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Advice Services (London)

Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2007

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.