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Constitutional Affairs

Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2007

The Minister of State was asked—

Claims Handlers

All authorised businesses will be required to comply with the regulatory rules by 6 April 2007. The regulatory regime will come fully into force in late April 2007, when we plan to commence the statutory prohibition on providing regulated claims management services without authorisation.

Two claims handlers are responding to my constituents’ consumer complaints by sending them threatening solicitors’ letters. What will be the process through which my constituents can object to the inclusion of those claims handlers on the official register?

When the regulator assesses applications, he will be able to take into account the views of anyone who has concerns about a particular claims handler. Comprehensive and detailed questions will be asked of all people who apply for authorisation. I recommend that my hon. Friend and his constituents make the regulator aware of the concerns that he has raised on several occasions.

The answer that the Minister has just given will be of some relief to people who have been approached by these claims handlers, who have not merely handled their claims inadequately and charged them money when they should not have done, but transferred their claims by selling them on, often to poorly qualified solicitors who have done an extraordinarily poor job of handling claims for mining injuries. I hope that this process will be able to put that matter to bed. Does the Minister share my hope?

I certainly do share my hon. Friend’s hope. There have been recent incidents of claims handlers touting for business with a variety of people, including physiotherapists, and we are ensuring that we get the message across that claims handlers should be very careful before acting in such a way. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will ensure that their constituents are aware that the Compensation Act 2006 will be coming into force in a month. I should also say that people will get their claims dealt with more quickly and successfully if they proceed with them themselves, rather than by going through a middle agent.

What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the regulator about the inclusion on the register of organisations such as the Union of Democratic Mineworkers and the Durham area National Union of Mineworkers? They are acting wholly as claims handlers and are still, in some cases, refusing to identify who has had money deducted and to repay that money. Will she speak to the regulator as a matter of urgency and ensure that he looks into those organisations in detail?

I am aware that the organisations to which my hon. Friend refers have both applied for authorisation, but although I can confirm that, I obviously cannot give any information on the progress of the applications that the regulator is assessing. However, if they were authorised, they would have to be listed in the same way as other organisations, and they would have to comply with all the regulations set down in the Act.

Advice Services (London)

18. What changes she expects there to be to legal aid support for advice services in London; and if she will make a statement. (125130)

From October 2007, the Legal Services Commission will pay advice services in London fixed fees for various types of standard social welfare work, with payment by the hour retained only for exceptional cases. That approach will help to ensure the optimal delivery of effective advice to clients in greatest need.

May I raise just one of the concerns of Barnet law service in my constituency? It works as a second-tier advice agency, primarily on cases that need specialist caseworking and representation referred to it by bodies such as citizens advice bureaux. For that reason, it does not have smaller and easier cases to balance against the more complicated ones. How will it fare under the Minister’s cuts? Surely it is a higher spending priority than judges’ lodgings, on which her Department wastes £5 million a year.

As it happens, I have the figures for Barnet law service in front of me. It is the only not-for-profit provider in my hon. Friend’s constituency that the Legal Services Commission pays. The figures show clearly that if the fixed fee scheme had come into play last year, Barnet law service would have made 8.4 per cent. more money, with its current case load. Of course, we want to encourage efficient suppliers such as Barnet law service, so we are open to suggestions that such suppliers might start doing more work.

When the Lord Chancellor was asked about the subject in the public evidence session held by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, he said that he thought that any reduction in the number of suppliers of legal advice in London, which is relatively well provided for in that respect, might be compensated for by an increase in supply in areas where there is a shortage of providers of legal advice, such as the north-east. Does the Minister share his confidence that that will happen?

I do; there is a considerable over-supply of some, but not all, kinds of legal advice in London, and it is rational that the cash now going into that over-supply should be moved to areas where there is under-supply, and where we have been criticised for allowing advice deserts to continue. Certainly, that is the drive, and the economics suggest that that is what will happen.

One of the many concerns expressed by legal and advice agencies in my constituency relates to the abolition of the level 1, or very basic, advice service. How many Londoners who had access to level 1 advice last year will in future be turned away from that simple signposting, and what does the Minister expect will happen to them?

I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact numbers now, but I will write to her, if she will find that information of assistance. Level 1 is general advice, which is gate-keeping and triaging advice. It is not legal advice, and the Legal Services Commission pays only for legal advice. Our target and our achievements in that direction, which are increasing, are to merge our funding with that from local authorities, so that the local authorities’ funding can be used for simpler, straightforward advice, while our resources are reserved for organisations such as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) talked about.

Is the Minister aware that a recent survey revealed that 95 per cent. of civil legal aid practitioners believe that the changes will make their work non-viable? That puts a huge amount of extra pressure on community law firms and advice centres in London that may well be unable to cope. Shelter, Mind and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children all predict that the legal aid system will soon reach breaking point. Whom should the public trust: world-class charities that help the vulnerable day in and day out, or Ministers?

Interestingly, I had e-mail correspondence with the chief executive of Shelter, who is confidently moving his team of legal advisers into that future framework of supply. I do not doubt that in past months there has been a great deal of anxiety and concern about the size of the change necessary to take on the challenges of that Carter-type proposal, but people have grasped the fact that it is profitable to make those transitions, which will enable them to deliver a good service. I am holding meetings practically daily with suppliers, who are coming round to the notion that they should look to the future. It is time the Tory spokesmen did the same.

Legal Aid

“Legal Aid Reform: the Way Ahead”, published on 28 November 2006, set out our plans for reforming the procurement of legal aid services by moving towards a market-based system. The first phase of the reforms will come into effect next month. More will follow in October and afterwards, subject to the outcome of current consultations on some of the detail.

Solicitors practising in the unglamorous, indifferently paid world of legal aid criminal defence generally do so because they care about giving disadvantaged people access to justice, which is surely a cornerstone of any decent society. Does the Minister think that turning legal aid procurement into a single-buyer market with fixed fees and competitive tendering risks forcing many law firms out of such work, creating legal aid deserts in parts of the country, thus denying vulnerable clients, often with mental health or social problems, any hope of effective representation?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend regards legal aid criminal work as unglamorous; I will try harder. I have spent my life in such practice, and I can assure him that it is very satisfying and rewarding, even though we cannot rise to the levels of pulchritude that he expects. The hallmark of a decent society is good legal advice and representation for the community. That is far more important than particular lawyers’ practices. The proposals will improve a legal aid system that is already the best in the world. Fixed fees for standard cases will ensure that the best, most efficient quality-controlled firms bid to undertake more and more cases. They will provide top-quality advice to more and more people, thus ensuring that high standards are spread more effectively and are available to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Constituents at my advice surgeries consistently tell me that there is little or no legal aid provision in Wellingborough and the surrounding area. Have the Government carried out a countrywide assessment to determine where legal aid is, and is not, available?

Yes. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives the details of what we resource in Wellingborough. I accept that about two years ago, there were significant gaps in provision, particularly of social welfare law services across the country, but since then we have paid 20 per cent. more into those services to try to fill the gap, and we have advised 30 per cent. more people. In fact, we are on an upward trajectory, but I would be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman if he has specific constituency concerns.

When I met Wrexham legal aid practitioners last Friday, criminal legal aid practitioners were concerned about the rates under the new fixed fees. In particular, there appears to be a disparity between payment in the Wrexham area and in other areas, so can my hon. and learned Friend help by explaining the basis on which those calculations are made? Is it historical or geographical? Can she give us a little more information?

Yes, I can. The fixed fees proposed for the new police station duty rota areas, which will apply to my hon. Friend’s criminal suppliers, are the average fees claimed over the preceding year in those police stations. The purpose of going down to the local level and consulting on each duty rota area is to try to thrash out any problems. For instance, if we have got things slightly wrong in cross-border areas, we need local knowledge to straighten that out.

The concern that we have on the Back Benches is that the number of specialist contracts that the Government have issued has declined considerably in the past few years. If my hon. and learned Friend looks at the answer she gave me on 6 February, she will see that in areas such as family law they have gone down from 4,200 to 2,800, so how can she possibly say that a decline in the number of specialist contracts will result in better access to services for our constituents?

By analogy, when we introduced contracting, the total number of legal aid suppliers declined from around 6,000 to around 3,000, but service quality and coverage of supply increased. Those contract numbers have gone down. Let me repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), though: over the same period, the amount of money that we have put into family and civil legal aid has gone up by 20 per cent., and we are serving 30 per cent. more people. That means that we have rightly kept in play the suppliers who do the job well and do it efficiently.

Postal Votes

We are introducing a range of new measures at the May 2007 local elections that are designed to strengthen the security of postal voting. They will build on the measures successfully introduced in May 2006, including the introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters, which will help to ensure that postal voting is both safe and secure.

The Minister knows that I am not a big fan of head of household registration. Does she agree that postal voting for all can lead to head of household voting? There is a concern, especially among certain minority communities, that people are coerced into voting for particular candidates through hierarchical pressures. Will she consider restricting access to postal votes, to make sure that all votes are cast fairly and freely?

The identifiers introduced in the postal voting system this year will show that everyone can vote as they wish. I am interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the way postal votes are handled in a household. I notice that in the 2005 general election, which he won with a majority of 422, 9,392 postal votes were returned. I wonder how many of those he considers were handled purely by the head of household.

I call Mr. Bellingham. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman was a little slow; I call Mr. Betts.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Does my hon. Friend accept that although the verifiers of signature and date of birth are probably about right as guarantees, there is a concern that many people who genuinely need a postal vote may not fill in the forms that have been provided because it is another form and they do not like bureaucracy, or they simply do not get round to it? Will she therefore commend the electoral registration officer in Sheffield, who has not merely sent out one form, but has sent a second form as a reminder to those who have not returned the first one? Will she encourage all registration officers to do that, and even to go beyond that and send out a third and fourth form, if necessary, to ensure that people who need a postal vote do not lose out?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. It is good to see that electoral registration officers are being proactive in encouraging people not just to register—the register has gone up this year by some 500,000 or thereabouts—but to take part in postal voting, particularly where people were used to being on the postal vote register in the past. We have had to start with a clean new register and I hope other electoral returning officers will follow Sheffield’s example.

Given that a staggering one in seven postal votes in last year’s local elections in Tower Hamlets may have been fraudulent, does the Minister support Sir Alistair Graham’s call for the Government to abandon next May’s internet and telephone voting trials? Are not Ministers ignoring one hard truth: once ballot papers are allowed to leave polling stations, the opportunities for fraud multiply and the secrecy of the ballot is compromised? Is it any wonder that the Council of Europe, better known for investigating elections in Belarus and Albania, is threatening to send monitors to the UK?

The hon. Gentleman is usually such a charming man. I can see that he was having difficulty trying to manufacture anger in his question. May I say two things to him? No, I do not agree with Sir Alistair Graham that we should stop doing pilots. The whole point of piloting is to ensure that we get the system right. Secondly, I am disappointed that the Council of Europe motion, concocted mostly by some of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, took no account of the action that we had already taken and the strengthening of the security of postal voting that is in place.

Community Courts (Nottingham)

21. What progress has been achieved in locating community courts in Nottingham; and if she will make a statement. (125133)

Community court sittings dealing with cases from the Aspley and St. Ann’s areas of Nottingham will commence within a community building when the right building is found.

I welcome again the Government’s community court initiative on reuniting communities and the justice system that is meant to serve them. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet senior judiciary to clarify a couple of matters: first, communities’ involvement in the possible appointment of judges in community courts; and secondly, relaxation of the very stringent accommodation criteria that are necessary for magistrates courts so that they can be located in the neighbourhoods that they are intended to serve?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing commitment to ensuring that there is effective community justice in his area of Nottingham. It is absolutely right that everybody involved in the justice system has to do things slightly differently if that connection between the community and their local court is to be re-established. That means looking again at the criteria for the kinds of buildings that could be used as courts, and it raises the question of how the local judiciary could be chosen. One of the strongest points in favour of the Liverpool community justice centre was that community representatives from local tenants associations had the opportunity to be part of choosing the judge, David Fletcher, whom they now regard as their judge for their local community.

Inquests

22. What the average (a) waiting time for and (b) duration of an inquest was in the last period for which figures are available. (125134)

The average time from the date of death to the conclusion of the inquest is estimated to be 23 weeks. That is based on the information returned by coroners for 2005. Information about the duration of inquest hearings is not recorded separately.

That is a bit of a shame, because it often takes a very long time for an inquest to be heard. Families who are grieving and want closure on the situation that they have had to face find that very difficult. In places where there are logjams, such as Oxfordshire, would not it make more sense if some cases were not dealt with by the Oxfordshire coroner just because they have come through Brize Norton, but went through the individual areas where people come from?

When I said that information is not centrally recorded, I was talking about the duration of each inquest—how long each one takes to hear. We do keep information about the average time that it takes from the death to get to the hearing.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about needing greater flexibility so that various coroners can help other coroners who have built up a backlog of inquests. That is particularly so in the context of inquests into armed forces deaths that are encountering delays in Oxfordshire. We are trying to sort out the situation as best we can within the current legal framework, which is very rigid and archaic. The coroners reform in our forthcoming Bill will make that much easier to do.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that in future there will not have to be a nearly 10-year delay for an inquest as important as that into the death of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and delays of years for people killed in the service of their country, costing a fortune, as she knows? Can we have a guarantee that there will be a limit to the time that it takes for an inquest to be opened and the answers given?

One problem is that each coroner’s jurisdiction is entirely self-contained. There are no central performance standards, there is no central monitoring, and there is no chief coroner to provide leadership such as the Lord Chief Justice provides to judges. As a result, while some areas are conducting inquests very promptly, in others there are delays that nobody in this House would regard as acceptable. We will be able to deal with that when we have our legislation on coroners. However, we are not simply waiting until that happens—we are trying to ensure that we get a much better picture of where the delays are and that we work with our colleagues in local government to ensure that there are no such delays. I think that the inquest into the death of Princess Diana was unprecedented; certainly, the length of time taken has been exceptional.