HC Deb 26 January 1999 vol 324 cc138-9
29. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

In what ways he monitors the adequacy and quality of community legal advice services; and what further action he plans to ensure excellence in such services. [65856]

The Minister of State, Lord Chancellors Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The majority of advice services are currently provided outside the existing legal aid scheme. The Legal Aid Board subjects franchised legal and advice service providers to a continuous monitoring process and receives advice from the 13 regional legal services committees on local need for legal services. As part of the developing community legal service, we are establishing a quality task force to develop a kitemark system for high quality community legal services.

Fiona Mactaggart

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the provision of immigration advice in some parts of the country is still inadequate to meet the needs of the community, and that there are too few franchised lawyers offering immigration advice? What steps are being taken to increase the accessibility of excellent immigration advice where it is needed throughout the country?

Mr. Hoon

I do share my hon. Friends concern. The Government attach great importance to the availability of competent advice on immigration matters. Poor quality advice can be very damaging, both to the client and to the wider community. As a result, the Government have asked the Legal Aid Board to submit detailed proposals to tackle the shortfall of quality advice providers. The extension of the deadline for solicitors to apply for a legal aid franchise will also give practitioners wishing to apply for an immigration franchise further opportunities to do so.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

First, may I offer my genuine and heartfelt commiserations to the Minister whose boss once again appears to have vetoed his long-delayed and well-deserved prospects of promotion?

On the subject of the need for community legal advice centres, does he accept that the overlap between such centres and citizens advice bureaux causes great difficulty? Will he examine that problem carefully, as citizens advice bureaux staff are often asked for advice on complex legal questions for which they are not qualified? Sometimes CAB staff find it difficult to know where best to send people with legal problems so that they can receive comprehensive advice from qualified persons.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations, not least because of the sheer pleasure that trying to answer his questions on a Tuesday afternoon each month always gives me. The Government are aware of the potential difficulties caused by conflicting sources of advice. That is why we have established five pioneer areas under the community legal service scheme, specifically to determine how best we can reconcile the needs for first-tier advice of a more general nature with the provision of the more specialised legal advice that is sometimes required.