that they will be asked to do an awful lot more pro bono work because of how the system is to be structured.
The point that I was trying to make is that the lobby is not composed of fat cats on huge salaries who are trying to defend a privileged position. The lobby is being conducted on behalf of our constituents the length and breadth of the land, who come to legal advisers with an individual crisis or trouble, or with a set of troubles. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) rightly said, those people have been rewarded in one case five years ago with an increase of 2 per cent., and in the other case three years ago with an increase of 4 per cent. They are not people who have been coining it in at the expense of the public service.
I want to wrap what I say in the point that the Minister says is not properly addressed to her but that is properly addressed to the Government, because it is about the degree of commitment that the Government have shown to the legal aid service in this country. I checked the figures and they are as follow. Twenty years ago, in 1987-88, the expenditure on legal aid in 2005-06 prices was £836 million. Ten years ago, it was £2.016 billion—again, that is in 2005-06 prices. In 2005-06—the last year for which figures are available—it was £2.1 billion.
The introduction to the Minister’s own report in November made the point that in the period between Labour coming to office and now, the legal aid budget has increased from £1.5 billion to £2 billion. I accept that. It is an increase, as the Minister can work out, of 27.2 per cent. between the comparable dates. The health service has had a 100 per cent. increase in its budget over that period. Public order and safety has had a 77 per cent. increase. Education and training has had an 80 per cent. increase. Total Government expenditure on public services has increased by nearly 60 per cent. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was absolutely correct. In the divvying up of the public expenditure cake, the money going to the third pillar of the welfare state—legal services—has creased by significantly less than expenditure on education and health.
If our aim is to look after people and give them the right to education, to health care and to the legal service, we need to ensure that we put the case for a greater envelope of expenditure on legal aid, because if we do not do that, the money will not be found. I accept that. We are coming up to a comprehensive spending review, so I am putting the case—I heard it put by Conservative Members and I heard it put in other terms by Labour Members—that, in the next review, the legal aid budget needs to be increased significantly if it is to keep pace with the pressure on it. We have more people. We have relatively more poorer people. We have more older people. We have more new immigrant people. We have a larger number of people in our black and minority ethnic communities. The reality is that there will be more demand. I sincerely hope that the Minister understands that point. She has to work within the budget given to her but, to put it bluntly, it is not enough, which is one of the principal reasons for the present difficulty.
The second reason is the simple proposition—you understand this, Sir Nicholas, as the Minister does—that most, or many, cases are unique and require uniquely specialist responses. Of course, some are multiple-issue cases, but some are not. The reality, therefore, is that the fixed-fee system, even with the transitional system, is too rigid. Different communities have different issues, just like different people have different needs. The reality is that fixed fees will offer no incentive to specialise in certain areas. The danger is that the people who are approached will do the routine work, which is easy because one can get it done quickly for the fixed fee, and they will not take on the work that is more difficult and more complex. Who suffers? Not the lawyers, but the people who come to them.
I will be interested to hear the Minister’s answers to certain questions at the end of the debate. How many firms will do legal aid? The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) cited the current number. I agree with him about the figure; we have both been given the same briefings. Several thousand do civil legal aid and several thousand do criminal legal aid, but their number is predicted to go down. Of itself, that may not be a bad thing, but how many solicitors will do legal aid work? What percentage of all solicitors will do legally aided work? It looks as though it will be a significantly smaller number. People have come to me and said, “We will not be able to afford to do it. Our firm will not do this work. I’m sorry. We will opt out. We will go private. We will make more money. It just won’t be worth it.” For me, that is not the way the legal service should be going.
What will be the average pay of the solicitor who opts to do either all or some legal aid work? The answer is that it will be relatively less than that of those who go only into the private sector. What incentive is that to the graduate who wants to do their social service as a lawyer? The answer is that it is not an incentive, because they will feel the pressure, not only in London, where property prices are high, but in other places, to do something else. They will say that they will not be able to choose to continue to do legal aid work, and that is sad and unacceptable.
I ask the Minister, when she reflects on these matters, to examine what will have happened to the pay of the local teacher and the local general practitioner relative to the pay of the legal aid solicitor since Labour came to power. The answer is that the legal aid solicitor will have done worst of those three.
The Minister says no, but if she were to examine the salaries of GPs in London, Norfolk or anywhere else, she would see that they have increased considerably—by much more than those of people doing legal aid work.
We will lose some firms and we will have some of the fees paid. I understand the holding position that the Minister has taken by saying, “I am taking some of Carter but not all of it.” I want to cite only one example in relation to criminal legal aid, which is a letter written to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) by Ian Phillip of Myer Wolff solicitors. It has been circulated and colleagues have seen it. It states:
“One of my colleagues represented a youth arrested on suspicion of a murder in a very complex case. My colleague gave 13 hours of advice and assistance to the youth who was understandably very upset/nervous and vulnerable. He also spent a total of 4 hours in travelling to 2 police stations for interviews and identification procedures and waiting for interrogations to continue. All attendances were in unsocial hours. If the Carter proposals are brought in, the firm would now receive £144 plus VAT. At the moment most firms pay their staff half of the police station bill if carried out in unsocial hours, i.e after 5pm or at weekends. The end result would therefore be that my colleague would receive £72 for 17 hours work advising a vulnerable suspect on the most serious allegation usually considered by a Criminal Court. This of course works out at less than the minimum wage brought in by the government.”
Such a situation cannot be acceptable. The Minister will tell me if those figures are wrong, but they were given in December—not before—by a solicitor in Hull who was describing a recent experience.
The hon. Gentleman is again doing exactly what I have been trying all afternoon to guard against. There are no fees fixed for the whole petty sessional division, the whole police station area or anywhere else. The Legal Services Commission is negotiating with local suppliers to fix appropriate fee levels. Once again, he is quoting Carter and scaremongering when there is nothing to scaremonger about.
As the Minister heard, I introduced what I said and I was specific, by saying that she has introduced a revision to the Carter review. Some measures will come in later and there will be pilots in some urban areas first. There is a delay for further consultation on other areas, such as family law, mental health and so on. I said that at the beginning.
I am outlining the consequences of the most recent proposals—in this case, in the criminal sector. The Minister will agree that nothing has come since then. I am putting the case that we need a system that is more flexible as well as generally better funded. Lawyers specialising in mental health cases—an area that is to be reconsidered and re-consulted upon—might need to consult more than once when examining the same client, because, as the Minister knows as well as I do, mental health patients often have recurrent conditions that mean that they have to be visited over and over again.
I am putting to the Minister the case, which was also put by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, that since her November proposals the citizens advice bureaux have been concerned, and still were at the meeting the other day, that many of them will have either to close or to merge inappropriately. In Hammersmith and Fulham there is a federation of local providers, and I am not against such things. A local federation in an urban area is a good thing; however, it is not such a good thing in a rural area, where having a legal aid provider five miles from one’s house is no good if it deals only with crime and housing and not with the issue that one wants to take to it. The lack of London weighting will be a particular problem for constituencies such as mine, where a third of the community comes from black and minority ethnic communities and where three quarters of people live in rented housing, and so on.
If the Minister is concerned that we are misrepresenting the case, she must re-examine the impact assessment published by her Department in December. Her Department’s figures—not mine—make the point that the introduction of a standard fixed fee will be most acutely felt in London and by not-for-profit providers. Some 67.79 per cent. of providers in London and 55.5 per cent. of not-for-profit providers will experience a decrease in legal aid income. The same thing applies, although the figures involved are smaller, in Reading, Cambridge and Bristol.
Other people have done assessments since November—these are not our figures. I hope that the Minister will tell us that the impact assessment will be taken into account, because if it is true, it must betoken an adverse consequence. When the current consultation is over, I hope that we will be given an answer that says that that adverse effect will not take place.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why if 50 per cent. of suppliers—let us take any figure—are capable of doing the work for the fixed fee in identical circumstances to the other 50 per cent., we should increase the fixed fee rather than encourage the latter 50 per cent. to become as efficient as the first 50 per cent.?
Of course, we should encourage people to cost the Government, and therefore the taxpayer, the least possible amount. However, some people might not do the big and complex cases or cater for a large immigrant community that does not speak English. The reality is that cases vary. This is a horses for courses argument. I am oversimplifying, but that is the case that has been put.
I am not against a review. I have always argued that we must review public services and ensure that we get good value for money and good practice, but there are threats to the quality outcome. Good solicitors in well respected firms have told me that the danger is that quality will suffer because people will do the easy work, they will do work quickly or they will not be able to spend the time required.
I know from my surgeries, as the Minister and every hon. Member representing a London constituency will know from theirs, that there are complex people who are depressive, suicidal and have all sorts of issues, and who, to put it bluntly, take a lot of time to deal with. The pressures are such that firms will not be able to take on people like that because they will not have the time to deal with them and because they will not be able to average things out. Such people will cost firms too much over the average.
I want to make two further points, because other colleagues want to add to the argument and, I hope, to the pressure. First, let me repeat the network point that was identified by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). The Government’s rejoinder to arguments about the network is often, “People, on average, live no more than five miles from a legal aid provider.” The question is: what do we want the provision for? That is why I argue that rather than just taking the Carter proposals, as amended, and having the top-down approach, which is the Minister’s and her Government’s response, she should seek to agree what should happen with providers, county by county or region by region. It has been suggested that the responses will simply be, “I am sorry. We might like to move away from this, but we cannot move from it at all.”
Let me return to the point on which I began. The Minister said that the reforms do not represent a penny being cut from the legal aid budget.
I thank the Minister for that. I was going to say the reforms will cut the criminal budget. I have seen no analysis of the economic impact on mixed firms and the consequences for civil provision of making the cuts in the criminal budget. Secondly, although the reforms to the civil and family side are claimed to be cost-neutral, it seems to me that massive budget cuts will be caused by the switch to national averages, particularly in areas with a high incidence of deprivation, foreign-language-speaking communities or the rest.
Thirdly, the Government have said that even if the Department for Constitutional Affairs had a much larger legal aid budget, they would still implement the reforms. There is always a case for reviewing the system and for reform, but if the Minister goes down the road that she is following, we will probably lose a huge amount of talent in the system. Those people will not then return and we will not recruit the people we need to replace them. The danger is that we will have broken the back of a system that has been built up over 20 or 30 years simply because we have a more complex society with more complex legislation and more complex regulation, and because the lawyers are more needed by the poor than ever before.
We are making a case for the poor and the disadvantaged. There needs to be a bigger legal aid budget and a rethink of the system. I hope that the Minister listens, if not to us, at least to the Select Committee when it reports. I hope that at the end of the process we will have a second revised response to Carter’s proposals. Carter may have started the Government in the direction in which they want to travel, but I hope that they will change direction, because we will get a much fairer system if they do.
Yes, I am. Many of us would have liked to have taken part in the debate in the main Chamber today, as well as in this debate. Both debates are about people who are the most vulnerable and most socially excluded, and who will become more so if some of the proposed changes are implemented.
I totally agree with the Lord Chancellor who said in his speech to the Law Society on 13 October 2006:
“Free access to justice for those who need legal aid is as integral to the Welfare State as the NHS or state education.”
That is why I agree with those colleagues who referred to the overall size of the legal aid budget. We are constantly told that there is no more money for legal aid, but I am bold enough to ask why. It is a political priority to decide how money is spent and the political choice made should be that legal aid and maintaining its budget in line with other increases is crucial.
Again and again, the Minister referred to best value and best practice. She should talk more about how best value and best practice equate with best quality, because I am worried that the push for best practice means doing things more quickly and having more people on the target list so that the boxes can be ticked and the Government can say that they are giving more people access to legal aid, when the quality will be such that those people will have been done a disservice.
We talk about the cost of legal aid increasing and the necessary increase in money, but the cost of the Legal Services Commission since it took over from the Legal Aid Board has increased from £58 million to nearly £100 million. That money has not gone to the people who are giving our constituents help and advice; much of it has gone into the administration and bureaucracy that is inherently involved when the Government set up any new body.
We must also remember that since the Government came to power in 1997, approximately 3,000 new criminal offences have been introduced, many of which have links with immigration, mental health and matters that the most vulnerable people must deal with. Inevitably, that means that more people need legal aid and support. If we keep putting more and more laws on the statute book, we must accept that there will be an increase in the legal aid budget.
I shall talk briefly about the effects of the proposals in my constituency and plead for London to be treated in a special way because of its nature. It is an accepted fact that the cost of doing anything in London is greater than elsewhere. There must therefore be some sort of London weighting. If the Minister goes ahead with the proposal, London will have to be looked at again as a special case. I suggest that it would be better to do that now before many of our constituents are badly served.
Lambeth law centre does sterling work and has made a difference to people from vulnerable communities, particularly in immigration and asylum work. It has provided opportunities for them to be equal with other citizens. The proportion of its money that comes from local authorities has gradually declined as they have been forced by the reductions in what they have been able to spend to choose and to redirect their money. If the proposals go through, law centres will be badly affected. If the law centre in my area is to stay in the game and become a preferred supplier with a computer software programme with an interface with the Legal Services Commission, it will have to spend a substantial amount of money. The current system costs only a few hundred pounds a year, but from October this year it will no longer be compatible with the LSC requirements and the law centre will have to find the full set-up cost of approximately £30,000. That cost will have a great detrimental effect on many law centres and on not-for-profit smaller solicitors in my area.
I do not understand the concept of a fixed fee when there are such differences in cases. Cases that are superficially similar may, in fact, be very different because the people involved are so different. I have been told of many specific examples by solicitors in my area and the law centre. For example, there may be two housing possession claims against tenants of social landlords. One may have fallen into rent arrears because of non-payment of housing benefit and the other may be in a similar position but because of mental health problems may not have left his home for many years. The first case would obviously be quicker to deal with, but would a solicitor take on the more difficult case if he were paid the same for each case? What is the incentive for him or her to take on a second visit to a person who cannot leave their home because of a disability? What incentive is there to do the extra work that may ultimately make a difference to the outcome? There is no question that many of the people that I and other London MPs see at our constituency surgeries have language difficulties and require an interpreter, and naturally need more time with a solicitor. I have not heard anything to allay my fear that under the fixed fee proposal the only solicitors who will take on such cases will be those who act directly against their commercial interest. Non-profit-making solicitors will find it extremely difficult.
Does my hon. Friend agree that an additional problem faced by those who give advice in law centres and citizens advice bureaux is that clients often turn up with three or four carrier bags full of paperwork dating back perhaps 16 years? That all adds to the time that must be spent with the client.
As ever, my hon. Friend is making a strong case, but she seems to overlook entirely the fact that solicitors who do welfare law—there are some in her constituency—are already doing so for fixed fees and have been doing so since 2003. At least one third of those suppliers in Vauxhall will be paid better under the new fixed fees than under the old ones.
I can only say that there is a problem with the Minister’s or her officials’ communication skills because there is a huge gap between what the Minister is saying and what the people I know and respect and have worked with are saying. If this debate does anything today, it is raising the fact that the Minister and her Department are not getting the message across so that those who will be affected believe it. The law centre, for example, will have to deal with three times as many cases as it does now to maintain its present income if the fixed fee scheme goes ahead. That means that it will not be able to provide a quality service without going out of business or employing fewer people.
I declare an interest as a practising solicitor in publicly funded work.
The hon. Lady’s response to the Minister’s figures concerning those who will apparently receive a greater fee might be that a significant proportion of practitioners conduct their work efficiently at a fee below what it is proposed and provide a wonderful service for vulnerable clients.
We are not saying that many things cannot be looked at differently and done differently to help to make the processes more efficient, in the Minister’s view. I am not interested in efficiency in that sense; I am interested in the quality of the outcome for my vulnerable constituent who is being helped in a difficult legal case.
There is no question but that the cost of running a legal firm of whatever type in London is higher than in other parts of the country. The Minister may have made some changes to the following idea, but a trainee solicitor living in my constituency told me that fixed fees for attendance at a police station is nonsensical. More experienced lawyers will be far less likely to attend the police station. The more complex the case, the longer needed to interview the client, but the lawyer is more likely to be inexperienced. It all adds up.
Patrick Marbles, director of the Lambeth law centre, said:
“I have to say that it is entirely possible for a firm of solicitors to make substantial profit under the proposed new contract. However, to do that they will have to provide a poor service, exclude the socially excluded and their outcomes will be atrocious. This is very bad value for money.
In the balance between cost and outcomes, this new service errs wildly on the side of cost constraint. Thus it will provide cheap services but poor value for money. Many private practices and advice centres will be driven out of business by these proposals.”
It does not really matter how the Minister responds to that, because throughout the Chamber people have been saying that the proposals will have an effect on the ground.
When will there be a ring-fenced budget for civil legal aid? That is crucial. Customer groups, practitioner groups, citizens advice bureaux, law centres and firms throughout the country oppose the proposals, because they see the reality. I ask the Minister to spend half a day or a day in the law centre in my constituency or someone else’s; then let her return to the House and make the same speech as she has made today. I hope that she will listen and that we will see the changes that are necessary if we are to provide a service to our constituents.
I seek the co-operation of the House. I should like to call the Minister to respond briefly towards the end of the debate at 5.20 pm. Seven hon. Members wish to speak and I hope to call them, so if they put seven into about 55 minutes, they will know how long each should speak.
I feel rather sorry for the Minister. She must feel that the time she spent in the summer talking to lots of people could have been better spent on Scarborough beach. It is clear from this afternoon’s debate and from the excellent meeting of the all-party group on Citizens Advice—at which she spoke on Monday, which was very good of her—that there are some fundamental misunderstandings. For example, on Monday, Citizens Advice said that it was concerned that fees would be paid only in arrears, and the Minister explained that that proposal had been scrapped and that a substantial part would be paid in advance. This afternoon, numerous hon. Members have said that they are concerned that the level of fees would drive not-for-profit organisations and solicitors’ firms into bankruptcy, and the Minister said that that was an impossible position, because the fees had not been fixed so how on earth could anyone predict them?
The Minister said today and to the group on Monday that cost is not an issue. Like every Minister in every spending Department, she said that she would like some more money, but she said that cost is not an issue. If it is not an immediate issue, might I suggest that she delay the implementation of the proposals by six months, or at least until the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs has had the opportunity to report? Otherwise, the proposals will be implemented against a background of opposition, some of which may simply be misplaced and misunderstood. It may be in her interests and in those of good order to delay implementation for some time, so that the proposals can be introduced in a better way.
I should welcome the Minister’s thoughts on another point that came up on Monday. I do not entirely understand how one ties in not-for-profit organisations, such as citizens advice bureaux, and high street solicitors, so that they provide our constituents with advice that is complementary and supportive rather than competitive. I hope that I speak for middle England, as I represent two large market towns and several villages. Under the proposals, each town should have at least two firms of solicitors—a matrimonial dispute would be difficult, otherwise—that provide legal aid, and one citizens advice bureau. How will one ensure that the bureau’s work complements and reinforces the work of the solicitors? How will they work together so that, for example, the organisation that is best at litigation—the high street solicitor, rather than the citizens advice bureau—undertakes the work?
The Minister said that she will not discuss the community legal services strategy, but it is difficult to explain the totality of the proposals to the House, to the profession and to the country without discussing it. On Monday, I had the impression—I am sure that others did, too—that the Minister was talking about community law centres funded by the state. The Minister nods, so I heard her correctly. I hope that the situation does not arise whereby—for example, in Oxfordshire—there is only one centre: in Oxford. For my constituents, Oxford is light years away; for a pensioner or a single mum living on a housing estate in Banbury, getting to Oxford is like getting to the moon. Will the centres be outreach centres? If so, in a patch such as mine, cannot they work collaboratively and in the same location as the citizens advice bureaux in Banbury and Bicester? They will be doing pretty much the same thing.
We have not heard much about the role of local government. Until now, it has funded citizens advice bureaux pro bono, because it thinks that they are a good thing. Will local authorities be asked to stump up more money for the community legal services strategy? They must understand whether it will happen and where it fits in.
The Minister said on Monday, and again repeated today, that sometimes the quality of work in citizens advice bureaux or the not-for-profit sector is not as good as it might be, not least because—I think she said—people go in with one problem and it is not always established that they have a multitude. Whether or not one is a lawyer like myself or like the Minister, when people come to us with a problem, we must assume that they will divulge it.
If the Government are concerned about the quality of advice, what more can they do to help with training? After all, everyone who works in a not-for-profit centre is a volunteer, and often they do not have a legal background. In these days of online, television and DVD training, the Department should give more thought to what it can do to train and enhance the training of such workers, and it should do so in a way that enhances, reinforces and complements the work of high street solicitors.
I have been on my patch for 23 years, and I notice distinctly more immigration cases and asylum seekers—even in Banbury. I suspect that they are new to citizens advice bureaux and to high street solicitors. Given the experience in Paddington and elsewhere, it would be better if there were departmental training for citizens advice bureaux in Banbury and Bicester.
I fear for what will happen if the proposals are rushed through and they go wrong. I put that point to the Minister on Monday. In criminal law, any problem will be picked up quickly, because magistrates, their clerks, stipendiary magistrates or Crown court judges will tell the Department that the proposals are not working. My concern is much more with civil law, where if services just atrophy, it will take time before anyone picks up the problem. If services disappear for whatever reason and the Minister’s best endeavours do not work, how will we know? How will we know that a single mum on an estate in Banbury is not gaining access to the legal advice that she needs? The service will just wither away.
On Monday, the Minister said that she would set up a stakeholders’ group, which is very good news and in accord entirely with her general approach of embracing and including people in the process. By definition, however, many stakeholders will be organisations based in London or other big conurbations and will have their own policy objectives. So may I make a very humble suggestion to her? Depending on how one looks at it, the country is organised into either Government offices, such as the Government office for the south-east, or circuits. It might be sensible for her to ask either a recently retired circuit judge or a silk to monitor civil legal aid in each of those areas, so that solicitors, practitioners and others with problems and those who think that things are going wrong will have a focus and someone whom they can telephone and tell, “You might just like to know that this is going wrong”.
Today’s debate and Monday’s meeting of the all-party group on Citizens Advice, which was ably chaired by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), demonstrated something of a dialogue to death. People are concerned that the Department is not listening to their concerns. When this system is introduced, we must be confident that, three, six or nine months down the line, we will not have coming to our constituency surgeries people failed by the system. I and, I hope, other Members would have much greater confidence if we felt that an objective and independent person—not a stakeholder—was monitoring the situation, reporting back to the Minister and saying, “Look, in the north-east, this seems to be working”, or “In the south-east, this is working, but some bits in the more rural areas are not”. That way we could all be confident that there was transparency in and oversight of the situation.
Before I kick off, I declare an interest: before entering Parliament, I was a solicitor and the firm that I co-founded did a lot of publicly funded work.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) alluded to the all-party group on Citizens Advice, of which I am a chair. The Minister was the first chair of that group, and it would be churlish not to pay tribute to her for the work that she has undertaken in turning up to our meeting this week and having an honest and candid discussion with parliamentarians and for the tour of the country that she has undertaken since becoming a Minister, during which she has spoken to those with an interest and expertise in this subject. She has also made changes to the proposals first set out in the Carter review in November.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) is right: there is a synergy between this discussion and that in the Chamber, which is where I was before coming here. To answer a question put by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), there are similar numbers of Members in both debates. When this debate kicked off, three Conservative Back Benchers were present, and there are four in the Chamber for the debate on social exclusion.
I have received, as I am sure other Members have, massive representations about the future of legal aid from the advice sector, consumer representatives, practitioner groups and, of course, constituents. I accept that the legal aid system is in need of reform, particularly in high-cost criminal cases. However, there is a danger that, rather than paying attention to that aspect of legal aid, the proposed changes could lead to experts in law firms and law firms themselves, law centres and the not-for-profit sector ceasing the sort of work to which Members have referred. Such work is necessary, if for no other reason, so that we can provide a place to go for those who turn up with their carrier bags.
A point also needs to be made about access to justice. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister spent her career before entering Parliament committed to and—dare I say it?—obsessed with access to justice. There is a danger that the proposals could have unintended consequences and lead to a reduction in such access. I accept that the intention is not to save costs overall; she said that reform would be needed, even if no savings would be made as a consequence.
I shall deal with private practice and the not-for-profit sector. On private practice, my hon. and learned Friend knows that the Law Society welcomed the Carter review and said that there has long been a need for an overhaul because the current system falls far short of providing access to justice and tackling social exclusion. So she has allies in the Law Society, as well as in many other groups. I am afraid that, with a finite budget, if expenditure on criminal legal aid increases, the amount of money left for civil and family legal aid will come under increasing pressure.
High-cost criminal cases should have been the target of most of the changes, particularly in relation to the Bar—the Minister might lose a lot of friends if she agrees with that. We know from the press and questions answered in Parliament the cost of some criminal QCs to legal aid expenditure. Some cases, such as those for fraud, have a disproportionate impact on the legal aid budget—the cost is humungous. I suspect that, if we reduced the money taken up by that small number of cases, a huge sum would be released to a large number of clients, the not-for-profit sector and private practices, which would help more vulnerable people. Huge savings could also be made in experts’ fees, including disbursements, which is a problem and leads to conflicts when practitioners choose experts.
My hon. and learned Friend has alluded to and tried to deal with my concerns about ethnic minority practitioners and clients. I urge her strongly to keep an eye on that because I am concerned about it. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) referred to another concern: where tomorrow’s legal aid lawyers will come from. That is a real concern for a number of law centres and private practices. My hon. and learned Friend needs to think about that because the motivations that she and I had when beginning such work will not survive if law centres cease to practice in certain areas, and private practices cease publicly funded work, even though there are noble people today willing to do such work. As has been referred to by Members, it is important to disentangle practitioners and lawyers who undertake publicly funded work from the sort of lawyers who, rightly, get flack in the media for the huge, gravy train fees that they charge.
On the not-for-profit sector, I know that my hon. and learned Friend has taken on board all the concerns that have been expressed by citizens advice bureaux and law centres up and down the country. Today, she received a letter from the chief executive of the CAB, which welcomed some of the reassurances that she gave on Monday at the meeting of the all-party group. The five areas of concern, which remain, relate to fixed fees, payment structures, fee arrangements for multiple-issue cases, outreach services and London weighting, which has been alluded to by colleagues. I shall not repeat those comments because that letter is in front of her.
In conclusion, the intentions of the Government and my hon. and learned Friend are laudable. However, some of the unintended consequences of the changes outlined will be devastating to some constituents, particularly those in deprived areas such as the constituencies represented by myself and by colleagues present. There is a real danger that, by not providing legal aid and advice at an earlier stage, more costs will be incurred in the long run, whether in debt, immigration or social welfare cases.
The stakeholder monitoring body, to which the hon. Member for Banbury referred, will need to ensure that it is beefed up, that it reports sooner rather than later and that it takes into account any consequences that were not predicted, so that we do not face a situation in which lawyers and practitioners leave that area of law and so that, in six years’ time, we do not have to pump more money in to try to recruit more people, because others have left owing to the changes that we have announced.
I shall pay due heed to that, Sir Nicholas. I declare an interest, in that I am a practising criminal solicitor. I should also like to add to the list of visits for the Minister. If she would care to join me on a duty period at Enfield magistrates court or at a police station any time and see the reality, she would be very welcome.
The Minister said that we need to look at the reality now. I encourage her to do that and to bear with me. She said, boldly, that the proposals are not a cost-cutting exercise and do not affect the vulnerable, but she has heard from Labour Members and other hon. Members how plainly that is not the case for a range of issues. The practitioners and the experts on the ground have also said that she is misdirected and not in touch with reality, which I say with due respect to her experience in publicly funded work.
I should like briefly to consider the reality now, because we are not simply dealing with challenges to publicly funded work over recent months, during the Carter review or following other proposals. We must consider the context of the past few years. This debate is quite properly about the future of legal aid. Small and high street practitioners, particularly those in areas of great need and who deal with vulnerable defendants, have already had to ask what the future of legal aid is. Many had come up with an answer even before the implementation of Carter—that there is no future and that, as I said in an earlier intervention, the writing is on the wall.
Despite the Minister’s quoting various figures about the lower fees that will be increased under the proposals, a number of practitioners in Enfield and Hertfordshire have had to give up publicly funded work in recent years, particularly in family law and immigration. There is also no publicly funded education solicitor in Enfield to deal with such work. That is a direct result of the lack of proper pay increases and the Government’s intentions.
In the past two months, two firms of solicitors have given up publicly funded work in crime. Those firms are well known for providing a good service, which goes beyond the fee structure. They care for clients and are part of the system of criminal justice that provides the integrity that is much admired not only in this country but further afield. Those two firms have seen, to use the Minister’s words, the direction of travel, which is certainly not in the interests of the vulnerable or of a proper service.
To stay with crime, if the Minister is so sensitive to publicly funded work and to the consultation results and seeking to modify Carter, why is she not then sensitive to the fact that lower court costs have been under control for some years? Her Department has confirmed that there is that control, which is quite remarkable given the escalating costs of legal aid. There has been a control over lower court costs in crime for some time, which is not surprising in many ways, because quality control has been there for some time. It has been carried out by many solicitors without the need for the Legal Services Commission’s eye. No doubt the contracting regime of franchising has brought rigours with it. As I know from being part of that process, as we have ticked the boxes and sought to convince the Legal Services Commission of the quality of our service, there has been a control, which has had an impact. Indeed, it can be seen from the Department’s figures that there is the necessary control in place.
Why then does the Minister say that we still need to prove efficiency? Does efficiency still need to be proved in lower court costs and in magistrates courts’ work? How many more hoops do criminal solicitors need to jump through? We are now into the area peer review, and there are certainly further hoops to come under Carter.
The cynical might say that the early suggestion that there should be a 100-firm reduction in London—effectively, a brutal cull—is, in fact, what is happening. They might say that, under the premise of weeding out those who do not provide the quality service that we all want, the reduction is not so much a weeding out as a driving out of many firms. That is indeed what is happening. A number of firms are giving up on publicly funded work, particularly lower courts work, although we must also consider what is to follow. When the Minister talks about seeking proof of efficiency, many on the ground would say that proof of lower costs is what she really wants. That is the reality that I ask here to reflect upon.
The Minister has already reflected on one of the major impacts that has been felt over the years. In the debate in Westminster Hall on 26 October 2005, she referred to the profound effects of legislation and to the impact that has been referred to by my hon. Friends and by other hon. Members. On that occasion, she referred to the target of 1.25 million offenders being brought to justice by 2008, which represents an increase of 150,000 on 2003 levels. She made no reference to the impact on defence legal aid as a result of that. She said:
“The point is a pretty simple one: no one seems to cost the implications for defence legal aid of new legislative change. That is silly.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 26 October 2006; Vol. 438, c. 73WH.]
I suggest that I am not out of date about the impact of the legislative change on firms and how they operate their business. That is the point that I am making. The change has had a profound effect on the ability to provide a service to defendants properly, as one straddles the different legislation on sentencing at a youth court, for instance. One only has to go down to a youth court to see the burden placed on the work of providing a proper service to defendants and to the criminal justice system at a rate that has not been increased for many years. That point relates to what the Minister said in October 2005, which still has relevance, as we still see a never-ending supply of additional legislation and variations.
Another example, which the Minister did not go into in our previous Adjournment debate on the matter, is the means test. The means test has had another profound effect and placed a burden on the criminal justice system, not only on defence solicitors, but on courts and Crown prosecutors trying to meet their targets, with a number of delays occurring. Only last week the prosecutor at Enfield magistrates court told me, “We just can’t meet the targets, because of the number of inevitable delays from the processing of these forms”. I have with me examples of such forms—pages of them. I understand that even Carter expressed great dismay in his business model about the bureaucratic process of dealing with the forms, including the finance statement, which has to be completed by clients who are often vulnerable and have difficulties in doing so. They are left by themselves to deal with such forms and often lack adequate representation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I shall not have time to deal with all those points later, but Carter had nothing to do with the means test and made no comment on it at all. I understand from a briefing that I received earlier this week that the forms are not a particular cause of complaint. However, again, the hon. Gentleman is out of date, because we have revised them. The form is about six pages long now and will come into force in January. It is quite inappropriate for him not to get his facts right.
I am not sure that the Minister was at a court last week, as I was at Enfield magistrates court, when that point was made to me by the Crown prosecutor, by the clerk, who bemoaned the fact that she does not have the ability to carry out a decision properly and in a timely manner, and by defence solicitors alike. That was only last week. Despite the revisions, there is still profound concern about the inability of Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, to deal with issues of income support and properly process statements in a timely manner. They also fail to deal with those, including self-employed people, who have difficulty in properly collating their affairs and dealing with matters in a timely manner so that a proper decision can be reached.
The call went out for means-testing. Yes, we recognised that wealthy defendants in those classic tabloid cases should not receive legal aid, but also that any new system of means-testing had to work in a streamlined, effective and simple manner. The concern of practitioners and others is that the Government have not delivered on means-testing, so will they be able to deliver on the implementation of Carter? The Government have not got means-testing right and have come up with belated revisions to the system. That does not bode well. What will happen in respect of Carter?
The concern is that the Government’s response to the consultation and quoted issues about fee structure has failed to have regard for the extra mile that practitioners and others go in publicly funded work. It is not just a case of receiving the fee. As many have said, practitioners have an altruistic motivation to provide a proper service to clients. The resulting added value can be seen at any court in which a place is gained for a drug addict to get rehabilitation or a residence is found for a mentally ill person. Such things are not purely reflected in the statistics. That quality, provided up and down the country, will soon be dumbed down by the processes of implementation that the Government are following through.
The concern is that we will effectively have a sausage-machine approach that dumbs the system down to the extent that people will soon not have proper regard for complex cases, unqualified people will deal with much more serious cases and miscarriages of justice will result. When, years down the line, we come to discuss the future of legal aid, the concern is that the system will have gone down to the lowest common denominator: not efficiency, but cost. That would be to the detriment of all, not least the vulnerable of our society.
Just before Christmas, I was fortunate enough to introduce a debate on legal aid under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas. I shall try to be brief and not reprise those arguments.
Generous and persuasive though the Minister was in her response to that Adjournment debate, she left me unconvinced on some critical points, many of which have been emphasised again this afternoon. I should like to add to them. From my perspective, particularly as a constituency MP, the gravest concern still relates to the adequacy of the arrangements for London. Both in the December debate and today, my hon. and learned Friend has drawn attention to there being winners as well as losers under the proposed arrangements, in my constituency and London more generally. On the basis of the information that I have received so far, I am unconvinced by that argument, although I could be convinced if I had the information to support it.
The situation is equivalent to those in many other areas of public service about which we have heard in the past; education is a particularly good example. There are three primary schools within 100yd of each other in a deprived area of my constituency, and their results vary hugely. Ministers have asked why those three schools, which are all in the same neighbourhood, cannot produce the same results. I said it then and say it now—the answer is intake, intake, intake, and the same point applies to what we are discussing today.
One school will have three times as many children eligible for school dinners, five times as many children with non-statutory special needs and twice as many children for whom English is not a first language. Unsurprisingly, the school’s results are different. The Minister said that in my constituency just over half the providers are likely to gain under the proposed scheme, but again I say “intake”. Is it possible to convince me—I am willing to be convinced—that those gainers are truly representative of the clients about whom we have heard? Are we genuinely saying that under the existing arrangements all providers are taking an equivalent proportion of those whom we have described, I hope sympathetically, as the “carrier bag” clients? I do not believe it. Certain providers, such as solicitors, law centres and citizens advice bureaux that I know, deal with a much higher proportion of clients whose first language is not English, who have mental health or alcohol problems, who are drug addicts or ex-prisoners, or others with multiple difficulties.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) would love to have spoken in this debate, but he is speaking in the Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill. He has said that the issue is not about people with multiple cases, but about single cases involving a client with a compounded series of challenges that makes it hard for them to present their case coherently. That might be because of the bundle of papers, lost documents or the time it takes to go through details with the client.
We have all seen such cases at our constituency surgeries; I am sure that the Minister has. Sometimes, a client’s case is potentially quite simple but they are completely incapable of making it and are resistant to explanations of how they can present it most effectively. The time and effort involved is profound. I have been convinced that the doors of some providers are more open than others; as it stands, the system will operate against their best interests. I say this kindly: if I have a choice between believing what my law centres, citizens advice bureaux, specialist advice agencies and quality solicitors say about the impact of the changes—they have said it this week on the basis of the “Legal Aid Reform: The Way Ahead” document, not only Carter—and believing in a national Government mechanism based on averages, I know which I will choose.
The Minister says that half my providers will win under the new contract, but I am at a loss to know where they are. I am not hearing from any of them. People are not saying to me, “For heaven’s sake, be quiet because we are going to gain under the new arrangement”, as happened during discussions of the GPs’ and consultants’ contracts, but I would have expected someone somewhere to have done so.
That is also true. For me, the key point is about whether the relevant research exists and, if so, where it is. If it does not exist, can it be commissioned to demonstrate to me and other Members of Parliament from London and beyond that those potential losers are not the providers dealing with the most challenged individuals? I believe that they will be. That is my first point.
Secondly, I briefly emphasise that the most vigorous representations from my local area come from the specialist providers, who fear that they will be squeezed out by cost and by the approach of the community legal advice networks and the community legal advice centres. Specialist housing organisations such as the independent community housing advice services, invaluable to me as a constituency MP, and organisations that work with private tenants, are extremely concerned about the prospects for their holistic approach to case management that has been built up over decades of expert work on complex housing cases. They have put forward cases and examples that have convinced me that there are serious problems; I am sure that equivalent arguments will be put forward in other areas of the law. I would love to have the time to go into the issue, but I shall not.
I make one more point. In her letter to me, the Minister responded to a point that I made in the December debate about the extent to which local authorities will pick up the community legal advice network approach and support it. Her response causes me some concern. The letter states:
“The LSC is using the Community Legal Advice Centres and Networks (CLAC/N) project to develop ways of persuading local authorities of the value of jointly commissioning legal and advice services. The LSC has already succeeded in influencing some local authorities”.
First, it would be helpful to know—if not now, subsequently—exactly what kind of numbers we are talking about. I wish the Minister luck, because local authorities, including my own, Westminster city council, are operating in a challenging financial environment. They have been generously funded by the Government, but with increasing pressures from so many sources, there is more chance of wringing blood from stone than of getting a comprehensive commitment from local authorities to pick up what they will see as a consequence of central Government’s not responding to the level of need. I do not see it happening at any time soon. The language in the letter, extremely well intentioned though it is, reflects the unlikelihood of being able to achieve much.
I know that there have been concessions, and that the Minister is absolutely committed to delivering to the most vulnerable clients—I do not doubt her motivation for a second. However, I remain unconvinced that the mechanism in the proposals will achieve what she wants. I would prefer more research, more information and, if necessary, a deferral of the proposals before we go ahead and make a serious mistake.
I declare an interest, having practised 20 years as a solicitor in family and criminal law, and 10 years at the Bar. Both practices were publicly funded.
In her opening speech, the Minister proved why she was a prominent silk before she came to this place. She gave a brave and expert presentation of a poor case. Something is very wrong when Members coalesce across the political spectrum. We are all worried about one thing: vulnerable people.
In a written answer to me on 17 October, the Minister said that two thirds of legal aid practices had disappeared since 1997. That is a worrying statistic. Unfortunately, the proposals will only make things worse.
The Access to Justice Alliance made several important points in a helpful briefing. It referred to people taking only the shorter cases and common-sense stuff because of the fixed fees—the more complicated cases will be left alone. We have heard about language problems and so on, and there is also the Welsh language dimension in north Wales. According to the Law Society and the alliance, there is also a likelihood that the proposals will impact badly on ethnic minority groups, which is the last thing that any of us want.
The proposals will not help in exceptional cases—in other words, those to which the uplift applies. Firms will be worried about whether they will in fact reach the exceptional cases threshold and therefore be properly and adequately paid. Action against Medical Accidents referred to advice deserts—it can envisage that happening—standard fees being totally unacceptable, downsizing and people leaving criminal negligence work.
The Minister received a letter from the president of the Gwynedd Law Society on 12 December. For the record, I was once the president of the Gwynedd Law Society; it is clear that standards have risen since then. The letter states that although there is no difficulty with a critical mass of clients,
“the critical mass of service providers could be a problem.”
The astonishing fact is that there are only nine publicly funded criminal practitioners for four constituencies in north Wales, and it is believed that that number will be reduced even further. There is no point in talking about mergers, because the firms that wanted to merge have already done so for economic reasons.
Specialist family law solicitors have come to me desperately worried about what will happen. They will leave that area of practice and, unfortunately, young children in danger of being taken into care may not be properly represented. I am sure that that is the last thing that any of us, including the Minister, wants. In a largely rural area such as north Wales, only a small number do such work now. Unless the proposals are changed substantially, the impact in that area will be ruinous. I have used the word “vulnerable”. There is nothing more vulnerable than a child who may be taken into care. I am worried and, more importantly, senior members of the judiciary told me over the Christmas period that they are desperately worried, and they are not normally bolshie people who oppose for opposition’s sake.
I doubt whether the proposals make a great deal of sense for an urban setting, but they will be ruinous in a rural setting. I know that the Minister has considered rurality, and I thank her for that, but further consideration must be given to that point. Unfortunately, outreach in rural areas is unlikely to be any kind of answer. Who are the providers who will travel from Chester, Liverpool and further afield to deal with housing and difficult work in north Wales? I venture to suggest that that will not happen. Even if it were to happen, where are the economies if they are paid travelling expenses?
I ask the Minister whether the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Shelter, Citizens Advice, Access to Justice Alliance and Mind are wrong. The Minister says, “Yes.” Fine, she is absolutely right and they are all wrong. Those groups do not normally queue up to hit the Government, but they are vehemently against the proposals, and with good cause.
As I said, I doubt very much whether the proposals are at all reasonable in an urban setting, but their effect will be appalling in a rural setting. I remind the Minister again that added to the groups of people who oppose the changes are the senior judiciary in the family courts in north Wales with whom I have spoken. They are desperately worried.
I do not know how many times I have to say it, but there is nothing to worry about at present, because the profession and the LSC are negotiating the family law figures. So the only way the judiciary can possibly be concerned, if the hon. Gentleman insists upon it, is on the basis of old proposals that are no longer applicable. People should try to calm down a bit.
I do not sound very calm because I am in a rush to get these words out. Also, the issue is very important.
The Minister’s written answer stated that two thirds of practitioners had already left legal aid work because they were underpaid and overburdened with regulation. [Interruption.] I respectfully suggest to the Minister that that is the reason. I am nearer the bottom feeders than she is, and I know that to be true. Two thirds have left already. Practitioners are worried that the proposals will continue the downward slide. That is the point. I know that the Minister is sincere, but please, can we have a reasonable dialogue? Can we change the proposals for the good of our constituents and the most vulnerable people in society? She and I are concerned about them, as is everyone in this Chamber.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas. Six minutes will be quite sufficient.
First, I would like to raise a point with you, Sir Nicholas. This important debate has been well attended. Many members of the public tried to come to it, particularly those in the legal profession. I ask whether you could do something to ensure that there is greater seating capacity in this Chamber in the future, especially for debates like this one, so that more members of the public who have travelled a long way to attend the debate could come in and see it. It must be frustrating to travel from the north of England and spend the afternoon in the Jubilee Room trying to watch the debate on television.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas.
Like others who have spoken, I represent an inner-city constituency. I welcome the fact that we are debating legal aid, I welcome the Minister’s commitment to legal aid, and I welcome the principle of legal aid. We should be proud of it. It could be considered a continuation of the principles of the welfare state—a means of ensuring that everyone has equal access to justice. It is important that we emphasise that and stick with it.
As someone who has represented an inner-city constituency for a long time, I am depressed about the increasing difficulty that many of my constituents have in getting any kind of advice about anything. Sadly, there were more advice facilities in my constituency 25 years ago than there are now. The number of law firms that do legal aid work is decreasing, so the pressure on the remaining ones is increasing, as is the pressure on them not to take the complicated and difficult cases.
A large number of legitimate asylum cases fail simply because the applicant has great difficulty finding anyone to represent them first time round, or because, if they find someone to represent them, it is an immigration adviser who does an incompetent job. The case is effectively lost from the beginning, as I am sure colleagues will be aware, because of the incompetent representation. Those cases end up in our constituency advice bureaux. I did an advice bureau this morning and exactly such a heartbreaking tale came up. We see the strong case of someone who well merits asylum in this country but that case is likely, tragically, to be lost. I look to the Minister to recognise that.
I have been contacted by a number of local legal aid firms and I shall cite a letter that I have received from Burke Niazi, a local firm with 98 per cent. of its work in legal aid. It calculates that in mental health cases the firm will suffer an overall loss of 48 per cent., in child care cases a loss of 50 per cent., in housing cases a loss of 58 per cent. and in welfare benefit cases a loss of 59 per cent. I know that the Minister will say that the firm and I are scaremongering. I am not; I am repeating what a reputable local firm has told me that it estimates will happen. What is wrong with that?
What is wrong is that those calculations are not based on reality. There are no fees fixed for any family work, nor for any mental health work. Any concerns that have been expressed in that way are out of date and are based on the Carter fees. I can understand why. Because the Carter fees were fixed where they were, people are apprehensive, but such a calculation is utterly impossible because they do not know what will come out next.
I am grateful for the Minister’s intervention, and I hope that she will not mind if I pass the correspondence from the firm on to her. It has made a logical, intelligent, sensible case based on a profound knowledge of a needy local community and it does not lightly raise concerns at that level any more than others raise the question of difficult cases simply being forgotten because of the changes and of people with real difficulties ending up leaving the system altogether.
I hope that in this short debate the Minister will seriously consider the proposals’ implications for small firms of solicitors who deal with vulnerable groups, particularly linguistic minorities who deal with one solicitor, where clearly the idea of a federation simply will not work. I hope that she will look to their needs and to the needs of the community that suffers, and to the problems that the law centres and the not-for-profit sector are facing. I am a great supporter of law centres; they are a wholly good idea and have opened up a huge area of legal opportunities for people who are otherwise denied them. They are not happy about the proposals. They are having difficulty with funding in many cases and they will have greater difficulty because of the changes.
I hope that the Minister recognises our position and that she shares it—that is, that we support legal aid and universal access to justice, but we want to ensure that the proposals do not take us backwards and deny the most vulnerable people justice. Those who come in with carrier bags full of all their letters and correspondence, who often have a real grievance, who are confused and not good at expressing that grievance and who require a lot of time and patience to do so, deserve to be represented just as much as the more articulate groups. I fear that in future they will simply be turned away because the firms will not have the time, the money, or—because the firms do not have the time or the money for training—the expertise or the newly trained solicitors needed to deal with such cases. Can the Minister not look at some of that afresh and listen to the serious and helpful points that have been made to us?
I declare my interest in staying out of the hands of lawyers, and nothing that I have heard this afternoon does anything to dissuade me from that.
I welcome the flexibility that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister has given about fixed fees in some of the key areas of civil law work. She will acknowledge in the light of the debate that that is something about which Parliament will have to be kept informed. The worries expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), among others, are something that we all share. Parliament will have to be kept informed, because of the impact on the political process as we experience it as Members.
I welcome, too, the fact that the Minister has said that there is to be some reconsideration of police station boundaries in the area of criminal work. Lord Carter, in his wisdom, put North and South Shields together. One cannot get from North Shields to South Shields without using a ferry, which is not terribly convenient for the courts involved. Again, Parliament will have to be kept informed about those matters because they are no longer points of obscure detail but are fundamental to the workings of our legal system.
I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) a great regret that the area where the abuses are found—in the high-cost cases—is the last end of the legal food chain that the Government have chosen to clean out. The first are not the last in the way that our Lord intended. Those high cost cases should have been the first area for investigation, not the last.
I urge my hon. and learned Friend the Minister to consider the harshness of the means tests that are now being applied in legal aid. They will have perverse effects. There will be more litigants in person, which will have an impact on the courts system. More people might well plead guilty to minor offences without considering the lifelong impact that such a plea might have on them, and far more cases might reach the Crown court than would otherwise have been the case because of the differences in means-testing between the two systems. It is too early to tell whether that will happen, but it well might and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will keep an eye on it.
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s intervention in the working of means-testing in the magistrates courts, which she made just before Christmas. I think that she headed off what could have been a substantial crisis in the working of our court system. None the less, that does not give confidence in some of the other assurances that she has given us. We all appreciate that she tried to head off some of the complexities of means-testing and she was right to refer to it in the debate, but those problems should not have arisen. Can she assure us that the merits test and the means test, both of which have to be satisfied, will be able to be dealt with instantly by someone at the court so that people will know that they will be represented and so that the people who represent them will know that they will be paid? That is fundamental. Just before Christmas, we were sliding into a position where that was not the case. We cannot run a court system in such circumstances.
Will the Minister assure us, too, that some of the complications about both parties signing up to the means-test form in a reasonable period will be dealt with? Will some of the problems of the self-employed in finding where they stand in the means-testing system be dealt with? It is no earthly good our saying that we are in favour of flexible labour markets and then doing over the people involved when they happen to appear in the courts. Will she also assure us that the problem that she had in mind just before Christmas—that there would be a cascade of requests for adjournments, which would have a bad effect on the court system—will be resolved? If a fixed fee for criminal work is to be introduced, will my hon. and learned Friend assure us that the potentially perverse effect of delays by the CPS or the police will not have an impact on whether cases are taken, or how they are conducted? Finally, will she will bear in mind the potential impact on police behaviour in police stations and in court if officers know that the defending representative is working to a fixed fee? That could have a real impact on how the police decide to handle cases. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will be able to reassure us on those matters.
With permission, Sir Nicholas. I am most grateful to hon. Members for all their contributions to our debate. I shall try to deal with them in turn and quickly, though I am not sure that I shall get through them all.
I shall deal first with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Jim Cousins). If a lawyer takes on a case before the means test has been determined, he is entitled to be paid to represent that person. That is called early cover; it entitles the lawyer to be paid for representing someone prior to the decision. If the decision on means is an adverse one, the lawyer will get that money; if the decision is positive, the lawyer will get the full fee. Lawyers have a guaranteed payment for early cover.
I shall not go into detail about the minutiae of the means test. Under the Tories, people had to produce 13 pay slips in court. We now have a hot link to the Department for Work and Pensions, which is in use a good deal of the time. When solicitors co-operate it works quite well, and it has dealt with more than 120,000 applications. I have a meeting every week at which I receive feedback, and take-up is improving all the time. In the major conurbations, where there is proper competition among solicitors, and in not a few backwoods places, it is working well.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) says that the fees for lawyers have not gone up—however, their income has. I cited an example in my opening speech; rather than repeat it, I refer the hon. Gentleman to Hansard. We have new legislation and an increasing number of offences. I support many of them—including those under the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003—and they are all absolutely desirable. Plenty of research shows that such legislation is not the main cost driver. I refer the hon. Gentleman to Cape and Moorhead; I also mentioned them during a previous Adjournment debate at which he and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) were present.
I am sorry to hear that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) is indisposed. I do not know much about the situation on the island. I happily invite the hon. Gentleman to write to me about the particular problems there. Niche suppliers, small suppliers and black and minority ethnic suppliers should have absolutely no difficulty. If a major supplier wants to bid for large number of cases, there is no reason why they should not; they have specialists of all kinds at their disposal.
The public defender service has been cited. Its current accounts show that it is pretty competitive. It has a future. It is as independent as private solicitors, if not more so, in respect of the advice that it gives in police stations.
There has been talk of the declining number of practitioners in civil cases. There has been some decline in the number; but as I said earlier, the amount of advice given has risen by about 20 per cent., which shows that, although there are fewer practitioners doing the work, those involved are giving much better value for money. We should remember that they are doing it on fixed fees. There is nothing wrong, therefore, with fixed fees. I attended the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association annual general meeting, and the association will have some input when we reconsider the fees.
I do not rise to the bait of being called unrealistic. I know that I am personally well grounded; I also know how much time I spend going around to talk to not-for-profit practitioners in meetings and privately; and, of course, I am close to all of those in my constituency. Realism is not a characteristic that I lack.
I accept that a number of virtuous organisations have concerns; they have, of course, been driven by the Law Society, which has told them that solicitors are likely to withdraw from the kind of work in which they need their help. They will have taken that on trust. I see no more than that in what they say. I hope that they will read the report of our debate and that they understand that they need not worry like that. I say again what I have said in many different ways throughout the debate: that campaign started before the document that we are debating came out, and it was based on fees that are no longer applicable.
Mental health law will be reconsidered, but I must tell the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk and other hon. Members who referred to mental health that about a half of mental health work is now done by mental health lawyers who chose to do it on a fixed fee basis. They clearly find it profitable and are able to deal with the most vulnerable and difficult people. They are obviously able to run satisfactory businesses. They were not compelled to do it; they volunteered to do exactly that.
Forgive me for not being able to pin this point down precisely, but there was talk of the number of asylum lawyers falling. The number of asylum seekers has fallen far faster than the supply of lawyers, and there is still a good core of asylum practitioners. We are confident that they are improving. I was sorry to hear about the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). The general sense is that those who were incompetent have now left the business, and that it is time to start devolving more discretion on payments to those who are left. There is a separate system for that, but it is not directly part of our debate. I hope that I have alleviated some of my hon. Friend’s concerns.
I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind if I do not give way, but I do not have much time.
Just to take a joke against myself, I note that the Carter report states that RAF Bulmer is in South Shields. Coming from that geographical location, that would mean something to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central, but these things do happen. My hon. Friend was concerned that there was no attack on high costs cases. They are being considered—indeed, they were considered first—and the inquiry is ongoing. Two Committees are considering the matter to speed up procedure and to look at the way in which such cases are billed. Make no mistake about it, we will not only streamline the courts but investigate every place where, in the context of the changes, there appears to be an incompatible excess of payment. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) mentioned experts’ fees, and we are looking at those as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) asked for evidence. I shall give her what evidence I have, but from what I have seen, I can say that there are often two not-for-profit organisations in an area that the Legal Services Commission regional offices—they have a close relationship with those organisations—see as being fairly identical in terms of social deprivation and need, and that one will take significantly longer to do the same kind of work than the other.
I pay tribute to the sector, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we have been driving up productivity. I have already said that 50 per cent. of suppliers, including in her constituency, will gain from the changes immediately. If we looked at that figure a year ago, probably 19 per cent. fewer would have been gainers, because they would have been much less competent. We have been driving competence and productivity up by requiring not-for-profit people to undertake cases as though they were on a fixed fee. Instead of being paid £55,000 for 1,100 hours, they have to do a fixed number of cases. That is how productivity has risen.
It is all about productivity. As far as one can see, there is nothing, except efficiency, to distinguish two suppliers in the same area whose times for completing particular kinds of case are vastly different. We are keen to roll out good practice. The transition will be important for not-for-profit organisations and everyone else, but it must be done carefully.