Community Legal Service (Funding) (Amendment No. 2) Order 2011 — Motion to Annul

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 26th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 9:45 pm, 26th October 2011

My Lords, this is the point in the evening when I thank everyone for contributing to a wide-ranging debate-so wide, in fact, that it would probably take me at least 40 minutes to reply. I will try to do justice to the debate in a shorter time because the House has more business to consider. I remind the House that this was supposed to be dinner hour business-a matter that the usual channels might look at in future when they do their planning.

The debate was indeed a trailer for the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill-now known to its friends as LASPO-that will come to this House. I do not object to colleagues using the opportunity to widen the debate to cover some of those areas. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said that it was a "tawdry harbinger" of a long hard winter for legal aid. I say to the House-to the right reverend Prelate, my noble friend Lord Newton, and others-that there would be a long hard winter if this Government did not face up to the spending cuts that are needed. It is all very well, as the noble Lord, Lord Martin, said, to say that this 10 per cent cut was the easy way. I put it to him that the easy way, which we have heard time and again tonight, would be to say, "Not this cut. Not that cut. We would do it in a different way". We have had to face up to the fact that we have to make some hard decisions.

It is not just this part of legal aid that is taking the hit. The Ministry of Justice is a relatively small department with a budget, when we came into office, of £10 billion. We made a commitment for the spending review to cut that by £2 billion. As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, knows, we have only four major areas of responsibility-prisons, the Probation Service, legal aid and court services. They have all taken their cut and it is simply not true to suggest that we have taken a particularly easy view in terms of legal aid. As my noble friend Lord Marks said-and, to be fair, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, echoed it-the previous Labour Government were looking at legal aid. I went to the Commonwealth Law Conference. I have never used the comparison with continental legal aid because I know that there is a different system there, but I particularly sought out the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand law officers to talk about legal aid and they confirmed what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, knows full well-they all consider our legal aid system to be, in their terms, "absurdly generous". It is also untrue that we have not made comparable cuts in criminal legal aid. In fact, the parallel order will, over the period, save some £80 million in criminal legal aid spending.

The noble Lord, Lord Bach, particularly mentioned Law For All. That is interesting because it very much echoes what was said when the Immigration Advisory Service closed. Let us be fair: Law For All has closed before any of these legal aid cuts have come in, so the legal aid cuts have not caused its collapse. However, it is interesting that the Legal Services Commission was able to make provision from other providers, and I shall return to that in a few minutes. We have recognised the problem relating to CABs and law centres, and I shall try to cover that in my main remarks.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, made an interesting point. I am proud to be the Minister responsible for promoting diversity in the legal profession. I put it to the noble Baroness that it is not a matter of diversity to suggest that women and black and ethnic minority lawyers should be corralled in one part of the legal profession. Indeed, my drive in terms of diversity-the noble Baroness is quite right and I have talked to both the Bar Council and the Law Society about this-is that the profession as a whole has a responsibility to promote diversity, not in the narrow area of legal aid but across the profession. To be fair, I think that they are responding to pressure in that area. We are taking diversity extremely seriously.

The noble Baroness and a number of other noble Lords also mentioned the Family Justice Review, which is a separate and independent programme of work looking at the entire family justice system. Our proposals are not dependent on the outcome of that review and are focused on legal aid; they go in the same direction as, and in support of, the aims of the Family Justice Review, which I am assured will be published very shortly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and a number of others talked about the fee levels reducing access to good-quality experts. The benchmark rates for experts have been applied by the Legal Services Commission for some time. The truth is that there are only limited anecdotal reports of problems with access to experts.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott, accused us of weasel words in the Explanatory Memorandum, and I hope that my opening remarks have removed those weasel words. Of course, much of this has been driven by the need for cuts in public expenditure, but we have tried to do so in a way that focuses legal aid on the most needy.

We go back to the issue of the level of spending. What is so sacrosanct about £2.2 billion? It certainly was not sacrosanct for the previous Labour Government because they were planning to cut it anyway. The system is not being dismantled. It does not help when the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, makes that kind of comment. I could make a point about the earnings of barristers in family legal aid work, but let us not go down that route.

I turn to the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. There is a question about whether the Legal Services Commission should be able to commission experts directly, and that could be looked at. On aid to children, we will retain legal aid for child parties in family cases. In 2009-10, we provided £133 million civil legal aid funding to child parties in all categories of law and, under our proposals, around 95 per cent of that aid would continue. I hope that gives some reassurance to the noble Lord on the points that he raised.

Apart from getting some of the previous Government's record into Hansard, I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for pointing out that we are, as the Lord Chancellor has pointed to, consciously looking for an approach to the settlement of disputes that is less legalistic and brings in mediation and alternative dispute resolution. We are also looking at possibly legislating in the next Session of Parliament on court efficiencies.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, talked about the supply side being likely to diminish and I shall try to cover that in a moment. It is certainly not right to say that we did not consult widely. The reforms were subject to full public consultation, which ran from 15 November 2010 to 14 February 2011 and elicited over 5,000 responses.