Clause 59

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 22 November 2007.

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Provisional grant of right to representation

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

On a point of order, Mr. O’Hara. Is it appropriate to consider clauses 59, 60 and 61 together, as they all deal with criminal legal aid?

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

If it is convenient to the Committee to do it that way, I am perfectly happy to do so.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

With this it will be convenient to discuss clauses 60 and 61 stand part.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

I do not want to take up the Committee’s time for too long with the issue of legal aid. I should declare an interest as a legal aid practitioner. I have three matters to address. The intention behind the clauses is one to sign up to—ensuring that representation orders are put in place early, at the time of investigation and before a formal charge has been made.

My first question to the Minister is whether clause 59 is concerned with saving costs by ensuring that representation orders do not involve double-counting. At the moment, claims are made for police station work and for work undertaken in the courts. Where a case comes within a representation order ambit, it then falls on a standard fee scale, which by implication limits the costs concerning police station and court work. Is that right, or is the clause concerned with ensuring that representation orders are granted early to allow the administration of justice to proceed promptly?

My second point relates to clause 60. I welcome it, as representation orders are often blocked because information about passportable benefits does not proceed quickly to the courts. I seek an assurance that the necessary technology and administration exist for courts in England and Wales to implement clause 60.

My third point relates to clause 61 and the pilot programme. This Government are, in many ways, addicted to pilots—they occur in various areas, and evaluations are eventually published. Although it is welcome that before proceeding with changes to criminal defence funding, the Government wish to test them with pilots, is it not more appropriate to listen to practitioners about legal aid matters? One such area is means testing. If the Government had listened carefully to practitioners’ concerns about the problems that might flow from an over-bureaucratic means-testing regime, there would not have been the difficulties that ultimately needed to be dealt with by way of additional directions and regulations to amend the legislation. I do not object to pilots in any way, but they are not always needed if there is proper consultation, such as with practitioners in the criminal defence service.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. The purpose of clause 59 is primarily to speed cases up by granting representation at an earlier stage in appropriate instances. Things can move faster if a delay to enable the defence to obtain legal aid is avoided.

Thought needs to be given to the specific conditions that govern provisional representation orders, including the possible triggers, the type of work, the appropriate level of representation, the authority to undertake such work, and the correct fee structure. Those matters have not yet been decided on. An order might be particularly helpful in certain types of case such as fraud cases, in which considerable work has to be undertaken before charges can be brought. It might speed cases through the court process, and that, rather than sneaking people into existing fee structures, is the aim of the clause. It will increase the defence’s capacity to deal with the case by ensuring earlier representation.

The information gateways are about trying to improve the existing arrangements to ensure that the application process can highlight those on passported  benefits swiftly and speedily. The intention is the same: to try to speed court processes. There have been instances in which delay has resulted from, for example, someone being remanded in custody without knowing their national insurance number. Many people can remember their national insurance number, but not everyone. That can cause delay that would be avoided if the gateways work as we envisage. The gateways are not rocket science. We are not inventing some entirely new way of doing things, so they should be workable. Obviously, the relevant data protection safeguards would be needed.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said that the Government are addicted to pilots. That is because we believe in evidence-based policy making rather than prejudice-based policy making, or in hoping that what one thinks will work will actually work in practice. It is after 3.30 in the afternoon now, so I am waking up again!

Clause 61 deals simply with a slight problem in the existing power that allows for pilots. We want to make it a bit clearer that pilots can be localised rather than having to relate to the entire system. Pilots are about learning the lessons more effectively by trying out policy change first, instead of implementing it across the entire piece, crossing one’s fingers and hoping that it will work because one thinks that it will. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman and that he is therefore content for the three clauses to stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 59 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 60 and 61 ordered to stand part of the Bill.