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Legal Aid

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are satisfied that the Legal Aid Agency’s evaluation of tenders for the new duty solicitor contracts was fairly and effectively conducted.

My Lords, we are. The Legal Aid Agency followed a robust and fair process in assessing duty tender bids. The assessment process was subject to careful moderation and management at all stages, including independent validation. All staff who assess the bids received comprehensive training to ensure transparent, consistent and fair treatment of all bids.

My Lords, two whistleblowers involved in this assessment process have now said publicly that there were too few staff, many of them virtually untrained agency temps with no relevant experience, and that assessment of the bids and moderation of the assessments were subjected to highly unreasonable time targets. Now that this has led to 100-plus legal challenges and calls from the Law Society for a full and proper investigation, what do the Government propose to do to review the process in view of the Answer just given by the noble Lord?

The noble Lord is right that this has been the subject of legal challenges, just as the bidding process itself was subject to an unsuccessful judicial review. There have been individual legal claims under public procurement regulations and a judicial review in relation to the process. It is inappropriate for me to comment in detail about matters which are the subject of litigation. However, I can say that about 19% of the staff were temporary. The Government are satisfied that these staff were thoroughly adequately trained and that what they were asked to do was reasonable in the time afforded to them.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the criminal duty tender policy, which seems to have gone so wrong, was agreed by both parties in the coalition in 2013? Can he tell the House the current estimate of the eventual cost of the litigation now under way and when he expects that litigation to conclude? Finally, is it not well past time to scrap this ridiculous policy and begin negotiations again with the Law Society and the criminal law solicitors’ groups on a more sensible and sustainable way forward?

The noble Lord seems to suggest that the Law Society was not enthusiastic about the process. In fact, in its response it said:

“The Society agrees, for the reasons given below, that change is needed in the procurement of criminal defence services. There is good evidence that the existing market is unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term and that this represents a significant risk for the integrity of the system”.

The Government were trying to ensure that there was adequate representation on the duty provider basis, that this was more efficiently provided and that there was a fair system for making sure that taxpayers’ money was properly spent.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Law Society but we all have an interest in ensuring access to justice. As my noble friend Lord Marks mentioned, two whistleblowers have pointed out how flawed the process was, In addition, there is the potential for mass litigation involved in this duty solicitor procurement. Should not the MoJ stop trying to brazen this out, simply scrap this procurement and start again?

No, that presumes the outcome of the litigation. Disappointed contractors may well feel it necessary to challenge and decide it appropriate, as is their privilege, to use the legal process. We have not yet had the legal process, nor do we know what the result will be. There have already been some preliminary hearings, but we are some way from a full judgment. Both the individuals were employed as commissioning assistants in a junior role. We are in no doubt that what happened was a perfectly appropriate way of assessing the competence of the solicitors and their appropriateness for the contract.

Have the Government received any representations from the Law Society in the light of this Question? Will the Minister signify how the Law Society has reacted? I am in accord with what he has said, but I think it is important that he should be more accurate about it.

Of course we listen to what the Law Society says: the Law Society represents solicitors and I am sure that a number of them are disappointed at the outcome, although they will still have an opportunity for own-client contracts and as delivery agents for those solicitors who have a duty provider contract. I should perhaps reassure the House that the Legal Aid Agency has monitored and will continue to monitor the quality of the delivery of services through its well-established audit and peer-review programmes.

Will the Minister answer my noble friend Lord Bach’s first question about the role of coalition members of the Government? Did the Liberal Democrats support the policy when they were in government?

I am not sure whether the Liberal Democrats supported it. The fact is that it is government policy and we are pursuing it. Whether they supported it tacitly or had reservations seems beside the point if the process is fair, as we say that it was.

My Lords, it is clear that this has been a very faulty process. I give an example. A very reputable organisation with quality and community knowledge in London has been ignored and not appointed in any way. The work has been given to firms in Stafford and Leicester. It is surely ridiculous when a firm based in London has a great reputation that work for London should be given to firms in Stafford and Leicestershire.

The noble Lord picks on one disappointed solicitor. No doubt a number of solicitors are pleased with the result and feel that it is an adequate response. I fear that some solicitors will be disappointed, but the noble Lord will realise that it is necessary to effect some consolidation—apart from anything else, because there has been a significant drop in the crime rate, which is good for most of the population, although perhaps less good for some solicitors who rely on crime for their living. I am glad to say that the crime rate began to drop in 2007, when the party opposite was in government. It has continued to drop and is now at its lowest rate since 1970.