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Committee (7th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 1st February 2012.

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Photo of Lord Monks Lord Monks Labour 6:45 pm, 1st February 2012

My Lords, I support the amendments. I declare an interest as a non-executive director of Thompsons Solicitors, the largest company of trade union-related solicitors in the country. I am very pleased that noble Lords who have spoken before me have recognised the value and extent of trade union legal work-the noble Lord, Lord Collins, gave the figures. Looking at the government Benches just in the course of this debate, I have spotted distinguished barristers who have worked for trade union legal services and solicitors over the years. They include the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, the noble Lords, Lord Carlile, Lord Lester and Lord Hunt, who is with us at the moment, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. All of them have earned a few quid from the trade union movement in their time, looking after the interests of people who have hit hard times and need help.

The Minister referred movingly on Monday to a family illness that developed from one of the old ICI works. In a way, unions' role in litigation is only a relatively small part of their work on health and safety; the majority of their work is preventive. If you go to anyone in the chemical industry in Britain today, where conditions have improved immeasurably since the days of ICI in the 1960s, they will pay full tribute to the role of the trade union movement.

As others have said previously, the number of personal injury cases generally is falling, with the huge exception of road traffic accidents, where we know that something is going on that needs to be stopped, as my noble friend Lord Bach said earlier. Unions are getting a dirty name because some in the media, and perhaps in the Government, too, believe that unions should somehow be lumped together with the shroud-waving, ambulance-chasing, daytime TV-advertising groups of lawyers who go around inciting claims all over the place.

The need to differentiate is clear. At the moment, we are not being differentiated in any way. We are losing on conditional fee agreements, on "after the event" insurance, on legal aid in tribunals and now on referral fees, which is the subject of this debate. These are all ways in which we are able to fund a substantial legal service and which will be much restricted if and when the Bill goes through in its present form. The different provisions impose major limitations on unions' ability to run effective legal services. At a time when legal aid is being cut, a double whammy is being inflicted on many working people and a great victory is being enjoyed by the insurance industry.

Will the Minister and others in the Government give some recognition on Report to this imbalance? Not all aspects of trade union work are uncontroversial, but their legal services are widely appreciated and widely respected. They should be supported by the Government, not hit and curbed as they are in the Bill.