HC Deb 11 June 2002 vol 386 cc711-3
30. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

What steps the Department is taking to extend legal advice for the socially excluded. [57408]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton)

Lack of access to reliable legal advice can be a major factor in creating and maintaining social exclusion. Community legal service partnerships are therefore being established in order to plan and co-ordinate local legal services more effectively. The work of the community legal service partnerships is making a real difference to communities across England and Wales, particularly to those living in some of the most deprived areas.

Ms Munn

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and welcome the Government's approach. Does she agree that it is vital that legal advice is available to people such as my constituent from Gleadless, who came to my surgery on Saturday, so that she can challenge the loan company which says that she now owes £22,000 on a loan of £7,000 taken out 11 years ago?

Ms Winterton

My hon. Friend is quite right that the spiral of financial difficulties in which people sometimes find themselves could be avoided if they had proper debt counselling at an early stage, particularly to stop them falling into the hands of loan sharks, as her constituent obviously has done. The community legal service in Sheffield has received Government money to improve access to advice and information, particularly aimed at socially excluded communities and individuals. That includes making sure that people know exactly where they can obtain advice about the kind of debt problems that my hon. Friend has highlighted. I hope that that will improve the situation in her area.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Will the hon. Lady send a warm welcome to the Department to her fellow Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)?

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

My hon. Friend may well have done that already.

Mr. Heath


Does the increase in the number of people seeking the help of law centres and citizens advice bureaux suggest that there are still extensive barriers to people who require legal representation? Whatever the criticism—possibly justifiable—of the so-called fat cat lawyers in the City, many high street solicitors are seeking to extend a range of services to clients on modest incomes. Should we not consider how to ensure that the smaller lawyers' firms can continue practising in our smaller towns?

Ms Winterton

I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman's welcome to my hon. Friend. He is right that it is important to keep smaller firms involved within the community legal service partnerships, and there have been some good examples of that. In terms of ensuring proper access, we have almost achieved 100 per cent. coverage of legal service partnerships throughout the country, which is way ahead of schedule. That is an important means of ensuring that people have access to legal advice, particularly those who may have been excluded in the past. I certainly agree that it is important to ensure that private sector solicitors are involved in those partnerships with us.

Paul Clark (Gillingham)

I note what my hon. Friend said about access to the right information, which is fundamentally important in ensuring that people who seek help receive reliable information. May I draw her attention to the work of the Medway community legal services partnership, which has developed in a number of ways? I draw her attention especially to the document in my hand—the referral handbook—which is useful to us all, not only Members of Parliament, but other bodies who help people seeking advice, such as the person to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) referred. The document has been developed by the Medway CLS to identify the available services and the clientele that they might serve. It shows where legal services are available through the CLS and where the quality mark exists. Will my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary look at the document as an example of best practice?

Ms Winterton

I know that my hon. Friend has been extremely supportive of his local CLS partnership. It is important that Members of Parliament show such support, as it often helps to make the partnerships successful. The booklet to which he refers is an excellent example of good practice by a partnership. I certainly agree that it is important that we ensure that other partnerships are aware of such good practice. One of the ways that my Department is considering assisting that process is by funding innovative projects throughout the country, especially through the partnership innovation bids. My hon. Friend might like to draw the attention of his partnership to that fund.