HC Deb 17 March 1998 vol 308 cc1091-2
31. Mr. Heald

When he plans to meet the chairman of the Bar to discuss conditional fee arrangements and legal aid. [33185]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

Both my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and I, and our officials, have had meetings with representatives of the Bar Council to discuss conditional fees and legal aid. Last Wednesday, 11 March, I met the chairman of the Bar to discuss conditional fees and legal aid. We shall have further meetings as and when necessary.

Mr. Heald

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that legal aid is an important part of the welfare state, enabling people who need legal assistance, but who cannot afford it, to receive such help? Exactly how many people will be denied legal aid because of his reforms?

Mr. Hoon

The consultation paper that we have presented to Parliament, and have discussed with hon. Members on both sides of the House, is designed to ensure that we target scarce taxpayers' money where it can do most good: on social welfare law, which has previously not been properly protected by legal aid.

Mr. Dismore

When my hon. Friend meets representatives of the Bar, will he tell them how popular conditional fees have become, and that increasing numbers of clients have signed conditional fee agreements? Will he also tell the Bar whether he has received any complaints from clients who have signed conditional fee agreements, and compare the number of those complaints with the number of complaints received from those whose cases were funded by legal aid?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestions. Almost daily, I receive complaints from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the operation of the legal aid scheme. Hon. Members have expressed considerable dissatisfaction with that scheme. Conditional fees have now been agreed in more than 30,000 cases and, to date, I am not aware of a single complaint from an hon. Member about the operation of that system.

Mr. Burnett

Does the Minister agree that the Government's far-reaching proposals for legal aid reform further demonstrate the importance of having an independent Secretary of State for justice who is accountable directly to the House—as proposed in early-day motion 961, which has now been signed by more than 100 hon. Members?

Mr. Hoon

All matters relating to the machinery of government are for the Prime Minister. The Government are committed to delivering results, not to interfering unnecessarily with the building blocks of government, especially when they have stood the test of time. That is particularly true of the office of Lord Chancellor—a position that is currently occupied by someone who is using his very considerable skills and intellect to promote the Government's policy and to implement their manifesto commitments.

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