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Legal Services Commission (Cardiff)

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

I am pleased to have the opportunity to have this short debate today.

The Legal Services Commission is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Ministry of Justice and responsible for running the legal aid scheme throughout England and Wales. It lets and manages contracts to legal service suppliers, who come from private practice solicitors and not-for-profit agencies. It also decides whether individuals should get full legal representation in civil court proceedings paid for out of public funds through legal aid certificates and assesses how much legal aid lawyers are paid in certain certificated cases. The LSC calls this last category “business support” and that is what I want to discuss.

I secured the debate because of my serious concern over a decision announced out of the blue to staff at the Wales Legal Services Commission office in Cardiff on 4 November 2008. The announcement stated that, as part of a refocus of financial resources and reorganisation into five business support centres for civil legal aid work, business support will be transferred out of Wales to one or more business centres in England by the middle of this year. That is in six months’ time.

The decision does not mean that there will be no Legal Services Commission presence in Wales. Between 15 and 20 staff will remain to handle the letting of legal aid contracts to Welsh suppliers and liaise with them in managing contracts. However, in my judgment it represents a downgrading of the office at a time when most other national organisations have upgraded their representation in Wales in recognition of the political direction evident over the past 10 years. I am extremely concerned about the decision and about the fact that it was imposed on staff in November with only eight months’ notice before the planned move.

Let me state briefly that the hon. Lady has all-party support in her efforts and I praise her for all that she is doing. The decision flies in the face of the fact that Cardiff is now a very important centre for civil justice. Civil cases are dealt with there and the Court of Appeal sits in a civil capacity.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was going to elaborate on his last point later in my speech and I thank him for his support.

I am concerned about this decision on several counts. First, the Legal Service Commission did not consult the Welsh Assembly Government before it made its decision. Secondly, the decision will result in a great loss of experience and expertise to the LSC, and to Cardiff and Wales. Thirdly, it is estimated that the decision will lead to the loss of 40 quality jobs across south Wales. Fourthly, the decision has failed to have any proper regard to the effect of schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006, which paves the way for the Welsh Assembly to seek primary law-making powers in 20 fields of law.

My hon. Friend claims that there has been a failure to consult the Welsh Assembly. Was there also a failure to consult the Wales Office? Sadly, there is often an illiteracy in some Whitehall Departments about the nature of the settlement. That does not mean that Wales has drifted offshore by 100 miles; it means that we need a more joined-up approach by Government Departments and their agencies regarding those responsibilities that remain with central Government, and those that are devolved.

I welcome the intervention of right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour. This is certainly an example of non-joined-up Government thinking, and it illustrates the lack of understanding about the nature of devolution by some of the Departments responsible for non-devolved matters in Wales.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She makes an important point that the decision affects the whole of south Wales. It will certainly affect some of my constituents, who have written to me about it. Many of those staff are long-serving and have built up a considerable amount of knowledge and experience that will be lost to Wales if those jobs go. I am sure that she will make that point later in her speech.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I will listen closely to the debate and to the Government response. Can she confirm that there is also a concern in the context of wider consultation? For example, in my constituency there have been questions about the matter from citizens advice bureaux, and it is important for them and other appropriate bodies. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs might decide to have an inquiry into it.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I would certainly welcome an inquiry by his Committee.

The decision will result in a diminished service for my constituents and those of other Welsh Members, together with legal aid practitioners in Wales. Finally, the decision seems to run completely counter to the direction of devolution, which has been agreed by the House.

I shall return to those points shortly, but first I should explain things. Help available under legal aid can be broadly subdivided into two categories—legal help and help at court, and legal aid certificated work. Today, I want to speak about certificated work.

Civil legal aid certificates are a vital tool to legal aid practitioners and clients alike. They allow practitioners to obtain evidence, instruct barristers, obtain expert opinions and represent clients at hearings. When making decisions about the granting of certificates, or their amendment or termination, the legal aid office carries out a most important balancing function. On one hand, it seeks to establish whether the client has an arguable case, whether there are prospects of success, whether there is a benefit to be derived and the importance of the issue to the client. On the other, it seeks to establish the likely cost of the case, the amount to be recovered if there is a money claim, whether it is proportionate to spend public funds in pursuing the case and the client’s means and the extent of any contribution. In this respect, the legal aid office is acting as a guardian of public funds.

Business support teams are generally led by solicitors, and Cardiff has two. The word “support” is a misnomer; it disguises the fact that it is highly skilled work, operating at the coal face of people’s problems. Those people go to the heart of legal aid, delivering quality services to legal aid clients. If decision makers get it wrong, they can frustrate or quench the legitimate legal claims of our constituents or waste taxpayers’ money.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and highlighting the importance of the service for people in Wales. If the proposals go ahead, will that have an effect on the provision of Welsh language service in Wales?

It is bound to have an affect on Welsh language provision if the entire service is run from outside Wales. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point. The Legal Services Commission underestimates and undervalues the importance of its work.

I return to my list of concerns. First, I restate the fact that the Assembly is a voice for Wales and that it has the right to be consulted. The commission cannot cherry-pick, consulting with the Assembly and Welsh local authorities when its wants their money to help launch community legal advice networks in Wales, but forgetting to undertake consultation when it is inconvenient for its administrative plans. Consultation involves publishing a proposal in draft, asking a body for its views, giving it time to consult within its organisation, taking an informed view and responding. That did not happen in this instance. If it had, the commission would have been alerted to the dangers of the course that it has now taken, and the distress for its staff and our constituents affected could have been avoided.

Secondly, in relation to the loss of experience and expertise to the LSC and Wales, it is important to note that 40 per cent. of those in the Cardiff office have worked there for more than 20 years, and 50 per cent. for more than 15 years. Even if the commission feels that it can afford to lose that wealth of experience and expertise as we move into a new era where functions are being incrementally passed over to Wales’s control, we in Wales cannot. If the Wales office in Cardiff were a poorly performing office, I might begin to understand the basis of that decision, but the reality is quite different. Over the past three years, the Cardiff office has consistently achieved performance ratings above the national average, and it also deals with imported casework from other legal aid offices.

My third concern is about the loss of quality jobs in south Wales. I understand that the trade unions have estimated this loss at 40, but the commission says that only 33 roles are at risk of redundancy. That will be an enormous blow, coming, as it will, at a time when we hope to be recovering from the downturn in the economy. I am told that it is not only the Cardiff constituencies that will be affected; indeed, we know that some of the valley constituencies will suffer and that highly skilled employees who work at the Cardiff office also live far to the east and the west. The Legal Services Commission decision certainly runs counter to the Prime Minister’s view, expressed on 9 January 2009, that it is important to keep Welsh jobs in Wales. I believe that the staff at the Cardiff office have been badly treated. There have been rumours for years about change. The staff were then told that nothing would happen. Suddenly, on 8 November, this decision was landed on them. [Interruption.]

Order. I remind the Minister’s team of civil servants that they do not have the right to come into the Chamber. It is important that the Minister should report to his colleagues that they should supply him with a Parliamentary Private Secretary, and not have his staff continually entering the Chamber.

My fourth concern relates to emerging Welsh law under the Government of Wales Act 2006, which enables the Assembly to seek legislation competence orders to pass primary legislation in 23 fields through Assembly measures. Those include, for example, aspects of social welfare, education and health. If the decision is allowed to stand, legal aid decision making on claims and challenges based on new Welsh law will have to be made in offices in England. It is no answer for the commission to say that practitioners will be able to exercise devolved powers—to stand in the shoes of the LSC’s Wales office and grant certificates to their clients. Devolved powers are designed essentially for emergency cases and are heavily circumscribed. The commission has said that it does not intend to alter the rules in the light of Assembly measures. Even when devolved powers are exercised, the legal aid certificate must still be reviewed by an officer in a legal aid office, and under the existing plans that officer will be in England. He will be unfamiliar with Welsh law, the context in which it was enacted, any guidance issued under it, or experience in implementing it.

The LSC has told me that is sees no problem in dealing with Welsh law. It says that the staff who remain in Cardiff will ensure that the differing aspects of Welsh law and culture are understood and that they will be built into the commission’s plans for Wales. The commission says that its Welsh policy experts will ensure that changes in Welsh law are reflected in the guidance issued to decision makers.

Who are these Welsh policy experts? With the greatest of respect, the staff who remain in Cardiff will not include lawyers and will not be qualified to identify the detailed changes made by Welsh law or to analyse their impact. Those best equipped to perform that task are the members of the current Cardiff business support team that handles Welsh cases day in and day out—staff who are likely to be made redundant unless they are offered the possibility of uprooting their families, to move to wherever the commission ultimately decides Welsh work must go. In the circumstances, we all know that most people will not go because their roots are deep within Wales.

My fifth concern is about the diminished standard of service for Welsh clients and those practitioners who visit the Cardiff office to speak personally to members of the business support team. Although the LSC says that those relationship managers who stay in Cardiff will be the point of contact for all Welsh solicitors and third sector agencies, they are not qualified to deal with business support queries. Once business support work is transferred to England, all contact will have to be by telephone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) suggested, new and different arrangements will need to be made for those clients who wish to speak through the medium of Welsh. Inadequate or poor decision making on matters relating to Welsh law is also likely to give rise to delays and increase appeals, causing frustration to practitioners and clients alike.

My final point is that the decision is against the spirit of devolution. It is now generally accepted that devolution has released a new-found confidence and a sense of pride in Wales. I do not know of any other organisation that is reducing its Welsh presence, or its operation. Quite the opposite is the case. A Welsh claimant has the right to issue judicial review proceedings in the Cardiff Civil Justice Centre, in a public law challenge against a Welsh public body. From time to time, the Court of Appeal sits in Cardiff. Even Her Majesty’s Court Service recognises that Wales has distinct legal issues that are likely to be better dealt with in Wales, or at least that claimants should have the choice of having challenges heard in Wales.

I am frankly astonished that, at a time when Wales is beginning to exercise more control over its affairs than it has for many years, the LSC should choose to start dismantling and reducing its presence in Wales. I have the impression that Wales, as a distinct nation with its own distinct needs, was not considered by the LSC when it reached that decision and that the paramount concern was achieving a good geographical spread of sites over England and Wales.

I do not doubt that the LSC must live within its budget, and I sympathise with the chief executive and the executive board, who have to find administrative savings to keep within budget. I also understand that the LSC, like other organisations, needs to modernise the delivery of legal aid for the benefit of legal aid clients, suppliers and taxpayers, which might entail rationalising the delivery into larger units, where increased efficiency can be achieved from new technologies. However, I do not understand why the LSC has not decided that one of those five business centres must be in Wales. It is the logical solution and by far the easiest to justify. The decision has been made in principle and is subject to the making of a business case to establish what work will move to where and when. I appeal to the Minister to look into that matter in detail and ensure that the LSC reconsiders its stance carefully. The answers that I have received from the LSC—I have held meetings with the chief executive and Cardiff members on more than one occasion—have not given me any satisfaction. I urge the LSC to continue with the fully functioning legal aid office that Wales deserves.

Before I call the Minister, I apologise for having interrupted the hon. Lady in mid-flow. For the Minister’s information, the debate will now conclude at 5.13 pm.

It is a pleasure to respond to this debate under your stewardship, Mr. Hancock, and I apologise for being without a Parliamentary Private Secretary this afternoon.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to discuss what is happening in Cardiff and across the Legal Services Commission more widely. I recognise that she has natural concerns about the changes taking place in Cardiff, and it is to her credit that she is using all reasonable avenues to discuss that matter and to ensure that all that should be done is being done. That does not surprise me, however, having witnessed at first hand, when in Cardiff, the passion that she has shown to ensure that she gets the very best for people in her constituency and, indeed, in Wales. I am pleased that, last Friday, she was able to meet Carolyn Regan, the chief executive of the LSC, and Paul Davies, the LSC director for Wales, to discuss her concerns.

What is happening in Cardiff needs considering in the context of wider legal aid reform and the current economic climate. The legal aid reform strategy aims to ensure that the £2 billion-plus annual budget for legal aid services is focused on helping those most in need who are least able to afford essential support. In a similar vein, the LSC was asked to re-examine its internal administration to ensure best value for the taxpayer, taking account of the impact of the wider legal aid reforms flowing from Lord Carter’s 2006 review. All LSC staff and providers have been aware of the proposed cuts in the LSC administrative budget and posts since 2006. That year, the LSC announced that it would achieve the required reduction through an improvement in electronic working with providers and a reduction in staff numbers across England and Wales from 1,700 to 1,100. On 4 November 2008, the LSC announced more detailed plans for reducing the number of staff in business support areas, moving from 13 to five business support centres between mid-2009 and 2012-13.

Cardiff has one of the relatively small LSC offices, so it has never been one of the likely centres for centralising business support work. That was clear in 2006, when LSC staff were told that there would be only three business centres—the decision to increase to five came later. It is also important to keep in mind that the LSC already transfers work across other LSC offices in England and Wales to deal with peaks and troughs. The LSC is looking to centralise the operational work from Cardiff during the latter half of 2009. Concerning the posts at risk, the LSC has an agreed redundancy policy with its recognised trade unions to explore all possible alternative employment opportunities and relocations for any impacted staff and to exhaust those possibilities prior to a decision on redundancy.

While the five business support centres will carry out operational processing work, the LSC will continue to maintain a presence of relationship managers, plus policy staff, business analysts and some other functions in Cardiff, as in all areas. That will mean the continuation of a close working relationship with local providers and stakeholders, with local LSC staff focusing on commissioning the best possible services for Welsh legal aid clients.

In 2007, the Cardiff office did 793 extra hours of work for other LSC offices throughout the country. Furthermore, before November 2008, the staff were told that the plan to move to three offices had been abandoned and that it was likely that the office would stay as it was.

I was not aware of that last point, but I have noted it and thank my hon. Friend for bringing it to my attention.

It is important to emphasise that most clients access legal aid services through local providers and increasingly through the Community Legal Advice telephone service and website. The LSC itself currently deals with very few legal aid clients on a face-to-face basis in Wales or in England. The vast majority of its interactions with clients take place by telephone, e-mail and letter. My hon. Friend has mentioned consultation, and I am aware that we spoke with both the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly—whether that constitutes consultation is another matter. Only yesterday, I received representations from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales.

The relationship managers in Cardiff will be the point of contact for all Welsh—

The Minister is uncertain about the nature of the consultation. Will he elaborate, because it is a very important point, given that the Secretary of State for Wales represents Wales in Westminster and Whitehall?

I specifically said that we spoke to the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly. We offered to have a meeting in April to look at progress on the issue. I have said that I am not sure whether that constitutes formal consultation, but contact has been made.

The LSC will continue to have an important presence in Wales. That is demonstrated by the LSC’s recent appointment of a senior director for Wales—

I am more than willing to allow time for interventions, but I will not be left with much time to respond to the debate, which will be unsatisfactory for all concerned.

I am merely reflecting the facts on the ground.

That appointment will maintain the strong links with the Welsh Assembly Government, local criminal justice boards, family justice councils and other key stakeholders, including local government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) has said, the Welsh language is vital. I confirm that the LSC remains firmly committed to its statutory obligations under the Welsh Language Act 1993. Its plans will ensure that clients will be able to contact the LSC by telephone, letter or e-mail in Welsh and receive a reply in Welsh. The Cardiff LSC office will also retain a local policy presence to ensure that the different aspects of Welsh law and culture are not only understood by the LSC but built into its plans in Wales.

The LSC has undertaken a programme of jointly commissioning community legal advice services with local authorities, either in a community legal advice centre or through a community legal advice network. It aims to offer a wide range of joined-up legal advice services to clients. In 2008, as part of the agreement between the LSC, the Ministry of Justice and the Law Society, which followed the unified contract judicial review, possible future services were identified up to April 2010. The Law Society deed identified Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend as areas in which a CLAN should be developed, and it would be a jointly commissioned service with local authorities.

As with other CLACs and CLANs, the plan is for the Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend CLAN to be commissioned—

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again, but I deliberately did not focus this debate on CLACs and CLANs. My major concern is that decisions about who gets legal aid and laws that have been developed in Wales will be made outside Wales, where the knowledge will not be available.

I am happy to skip CLACs and CLANs. Some concerns, based largely on anecdote, are that some local advice providers have been adversely affected by the CLACs and CLANs, but I will skip over that. My noble Friend Lord Bach has asked officials to lead a short study that will gather evidence on current funding and provision of legal advice at the local level.

My hon. Friend said at the start of the debate that only 20 jobs will be left. My understanding is that between 30 and 40 jobs will remain in Cardiff. She also talked about “rumours for many years”. As I have said, my understanding is that staff were made aware that changes were on the horizon in 2006.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).