HC Deb 26 January 1999 vol 324 cc139-40
32. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

What regional consultations he has undertaken in respect of improved public access to legal services. [65860]

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

The Government will take account of a wide range of views in planning and funding legal services through the community legal service. The 13 regional legal services committees established by the Legal Aid Board as part of our programme of legal aid reform include members drawn from all sectors of their local communities. The RLSCs have undertaken regional consultations throughout England and Wales to develop regional strategies for the provision of legal services.

Ms Keeble

Is my hon. Friend aware that consultations in Northamptonshire have revealed considerable concern about access to legal services? Is he further aware of concerns among local mental health organisations, particularly the National Schizophrenia Fellowship and MIND, about the difficulties for people who have mental health problems in pressing their claims under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? Those people cannot receive legal aid or legal help in going to employment tribunals, and they have great difficulty in representing themselves.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The regional legal services committees have already examined, in a general sense, the legal needs of the disabled, and the relevant voluntary groups and representatives have been included in the consultation processes. The Legal Aid Board will also be represented on the quality task force being established by the Lord Chancellor, which will address disability and equality issues.

The flexibility provided by our proposals for a community legal service will allow us to provide, for the first time, specific assistance for the legal needs of the disabled, if those needs are identified as a local priority.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Does the Minister agree that public expectation of access to legal services is rising beyond the level that the budget allocated by the Government can possibly meet? What is he doing to satisfy public expectations?

Mr. Hoon

I agree that demand for legal services is increasing. That is why the Government have set before Parliament a White Paper and a Bill on the need radically to reform the way in which legal advice is given. In particular, we must control the costs of the traditional legal aid system to make more money available, particularly for the most vulnerable in society. I look forward to receiving the hon. Lady's support for the Governments proposals.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

A key part of the Governments proposals for access to justice will be the provision of insurance against defence costs. What consultation has the Minister had with the insurance industry? Is the industry ready to underwrite cases, and what sort of costs will be involved?

Mr. Hoon

The Lord Chancellor and I have held a series of meetings with representatives of the insurance and financial services industries. We are keen that they should provide financial support, particularly to underpin the extension of conditional fee agreements, and we have every confidence that such support will be available and will continue to be available.