HL Deb 30 November 1994 vol 559 cc693-6

9.10 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd November be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this order is to implement the dissolution of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee as provided for under Section 35(6) of the Legal Aid Act 1988.

The Legal Aid Advisory Committee was established in 1949. Its purpose was to comment on the way in which the Law Society administered the legal aid scheme, and to provide advice and recommendations to the Lord Chancellor on legal aid. Following the establishment of the Legal Aid Board in 1989 under the Legal Aid Act 1988 to administer the legal aid scheme, the board being subject to the regulatory regime appropriate to a non-departmental public body, a significant element of the committee's role came to an end. However, I concluded that it would not be right immediately to bring the committee to an end and it was continued in being in order to assess the extent to which there was a continuing useful role for it to play.

I have reviewed developments since 1989 and have concluded that there is no longer a need for a separate Legal Aid Advisory Committee. I am glad to take this opportunity to acknowledge the valuable work the committee has done during the course of its existence. I am grateful to all past and present members for the work they have done.

The situation in the legal aid field has changed very greatly since the establishment of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee. There is now a wide range of bodies and organisations with an interest in, and knowledge and experience of, the operation of the legal aid scheme. I regularly receive comments on developments from these bodies and organisations. I always welcome comments from any quarter on the operation of the scheme.

The Legal Aid Board is required to carry out the objectives set out in the Management Statement I published in January this year. These include the requirement to advise me from time to time on whether the scheme as a whole is meeting my objectives, and whether the way in which it is presently structured leads to the most effective and efficient use of the resources which the Government have allocated to legal aid. The board is also required inter alia regularly to consider whether any structural changes should be made, to review its arrangements for ensuring a quality service at a value-for-money price, and to advise me on any particular problems relating to access to justice. This gives the board a remit which is more than wide enough to embrace that previously held by the advisory committee.

I have referred in the past to my intention to extend the programme of research into legal aid matters. The Legal Aid Board is undertaking a number of projects: on methods of delivery; on non-solicitor agencies franchising; on refusals of contributory legal aid; on models predicting likely need for legal services, and on the internal corporate information strategy to support, among other things, strategic planning. The Legal Aid Board is also planning research on outcome measures in franchising and is planning a public opinion survey on priorities for legal aid expenditure and a survey of users of legal aid (applicants and assisted persons) under Citizen's Charter initiatives. This programme demonstrates that the board is already pursuing the kind of work that at one time would have been more appropriate for the advisory committee.

The involvement in legal aid matters of the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place, which has developed in the years since the establishment of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee, provides an additional independent perspective on the operation of the legal aid scheme. Overall, I am satisfied that the advice available to me from independent bodies and organisations, together with that provided by the Legal Aid Board in fulfilment of its objectives, gives me access to the full range of pertinent views and opinions and that there is no longer a need for a separate Legal Aid Advisory Committee.

As I said, I am very grateful to those who have served on the committee over the years. Much of its advice has been extremely valuable. I believe that in the changed circumstances the need for a separate Legal Aid Advisory Committee has come to an end. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd November be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee]. —(The Lord Chancellor.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, again, I apologise for the absence of my noble friend. As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is aware, matters relating to legal aid are not the prerogative exclusively of any particular Bench or any particular experience in the House. They are looked on by all Members of the House as matters in which they have a deep concern.

I listened to what the noble and learned Lord said as a rationale for the move that is proposed. As a layman I can appreciate not only the reason for extinguishing this particular body, but also, in the light of the care that he took to explain the structure which remains in existence and which is capable of doing so much more than I could ever have thought needed to be done, I am satisfied of the sense of what is proposed. Therefore, from these Benches we give the order a warm welcome.

Lord Meston

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble and learned Lord for his full and careful explanation.

I also wish to pay tribute to the high quality of the work which has been done by the advisory committee, and to the valuable reports provided by the committee giving insight into the practical operation of the legal aid scheme over many years.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken for the understanding that they have shown. It was not without a good deal of thought that I decided to bring this Motion before your Lordships. I am grateful that, having done so and explained the reasons, your Lordships have been so kind as to express support. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at fifteen minutes past nine o'clock.