Legal Services Commission

– in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 8th February 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 3:24 pm, 8th February 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What analysis has been undertaken of the likely effects of the decision taken by the Legal Services Commission to cease funding of specialist support services in England and Wales from July this year.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, specialist support contracts form part of the Legal Services Commission's special projects budget. That programme was reviewed and consulted on last summer. Given the pressure on the limited legal aid budget and the number of clients needing front-line legal advice, the commission concluded that the money would now be better spent on direct front-line advice to vulnerable legal aid clients.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for, if I may say so, her somewhat disappointing Answer. Does she not agree that the commission's decision will have the effect in practice of withdrawing expert support from the front line? As the CAB, a truly front-line organisation, points out, that will have serious implications for its most socially excluded and vulnerable clients, who cannot secure such expert advice for themselves. Will the Minister therefore urge the commission to reconsider that decision?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I am always sad to disappoint the noble Baroness, especially on her birthday. I do not agree with her proposition. The £2.3 million that will not be used from the end of the current contracts in July will be used to fund about 9,000 new front-line opportunities for people to get clear advice. In addition, £78 million is being spent on not-for-profit organisations, including CABs, to provide specialist support.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Shadow Lord Chancellor, Law Officers (Constitutional Affairs), Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Non-Departmental & Cross Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor have no wish to deny anyone access to justice, but will that not be the exact effect of the decision? Would the Minister care to admit that this, like other decisions taken recently—for instance, the substantial increase in family court fees—has been forced on the Legal Services Commission and the DCA against their will by the other Chancellor in 11 Downing Street?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, there is only one Lord Chancellor and only one Chancellor of the Exchequer. There could never be another Chancellor in any context. I disagree fundamentally with the noble Lord's assertion that this has been forced on anyone and that somehow the changes in the scheme will reduce the opportunities to get advice. The noble Lord will know well that there are probably about 1 million occasions where problems are unresolved because people do not know their rights or how to access advice. Anything that we can do to get front-line advice to people effectively and appropriately should be welcomed, and the change should be welcomed on that basis.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister indicate what kind of specialist support services will no longer be funded?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, there were 17 specialist support contracts in England and two in Wales to barristers' chambers, solicitors' firms and 11 not-for-profit organisations, with a budget for a whole year of approximately £2.9 million. I have already indicated that £78 million is available to not-for-profit organisations to provide their own specialist advice. The fundamental change has been to the quality of front-line advice. The contracting arrangements brought in have improved that dramatically. Together with peer review and other quality standards, that means that we can make the change and, as I indicated, create up to 9,000 opportunities to get front-line advice.