HC Deb 04 July 1988 vol 136 cc852-5

Amendments made: No. 11, in page 47, line 48, column 3, at beginning insert 'Section 16(8).'.

No. 36, in page 48, lines 11 to 14, leave out the third column and insert—

`In section 4(2)(c), the words "for the purposes of this Act".
In section 16, subsection (1) and, in subsection (2), the words "in this section and".
In section 17, subsections (3) to (8).
Section 18(1).
In section 32(a), the words ", out of the Fund".
In Schedule 1 paragraph 2(4)".'.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[The Solicitor-General.]

12.33 am
Mr. Lawrence

As I made clear on Second Reading on 4 May, I support the Bill, for it reflects the Government's determination to stop the trail of open cheques, to impose sensible financial controls, and to take the opportunity to introduce a measure of reasonable improvement in this important aspect of social need. Furthermore, it is clear from the quiet reception that the Bill is now receiving from interested bodies that the vehemence of their initial response was, as we said, a wild reaction to reasonable change and improvements.

Having said that, I must confess to some disappointment. In my speech on Second Reading, at column 896, I drew attention to five issues that were causing concern to the Bar, which has as close a knowledge of and expertise in the working of the legal aid scheme as any other grouping. It is true that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General responded immediately and positively to two of those concerns. He put to rest the fears, first, that there would be no appeal against refusals to grant criminal legal aid—there will—and, secondly, that decisions on the granting of criminal legal aid would be taken from the courts, which knew best whether such legal aid should be granted—they will not. The Bar will be grateful for those two assurances.

I am disappointed that the Government have not seen fit to respond as positively as they might have done to three other issues. Those positive responses were also called for by eminent judges such as Lords Ackner and Griffiths in the other place, and by such a non-legal authority as Lord Benson. First, I asked that the principle of fair remuneration for work actually and reasonably done in section 39(3) of the Legal Aid Act 1974—as reasonable a principle of fair pay for a fair day's work as it is possible to devise—be maintained and not swept away. The Government have strangely refused to act, despite the fact that their decision has run contrary to the legal aid White Paper. Certainly there has been an improvement with the list of provisions that are required to be satisfied in an application for legal aid, but there is no reason why the general principle should not remain in the legislation, as well as these detailed requirements which are to be taken into consideration.

When my hon. and learned Friend says that the Lord Chancellor will construe the rules fairly and will be strong against the Treasury, that may well be so of the present incumbent of the Wool Sack, but what guarantee can be given that the next Lord Chancellor, or the one after that, will behave in the same way? I think that the Bar will be puzzled, as I am, by the refusal to leave in the general principle. It would cost the Government nothing. It would not have interfered in any way with those other factors, but the fact that they have taken it out must raise doubts about the future level of remuneration.

Secondly, I asked that parliamentary control be not weakened by substituting the Government convenience of the negative resolution for changes in civil legal aid for the time worn affirmative resolution. The Government have mostly, although not entirely, failed to budge on that one as well.

Thirdly, and most important, I asked that legal aid be extended to certain sectors where it is now not available. At a time when the welfare state activity by a caring and socially conscious Government is expanding, and when the country is becoming economically strong again, there seems to be no justification in continuing to refuse legal aid to poor applicants before social security and employment tribunals. What on earth is the point of giving rights to the individual in the 20th century that he cannot afford to enforce? The Government have not budged on that.

Research is not a substitute for taking action. It is more like a delaying tactic. When my hon. and learned Friend says that the product of the research that we are going into may have a positive response, we have to bear in mind that at least 14 years ago—that is as far back as my memory takes me—we were asking in this place for the extension of legal aid to some of these other tribunals. If we have not had research over 14 years, what is this new research likely to reveal?

I am disappointed, and I know that the Bar will be disappointed. I know that my hon. and learned Friend has tried and done his best, and we appreciate his efforts and his sympathetic approach. It is a cause of sadness to me that, although so much in the Bill is good and warrants support, on those three measures the Government have given the impression of being obdurate and unyielding. Perhaps one day they will see the error of their ways and put these matters right. Until that happy day when I can give the Government three cheers, I give them two.

12.39 am
Mr. Fraser

The Bill re-enacts and consolidates much existing law and to that extent we have no quarrel with it. However, it adds little by way of advance. It edges its way gingerly towards group actions by means of contracts and it makes tiny advances towards tribunal representation. The other changes in the Bill are unwelcome and are much more likely to erode rather than to stimulate the legal aid system. There is a danger—it was reflected in the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence)—that it will stigmatise the legal aid system and provide us with a second-class system with a second-class level of remuneration.

There are other matters about which we are concerned but which we have not mentioned during the Report stage. For example, we are concerned about the removal of conveyancing and will-making from the scope of the green form scheme. We are concerned at that not in general, but where we believe it would cause hardship to some groups, such as single parents who wish to appoint a guardian by way of will. We are also concerned about the imposition of contributions throughout the length of a case, which will be a deterrent to those pursuing justice. It will put a premium on delay and the burden of payments will be related to the weight of the case rather than the extent of the means of the assisted person. The extended payments are likely to be not just a discouragement, but in some cases a penalty upon those who seek legal aid.

We believe that contracting out will remove legal advice—I stress "legal advice"—completely from some people. We believe that the rate of payment for legal aid work will increasingly be dependent not upon value for money or the rate for the job but upon public expenditure considerations. That will involve an abuse of loyalty and commitment of legal aid practitioners. It will be a system of remuneration fixed by the Lord Chancellor without advice from any advisory body, without arbitration if there is a difference of opinion and without appeal. The Bill contains, if it was so used in the hands of another Lord Chancellor, machinery not to axe the legal aid scheme but to starve it to death.

The Bill contains virtually nothing on tribunals apart from what I have mentioned. It contains nothing on law centres. It does nothing to reduce the increasing difficulty of poor people or people of moderate means to obtain legal aid. The Bill has failed to enthuse the professions or the advice agencies, even those that may be the recipients of contracts. It has failed to enthuse the consumer movement and us. In its changes it introduces some mischief, but many opportunities have been missed. Throughout its proceedings in the House it has conspicuously failed to gain the vocal or unequivocal support of Conservative Members apart from incurring the critical appraisal of the Opposition.

12.42 am
The Solicitor-General

The Bill has had a constructive passage through all its stages in the House. We had a series of valuable debates that have helped to illuminate to hon. Members and to a wider public what the Bill is about. We are grateful for the contributions by way of briefing and representation we have received from the profession—the Bar and the Law Society—and from the bodies that comprise the Advice Services Alliance, including the citizens advice bureaux and the law centres.

The Bill sets the framework for legal aid into the next century. It introduces the new Legal Aid Board, which is designed to be responsible for all aspects of legal aid. On the date of the Second Reading in the House the Lord Chancellor announced the membership of the board. Since then, the board has started its work in preparing itself for the assumption of responsibility for legal aid fom the Law Society. I can now announce that the Government intend that that will take place at the beginning of April next year.

The board's objective is a high standard of service for all those who need legal advice, assistance and representation and who would otherwise be unable to obtain it on account of their means and to give that service through a scheme that is efficient and effective and gives value for money. The new scheme will offer the opportunity for improved management of the legal aid system and for an independent and informed reconsideration of priorities. It is an exciting prospect that promises benefits for the assisted person, the legal profession and the public as taxpayers and potential consumers. It is to be welcomed, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.