HC Deb 29 June 2000 vol 352 cc1039-40
29. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

If he will make a statement on the legal costs incurred by his Department in (a) 1998–99 and (b) 1999–2000. [127060]

The Solicitor-General

When I saw this question, I thought that it was like the 19th century report on Malvern water that contains absolutely nothing. Apart from staff costs, my Department incurred £573,900 in disbursements for legal costs in 1998–99. The figure for 1999–2000 was £716,000.

Mr. Bercow

Given that the Attorney-General is thinking of dispensing with the services of Treasury juniors—banisters in private practice who undertake important prosecutions at the Old Bailey—will the Solicitor-General confirm that they do outstanding work and provide excellent value for money? Does he agree that to dispense with them could cause an unnecessary increase in the costs of his Department?

The Solicitor-General

Treasury counsel at the Old Bailey prosecute heavy cases involving, for example, the Official Secrets Act and terrorism. They also prosecute in murder cases, which throughout the country are also prosecuted by ordinary counsel from the Bar. My noble and learned friend the Attorney-General has requested an inquiry into whether it is appropriate for cases of murder, rape or robbery heard at the Bailey always to be handled by Treasury counsel. But we accept that some important cases should be dealt with by a specialist cadre of banisters at the Old Bailey.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

What proportion of the costs incurred related to the expense of employing Queen's counsel? Does my hon. and learned friend agree that the Government should do all they can to push down those exorbitant fees, whereby some banisters earn more than £1 million a year? Is everything being done to get the Government's legal bill down to sensible proportions?

The Solicitor-General

All Treasury counsel at the Old Bailey are juniors, not silks. Civil work by counsel representing the Government is done by juniors. We have various panels representing levels of expertise whose members are all juniors. Only exceptionally are silks employed, and that has to be approved by me personally or by the Attorney-General. The Bar accepts that there must be a discount on fees for Government work, so we are certainly conscious of expenditure. When the Attorney-General or I appear, we charge absolutely nothing.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

What impact do the costs referred to by the hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) have on the budget of the Crown Prosecution Service? On Monday in another place, the Attorney-General announced a slight increase in the CPS budget. Given the costs we have just heard about and the 3 per cent. per annum budget savings, how much money will be left to improve the performance of the CPS?

The Solicitor-General

I am pleased that we have been able to secure £15.8 million extra for the Crown Prosecution Service on a budget of about £350 million per annum—and I am confident that we will do well in the comprehensive spending review for the next three years. The CPS budget is quite separate from that for counsel employed by the service, which is uncapped. The CPS is always highly conscious of the fees payable to prosecution counsel. The complaint is made, quite legitimately, by counsel who appear for the CPS that they are paid much less than defence counsel—which disparity we are trying to address.