“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.